Space Hype

It’s been a while since I posted a commentary, so here we go.

I love space exploration. I follow the topic by reading books and news articles, I build space models as a hobby, I love to talk about it to groups, and I have been fortunate enough to have a job in the space industry. Sometimes I read articles that take things a bit too far. Lately there has been a lot of “hype” floating around social media sites and news articles. I see many examples of space developments being over-sold and over-promised. As I have been following this topic for over five decades, I have seen bad things happen when space programs are hyped excessively. Here are some examples of the current problem.

Space Tourism

It’s ten years after SpaceShipOne flew and won the prize for a reusable space vehicle. But it’s still going to be many years until we will have real commercial suborbital tourist space flights. Despite the marketing material I see from Virgin Galactic, this program is not going to put hundreds of people into space. It’s joy rides to “space” altitude but a long, long way from lowering the cost to orbit.

Dusting off Old Russian Equipment

The Excalibur Almaz venture is back in the news with another shady offer to send tourists around the Moon. I saw a news item about Art Dula being involved in a lawsuit related to this program. Ever since I heard of him back in the 1980s I was always suspicious of whatever he was trying to pull off. Nothing solid ever came from a commercial program using old Soviet hardware but the idea just won’t go away.

Mars and a Comet

Wow! A comet was going to fly really close to Mars and our robots are going to have an awesome view. Well the photos came in and some show this tiny little fuzzy thing. It was hardly spectacular. Folks need to remember comets way out at Mars aren’t generally very active.

We landed on a Comet!

The first announcements of the Philae landing saw a lot of over reaction, largely because ESA didn’t have or wasn’t releasing all the data that was coming in. The fact that they announced “landing” when the initial contact was made, but in reality it had bounced and landed again TWO HOURS LATER was not announced or maybe just not understood. Everybody was congratulating themselves before all the facts were in, probably while the lander was still bouncing around. Real life science isn’t like the movies. The mission so far has been a great success, despite the bouncy landing into a dark corner of the comet. My point is that there was an excess of excitement about a mission before all the facts were known.

SpaceX

Not so long ago, folks were predicting the first launch of a Falcon Heavy late in 2013 or maybe early 2014, based on statements from SpaceX. Now, reports are that the first such launch won’t occur until late in 2015 at the earliest. This is why studying history is important. People should not buy into launch predictions for ANYONE’s first launch, be it private (Falcon Heavy) or government (SLS). It never happens on time when the prediction is more than six months out. Additionally, SpaceX recently (late December 2014) removed some of the date info from their published launch manifest. The hype was that they predicted over a dozen launches in each of 2014 and 2015. That is very unlikely to happen.

Google Lunar X-Prize

I love the idea of prizes to spur space development, which is a great way to get small companies involved. But I heard way too much hype about how all these little start-ups are going to do things NASA can’t or won’t. I wish they would all be successful, but this X-prize effort has been delayed over and over again. Landing on the Moon isn’t easy and people need to remember that. From a news report:

Meanwhile, “in an expected announcement,” officials with the competition announced that the deadline to win the grand prize has been pushed back one year to Dec. 31, 2016. XPRIZE Vice Chairman and President Robert K. Weiss said that the deadline was pushed back for a third time because the group recognizes that the task is “extremely difficult and unprecedented, not only from a technological standpoint, but also in terms of financial considerations.”

Cost Predictions

A news item reported that Elon Musk of SpaceX claims their reusable rockets will reduce launch costs “to a hundredth of what they are now.” Wow. A factor of one hundred implies you re-use the same booster at least 100 times. This also ignores the costs to refurbish the rocket, or to run the tests to verify nothing broke. That is a lot of re-use for a rocket booster seeing the extreme dynamic loads of launch and landing. Even Space Shuttle orbiters never got to 100 flights. So “100X” is just hype.

Bumps in the Road

Commentary by Michael Mackowski

Last week we saw two serious set-backs for the commercial space industry. The Antares failure underscores the need for modern, domestic liquid fueled rocket engines, while Virgin Galactic’s tragic loss of SpaceShip2 and its co-pilot reminds us of the inherent risks of rocket-powered flight.

The Antares failure appears to be related to the use of old Russian NK-33 engines modified to the AJ-26 configuration. This could put more pressure on Congress to fund development of domestic liquid fueled engines. But Orbital Sciences has just announced that they will discontinue use of these engines and advance their plans to use a different engine (rumored to be the newer Russian RD-193). They had previously announced plans for this upgrade, and the accident will speed up this process to the extent possible. Still, implementing this upgrade will take time, and apparently the new Antares version won’t fly until 2016. The next Antares flight was originally scheduled for April of 2015. Meanwhile, the November 5 press release notes that to maintain performance on the Commercial Resupply Services contract, Orbital will fly one or two Cygnus missions using a completely different booster. This is a clever approach. Instead of spending money on building another Antares, they will buy a different launch vehicle (my guess is a Delta II), thus minimizing the financial hit to the CRS program.

The accident could have been worse. Despite the spectacular explosion, initial reports suggest the Wallops launch pad sustained only minor damage. If there is any other positive to come from this failure, it is that it underscores the need for redundant access to orbit. Having both SpaceX and Orbital under contract for resupply services provides independent capabilities so that a problem in one system does not shut down the resupply program completely. This is why it will be wise to implement the Commercial Crew program with two contractors using completely different hardware designs (including boosters).

The Virgin Galactic accident is a somewhat different animal. You have a tragic loss of life, but the program was a non-governmental purely commercial tourist industry initiative. This set-back has no impact on the viability of any government space program other than to sour the overall mood for commercial efforts. I believe Richard Branson and Virgin will not give up because of this accident. On the other hand, it will add delay and concern to an effort that was already many years behind schedule. I think the biggest threat will be Branson’s ability to continue to get investors to support this program. This accident killed the co-pilot, lost an expensive flight vehicle, and will involve a lengthy investigation. This will all add another year or more until the time when the program can begin to generate revenue.

Space advocates need to remember that Virgin Galactic is a business. In spite of the rhetoric from Branson and the folks at Virgin Galactic about making space accessible to the masses, they still need to make money. At some point, their investors may realize that this endeavor is not going to be profitable for a long, long time. It will be interesting to see if funding becomes a problem for this program.

Meanwhile there is some good news on the space front, as there are some exciting days coming in the near term. The Rosetta comet mission plans to drop the Philae lander on comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Nov. 12, and the first Orion capsule launch is set for December 4 on an Atlas vehicle. Let’s hope these ambitious efforts are successful and we can share some excitement about what is possible in the never-dull world of space exploration and development.

Catching Up

After a very long absence, Epic Future Space is back with updates about SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Bigelow Aerospace, NASA, and Virgin Galactic. It’s been an amazing past couple of months in space.

For more Information about the stories I talked about click the following:
SpaceX CRS-1 Mission: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SpaceX_C…
SpaceX CRS-2 Mission: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SpaceX_C…
SpaceX’s Grasshopper: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grasshop…
Orbital Sciences Antares Flight: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antares_…
Bigelow Aerospace’s BEAM Module: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bigelow_…
Virgin Galactic first powered test flight: http://www.virgingalactic.com/news/it…

If you’d like to hear Orbital Transit: http://www.reverbnation.com/orbitaltr…
And check out Audio Martyr: http://www.reverbnation.com/audiomartyr

Another gem from Epic Future Space. Thanks Mikhail

Progress for Space Tourism

New Mexico Governor Signs Spaceport Liability Legislation Into Law

Spaceport America

The AP (4/3, Clausing) reports, “Gov. Susana Martinez on Tuesday signed into law liability-waiving legislation aimed at saving the state’s nearly quarter-billion-dollar investment in a futuristic spaceport and retaining its anchor tenant, British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.”

Martinez said the new law shows the state is “not only reaffirming the major commitment New Mexicans have made to Spaceport America but we now have an even stronger opportunity to grow the number of commercial space jobs at the spaceport and across our state. This legislation will prevent lawsuit abuse and make it easier for businesses related to the space travel industry to thrive and succeed right here in New Mexico.”  The article notes that previously Virgin Galactic had protested its rent payments and had threatened to leave if the law was not passed.  In a statement yesterday, Virgin Galactic said it was always committed to the project but now more needs to be done to bring other customers to the spaceport.

SpaceshipTwo Completes First Glide Test in Powered Configuration

SpaceShipTwo
SpaceShipTwo showing Rocket Motor Installed
Image Credit: Virgin Galactic

SpaceShipTwo completed its first glide test with the rocket motor and tanks installed. The flight was the 23rd in a series of unpowered tests and took place on 19 December. Last Friday, 15 December, SpaceShipTwo completed a test in this configuration, but remained attached to its mother ship, WhiteKnightTwo.

In addition, this was the first time the spacecraft had thermal protection on its leading edges.

At least two more glide tests are planned prior to the first powered flight.

Glide Test for SpaceShipTwo

SpaceShip
SpaceShipTwo Glide Test
Image Credit: Virgin Galactic / Chris Van Pelt

This past week on 26 June, Virgin Galactic conducted the first glide test of SpaceShipTwo since completing a recent integration of rocket motor systems, as well as maintenance.

On the same day, RocketMotorTwo (RM2) completed a full 55 second test firing by Sierra Nevada Space Systems, the prime contractor for the engine. In addition, on 20 June, a full-scale RM2 test firing took place for the first time at Scaled Composites’ test site in Mojave, California, under full direction of the spaceship’s Rocket Motor Controller.

In May, Virgin Galactic received an experimental launch permit from the Federal Aviation Administration for SpaceShipTwo and its carrier vehicle, WhiteKnightTwo. Since then, there have been seven test flights, and three full scale rocket motor firings.

Virgin Galactic expects to reach powered flight by the end of the year.

Scaled Composites Complete 45 Second Burn for RocketMotorTwo

Virgin Galactic announced today that:

Our contractor team test-fired RocketMotorTwo, SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid rocket motor, again on Tuesday. The test went well–indeed, it was the best one yet! As usual, Scaled Composites have posted a brief summary of the test’s goals and results on their site.

RocketMotorTwo
Hot Firing of RocketMotorTwo for SpaceShipTwo Powered Flight.
Image Credit: Virgin Galactic

From Scaled Composites website report:

Fire: 09
Date: 13 March 12

Objectives: Ninth full scale flight design RM2 hot-fire.

Continued evaluation of all systems and components:

  • Pressurization
  • Valve/Injector
  • Fuel formulation and geometry
  • Nozzle
  • Structure
  • Performance

Results:

All objectives completed. Performed full 45 second hot fire as planned. Duration of burn chosen to allow examination of internal core geometry.