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.

The State of Space

Commentary by Michael Mackowski

A year ago I posted a note here about the upcoming busy summer. Just about all of those missions were successful, although at that time SpaceX was planning on a dozen or so launches in 2014 along with the initial test flight of the Falcon Heavy. It does not look like they will hit that launch rate and Falcon Heavy certainly won’t fly this year.

I give SpaceX a lot of credit for investing in the development of reusable rockets. I am enthusiastic about a company that spends a lot of its own resources on this type of R&D. The spectacular recent test failure of the Falcon 9R Dev 1 test vehicle was a setback, but not a fatal blow to that effort. You learn from failures. The level of sophistication to include an autodestruct upon detecting an out-of-limits condition is impressive.

I see a lot of comments on line downplaying the impact of this setback. I wonder if it was a NASA test vehicle that crashed, would critics cut them the same slack? People seem to be eager to jump all over NASA when they have a setback (like the announced delay in the first flight of the SLS heavy lift rocket). But SpaceX gets a free pass, or even enthusiastic support for pushing the envelope. NASA, being taxpayer funded, has gotten into a situation where failure is not tolerated, thus testing may be more conservative, and progress slower.

Earlier this week, the Space Launch System passed a design review that enables the program to move forward. Unfortunately, the first flight slipped yet again. I have mixed feelings on this program. I think the US needs a big rocket, and I understand the problem that NASA doesn’t have enough money to develop a big rocket and the payloads to go on it. Maybe you do it in parallel. What are the options? You could not develop a big rocket and try to figure some other way to get beyond low Earth orbit (BEO). Lots of small rockets may work but look at the trouble it took to build a space station that way.

You could rely on a private firm to develop something that may or may not meet NASA requirements (like the SpaceX “Mars Colonial Transport” which is a viewgraph rocket). The Falcon Heavy doesn’t provide the capability of SLS but it’s a lot cheaper. The design and control of that vehicle is in private hands but the first BEO missions are undoubtedly going to be government sponsored. I hear arguments that a government developed and owned rocket will be ridiculously expensive, and I can’t argue that. But politically, I don’t think NASA (and its Congressional sponsors) can sit on their hands and do nothing, or wait for an Elon Musk to develop a big rocket. Doing nothing would be self-defeating – admitting that you cannot afford deep space manned exploration. Maybe we can’t.

So we end up playing “pretend” that we can afford to explore BEO. I think that SLS (and similarly the Asteroid Redirect Mission) is an attempt to do what we can with the resources we are given. It may not be a complete program, but the alternative is to do nothing. I don’t agree that hoping some private entity is a politically acceptable alternative. It may be a practical and realistic one, but politics and the workings of Washington DC are often neither practical nor realistic.

Wrapping up 2013 with a Shiny Bow

The year is winding down with some interesting developments related to space programs.

Globally, India has sent a probe on its way to Mars, the first such mission for that nation. China has sent a lunar probe in orbit around our Luna, and by the time this article is published, ought to have attempted a soft landing in the Bay of Rainbows. On the other hand, the normally reliable Long March 4B experienced what appears to be an upper stage failure in the launch of an environmental observation satellite.

Back in the USA, on December 3 SpaceX achieved a major milestone with the successful launch of a commercial communications satellite into geostationary orbit with their Falcon 9 rocket. This is set to be the first of many such commercial (non-government) payloads launched by them in the next year. It will be interesting to see if they can achieve the pace required to execute all of those missions. In another NewSpace development, Blue Origin had a good test firing of their BE-3 oxygen-hydrogen engine. This is the first new rocket engine of this type to be developed in the US in decades.

In the realm of audacious proposals, the folks from Mars One (who want to establish a colony on Mars) have contracted with Lockheed Martin to do a mission concept study for a version of the Phoenix Mars lander for a privately sponsored mission to the Red Planet. Whether Mars One can come up with the hundreds of millions of dollars that is likely going to be needed to pay for such a project is yet to be seen, but it is an indication of how serious they are about this effort.

And at Jupiter, researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope have suggested that there are huge water geysers erupting on Europa. This icy moon is thought to have a deep ocean under its ice crust but until now there was no evidence of water reaching the surface. It is possible that there is more water on Europa that all of planet Earth. This could make a Europa lander mission much more compelling.

I don’t want to attempt to make this blog a news column (as there are many websites doing a great job at providing news on space exploration) but I thought these recent items were notable enough to close out the year on a positive note.

Locally, we decided not to compete with all the holiday activities and are not holding any events in December. Make sure you reserve January 18 for our next meeting which will feature Art Anzaldua talking about future operations in the Earth-Moon system.

Mike Mackowski
Phoenix NSS/TMS Chapter President
12/13/13

Digging Space

Commentary by Mike Mackowski

new-company-mining-asteroids_63540_600x450

From the classic days of space science fiction to the projections of large scale operations in space from the 1960s and 70s, utilization of space resources has always been envisioned as a major part of large scale space operations. Now in the early 21st Century we finally have at least two serious companies formed whose goal is to mine asteroids.  Planetary Resources announced their plans in 2012 while this January we heard about Deep Space Industries. This is a very exciting prospect for any advocate of expanded human presence in space. Continue reading

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.

OUR COSMIC CHALLENGE

OUR COSMIC CHALLENGE:
STATEMENT FROM ED LU, CEO, B612 FOUNDATION

The B612 Foundation believes we should find threatening asteroids before they find us. The undetected meteor explosion over Chelyabinsk on February 15 is our wake-up call that the Earth orbits the Sun in a shooting gallery of asteroids, and that these asteroids sometimes hit the Earth. On this same day, a separate and larger asteroid, 2012 DA14, narrowly missed the Earth passing beneath the orbits of our communications satellites.

We have the technology to deflect asteroids, but we cannot do anything about the objects we don’t know exist. To date, less than 1% of asteroids larger than the one that leveled Tunguska in 1908 have been tracked. The B612 Foundation Sentinel Space Telescope, to be launched in 2018, will
provide a comprehensive map of the locations and trajectories of threatening asteroids and will give humanity the decades of warning needed to prevent asteroid impacts with existing technology.

By the end of its planned lifetime, Sentinel will have discovered well over 90% of the asteroids that could destroy entire regions of Earth on impact (those larger than 350 ft in diameter) and more than 50% of the currently unknown DA14-like near-Earth asteroids.

The B612 Foundation has undertaken this Sentinel project as a non-governmental initiative, somewhat akin to a growing number of private space ventures originated in the past few years. The foundation is not undertaking this project for profit; we are a non-profit corporation. Our motivation is strictly to ensure the survival of life on Earth — all of it. And while NASA is cooperating with us by providing certain communication and analytic services, we are excited, as a private venture, to welcome the participation of all the crew of Spaceship Earth in this great endeavor.

We have to answer the question: Does the crew of Spaceship Earth raise our awareness and accept responsibility for our voyage into the future? Or do we sit back as passengers, comfortably assuming that there must be a captain and crew doing this job on our behalf? The B612 Sentinel mission is testament to our belief that we, together, are responsible for the future of life on our small planet. We invite you to join us by going on our website http://www.b612foundation.org and on Twitter (@b612foundation) to help us address this cosmic challenge.