Daily Archives: September 23rd, 2009

November Dragon Launch, Moon Water and NASA’s Pork

The Augustine Committee’s pre-report to Congress last week wasn’t received well in the House or Senate, mainly because of misconceptions about the Commercial Space Program:

Next Step in Space, a coalition of businesses, organizations, and people working toward ensuring the future of human spaceflight in the United States, today issued a white paper titled “Acquiring U.S. Commercial ISS Crew and Cargo Services Creates New Industry in LEO, Enables Program for Exploration Beyond” to help clarify issues discussed at a September 15th hearing of the House Committee on Science & Technology on “Options and Issues for NASA’s Human Space Flight Program.”

“Some comments made at the House hearing last week incorrectly suggested that the Augustine Committee’s recommendation to procure crew services to the International Space Station would necessarily be in lieu of further development of NASA’s exploration program to travel beyond Earth orbit,” said Bretton Alexander, President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “However, these two programs are complementary, not competitive. As former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has pointed out numerous times, the Constellation Program is designed and optimized for missions beyond low-Earth orbit, not for Space Station servicing.”

With the Space Shuttle program nearing its end of life, the most economical options for transportation to the International Space Station (ISS) are: 1) sending taxpayer dollars to buy seats on the Russian Soyuz, or 2) investing in the American commercial space industry.

“The American public has begun to realize that we are about a year away from sole-sourcing our human spaceflight needs to Russia,” said Elon Musk, CEO and CTO of Space Exploration Technologies. “Fortunately numerous companies within the commercial space sector have been raising and investing private capital to develop the capability to service the ISS, and we are confident that we can be ready to transfer crew within a few years.”

Musk’s company, SpaceX has recently made it known that their initial Falcon9 rocket will have an actual Dragon capsule on it instead of a ‘dummy’ fairing when it launches on or after November 29, 2009.

Whether that proves to be a wise move for SpaceX will be a matter for debate in the future, but we all know that private industry takes more risks than government anyway.

I guess  Musk wants to let NASA know SpaceX means business. Literally.

Sept. 15 House of Representatives Hearing on Space Flight Includes Misconceptions; Industry Group Offers Clarity

Did the Indian Chandrayaan-1 Lunar probe discover “lots of water” on the Moon before it died?

Reliable sources report that there will be a press conference at NASA HQ at 2:00 pm this Thursday featuring lunar scientist Carle Pieters from Brown University.

The topic of the press briefing will be a paper that will appear in this week’s issue of Science magazine wherein results from the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) aboard Chandrayaan-1 will be revealed.

The take home message: there is a lot of water on the Moon.

I guess we’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out, eh?
NASA Briefing To Reveal Evidence of Water on the Moon – Lots of It

The myth of the Ares 1 and 5?

“Urban myth,” Wikipedia tells us, “is a form of modern folklore consisting of stories thought to be factual by those circulating them.” More often than not, any kernel of truth at the core of the stories is somewhat exaggerated in their modern retelling. As we recede from the 40th anniversary of the first steps taken by humans on another world, it has become clear that the intervening time has allowed for many myths to arise in the exploration folklore. And those myths have now led us down a dead-end, almost certainly unsustainable, path back to where we started.

One such myth is the idea that “bigger is better.” Since the dawn of the space age, the people who build rockets have almost continuously sought to make them bigger, enabling larger and larger payloads to be thrown intact into orbit. The behemoths are needed, we are told, for a number of reasons, mostly mythical as well: integrated testing of multi-module equipment on the ground is too complicated; assembly on orbit is risky; extravehicular activities (EVAs) are dangerous; high flight rates lead to logistics logjams; and multiplicative probabilities of failure in piece-wise assembled systems result in lower mission reliabilities.

Yet, somehow, the international space station (ISS) complex is on orbit. It has been incrementally assembled from smaller pieces of international origin. And while they may never become routine, the 253 EVAs to date were mostly regular non-events. As many as 19 flights from all partner countries are scheduled for lift-off to ISS next year and are being accommodated logistically. Lifetime projections for this modular assembly now run out to the vicinity of 2028. Pretty good numbers for such an “improbable” vehicle.

The space shuttle came into being on a multiuse premise, sharing now extinct requirements with the Department of Defense. Heavy-lift launch vehicles initially configured for human spaceflight cargo are once again being sold for their ability to loft larger, more complex science payloads as well. Of course, with an infrastructure- and operations-dominated budget, one has to ask just where the extra funds will come from to develop and build the multibillion-dollar telescopes that would justify the infrequent use of such lifting capability? We are told that human missions to Mars will require multiple launches in short periods of time to loft mass on the order of the size of the ISS. Yet, a heavy-lifter approach that puts a significant fraction of one-of-a-kind, high-value mission hardware on a single launcher, bets the program each time ignition occurs.

“Heritage is faster,” is another myth holding us back. We have now driven that into the heads of undergraduate engineers so hard that most have lost the ability to innovate and typically start with an existing design to claim cost advantages for the development of their senior design projects. Still, any advantages of starting with off-the-shelf hardware are immediately mitigated by the first swipe of the refining pencil.

Consider the history, still on paper, of the Ares 1 and 5. Four-segment solid-rocket boosters, common with the space shuttle have now mutated into brand new five-segment boosters, with different propellant grain, nozzles, stiffened structure and thrust oscillation characteristics. The shuttle external tank design has to be modified to handle the compression caused by five or six rocket engines pushing from below. These “heritage” designs require all of the structural and thermal loads analysis and testing that a clean sheet design would require along with band aids addressing the original design’s inefficiencies. Accordingly, preliminary design reviews and critical design reviews have gapped to the right from their original heritage-based streamlined prognostications.

The Constellation Program with its component parts, Ares 1 Orion capsule lifter and matching Ares 5 Heavy Lift Vehicle have long been political pork barrel projects in my view. They have little or no value in building an important space infrastructure that’s needed to extend mankind’s push into the Inner Solar System.

The Constellation Program is based more on Pyramid Building than anything else and is destined to last a lot less!

One only has to witness what U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who is married to a NASA astronaut by the way, said to Norm Augustine at the Congressional hearings last week:

[…]the U.S. could not “gain anything by confusing hypothetical commercial capabilities that might someday exist with what we can actually count on now to meet the nation’s needs.”

That could be one of the reasons SpaceX moved up its launch date using a Dragon capsule instead of a test-launch fairing, but that is just an observation on my part.

It doesn’t look like the Pentagon isn’t going to publicize their space tech anytime soon, and NASA is beholden to special interests, so it looks like good ol’ fashioned capitalistic greed might be an incentive for a civil space program, so go SpaceX!


Human Spaceflight Myth-busting

Letter: An Idea Whose Time Came — a Decade Ago



To be fair, NASA has moved up its launch date of the Ares 1-X rocket with dummy ordinance on it to October 27, 2009 instead of Halloween (Oct. 31st).

Next month’s Ares 1 test flight moved up four days

Hmm, maybe Augustine’s report already is having an impact, wouldn’t you say?