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OPINION: SpaceX – realistic announcement or unattainable timeline?

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy lifts off the pad in this artist’s depiction. Image credit: SpaceX

After SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted there would be a SpaceX announcement at 4pm EST (1pm PST) on February 27, 2017, speculation had run rampant. Was it an unveiling of the company’s spacesuit? Perhaps it was news about the Falcon Heavy. Or, maybe, it was something as fanciful as their ITS rocket.

Nope. All wrong.

In a release on the SpaceX website, the company announced they were going to fly two private citizens on a circumlunar trip. That’s right — the company that has yet to launch a single person to low Earth orbit (LEO) contends that it will be ready to send a pair of paying customers on a free-return trajectory around the Moon and then safely return to Earth. In 2018. On a rocket that has never been launched. With a spacecraft that has never been to space.

One may get the sense that I’m somewhat skeptical this will happen. If that’s what you’ve inferred from what I’ve already written, let me make sure I state this plainly: It’s. Not. Going. To. Happen. In. 2018.

SpaceX in general, and Musk in particular, has a well-earned reputation of missed timelines and over-promising things. Take the Falcon Heavy, for instance. It was supposed to launch in 2012 or 2013.

I have a few concerns about this mission and how SpaceX plans to address them. Off the top of my head:

  • Deep space navigation.
  • Communications.
  • Radiation shielding.
  • Life support.
  • Will it have crew in addition to the tourists?

I’m not necessarily saying that it’s impossible for SpaceX to send crew around the Moon and return them safely. Maybe SpaceX can pull off the improbable…but I don’t think so. Until the company can successfully launch the Falcon Heavy…and launch and recover astronauts to and from to the International Space Station, I will remain highly skeptical.

ANALYSIS: President-elect Trump’s NASA landing team continues to take shape

Though both major party candidates made clear their position on a multitude of issues prior to the election, their view of NASA’s role in our nation’s space-faring endeavors was not necessarily among them. Certainly, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump often gave politically expedient answers when asked what their vision of what NASA should be, but neither has ever really presented a coherent roadmap for the agency’s future.

Indeed, Trump seemed, at times, to present wildly diverging positions on the nation’s space agency. At one point, the then-candidate professed to love NASA but declared that the country has bigger problems to address, such as fixing potholes.

Whether or not he was speaking of literal or figurative potholes, it appeared as if NASA wasn’t terribly high on Mr. Trump’s priority list and that the businessman-turned-politician didn’t necessarily have a ready answer for his take on national space policy.

However, now that the election of 2016 is in the books and the President-elect continues forming his Cabinet and landing teams, it would appear that Trump – or, at least, his advisory team – is taking NASA a bit more seriously. More seriously than during the campaign and is selecting an experienced collection of members, some of whom seem to favor a “stay the course” focus, while others may be adherents to the NewSpace movement, to help the incoming President decide how best to direct NASA during his presidency.

From the outset, Jeff Sessions, a Republican Senator from Alabama, was a key architect in guiding the make-up of the landing team, and conventional wisdom dictated this was a strong indicator that NASA’s big rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), which was designed and is managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, would not only survive a Trump presidency but also could likely thrive.

Read much more in my full piece at SpaceFlight Insider.

OPINION: What is a space journalist?

In the face of all the “fake news” hullabaloo making the rounds lately, I started thinking about the state of space journalism and, more to the point, what exactly constitutes a “space journalist”?

Certainly there are those who cover happenings in the space industry who have garnered quite a following over the years, and as with any industry, there are those who command more attention than others…often garnered from years of focused professionalism covering the industry.

But just what is a space journalist? Is it someone who provides content to an established legacy news outlet? Internet-only site?

How about those who dedicate a majority of their social media activities to covering spaceflight topics? What about bloggers? Podcasters?

Does one need to have a degree in journalism? Should writing about spaceflight be the person’s primary source of income in order to be considered a journalist?

I’ve seen people who purport to be spaceflight journalists, yet they regularly inject their opinion into their pieces and/or social media interactions. Others seem to keep a relatively even approach to their content. Should a journalist always be impartial, or is it acceptable to occasionally show bias?

I don’t necessarily have the answers to these questions. Indeed, in the changing world of news media and the role social media plays in it, I’m not certain there is a monolithic answer. What are your thoughts — what is a space journalist?

 

OPINION: The Bear’s space program isn’t what it used to be…and it’s only going to get worse

russianspacepropaganda1They were the first to place a man-made satellite into Earth orbit. The first to launch a man…and, later, a woman…into orbit and bring them home safely. The first to conduct a spacewalk. The first to build a space station. The list goes on.

Indeed, the Russian — née, Soviet — space program has been both a trailblazer, and a stalwart workhorse, in spaceflight. While they may lack a lot of the flair and flash of their American counterparts, they were every bit as impressive in their achievements.

However, the Bear* may be past its prime and could very well be in a significant decline.

Their budget is low, and while they may have been able to gouge…I mean, sell…NASA some Soyuz seats at an ever-increasing rate in order to bolster their meager funding, those days will be coming to an end with the Americans switching to their Commercial Crew providers, depriving Roscosmos of millions needed of dollars.

What impact has this had on operations? Roscosmos recently confirmed that they’re reducing their complement of cosmonauts on the International Space Station (ISS) from three to two, something which had been projected earlier this year. This is in an effort to save money, ostensibly so Russia can fund its modernized crew capsule with the development of their Federation spacecraft.

But the Russians can’t seem to string together a calendar year without a mission failure. According to Doug Messier at Parabolic Arc, Russia hasn’t had a full year without a failure since 2009-2010. The failure of the Soyuz-U carrying Progress MS-04 on December 1, 2016, kept that dubious streak alive.

To be sure, and to use a phrase I absolutely despise, space is hard. And sure, failure inevitably comes, in some guise or another, to all those who attempt this journey into the cosmos.

Nevertheless, one can’t help but get the feeling that Russia’s best days of spaceflight may be behind them…and likely receding at an ever-accelerating rate.

With the anticipated rise of multiple crew-capable launch providers in the United States, in addition to NASA’s own capabilities with Orion, the need for Russia to launch humans to space — beyond the country’s own cosmonauts — will rapidly wither.

The prognosis for Mother Russia’s satellite launching industry may be as, if not more, bleak. SpaceX aims to be a low-cost option with their Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles. United Launch Alliance, though more expensive, is damn-near flawless with their success rate over the past ten years. And those are just two of the options in the United States.

Arianespace in Europe has been a top-tier launch provider for many years, and the rise of both India and China as low-cost alternatives further dilutes the need to engage Russia to get hardware to space.

I certainly hope my prognostication is wrong and that Roscosmos rights their ship and rejoins the United States as a premier spaceflight power. The more capability we have, as a species, to explore space, the better.

But I don’t think I’m wrong.


*I will always think of Russia as “the Bear” – I’m a child of the Cold War.

COMMENTARY: I finally saw a launch…and it was incredible

A ULA Atlas V 541 lifts off, carrying the next-generation GOES-R weather satellite. Credit: Curt Godwin

A ULA Atlas V 541 lifts off, carrying the next-generation GOES-R weather satellite. Credit: Curt Godwin

I have seen a huge 5-segment solid rocket booster perform a full duration burn in the desert of Utah at Orbital ATK’s facility. Pro tip: if NASA tells you to not look at the flame, then do NOT look at the flame.

I’ve watched the incredible RS-25 engine static fired in a test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Twice.

I’ve been on top – ON TOP! – of the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center (KSC)… within touching distance of a satellite at Ball Aerospace in Boulder… in United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Denver Operations Support Center (DOSC) and in their Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center (ASOC) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS). These are not easy places to access.

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Commercial Crew: It was never about saving money

"Going my way?" NASA's astronauts have had to hitch a ride with the Russians since the cancellation of the Shuttle program in 2011. Credit: William Neff/The Plain Dealer

“Going my way?” NASA’s astronauts have been forced to hitch a ride with the Russians since the cancellation of the Shuttle program in 2011. Credit: William Neff/The Plain Dealer

The Bear knows how to play Monopoly

The last time NASA had to pony up for astronauts to hitch a ride to the International Space Station (ISS) with the Russians on their venerable Soyuz spacecraft, they paid — on average — nearly $82 million per seat, for a total of six seats. That’s $490 million to get six astronauts to the ISS.

Think about that for a moment: almost half a billion dollars to ferry six people to the ISS. It would appear that our formerly communist rivals learned that capitalism can sometimes be a very profitable thing – Soyuz seats have increased 384 percent in 10 years. Having no competition allows Russia to increase prices with relative impunity.

To be fair, that amount does cover more than just taxi service to the orbiting outpost — launch services and flight training are also included in that “low, low” price. However, that’s still a heck of a lot of money to be sending to a government that may be actively operating against American institutions.

Oh, and there are those little incidents in Syria and Crimea, too. It would seem as if it’s not the best idea to rely upon “The Bear” for any longer than is necessary.

Thankfully, since 2010, NASA has been working with private companies as part of their Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program, with the goal of accelerating development of commercial space capabilities and returning human launches to US soil. Read More →

How much wind load did the Vehicle Assembly Building withstand during Hurricane Matthew?

The setting sun illuminating the side of the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building. Credit: Curt Godwin

The setting sun illuminating the side of the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building. Credit: Curt Godwin

Let me start by stating, in no uncertain terms, that I am not a structural engineer. I am also not a genius (hush, peanut gallery). I didn’t even stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night. So, super smart brainiac-types, you can sheath your slide rules and programmable calculators — I know that I might not have this exactly right.

What I am, however, is a person who took some publicly-announced information, and plugged it into some formulas meant to determine wind loads on various structures. Yay, spreadsheets!

If you read my piece about how Kennedy Space Center (KSC) fared after being battered by Hurricane Matthew, then you’ll know that both KSC Center Director Bob Cabana and KSC Damage Assessment and Recovery Team Chief Bob Holl stated that Hurricane Matthew’s winds at ground level were 75 knots, and a blustery 118 knots above 100 feet (30.48 meters).

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Blue Origin makes a fibber out of me, and I’m OK with that

Just as the vehicle was passing through max Q - the area of greatest aerodynamic pressure - the abort command was issued. Credit: Blue Origin

Just as the vehicle was passing through max Q – the area of greatest aerodynamic pressure – the abort command was issued. Credit: Blue Origin

Is Blue Origin imbued with the spiritual DNA of Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, because they sure know how to make the improbable happen. While the company was fairly certain of a successful outcome for the New Shepard spacecraft in the in-flight abort test, the prognosis for the booster was far less rosy.

“This test will probably destroy the booster,” stated company founder Jeff Bezos in an email release early in September 2016.

Really, Mr. Bezos…really?

As if in defiance of those predictions, the booster continued its flight, even after being blasted with 70,000 pounds of thrust from the abort motor and having to fly with a decidedly un-aerodynamic leading edge.

The spacecraft rapidly zipped away from the “stricken” booster, soon reaching its apogee then returning to Earth under parachute. Other than the firing of the abort motor itself and not reaching space, the decent can be described as nominal and uneventful. This was the primary goal of this test, and demonstrated the vehicle’s capability to protect craft and crew should a problem occur with the rocket.

The booster, now free of its 8,000 pound spacecraft, actually had to reduce throttle on its lone BE-3 engine so as to not over-boost and go higher than intended. At this point in the flight profile, it was no different than the four previous New Shepard missions.

With little drama, the booster landed under its own power, capping off a successful test and earning itself a place of honor in a museum.

So what’s the genesis of my consternation? Well, not only do I write for The Liftoff Report, but I also provide content for SpaceFlight Insider, and was asked to write about this test. Now, you have to understand that, though I love all things spaceflight, it’s not my career — and I would be at work when the test occurred.

However, being the clever person that I am, I pre-wrote the piece, assuming that the booster would be lost in the process. Somewhat covering my bases, I included two scenarios: booster breaks-up at altitude after abort motor fires, or the booster survives the abort but the flight computer cannot regain control authority and the booster smacks into the desert floor.

So, being the dutiful writer that I am, I signed-off on the piece, turning it over to the editors to add details and pictures at the conclusion of the test. Smart, right?

Obviously not.

Thankfully, the editors at SpaceFlight Insider were able to quickly modify the piece to match reality. With that, a hearty “Thanks!” to the staff at SFI for making the necessary corrections, and a big round of congratulations to Blue Origin.

Blue Origin may have made a fibber out of me, but I’m OK with that.

Musk’s historic Mars announcement wows many, leaves others with questions

Elon Musk presents SpaceX's plan to make humans a multi-planet species. Credit: SpaceX

Elon Musk presents SpaceX’s plan to make humans a multi-planet species. Credit: SpaceX

Industry leaders, pundits, and fans had been waiting for months in anticipation of what SpaceX CEO Elon Musk would unveil during his session at the 2016 International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara, Mexico. When Musk finally took the stage on September 27, 2016, he was welcomed with cheering and applause on a level normally reserved for rock stars. The excitement was palpable.

Musk spoke for about an hour, sharing his vision for making humanity a multi-planet species, and what SpaceX will do to make that happen. Accompanying his speech were images, charts, renderings, and videos driving home the visionary CEO’s talking points.

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OPINION: Thoughts on SpaceX after the AMOS-6 incident

Animation of the booster from CRS-8 landing on a drone ship. This is cool, but more effort needs to be expended on making operations more reliable. Landings come later. Much later. Credit: SpaceX

Animated GIF of the booster from CRS-8 landing on a drone ship. This is cool, but more effort needs to be expended on making operations more reliable. Landings come later. Much later. Credit: SpaceX

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days, you’ve no doubt heard that SpaceX had a rocket explode on the pad while in the midst of preparing for a brief static fire of the Falcon 9’s (F9) first stage engines. The incident, which occurred on September 1, 2016, is still in the early stages of being investigated and — as of this posting — the company has made no mention of a cause, suspected or otherwise. Regardless of how learned or informed the analysis may be, one must understand that unless and until a statement is made by SpaceX and/or an investigatory panel, all other analysis is conjecture.

I don’t intend to discuss my thoughts on what caused this particular event as I’m not qualified to do so, nor am I privy to any information not otherwise publicly available. That said, I have been following SpaceX since their early days and have some definite thoughts about the company. As stated in the title, this is strictly an opinion piece, though I will be backing up those opinions with facts wherever possible.

I believe that SpaceX has achieved things that many, myself included, thought would be supremely difficult, if not impossible, to pull off. Being able to recover the Falcon 9’s first stage, be it on land or on one of the ‘Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships’ (ASDS), is a remarkable achievement. Combine that with them being the first private company to launch and recover a LEO-capable spacecraft…and ferry supplies to and from the International Space Station (ISS), one would be disingenuous if they didn’t respect SpaceX’s accomplishments.

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