11 plus 45

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Forty-five years.

Neil Armstrong is dead now, as are many of the men who followed in his footsteps.

Those of us who, as children, experienced the grand spectacle of NASA’s greatest achievements grew up expecting even greater things. Those of us who continued to follow it closely into adulthood grew perplexed at the notable lack of achievement.

For a while, we believed the PR that projects like Skylab were the natural evolution of our expanse into the solar system. Everyone intuitively got that Mars was a very long way away, so if we were going to send people there it would be wise to get our arms around real long-duration spaceflight. There was even supposed to be a second Skylab, in orbit around the Moon, that would give us a strong foothold at the edge of deep space as we pushed on to Mars.

That was cancelled, of course. The massive Skylab II module now resides in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. You can even walk around inside of it and imagine what it would’ve been like to live in it while orbiting the Moon.

Everything at NASA became focused on the Space Shuttle, which we were promised would be the key to reliable space access and the first essential step to building the kinds of massive ships that would be needed to venture beyond the Moon. The idea made sense, but the execution never did. Shuttle became a victim of mission creep, needing to be all things for all users. In the process, it became so big and so over-complicated that economic access would be impossible.

The International Space Station was conceived as a necessary destination, and then it got turned into a make-work program for unemployed Soviet engineers in order to keep them from selling their skills to, say, Iran.

But think about that for a minute: the shuttles were built to service a station which ended up being there to give the shuttles something to service. And now we have no shuttles. Just as well, really, since they turned out to be inefficient death traps – because that’s what happens when you try to make an experimental vehicle your workhorse.

Through this time, the space agency we all grew up in awe of flailed around. We were told it was because they had no defined goal, no destination like Apollo. That made sense for a while, as we really had no other experience to judge it against. A few “voices in the wilderness” cried out that there were better ways to do it, but nobody really listened since everybody knew space was Dangerous and Mysterious and Expensive, therefore it could only be done by a big government program using big government rockets bankrolled by big government money.

Thankfully, this paradigm has begun shifting in the last few years.

But I didn’t sit down at the keyboard today to sing the praises of SpaceX and XCOR and Blue Origin and Orbital Sciences. I am here to lament what could be happening right now with NASA, but never will because of myopic bureaucrats and idiot congressmen who can never see past their own reelection.

Rand Simberg points to a series of Houston Chronicle essays about the state of our space program, the most recent installment of which is alternately depressing and infuriating. It describes a study commissioned by NASA which determined we could pretty readily be sending people back to the Moon to do useful work within the next few years. And we could do it with existing launchers (Delta IV-heavy, specifically).

It wouldn’t be possible to throw everything up in one launch, instead needing several. But the bulk purchases of launchers would start to drive the costs down, and we frankly have plenty enough on-orbit construction experience now that it shouldn’t be that much of a stretch. The real enabling technology to be developed would’ve been long-term propellant storage and on-orbit refueling, which is technology we desperately need anyway (and is a proper R&D role for a government agency).

But that common-sense, low-cost approach ran afoul of the hogs at their troughs in Alabama, Florida and Texas, all of whom prefer a great big government rocket program:

The plan used the commercially available Delta IV Heavy rocket to conduct a steady stream of missions to the lunar surface, allowing humans to begin tapping into the moon’s resources.

“We briefed it to all the key NASA human spaceflight centers, giving them a chance to challenge the conclusion,” Miller said. “I thought it was a tremendous result for human spaceflight. We could have a plan that flies early and flies often.”

NASA never published the study and Miller’s contract wasn’t renewed.

Congress didn’t want radical change and instructed NASA to build a big rocket, the Space Launch System or SLS.

Much as I’d love to see a Saturn V class launcher again, it would make a lot more sense to use the tools we already have. But we all know government doesn’t work that way.

The Moon is there for us to use. Water ice has been detected, which would be the single most precious resource for a spacefaring society. Besides its obvious life-giving properties, it can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen. That is, breathing air and rocket fuel.

NASA will not get us there. I wish they would, as it would make things much easier for the businesses who are ramping up to follow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I Did On Summer Vacation

2014-06-15 11.23.21

WHEEEEEEE!!!

Flew a Stearman. Not just rode in it, mind you, I flew that sucker. With what looked like a hefty butter churn for a control stick, it was incredibly well-balanced and responsive (especially compared to the mushy Cessnas and Pipers I cut my teeth on). One should expect no less from a bird that took grand champion at Oshkosh, beechez.

Went whitewater rafting with the family through the New River Gorge. Highly recommended.

Spent a lovely afternoon and evening boating on a stunning mountain lake. More than two hundred feet deep in spots and surrounded by Appalachian cliffs, it’s the clearest inland water I’ve ever seen. Interesting side note: the dam which formed the lake would’ve normally been named for the town it was situated nearest, which in this case was Gad, WV. But since the locals didn’t care for naming their new landmark “Gad Dam,” they were content with letting the Corps of Engineers slide up the map and pick the next town in line, Summersville.

Again, all highly recommended. We’ve traveled through West Virginia countless times but this was our first visit as a destination, and our first real family vacation in far too long.

By now you’re probably wondering (at least I hope you are), “that’s nice, but when’s the next book coming out, slacker?”

Funny you should ask. Or that I should presume you’re asking. Whatev.

I’ll be blunt: the Perigee sequel is on hiatus because it’s a hot mess. It has the seeds of awesomeness, but the words just aren’t flowing like they should be. At this point, I’m just flailing around within the story instead of it carrying me along. A good story does that: even when you’re the one writing, it’ll surprise you. Bottom line is if I’m not happy with it, you guys certainly won’t be. Just know that it’s not dead, it’s resting.

This doesn’t mean I’m sitting idly about with a broomstick between my knees pretending it’s that gorgeous Stearman (here’s the WWI flying ace on dawn patrol, searching for the Red Baron). People often ask (not necessarily of me, but I’m sure they ask it of somebody), “where do your ideas come from?”

The answer is, they just happen. It’s the curse of a too-vivid imagination. Bottom line is I write because it’s the only way to make the voices in my head shut up. Sometimes the ideas hit you so powerfully that you have to drop whatever you’re doing and write it all down before they fly back to whatever mental crevice they came from.

Happily enough, that happened a few weeks ago. The story concept had formed much earlier, but I couldn’t think of a compelling way to connect the dots and close the circle, so to speak. It was just an idea…a really freaking cool one, but still just an idea. Without a “why should we care?” ribbon to tie the whole package together, it wouldn’t matter.

Until one day last month as I was driving home from work…it seems like the best ideas either come while I’m driving or sleeping. Either way, inconvenient. But the missing why should we care element, the keystone, all of a sudden exploded in my head. It was so compelling that I had to find a place to pull over and write it all down. After scribbling several pages, the story arc blew me away. I hadn’t been this excited about something in a long time, so when I got home I opened up a new file and banged out the first chapter that night.

It’s been like that ever since. At the rate it’s going, it’ll be a readable draft in a matter of weeks. The working title is Frozen Orbit, and I think ya’ll are gonna like this one. It’s straight-up science fiction (grounded in the present) and hopefully like nothing anyone’s done before. And I promise you won’t realize that until the end; not if I do my job right.

The idea came from a couple of “what if” questions (as all good stories ought to); one clearly fantasy, the other philosophical. I’ll share the fantasy one and keep the philosophy to myself, as this is a spoiler-free zone.

This time next year, a piano-sized probe called New Horizons will fly by Pluto on its way to the Kuiper Belt (which is where a lot of comets are thought to come from). How the mission came to be is interesting enough; there was a time crunch that not many people appreciate. Because of its eccentric orbit, it’s believed that Pluto’s thin atmosphere will freeze and collapse around the planet* within the next few years. Once that happens, it’ll remain that way for the next two hundred years. So you can understand the urgency: this will be our first opportunity to get close-up, high-def imagery of the tiny planet and our only opportunity for about ten generations to study its atmosphere.

The pictures alone will be enormously interesting. If you’re old enough to remember the first close-ups of the gas giants and outer planets from Voyagers 1 & 2, this will be our chance to relive that excitement.

What might make that even more interesting? What if New Horizons spies something that shouldn’t be there? Perhaps something artificial, hiding in orbit among Pluto’s tiny moons?

Cool as that idea may sound, it’s not even the one that blew up in my head and made me pull over and hack off all those drivers behind me last month. That one’s saved for the book.

*At least it was a planet when they launched the probe. Still is, far as I’m concerned.

 

 

 

Here Be Dragons

SpaceX finally unveiled DragonRider last night, otherwise known as Dragon V.2:

Credit: SpaceX

Love the fins (though I’ve no idea what they’re for) and that the solar panels wrap around the trunk. And being a bizjet guy, I particularly like the Gulfstream-style oval windows. There’s lots of them, too, which seems entirely appropriate for a 21st century commercial spaceship. I freaking love saying that.

Beyond the awkward humility Mr. Musk displays in the video (the guy’s a real-life Tony Stark after all), what strikes me most is the pure beauty of the thing. Admit it, a lot of perfectly fine air and space vehicles are kind of funny looking if not butt-ugly. Think of the A-10 or the Apollo LM.

But this…this is what a brand-new spaceship ought to look like. They clearly didn’t throw out their aesthetic sensibilities while also building in features like propulsive landing and reusable heat shields. And check out the front office:

Credit: SpaceX

The pull-down flat screen control panel is a pretty slick way to save room and weight; making all the essential emergency controls hard-wired buttons is likewise a very smart touch.

Much more here, plus a nice roundup from Alan Boyle at Cosmic Log.

 

After Midnight

If your blood pressure’s not high enough today, then head on over to American Spectator to read about the “Two Midnight Rule.”

This is precisely the kind of NHS-style bureaucratic nightmare we all worried about, and it came to pass even sooner than anyone imagined: a family’s beloved father is dead because of a turn of phrase in a law that nobody read, including the “man” who signed it. There are no words to describe how infuriating this is — it’s impossible to comprehend how this man’s family must feel.

Read the whole thing, if you can stand it. If not, here’s the key takeaway:

The “two midnight rule” became a death sentence for Frank Alfisi. An Obamacare Catch-22.

Simply put: Frank Alfisi could not be admitted to the hospital because he needed dialysis. Dialysis does not require a “two midnight” stay in the hospital. So, therefore, Frank would not be admitted as an in-patient and given dialysis. And since the lack of dialysis — which was deliberate per the Obamacare directive to the CMS — had now made Frank so sick that it resulted in two seizures and unconsciousness, a need for oxygen and a wheelchair, Frank certainly was no longer qualified to be an outpatient at DaVita.

This wasn’t even in the law, it was part of a 1500-page regulation as a result of the law. If you or a loved one rely on Medicare, this is your future.

In some measure this can be chalked up to unintended consequences: pass a 3000-page bill that nobody had time to read before voting on it, and that’s what happens. Which is, of course, why I can’t think these consequences are “unintended.” In the long run this clause will save the government money by causing old people to die off sooner. The bastards knew exactly what they were doing and didn’t give a damn about who it might hurt, because Greater Good or whatever.

God save us from politicians hawking good intentions, because their intentions are rarely good. First, last, and always, they are about control. So what if a few eggs got broken; just look at that tasty omelet!

I’ve been ruminating about this for a long time, as it’s increasingly obvious that very few people in politics are actually working in our best interests. Washington is a company town, and the local industry is politics. Its products are laws and regulations, and so it becomes everyone’s interest to craft them in a way to bring in as much profit as possible.

Economics, in other words. But this isn’t private industry operating in a free market, and so the profiteers aren’t labor and management. They’re politicians and their various hangers-on, including the parasitic lobbyist class.

There are precious few national-level politicians whom I believe are honestly working for our interests — and even they have their own agendas. Which is fine, so long as it aligns with the nation’s and adheres to the Constitution. And that’s what it really comes down to: do you, or do you not, believe that our government must perform within the limits defined by our Constitution?

If you don’t, then we have no common ground for compromise. You must therefore be defeated at every opportunity, because your beliefs will ultimately end this nation. And we are getting dangerously close to that tipping point.

Strangling the Baby

Why are the Feds so afraid to let humanity out of its crib?

http://www.nationalreview.com/article/370895/pilot-shortage-made-congress-jillian-kay-melchior

http://www.parabolicarc.com/2014/02/07/nield-moritorium-regulations-2015/

The above links are not entirely unrelated. While the flight crew experience minimums came down from on high (or wherever it is Congress resides), the sudden reversal on regulating spaceflight perfectly illustrates how our government looks at us lately. The FAA is just the branch I have the most personal experience with and they’ve been getting decidedly too big for their britches lately: Weight & Balance rules that will grind airline ops to a screeching halt, directing AMEs to assume anyone over a certain BMI needs a CPAP machine, classifying off-the-shelf R/C models fitted with GoPro cameras as “drones” to be regulated.

Deciding it’s time to regulate in-development spacecraft and orbital operations tells me the Feds have decided that literally nothing is beyond their reach. Pardon me, Mr. Nield, but you have not the slightest damned idea what you’re talking about. Assuming the past 50 years of NASA-centric spaceflight experience puts you in a position to dictate standards to companies who’ve set out to break that mold is the worst kind of hidebound bureaucratic “thinking.”

Over the last fifty years, how much demonstrable progress has been made on reusable launchers? If your answer is “space shuttle” then you’re missing my point. Each orbiter had to go through the rough equivalent of an airline heavy-check every single time they flew. If we did that, we’d be out of business just as surely as if we threw away our airplanes after each trip.

Did anyone anticipate SpaceX would be able to create a reusable first stage that lands on its tail like something from a 1950’s sci-fi movie? Or XCOR’s runway-to-suborbit spaceplane? How would either of those fit into standards that by Nield’s logic should be based on NASA legacy systems?

Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t even manage that, regulate.

Get out of our way.

I Told Orville and I Told Wilbur…

“…that thing will never fly.”

Behold the Sky Whale:

I’m not sure how this thing found its way onto a “serious” news organization’s website, but apparently CNN is easily fooled. Which we already knew. Just remember this is an artistic concept that would be a better fit for Deviant Art instead of a major news outlet. But io9 is a whole other kettle of fish…frankly I expected more informed commentary from their readers, or at least not trashing of commenters who do in fact know what they’re talking about.

If you haven’t noticed, this is exactly what I was cranked up about in my last post: people with actual expertise offering informed criticism are ignored (if not outright ridiculed) by those who don’t have a freaking clue. Because they’re a bunch of armchair quarterbacks or unimaginative dullards or have been brainwashed by The Man, or something.

But, but–look at the pretty pictures! Clearly, aerodynamicists and engineers aren’t capable of such out-of-the-box concepts because they’re constrained by the shackles of their corporate overlords. Or maybe physics.