Life (Still) Imitating Art

Don’t mean to brag, but this news is just too much to resist:

Bigelow Aerospace wants to put an inflatable space habitat in orbit around the Moon

AhemCalled itThis layout is exactly what I had in my head while writing Farside.

I really hope this is for real and not just another great idea that dies without NASA money.


Days of Glory

A resourceful filmmaker named Christian Stangl has animated thousands of NASA photos into a gorgeous video tribute to Apollo, well worth 7.3 minutes of your time:

UPDATE! Almost forgot this compelling short by Andrew Finch. It’s amazing when you see what his team accomplished on what must have been a shoestring budget – even using actual SFX models with the CGI:

h/t: Sploid

To Stupidity…and Beyond!

I long ago came to accept the fact that any news from the aerospace world that makes it into the popular media is going to be laughably misunderstood and misrepresented. The meatgrinder of 24/7 “news” amplifies the problem as reporters rush to be first while receiving less and less editorial oversight.

One site where I didn’t expect to see this kind of nonsense was The Verge, where this epically dumb opinion piece on Elon Musk’s Mars 2.0 plans appeared. I’d say it smacks of the misleading tripe normally foisted on the Wall Street Journal or USA Today by LockMartBoeing corporate shills, but that would be unfair to misleading tripe. Nope, it’s just pig-ignorant right out of the gate:

Elon Musk is obsessed with traveling between any two points on Earth in less than 30 minutes.

No, he’s obsessed with driving down launch costs so humans can go to Mars. As anyone who actually pays attention to this business already knows. But hey, at least he consulted some experts:

“You can’t fly humans on that same kind of orbit,” Brian Weeden, director of program planning for Secure World Foundation, told The Verge. “For one, the acceleration and the G-forces for both the launch and the reentry would kill people. I don’t have it right in front of me, but it’s a lot more than the G-forces on an astronaut we see today going up into space and coming back down, and that’s not inconsiderable.”

First of all, it’s not really an orbit. It’s suborbital, which is the whole point. More accurately, it’s an antipodal trajectory. And why would the g-forces (apparently distinct from “acceleration,” but we’ll let that one slide for now) necessarily be more than what astronauts experience? It’s not like they’re being strapped to the nose of an ICBM. Sorry, but “I don’t have it right in front of me” doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in this guy’s expertise.

Mind you, I can’t see your typical airline passenger being willing or able to pull 3 or 4 g’s for extended periods of time but I do think there are enough people of means who’d be willing to spend serious money on a suborbital hop that actually took them somewhere. Unless the radiation environment fries them in their seats, that is:

Another problem with ballistic trajectory is radiation exposure in the vacuum of space, Weeden added. To be sure, astronauts on the International Space Station are largely shielded from this radiation, thanks to Earth’s magnetic field, which deflects most of the deep-space particles. But his indifference toward the impact that these interstellar concepts would have on human bodies is classic Musk.

Ignoring the “interstellar concepts” bit, we’re expected to believe there’s no way to keep a suborbital P2P trajectory below the Van Allen belts? Or shield the cabin? Planning for radiation exposure is already a major factor in long-haul polar routes. If only someone had studied these problems before! Oh, wait…someone did:

One of the most striking conclusions to come out of the DOT paper is the effects this type of futuristic travel could have on pilots. “The pilot will have to deal with activities ranging from direct control of the vehicle to oversight and situational awareness to planning,” the paper’s author, Ruth A. MacFarlane Hunter, a national expert on logistics and emergency management and a registered professional aeronautical engineer, wrote. “The much larger array of instruments and situations may require the pilot to quickly shift to a different activity using different instruments.”

Sigh. There’s a lot of good info in that paper, which happened to be one of my sources while doing research for Perigee. There’s also some ill-informed crap, notably this: “The pilot will have to deal with activities ranging from direct control of the vehicle to oversight and situational awareness to planning.

How does any of that differ from the current environment, other than altitude and Mach number? There’s no doubt it’ll require a level of piloting skill not currently demanded of your average graybeard plying the airways in a 787, but I think they’ll be able to find a few who can handle it. There’s a lot of ex-military and even Shuttle pilots out there flying the friendly skies. And those guys aren’t exactly working alone, either. Oversight, situational awareness, and planning…sounds a lot like mission control to me. That’s why airlines have operations centers that rival what you might see at NASA: it’s a complicated business where things happen fast, and nobody expects the pilots to do all the work themselves. Hell, we don’t want them to. That’s also why we have dispatchers and load planners and ATC specialists and performance engineers: so all the pilots need to do is check our work and fly the airplane.

United’s operations center in Chicago, IL

What scares me is this came from a Department of Transportation aeronautical engineer – in other words, someone who ought to know better. No wonder we have to put up with so much nonsense from the regulators…

This type of display, and the responsibilities of taking off and landing an interplanetary rocket full of men, women, and children, might be too much for normal pilots to handle. In fact, it could cause the pilot to have a total nervous breakdown.

So are we “interplanetary” or “interstellar?” I’m confused. This reminds me of the kinds of knee-jerk scaremongering from the early days of spaceflight (not that I was there, but I do read a lot).

There’s plenty enough to pick at without adding ill-informed assertions to the mix. For instance, I don’t see how this is going to be affordable for a very long time – certainly not in time for it to help bankroll Musk’s Martian dreams. Passenger safety is a huge concern – it’s also going to be a long time before this system is reliable enough to start selling tickets.

The riskiest phases of flight are takeoff and landing. When you’re talking about a spacecraft the size of an A380 doing that on its tail…well, that’s a whole new level of pucker factor. Everything we do when building an airliner’s flight plan considers the loss of an engine at the worst possible times: takeoff roll, over water, over mountains, on final. And if a big jet happens to lose everything (exceedingly rare, but it has happened), it can still glide. A BFR falling to its landing pad won’t have that option. If it loses power, it’s toast. Even a helicopter can autorotate and not fall out of the sky.

But if everything works – and I think it will, eventually – it’ll be awesome. Sign me up.



The Wait Is Over (Again)

Overnight, Elon Musk finally presented the long-awaited update to his Mars plans from the IAC annual conference in Australia (thus the overnight thing).

Last year’s big reveal was grandiose but left a lot of questions as to how they planned to pay for it. This year’s version looks more realistic considering the work they’ve already done, but it still seems like they’d need to pursue an intermediate step. Something like Dragon V.3, maybe replacing the trunk with a beefed-up extended duration module – or a landing stage. I keep thinking of the old Estes Mars Lander:

Dragon V.3, as predicted by Estes in the late 1970s. Or not.

Speaking for moi, I was polishing my resume surprised to see him offer point-to-point suborbital passenger service on the BFR. I’ve read about that somewhere, no doubt from some hack writer…

Nothing else really original from me so maybe the rest is just clickbait, but it’s good clickbait:

SpaceX finally gets real, according to Ars Technica. Meanwhile, The Verge notes that Musk is throwing everything at Mars. Let’s hope he chooses wisely.

Imagine an A380 landing on its tail. Yeah.


Just Some Good Ol’ Boys

Every nerd’s favorite company, SpaceX, has been on a roll lately. They’re on track for a record year, including the debut of the eagerly anticipated Falcon Heavy. 

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan, and it’s likewise no secret that I’m not a big fan of unaccountable bureaucracies that treat our hard-earned taxes like Monopoly money. Unfortunately this category often features the *other* perennial nerd favorite, NASA. Equally unfortunate is how conservative press outlets can almost always be counted on to utterly misunderstand and misreport the goings-on of both.

You will not go to space today.

That’s why I initially read this Lifezette piece with skepticism, but by the end I think they mostly get things right:

While Americans might love that NASA has a space-defender position opening, what they don’t love is how NASA is shielding companies from their mistakes.

SpaceX, a company that usually gets much love among conservative and libertarian circles, cost the taxpayers $110 million when one of its rockets blew up in June 2015. The company still received 80 percent of its expected payment, and we still don’t know why the rocket failed on its mission to resupply the International Space Station.

The funny thing about this is that NASA promised the public there would be a summary released of the investigation. Yet the agency announced just a few weeks ago that it doesn’t need to anymore because “NASA is not required to complete a formal final report or public summary since it was an FAA licensed Flight.”

…It’s also funny because NASA didn’t do that when it came to another company. In October 2014, Orbital’s rocket blew up, costing the taxpayers $51 million. It was an FAA-licensed flight. It was conducted under the same NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program of which SpaceX is a part. Both involved aging rockets. Yet NASA still put out an executive summary for the Orbital incident within a year.

Lots of self-serving doubletalk at the link, but I think it’s clear that something doesn’t pass the smell test.

Does SpaceX have quality-control problems? Beats me. I’m in no position to tell, but it feels like the root-cause investigations of last year’s events were wrapped up awfully fast.

This comes from someone who really wants them to succeed. For just one example of the ancillary benefits, here’s how they finally got Canaveral’s range control to modernize.

It often (okay, usually) takes private industry to drag government agencies into the future. That won’t happen if they’re whitewashing potential failure points.

Better Late Than Never

SpaceX scores their <a href="“>12th launch this year, putting them on track for 20 by January. If they can do that and finally get Falcon Heavy up this fall, that ought to (but probably won’t) settle any doubts about their business model, even if this one cost them.

Oh, and they introduced this spiffy little number too:

About time somebody acted like we’re living in the 21st century.

I’m anxious to see what changes are coming for their Mars architecture next month. Last year’s Big Reveal was, at least to my untrained eye, too big too soon. There’s got to be some intermediate step between Dragon and the massive Love Boat to Mars that is the ITV.

Life Imitating Art

Credit: NASA

In which NASA unwittingly threatens a big-budget production of the opening chapter of Perigee. There’s a lot to unpack here. First, The Verge on the the buzz it has created inside the agency (and the inherent challenges):

NASA is mulling over the idea of putting astronauts on the first flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) — the giant heavy-lift rocket the space agency is building to take people to Mars someday. Currently, NASA is hoping to fly the SLS for the first time in fall of 2018, and the original plan was for that mission to be uncrewed. But a new memo sent out to NASA employees this morning shows that the agency will start investigating the possibility of making the debut flight of SLS, called EM-1, a crewed mission instead.

This seems…unwise. Continue reading “Life Imitating Art”


Being a privately-held company, SpaceX’s finances have been notoriously opaque. No doubt Elon Musk prefers it that way, because he can’t be too pleased with last month’s Wall Street Journal “expose” of their account books.  The story is still behind the WSJ paywall so we’ll have to take The Motley Fool‘s word for it:

In an expose compiled from “exclusive … internal documents” — probably obtained from the “former SpaceX employees” that it interviewed — theJournal confirms that SpaceX has in fact been losing money since at least the beginning of 2015. Says the Journal, not only did SpaceX rack up losses of $260 million in 2015, but it actually incurred “an operating loss every quarter, and also negative cash flow of roughly $15 million.”

For the record, this means SpaceX was losing money nearly one year before the company removed the famous “profitable and cash-flow positive” assertion from its website.

Not too surprising, considering that their launch rate was still well below target even before losing two boosters to “rapid unscheduled disassembly.”

No Kerbals were harmed during this simulation.
Not SpaceX, but you get the idea. No Kerbonauts were harmed in production of this graphic.

Continue reading “SpaceXpensive”

A Modest Proposal

This headline is just begging to have a list of names appended to it:

Put People on Mars by 2033 – For the Good of the Nation

I agree with the sentiment, but that’s as far as it goes. Not to take away from the achievements of the authors, but this is just pablum:

Third and most importantly, the European Space Agency, Russians, and Chinese continue to accelerate their human spaceflight programs. Americans must not cede the finish line. Our country should not wait until we receive the news that someone else has won the race to Mars for our leaders in Washington to ask, “How’s our space program doing? Why didn’t we get first place?” It will be too late. We must ask those questions now.

Nice try, but the very first sentence of that argument is hopelessly flawed. ESA has no “manned space program” other than the astronauts who’ve hitched rides with us and the Russians. The Russian program occasionally announces grandiose plans for new ventures, but the reality is they’re mired in funding and quality control problems. And at the rate the Chinese are putting up crews, the idea of them landing men on Mars in another 15 years is laughable.

There is no “race” to Mars, much as I want to see us go. Repeating the same tired pitches for Apollo 2.0 is not achieving anything, unless they’re just positioning themselves for political appointments.

As Rand Simberg often points out, it shouldn’t be NASA’s job to send humans to Mars. Their job should be making it possible for the National Geographic Society to send humans to Mars.






fb_img_1481301422079When it comes to aerospace, Ohio has enjoyed an embarrassment of riches. There is very little I can say that you don’t already know about the Wright Brothers, Neil Armstrong, and John Glenn; there’s even less I could say that would do justice to their exploits.

Since he lived here in Columbus, Mr. Glenn’s legacy is perhaps being celebrated more than anywhere else. While there was very little I agreed with in his political career (other than his epic takedown of the vile Howard Metzenbaum), his achievements as a Marine aviator and Astronaut were remarkable. It’s easy to forget exactly how dangerous the test pilot business was in those days. And to be the first American to fly a repurposed ballistic missile into orbit (which tended to be rather explodey back then)? Yeah, the man had sack. Or as the great Tom Wolfe puts it, the indefinable quality that top-of-the-pyramid aviators dare not invoke: