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.

 

 

 

 

Godspeed

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:

Happy Moon Day

Forty-seven years ago today, Americans landed on the moon. I was five years old and still remember every bit of it, including my parents letting me stay up way past my bedtime to watch an unassuming man from Wapokoneta, OH, step out and take a stroll.

For the closest thing you may ever have to a front-row seat, check out these painstakingly synchronized audio and video loops from both the spacecraft and mission control. And this video does an excellent job of explaining what was going on inside Eagle and the split-second judgments they had to make just to keep going:

Any one of those glitches could’ve ended in an abort if they weren’t resolved. Not to mention that the computer took them about three seconds long, which would’ve put them down into a boulder field. Being the steely-eyed missile man that he was, Armstrong recognized this with about 500 feet left to go and flew them forward to safer ground. When they finally landed, it was estimated that they had less than twenty seconds of fuel left.

Would that we might muster the will to do such things again.

Real Men Read Books…So Hurry And Get These On Sale For Dad!

My publisher (the wonderful Baen Books) is running a sale this week, just in time for Father’s Day. Starting Wednesday, Farside and Perigee will be available through all your favorite ebook outlets for the obscenely low price of 99 cents. (Hint: Read Perigee first. It’s a SERIES.) This is a limited-time, don’t-miss chance to get Dad a couple of kick-ass hard Sci-Fi adventure novels to load up that new Kindle or iPad he so richly deserves.
Does Dad like to read the old-fashioned way? Amazon or Barnes & Noble can also get you the paperback version in just a few days.
So you heard it here first, kiddies. Go on, do it – it’ll change your life. Or his. Either way everybody’s happy, including my publisher. Seriously y’all, there’s some real crap out there so here’s your chance for something that’s, well, not crap.*
And don’t wait too long, the sale ends Monday, June 20th.

*Exhibit A of why I didn’t go into advertising: “buy our stuff – it’s not crap!”

Here’s some handy links:

Amazon

Baen

Barnes & Noble

Google Play Books

iTunes

Kobo

Finally, some kind words from a dear friend: “The story is an intriguing rollercoaster ride of twists and turns, and features characters that are real enough to invite to your next barbeque.”

I’ll take that. And barbeque always sounds good.

Blazing Trails

 

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It’s lonely out in space… Credit: SpaceX

I’d like to think someone at SpaceX or NASA is reading my blog and took the last post to heart, though I could with equal validity claim to be a fire engine or the Easter Bunny.

SpaceX’s big announcement yesterday that they will be sending a Dragon capsule to Mars in (hopefully) two years clearly has been in the works for some time. They didn’t just cook that idea up last weekend over some takeout pizza and a twelve-pack of Red Bull (though from what they say about the work environment at Hawthorne, who knows?). From Aviation Week:

SpaceX and NASA wrapped up 16 months of behind-the-scenes negotiations Tuesday with an unfunded Space Act agreement to cooperate on sending an unmanned Dragon crew capsule to the surface of Mars as early as 2018.

Smart. 2018 is the next window of opportunity for a Hohmann transfer to Mars, and ought to be enough time to pull this off given SpaceX’s current state of development. They’re getting the propulsive-landing thing down pretty well and Mars access has been an intended use of Dragon 2 all along. If this works, the repercussions will be tremendous.

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Falcon Heavy. Credit: SpaceX

Falcon Heavy is probably the long pole in the tent because Red Dragon isn’t going very far if they can’t put enough weight up there to get the job done (that is, a kick stage to put Dragon on a transfer orbit). If this year’s test is successful, there are a couple more Heavy launches on next year’s manifest that would go a long way towards building confidence in their capability.

Note that NASA isn’t throwing money at them (directly at least) so this is all on Elon’s dime. But the “in kind” support they’re providing is significant, as Aviation Week reports:

…“deep space communications and telemetry; deep space navigation and trajectory design; entry, descent and landing system analysis and engineering support; Mars entry aerodynamic/aerothermal database development; general interplanetary mission and hardware consultation and advice, and planetary protection consultation and advice.”

These are subjects in which NASA has lots of expertise that SpaceX likely doesn’t have (yet). Their focus has been on the foundational work: vehicle development and operating experience, whereas this is precisely what a government space organization should be doing: figuring out the really hard, expensive stuff in an R&D role and then letting private industry run with it. It’s worth remembering that most of the airfoil designs still in use today by Boeing and others were developed by NASA’s precursor (NACA) in the 40’s and 50’s.

And if this works, there’s still time to build a hab module for that 2021 window…

 

The Truth is Out There

Pluto awaits. Photo credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab/Southwest Research Inst.

To those of you who’ve waited so patiently for me to finish FARSIDE, thank you. If you’re wondering how long a wait there might be for the next book, don’t worry. I’m on it. In fact, I’ve been sitting on this one for a long time and have been anxious for the right time to share it with you. That would be now…

NASA’s New Horizons probe has been in the news a lot, as it’s now finishing its nine-year journey to Pluto. I’ve been fascinated to see what discoveries will come of it as we’ve never had clear photos of our Solar System’s most distant planet (okay, so it’s not technically a planet anymore but it was when the probe was launched).

Having an overactive imagination, I couldn’t help but wonder what might happen if they found something totally unexpected. As in not natural.

And with that, I give you the prologue to FROZEN ORBIT:

* * *

July 2015

As the decades passed, men would hotly debate whether the chance encounter had been one of divine providence or blind luck. After nine years of sailing across the solar system, faster than any other machine flung by humans from Earth’s gravity well, the nuclear-powered New Horizons probe had finally entered Pluto’s fragile sphere of influence. It was to be fleeting, for despite carrying the hopes and expectations of so many, the event amounted to not much more than a cosmic one-night-stand.

At least that was the cynic’s view. After a whirlwind of begging and pleading, a small yet determined horde of scientists and engineers had prevailed upon the politicians to fund their little mission before it was too late. At almost literally the eleventh hour, they had managed to convince the Budget Committee that Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere—barely detectable from Earth—would collapse onto the tiny planet’s surface within the next decade, frozen into crystals by their host planet’s unstoppable migration away from the Sun.

“How long until it reappears?” one Senator had asked.

“Two hundred years,” a planetary geologist had replied. But since he was a geologist, the Senator had to ask the physicist seated next to him, who in turn had to produce a meteorologist who could verify their assumptions. Despite his protests of not knowing a single thing about extra-planetary atmospherics, the meteorologist agreed that, yes, the thin envelope of gases would indeed turn to ice and fall to Pluto’s surface. And no, it would not reappear for another two centuries. Only after he’d cited sophomore-level physical science to support his reasoning had it finally been enough to satisfy the gathering of political scientists.

And so, New Horizons had been put together largely from off-the-shelf components meant for other (cancelled) missions. It resembled nothing so much as an ambitious grade-schooler’s concept of what a space probe might be: about the size and shape of a grand piano, but covered in gold foil with a massive dish antenna and sporting a radioisotope generator at one end.

After a quick pass by Jupiter to steal the energy from some of that giant planet’s gravity (which it wasn’t going to miss, after all), the little probe went into hibernation until being awakened by its masters back on Earth. That it would be in position to capture such amazing images and data after such a long sleep, so far from home, was a stunning enough technical feat. That it was further able to capture the image that had triggered so many arguments was indescribable.

Some had called it miraculous. Others, carefully adhering to their notions of detached objectivity, simply marveled at the luck and explained it with mathematics. In private, they whispered among themselves that it was indeed stunning, phenomenal, and extraordinary.

That this golden radioactive piano, the first to encounter the solar system’s most distant planet (as it was still called back in 2006), zipping past at nearly forty thousand miles per hour, would be in a position to see what it saw (and that what it saw was in a position to be seen to begin with) was difficult to describe as anything other than, well, miraculous.

If this was a game of cosmic billiards, it was a blindfolded double-reverse bank shot. Once the masters had removed the blindfold, what they saw was beyond anyone’s ability to describe: there was Pluto, its prime moon Charon, and the two minor moons discovered along the way. All of them appeared in full color, high-definition detail, imagery of a depth and quality that the probe’s masters could scarcely have hoped for.

Yet it was those things which they didn’t expect to find that were the most breathtaking, such being the nature of exploration. In this case, it had at first appeared as an unexpected source of gamma radiation in orbit around Pluto. Just a trace, it was nevertheless odd as it would have normally been associated with some kind of high-energy source: a faraway supernova, maybe a black hole. On Earth it could have only emerged from the violent fusion reaction of a thermonuclear bomb.

The strange radiation signature only became noticeable during the final weeks of New Horizon’s approach, and was at first thought to be the result of instruments in dire need of calibration after being asleep for six years. When the probe was two weeks from its closest approach, the radiation trace disappeared.

That made it all the more surprising when it reappeared three days before New Horizons’ closest approach, leaving its masters on Earth with barely enough time to adjust their aim. As the tiny probe swept past its long-awaited target, its cameras were briefly trained on a point in space from where the gamma emissions appeared.

The first image showed only a pinprick of visible light reflected from the distant Sun, but it corresponded to the weak radiation and even weaker thermal signature.

Energetic and warm—not what anyone had expected from a tiny moonlet orbiting a minor planet. Some wondered if it was volcanic like Io, though the lack of Jupiter-sized tidal forces ruled that out. Nonsense, others argued: we’d been convinced that Mars was devoid of water for decades, remember? The atmosphere was simply too thin to keep it from evaporating, until we discovered a naturally-occurring antifreeze below the surface. Just because a phenomenon doesn’t line up with what we’ve come to expect doesn’t make it impossible.

The next day’s imagery caused more consternation for the masters. That point of light had grown larger as the object followed its own orbit while the little probe flew closer. But this time the light had taken on a more definitive shape: irregular, yet roughly symmetrical. One commented that it looked like a dragonfly.

If the second day had created turmoil, the final day had uniformly shut them up. The dragonfly had resolved itself into something completely unexpected: faded green, with metallic highlights randomly dotting the surface and ungainly ebony protuberances clustered around one end. Startlingly familiar, there could be no mistaking it for a natural object.

To a chorus of groans, one wag in Mission Operations had nailed it: that’s no moon; that’s a space station.

For all of the mystery surrounding this unexpected find, it was perhaps the markings that surprised them most: CCCP, the Cyrillic acronym for the long-extinct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

 

* * *

Deep Space Whine

Deep-Space Vehicle concept. Credit: NASA

This Aviation Week story describes a “Deep Space Habitat” engineering mock-up built from old Space Station components before it meanders off into another eye-glazing discussion of Space Launch System, J2X engines, advanced solid boosters, and other pieces of flight hardware that will likely never make it to the launch pad. Oh, and unicorns. With rainbows.

Yes, I’m venting. This concept (the vehicle, not the venting) isn’t entirely new, so at least NASA gets credit for putting some hardware together to actively study the concept instead of consigning it to PowerPoint Purgatory. And the flight-ready items already exist as ISS modules that never made it to their intended destination. Far as I know, they’re still taking up space in Houston.

Sounds great. But having said that, what’s the likelihood of DSH becoming a reality? Because in all honesty I’d love to see it. This is exactly the kind of stuff NASA should be doing: pushing boundaries, exploration…and all the R & D work that goes along with it. But why oh why do we insist on them building another Big Dumb Booster to get the crap up there? Why do we insist on throwing that money down a hole instead of using it to build something really useful like DSH? Or for that matter, developing a couple of different propulsion options to push the thing around?

If you wanted to build a new boat, would you also feel the need to design a new flatbed truck from scratch just to get said boat to water? Because that’s pretty close to what we’re talking about here.

Couldn’t these modules be lofted into orbit by a Delta IV or Falcon 9 heavy? Couldn’t Orion, for that matter, if it’s being flight tested on a Delta IV-Heavy anyway?

Perhaps there’s a good reason they can’t but it’s hard to think of. Then again, why not just buy space on a manned Dragon once they’re available?

And while I’m aware it sounds like I’m all rah-rah fanboy over SpaceX, in truth they’re just at the leading edge of a new industry about which I am very enthusiastic. By all means cheer them on, as more are sure to follow (Blue Origin looks particularly interesting).

Maybe these frustrations will solve themselves as the “old model” of space exploration plods along. It’ll inevitably be leapfrogged by the private sector, at which point there will be no choice but to recognize the paradigm has already shifted.

In the meantime, something like this deep-space hab concept will be featured prominently in the sequel to Perigee, wherein stuff’s about to get real