Amazon’s Founder Delivers Something Special

Blue Origin, the nascent space-launch firm, enjoyed a milestone achievement yesterday when its New Shepard booster lofted a capsule to 330,000 feet and then returned to its launch site in an autonomous, on-target vertical descent.   This is a big leap forward toward reusable rockets that will carry humans and cargo to the edges of space and beyond at a fundamentally lower price-point per pound thanks to the recycle-ability of the booster and its main engines.

Blue Origin is the creation of Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.

Fellow technologist and featurist, Elon Musk, has been attempting to achieve the same feat but with much larger and more powerful Falcon 9.X boosters capable of pushing people and packages to altitudes at or above Low Earth Orbit.   So far, the Falcon 9, a product of SpaceX, has come close (but no cigar) to successfully sticking a vertical landing after reaching the edge of space.  There’s next to no doubt that SpaceX will see that goal achieved in the next year or two.

All of this is good and demonstrates one of the key advantages of inviting tech entrepreneurs into the competition to deliver new, lower-cost modes for getting to space.

Next up for SpaceX and Blue Origin:  getting Human Space Flight ratings for their respective pressurized space capsules.

Now, check out this video of Blue Origin’s New Shepard getting it done!

Two Engine Out Blue

Yesterday, I came across a fascinating and hair-raising audio transcript from 1988 of NASA conducting a full-blown exercise in which a Space Shuttle enroute to orbit suffers a complex serious of failures and attempts to reverse course and return to its launch site.  There were three immediate contexts for this abort exercise:

  • The Challenger disaster in 1986, in which crew and craft were lost when in mid-ascent searing hot gases from a booster made it past protective seals, torching the shuttle’s main fuel tank and causing the vehicle to disintegrate.
  • The implementation post-Challenger of new hardware and flight software in the shuttle fleet to introduce a new abort mode called Contingency Abort.  A contingency abort is all about giving the crew a greater probability of survival when it is a given that the shuttle vehicle has no hope of making a controlled landing due to any series of failures or emergencies.  Prior to the Challenger disaster, no such crew-bailout capability existed — the Return to Launch Site (RTLS) abort scenario had been the last, worst (most complex) option in the event of major problems during ascent.  Return to Launch Site is exactly what it is means:  in mid-flight, the shuttle turns around and begins rocketing back toward Kennedy Space Center to attempt a controlled landing.   Post-Challenger, mission controllers realized that there could be multiple RTLS scenarios where stuff happens and the shuttle is unable to produce the energy necessary to fly back home.  The Contingency Abort was added for just those circumstances in which a RTLS went bad:  if needed, the shuttle could assume a new flight profile allowing the crew to parachute away from the vehicle at a survivable altitude and speed.   As it so happened, the shuttle program concluded without experiencing a real RTLS or Contingency Abort.
  • The upcoming “return to flight” launch (STS-26) of Shuttle Discovery in 1988, getting the shuttle back into flight following the loss of Challenger.

Prior to the STS-26 launch, mission planners and controllers wanted to play out the contingency abort scenario in a full-blown exercise, with a real countdown, crew in their seats and mission controllers at their consoles — to see what might happen.    The audio transcript, which is available online, begins with a normal liftoff and  then unfolds as follows:

  • 40 seconds into the ascent, one of the redundant electrical systems on board the shuttle fails;  controllers and the shuttle commander agree in the moment that there is no need to alter the shuttle’s ascent program.
  • At approximately 80 seconds into the flight, the starboard main engine experiences an uncommanded shut down.  At this point in the ascent scenario, the loss of the engine leaves Discovery with insufficient energy to reach orbit; the crew and mission control have no choice but to prepare for a Return to Launch Site abort.   But before the RTLS sequence starts, the shuttle must jettison its booster rockets which happens at 130 seconds into the flight.
  • After the boosters are jettisoned, the shuttle makes a powered (rocket-powered) pitch-over (turn around) to change the direction of thrust from up (toward space) to down (toward Kennedy Space Center).  In this posture, it’s two remaining main engines continue to fire, drawing fuel from the giant orange tank still attached to the belly of the shuttle.  It will take a significant amount of time for the redirected main engines to stop the climb to orbit and begin accelerating the shuttle toward Florida.
  • In the STS-26 contingency abort scenario, the initial RTLS pitch-over goes great but after a minute the shuttle’s port main engine cuts out.  At this point, the Flight Director calls out “Two Engine Out Blue” and immediately asks the Flight Dynamics Officer “do we have any chance of getting the vehicle back (to a runway).  The immediate answer is “there is no way to get the shuttle to a safe landing.”
  • At this point, the newly-developed contingency abort scenario becomes the best, last option for the crew.  Voice traffic in Mission Control because constant as does the frequency of communications between Mission Control and the shuttle crew.  And the scenario worsens as the center (and last) main shuttle engine shuts down, leaving the unpowered shuttle attached to its large and very heavy external tank.  If the shuttle is to maintain sufficient energy to get to a safe altitude and location for the crew to bailout, it must now jettison its main fuel tank sooner than planned.  The audio communication traffic underscores this.
  • Within a few moments, the shuttle has separated from the main tank and the crew and flight software are trying to manage the flight profile of the shuttle to get the craft to a point approximately 197 miles east and north of Kennedy Space Center  — over the wide-open Atlantic Ocean.  That is where the crew will bailout (parachute drop).
  • The audio transcript suggests that shuttle crew resources are stretched to the limit by the accumulation of failures and rapidly changing flight plans.  At one point, mission control must repeatedly and urgently instruct the shuttle commander to pay more attention to the shuttle’s flight profile — to drop (pitch down) the nose of the shuttle substantially or else lose the energy necessary to get to a safe bailout point.
  • The shuttle crew successfully pitches down the craft’s nose. The shuttle then begins a serious of steep banking maneuvers to navigate to the planned RP — rescue point.  The crew is feeling 3+ G’s of force, much higher than experienced during normal descents but not debilitating.
  • At this point in the exercise, Mission Control is unable to make voice contact with the crew although flight telemetry (data) continues to be received uninterrupted.  Ultimately, mission controllers begin broadcasting “in the blind” in the hopes of getting some response from the crew.   (In the early years of the shuttle program, voice communications were susceptible to cutouts when the craft made steep turns that blocked the line of sight to its voice antenna.)  Voice communication is not regained before the end of the audio transcript which is very disconcerting.   I would like to think that the crew, working through this incredible challenge, had defaulted to flying the shuttle first and communicating last — prioritizing their attentional “bandwidth” to getting to the rescue point.

All in all, an interesting glimpse into both the way NASA prepares for contingencies and the extent of the space shuttle’s capabilities under worst-case circumstances.

New Horizons

Unless you live in a cave, you have by now heard something about the New Horizons deep space probe and its incredible success reaching across billions of miles of solar system to capture upclose images of Pluto and its moon, Charon, that were basically mind-blowing.  More on that in a minute.

If you’ve not seen or heard any of the mission FAQ’s that the New Horizons media team released this past week in conjunction with the space probe’s flyby of its target, check them out.  Here are a couple of my favorites:

* The accuracy (timing, speed and relative position) of the probe as it zoomed by Pluto\Charon, given that the craft was launched from planet Earth and traversed some 3 billion miles is akin to: (1) placing a basketball at the teeing ground of a golf range with an 80-miles distance to the hole;  (2) hitting a molecule off of that basketball; (3) having that molecule land in the hole.  Of course, the New Horizon’s team had the ability to make mid-flight, course corrections on route to the “hole” — something that golfers are not capable of doing though I certainly wish it were possible.  (My handicap in golf is astronomical).

* The spacecraft is the size and shape of a grand piano — so please picture a molecule shaped like a grand piano.

* Because Pluto is “way-the-hell-out-there,” the launch energy necessary to get New Horizons to Pluto on time was by far the greatest ever required and achieved for a deep space probe:  by comparison, 10 times the energy required to get a probe to Mars.

What is truly stunning about this journey, which ultimately involved hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and effort all for a flyby that lasted less than a few days, is the quality of the “reveal.”   Basically, Pluto appears on first (and only) pass to be a very dynamic place:  full of water ice mountains, long, pillowy plains of ice and dust formed from various frozen gases, with the prospect of geysers or the upwelling of warmer gases and liquids that reach the surface from a liquid sea below.

Planetary scientists working with very low-resolution, highly pixelated images of Pluto and some really good models of planetary development, had projected a landscape fairly similar to that that New Horizon’s is showing us today, though the monstrous water-ice mountains were not part of the modeled planet-scape.  Those planetary scientists who dared to imagine the geologic and chemical make-up of Pluto’s surface and the seas underneath should be feeling pretty good right now.  Also, we knew before New Horizons’ arrival that methane was venting from portions of the planet.  Now we know more precisely where on the surface the methane is coming from and perhaps soon we’ll understand better why the methane is there.

If you are wondering whether life might be present on Pluto, the answer after New Horizon’s flyby is a definite “possibly.” The surface, reaching -400F at times and with atmospheric pressures barely a sliver of Earth’s, is not a likely home for life.  The below surface seas could be another story.  Taking the very long view, about 5 billion years from now, our Sun will have evolved into a Red Giant, generating sufficient energy to warm up Pluto and perhaps provide just the right temperatures for the existing mix of chemical compounds to cook and stew and yield something that fits our definition of life.  If you happen to have a functioning cyro-sleep chamber, move it and yourself to Europa, climb in and set the alarm accordingly (5bn years from now, Earth may not be doing all that well being so close to a Red Giant.)

What’s are the key takeaways?

  • Science is amazing.
  • The U.S. system of educating scientists and engineers is the best there is (could be better, yes).  Just look at what we are capable of achieving.
  • Planetary/space science captures the imagination and draws young and older minds into the asking and answering of big and important questions about planetary science and why we exist.
  • More and more, everywhere we look — whether relatively close to home, or way out across interstellar space — the evidence grows and grows that life is happening somewhere beyond Earth orbit.
  • If you marvel at and value the news and knowledge coming back from New Horizons, The Hubble Space Telescope or any of our Mars orbiters or rovers, or the probes we’ve sent in the past decade or so to Jupiter (the Juno probe is enroute) and the Moon, let your elected representatives in Washington know you support funding for space science.

Missed It By That Much….


In case you missed it, earlier this month SpaceX — founded and led by Elon Musk — came this close (your thumb and forefinger separated by a millimeter) to achieving something never done before in the field of big-time, commercial rocketry:

  1. Launching a full-blown, multistage spacecraft, in this case a Falcon 9;
  2. to deliver a payload into earth orbit;
  3. and then retrieving the spent first-stage of the rocket;
  4. by having it auto-navigate to a soft-landing on a fixed target!

This is like throwing a pencil as hard as you can up into the air and expecting it to land vertically on the eraser end without toppling over.   Yes, the U.S. Space Shuttle and the Soviet Buran space shuttle could do this but those were immensely expensive and required legions of technical staff to help them fly and land.

Elon Musk almost nailed it this time — he has been testing the retrieval and landing technology for a few years.   Basically, the Falcon 9 was on track to make its vertical landing but ran short of hydraulic fluid, causing it come in “hot” and pitched too steeply.  The first-stage did hit its target, just a bit “abruptly.”

If you’ ve not seen the video of the landing, turn on your speakers and watch here:

http://spaceflightnow.com/2015/01/16/elon-musk-shares-images-of-falcon-9s-crash-landing/

SpaceX is going to make this work soon and when it does, it will be a game-changer in terms of the economics of spaceflight  including human spaceflight.   It was not too surprising, then, to see Google and Fidelty make a $1 billon investment in the company as they did last week.   It’s a good investment.  Competitors Boeing and Lockheed should be getting nervous.

Orion Successfully Circumnavigates the Planet… But….

The second time was the charm.  After a morning of frustrated attempts to get the Orion Experimental Test Flight-1 (ETF-1) off the pad on Thursday, weather and flight hardware cooperated today, allowing NASA to boost Orion into space atop a Delta-IV Heavy rocket.  After a 4 hour journey, Orion came screaming back through the upper-atmosphere, its flight systems working great, the pressure vessel designed to protect astronauts fully intact, its parachutes opening on time.  Charging through the lower, denser atmosphere, Orion generated a signature double-sonic-boom.  The flight was an unqualified success — the first truly integrated testing of a new US human-rated spacecraft in 30 years.  NASA calls the Orion capsule and its dedicated booster (still in development) “Apollo on steroids.”  Conceptual planning for Orion missions envision a visit to a passing asteroid, the Moon and down the road quite a ways a trip to Mars.

NASA very adeptly promoted the implications of EFT-1 vis-a-vis our hopes and dreams to put boots on the ground on Mars.  But… the reality is that EFT-1, while a very important flight for NASA, barely moves the dial on getting to Mars.  Right now, there is no budget authorization or appropriation to send astronauts to Mars.  It will be four more years before we see another flight of Orion and that will likely be an automated flight without a crew.  The first crewed Orion mission under consideration is not scheduled to leave Earth orbit until 2021 — assuming no engineering or funding hangups.

There’s no question that the technology inside Orion is next generation but “Apollo on steroids” — which NASA never officially adopted as a tagline — doesn’t fit a program with a launch cadence that is so slow.  Perhaps Apollo on Benadryl?

The question of the hour is whether NASA, following this success, can leverage it to increase the momentum and funding needed to develop a vigorous and meaningful human spaceflight program:  one that builds intelligently on the experience in long-duration spaceflight gained from the International Space Station and that serves true and important scientific priorities.  If that prospect interests you, now is a good time to contact your senators and representative in Congress — to express excitement about the US human spaceflight program and request enhanced support for Orion and SLS (Space Launch System) development.  To do so, please use the following link:

http://www.usa.gov/Contact/US-Congress.shtml#Contact_Your_Representative_in_the_U.S._Congress

Cool Happenings Down on the Cape

The clock is ticking down to a couple of very cool experimental flights in December.

The first is NASA’s Experimental Test Flight-1, which will throw the first, flight-ready Orion crew capsule into orbit.  That mission is slated for this Thursday and appears ready to fly — barring a moderate probability of isolated showers and winds.  A lot hangs on the success of EFT-1:   beyond a smooth launch and orbital insertion, we need to see maintenance of the capsule’s structural integrity during flight, near-flawless avionics performance, a safe, high-speed re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere, full-deployment of parachutes and an on-target splashdown.  Because of the relativity slow “cadence” of the Orion and Space Launch System development-effort (at least compared to Apollo/Saturn and Shuttle), if there is a major malfunction on this flight, we will see a serious confounding of the critical path to the first non-experimental flights late in this decade and in the 2020’s.

Liftoff is a couple minutes past 7AM ET Thursday.  Don’t forget to tune in to NASA TV online or via cable TV.

The other big reveal this month, one that points in the direction of a major reworking of the economics of human spaceflight to low Earth orbit, is the launch of a SpaceX Falcon rocket on a resupply flight to the International Space Station.  This will not be any routine Falcon flight.  SpaceX will be pushing the envelope, after some testing, by endeavoring to retrieve and ultimately re-use the first stage structure and engines of the Falcon through a precision, soft-landing on an autonomous landing pad positioned in the Atlantic.

This is a bit like landing a plane on a rolling aircraft carrier EXCEPT this craft will travel 50 miles up into the atmosphere at supersonic speeds and then descend relatively slowly and vertically toward a less than stable bulls-eye on the vast ocean surface — without a pilot.   And did I mention that it has grasshopper legs that must deploy at just the right moment?  Kudos to Elon Musk, CEO and visioneer of SpaceX for thinking this big.  If it all works — or comes close to working — we will be a major step closer to a drop in the cost to get humans and cargo into low Earth orbit.   The Falcon flight is scheduled for mid-December.

It’s great to see this kind of innovation taking flight from NASA’s southernmost spaceport!

Excitement Builds Ahead of EFT-1 Orion Flight

Down at Cape Canaveral, work is underway to integrate NASA’s first orbit-ready Orion capsule with the workhorse Delta IV Heavy already positioned on Pad 37B.  Launch is scheduled to occur just after sun-up on December 4.  Orion’s brief flight, designated Experimental Flight Test 1, will send the craft beyond low earth orbit and loop it back for a searing, high-speed re-entry and splashdown.

An overall success with the mission will demonstrate to the public and to Congress that NASA is making significant progress toward the long-term HSF aspirations riding on the continued evolution and build out of the Space Launch System (SLS).

But this is a mission with many firsts.

We will see how Orion, her structure and systems, handle the dynamic boost phase and staging.  Flight and navigational systems will be tested.  The vessel’s amp’d up heat-shield (–already undergoing redesign to improve production quality)  will be put to the test as Orion re-enters the atmosphere at 20,000 mph, the fastest, intentional re-entry of a U.S., human-rated spacecraft in generations.  After the literal trial by fire, the craft’s high-tech, staged-release parachute system will need to deploy as planned for the vehicle to achieve a relatively smooth and stable landing along the Pacific Coast near Baja.

Lessons undoubtedly will be learned — this is an experimental test flight after all — but an intact launch and landing with no major failures will make the biggest, single leap ahead for the SLS since the first welds we executed on the Orion spacecraft.   The hoped-for win for the program should provide the leverage necessary to protect  program funding streams.  If we are to see the initial exploration missions achieve launch given current timelines, NASA will need to avoid the introduction of new, major critical path items.

For those who see intrinsic and demonstrated value in publicly-financed Human Spaceflight and the returns on science and engineer that follow, December 4 is a very important date.

Space is Hard

“Space is hard” has been the refrain of the week after the tragic Virgin Galactic loss of crew and craft following the frustrating destruct-on-launch of the Antares rocket. Two commercial systems that have very different purposes and architectures but perhaps suffered mishaps due to the same profit-driven motives.

Orbital Sciences Antares is commercial in the sense that the design, engineering and integration of the rocket were entrusted to a for-profit business that received huge, upfront cash infusions from NASA — with NASA regulating key operating standards. Virgin Galactic is truly commercial. Other than subsidies from the State of New Mexico and California in the form of below-cost spaceports, this system is the product of unfettered capitalistic impulses. The only regulatory burden on Virgin Galactic was the need for a first-of-its-kind FAA certificate for a hybrid craft that takes off like a plane and is the launch platform for a mini-rocketplane that travels into suborbital space. The FAA, under pressure not to get in the way of commercial spaceflight, issued the certificate with very little scrutiny — certainly nothing like that afforded the development of conventional planes like the 787, 777, and A380.

Because the Virgin Galactic test-flight was operating under a FAA license when it failed and it was piloted, a first-of-its-kind investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board will be required. This is a very good thing because the NTSB findings will be public and few agencies are as competent and dispassionate in the analysis of accidents as the NTSB is.

Contrast this with the ill-fated Antares rocket which operates under a wholly different part of the Code of Federal Regulations. In theory and under law, the cause of the Antares accident could be withheld from the public. Such was the case when a quality assurance test of the Antares first-stage engine resulted in a catastrophic explosion back in May. To this day, the diagnosis behind that explosion has been kept private — information that belongs to and is controlled by Orbital Sciences. Of course, since the Antares rocket blew up while thousands watched live via Internet and on the ground, Orbital Sciences may have lost the ability to hide the failings of its rocket design from the public.

This leads me to two observations about commercial spaceflight: one my own (well, me and many others) and another belonging to James Oberg, former NASA manager and current space journalist. Oberg commented this week that commercial spaceflight — at this stage of the developmental curve — is riskier spaceflight than that directed and engineered by NASA. That is because of the profit motive which drives the search for cheaper ways to orbit and subsequently a willingness to push the risk envelope: fewer test flights and fewer static tests of components equals lower costs. Could Oberg be right? Orbital Sciences decision to buy at very low cost and rebuild 40+ year-old Soviet rocket engines was a cost-saving maneuver — or so it seemed. Certainly, buying spares was cheaper than designing new. We know that the Antares first-stage engine, the AJ26, failed repeatedly during dynamic tests in its original mission: lofting a huge Soviet rocket to the move. That rocket never made it to orbit because the large number of AJ26 engines it employed would shake apart due to destructive resonance.

Here’s my point. The corporate secrecy that has come with NASA’s commercial cargo and commercial crew business model is disappointing. (Leaving Virgin Galactic out of this since the NTSB will shine a very bright light on its circumstances). As noted earlier, Orbital Sciences has received a $1.6 billion commitment from NASA, meaning from all of us taxpayers. Why was Orbital allowed to keep secret the causes of the test-engine failure in May? What if that failure and last week’s failure are connected?

And what about Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spacecraft — the mini shuttle that, until recently, was in the running as an option for NASA’s commercial crew program. One year ago, in a flight test of its automated guidance and landing systems, the spaceplane was dropped from altitude with the goal of flying itself to a smooth landing on NASA’s runway at Edwards Air Force Base. The spaceplane flew brilliantly but crash-landed (on-target) when one of its landing gears failed. Sierra Nevada called its a success — key objectives accomplished! NASA conspicuously made no comment. When this reporter filed a FOIA request with NASA for all video and photographic images of the accident captured by NASA, the request was denied because the test article was privately owned and NASA was operating on behalf of Sierra Nevada when it recorded the incident. An appeal to NASA senior management noting that the test article was funded with hundreds of millions of taxpayers dollars AND that the test article crashed on a government runway operated by NASA received a response noting that almost all photos and videos had been handed over to Sierra Nevada and the case was closed. As for the remainder not handed over, I was out of luck. (Ultimately, many months later, one photo was leaked to the web showing the extent of the damage).

The point? We can’t forget that secrecy and the profit-motive are linked in the development of commercial spaceflight, no less so than when government bureaucracies rely on secrecy to achieve certain aims

Around the Antares Maelstrom

Antares failure. We are going to know soon what triggered the Antares/Cygnus explosion on Tuesday based on hints that Orb-Sci dropped today. Looking frame-by-frame at NASA’s HD raw feeds from the launch and listening closely to audio, I’m moving away from my initial theory that the problem was a failure of one or both of the first-stage powerplants to build adequate thrust, followed by an automated destruct program.

Based on launch control callouts, it sounds as if the AJ26 engines were running at the intended 108% of rated thrust as the rocket climbed away from the pad. I still think I see an issue with yaw control during the first 6-9 seconds of climb-out, which could point to failing avionics and/or engine gimbal actuator under-performance and/or winds buffeting the rocket. I no longer think the yaw action alone precipitated the failure.

What seems absolutely certain is that the first-stage powerplants blew-up (not the rocket, not the self-destruct system) but one engine followed immediately by the other. That comes across from the audio and the visuals (synched up to adjust for speed-of-sound lagtime). The stack (the entire rocket) does not appear to have broken apart until impact with the ground. So, no self-destruct sequence but definitely complete, instantaneous failure of the engines. That points to three possible triggers for the event that ended the flight: (1) catastrophic metallurgic failure anywhere along one of the powerplant’s fuel/oxidizer flow lines and turbo pumps; (2) a fuel/oxidizer mixture imbalance due to obstructed or leaking fuel lines or valves feeding into the powerplant, resulting in a reaction imbalance outside of engine tolerances; (3) a software error that resulted in unintended upstream valve closure or flow restriction on the fuel or oxidizer side.

Watching and listening: the powerplants blow up at 15-16 seconds in rapid succession; 7 seconds for the rocket to return to Earth remarkably vertical resulting in a substantial blast and sonic wave as the engines hit the ground; followed 2 seconds later by a massive explosion (the fireworks display) and sonic wave as either: (1) the first-stage tanks and second-stages tanks collapse, mix, and cook-off; or (2) the Range Safety Officers’ destruct order kicks in, effectively blowing up the tanks.

Right or wrong, interesting to thinking through the mechanics of the failure.

Antares Down

Stunning loss on launch last night of the Antares rocket carrying cargo to the International Space Station. As a result, tor the moment, US-based commercial cargo delivery capability to ISS has been cut by 30+%.

While we will know more in a few days, video of the liftoff sequence suggest that the Antares began to lose thrust as soon as it was off the pad, and rapidly began to translate laterally (yaw) in a way uncharacteristic of normal flight. In all likelihood, the issue was a failure of an engine or of flight control software/monitoring hardware.

That the rocket detonated within 6-seconds suggests a possible self-destruct activation. Video (and unconfirmed reports) suggest that the Range Safety Officer sent a destruct signal which triggered detonators on the second stage.

Some observations:

*Failures in flight are not uncommon

*The Antares uses the AJ26-58 engine on the first stage. These engines were originally built in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s for the ill-fated Soviet moon rocket. They have been substantially rebuilt but the bones are more than 40 years old.

*An AJ26-58 blew-up during quality assurance testing in May 2014

*With the Antares grounded, the US has only one commercial cargo to Low Earth Orbit service provider.

New ways to orbit and beyond