All posts by HSF-NextGen

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:

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:

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.

Putin and the Keys to Low Earth Orbit

Space fans, the situation in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine may have immediate and ironically salutary implications for NASA and the ongoing push to develop a commercial human-to-LEO (low earth orbit) capability. “How so,” you ask?

While Putin’s military incursion does not affect directly the Kazakhstan spaceport, nor the operation of the Soyuz taxis the US has been renting to get our astronauts up to the International Space Station (ISS), U.S. access to the Soyuz and Kazak launch assets may be severely curtailed or blocked altogether in the coming weeks. Everything depends on the stance our diplomats take regarding the invasion and how far Putin decides to go in retaliation. Yes, Kazakhstan is an independent nation with good U.S. relations, but it is Russia that makes the rockets, delivers the rockets, launches and pilots them. Russia could decide that seats on the Soyuz are no longer available to the US.

Right now, Charlie Bolden, NASA Administrator and the agency’s human spaceflight/ISS management team must be sweating bullets. The ISS without a U.S. presence is suddenly a very plausible scenario. In the post shuttle era (PSE) U.S-based human spaceflight capability is two years away – at best – given the current development calendar and levels of public funding. SpaceX is planning to conduct abort tests of its DragonRider crewed vehicle late this year, with the outside possibility of a crewed flight using company (not NASA) test pilots in 2015. Sierra Nevada continues to develop its Dream Chaser space plane with human-rating test flights on the books for 2016.

Those dates are too far off. If the launch agreement with Russia goes south completely, perhaps we could decide that the current ISS crew should hold down the zero-G fort until we get the commercial crew program up and running 3 years from now. No one has ever lived in zero-G for such a lengthy period of time, for good reason; the impact of long-duration spaceflight on human physiology is fierce: massive reductions in bone density and muscle mass, reductions in visual acuity, and long-term exposure to radiation. One could argue that it is unethical to ask U.S. astronauts and indirectly their families to endure such risk. Maybe we could ask a nation that continues to maintain solid working relations with Russia (the likely candidates being Canada and Japan, each with hardware on orbit at ISS) to supply caretaker astronauts lofted to ISS on the Soyuz. And if we needed a push to begin conversations in earnest with China about cooperative space ventures, here you go.

All of those options are suboptimal. What makes the most sense? Accelerate funding for the commercial human spaceflight program. For years now, the Obama Administration and Congress have refused to fully fund NASA’s budget requests for the commercial cargo and human spaceflight initiatives. The end result? Greatly lengthened development calendars and pushed-back milestones for the commercial crew program. The consequence: our investment in ISS now hangs in the balance of a diplomatic crisis far beyond NASA’s control. (And the inert shell of Shuttle Atlantis sits in a museum just 6 miles away from its once-upon-a-time launchpad.)

Could accelerated funding shave off time getting to a U.S. human spaceflight launch option? Yes. While engineering lead times are not all that flexible, SpaceX has shown its ability to successfully collapse project timelines and milestones in the development of the Falcon 9 and Dragon cargo capsule. And Elon Musk seems eager to take on and conquer challenges. In any event, NASA is expected to downselect to two competing human spaceflight solutions by year’s end. Given current circumstances, the downselect should happen as soon as possible and Charlie Bolden should go to OMB and the Hill next week to ask for the needed bolus of funding to push our homegrown space launch capabilities ahead at high speed.

Let’s see what happens next…..

Human Space Flight and Childhood Imagination

Yes, it’s true. As of yesterday (2/14/2014), my age exceeded 0.5 centuries.

While pondering the implications of that milestone, I went diving into my trove of old photos and emerged with this gem in hand. At the time it was taken (spring 1970), I was contemplating whether to pursue a career either as a spacecraft integration engineer for the McDonnell Douglas Corporation or a college administrator. My teachers in Kindergarten did not have a good model to serve as a tangible representation of a college administrator, so I chose to pose with the scale model of the Apollo Lunar Excursion and Command Modules.

Yes, it's true.  As of yesterday (2/14/2014), my age exceeded 0.5 centuries.

While pondering the implications of that milestone, I went diving into my trove of old photos and emerged with this gem in hand.  At the time it was taken (spring 1970), I was contemplating whether to pursue a career either as a spacecraft integration engineer for the McDonnell Douglas Corporation or a college administrator.  My teachers in Kindergarten did not have a good model to serve as a tangible representation of a college administrator, so I chose to pose with the scale model of the Apollo Lunar Excursion and Command Modules.


Europa Report — Rent it from Google Play or Samsung Media or Amazon. It’s a relatively low-budget, high-concept docudrama about a privately-funded human spaceflight mission to the Jovian moon Europa, perhaps 12-15 years from now. NASA and SpaceX provided science and effects support for the 90-minute film. There are elements of 2010: Space Odyssey but no monoliths. What’s great about it: (1) much of it is grounded in recent planetary science related to Europa, (2) the long-duration spaceflight experience portrayed in the movie builds off of the ISS mission; (3) there is intelligent use (or extrapolation) of the science of extremophile life here on Earth; (4) the storyline implicitly accepts and embeds the technical risks of human spaceflight (the unpredictability) we’ve seen in reality with Apollo 13, and Shuttles Challenger and Columbia. There are two recognizable, big-budget actors in the film (the good guy from the original Girl w. Dragon Tattoo series who plays the bad guy in the most recent Bond movie, and the human-turned-alien protagonist from District 9).

Is it a perfect or great film? No. Is it the most realistic portrayal to date of what a long-duration interplanetary mission like look like? Yes.