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2020: When US Crewed Flight Comes back into Focus

In the annals of spaceflight, 2020 likely will be remembered as one of the most significant and transformative moments for U.S. space travel, close behind the initial triumphs of the Apollo-Saturn and Shuttle-ISS programs.  For the first time in this nation’s history, we will see the introduction of two, independently designed and operated means for delivering crews to low Earth orbit. The promise of the commercial crewed flight program will be realized as the United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Boeing bring the Starliner vehicle online and SpaceX lofts its crewed Dragon capsule for the first time.

On the heels of these breakthroughs, NASA continues its Space Launch System (SLS) campaign. It will be exciting to see this massive vehicle enter true, full-up integration and testing on its way to providing the world with a capability it has not had since the early 1970’s: a means to transport astronauts out of Earth’s orbit to destinations as far flung as the Moon, various LaGrange Points and a decade or so from now Mars.

Concurrently, we have Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic getting ready to introduce regular flight options for people with the means and the courage to experience suborbital flight. Sierra Nevada, undaunted by off-again, on-again funding, appears committed to realizing its Dreamchaser “space plane” design as a commercial cargo option for the ISS and other potential destinations in LEO.

SpaceX will continue to build and test its audacious Starhopper proof-of-concept vehicles with the aim of delivering considerable numbers of explorers and colonists to Mars someday.

This diversity of engineering efforts, creativity and outcomes has become the core strength of U.S. spaceflight capabilities. It is something we must sustain and continue to subsidize (for a while longer), if we are to realize the full potential of travel beyond our atmosphere: whether the long-term goals be focused on earth science, space science and astronomy, lunar resource-mining, training for long-duration spaceflight or actual travel to other planets. Our history up to this point has not been one of continuous investment and progress; it’s been more a function of episodic national political, economic and budgetary cycles with uncomfortably long gaps in our ability to send crews skyward. Perhaps these new private-public partnerships will break that pattern, with ULA, SpaceX, Blue Origin and NASA all looking to the stars concurrently with a diverse set of motives.

For fans of spaceflight, 2020 should be a great year for witnessing special events: the launches of crewed Starliner and Dragon, the launch of the Mars 2020 Rover, static-fire testing of the SLS, continuation of the SpaceX Starlink launch campaign, and ULA launching the mighty Delta IV Heavy with NROL missions.


Heavy Stuff

Typically, I don’t tack commentary on top of previously published commentary, but what we witnessed with the Falcon Heavy launch was not typical.  It was revolutionary — and solid evidence that true (not subsidized) commercial spaceflight is right around the corner.  It is also evidence that we better believe Elon Musk when he says SpaceX is going to build a BFR for deep-space passenger and cargo loads.

Unless you have been living under a rock, we all saw what SpaceX and Falcon Heavy accomplished.  Succesful, stand-up (first-time) launch of a new vehicle.  Successful, simultaneous return-to-launch-site of two (previously flown) boosters.  A nearly successful return of the core first-stage (…missed it by that much).  Successful fairing deploy.  Successful orbit and orbital-escape burns for one of the most unique payloads ever.


If you were down on the Cape to see the Heavy go, you experienced one of the most energizing and optimism-fueling events in spaceflight since Atlantis made its final reach for the stars in 2011.  It was a party atmosphere — and SpaceX and Delaware North (the outsourced operator of KSC visitor sites) proved they know how to throw a party.  At the Saturn V center there was champagne.  Champagne flutes.  Delicious and endless empanadas, egg rolls, stir-fry, pasta and ice cream.  Bill Nye the Science Guy was onsite, narrating the event and talking up science literacy!  The crowd was representative of the U.S.:  blue, red, purple, from all part of the nation.  People who travelled 10-20-200-500-1000-and-3000 miles to bear witness.  “Make American Great Again” hat-wearers  right next to climate scientists.

We have in Falcon Heavy the backup we will need if SLS/Orion is further drawn out or cancelled (please, no)!  It is the bridge to BFR (assuming we can find a safe location from which to launch it).  It is evidence that the genius and vision that led to something as remarkable (and complex) as the Space Shuttle lives on.

HERE WE GO!  The SpaceX Falcon Heavy is at Pad 39A down on the Cape, ready to fly.  This moment has been a long-time coming and by that I mean the return of boosters truly capable of sending astronauts Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO).  The last U.S. rocket capable of doing that was the Saturn V that lofted Skylab in 1973.  NASA continues work on its next human-rated, heavy lift (“deep” space exploration) rocket — the SLS.  If we are lucky, we might see SLS and the Orion capsule launch astronauts beyond Earth orbit in 2023.  The trickle of funding that has barely kept the SLS\Orion alive is at constant risk of reduction or deletion.  At best, I think it’s 50-50 that SLS gets beyond its initial exploratory mission.  Kinda like the Energia system that launched the USSR’s shuttle.  As a nation, we won’t be able to afford it — or have the will to sustain it.

Falcon Heavy could be the vehicle that fills the gap between now and when SLS\Orion flies.  Or it may simply by default become the only option we are going to have for supporting human BEO missions for a long time to come.  SpaceX will need customers — and human-rated qualification for the Heavy and whatever capsule (Dragon Crew, presumably) it puts on top of the Heavy’s core booster — if it is going to ramp-up production of the Heavy and fine-tine it for human spaceflight.  Wouldn’t it be great if NASA considered using the Falcon Heavy for some of its science and exploratory missions?   Despite all the skepticism about commercial cargo and commercial crew, for-profit companies have achieved substantial leaps and bounds in the development of new flight hardware — yes, some very much derived from the Saturn program and, yes, very much funded by government agencies, a.k.a., customers.

With the coming launch of Falcon Heavy, for the first time since I was a grade-schooler, I really believe I will live to see human’s return to the moon.  Let’s see (and hope for) a nice, clean flight this coming week!

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.

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: