Saturday, January 31, 2004

Friday, January 23, 2004

Boeing has some artists' conceptions of their CEV system up on their website. Their ideas for a translunar insertion stage and resource module would be easily adapted for use in a Hubble rescue mission, if they can be developed in time. Their version sends a CEV from the earth to a lunar-orbit space station (which looks like it was put together with two launches) aboard a Delta IV rocket. The rocket can be configured to send either cargo or people, and can do so on fairly cheap boosters compared to Shuttle. Boeing has obviously had this idea in mind for a while. Good.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

I posted this a a reply to this piece by Rand Simberg. I liked it so much I decided to repost it here:

Both Republican and Democrat have good reasons both for and against the various ways of utilizing NASA. Neither side ever seems to mention the existence of NASA itself as an issue.

In large part, NASA enjoys broad political support due to the employment and economic boost that the various NASA centers scattered throughout the country bring to the local congressional district's economy.

To them, NASA exists merely as a way of funneling a few taxpayer dollars from everyone into their own personal fiefdoms. The congressman involved know that if they were to lose a NASA center in their district, then they would be toast at the next election.

No president since Kennedy wants to be seen as "anti-space". Kennedy provided a rudder (Apollo) the vessel (NASA) and the wind (taxpayer dollars). And an hour and a half after Armstrong stepped onto the moon, people turned the channel; the rudder was gone from that point on.

The Nixon/Carter years brought the shuttle, on the theory that adding lots more wind to the sails would enable the vessel to go around in circles really fast... ignoring the lack of a rudder.

Reagan made an attempt at justification of money for space via military applications like the SDI. While that rudder splintered, it sure provided a lot more wind for the sails.

Bush Sr. tried to make his own bold vision, but he didn't put a pricetag on it, and NASA shot back with some ridiculous number like a half a trillion dollars. oops.

With Clinton, it was more and more going around in circles without a rudder, plus a sweet deal with the Russians for an International Budget Buster.

Which brings us to Bush's speech last week. Now NASA has a rudder again - and a limit to the wind in the sails.

There is a lot to like about the Bush space plan. I like the 9 or ten year lag between now and when the CEV begins regular operations, and the 3-4 year gap between the end of shuttle operations and the beginning of CEV use. That gives plenty of time for private businesses to beat NASA to the orbital passenger market - a number of Xprize contenders could make the transition to orbital within a few years.

I like the fact that the money to fund this will come from a reorganization of fund allocation within NASA. The planned increases will beat inflation for a couple of years, but fall behind inflation thereafter. NASA has no choice but to downsize and refocus on core business. That means closures and job losses - most of which will happen during the next presidency.

I like the fact that the agreements reached with international partners will be adhered to, but that's it for the ISS and the space shuttle. Shuttles will only go to the ISS, to add to it or resupply it, transfer crew, and maybe boost the ISS orbit from time to time. Whatever shuttles are still in one piece after that can go into a museum (macabre prediction of the day: at least one more shuttle accident before the ISS is completed, based on age of fleet and present safety record). The stupidest idea in space travel, a vertically launched spacecraft with wings (to give the illusion that the "pilot" is flying a "spaceplane", which is really cool), will finally, mercifully come to an end. Only took two generations for the government to figure out that they had a bad design; a private company couldn't last two years on such a bad idea.

Which brings us to why there is no left/right dividing line when it comes to NASA. NASA is a Big Government Program. Many of the proponents of NASA in congress are supporting NASA because it gives them a larger place at the trough.

Left/right is only one axis of the political spectrum; but there is another axis which s largely ignored in political discussions. That axis is the authoritarian/libertarian axis. NASA falls above the line, and people like Burt Rutan, John Carmack, and Jeff Bezos are below the line.

The fact that the republicans and democrats do not bring up the issue of whether NASA (or the IRS, or the rest of the alphabet soup) should exist at all is the dirty little secret behind american politics for the last 90 years; they are not separate parties, merely different wings of the same party. And they are both above the line.

Monday, January 19, 2004

The Hubble Space Telescope will probably die in orbit sometime in the next three or four years. The telescope is down to only three of six gyroscopes functioning properly (two are completely shot and one is performing badly), and a planned shuttle mission to upgrade Hubble has been cancelled, since the shuttles will now only fly to the ISS. $200 million worth of equipment already built for the upgrade will be left on the ground.

NASA is still responsible for disposing of Hubble safely after it no longer functions. NASA had planned to eventually use a Shuttle mission to bring Hubble down for display at the Smithsonian. The current plan is to have a rocket rendezvous with Hubble, attach itself to Hubble and fire its engines to crash Hubble into the ocean. The cost of the deorbit rocket project, some $300 million, would come out of NASA's astronomy budget.

This is a horrible waste of a valuable piece of space infrastructure already in orbit. Hubble's problem has nothing to do with the telescope itself, just power and control. But every spacecraft has power and control, including the proposed deorbit craft.

So why not take the packages that they were going to launch on Shuttle to the Hubble, and instead install them on the robotic craft which is going to meet Hubble anyhow? When the two are linked, they act as one spaceship.

Hubble will soon be replaced by the James Webb Space Telescope already in the works, so its useful lifetime as a deep-space telescope is limited. However, that does not mean that it cannot be recycled to contribute to the new NASA vision for space travel.

In President Bush's speech to NASA last week, he mentioned robotic missions to the moon to be followed by manned missions and a moon base. These missions will not occur without extensive surveying of the moon's surface, far more data than what Clementine gave us.

So, why not kill two stones with one bird? Instead of a chemical rocket on the recovery vehicle, put an ion engine in and boost Hubble to a lunar polar orbit over a period of a few months. The data collected would give us visual and infrared images of the moon in unprecedented detail. This would redirect an asset which would otherwise have been wasted into a valuable tool to further NASA's new mission, the eventual return to the moon.

An added advantage of having the Hubble in lunar polar orbit; the service module that brought it to the moon would double as a communications relay, part of a fleet of such vehicles that NASA would have to send anyhow. The development costs, instead of coming out of the astronomy budget, would come out of the same budget as other unmanned missions in support of the lunar missions. The subsequent polar communications craft need not be substantially different from the craft which recovers Hubble; they may even salvage other defunct satellites of comparable size. Some of those GEO comm platforms are getting pretty old, but they are still useable if given the power, communications and control afforded by these salvage craft.

When Hubble finally does give up the ghost, it may take no more than a small nudge from the service craft to release the Hubble, letting it crash into the moon - a far more fitting final resting place than the floor of the southern Pacific ocean.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

What I like most about the Bush space plan is the nine year window between now and 2013 when the CEV starts carrying people to orbit. That's nine years for private industry to design, test and start operating the equivalent or better before NASA gets in the way.

Or, perhaps some of the automakers or shipbuilders might get into the act, retooling some factories to build CEVs, service modules, and/or booster rockets. This is only rocket science. Apollo is a known design, and the CEV is just a refinement of that. Electronics are smaller, less expensive, faster, more capable, and more reliable than they were 30 years ago. Materials for heat shields are lighter and less expensive but just as capable as the shields of Apollo.

The CEV lends itself to a modular design for the rocket; an Atlas or Delta or Ariane could loft a service module and CEV to orbit, and other cargo can be launched by an Atlas or Delta or Ariane on some other service module. Many missions will dock with prior cargo already launched to orbit. Mix and match modules to tailor a launch to mission-specific needs. Picture a typical crewed mission in 2018. The CEV might be made by Cunard, the service module by Ford, Propulsion system on service module by, the booster fuel tanks by Scaled Composites, and the booster engines by SpaceDev. LockMart and Boeing might get into it with their Atlas and Delta rockets, too. And there is still room for Arianespace.

If the Congress and Senate get behind this new direction for NASA, then it will truly set America and the world on a long-term steady progression toward getting many people into orbit economically.
Frank Seitzer Jr and Keith L. Cowing present an insider's view of the formulation if the White House's new space policy and direction for NASA.

I haven't commented publicly on Bush's speech at NASA the other day; I wanted to analyze this information for a while. I have come to a few conclusions:

No matter how you slice it, NASA has to reprioritize missions and cut those of low priority. The planned increases in its budget will exceed inflation for two years and then fall below inflation, to 1% per year, for the forseeable future. This means that NASA won't be sending any probes to Pluto anytime soon, and that the Hubble telescope may need to be retired. A few other things will have to be cancelled or merged with other programs, but program cuts are inevitable.

The Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) proposed in the speech amounts to a scaled-up version of the Apollo capsule, carrying perhaps a dozen people to orbit at a time. The technology base for this design is very deep, and materials science (particularly for reentry heat shield material) has improved dramatically. This also implies a common design for manned modules, with the associated service modules being one of several different varieties. These could be launched with an Atlas or Delta rocket, or perhaps on a Proton or something from Arianespace. Perhaps for added safety a new hybrid motor powered rocket will be developed to launch the CEV; at any rate there are various different possibilities that exist for getting a CEV into orbit.

The launchers mentioned above could also be used to lift heavy cargo into orbit, with no manned module. This divides the duties of launching cargo from those of launching people, and avoids the unnecessary complication inherent in the design of the shuttle. It also represents the biggest shift at NASA spaceship design, from a reusable launch vehicle design to an expendable launch vehicle design.

For the CEV, capsule recovery in the ocean would likely be a logisitical nightmare. With the Apollo capsule recovery missions, the US Navy made available several dozen ships for recovery purposes, an enormous expenditure. Parachute technology has advanced, and the Russians have been landing their cosmonauts on the ground for decades, which costs much less. Other reentry and recovery ideas such as the Ballute and rotary rocket should be explored. This needs to be addressed in the CEV design.

Also, while the CEV would have some sort of docking port that would enable it to connect to the American side of the space station, a small adaptor ought to be built to enable connection to the Russian hatch as well. This was demonstrated in the Apollo-Soyuz missions in the 70s, and is known technology; it makes sense to have alternate docking capability. A mirror image of this adaptor would need to be build so that Russian ships could dock to the American side as well. Both adaptor modules would be stowed on exterior equipment racks on the space station to be used as needed.

The space shuttle fleet will be kept going on a wing and a prayer until the space station is complete, and will likely be used only for that purpose. Hubble is an obvious victim; only four of six gyros are currently operational, and its orbit is decaying. There is talk of sending an unmanned vehicle to attach to the Hubble, allowing for a controlled reentry. However, if such a mission could be done, then it would be just as easy to attach a secondary vehicle which has six gyros of its own, and which can boost the Hubble to a higher orbit, giving us a few more years of service before a later controlled descent.

There are futher missions to send robots to the moon by 2008 and to establish a moon base by 2020 or so, using a special service module to carry the CEV to the moon. This is to lead to a Mars base later on. The idea is to break up space craft into functional modules which can be mixed and matched (crew, service, supply, fuel and propulsion, heavy cargo) instead of an all-at-once craft like the shuttle. Missions could be assembled in orbit from multiple launches if necessary.

One of the Mars manned missions currently being suggested is a manned Mars orbiting mission prior to a manned Mars landing. At first glance, this idea doesn't seem to have a lot of merit. However, the first glance misses two tiny points of light: Phobos and Deimos, moons of Mars that are probably asteroids that Mars has captured over time.

A mission to either or both moons would prove human beings could survive a trip anywhere in the solar system outside of Earth's orbit. Also, since they are asteroids, direct evaluation of these moons would allow for the calibration of remote-sensing satellites and autonomous or teleoperated rovers, and allow for control of the teleoperated ones with no appreciable time lag. Asteroid mining technology could also be tested on either moon. Finally, instead of having to fight Mars gravity, the mission could use a moon's orbit and Mars mass for a gravitational slingshot to return it to earth, using only a minor amount of fuel compared to lifting off from the surface of Mars and returning.

The timeline expressed in the speech, that the ISS would be finished and the shuttle fleet retired by 2010, and that the CEV wouldn't be fully operational until 2014, at a time when private companies are endeavoring suborbital flight, suggests that the gauntlet has been thrown down in front of private industry. The X prize expires at the end of this year, but at least three companies look poised to win it - Scaled Composites is the current leader but others are progressing faster, and Scaled doesn't have the X prize locked up yet. Once these companies achieve suborbital space, it is only a matter of time before they reach for orbital flights. And other companies are shooting for the moon, well ahead of NASA's new timeline of robots by 2008 and people by 2015. The first CEV mission to the moon might be greeted by people who have already established a lunar base. They might speak Chinese, or they might speak English if private missions pan out.

The new space race is on - private companies versus Government space agencies.

Friday, January 16, 2004

Bush's Space Vision a Trojan Horse?

"The president's mandate of going to the Mars and moon is certain to put pressure on other NASA projects, such as robotic missions to the planets, asteroid belt and comets -- as well as aeronautics research and securing a replacement for the aging Hubble space telescope, Pike and other observers said.

"They've looked at the manned space program and come to the conclusion that they don't understand why we have a manned space program," Pike said. "So they're going to wind it down, and Bush gets credit for launching a bold new adventure."
LiftPort Group endorses new national vision

"Laine, who co-founded HighLift Systems, the Seattle-based company that completed the Phase II research report for NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) for building a space elevator, continued: “We see the space elevator as an important infrastructure element for the expansion of commerce and human travel into space and complimentary to the new national vision for the program.”

Under LiftPort’s proposal, the first commercial space elevator would stretch 62,000 miles into space, and would act as a “railroad” that could transport cargo and ultimately humans to the Moon, Mars and beyond. The elevator would be constructed from a carbon nanotube composite ribbon anchored to an offshore sea platform and to a small counterweight in space. Robotic “lifters” attached to the ribbon would carry cargo ranging from satellites to solar powered panels and eventually humans, reducing launch costs from $10,000-$20,000 per pound, to approximately $500 per pound.

According to LiftPort, the first commercial space elevator could be operational as early as 2018. Key developmental milestones planned by LiftPort in 2004 include two major tests of the robotic lifters, including one using a high altitude balloon."

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Rumours are running rampant that President Bush is due to announce a new direction for NASA, probably on Wednesday. From what I gather, this new direction includes a NASA-run moonbase as a waystation and training facility for an eventual trip to Mars.

This is the worst possible strategy for developing access to space for the common man, and the best possible strategy if the White House seeks to forever keep all but NASA-vetted ubermenchen from ever going into space. It would be yet another trillion-dollar flags'n'footprints mission that never leads to a permanent human presence in space.

If the White House wanted to open up space for commercial purposes, they would need to be bold; they would need to get NASA out of the way of the private businesses which would actually turn a profit with a space venture. They might even have to disband NASA altogether, move the research institutes to universities where they belong, sell off whatever NASA assets are saleable, and write off the shuttle fleet and International Budget Buster (erm... ISS). They would have to return the 15 billion dollars stolen every year from americans by NASA.

NASA's very presence is what drives launch costs sky high. Boeing and LockMart know they have a near-infinite teat upon which to suckle, and they have no interest in doing things more efficiently (as that would lower their NASA-derived profits). Instead, it is time to get NASA out of the market altogether, forcing Boeing and Lockmart and their ilk to actually compete in the private sector.