Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Messing with the template. Again.

Longtime readers (yes, there are a few) will notice something different today; I've changed the blog template again. This is an old tradition here at Robot Guy, going back to the very first days of this blog; the stable template of the last few years has been the anomaly.

The change was forced on me by Blogrolling.com; while I had displayed rather a lot of blogrolls, many relied upon blogrolling.com to supply their innards. Alas, blogrolling.com has performed rather flakily for a while, and I just can't use it anymore. This is unfortunate, as the Space Blogroll was ensconced in blogrolling.com, and hundred of blogs out there were showing up as a big blank.

Well, Google Reader to the rescue. I had already entered as many blogs for which I could find an RSS feed as I possibly could over the course of the last several years. Now it turns out that Google Reader can produce a blogroll from the spaceblogs feed; the new Space Blogroll now resides on the left sidebar. I will probably be adding quite a few feeds to the blogroll over the next few months. I have also added the latest posts from space blogs and space news sites over on the right sidebar, also courtesy Google Reader.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

An Inexpensive Space Infrastructure Improvement

Recently Jon Goff, Trent Waddington, and others have proposed some innovative space missions, space business strategies, and vital space technology tests that could be undertaken within the next few years. While I agree with much of what they propose, each proposal has a significant disadvantage: they all cost some entity a lot of money, more than seven digits after the dollar sign, up front.

One of the big expenses associated with any space mission is communication with the spacecraft. I think I have an idea that will bring down part of the cost of operating spacecraft communications with the ground, one that won't break the bank in up-front costs, and which will provide a boon to radio astronomy.

Currently NASA uses the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS) for communications with manned missions and the Deep Space Network for communications with missions outside cislunar space. The TDRSS consists of several satellites in geosynchronous orbit and several ground stations each consisting of several large satellite dishes, and the DSN is three satellite dish complexes in California, Spain, and Australia.

It costs a lot of money to operate these big facilities. Anyone who wants to communicate with and control their satellite either has to build their own communications systems or rent the use of NASA facilities (or their Russian equivalents). As the number of launch providers and satellites launched increases, the scheduling on the TDRSS and DSN facilities will become tighter and tighter, the cost will rise, and eventually more and bigger dishes will need to be built.

However, there is another approach that takes advantage of an Army of Davids.

Currently there are about two million ham radio operators worldwide, and millions more electronics enthusiasts. There are many successful volunteer distributed processing efforts and open source collaborative software projects. And, take a bunch of widely-separated radio telescopes and combine their data using interferometry, and you end up with the equivalent of a telescope with an effective diameter equal to the largest distance separating the individual telescopes.

What if electronics/HAM/space enthusiasts worldwide were to be involved in a collaborative effort to improve communications with spacecraft? Each person involved would need a satellite dish, a way of pointing it controlled by software, and a connection to the internet. As a satellite orbits overhead and the earth turns below, multiple small radio dishes would work in concert to act as a much bigger virtual ground station. Each individual station would track a given satellite for a short time before moving to track the next one to come along, handing off communications to other stations down the line. Encrypted uplink and downlink data would travel over the internet (peer to peer?) to wherever the control center for a given satellite happened to be - a satellite could be controlled from a home office.

Satellite operators could then simply use an online satellite control and communications service. So who would be these satellite operators? Clearly the people operating billion dollar machines are going to continue to use the TDRSS and DSN for a while yet.

If we think of big expensive satellites like Hubble and Galileo as the equivalent to mainframe computers, then the "laptop computer" version of a satellite is the nanosatellite. For such small satellites, it simply doesn't make sense to have the same operational costs for communications as for the big satellites, nor does it make sense to use the big NASA facilities for such low-value targets.

However, a network of amateur ground stations running on open-source software over the internet would provide nearly worldwide coverage for these small satellites. Over time, as the network grows it would eventually become more robust (more fault-tolerant, better coverage, higher bandwidth) than the handful of big ground stations maintained by NASA and the Russians.

A second application of this satellite dish network exists. If a ground station isn't busy communicating with a satellite, it still has to point somewhere. If two such idle ground stations are separated by a thousand kilometers and pointing in the same direction, they can act as a single radio telescope a thousand kilometers across. The more widely-separated telescopes pointing in the same direction, the better the resolution. The network of small satellite dishes thus acts both as a highly-responsive very large array radio telescope and a robust satellite communication system.

Now, how will all of this be paid for? The individual dish operators would essentially be "Outernet Service Providers" (I wish I could claim credit for the clever name Outernet, but at least one company already had that idea; feel free to suggest another name). The software and electronics and so forth might be open source, but the service provider is still investing their bandwidth and electricity on a continuing basis, and they should be paid by the megabyte for their efforts. I'm thinking that the best way to do this is to set up an organization (non-profit? a business? more than one such entity?) that charges customers (astronomers or satellite operators) for data on a per-gigabyte basis and then reimburses the dish operators on a per-megabyte basis.

Such a network of ground stations would provide greater flexibility to researchers, and lower costs and improve service for satellite operators and their customers. The technology is fairly mature, the up-front cost for an individual ground station could be very low indeed (even zero), and there could be thousands of operational stations in as little as a year from now.

update December 23: Apparently the idea has some merit, because I'm not the only one to come up with it. Anonymous posted a comment over at HobbySpace about GENSO, a "software standard which allows each ground station on the network to communicate with non-local spacecraft and share data with the spacecraft controllers via the internet". This is an ESA-led project. And Trent Waddington points out the UNIFORM project being led by Japan.

Both of those projects share the idea of a distributed network of small ground stations linked by the internet for satellite data relay. I especially like the GENSO standard - at least someone has come up with the standard already, and they have 8 ground stations already operational (6 universities and two amateurs).

What I am proposing differs in scale - instead of a handful of ground stations, I'm proposing hundreds in the short term and eventually tens of thousands of ground stations. With that kind of redundancy and global coverage, one could conceivably make an entire hemisphere into a vast virtual deep space antenna or radio telescope. The availability of such a large network would lead to a dramatic drop in communications costs, extra redundancy for the Deep Space Network, and much greater flexibility in scheduling time for the big radio telescopes.

And while the GENSO and UNIFORM efforts are ESA-led and Japan-led, I'm calling for the open-source community to step up. I'm thinking that this is a job for the crowd at Hack A Day.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Falcon 9 test launch #2

What follows is the launch of the Falcon 9 carrying the Dragon capsule, followed by the post-flight press conference.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Clue For Paul Volcker

CBS News:
Paul Volcker, a top economic adviser to President Barack Obama, said Tuesday he sees no short-term way to reduce high U.S. unemployment and expects slow growth for the next year or more.

Volcker's comments come after the U.S. Federal Reserve said last week it would purchase $600 billion in Treasurys in an effort to boost growth and create jobs, cutting unemployment that stands at 9.6 percent.

"I have no answer to it at the moment, and I think that is the basic problem," said Volcker when asked about unemployment at a financial forum.

"I suspect that it will gradually decline. But the basic fact of the matter is that the economic outlook is for continuing but limited increases in economic activity for the next year or more," he said.

Volcker is chairman of Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board and was Fed chief from 1979 until 1987 under presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. He was speaking at a meeting of the International Financial Forum, a group of bankers and finance officials from the United States, China and other countries.
Have they gone completely insane? On the premise that sufficiently-advanced cluelessness is indistinguishable from malice, I offer the following to Volcker and Obama:

Stop Spending All The Money


I mean geez, a trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon you're not dealing with anything that can be called money anymore. Is anyone foolish enough to buy Zimbabwe's currency? No, because it isn't real money, it's worthless.

That's what happens when you print money as fast as the presses can go, with nothing to back it, not even future promises - which is exactly what printing $600 billion to buy Treasury Bonds is doing. That's the way to hyperinflation. And when it happens to the United States, the consequences would be misery and death without historical parallel.

Britain is starting to figure it out. Pray that the new Congress forces fiscal sanity.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

one first, small step

The election results are in. Across the US Republicans are celebrating. However, this is only the first, smallest step on the road to restoring fiscal sanity in the US and the West in general. It is going to take a sustained effort, over every piece of legislation and over many election cycles to undo the damage cause by so-called "progressives" over the last century.

The new Congress can start right away in January by undoing vast swaths of the damage caused by Obama and Reid and Pelosi. The Health Care reform is an obvious starting point. Something so blatantly unconstitutional simply cannot stand.

Then the real digging begins. Using the US Constitution as their guide the new Congress should look at other previous legislation and strike down other unconstitutional laws. There is a lot of low-hanging fruit there.

It might take a generation.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

stark contrast

Here's Linda McMahon debating Dick Blumenthal. The contrast between a successful business owner running for office, compared to this twit, is instructive: socialists don't have the first clue about how to create a job.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

true colors

Having had the East Anglia Climate Research Unit datasets discredited, the fearmongers at the forefront of the Anthropogenic Global Warming alarm have had to try other tactics, as the short film 10:10 out of the UK has shown. Far from being humorous, the film lays bare the worldview of the AGW crowd: "we have power over you, you will submit to our will or die". That's it, in a nutshell.

They supplied their own petard:

Thursday, September 30, 2010

cool writing tool

A few months back I stumbled upon the Check Text Readability analyzer. This produces results of a reading ease score from 0 to 100, with higher scores being easier to read. It also produces several grade levels (number of years in school) according to various different methods, and shows an average score of those.

I entered the following text into the analyzer:
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
This Robert Heinlein quote yields a grade level of 15 (i.e. third year college or tech school) and a reading ease of 36.

Let's see how the analyzer works on this gem:
But deep conceptual shifts within twentieth-century science have undermined this Cartesian-Newtonian metaphysics; revisionist studies in the history and philosophy of science have cast further doubt on its credibility; and, most recently, feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the fa├žade of ``objectivity''. It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical ``reality'', no less than social ``reality'', is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific ``knowledge", far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities. These themes can be traced, despite some differences of emphasis, in Aronowitz's analysis of the cultural fabric that produced quantum mechanics; in Ross' discussion of oppositional discourses in post-quantum science; in Irigaray's and Hayles' exegeses of gender encoding in fluid mechanics; and in Harding's comprehensive critique of the gender ideology underlying the natural sciences in general and physics in particular.
This produced a readability of minus 32 and a grade level of 32 (i.e. in school from age 6 to 38). It is, in short, utter bovine excrement. And, that was the intention all along.

Curious, I entered other text and tried again. The famous Lorem Ipsum text produced a readability of minus 1 and a grade level of 19.

The Check Text Readability tool allows a writer to get a handle on the level of their writing, and can serve as a warning that the text is unnecessarily complex. Ideally the readability of any text will be as high as possible. The grade level of the audience can also be considered. For instance, if the target audience is teenagers the grade should be around around 8 to 12. Here's another sample from something I wrote three years ago:
So, what should NASA be doing, beyond just developing those enabling technologies? If they are going to go about doing the Vision for Space Exploration, then what is the better way to do it?

The solution is to decouple the mission from the implementation. It matters that it gets done, not that NASA does it or that the agency does it in a specific carved-in-stone way. NASA can't do it all by itself anymore, so it shouldn't even try. No more of this business of NASA building their own brand new launch vehicles and their own brand new manned capsules and their own brand new moon landers and their own brand new moonbases and micromanaging every detail. It is a brittle way of doing things, and the slightest hiccup in the yearly budget process or the slightest failure along that critical path brings everything to a screeching halt.
Grade 11 and 60 readability. It's simple enough for even a congressman to understand.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

deja vu

Here's Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus on CNBC early Friday morning, September 17th:




The part that rang a bell for me was from 4:27 to 5:39 -- "every day there's a new regulation... I can't plan"

(a week passes by...)

I was going to post this on the 18th, but I just couldn't put my finger on what it was that rang that bell about that phrase. Just now it occurred to me: it's 2010, and they probably number the new regulations in sequential order. Would we be up to directive 2010-289 yet? (Let's see... 30 days hath November... I guess we'll have to wait for October 16th for regulation 10-289, assuming a new one appears daily.)

Friday, September 24, 2010

no kidding

Via Instapundit, this:
they wanted "a natural life" but that they had ended up living "surrounded by wild animals".
I think my irony meter just exploded.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

from the department of "give your freaking head a shake"

Female reporter gets harassed in NY Jets locker room

Well, duh. Imagine the reaction if a male reporter was in the locker room of, for instance, the US Olympic synchronized swimming team. He'd be branded as a pervert and his career would basically be over. And now the NY Jets are apologizing to her?

Either you're equal or you're not. If not, get the hell out of the mens' locker room, stupid.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Apparently, they were right

... you can't stop the signal:

Browncoats: Redemption Online Premiere from browncoatsmovie on Vimeo.

A couple things to note:

First, this is a sequel to a five-year-old movie which wasn't exactly a blockbuster. Serenity didn't make back the producers' investment domestically, but foreign distribution and DVD sales helped it eventually make a profit. It was no Star Wars or Star Trek.

That movie was itself only made due to widespread fan support for Firefly, a TV series canceled after only thirteen episodes (while being preempted and bounced around the weekly schedule, and shown out of chronological order, with the pilot episode shown last).

Second, this is a feature-length fan-made film. It's all the result of donations and volunteer effort. Nobody's getting paid for this. Look at the production values. This is easily comparable to Star Trek Phase II.

With distribution like this blog and others, and with the film (and music) production and distribution tools available to everyone with a computer, are we seeing an end to the big entertainment empire system? Could it be that someone with a good story can get it made into a movie all by themselves? (and of course, collect all the merchandising profits, something the fans can't do in this case) It would be like unleashing a million Clerks-era Kevin Smiths making do on even smaller budgets or no budget at all.

I was a fan back in 2005, showed Firefly to anyone who would watch, was on the Browncoats forum, went to the bloggers' pre-screening of the movie Serenity, and have waited in vain for more.

And now after five years of nothing from the Universal Studios, the fans themselves stepped up to make a sequel.

Awesome.

Monday, August 30, 2010

space philosophies

Something Rick Tumlinson said at the Orphans of Apollo premiere explains a lot of the arguments among space enthusiasts. He proposed three different space philosophies: von Braunian, Saganite, and O'Neillian. This was later expanded upon by Trent Waddington.

It makes a lot of sense. It makes the "manned versus unmanned" debate into a debate between the von Braun and O'Neill groups on one side with the Sagan group on the other. And the end of the Constellation program pits the von Braun idea against the O'Neill idea.

Recently Bob Werb wrote:
A friend of ours in DC describes the opposition to the proposed NASA budget as the “homers, haters and boomers.” The homers want as much federal spending as possible in their home state or district. The haters reflexively oppose anything at all that comes out of an Administration they despise. The boomers are nostalgic for the 60s and want to recreate the imagined glories of Apollo. Some of our most vigorous opponents affiliate with two, or even three of these disjointed fellowships (as do many on the other side.)
(hat tip to Rand Simberg)

There is no question that there are major divisions in the space community. Bob’s also right that the people that actually care about the topic – and who see it as the answer for so many of the problems here on Earth – are a small fraction of the population.

However, I think he’s got his categories wrong. I very much doubt that anyone in the space community rejects Obama’s position purely out of hate for the man or his other policies or even his political party. Indeed, it often seems as though on the one issue of space Republican and Democrat positions are switched around completely.

This might be due to the fact that there are so few people – and in particular so few Congressmen – who are actually interested in space in general or NASA in particular. Those outliers might be swaying the majority that doesn't care about space.

Similarly one cannot say that all Boomers are nostalgic for Apollo, nor are the “Homers” simply looking out for their own district at the expense of the country and its future. The categorizations just don't match reality.

I think that what Tumlinson and Waddington pointed out is on the right track, but symptomatic of something deeper. There are underlying reasons that lead people into these philosophical camps, and it goes beyond the old Left/Right labels. And, if those underlying reasons are not addressed, then no amount of discussion is going to budge anyone from the position they already hold.

Why is this important? Bob Werb goes on:
But the real enemy of progress in civil space is a dramatically more insidious opponent that infects the body politic, an adversary so sinister and commonplace that we have come to take it for granted, the corrosive background noise of democracy. Our real enemy is apathy... If you are one of the elect few willing to act, you should pick up the phone today and call your Congressperson to say that they should vote against whichever version of the NASA authorization bill comes up for a vote.
Well, that's all well and good for this budget, but the same problems remain after a Continuing Resolution. There are still the same deadlocked factions, arguing so much and jerking policy this way and that such that nothing ever gets done.

There is no consensus on what we should be doing in space, how to do it, and why we are doing it at all. And, we'll never figure that out unless we know why we hold the positions we do in our ongoing debate.

What makes some people decide that the only justifiable purpose for spaceflight is exploration? Or colonization? Or profit? What makes some people recoil at the thought of private ownership of extraterrestrial property, while others embrace the idea? What makes some people believe that humanity should not leave the planet and "contaminate" other worlds with our presence? What makes some believe that only national governments - or even a coalition of such, or the UN itself - should send people to deep space, while others have already ponied up the cash to go to orbit by themselves? What shapes our ideas about the future of spaceflight in general and NASA in particular?

The answers to these questions can be traced directly to political and economic philosophy. We are used to the Left/Right scale of economic freedom, with the least on the Left and the most on the Right. This is only one dimension, however, and by itself is inadequate. The other dimension is political control by the government, with the least at the Libertarian bottom of the scale and the most at the Authoritarian top of the scale.

This would divide people (and political systems, and squabbling space enthusiasts) into four quadrants: Authoritarian Left, Authoritarian Right, Libertarian Left, and Libertarian Right. Of course, this is not exactly rigorous and the axes are probably not strictly Cartesian but it is a fair second approximation.

To Godwin myself, it would place the Nazis so far up the Authoritarian scale that any Left/Right leanings would be irrelevant and lost in the noise. Both the Republicans and the Democrats would be more Authoritarian than Libertarian, and on the whole just marginally to the Right and Left, respectively. The Tea Party is more Libertarian than Authoritarian, and marginally on the Right. The people who mistakenly call themselves Anarchists as they riot at various venues are so far from political control that once again their Left/Right leanings are irrelevant and lost in the noise. You get the idea.

Let's take a look at how each quadrant would view Beyond Earth Orbit spaceflight. In what follows the positions expressed are intended to be representative of roughly the centers of each quadrant. The fringe positions - the outliers of a group already made of outliers - would range from the Machiavellian to the ridiculous.
Authoritarian Left: The moon and other celestial bodies are the heritage of all mankind. They don't belong to anyone, so they belong to everyone, including all future generations. Their use must somehow benefit the State. Therefore the only immediate legitimate purpose of spaceflight is scientific exploration, with the knowledge produced and any eventual resources obtained belonging to the State. Governments must control or oversee all aspects of spaceflight originating within their borders to assure the eventual benefits for all. Therefore all future spaceflight must be through State agencies and paid for by all.

Authoritarian Right: Under international law the moon and other celestial bodies may not be claimed by any government, so they cannot be "owned" by citizens of any nation. Also under international law, such places may not be used for military purposes, but can be explored for scientific research. Governments must control or oversee all aspects of spaceflight originating within their borders to assure control of access to space and to assure that big businesses with ties to Defense and other departments are rewarded with contracts. Therefore all US manned spaceflight must be carefully controlled through NASA and must maintain the large NASA workforce.

Libertarian Left: The moon and other celestial bodies are the heritage of all mankind. They don't belong to anyone, so they belong to everyone, including all future generations. Everyone should benefit equally from any advances in space. Therefore the only immediate legitimate purpose of spaceflight is scientific exploration, with the knowledge produced and any eventual resources obtained belonging to all mankind. Everyone should contribute a little bit, maybe through the UN, to those exploration efforts, since the benefits will be spread to everyone.

Libertarian Right: The moon and other celestial bodies don't belong to anyone, yet. Whoever gets there first and starts working the material effectively owns the product of their labor. The only legitimate purpose of manned or unmanned spaceflight is to make money at it. Governments should stop distorting the space industry and get the hell out of the way.
So how does this quadrant idea produce the main von Braunian, Saganite, and O'Neillian groups that Tumlinson described?

Well, they don't fall neatly into the quadrants described above. The von Braunian group is more Authoritarian than Libertarian, but split between Left and Right. The Saganite group is more Left than Right but split between Authoritarian and Libertarian. And the O'Neillian group is more Right than Left but split among Authoritarian and Libertarian. And all are closer to the center than the fringes. Thereabouts, anyhow. Other positions would be Heinleinian (Libertarian Right), Machiavellian (way up the Authoritarian scale), and the way NASA has been run since Apollo (starting von Braunian and slowly drifting Left).

I have tried to avoid strawman positions in the above, and in the case of Libertarian Left found that difficult. This is either a failure of imagination on my part or a flaw in the whole quadrant idea. If the former, mea culpa, but if the latter, then I contend that it is at least better than Left-Right alone. I am certain I only scratched the surface. If readers have additional ideas to fill in these quadrants better, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Copenhagen Suborbitals testing

Right now, the launch countdown clock on Copenhagen Suborbital's website reads 4 days 18 hours. This test launch, from a floating platform in the Baltic sea, will go to a maximum of 30 km. Presumably the submarine will be used both for towing pushing the launch catamaran and as launch control.

Both the rocket and the submarine were built without any government funding - only volunteer labor, corporate sponsorships, donations, and the vision and guidance of Peter Madsen.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

no way to run a space program

So, Congress and the Senate each have their own ideas about what NASA should be doing, with Congress demanding the return of the Ares-V and the Senate going so far as to design their own "Nelson Rocket". The Senate is demanding that NASA build a rocket that uses the existing shuttle solid rocket boosters and launch pad, and that it be able to lift 70 to 100 tons to orbit. It is also insisting that NASA start on this next year.

Why? Is it merely to preserve the standing army currently employed in Shuttle launch? That standing army is the primary reason that launch costs for NASA do not go down. The Senate (led by Bill Nelson on this issue) are deliberately doing all they can to kill the space industry in the cradle, once again. It is a deliberate waste of taxpayer money in a transparent attempt to generate pork in Utah and Florida.

What possible requirement is there for such a lift capacity, when there are already commercial rockets capable of lifting 10 to 30 tons to orbit right now?

What would this lift capacity be used for? A 70 ton lift capacity is not enough to get people even as far as the moon in one launch. So, orbital rendezvous of multiple launches is going to be required to do anything useful beyond low earth orbit anyhow.

There is one thing that can be said for NASA's past 15 years with the otherwise-white-elephant International Space Station: the assembly of the station has generated an enormous amount of knowledge about rendezvous, assembly, and maintenance of large manned structures over a period of years in orbit. Orbital assembly is something NASA now has considerable experience doing.

What NASA hasn't done in more than 30 years of trying and tens of billions of dollars wasted is: build a new rocket that makes it all the way to low earth orbit.

So, once again, why not use existing commercial rockets and just have more launches, thus eliminating R&D costs and much of the operational costs. More launches means lower individual launch prices as the commercial provider can amortize fixed and sunk costs over more units sold. Going with the smaller, commercially available rockets like Delta IV, Atlas V, and Falcon 9 (and soon Taurus II) also means smaller teams required to launch any one rocket, another big cost savings.

Then NASA could use the billions that would otherwise go into heavy-lift shuttle-derived R&D and eventual operations a decade down the road into instead purchasing existing payload capacity right now.

It could also lead to a real multiplier effect, where NASA demand for launch services drives down prices to the point where other entities can start purchasing launches, thus attracting not only more customers to existing companies, but also venture capital to new companies involved in all aspects of space launch and low earth orbit operations.

NASA has already blazed the trail to low earth orbit. By taking advantage of the already available commercial option, NASA can continue to blaze the trail further, beyond low earth orbit, to the lunar poles and asteroids and beyond. They are creative people; they should be creating completely new capabilities rather than - at best- repeating old capabilities.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

the oil spill from space

The latest images of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as seen from space are collected here by NASA.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

vuvuzela filter

Yeah, they're ruining the world cup. But you can eliminate the frequency and resonant frequencies of the vuvuzela with some software. This link is an English translation of the original German page that shows how to do it with a Mac.

Friday, June 11, 2010

an interesting perspective

The following was posted by Jim Davidson to the CommercialSpacePlace YahooGroup. It reads like a letter, but it is posted for all to see there, so it is a public letter and there should be no legal issues with republishing it here. What he had to say has a direct bearing on the current end-to-Constellation debate.
Dear Mark,

Well, Jackie DeWayne Reynolds asks "What's wrong with this idea?" so it occurs to me to answer.

> Unfortunately for advocates of commercial space
> development, however, the market for access to space is
> being met at the current price of launch.

This comment supposes that there is no unmet demand that is not permitted to have access to space. There are plenty of examples of companies that have been shut down (Walt Anderson's MirCorp, Gary Hudson's Rotary Rocket, my own Space Travel Services, to name just three of dozens that come to mind) which suggest a substantial unmet demand. Certainly Reynolds has not examined the requests for export licences and other government permits that have been refused to all and sundry who request them. So I regard this claim that the market is being met to be amusing in the extreme, to the extent that it is not horrifyingly sad.

In December 1990 and January 1991, Space Travel Services demonstrated an unmet demand of over 650,000 people who would be eager to have a *chance* to travel in space for $2.99. Since Reynolds hasn't found any way to meet that demand, at any price, we'll have to dismiss the claim of the market being met.

Between 2004 and 2007, Virgin Galactic found tens of thousands of persons interested in flying in space on suborbital rides with at least dozens of these making down payment deposits on such rides. Again, this demand has not been met. Reynolds is not only wrong, but seems out of touch with current events.

> In a mixed/free
> market economy like ours, price is determined by the market
> (oligopolies and monopolies excepted, of course).

No, it isn't. The United States is not a free market economy and has not been since at least the formation of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887. You cannot be "just a little bit pregnant" and you cannot have "just a bit of a command economy." Really, this claim that there is any relationship between the USA economy and a free market economy is the dictionary definition of fatuous: "Foolish or silly, especially in a smug or self-satisfied way" http://thefreedictionary.com/fatuous

One can be satisfied of anything if you refuse to examine even the most basic of premises.

> Without
> greater demand for access to space, there is no impetus for
> the market to lower launch costs.

Well, gosh, we may never know. I can certainly remember when there was enough demand for re-supplying the space station with cargo flights to stimulate Andrew Beal to put up $300 million of his own money to develop cheap access to space and multiple launch sites for his big dumb boosters. And I can also remember when NASA chose to betray its previous commitments and screw Beal to the wall with a moly bolt. The fact that there was an impetus for the market to lower launch costs and that NASA then decided, in its evil and bureau-rat fashion, to force fit the "contracts" to existing aerospace giant companies only for the benefit of those companies and for the degradation of the market for cheap access to space certainly speaks volumes about how we got into this mess.

> But what if launch costs could be lowered indirectly?

What if launch costs aren't the door that you have to get through? What if space is not difficult, dangerous, expensive, and risky? What if everything you've been told about space by NASA has been a lie? What if the government lies through stolen teeth, and lies easily?

You want to open the space frontier to human exploration and settlement. The problems you face are not economic problems - there is a huge market for space tourism, there are huge markets for materials processing in space, there are huge markets for additional communications technologies, there are huge markets for energy. It is raining soup out there, all you need is the ability to get there with a bucket.

The problems you face are not technological problems. Two men landed on the surface of the Moon in 1969. Their electronics were amazingly ancient. Their communications systems were utterly bereft of TDRSS. They had no global positioning satellites. Not much more computing power than my pocket calculator. Really, please, don't talk to me about technological impediments to space achievement until you read every single one of Robert Goddard's patent applications. Especially the ones von Braun filched.

The problems are legal, bureaucratic, and political. All of the problems you face are in these areas. Now, admittedly, none of them are so complex that they couldn't be resolved fully with the use of twenty tonnes of iron returning from a 90 minute orbit and striking Washington, DC. But if you aren't that much of an extremist, then your focus has to be on finding, or founding, a free country, or more than one.

Best wishes.

Regards,

Jim

Friday, June 04, 2010

congratulations SpaceX !

Today SpaceX launched the Falcon 9 into orbit on its first test flight. The rocket is capable of carrying up to seven people to orbit in the Dragon capsule. SpaceX is a private company that didn't even exist eight years ago and in a couple years they will be delivering people to the international space station - and the Bigelow stations due to be launched in the next few years. It's a pretty good day.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

note to self

must post more often, and shorter

technological stepping stones to space

In developing space I listed some short term stepping stone technologies I thought NASA should pursue. Nearly four years ago Jon Goff wrote Technologies Necessary for a Spacefaring Society, where he listed several similar stepping stones, and generated a discussion which produced a few more. Putting it all together produced a more complete list of the short-term stepping stone technologies NASA and the space industry can develop to enable a sustainable (i.e. profitable) expansion of humanity into space.

Pictured at right is one of the great inventions of the twentieth century, the Lego block. The basic blocks, patented in 1958 and still compatible with pieces made today, allowed kids to build and rebuild their own toys - and the building and redesign itself was the play activity. Over the years Lego added new pieces - different dimensions, gears, axles, wheels, figurines, and so on - all compatible with earlier designs, and each new design enabling another infinity of possibilities for play. The results can be astonishing.

These stepping stone technologies are very similar to the iterations of Lego block designs. Each stepping stone allows a broad range of new capabilities, and builds on the prior capabilities developed. And just as a single Lego piece by itself is not particularly impressive, the development of these stepping stone technologies by themselves are not nearly as lofty a goal as "Apollo on steroids". Instead the primary goal of these technologies is to provide logistical (and hence economic) leverage and jumpstart the space industry, enabling sustainable human expansion through cislunar space and then the rest of the solar system: more Bang for the Buck Rogers.

I have tried to categorize the stepping stone technologies below. For some of these stepping stones it makes sense to wait until other stepping stones are in place before beginning major work and bending metal. Others can be started right away or are already being worked on by NASA and/or the space industry. This list is not exhaustive, but I figure it's a good starting point for discussion if nothing else. There are non-technological stepping stones, too, but that's a topic for another blog post.

from Earth to Low Earth Orbit and back
  • reusable liquid-fueled unmanned glide-back auxiliary boosters - These would replace the current strap-on solid rocket motors which provide an extra boost to rockets while in the atmosphere. Having these strap-ons helps deliver a bigger payload to orbit than possible with the core rocket by itself. Making them liquid-fueled means quicker turnaround time. UAV technology has come a long way over the last ten years as a result of warfare, but it can also be used to pilot these glide-back boosters. Having them glide back instead of splashing down eases recovery. Reusing them allows categorization of patterns of wear and highlights faults for further iterations, as well as spreading production costs over multiple launches.
  • recoverable / reusable rocket first stage - SpaceX is already hard at work on this and plans on doing it with the Falcon 9. Splashdown recovery is more difficult than a glide-back strapon stage, but no more difficult than recovering a shuttle SRB. Reuse of this stage should reduce the cost of access to orbit as long as refurbishment costs are low and turnaround time is reduced.
  • low maintenance thermal protection system - This is a key to the economical re-use of reentry hardware. It was also a big part of the cost of operating the shuttles. If the thermal protection system could be robust enough to withstand dozens of reentries before replacement, or was cheap and easy to replace each time, the turnaround time and manpower required would be greatly reduced.
  • intermodal transport interface - load a shipping container inside the frame (which also houses solar panels, radiators, GN&C), spin and vibration test it, add a faring, put it on the next available rocket, and go. This enables orbital access to the existing worldwide supply chain. Once a design is up to TRL-11, shipping cargo to space will require much less handling, have higher efficiency, quicker throughput rate, and lower cost. (The intermodal transport container is itself a stepping stone technology, conveniently already in widespread use.)
vehicles
  • tractor (tug) - This would be the cargo workhorse of cislunar space. It would have everything a regular satellite has (propulsion, guidance, navigation, control, power, temperature regulation, communications, propellant tanks, perhaps a robot arm) - the only thing it would lack is a payload. Instead it would couple itself to other orbital assets and perform tasks like proximity operations, transporting propellant to geosynchronous satellites, acting in lieu of an astronaut in teleoperated procedures, and many other tasks. Its function is similar to that of a farm tractor, semi-truck, or tugboat.
  • bus - These vehicles would never land, only change orbits and dock. They wouldn't need to deal with the stresses of ascent or reentry, wouldn't need landing gear, wouldn't need aerodynamics. It could be as simple as an inflatable habitable volume (like the Bigelow modules), propellant tanks, and a tractor (snapped together like Lego pieces, perhaps?)
  • lunar lander - This would only travel from lunar orbit (perhaps at L1?) to the lunar surface and back. There might be different types of landers for different sized jobs. These would be refueled at a propellant depot in Lunar orbit
  • pod - "Open the pod bay doors, HAL." A pod is a one-man spaceship with a spherical pressure vessel and several remote manipulator arms. Such a craft would allow an astronaut to wear a minimalist space suit for emergencies or very temporary sorties, but spend most of their EVA activity in relative comfort and better protected than in current spacesuits, and eliminate the need for prebreathing. EVA times could be measured in days instead of hours.
  • better spacesuits - NASA is already working on this with the astronaut glove prizes, but there is a huge design space to explore. Spacesuit improvement should be a never-ending project, with new milestones set as previous ones are met. And since space is a fairly big place, different environmental conditions (surface gravity, atmosphere) occur which preclude a single design.
orbital assets
  • consumables depots - This includes propellant depots (storing liquid Oxygen, liquid Hydrogen, RP-1, Hydrazine, N2O4, Xenon... market demand will sort out the specifics) and depots of other fungible fluid consumables (water, Nitrogen, vodka, whatever the market demands). At first only a few propellants would be stored, but as the industry builds the demand for the other consumables will increase. The existence of the first depots will themselves drive up the rate of rocket launches (of tankers of various capacities filling the depots) and reduce the cost per payload kilogram for destinations beyond LEO. Eventually depots would be established in Geosynchronous Earth orbit and the Lagrange orbits (probably starting with L1).
  • 4-, 6-, 8-, 12- or 20-sided universal docking nodes - (the numbers chosen are the number of faces on the Platonic solids) A universal node - able to connect habitable volumes in a geometric pattern with a common interface - is sorely needed if we are to build large habitable structures in space. The current six-sided nodes on the ISS might be considered this stepping stone if the design gets published. ITAR stands in the way of the most basic Lego block.
  • bus stations / hotels - Habitable volumes with multiple available docking ports, these are likely to be closely associated with propellant depots. Bus stations would be used for transferring people from one mode of transportation to another. Hotels would themselves be orbital destinations. These could be several Bigelow modules connected by universal docking nodes.
  • maintenance facilities - Entropy increases. Stuff breaks down. If you can't fix it, you have to replace it or do without. A maintenance facility would have a storehouse of spare parts and the necessary tools and equipment to repair at least the critical items.
  • hangars - If you're fixing stuff in orbit, eventually you'll need to work on something in a shirtsleeve environment which is too big to fit through an airlock. You wouldn't bring a bus back to Earth to repair and relaunch, you'd just fix it in the hangar. A large substantially-leakproof hangar bay door poses some significant technical challenges. This is one stepping stone that will require other stepping stones in place.
  • drydock - At some point we will want to assemble very large craft from smaller components. Some kind of large frame with several robot arms on rails would make this a whole lot easier.
life support
  • substantially-enclosed life support system - The more enclosed the system is, the less resupply is needed. Being able to recycle CO2 and water and food with an artificial ecosystem eliminates a logistical nightmare and enables very long duration missions far out in the solar system.
  • artificial (centrifugal) "gravity" - So far, we know a lot about living in 1 gee (Earth's surface gravity), and have learned about some debilitating effects of long-term exposure to zero gee, and how to mitigate some of those effects. We know absolutely nothing about the effects of long-term exposure to 1/6 gee (the Moon) or 0.38 gee (Mars). We don't know if a baby can develop normally in anything less (or more) than one gee. Many of the side effects of weightlessness would be eliminated if orbital habitations are rotated to produce an artificial centrifugal "gravity". Perhaps this could be accomplished by having the habitation attached to a counterweight by a long tether, and the whole thing rotated. Again, we don't know much about the long-term effects of high angular velocity, so there's lots to be learned here.
  • improved radiation shielding - Outside the protection of Earth's magnetic field, the danger from solar events and cosmic rays increases enormously. We need to develop better radiation protection for long-duration missions.
  • advanced robotics / teleoperation - Robotics will always be an integral part of space operations. This work is already going on, and like spacesuit improvement will likely remain an indefinitely-continuing project.
orbital operations
  • orbital assembly - The ISS taught many lessons about orbital assembly - NASA is far more experienced at this than they are at rocket design. The assembly stepping stone will evolve along with the drydock stepping stone. Personally, I'd like to see modules click together like Legos (not exactly like Legos, but interfacing easily, mix and match as needed).
  • orbital maintenance - Whether it involves bringing a crippled satellite in for repairs or fixing it remotely, or just doing minor repairs on a spacesuit, this is a critical cost-saving task.
  • orbital fabrication and construction - Eventually we will be shipping raw materials to Earth orbit (from the surface of the moon, or from Near-Earth Asteroids) and then making them into something useful "on-site", such as constructing extremely large (kilometer-scale) rotating habitats. The earlier we figure out how to do things like make I-beams in freefall, the better.
  • in-situ resource utilization - producing things like Oxygen and propellant and water from materials found on the Moon, Mars, or asteroids are absolutely critical to reducing the cost of all operations in space and reducing the dependence on a supply line from Earth.
delta vee
  • momentum exchange tethers - These have the potential to provide a propellant-less change in trajectory for orbiting bodies and are definitely worth further examination
  • electrodynamic reboost - Again with the tethers. This time, interaction between the Earth's magnetic field and an electric current induced on a long tether can raise the orbit of the tether (and whatever it is attached to). Instead of using propellant to fight orbital decay, electrodynamic reboost steals an iota of the energy of Earth's magnetic field (and solar energy to produce the electric current) to magnetically repel the orbiting tether.
  • aerobraking - On a high-velocity return to Earth, aerobraking - temporarily dipping into the atmosphere to bleed off speed - is a propellant-minimizing way of slowing down. It's just like skipping a stone on a pond, with each successive skip at a slower speed. If you can go from a parabolic orbit to a low-eccentricity orbit without using propellant, you're ahead of the game.
  • nuclear thermal propulsion - If we are to travel throughout the solar system, chemical rockets aren't going to cut it. Propellant accelerated by the heat from a nuclear reactor can achieve much higher exhaust velocities than by combustion, leading to higher ISP (gas mileage).
guidance, navigation, and control
  • cislunar positioning system - GPS is fine if you're close to the Earth, but far enough out and you'd need some fancy astrogation and starfinders. Satellites at the Lagrange orbits could function as the cislunar equivalent of GPS, easing navigation throughout cislunar space.
  • lunar positioning system - as we return to the moon we will need a constellation of positioning/communication-relay satellites orbiting the moon for exactly the same reasons we have them orbiting the Earth.
  • x-ray pulsar positioning system (XPPS) - X-ray pulsars are natural broadcast signals all over the sky and far from the solar system. We may be able to use those properties to determine the position and velocity of an object anywhere in the solar system with fair precision. This would greatly simplify solar system navigation - and it is mostly a software problem.
  • cislunar traffic control - There are already thousands of satellites and many times that number of debris objects orbiting the earth. As the traffic in low earth orbit and cislunar space increases, some traffic control system will have to grow up alongside the increasing traffic - other wise, as time goes on, collisions will become a greater and greater hazard.
power
  • microwave power beaming - Being able to move energy from one place - say a large solar array - to another (like the Earth's surface or another satellite) absolutely requires power beaming. It is a key to opening up a space-based energy industry that could rival oil or coal or nuclear power on Earth.
  • low-maintenance nuclear power plants - If all goes well, eventually we will be moving far out into the solar system, where the sunlight is dim, or perhaps to the equator of the moon with its two-week nights. In these cases, solar power may not be practical. Nuclear power plants that can operate with minimal maintenance open up those areas where the sun don't shine.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

administering space

In developing space I suggested that NASA's new mission was administering space. NASA stands for National Aeronautics and Space Administration, after all. I then went on to list a bunch of "stepping stone" technologies that NASA could be pursuing over the next few years, but I didn't really explain what I meant by administering space.

First, let's compare NASA with another Administration, the FAA. Their mandate is actually much more complicated to convey than NASA's if you try to wade through the relevant legislation. Here's what the FAA have to say about themselves:
We're responsible for the safety of civil aviation. The Federal Aviation Act of 1958 created the agency under the name Federal Aviation Agency. We adopted our present name in 1967 when we became a part of the Department of Transportation. Our major roles include:
  • Regulating civil aviation to promote safety
  • Encouraging and developing civil aeronautics, including new aviation technology
  • Developing and operating a system of air traffic control and navigation for both civil and military aircraft
  • Researching and developing the National Airspace System and civil aeronautics
  • Developing and carrying out programs to control aircraft noise and other environmental effects of civil aviation
  • Regulating U.S. commercial space transportation
That's fairly straightforward. (Well, that last bit might need a little explanation. It pretty much covers American passenger craft until they reach orbit.)

The legislation governing NASA, the Space Act (1958, amended), is much smaller and easier to read than that of the FAA. The Declaration of Policy and Purpose and section 203(a), Functions of the Administration are the most interesting part. Both those sections contain exactly the same phrase: seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space. Here's what NASA says they do:
NASA's mission is to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research... NASA conducts its work in four principal organizations, called mission directorates:
  • Aeronautics: pioneers and proves new flight technologies that improve our ability to explore and which have practical applications on Earth.
  • Exploration Systems: creates capabilities for sustainable human and robotic exploration.
  • Science: explores the Earth, solar system and universe beyond; charts the best route of discovery; and reaps the benefits of Earth and space exploration for society.
  • Space Operations: provides critical enabling technologies for much of the rest of NASA through the space shuttle, the International Space Station and flight support.
Note the difference? The FAA has a very clear understanding of the administration part of their job. Setting regulations. Setting standards. A system of air traffic control and navigation. And every part of what the FAA says it does contains the word "civil" (i.e. civilian) or "commercial".

In fact, when you compare what the FAA says they do with what NASA says they do, it is apparent that the FAA serves civilians and commerce, but what NASA does is "improve our (NASA's?) ability to explore" or "provides critical enabling technologies for much of the rest of NASA" - in other words, NASA exists to enhance the capabilities of NASA. That's harsh, but do you see the word "commercial" or "civil" in NASA's mission directorates? Compared to the FAA, who is it that NASA is serving?

(The word "society" is there, true - but that word can mean anything one wants it to mean, including everyone in the world, and the description of the Science directorate is such a "motherhood issue" that I wouldn't change a word anyhow.)

NASA appears to have gotten stuck in part of the Space Act's section on Functions of the Administration, section 203(a)(1): plan, direct, and conduct aeronautical and space activities. That doesn't mean all of them, just do such activities. It doesn't mean building an entirely new set of rockets from scratch when comparable commercial alternatives are already available.

Section 203(a)(4) (seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space) and 203(a)(5) (encourage and provide for Federal Government use of commercially provided space services and hardware, consistent with the requirements of the Federal Government.) would pretty much prohibit such things as Ares-1 development altogether. Such a goal is too small for NASA. It would be like the FAA building their own planes instead of certifying planes built by the aircraft industry.

It should be noted that NASA does a bang-up job with section 203(a)(2) arrange for participation by the scientific community in planning scientific measurements and observations to be made through use of aeronautical and space vehicles, and conduct or arrange for the conduct of such measurements and observations. They are getting better with (3) provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof, but they can only do so much with ITAR in place.

The Aldridge commission recommended consolidating the various mission-focused enterprises within NASA's organizational structure into Science, Exploration, Aeronautics, and possibly Education. Notice something missing? Yep, the Space Operations mission directorate would be out, perhaps replaced by an Education directorate. I have something a different in mind. It might still be called Space Operations, but its function would in no way resemble the current directorate's stated purpose. More about that later.

The Aldridge commission also recommended a permanent space exploration steering council, a technical advisory board, a cost estimating organization, and special project teams on enabling technologies. I splashed some bits about the enabling technologies in developing space, because it gives some idea of the short-term goals NASA should be following, but this is just part of a larger realignment of NASA's mission (as currently envisaged by NASA) with its charter.

The FAA encourages the commercial use of airspace by providing structure: certifications for aircraft, air traffic control and navigation, pilot certification, maintenance records criteria, and so forth. Passenger and cargo planes would not be able to travel safely without this structure.

NASA can also encourage the commercial use of space, and not just by being a customer for rides to Low Earth Orbit. This is partly where these short-term enabling technologies projects come into play.

building the stepping stones

Commercial enterprises will do considerable research and development - just look at the contribution of Bell Labs to science - but there has to be some reasonable assessment of risk in order to please stockholders. If a development is too financially risky, such as developing cryogenic propellant storage and transfer in orbit, no company will be able to justify the investment to stockholders or investors no matter what the potential payoff. Nobody wants to be first, nobody wants to be third, everybody wants to be the second to get into something new.

That sort of technology is a game-changer. Storage and transfer of propellant in orbit is one small step out of many small steps - rather than giant leaps. It has a cascading effect: it helps bootstrap other stepping stones, it means a huge increase in commercial rocket production and launch rate, which in turn means new private sector jobs, and incremental improvements in vehicle design causing a rapid increase in vehicle safety, and on and on and on. That's what makes it a stepping stone.

Let's assume success. Suppose NASA takes my advice ("hey! this random blogger has an idea! let's change our whole agency!") and changes all its centers into FFRDCs like the Jet Propulsion Lab and then starts working on stepping stones like a demonstration orbital propellant depot. And suppose further that they get the sucker working after some minor tweaks - that it stores (for example) liquid Oxygen and liquid Hydrogen with minimal boil off and can transfer these propellants to or from another spacecraft. The propellant depot is now at a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of 9! Hooray!

Then what?

turning it up to 11

What should happen then is that NASA publishes the relevant data: the design of the coupling between the depot and the spacecraft, communications protocols for proximity operations, temperature control techniques, procedures for using boiloff as attitude control thrust, whatever. They would establish the regulations for such things as tolerances on the couplings, procedures for measurement of propellant transfer, temperature and pressure measurement guidelines for future depots, and so on. At times NASA would be working on this alongside such government organizations as the NIST and FCC and FAA, depending on the technology involved.

And then NASA would be the agency actually administering the use of that new technology: certifying the correctness (measured to within specified tolerances) of a coupling to the orbital version of a gas pump, for instance.

In short, NASA would be retiring much of the risk which would otherwise never be borne by commercial space companies, both the technical risk and the regulatory risk. If NASA demonstrates that an orbital propellant depot can work, sets the standards and regulations for operations, and then steps aside and administers those regulations, then private companies can step up and provide services. Companies that want to supply propellant to depots or launch depots or launch spacecraft to be refueled at depots would know exactly how to interface their craft with the depot, perhaps buying NASA-certified couplings from a choice of vendors, and would borrow some of the transfer and storage technology developed by NASA to actually do the job.

With all the stepping stone technologies I mentioned in developing space, NASA's role would be the same: identify a short-term enabling technology; get it working (i.e. retire the technical risk); publish specifications, standards, and regulations for the new technology (i.e. retire the regulatory risk); administer the certification processes and ensure regulatory compliance for using the new technology.

If NASA adopts a stepping-stones approach, then at any one time there would be several such enabling technologies being researched in parallel at varying levels of technical readiness. The Aldridge commission recommendations of a permanent space exploration steering council, a technical advisory board, and a cost estimating organization, would decide on which short term enabling technologies to pursue, and what strategy to use to develop the technology - not just up the existing Technology Readiness Level scale but beyond that into technical standards and specifications and regulations for commercial and civilian use.

Most of the enabling technologies I mentioned in developing space are at about a TRL of 2 to 4. What I am proposing is that NASA not stop at a TRL of 9 (Actual system 'flight proven' through successful mission operations) but that it extend its TRL rating system beyond 9 into TRL-10 (technical standards, specifications, and regulations regarding the new technology are developed, published, and implemented) and TRL-11 (the new technology is implemented by the industry and regulation, certification, industry standards and so forth are administered by NASA).

I mentioned the Space Operations directorate above and the Aldridge report idea of perhaps eliminating it or replacing it with an Education directorate. Instead, the Space Operations directorate would be the part of NASA responsible for those TRL-10 and TRL-11 stages, and would likely be heavily involved in data-gathering during the TRL-7-8-9 stages. (Several other functions would also fall under Space Operations such as satellite and orbital debris tracking, Near-Earth Asteroid tracking, and administration of the Deep Space Network.)

So how can NASA maximize the commercial use of space while developing these stepping-stone enabling technologies from low technology readiness level right up to TRL-11? And how does this promote the development of the space industry?

more Bang for the Buck (Rogers)

Let's extend the imaginary scenario above. Suppose NASA has demonstrated a working orbital propellant depot, published interface specifications and tolerances and regulations for proximity operations and protocols for delivering full tanks and so forth, and is now certifying components as compatible, regulation-compliant, and so on. What then?

With all those specifications and regulations and so forth available to civilians, businesses can begin building matching couplings, programming their software to comply with the proximity operations regulations, that sort of thing. They don't have to do it all from scratch. They already know it will work.

And they don't have to do it all. A single company doesn't have to do everything. Company A might just include orbital propellant depot couplings to their product line, since they have expertise in manufacturing precision machining of the alloy required. Company B might buy that coupling and include it on their (launched empty) second stage of their Whizbang rocket. And NASA itself might buy it for their own use in other stepping stone technologies like a bus - or might just buy a portion of a Whizbang rocket payload to launch a deep-space robotic exploration mission, refueled in orbit for the second leg of its journey.

NASA can also encourage commercial use of space as it develops these stepping stone technologies up the Technology Readiness Levels. In many cases, the entire problem doesn't need to be solved at once. A perfect example of this is the Centennial Challenges program. This program is a tiny, tiny fraction of NASA's budget, and at that spread over many years, but the results are remarkable.

If this same idea - prizes awarded for targeted innovations in key areas - is broadened in scope, with prize values scaled according to the value to the agency, NASA can apply leverage to that money that would be impossible if NASA simply spent it in-house working on the same problems, while at the same time engaging the public directly and expanding the base of the space industry.

These prizes are a good way to get a technology from TRL-2 (Technology concept and/or application formulated) to TRL-4 (Component and/or breadboard validation in laboratory environment). Further "relevant environment" tests and improvements could either be undertaken at one of the NASA centers or opened up to the industry in the form of more prizes or commercial contracts. In all cases, the question should be, "can we use the industry to provide leverage?"

Prizes are also a good way for start-up space businesses to find a niche or several niches in what is to become a large industry. A small space business might start by just making the precision propellant couplings needed to refuel booster stages, or by just making astronaut gloves, or by making the software, actuators, and engines necessary for lunar landers. In fact, in the case of the lunar landers, there were three such companies involved and all now have a firm toehold in the industry.

NASA can also use commercial space launch providers - both suborbital and orbital - to bring some of these stepping stone technologies up through TRL-7 (System prototype demonstration in a space environment), TRL-8 (Actual system completed and 'flight qualified' through test and demonstration (ground or space)), and TRL-9 (Actual system 'flight proven' through successful mission operations), either by purchasing the entire available payload or just a portion of the payload. Such contracts would be paid for results, not cost-plus accounting which pays for costs incurred.

Once the technology has advanced to TRL-11, it is possible to get businesses in seemingly unrelated industries to become involved in the space industry. For example, a company like Nike or Reebok could start mass-producing spacesuits.

restating NASA's mission statement

NASA is the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, not the National Aeronautic and Space Industry. Everything an organization does stems from its mission statement. Extending space technology beyond flight testing and validation into industry standards and specifications and regulations allows the space industry to participate in implementing stepping stone technologies in operational systems. Incentives like prizes and contracts (and other things NASA can't do but Congress can, such as Zero Gee Zero Tax) will help leverage NASA's budget for developing the stepping stone technologies.

These stepping stones and commercial involvement also assist NASA's Science and Exploration efforts. For example, today if we want to send a rover to Mars we launch it on the (commercial!) Delta rocket. It carries its fully-fueled second stage all the way from the ground to orbit, then discards the first stage and uses the second to go to Mars.

However, if NASA develops (up to TRL-11) propellant depots and bus stations, then the second stage can be launched empty and a much larger, heavier payload can be put on top. The first stage gets discarded (and perhaps recovered and reused) and the second stage refuels in orbit, and is checked out by astronauts at the bus station. Perhaps the second stage takes it to the Earth-moon L1 propellant depot, where it is again refueled, some other previously launched components added, and then sent on its way to Mars. In the end, NASA gets a much bigger, more reliable payload for the dollar.

So, this brings me to NASA's mission statement, mentioned above. It needs to change to reflect the new civil and commercial (rather than NASA-centric) orientation. Here goes:
NASA's mission is to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research... NASA conducts its work in four principal organizations, called mission directorates:
  • Aeronautics: pioneers and proves new flight technologies that improve America's ability to explore and which have practical applications for civil aeronautics.
  • Exploration Systems: works with industry to create capabilities for commercially-sustainable human and robotic exploration and utilization of the solar system.
  • Science: explores the Earth, solar system and universe beyond; charts the best route of discovery; and reaps the benefits of Earth and space exploration for society.
  • Space Operations: provides critical enabling technologies for civil space utilization, certifies and regulates those technologies for civil use, and provides flight support, deep space communications, and object tracking.
How's that?

Friday, May 14, 2010

I hope they're good neighbors


View neighbors in a larger map

developing space

(After getting about 90% of the way through writing this last week, I saw Rand Simberg's article from last year in The New Atlantis, A Space Program For The Rest Of Us, which is very similar to this and quite well-written. Check it out.)

Four years ago I wrote why go to space, which has recently become one of the more popular posts on this blog. In that post I pointed out the vast amounts of nonpolluting energy and abundant material resources available for the taking beyond low earth orbit.

The solar system offers so much wealth, and the solutions to so many problems down here, and it is certainly desirable to bring the rest of the solar system into humanity's economic sphere. So, how do we get there from here?

In order to figure out the answer to that, we first need to know where we've been and where we are now.

the space race

The space programs of both the United States and the USSR grew out of the Cold War missile research conducted by both countries, building on the knowledge of the scientists and engineers recruited out of Germany following World War II. The race was on to create intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. These were to be suborbital devices, but the payloads were very heavy. It quickly became recognized that a lighter payload would be able to make it all the way to orbit - and that surveillance from orbit would have immense logistic, strategic and tactical value.

The milestones that followed - Sputnik and Explorer, Laika, Gagarin and Shepard and Glenn, culminating in Apollo 11 - were in a very real sense battles in the most unusual war ever fought, the Space Race, which was itself only a part of the larger Cold War.

Over the course of the Space Race - roughly the period from summer 1945 to summer 1969 - a great deal of scientific research about the earth itself, the moon, low earth orbit and the solar system in general was accomplished. A lot was learned about new materials and control systems and propulsion and navigation and computing and a host of other disciplines.

However, the Space Race was never really about space, or research or exploration. It was a war, and the battlefield was itself not Outer Space - the battlefield was worldwide public opinion.

By the 1960's, both the USA and the USSR were capable of launching heavy nuclear warheads into each other's territory with reasonable precision. The problem is that demonstration of that capability is only useful in last-resort scenarios. The Space Race became a demonstration-by-proxy of this technical prowess. Every new milestone was a demonstration of both immense power and precise control.

Fighting this unusual war required a new kind of army, and a new kind of General. Sergey Korolyov and Wernher von Braun led armies of engineers, technicians, scientists, and test pilots. In the Soviet Union, this army was part of a classified military program, with only the positive results announced. In the United States, NASA was assembled as a "civilian" space agency whose every success and failure was public.

Another big difference between the two country's approaches was that the USSR had competing design centers working on the same problem, but NASA was a single agency. In effect, NASA was a more unified army approaching a single task. Ironically, the Americans out-Sovieted the Soviets. The all-too-easy (and mistaken) conclusion was that all US space effort after Apollo should continue with the same army that won the battle of Apollo.

Korolyov and von Braun were both visionaries. To them, the Space Race really was about space, or at least their visions of mankind's future in space. These great space visionaries, and others like them who shared their dreams and talents, were forced by the political realities of their time to direct their efforts through the national space programs. This was the situation for over a generation.

In a famous speech to a joint session of congress on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy took the initiative:
... I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish
In making this statement, Kennedy set the conditions for victory in the Space Race and pointed out that the goal was primarily to win worldwide public opinion, to be "impressive to mankind"; long-range exploration was secondary.

By setting the conditions for victory, Kennedy forced the Soviet Union to follow a goal of his own choosing, straight out of Sun Tzu. It was a stroke of genius and a crucial step in winning the Space Race - but it was also a huge risk and a double-edged sword. When Apollo 11 fulfilled Kennedy's victory conditions, the risk had paid off: America had won the Space Race and a battle in the public opinion war, a crucial victory in the larger Cold War. However, winning the Space Race also meant that the Space Race was over. What happens to an army once the war is over?

How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?

With the Space Race won, what was to become of NASA? After Apollo 11, there were still several Saturn V's and command modules and service modules and lunar landers and rovers in the the production pipeline, and Apollo 12 ready to go as a backup in case Apollo 11 had failed. There was Cape Canaveral with its huge Vehicle Assembly Building and the equally huge crawler transports that moved rockets from the VAB to the launch pads, the pads themselves, launch towers and gantries and fuel tanks and all sorts of other expensive infrastructure already built.

But the Space Race had been won. There was no point in achieving the old victory conditions over and over again, because that did not affect worldwide public opinion in favor of the US in the same way that Apollo 11 did. And remember, the Space Race was not about space, it was about worldwide public opinion.

Public opinion is a tricky thing to nail down. In the Cold War PR game, the goal in both the USSR and the USA was to attract other nations to their sphere of influence. It was a propaganda war. However, propaganda can have effects beyond those which are intended.

"Rocket Scientist" entered the vernacular, meaning someone exceptionally intelligent (or not so much, when used sarcastically). The phrase "If we can put a man on the moon, we can (do X)" became popular, meaning that we could take on any challenge and succeed.

However, by concentrating all the Outer Space decision-making and expertise within the single agency and focusing on a single goal with a huge budget for a decade, NASA had been built up on a pedestal. The achievement of putting men on the moon and bringing them back to Earth had been a manpower-intensive, hugely expensive research and development program.

Indeed sending men to the moon the Apollo way - "waste anything but time" - is a hugely expensive undertaking by design. To achieve the goal, NASA had to have a particular organizational structure geared to that goal. Such a specific-purpose organizational structure and culture is ill-suited to anything but its intended goal.

It was a vicious circle in the making. NASA had to operate with a difficult goal on a fast track, always. Because that is expensive, everything about it is expensive. The expense means that failure tolerance is low, so redundancy must be built in at every critical point.

On a rocket, that means additional complexity and mass. The additional mass requires additional propellant, which needs bigger tanks, which are also heavier, and now the thing needs to be redesigned - the expense just goes up and up and up. That makes the rockets expensive, so the satellites that ride them also have to be super-reliable and redundant, and hence also expensive. The high cost means that there are very few flights per year, so development costs are amortized over a very low number of total flights.

And now, with only that Space Race to use as a yardstick, the general public had also come to see anything to do with space as hugely expensive and manpower intensive, something so big that only NASA (or governments in general) could ever afford - thus completing the vicious circle.

Skylab, Shuttle, Hubble, ISS, and JPL

Wernher von Braun had a vision for the US space program after Apollo: a large rotating space station launched by numerous reusable ascent stages, big dumb boosters for launching cargo and people to the space station, orbital assembly of lunar missions, a large scale lunar base, and eventually a fleet of vehicles with dozens of astronauts headed to Mars.

His vision made sense if the Space Race had actually been about space, but it was sharply at odds with the political reality that enabled Apollo in the first place. Once Apollo 11 succeeded, the program needed to be wound down. Apollo 13 - what Gene Kranz called "(NASA's) finest hour" - was very nearly a disaster that could have undone much of the PR value of Apollo 11, and almost certainly cemented the decision to wind down the program. President Nixon cannot have been particularly fond of the association between Apollo and his hated rival Kennedy, either, not while being stuck in an expensive, unpopular foreign war inherited from Kennedy's successor.

To wind down Apollo and use up the remaining already-paid-for hardware, the number of moon missions was reduced by three - Apollo 18, 19, and 20 were canceled. One of the leftover Saturn V boosters was used to launch Skylab, and three Saturn-1B rockets launched the three Skylab crews. A fourth Saturn-1B was used in the Apollo-Soyuz test program.

Following Apollo-Soyuz there was a six year gap in American manned spaceflight capability.

In the interim, Wernher von Braun wasn't the only bright light to leave NASA. To quote Kelly Starks:
I used to work in Kranz’s department, and was basically told that at the end of Apollo, the top 10%, the real movers/shakers/geniuses that had made the place really work, had quit to find something more challenging and that wasn’t going to cut their salaries. The bottom 80% who did what it took to build the top 10%’s vision were laid off. So basically you had a agency run by folks who were the top 10% assistants and go-fer’s. Then when the agency staffed back up for shuttle they all got high ranking executive jobs at NASA.

Many things at NASA made a lot more sense after I heard that.
While Apollo was winding down and von Braun struggling vainly to have his vision implemented, NASA was developing a low earth orbital infrastructure program. This program was to include a space station and a vehicle which would be a multitasking workhorse, launching so frequently that launch costs would theoretically drop dramatically. The space shuttle was supposed to eventually launch up to 24 flights per year, based on the maximum rate of the external tank production.

Flight rates to the proposed space station and in service to the Air Force wouldn't provide enough demand for those flight rates, so all US launches, including scientific research and commercial satellites, would have to be launched on the shuttles. This effectively delayed the development of a private space industry for decades by providing an artificial barrier to entry - if you weren't already Boeing or Lockheed or Martin-Marietta or Morton-Thiokol, you weren't getting into the space industry in the United States, period.

NASA couldn't afford to do both the Shuttle and space station at the same time with their plan, so they just started with the Shuttle. Six years after Apollo-Soyuz, Columbia lifted off the pad and America returned men to space. The "gap" in American manned spaceflight capability is nothing new, and has happened twice more since then, with a 32 month gap after the Challenger disaster and a 31 month gap after Columbia.

Of course, the shuttles never achieved anywhere near 24 launches a year. In the wake of the Challenger disaster, various commercial, military and scientific payloads again began to be launched on expendable Atlas and Delta boosters rather than the shuttles. All that was left for the shuttles to launch was objects too big to be launched on Atlas or Delta, and manned orbital missions.

To bring down the cost of launch, it is essential that high flight rates be maintained, so that the up-front development costs are amortized over a large number of launches. A high flight rate also makes maximum cost-effective use of the support staff required to keep the fleet maintained and operational. Without that high flight rate, development costs are spread over fewer launches and the full workforce must be employed during long stretches of downtime.

If the flight rate is too high, that workforce is stretched too thin and potentially fatal mistakes are made; if the flight rate is too low the workforce risks losing its edge, and complacency can cause potentially fatal mistakes to be made. The low flight rate for the shuttle thus caused high operational costs on top of a higher per-launch development cost, and actually increased the cost of launch to orbit slightly.

The operational costs were further increased by the complexity of the shuttle and thus the complexity of the maintenance program. Since it was designed to do so many things to satisfy so many different - sometimes conflicting - objectives, it is like a camel, a "horse designed by a committee", with a quarter million parts.

High operational costs had a detrimental effect on the rest of NASA, as research and development was pared back in order to pay for operations. Further exploration and research took longer because budget realities forced programs to delay commencement or stretched them out for longer time frames, and those delays ended up costing NASA even more in the long run.

The International Space Station is the most glaring example of programmatic delays inflating the cost of a project. Originally projected to cost 8 billion dollars when first proposed by Ronald Reagan as Space Station Freedom, program delays and several iterations of redesign, and then further even more complex redesign as the international partners were brought on board, caused the cost to balloon, to the point where the ISS has now cost a hundred billion dollars to build.

One bright spot in the post-Apollo era was the Hubble Space Telescope. Although it has produced some jaw-dropping images and changed our understanding of the universe, it too had its problems throughout its working life, right from the very beginning. Hubble was nearly a disaster at first, as it was originally launched with faulty optics, making the two billion dollar satellite nearly useless. A software patch helped considerably, as did the maintenance missions flown by the shuttles, which have upgraded the Hubble several times over the last twenty years.

Another bright spot has been the Jet Propulsion Lab, or JPL. It is a federally-funded research and development center, the only NASA center that isn't a "union shop". And, it shows: Ranger, Mariner, Viking, Voyager, Mars Pathfinder, Cassini, the Mars exploration rovers, Mars Phoenix, Deep Impact and EPOXI all have been run by JPL, making them the only organization in the world to have visited all the planets (and a comet). The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab is another example of a separate-but-partially-funded-by-NASA group that is responsible for NEAR Shoemaker, which orbited and landed on asteroid 433 Eros.

the X-Prize and newSpace

By the late 1990s, it was obvious the space program was stalled. After some preliminary cooperation with the Russians on Mir, construction of the ISS finally began in December 1998, when the Russian Zarya functional cargo block was connected to the American Unity node on mission STS-88, 25 years behind von Braun's schedule.

Generations of Americans had seen first the Apollo program and then the Shuttle program as their only measure of a space program. Because of the "waste anything but time" approach to Apollo and the horrendously expensive Shuttle operations, the public perception of space was that it was incredibly difficult and expensive, and that only governments could afford to do anything there.

In the meantime, private industry was in fact doing lots of things in low earth orbit and geosynchronous orbit, and making a huge profit doing so. Large telecommunication satellites were going up year after year, building the backbone of the internet and satellite TV and telephone services, and today extends to satellite radio. The thing private industry wasn't doing was manned launch services.

In 1995, Peter Diamandis proposed the X-Prize in a speech to the National Space Society. Based on the idea of the Orteig Prize (won by Charles Lindbergh), the X-Prize was meant to encourage the space industry in the private sector by offering a $10 million prize to the first team to send a craft capable of carrying three people (one pilot and two dummy masses) to an altitude of 100km or more twice in a two week period. No government funding was allowed.

Well, it worked. Twenty-six teams from around the world entered the competition, between them spending far more than the $10 million dollar prize money. Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites team, backed by Microsoft's Paul Allen, won the prize with two launches five days apart in autumn 2004.

Winning the X-Prize was worth far more than ten million dollars to Scaled Composites in free advertising alone. It led to a deal with Virgin Galactic to develop larger suborbital spacecraft for a potentially large tourist market.

More importantly for the industry, the X-Prize broke a barrier in public perception about the accessibility of space.

People who had been kids during the Apollo years dreamed about one day going into space themselves - only to see the reality that followed in the intervening decades, where becoming an astronaut and going into space was less likely than being struck by lightning or winning the lottery. They had seen Clarke and Kubrick's vision of the future in the movie 2001, with regular passenger service to giant orbiting space stations and the moon, and compared it to the hugely-expensive and glacial pace of advancement in space after Apollo.

And then out in the Mojave desert Mike Melvill became the first man to earn his commercial astronaut wings, followed a short time later by Brian Binnie. Scaled Composites accomplished a complete development, test, and launch program for a suborbital space vehicle for about what NASA spent every eleven hours. Had they continued flying with the same vehicle instead of moving on to a new development schedule after the X-Prize, then each suborbital flight after that would have cost Scaled about fifty thousand dollars.

The two X-Prize launches changed public perception about space - at least, it was the first chink in the armor. Here were two guys that had gone into space, and they didn't have to be part of NASA to do it. And if they could do it without NASA, then maybe space didn't have to be hugely expensive and complicated. Maybe it could be done inexpensively enough that the price point would drop, fueling demand for a growing launch rate, spreading development costs over more launches.

Maybe one the day the average person could go into space, after all.

Of course that change in perception isn't happening overnight for everyone. It doesn't need to. Only a few people needed to change their perceptions to have a much larger effect, if those people were venture capitalists or angel investors. Suddenly the "giggle factor" was gone: it was conceivable for a small team working on a small budget to not only accomplish something in space - something that was once the sole domain of governments - they could plausibly do it at a profit.

Enter NewSpace. Scaled Composites was obviously the leader in what could become a suborbital tourist market, but there are other players in that market now like Rocketplane and Armadillo Aerospace and Blue Origin and others. There is more than just that one market.

Orbital launch capability has already been demonstrated by SpaceX, which currently has their new Falcon 9 rocket on the pad awaiting its test launch. The Falcon 9 is big enough to launch cargo or passengers to the International Space Station. They are not alone in the orbital launch industry, either. Orbital Sciences corporation has had 40 successful launches since 1990, and is also working towards ISS resupply with the Cygnus/Taurus II vehicle.

These are just a few of the players in a rapidly growing private space industry. While these companies are each following their own business plans and growing their businesses, the incentives offered by the various prizes offered in the wake of the X-Prize (such as NASA's Centennial Challenges program, the $30 million Google Lunar X-Prize, and others of varying size) certainly help to attract investment.

the Vision for Space Exploration and the Constellation program

By early 2004 it was a reasonably good bet that somebody was going to win the Ansari X-Prize, and whether it was Scaled or daVinci or Canadian Arrow or Rubicon or somebody else, it was pretty good odds it was gonna happen. NASA had spent the better part of two decades "going around in circles", and here private industry was ready to take the bull by the horns. In the end there were six manned spaceflights in all of 2004, and three of those had been by Scaled Composites.

On January 14th, 2004, President Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration. Following this announcement, the Aldridge Commission gave a report detailing how to implement that Vision. Recommendations included:
  • Formation of a Permanent Space Exploration Steering Council
  • NASA's relationship to the private sector must be transformed to
    • recognize a far larger presence of private industry in space operations
    • have NASA itself become more focused and integrated, with clear authority and accountability
    • reconfigure NASA centers as Federally Funded R and D centers to enable innovation and stimulate economic development
    • create a technical advisory board, a cost estimating organization, and a high risk/high payoff research and technology organization
    • adopt proven personnel and management reforms
  • Form special project teams on enabling technologies
  • NASA reach broadly into commercial and nonprofit communities to bring in the best ideas and technologies
  • Congress increase the potential for commercial opportunities with incentives for entrepreneurial investment in space, including prizes and property rights
  • pursue international partnerships that encourage global investment
  • NASA seek routine input from the scientific community
  • NASA engage with the National Academy of Sciences on science priorities
  • use of discovery-based criteria for selecting destinations beyond the Moon and Mars, including access to in-situ space resources
  • measures to stimulate educational and general public interest
The Aldridge Commission report represented a departure from the way NASA had run itself for decades, dating back to before Apollo. It basically called for a complete reorganization of NASA's entire management structure.

NASA's answer to the Aldridge Commission was the Exploration Systems Architecture Study. This basically scrapped the majority of the Aldridge report, and the existing designs for Crew Exploration Vehicles called for in the VSE, and replaced them with new NASA administrator Michael Griffin's preferred architecture, which he developed earlier for the Planetary Society. Far from recognizing the directives in the Aldridge report, NASA instead reverted to an Apollo mode, even explicitly dubbed "Apollo on steroids" by Griffin himself during the rollout of the ESAS.

Basically the only recommendation that was met was the funding of the Centennial Challenges program, and that funding is specified by Congress, not NASA.

update: the strikethroughs and corrections in the remainder of this section are h/t Nemo.

This new Constellation architecture consisted of two new space launch systems: crew launch on the Ares-1, and cargo launch on the Ares-V. These rockets were to be based on the the parts of the space shuttle launch system, with new configurations. The Ares-1 would consist of a single shuttle solid rocket booster with an external tank second stage mounted on top, and then the Orion crew capsule mounted on top of that. The Ares-V would use the existing new 5-segment solid rocket boosters and external tank in their side-by-side configuration, with a second stage mounted on top. These would both use new Space Shuttle Main Engines, mounted on the bottom of the external tank for the Ares-V and air-started on the second stages, all off-the-shelf components.

Once NASA actually started crunching the numbers on the design, it became clear that the existing solid rocket motor wasn't up to the job of being a first stage for the rest of the rocket. The new SRBs needed to be bigger by another section, going from four to five solid rocket sections. This meant that the burn rate had to be adjusted as well, and thus a new fuel grain mixture - basically, an entirely new solid rocket motor, sharing only superficial visual commonality with existing hardware.

On the shuttle system the two solid rocket motors are mounted beside the external tank at two points each, top and bottom. The tank itself acts as a "strongback" for the system, dampening vibrations from the SRBs. The orbiter provides steering with its three engines. With a single motor attached at a single point at the bottom of the Ares-1, the vibrations from spikes in thrust would become so intense that the astronauts aboard would be shaken to death, assuming control was possible at all.

A passive damping system was added to the design, which cut into the payload weight. When it became clear that even that wouldn't suffice, an active damping system was added - retrorockets that fired in the opposite direction of the thrust spikes. This cuts even more to the final payload weight, both by its own mass and by reducing the efficiency of the solid rocket motor, with the active damping system working against primary thrust. Oops! Now the solid rocket booster isn't strong enough to lift it all, and we need another half a section added to the booster... back to the drawing board. (update: all this for a rocket that wouldn't have the capability of an existing series of rockets, the Delta IV Heavy.)

It's always a bad sign when early design stages develop kludges to fix kludges to fix kludges. The Orion capsule went from a capacity of seven astronauts, to five, to three six astronauts to four. (thanks, Nemo!)

The mental gymnastics required to accept Griffin's Constellation architecture over competing design architectures, and over the Aldridge report itself, were breathtaking. Flight safety records of competing systems were subject to apples-and-oranges comparisons, such as using records of Titan III and Titan IV rockets as estimates of failure rates of the completely different Delta IV Heavy, or using shuttle flight safety records (after the Challenger disaster only) as estimates of Ares reliability, with each shuttle flight counting as two Ares-1 projected flights. NASA even launched the "Ares-1x", a dummy rocket with the old solid rocket booster design and a mock-up of the upper stage, to "prove" the concept using a system sharing only superficial visual commonality with the proposed Ares-1.

where we are now

By early this year, work on the Constellation program had consumed nine billion dollars and produced PowerPoint presentations, a Potemkin rocket, and a schedule that slipped by more than a year, every year. Meanwhile SpaceX, starting from scratch eight years ago, has designed, built, tested and flown new liquid-fueled rocket engines, and had five test launches of its Falcon-1 rocket, the last two of which achieved orbit, and its big Falcon-9 fully tested and on the pad waiting for launch at Cape Canaveral. And rather than merely costing money, SpaceX has made a profit for years.

The Augustine Commission, formed in May 2009 to ensure the nation was on "a vigorous and sustainable path to achieving its boldest aspirations in space", gave its report in October 2009. Among its suggestions (it was only tasked with suggesting options, not making specific recommendations) was commercial crew launch to orbit and an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Flexible Path option for heavy lift, leading to a "different (and significantly reduced) role for NASA. It has an advantage of potentially lower operational costs, but requires significant restructuring of NASA".

Something had to give. This year President Barack Obama began the process of canceling the Constellation program and returning NASA to the recommendations of the Aldridge Commission and the Flexible Path suggestion of the Augustine Commission. This has caused considerable criticism from such luminaries as Gene Kranz, Neil Armstrong, Michael Griffin, Paul Spudis, and others.

Some see this as the end of American manned spaceflight - after all, if every single aspect of the space program isn't handled entirely by NASA, then it isn't getting done at all, right? Because space is hard and expensive, so only governments can afford to be in the launch business at all, right? And NASA as an organization can't change its structure to follow the Aldridge recommendations, it has to stay in Apollo mode, right?

Well, maybe not.

The opposition has largely been rooted in concerns about risk and cost. This is exemplified by Eugene Cernan (perhaps mistakenly) quoting NASA administrator General Charles Bolden as saying that commercial space "may need a bailout like GM/Chrysler - may be largest bailout in history". A misunderstanding of the situation is probably going on, as Martijn Meijering said:
The question is how much of that risk should be borne by NASA. Logically, that would be most of the risk, since it is NASA that wants to do exploration. That doesn’t mean NASA cannot shop around and look for the best deal. From the perspective of taxpayers it would make sense if it did and if it used proper instruments to manage that risk: performance bonds, intellectual property rights and other assets as collateral, the right to take over operations if milestones aren’t met etc.

Under the current system NASA doesn’t use these instruments and operates under a single source cost plus regime. This is why I think all the talk of the risk of commercial suppliers is fundamentally dishonest. The essence of what’s being proposed is a new contracting mechanism, one that would allow much better management of risk. Opponents of this new regime point to the risk of bailout when that’s exactly what’s happening to the current regime.

Similarly there is dishonest talk of giving “commercial space” a seat at the table, but not the whole table. Commercial space is not a group of companies, it is a contracting mechanism. All potential suppliers, including current ones could compete on a level playing field.

It is only when you distort the truth by portraying commercial space as a specific group of companies (SpaceX, XCOR, Armadillo, Masten) that you can start portraying commercial space as risky. Changing the contracting mechanism means less risk, not more. Relying on unproven companies would be risky, but that’s not what’s being proposed.
where do we go from here?

The arguments we in the space community have (manned spaceflight versus robots, the Moon versus Mars versus Near-Earth asteroids, expendable launch versus reusable vehicles, and so on) are still largely framed on the assumption that Space equals NASA, and that the NASA of the Apollo years is the NASA of today, or the NASA of the future. The premise is that due to the expense we can only pursue one goal at a time and that a monolithic NASA has to be in charge, that all efforts must pull in the same direction or nothing at all gets done.

If the Space Race had really been about space, a number of things would have occurred differently over the last forty years. The arguments like manned-vs-robot would be moot, since access to orbit would be regular and widespread and inexpensive. However, a different path was followed which brings us to where we are today. The decisions we make today will shape the future.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results". If we want different results than we have seen over the last four decades, we have to be prepared to follow a different approach.

In deciding on a direction to take, it is helpful to have a goal in mind and a way of getting there.

I touched on some of the goals for utilizing space in why go to space, but I didn't explain how we get there from here. The goals - large scale use of the available clean energy and abundant raw materials available and expanding the human presence and economy throughout the solar system - are too big for NASA to accomplish by the end of a possible second Obama term.

Instead, NASA must fundamentally change the way it runs itself and the way it interacts with the larger American and world marketplace. And the US Congress can do some things to help the process along considerably.

reforming NASA

Finding # 2 of the Aldridge Commission was:
The Commission finds that NASA’s relationship to the private sector, its organizational structure, business culture, and management processes – all largely inherited from the Apollo era – must be decisively transformed to implement the new, multi-decadal space exploration vision.
This finding is certainly correct. The nature of NASA's mission is not the same as it was during Apollo - indeed, its mission changed dramatically after Apollo, but NASA itself largely did not. If all you've got is a hammer (Apollo-era NASA) then all problems start to look like a nail (Apollo).

NASA as it is currently structured is incapable of sustaining a single multi-decade human space flight project such as Constellation, a Mars Direct mission, or even a decade-long one like Apollo. Any such initiative that spans longer than two presidential terms is unlikely to ever last long enough to get off the ground.

Instead NASA's activities have to be reorganized to follow smaller projects which knock down the technical hurdles and retire risk on the scientific and engineering challenges, which would lead to a long-term advancement of capability and reduction in cost.

Here we return to some key recommendations of the Aldridge commission. First, the various NASA centers must be reconfigured as federally funded research and development centers like the Jet Propulsion Lab. This will cut down enormously on labor costs and increase productivity because all the center workers become contract workers instead of union employees - more bang for the Buck Rogers.

Second, again quoting the Aldridge report:
Currently, NASA’s organization chart is not wired for success. The first task is to realign the NASA Headquarters organizations to support the long-term vision. There are currently too many mission-focused enterprises and the mission support functions are excessively diffuse.
The report mentioned consolidating the various mission-focused enterprises within NASA's organizational structure into Science, Exploration, Aeronautics, and possibly Education. A permanent space exploration steering council, a technical advisory board, a cost estimating organization, and a high-risk/high-payoff research and technology organization as additions to NASA's organization would help greatly in performing the smaller projects I mentioned above.

Third, the incentives for smaller private companies and startups to get involved such as prizes like the Centennial Challenges or contracts like COTS-D should be maintained and expanded. The Centennial Challenges program has already had an effect on the design of astronaut gloves far more cost-effectively than if NASA had just done it themselves.

So, what are these smaller-scale building block projects?

NASA's new mission: administering the stepping stones to the solar system

Right now, humanity has certain limited spaceflight capabilities. Increasing those capabilities in giant leaps like Apollo is expensive and politically unsustainable. However, by increasing capabilities incrementally we can build future endeavors on previous increments. Each step is one small step instead of one giant leap.

The biggest impediment to getting anywhere is the rocket equation. To get into orbit, you not only need to carry your rocket tanks and engines and payload, you need to carry the fuel and oxidizer to burn in the engines to make thrust. The fuel and oxidizer has mass, too, and so you need to carry more fuel and oxidizer to lift that weight, too. If you're going not just to orbit but to the moon, then you need to carry even more fuel and oxidizer, and if you want to get back, even more.

If you have to lift all of that fuel and oxidizer (and their tanks) off the ground every time you go to the moon, you have a situation like the Saturn V. Of that enormous rocket, all that returned was the tiny capsule on top.

But what if you didn't have to carry all that fuel and oxidizer with you all the way from the ground to the moon and back? Most of it isn't being used when it is needed, but is just hefted up as dead weight until it is used. What if instead you launched on a smaller rocket, one just able to get your capsule to orbit with an empty second stage booster? And then if that booster could be refilled in orbit and sent on the next leg of its journey?

Indeed, if you could refill a spacecraft with consumables like liquid Oxygen, Nitrogen, Hydrogen, hydrazine, water, Helium, Xenon, methane, kerosene, Nitrogen tetraoxide, Argon, or various other liquids or gases, then the craft launched from the ground wouldn't necessarily need to be the same craft that human passengers use for the next leg of the journey at all.

Ever driven or flown across North America? Even a journey of a few hundred miles is enough to illustrate the idea in action. If you're driving along an interstate or an interprovincial highway, you stop at a gas station when you need gas. Maybe there's a restaurant or a snack bar and you grab a bite to eat - then you get back on the road. If you're taking the bus you get on at one station and transfer from station to station, with each bus just going back and forth along a route between stations and gassing up along the way or stopping for food wherever available. Or you take a cab to the airport, hop on a plane, maybe transfer at a major hub or two, then take a cab from another airport to your hotel.

Well, right now there are no gas stations or bus stations or buses or semi-trailers or truck stops or hotels or other such things in orbit. If you want to accompany your intermodal shipping container from here to the moon today, you've got to bring your gas station and bus and snack bar along with you, and most of the way back.

So, we need:
  • orbiting propellant (and other gas and or liquid consumables) depots. The first ones would be the demonstrator models, proving required technologies like orbital propellant transfer, cryogenic storage in the space environment, solving outgassing issues, perhaps trying out things like electrodynamic reboost and using outgassing for thrust vectoring. The load launched to such a depot is fungible, relatively inexpensive, and can be launched in whatever quantity the supplier is able to provide by whomever is able to provide it. In the long run this would lead to multiple depots in multiple orbits - and an enormous increase in the number of launch service providers and in each company's total launches (amortizing R&D costs over a greater number of units). Depots then pay market rates for consumables delivered, and likewise sell it as needed.
  • bus stations. That's about the best way I can describe it. Each would probably be closely associated with a propellant/consumables depot. People and cargo arrive there from launch vehicles, and transfer there to other vehicles. The craft that launches a person from the Earth doesn't need to be the craft that takes him to the moon. It doesn't even have to be the same craft that takes him back to Earth - those might be launched empty at high acceleration four at a time. The bus station would be the place where people and cargo transfer from vehicle to vehicle as needed. This greatly simplifies vehicle design and manufacturing - many different vehicles can perform specialized tasks, and many different providers can make those vehicles, as long as the interfaces to the airlocks and propellant transfer interfaces are refined, standardized and published. These bus stations would likely consist of an inflatable Bigelow type module, airlocks, maybe a big robotic arm, solar panels... perhaps the ISS might be used as a test bed for bus station technology. Future bus stations could exist at other depots in low earth orbit and eventually at the Lagrange orbits.
  • buses. These would be basically any vehicle that transferred passengers from one orbiting bus station to another. A possible design might consist of an inflatable Bigelow module for habitation, an airlock for connecting to a bus station, some main engines, a set of (inflatable?) tanks for propellants, some solar panels and radiators, and maybe a small single person cockpit similar to the Pods in 2001. Such a vehicle could be assembled piece by piece as the parts arrive at the first bus station.
  • intermodal transport. The standardized shipping containers have revolutionized the shipping, trucking, and rail industries, with the same container holding a shipment from source to destination, and the mode of transport in between irrelevant. Transfer of the shipment from one mode of transportation to another or storing it at a storage facility is as simple as moving the container with a crane. The same intermodal container should be capable of shipment into space, as long as certain total mass and center of mass and other such rules are standardized. To make it efficient, the container would be loaded by crane from a truck or ship or rail car into a NASA-developed space shipment housing. This would consist of an external framework designed to support the intermodal container during launch and testing. Once the intermodal container is secured, the whole thing can be spin-tested to ensure it is centered and won't throw the rocket off course during launch.
  • substantially-enclosed life support system. The input is solar energy, the output is waste heat radiated to the universe, and in between a minimalist ecosystem backed up by some technology keeps people, plants, and maybe some animals alive. Everything is recycled with minimal resupply. Water, food, air, all are recycled continuously by the artificial ecosystem. The Biosphere 2 project got a good start on this and taught many lessons, and the American and Russian space programs have both done some preliminary work, but it is time to get serious about extended stays in space. That means our wastes have to be consumed by other organisms, which in turn recycle the CO2 into Oxygen and purify the water and provide a food supply. There's plenty for NASA to do in this area.
  • the semi truck / tractor. That intermodal container and housing by themselves are not a space vehicle. They are cargo. They won't move themselves once launched. To be a true space vehicle it needs guidance, navigation, control, communications, a power supply, and temperature control (at least for all those control systems), propulsion, and propellant. If the payload is temperature or pressure sensitive, it will probably need its own separate payload health systems. However, that same guidance etc system can be a common, open source device. With the addition of a robotic arm and the interface to a propellant depot, you have a reusable vehicle that is capable of a wide array of on-orbit cargo transfer tasks. This is particularly valuable if the cargo being transported is consumables like propellant. Such cargo could take a long time to reach a matching orbit with a depot, several months if need be, and save on the total propellant required to service the depot itself. NASA needs a space tractor.
  • reusable auxiliary boosters. NASA currently uses two 4-segment solid rocket boosters to help launch the space shuttles, but those are not quite what I had in mind. The first stage of a rocket may be recoverable (SpaceX is attempting this), the second stage is pretty much going to orbit, but strap-on boosters don't need to go all the way to orbit and might be re-used. To make that happen on a large scale, those boosters have to be much easier to use than the SRBs. Flyback boosters can be liquid fueled and glide back to a landing strip for quick recovery, refilling, and reuse. NASA needs to retire the risk on a number of technologies associated with making such a device work. Form there, private companies would use that technology to upgrade their own systems, enabling larger payloads by assisting existing rockets with reusable strap-on stages.
  • That's just a start. As these smaller goals are accomplished, each makes the others easier. And together they make the next stages ten and twenty years down the road easier and cheaper - things like lunar landers and lunar habitats and in-situ resource utilization and so forth. There should always be a small part of NASA that is looking ahead twenty years and performing initial, small-scale tests and prototyping of those twenty-years-out capabilities, because those years will continue to pass anyhow.


What Congress can do and NASA can't

ITAR must be seriously reconsidered and amended, if not outright repealed. The reason for ITAR - to supposedly keep Russia and other countries from supplying rocket technology to Iran and other pariah states - well, that horse left the barn long ago, and the lock on the barn door isn't doing any future development any good, no horses can get in or out.

Next: recognition of property rights. I have a cigarette lighter beside me. I bought it, I use it, I keep others from taking it from me, I own it. The people around me accept that it is my lighter. They don't have to defend my claim to recognize that I own it. If someone takes it from me while I'm not looking and I can't get it back, well, then somebody swiped my lighter and I don't own it anymore.

And so it is with space. Suppose I build a robot, buy a rocket, and launch it to the moon. When my robot starts digging up Platinum, well by golly I want that Platinum to be mine. Getting it back to Earth economically would be my problem, and when I sell it I want my money. My risk, my reward. That's the way capitalism works. (I wrote about this before, several times.)

The Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Treaty are merely apparent impediments to the recognition of property rights by the United States, or indeed any other country.

Any person reading this will accept that the lighter I mentioned above belongs to me, that I have property rights to it. It is no different for, say, the New Zealand government to recognize that my lighter is mine, even though I'm not in New Zealand. If however I use that lighter to start a forest fire in New Zealand, well then the government of New Zealand would be correct to exact some sort of compensation from me, as the negligent use of my property would have infringed on some New Zealander's property rights. Simple.

So it is with extraterrestrial property. The government of New Zealand or the United States would not need to have me as a citizen or defend my claim in order to recognize the fact that I owned a chunk of asteroid if my robot was sampling the surface and making cores and assaying the samples. The government wouldn't be claiming ownership of the asteroid, they'd be recognizing the fact of my ownership - or anybody's ownership of an asteroid. Such a recognition would enable private enterprise to flourish throughout the solar system once it gets a toehold.

(Don't worry, I won't claim them all. There are about 1 000 000 000 000 000 eleventy kajillion asteroids and comets a kilometer or bigger across in the solar system.)

update: See what happens when I just pull a number out of the air? People call me on it. The main belt has about a million such asteroids, there's a bunch more in Jupiter's L4 and L5 orbits, Neptune has L4 and L5 asteroids, there's the Kuiper belt, the scattered disk, and many trillions in the Oort cloud - just counting the ones bigger than a kilometer across.

The asteroid 99942 Apophis is about 270 meters across. There are way more objects like that than bigger ones.