A Time For Dragons

In a year where good news has been incredibly scarce, here’s a ray of sunshine:  two astronauts were successfully launched into orbit yesterday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  The two veteran astronauts aboard, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, are currently orbiting the Earth and will dock with the International Space Station today.

49927519643_b43c6d4c44_o.0The successful launch yesterday marks two milestones.  It’s the first launch of human beings into space from the Kennedy Space Center since 2011, when the last space shuttle mission occurred.  More significantly, the launch is a huge step forward in America’s entire approach to spaceflight and space exploration and development.  The launch vehicle and “Crew Dragon” capsule carrying the astronauts were designed and built by SpaceX, one of the many private companies that are working to make spaceflight a successful commercial venture.

It’s difficult to overstate how significant this step is.  For decades, the space program proceeded on a model where launch vehicles were designed by governmental employees and then built by contractors under “cost plus” contracts.  The SpaceX venture represents a radically different approach, in which NASA describes what it wants, says what it will pay, and then leaves it to the private company to design and build the vehicle that complies with the NASA requirements.  The decision to yield some of the governmental control, and trust private companies to do the job, is an interesting story, and one for which the Bush and Obama Administrations deserve significant credit.

The new approach has several consequences.  For one, it is unquestionably cheaper for taxpayers.  In addition, the interplay between private companies looking to control costs while delivering the required product and governmental engineers who have long experience with spaceflight issues is producing innovation and new perspectives on how to solve problems.  And finally, the successful launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, demonstrates that commercial spaceflight works.  SpaceX is one of many private companies that are making space their mission, and yesterday’s triumph will undoubtedly spur other companies to look to space as a new frontier for investment and commercial activity.  If, as many of us hope, spaceflight is to become a routine activity, with expansive space stations and lunar bases and the exploration of Mars as the next steps, the involvement of private investment and private capital will be essential to making that dream a reality.

Yesterday’s launch marks the Era of the Dragon in spaceflight.  It’s the first time in history that equipment built by a private company has carried human beings into space.  It won’t be the last.

The U.S. Space Force

Earlier this week, Congress approved the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.  Among its other provisions, the legislation has officially created the U.S. Space Force, which will become the sixth branch of the U.S. military — after the Navy, Army, Marines, Coast Guard, and Air Force.

spaceforce1_1533570559Although the legislation authorizes the creation of the U.S. Space Force, it does so in a cautious way.  The U.S.S.F. will initially be created under the Department of the Air Force, and it won’t be able to start hiring new service members.  Instead, to reduce redundancy and maximize efficiency, no new “billets” are authorized, which means that the U.S.S.F. will use existing personnel from the Air Force Space Command to staff the new branch.  That means that, at least initially, the U.S.S.F. will have a very strong Air Force feel to it.  During its first year, the Space Force will establish a headquarters, and the President is empowered to appoint a Chief of Space Operations, who will report to the Secretary of the Air Force and be a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

What, exactly, will the U.S. Space Force do?  The legislation identifies its core functions as follows:  “protect the interests of the United States in space; deter aggression in, from, and to space; and conduct space operations.”  That’s a pretty broad mission.  You can read one recently retired Air Force General’s view of the case for the Space Force, the need to seize the “high ground” of space, and the need to counter actions by the Chinese government in space, here.  His remarks also indicated that significant new technology has already been developed, and is currently being developed, that will help the U.S.S.F. fulfill its broad mission.  We can expect to see some advances in satellites, spacecraft, communications, space transportation, robotics, and life support technologies, among others, as the U.S.S.F. gets underway in earnest.  And don’t be surprised to see contracts awarded to SpaceX and other private space technology and exploration companies.

When the creation of the U.S.S.F. was first suggested, some people made fun of it as a silly Buck Rogers adventure, and others bemoaned the official militarization of space as inconsistent with the notion of space as the peaceful final frontier.   Congress, however, clearly saw a strategic need for a new branch of the service to focus on space, and the legislation approving the creation of the Space Force passed by overwhelming, bipartisan majorities.  The U.S. Space Force is here, and it signals a new era in the “Space Race.”  Exactly what that new era will look like will be sketched out in the next few years.

The New Space Race

The old Space Race, between the United States and the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, is on full display in the excellent film First Man.  The new space race doesn’t have the same ideological, future of civilization elements as the old one, and is a lot more multi-faceted, but it’s just as important to our long-term future in space.

And right now, the United States is winning.

wvws_falcon-heavy-demo-2310The new space race focuses on commercial spaceflight and launching vehicles into space.  For years, the United States was playing catch-up to the Europeans, and trailing badly.  The Euros were launching the majority of satellites and vehicles into space, using their Ariane rocket, while the United States was retiring its primary launch vehicle, the space shuttle, without having any back-up in place.  In 2011, when the shuttle was retired, there were no commercial satellite launches from any American spaceports, and for the next few years the launch industry was dominated by the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese, launching from government-backed providers.

But now the tide has turned.  America led the way in commercial launches in 2016 and 2017, and 2018 is shaping up to be even better.  The trend is so pronounced that European advocates are afraid that they are falling behind and won’t catch up.

The reason for trend is that the United States has made room for commercial entities, like SpaceX, to enter the launching game.  While the United States government still is a major player in space, SpaceX’s focus on innovation and cost control, through use of reusable rockets, have made it extremely competitive in bidding for launch jobs, whether it is commercial satellites being placed into orbit or missions to the international space station.  And new entrants to the competition, like Blue Origin, are set to participate — which is likely to make the American lead even more pronounced.  The article linked above notes:  “the uniquely American approach of government support and investment in private space is paying dividends, creating an industry that could swallow the comparatively moribund European effort.”

It’s nice to know that American capitalism, and good old-fashioned competition, can still produce innovation and leadership — and now in space.

Still Astronaut Wannabes

This year, NASA set a new record for the number of applicants to its astronaut program.  18,300 people applied to join NASA’s 2017 astronaut class.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of those hopefuls will be disappointed, because NASA expects to actually select only between 8 and 14 astronauts.

When I was a kid growing up in the ’60s, every kid wanted to grow up to be an astronaut.  Of course we did!  Every time there was a rocket launch we trooped into the school auditorium to watch it, and when the rocket cleared the launchpad we cheered in support of those brave men riding in the capsule at the very tip of that pillar of flame.  In my third grade class our science project involved a life-size mock up of the Gemini capsule, covered in aluminum foil, that sat in one corner of the classroom.  From watching Walter Cronkite on TV, we knew all of the steps in the launching and recovery processes.

worldmostexpensivesuit-americanastronautcostumeSo obviously we dreamed of one day being astronauts.  Astronauts were celebrities.  Astronauts were cool — like the Beatles, except clean-cut.  Astronauts were the future.  Astronauts were leading the great national effort for America to win the “space race,” and they got to go to the White House and meet the President, too.

The days of intense national interest in rocket launches and sending a man to the moon are long behind us.  We don’t even have a space shuttle program anymore, and space flight opportunities are limited to occasional trips to the International Space Station.  But NASA is hopeful that a new era in space flight is just around the corner.  It is talking about sending a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s, private companies are increasingly getting into the space business, and the movie The Martian was a big hit that made astronauts world-wide heroes again.  Maybe the manned space program will once again come to the forefront.

I think it says something positive that more than 18,000 people applied for the astronaut program.  People still want to be part of a great effort, still want to move the frontiers forward, still want to explore.  In short, they still want to be astronauts.  Why not?  Heck, I still think it would be cool to be an astronaut.

 

The “New Space” Race

Yesterday, the Indian mission to Mars, called Mangalyaan, fired rockets that caused it to leave Earth orbit and begin a voyage that will see it rendezvous with Mars in September, 2014.  This morning China launched its first moon rover, with a rocket carrying the “Jade Rabbit” on a mission to explore the lunar surface.

India and China are competitors in a new space race.  They are vying to join the United States, Russia, and Europe in showing the scientific and engineering capability to conduct complicated space missions and enhance their international prestige as a result.

In the meantime, the focus of American space efforts have changed.  Although NASA continues to produce amazing unmanned space exploration missions, with the end of the shuttle program the United States government is temporarily out of the business of launching humans into space.  As the Washington Post has recently reported, the torch of manned space flight is being picked up by a number of private companies that are taking a different, more entrepreneurial approach.  Many of the companies are located in the Mojave desert — a location familiar to anyone who has read The Right Stuff and knows the history of the Mercury space program.  The companies feature imaginative business models that forecast how space flight and exploration can become a profitable venture.

As the Indian and Chinese missions show, there will always be a role for government in space.  Many of us regret that the federal government didn’t ignore the naysayers and move much more aggressively into space after the triumphs of the Apollo program with the building of a large, functioning space station, lunar bases, and other efforts.  But the government didn’t do so.  Now those of us who dream of space exploration should be pleased that private enterprise sees opportunities in the heavens.  The history of America has shown that capitalism can work wonders, and competition among companies can spur extraordinary technological advances.  If the same visionary leadership and engineering savvy that produced our personal computer and smartphone revolution can be brought to bear on the commercial development of space, who can say what opportunities might be realized?

Keep your eye on the high desert.  When we start reading more about readily available “space tourism” flights or mining efforts in the asteroid belt, we’ll know that the future envisioned in countless science fiction novels has moved a little bit closer.

Gravity

Gravity is one of those films where you are acutely aware of all of the components of moviemaking:  cinematography, sound, special effects, acting, props.  All play key roles in making this space thriller a real gut-punch of a movie that sticks with you.

The story line is simple.  Astronauts are working on equipment in space when disaster strikes, and they have to figure out what to do.  They’re cut off from the world and alone in an impossibly hostile environment.  And that’s where all of the elements of the cinema arts come in.  In these days of blasting soundtracks, how many movies feature absolute silence, or only the sounds of panicky breathing, to help tell the story?  In these days of explosions and superhero epics, how many films require you to watch tiny things, like ice crystals forming on a space helmet?

The zero-gravity environment of space is a perfect setting for jaw-dropping technical wizardry, and Gravity doesn’t disappoint.  The weightlessness special effects looked spot on and, in the case of a tear forming into a tiny drop of water and floating toward the camera, moved the story forward.  Equally impressive was the camera positioning and sets that gave a true sense of the claustrophobic nature of spacecraft and their tininess against the vastness of the universe.

George Clooney is perfectly cast as the wisecracking veteran who falls back on years of astronaut training to develop a game plan on how to respond to the crisis.  Sandra Bullock is a revelation as the first-time space voyager who must draw upon the will to live as she faces challenge after challenge.   Bullock shows an emotional range I didn’t think she had.  And while the physics of their space adventure may be sketchy, thanks to the actors the human story rings true.

Gravity is well worth the price of a ticket.  Just be sure to budget time afterward when you can talk about “how did they do that?”

Chatting Up Astro Boy

The Japanese have come up with a solution for astronaut loneliness:  they’ve designed a talking robot that was sent up into space yesterday to serve as a companion for the Japanese astronaut who will be commanding the International Space Station later this year.  The robot, called Kirobo, is part of a study of how machines can interact emotionally with humans who are isolated.

Kirobo is 13 inches tall, is capable of various movements, and was modeled on the cartoon character Astro Boy.  Kirobo is programmed to communicate in Japanese and to recognize the face of astronaut Kochi Wakata, so Kirobo can greet Wakata when they meet up at the International Space Station.  The robot will record all of his conversations with Wakata and also may serve as a conduit for messages from the control room.  Kirobo’s designer says he hopes the robot will serve as a kind of mediator between human and machine.

The Japanese are constantly breaking new ground in robotics, and Kirobo is just the latest development.  Still, I wonder about the underlying concept.  Our technology has progressed to the point where we routinely communicate with machines, through keyboards and voice commands, but an emotional connection just doesn’t happen. No one considers Siri their BFF.

Will a lonely astronaut, fresh from a hard day’s work on the ISS, really want to have a deep conversation with a doll-like invention that looks like Astro Boy?  Would Mission Control be more concerned if the astronaut didn’t connect emotionally with Kirobo — or if he did?  Is talking to a tiny machine really that much emotionally healthier than talking to yourself?

Alpha Centauri’s Earth-Sized Planet

Science continues to achieve amazing advances in our ability to detect, measure, and analyze planets orbiting stars far outside our solar system.

So far, scientists have discovered and confirmed the existence of more than 800 planets.  Most of the planets, however, are huge gas giants, like Jupiter or Saturn in our solar system.  The latest advance in detection capabilities came this week, when scientists announced that they have detected the lightest planet to orbit a Sun-like star — and the star just happens to be Alpha Centauri, a weird, triple-star system that is the Sun’s nearest galactic neighbor.

Alpha Centauri, for those who fell asleep during astronomy class, is a mere 4.3 light years away.  Of course, one light year is 6 trillion (6,000,000,000,000) miles away, but who’s counting?  The planet scientists have detected is about the mass of our good Earth.

Before you start worrying that little green men might appear on your doorstep tonight, take a deep breath:  the Earth-sized planet is closer to Alpha Centauri B than Mercury is to the Sun, so it’s probably not conducive to life.  Still, the discovery is remarkable.  In the not too distant future, scientists will use this detection technology to find a planet about the size and mass of Earth, orbiting a star a lot like Sol, at a distance that would suggest that it is likely to be temperate.  What will that mean?  My guess is that we will train every radio telescope and sensory device we have in the direction of that planet, listen as hard as we can, and hope.

 

Enter The Dragon

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has successfully rendevoused with the International Space Station and has been snagged by the space station’s robot arm.

The Dragon capsule therefore becomes the first privately owned space vehicle to reach the ISS.  This morning the astronauts on the space station opened the capsule and entered it, conducted a quick inspection and found no sign of any problems with the interior, and indeed reported that the capsule had that familiar “new car smell.”  So far, SpaceX’s Falcon rocket and its Dragon capsule have performed flawlessly — reaching orbit, conducting the maneuvering tests that showed that the capsule could safely be brought near the ISS, and then ultimately delivering the payload.

We now have a private company with the technology and human know-how to put a vehicle into space and haul cargo to an orbiting destination.  The Dragon’s successful delivery is a huge step forward toward increased exploration and development of space, in an era where commercial entities will bear an increasingly significant part of the cost — and, not incidentally, will look to reap profit from their investments.  With SpaceX leading the way, other companies will not be far behind.

A Glimpse Of The Future Of Space

Our governments are running out of money.  Programs like space exploration — which don’t pander to particular interest groups and aren’t viewed as “essential” — are easy targets for budget cutters.  That means that, if we are to advance in space, commercial entities motivated by profits will have to carry the ball forward.

Today saw a big step in that direction.  A company called SpaceX launched its own Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral.  The rocket is carrying a SpaceX Dragon capsule filled with supplies for the International Space Station.  Because this is the first flight, the supplies are not essential, and the Dragon capsule will need to show its reliability and maneuverability before it will be allowed to get near the ISS.  If it passes those tests, however, it will move close to the space station, be snatched from space by a robot arm, and then emptied of its cargo.  If the mission is a success, it will be the first of many such deliveries.  With the space shuttle program ended, NASA will need to rely on private companies to deliver the goods.

I’m sure there will be some who moan about the intrusion of money-grubbing corporations into the pristine realm of space, but the fact is that capitalism is already there, in the form of countless communications satellites.  If space is to be fully explored, profit-seeking risk-takers will need to take the lead.  We should all celebrate SpaceX’s achievement and hope for a successful venture that encourages other companies to get into the business of space.

Mining The Asteroid Belt

Any sci-fi buff has read stories about hardy souls who fly between the asteroids and mine the hurtling chunks of rock for minerals.  Usually the heroic asteroid miner-pilot is a gruff, swashbuckling character with a taste for adventure and a heart of gold.

Now the concept of mining the asteroid belt seems to have moved a step closer to reality — except that the mining will be done by robots, not adventurers.

A consortium of wealthy entrepreneurs has announced a plan to use telescopes to identify likely candidates for mining, with a specific focus on gold and platinum.  The plans would then move to establishing observation platforms and a fuel depot in orbit, and finally to the mining of asteroids and shipment of minerals back to Earth.

Obviously, we are still far away from commercial exploration of space.  Nevertheless, those of us who dream of more robust space exploration must pin our hopes on profit-seeking entities, because our cash-strapped governments are unlikely to do much.  If profits can be made, entrepreneurs who are willing to accept risks will figure out a way to realize those profits.

The fact that companies are finally starting to look carefully at space tourism, asteroid mining, and other obvious commercial activities in space is a good sign.  Serious efforts will mean a focus on improving the technology, mission planning, delivery systems, and other processes that will make commercial use of space resources increasingly viable.

That means our grandchildren might not be swashbuckling asteroid mining pilots — but they could get a chance to spend some time among the stars.

Another Benefit From Space Exploration

Proponents of space exploration and development have always argued that there will be lots of benefits from being able to do things in zero gravity.  Form perfect spheres.  Create chemical and metallurgical compounds that wouldn’t be possible in Earth’s heavy gravity.  Experiment with positions undreamed of by the authors of the Kama Sutra.

Now there’s another item to add to the list — the Ardbeg distillery, which has been making whiskey for more than 300 years, has sent malt to the International Space Station to see how the malt, and some charred oak, mature and interact in zero gravity conditions.  The hope is that the process might lead to the development of new flavors or other discoveries that benefit the whiskey industry.

I’m all in favor of this use of the International Space Station.  The Station shouldn’t be limited to boring science experiments devised by the junior biology class at Shaker Heights High School.  Why not see if basic consumer products can be improved?

I can’t stand the smell or taste of scotch, no matter how much its afficionados rave about its subtle taste and scent and nuanced aftertones.  If the International Space Station can somehow help to develop a scotch that doesn’t smell and taste like lighter fluid, it will have been worth every penny.

Discovering A Salt Water Moon

America’s unmanned space probes continue to do amazing things — including discovering that one of Saturn’s moon has salt water oceans like those on Earth.

The discovery was made by the Cassini spacecraft, which has been flying around the huge gas giant and its famous rings.  Cassini reached a point within 46 miles of the south pole of ice-covered Enceladus, one of Saturn’s many moons, and on its close pass Cassini actually flew through the jets of water vapor and ice that make up the geysers emanating from the moon.  In so doing, the probe “tasted” the vapor and determined that it consists of water, organic compounds, and salt, at the same salinity levels as Earth’s oceans.

The evidence suggests that there are liquid oceans underneath Enceladus’ icy crust, and that the water may be in contact with the moon’s rocky core — which could be supplying the chemical compounds that are the building blocks of life.  This discovery makes Enceladus a prime candidate for another mission designed to determine whether life in some form actually exists on the moon.  We’ll just have to hope that we can find the money necessary to fund the mission that will follow up on this very intriguing discovery.

 

Utter Failure And Ignominious End

Poor Phobos-Grunt!  Saddled with the worst space mission name ever — one that evokes images of sweaty, cursing, truss-wearing longshoremen, rather than the lofty aspirations of space exploration — it soon will cease to be.

Scientists say Phobos-Grunt will hit Earth’s atmosphere on Sunday.  The star-crossed probe is expected to explode and break into little pieces that burn up on re-entry.  Scientists are confident that the chances are vanishingly small that any remaining bits of junk could injure any unsuspecting human going about his business.

How can scientists be confident about anything when it comes to Phobos-Grunt?  It has been the biggest space exploration flop in years.  After liftoff, it never performed as designed and didn’t even make it to its intended Earth orbit, much less to Mars.  Given that record of utter and ignominious failure, why do we think Phobos-Grunt will go gently into that good night?  Isn’t it more likely that Phobos-Grunt will, consistent with its dismal name and even more disastrous record, do something that will cement its reputation as the greatest space fiasco in history — like plow into a bus of sightseeing nuns or knock off Washington’s nose on Mount Rushmore?

Say, are there any planned meetings of world leaders on Sunday?

Worst Space Mission Name Ever

Worst Space Mission Name Ever (II)

Voyager 1, In “Cosmic Purgatory”

Someday soon, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft will reach a milestone.  Somewhere out beyond the orbits of Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto, 11 billion miles from the Sun, Voyager 1 is getting ready to pass the outer boundaries of our solar system and enter into a region of interstellar space that scientists have dubbed “cosmic purgatory.”

Consider this:  Voyager 1 was launched in 1977.   When its mission began, Jimmy Carter was President, disco was king, the Vietnam War was fresh in everyone’s memory, and I hadn’t even celebrated my 21st birthday.  A lot has happened in the intervening years, but all the while Voyager 1 has steadily journeyed through the solar system, exploring Jupiter and Saturn and otherwise performing its mission.  It’s still doing so, nearly 35 years later, moving at 11 miles per second and continuing to transmit data about the the solar wind and other conditions in the outer reaches of the solar system.

Voyager 1 will now venture out into unknown regions of the Milky Way, broadcasting its signal and becoming the first man-made object to leave the reaches of our solar system.  It will continue to broadcast until its power and fuel run out — which is not expected to happen until at least 2020.  Maybe disco will be back in vogue by then.