NOT the End of Space Tourism!

On October 25th Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket, destined to bring cargo to the International Space Station, exploded on takeoff. Three days later, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight, resulting in the death of the copilot and severely injuring the pilot. It was not a good week for commercial space endeavors.

In the weeks that have followed I’ve noticed a trend on a lot of the media and space-related websites harping that these two events spell the demise of commercial space flight and tourism.  They can’t be more wrong!

Firstly: I have to question why anyone in this day and time would think that space flight—be it by NASA, ESA or any other federally sponsored space agency or any commercial company—is routine? Hopping on a commercial airline from New York to London is routine, but launching a rocket or spaceplane into or approaching the boundary of space is anything but routine, as it has been for the last sixty years.

Secondly: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo was on a test flight. They were not carrying passengers, nor have they in any of their previous flights of the craft. They are developing the vehicles and systems to provide that “routine” experience in the near future and that requires careful evaluation of the hardware, software and people involved in the process.

When you are testing a new system, you put forth a major effort to minimize the risks to people and equipment, but you will never be able to completely eliminate all the risks encountered. You will also not be able to anticipate everything that will happen, especially when you have a human in the loop.

The bottom line is: there will always be the chance of something going wrong, no matter how hard you try to contain the risks. This will not, and it should not stop Virgin Galactic or any other commercial company trying to develop the technology to leave the surly bond of Earth. It is a learning process, and as we all know, sometimes learning can be painful.

The most important thing that will come out of this is an understanding of what happened on SpaceShipTwo and Antares and how to prevent a similar event from occurring in the future. If they are lucky, they will find some other things they might have overlooked along the way and correct them before they create a problem. Any company involved in high risk work should take this opportunity to review their programs for any thing that they may be overlooking with regard to safety and complacency. Orbital Sciences and Virgin Galactic will go through this process. They will pick up the pieces, dissect the accident and take measures to prevent it from happening again in the future.

If one looks at the path humans have taken to get into space you will see it littered with the wreckage of equipment and in some cases, the loss of life from many failed attempts to push into space. The US and Russia/Soviet Union have both lost people and equipment in the struggle to move into space. No one is immune. We have to accept that traveling into space is inherently risky and understand that those that are the forefront of the technology don’t approach it haphazardly, but use all the tools at hand to maximize their chances of success.

The return on investment is too great for these companies to stop their pursuit of the technology to gain a foothold on space. Those that can do it reliably, safely and economically will reap the benefits of the yet untapped market of space tourism and scientific research, which will take full advantage of a cheap ride into space.

Popular media will tend to exploit the drama of these events for their ratings, but we should not succumb to the hype that this is a mature, routine technology. Someday your trip to the Moon or Mars will be as routine as taking an international flight is today. Until then, we will have to be patient with the stuttering baby steps we are taking.

Until next time,

RC Davison

Curse You, Gene Roddenberry!

It’s been almost fifty years since you ushered us onto the bridge of the starship Enterprise and led us through our Milky Way galaxy. From Aldebaran to the galaxy’s edge, we explored the Alpha quadrant, then through a wormhole to the Gamma quadrant and finally the Delta quadrant, we were at home in the galaxy.

Oh, you made it look so easy. Warping from star system to star system. Transporting down to the planet instead of landing your starship. Artificial gravity. Inertial dampers. Sub-space communications. Phasers and tractor beams. Well, we have i-Pads, Android phones and a space station in low Earth orbit. Alas, we’ve got a long way to go.

Okay, I know, it’s a science fiction show. And, it’s only been 50 years, not 300 years – which in 2265 Kirk will take command of the Enterprise for its 5-year mission. But, at the rate we’re making progress in exploring the cosmos, will we be there in another 250 years?

The Starship Enterprise

It’s been over fifty years since Sputnik made its first orbit of Earth and we are still mucking about trying to put unmanned rovers on and orbiters around the planets in our Solar System. We’re still lighting-off our rockets like forth of July fireworks and trying to figure out better ways to land on bodies of interest in our Solar System, from parachutes to airbags, retro-rockets and sky-crane cable-harness systems. We may as well be using “stone knives and bear skins” to build our next generation of space hardware.

Active programs like Cassini, which are producing new data every day may be on the chopping block for a reduced NASA budget to divert funds to finish development of the James Webb Space telescope – Hubble’s replacement. It’s a “rob Peter to pay Paul” deal with the ongoing NASA projects being sacrificed to support new projects. Why cut programs that are working so well?  We won’t be going back to Saturn any time soon. How can we reach for the stars when we can’t even find the funding to do the meager exploring we want to do in our backwater of the galaxy?

The James Webb Space Telescope - Image courtesy of NASA

If the JWST is over budget and behind schedule that points to a project management problem, which means that any system overhaul that needs to be done should be with NASA’s oversight on these projects. Closer attention to the planning, budgeting, development and progress of these projects, especially one with such a high profile as the JWST should have shown signs of trouble and been dealt with early on when these issues were easier to manage.

But, this is just the tip of the iceberg. We have bigger problems to address.

We have a long way to go before we will be able to venture out into our Solar System with any regularity – let alone our galaxy. Yet, we are cutting funding to the programs that we need to keep developing technology that will allow us to explore the cosmos, not to mention help cure some of the problems we have on our planet. These aren’t just the programs to develop space probes but funding for the education of our children, from elementary school through college. We can’t afford to cut such a vital lifeline to the well being and future of our country or even our planet. Funding education and making it possible for everyone to learn and advance themselves is an investment in our future, no doubt about it.

The problems we face today are complex and there are no simple solutions. Economies are crumbling, educational systems are falling behind, our environment is turning against us – what more do we need to see before we realize that the world we are going to leave to our children and our grandchildren is not going to be a very nice place to live? At the very least we should prepare them with the abilities to meet these challenges head-on, which means they need the best education possible. As it is said, “knowledge is power” and we need to empower our children if they are ever going to lead us to the stars.

The world/universe Gene Roddenberry showed us in Star Trek was one where we met the challenges of technology, but more importantly, we met the challenges of different cultures working together for the best for all and in doing so we had the technology, the finances and the will to explore this amazing Universe first hand. So maybe I shouldn’t say “curse you” but “thank you” Gene Roddenberry for showing us one possibility for our future and inspiring a generation of people to pursue engineering and the sciences for their life’s work.

Yes, I know, it’s still just science fiction, but how many of today’s realities have been born in the imagination of and science fiction from people of the past? I look forward to a future where we are only limited by our imagination and our will to explore.

At the time of this writing, the Holidays are almost here, what better time for us to indulge in fantasies about world peace, harmony and the advancement of our society. Who knows, maybe the new year will see us all a bit closer to each other and a bit closer to the stars.

Happy New Year!

RC Davison

Carl Sagan and The Pale Blue Dot

November 9 was the anniversary of Carl Sagan’s birth.  He would have been 77 years old.

Carl Sagan has gently ushered millions of people across this blue planet into the wonders of the cosmos.  One of his most poignant observations on this Universe we live in is his comment on Earth – “The Pale Blue Dot.”

Take five minutes and watch this video.  All that we hold dear, all that has any meaning to us, everything that has ever been to bring us to today has occurred on this planet.  This tiny speck in the vast Universe.  The military rulers, presidents, kings and queens, gang leaders, politicians, drug dealers, criminals that have left death, destruction and despair in their wake, as they struggle for dominance in their small corner of this dot don’t appreciate their insignificance in the grand scheme of things.

We need to understand that we are one people – one planet.  It doesn’t matter what color we are, what language we speak, what nationality or religion we are, we are all humans and we exist only in one place in this vast cosmos.  We need to work together to survive, which means compromise and sacrifice from everyone.  If we fight for dominance, we surely are destined to all fail.

Think about IT and DO….

Thank you, Carl, for your perspective on this world we all live on.  Let’s hope we can all learn to appreciate what we have before we lose it.

Till next time,

RC Davison

Is Space Our Final Frontier?

“Space, the final frontier.” Simple words spoken by Captain Kirk, of the starship Enterprise, but ones that create a sense of excitement and wonder.

But, is “space” our final frontier? With the billions upon billions of galaxies out there, containing an uncountable number of stars and an unimaginable number of planets, is it our last frontier?

Hubble Ultra Deep Field - Image Courtesy of NASA

There is something about space…so vast, so enigmatic, so alluring. I have long gazed at the stars and felt that there is so much out there to discover and learn about—things that would just boggle our minds. And, we already see it today with the amazing image from the space telescopes like Hubble and Spitzer and terrestrial observatories like Keck and the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope. It may truly be the final frontier. But, for us to be out among the stars, and, if you can imagine it, out among the galaxies, we will have to conquer hurdles and challenges that will include understanding how our Universe works. More importantly, we need to understand how we work, as biological entities, as well as cultural and societal beings, because we will never have the strength and dedication to reach for the stars if we can not respect, have consideration for, and cooperate with one another.

Thinking about it a bit more, maybe that is our final frontier. Not “space” as Gene Roddenberry so simply stated way back in 1966 when Star Trek first beamed into our homes on our televisions. Maybe he was really speaking of a frontier more subtle, more challenging than traveling to the stars. Maybe that frontier is simply people working together—united—where our challenges are no longer with each other but come from beyond the humble abode we call Earth.

I’m afraid that once we do step out into the cosmos, beyond the comfort of our blue planet and yellow sun, and travel to these other stars, solar systems and planets to study them up close, each will offer more unknowns that will push the boundary of our final frontier. Undoubtedly there will be more things discovered that will have us scratching our heads and wondering just how does that work. That bewilderment may very well come more from the biology we find rather than the new physics we might discover. And, that doesn’t even address the issues of us trying to comprehend alien cultures and societies that have absolutely no parallel to what we’ve experienced on Earth!

So, where does the boundary exist to define the final frontier? Unfortunately, I think it will be a boundary we will approach asymptotically—always getting closer but never really reaching it—and I can’t wait! There’s so much to discover!

Hopefully, some food for thought; so think about it, talk about it, comment on it—I’d be happy to hear your views on our final frontier.

Till next time,

RC Davison

Farewell, Atlantis

The end of the shuttle era came on Thursday, July 21 at 5:57:54 a.m. when Atlantis came to a full stop on the runway at the Kennedy Space Center.  The amazing image below is a fitting finish to an amazing program, regardless of any arguments about traveling to low Earth orbit versus going to the Moon or Mars.

Atlantis reentering the atmosphere taken from the International Space Station.  Image courtesy of NASA

Here’s a link to a larger image.

Some statistics for Atlantis:  It has traveled 125,935,769 miles while it orbited the Earth 4848 times and spent a total of 307 days in space.  It’s good to have all the shuttles back safely on the ground.

On a Orbital Maneuvers related note: I’ve put up a video promo for the book on YouTube.

Till next time,

RC Davison

Take a Wild Ride on the Space Shuttle Discovery!

Well, actually, take a ride on the outside of Discovery on the solid rocket boosters (SRBs). NASA has 3 cameras on the SRBs: Forward (near the top of the SRB looking down); Intertank (near the top but facing the main fuel tank); Aft (near the bottom of the SRB looking up).

      The NASA video shows the launch from all three cameras on each booster. Each camera offers a unique perspective of the launch with the Intertank cameras providing the additional element of sound. It’s a wild ride anyway you look at it!

      Below is a list of key events on the video with their time-stamp if you don’t want to watch it real time. Some amazing footage to be sure!

STS-133 Launch SRB camera views:

SRB Left Forward Camera

  • 2:25 – SRB separation

  • 2:40 – Can see Discovery blazing on toward orbit

  • 5:30 – SRB starts to settle down under its drogue chute

  • 6:15 – Ocean surface detail can be seen

  • 6:40 – SRB engine nozzle extension is jettisoned and impacts the water about 7 seconds later.

  • 6:52 – The SRB hits the water

  • 7:40 – The SRB floats vertically in the water

SRB Left Aft Camera

  • 7:50 – The launch sequence repeats itself but with the camera view from the left SRB aft camera located near the bottom of the booster.

  • 10:10 – Booster separation (The video is clearer on this camera.)

  • 10:40 – Catch a glimpse of Discovery

  • 14:40 – Splash down

SRB Left Intertank Camera (with sound)

  • 14:45 – SRB left Intertank camera (Location looking at the ribbed side of the Main Fuel Tank). The video starts just before separation which occurs at:

  • 15:17 – Note the separation engines in the nose cone pushing the right SRB away from the shuttle.

  • 15:25 – Neat shot of right SRB as its engines sputter out

  • (Interesting to hear the pops, clicks, hisses, moans and groans of the SRB as it descends.)

  • 17:45 – You can see the exhaust trail from Discovery’s launch

  • 18:00 – Catch a view of Discovery moving into orbit.

  • 19:14 – Main chutes deploy at 19:23 as the reefing lines are cut opening to the first stage and at:

  • 19:30 – Chutes fully deployed

  • 19:45 – Impact on the surface

  • 20:20 – Can see the SRB nose cone parachuting toward the ocean

SRB Right Forward Camera

  • 20:32 – SRB Right Forward camera

  • 22:58 – SRB separation

  • 23:12 – Nice view of Discovery

  • 25:00 – SRB engine nozzle extension is jettisoned

  • 25:16 – Ocean impact

SRB Right Aft Camera

  • 25:45 – SRB Right Aft camera

  • 28:00 – SRB separation

  • 28:38 – SRB Right Intertank from the point of main chutes deployed

  • 28:46 – The chute reefing lines are cut and they open up more, slowing the booster

  • 28:53 – The chutes are fully deployed.

  • 29:09 – Splash down
    Hope you enjoyed the ride!!
    Till next time
    RC Davison

Learning From The Challenger and Columbia Disasters

Friday, the 28th of January is the 25th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Hard to believe it was that long ago. As I’ve been watching the recent developments with the shuttle Discovery (STS-133), with the series of delays due to faulty valves early on and then the discovery of numerous cracked stringers in the external fuel tank, it’s got me wondering if we are seeing a repeat of the same mentality that caused the disasters with Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.

The O-ring problem on the solid rocket boosters that doomed Challenger first occurred on STS-2, the second flight of the shuttle Columbia that occurred on November 12, 1981. The problem was looked at by Thiokol, the company that designed the boosters, and they did some testing at elevated stress levels that turned up nothing, so it was written off as an anomaly. But, for the 15 shuttle launches that occurred between 1984 and the Challenger accident, all but three showed O-ring damage. It had not caused a problem up to that point and this deviation was normalized as routine—until January 28, 1986. The Challenger crew paid the cost of that behavior with their lives.

The same normalization of deviations applied to the foam and ice coming off the large external fuel tank that frequently pelted the shuttles, damaging their delicate ceramic tiles that form the heat shield for the vehicle. Foam falls off all the time, but it never caused a problem, so it must be okay to keep launching. February 1, 2003 proved that to be wrong when Columbia (STS-107) reentered the atmosphere with a hole in a leading edge carbon-carbon panel of the left wing, which allowed super-hot gases to destroy the structural integrity of the wing and the break up of the shuttle. Another crew paid the ultimate price for NASA accepting the abnormal as normal.

Today we are looking at the final launch of Discovery sometime towards the end of February 2011, postponed from the initial launch date back in November 2010. Did we get lucky this time? Could these cracked stringers in the main fuel tank have caused a failure of the tank as the shuttle raced into orbit? Equally important; is this a problem that has been there all along and it’s been accepted as the norm? I don’t know. I do know that I’m glad they found it and that repairs are under way to fix the problem. Hopefully we will see another successful mission for Discovery at the end of February. With the end of the shuttle program looming ever closer, NASA needs to be even more vigilant to ensure that the final missions launch and land without any problems.

If you want a nitty-gritty view of NASA from the inside, check out Mike Mullane’s book Riding Rockets. It gives you a peak behind the golden curtain NASA puts up for the general public. Very interesting.

Till next time,

RC Davison

Crew Return Vehicle – the CRV

In novel, Orbital Maneuvers, the crew was able to return to Earth using the CRV or the Crew Return Vehicle.  NASA just posted a rather neat picture of the CRV hanging from the wing of the B-52 mother-ship.

Crew Return Vehicle X-38  - Image courtesy of NASA

This is not a full size vehicle of the X-38 but only 80% scale model that was used for drop testing.  It’s very unfortunate that the CRV was not finished, as it would have provided an alternative to using two Russian Soyuz capsules as escape vehicles for a full space station crew compliment.  With the end of the space shuttle’s tour of duty drawing near, we are even more dependent on Russia to get to and from the ISS.  A situation that I sincerely hope does not place politics and international relations above the space science and research we’ve worked so hard to create and do on the ISS.

There is more information and pictures on the CRV and the Soyuz capsule on the website.

Here’s a link to a larger picture of the X-38.  Also, check out NASA’s Picture of the Day site for a daily fix for images of and about space and NASA technology.

Till next time,

RC Davison

Comet Hartley 2 and the International Space Station

Thanks to the efforts of Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society, there is a really neat image that shows to scale the International Space Station next to the nucleus of comet Hartley 2.  (Note that this is a composite picture created using graphic manipulation software.)

Comet Hartley 2 and ISS - Image courtesy of NASA and Emily Lakdawalla

We have an appreciation for how big the space station is relative to the shuttle but seeing it next to the comet gives one a better sense of how big this small comet is.   Check out Emily’s blog, she does a great job posting the latest developments in planetary science.

Till next time,

RC Davison

Final Launch of the Shuttle Discovery: STS-133

Space Shuttle Discovery sits on the pad awaiting another leak (actually 2) to be repaired. this time in the pressurization system on the right maneuvering system.  About two weeks ago they were fixing a fuel leak.  Maybe this is routine as shuttle launches go, or maybe it is showing that time and space are beginning to take their toll.

Discovery's Final Rollout - Image courtesy Larry Tanner, United Space Alliance

(Shuttle Image courtesy Larry Tanner, United Space Alliance.  Click for larger image.)

I fear that we are pushing our luck with each launch of these complex machines.  Although well maintained and serviced, they are still operating with equipment and systems that are beyond their specified operating lifetimes.  From an engineering perspective, that’s not a good thing to be doing.  It angers me that we, as a country, have not had the foresight and energy to build a successor to the shuttle fleet such that we could retire these work-horses and continue exploring space and servicing the International Space Station (ISS) without interruption.  We dropped the ball as far back as the  1970’s when the last Apollo missions were canceled.

At this point there are no quick answers.  Commercial space flight may come about in the near future, but that is highly dependent on how successful the initial flights are, and if these companies can make money off the venture.  I’m not very comfortable being tied into using another country to get to the ISS, but for now that is all we’ve got.

For today, I hope Discovery has a flawless mission and returns safely to Earth with her crew.  The time has come for her to return to Mother Earth and reach no longer for the stars.

Till next time –

RC Davison