Halfway to Nowhere


SLS: going somewhere, doing something. ‘Merica. Credit: NASA

The great Robert Heinlein famously postulated that Low Earth Orbit is “halfway to anywhere,” meaning that it takes almost as much energy to send a spacecraft to its final destination (say, Mars) as it did to put that spacecraft into Earth orbit in the first place. In some cases it actually requires less energy.

After years of development and who knows how many billions spent, NASA’s Congressionally-mandated Space Launch System is nowhere closer to having a clear mission than it is to actually launching. Literally, a “rocket to nowhere.”

So we have a massive booster launching a stupidly expensive spacecraft with no clear destination. There’s talk about a circumlunar flight, maybe a jaunt out to EML-2 or a near-Earth asteroid – they’ll figure that out later since the first manned flight won’t happen until at least 2020. NASA expects they can only afford to do that once a year. Maybe two. Again, later. Because reasons. Continue reading “Halfway to Nowhere”

Stuck the Landing!

True to form, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin pulled off something spectacular yesterday in near-total secrecy:

That crashing sound you hear are the “OldSpace” business models collapsing from California to Florida.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Elon Musk didn’t take it all that gracefully. I’m actually a little disappointed in him as this shouldn’t take away from anything he’s done with SpaceX. Pro tip: don’t let it get under your skin. You’re building bigger rockets that are coming back from space even faster, so quit measuring dongs (then again, maybe all this really is a phallic hangup. I mean, just look at the thing).

A full-up test of their New Shepard suborbital passenger rocket is pretty impressive, given they’ve only flown it once before. Getting the passenger capsule into space and back is also cool. Two for two.

But flying the booster back from space and landing it? PRICELESS.

The Truth is Out There

Pluto awaits. Photo credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab/Southwest Research Inst.

To those of you who’ve waited so patiently for me to finish FARSIDE, thank you. If you’re wondering how long a wait there might be for the next book, don’t worry. I’m on it. In fact, I’ve been sitting on this one for a long time and have been anxious for the right time to share it with you. That would be now…

NASA’s New Horizons probe has been in the news a lot, as it’s now finishing its nine-year journey to Pluto. I’ve been fascinated to see what discoveries will come of it as we’ve never had clear photos of our Solar System’s most distant planet (okay, so it’s not technically a planet anymore but it was when the probe was launched).

Having an overactive imagination, I couldn’t help but wonder what might happen if they found something totally unexpected. As in not natural.

And with that, I give you the prologue to FROZEN ORBIT:

* * *

July 2015

As the decades passed, men would hotly debate whether the chance encounter had been one of divine providence or blind luck. After nine years of sailing across the solar system, faster than any other machine flung by humans from Earth’s gravity well, the nuclear-powered New Horizons probe had finally entered Pluto’s fragile sphere of influence. It was to be fleeting, for despite carrying the hopes and expectations of so many, the event amounted to not much more than a cosmic one-night-stand.

At least that was the cynic’s view. After a whirlwind of begging and pleading, a small yet determined horde of scientists and engineers had prevailed upon the politicians to fund their little mission before it was too late. At almost literally the eleventh hour, they had managed to convince the Budget Committee that Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere—barely detectable from Earth—would collapse onto the tiny planet’s surface within the next decade, frozen into crystals by their host planet’s unstoppable migration away from the Sun.

“How long until it reappears?” one Senator had asked.

“Two hundred years,” a planetary geologist had replied. But since he was a geologist, the Senator had to ask the physicist seated next to him, who in turn had to produce a meteorologist who could verify their assumptions. Despite his protests of not knowing a single thing about extra-planetary atmospherics, the meteorologist agreed that, yes, the thin envelope of gases would indeed turn to ice and fall to Pluto’s surface. And no, it would not reappear for another two centuries. Only after he’d cited sophomore-level physical science to support his reasoning had it finally been enough to satisfy the gathering of political scientists.

And so, New Horizons had been put together largely from off-the-shelf components meant for other (cancelled) missions. It resembled nothing so much as an ambitious grade-schooler’s concept of what a space probe might be: about the size and shape of a grand piano, but covered in gold foil with a massive dish antenna and sporting a radioisotope generator at one end.

After a quick pass by Jupiter to steal the energy from some of that giant planet’s gravity (which it wasn’t going to miss, after all), the little probe went into hibernation until being awakened by its masters back on Earth. That it would be in position to capture such amazing images and data after such a long sleep, so far from home, was a stunning enough technical feat. That it was further able to capture the image that had triggered so many arguments was indescribable.

Some had called it miraculous. Others, carefully adhering to their notions of detached objectivity, simply marveled at the luck and explained it with mathematics. In private, they whispered among themselves that it was indeed stunning, phenomenal, and extraordinary.

That this golden radioactive piano, the first to encounter the solar system’s most distant planet (as it was still called back in 2006), zipping past at nearly forty thousand miles per hour, would be in a position to see what it saw (and that what it saw was in a position to be seen to begin with) was difficult to describe as anything other than, well, miraculous.

If this was a game of cosmic billiards, it was a blindfolded double-reverse bank shot. Once the masters had removed the blindfold, what they saw was beyond anyone’s ability to describe: there was Pluto, its prime moon Charon, and the two minor moons discovered along the way. All of them appeared in full color, high-definition detail, imagery of a depth and quality that the probe’s masters could scarcely have hoped for.

Yet it was those things which they didn’t expect to find that were the most breathtaking, such being the nature of exploration. In this case, it had at first appeared as an unexpected source of gamma radiation in orbit around Pluto. Just a trace, it was nevertheless odd as it would have normally been associated with some kind of high-energy source: a faraway supernova, maybe a black hole. On Earth it could have only emerged from the violent fusion reaction of a thermonuclear bomb.

The strange radiation signature only became noticeable during the final weeks of New Horizon’s approach, and was at first thought to be the result of instruments in dire need of calibration after being asleep for six years. When the probe was two weeks from its closest approach, the radiation trace disappeared.

That made it all the more surprising when it reappeared three days before New Horizons’ closest approach, leaving its masters on Earth with barely enough time to adjust their aim. As the tiny probe swept past its long-awaited target, its cameras were briefly trained on a point in space from where the gamma emissions appeared.

The first image showed only a pinprick of visible light reflected from the distant Sun, but it corresponded to the weak radiation and even weaker thermal signature.

Energetic and warm—not what anyone had expected from a tiny moonlet orbiting a minor planet. Some wondered if it was volcanic like Io, though the lack of Jupiter-sized tidal forces ruled that out. Nonsense, others argued: we’d been convinced that Mars was devoid of water for decades, remember? The atmosphere was simply too thin to keep it from evaporating, until we discovered a naturally-occurring antifreeze below the surface. Just because a phenomenon doesn’t line up with what we’ve come to expect doesn’t make it impossible.

The next day’s imagery caused more consternation for the masters. That point of light had grown larger as the object followed its own orbit while the little probe flew closer. But this time the light had taken on a more definitive shape: irregular, yet roughly symmetrical. One commented that it looked like a dragonfly.

If the second day had created turmoil, the final day had uniformly shut them up. The dragonfly had resolved itself into something completely unexpected: faded green, with metallic highlights randomly dotting the surface and ungainly ebony protuberances clustered around one end. Startlingly familiar, there could be no mistaking it for a natural object.

To a chorus of groans, one wag in Mission Operations had nailed it: that’s no moon; that’s a space station.

For all of the mystery surrounding this unexpected find, it was perhaps the markings that surprised them most: CCCP, the Cyrillic acronym for the long-extinct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.


* * *

That Escalated Quickly

Blue Origin finally lifted the curtains late yesterday:

This has taken a lot of industry observers by surprise as most of the reliable space news sites haven’t even picked up on it yet. They’ve been very secretive and now we can see why: when not busy running the worldwide juggernaut that is Amazon, Jeff Bezos has been building his own personal space program. What’s amazing to me is just how close to the vest he’s been able to play this: they’d announced test flights would start this year, but danged if they didn’t go and start with an all-up test of the full vehicle all the way to space.

The difference between their approach and that of the better-known Virgin Galactic is clear, and it goes beyond vehicle design. Bezos waited until he was satisfied they were ready to put on a real show with close-to-operational hardware instead of stringing people along and taking their money during the unpredictable development process. This is in stark contrast to Virgin, who Doug Messier reports is still flagellating over their final choice for an engine.

This is also a useful lesson in how the very wealthy go about creating entire industries that no one could have anticipated. After revolutionizing commerce and publishing with Amazon, Bezos used that wealth to pursue his real passion and is applying similar foresight to opening up space for the rest of us. History will regard men like him and Elon Musk in the same way we look back at Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford.

If you want more, Blue Origin’s formerly bare-bones website is now updated with lots of cool videos and other imagery, so head over there to service your nerdboner. Because cool as it is, there’s no getting around that it looks like a flying…

Here Be Dragons

SpaceX finally unveiled DragonRider last night, otherwise known as Dragon V.2:

Credit: SpaceX

Love the fins (though I’ve no idea what they’re for) and that the solar panels wrap around the trunk. And being a bizjet guy, I particularly like the Gulfstream-style oval windows. There’s lots of them, too, which seems entirely appropriate for a 21st century commercial spaceship. I freaking love saying that.

Beyond the awkward humility Mr. Musk displays in the video (the guy’s a real-life Tony Stark after all), what strikes me most is the pure beauty of the thing. Admit it, a lot of perfectly fine air and space vehicles are kind of funny looking if not butt-ugly. Think of the A-10 or the Apollo LM.

But this…this is what a brand-new spaceship ought to look like. They clearly didn’t throw out their aesthetic sensibilities while also building in features like propulsive landing and reusable heat shields. And check out the front office:

Credit: SpaceX

The pull-down flat screen control panel is a pretty slick way to save room and weight; making all the essential emergency controls hard-wired buttons is likewise a very smart touch.

Much more here, plus a nice roundup from Alan Boyle at Cosmic Log.


Out of the Blue

BE-3 test fire. Credit: Blue Origin

Infamously close-mouthed Blue Origin (the Jeff Bezos company that’s not named Amazon) announced a successful full-mission-profile test of their BE3 rocket engine:

Blue Origin, the commercial space company bankrolled by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, plans to begin unmanned orbital flight tests of its biconic-shape human capsule in 2018. Ultimately, the company will use an orbital launch vehicle powered at least in part by a clean-sheet cryogenic engine it now has demonstrated can support suborbital human spaceflight.

But wait! There’s more:

The characteristically secretive Kent, Wash.-based startup unveiled new details about the BE-3 Dec. 3 in a rare and unusually informative question-and-answer session with Rob Meyerson, president and program manager…

In the test, the engine ran for 145 sec. at full throttle, then shut down for 4.5 min. to simulate the coasting phase that will take New Shepard out of the atmosphere. This was followed by a restart and throttle-down to the 25,000-lb.-thrust level it will need to bring the reusable booster back to Earth for a tail-down landing while the capsule parachutes home…

Work building up to the full-cycle BE-3 test in November was conducted over nine months and included 160 starts and 9,100 sec. of engine operation. “That equates to a test every two days, and sometimes actually three or four tests per day,” says Meyerson.

So yeah, they’ve been kinda busy. Can’t say I blame them for keeping a tight lid on things because it certainly makes announcements like this a little more attention-grabbing.

Blue Origin family portrait. Keep the dildo jokes to yourselves, pervs.

NewSpace is a great example of the good that comes from free markets: men who’ve already made substantial fortunes through internet innovations then plow those profits into the things they’re most passionate about. In turn, they will create entire new industries and expand our economy into the solar system. This is a multi-decade process with an entirely unknown end state, but I believe it’s key to preserving our Republic (not to mention a national intervention to rehab our crack-addled Uncle Sam).

Not because space exploration is inspiring, adventurous, unique, or dangerous (though it is all of those). It’s because the only thing humans can create from nothing is wealth. The ugly truth is we need the money, because that $17,000,000,000,000+ debt is an enormous overhang on our economy. And it isn’t going away anytime soon.

You know who got rich off of the gold rush? Certainly not the prospectors who gave up everything to pan for precious metals in the mountain West. Nope, it was all of the store owners and hoteliers and railroad men who showed up to provide all the stuff they needed. Infrastructure follows development, not the other way around.

Free people making their way in a previously untapped frontier will lead to all sorts of unexpected opportunities. Just watch and learn from these baby steps.

Stuff Rich People Do

Falcon 9, on the way to GTO.

In sharp (and welcome) contrast to my last post, witness the power of this fully armed and operational free market:

Today, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) successfully completed its first geostationary transfer mission, delivering the SES-8 satellite to its targeted 295 x 80,000 km orbit. Falcon 9 executed a picture-perfect flight, meeting 100% of mission objectives.

Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at 5:41 PM Eastern Time. Approximately 185 seconds into flight, Falcon 9’s second stage’s single Merlin vacuum engine ignited to begin a five minute, 20 second burn that delivered the SES-8 satellite into its parking orbit. Eighteen minutes after injection into the parking orbit, the second stage engine relit for just over one minute to carry the SES-8 satellite to its final geostationary transfer orbit. The restart of the Falcon 9 second stage is a requirement for all geostationary transfer missions.

As one might expect, the Wall Street Journal had a bit more coverage of the business angle. Here’s the (literal) money bit:

Before the mission, SpaceX said by 2015 it planned to double rocket production to about 24 annually.

If SpaceX achieves its goals, it will vindicate a host of satellite manufacturers, operators and space agencies that have revised business plans based on the availability of the Falcon 9. In some cases, SpaceX foresees competing head-to-head with Europe’s Arianespace, which often launches dual satellites aboard its heavy-lift Ariane 5 ECA rocket.

SpaceX emphasizes that it developed the original Falcon 9 for under $300 million—or roughly half of the Pentagon’s overall cost to launch a single spy satellite on the heavy-lift version of the Delta IV rocket initially developed by Boeing.

Industry officials estimate SES got a discount from the roughly $60 million SpaceX officials have talked about as the typical price tag for such a launch. Many industry officials, though, predict SpaceX’s prices eventually will climb to about $100 million per launch.

Keep in mind these “industry officials” are almost certainly just spouting the company line while hoping it comes true, particularly if SpaceX pulls off a successful recovery and reuse of a Falcon 9 first stage next year. If that happens, that crashing sound you hear will be the Borg Collective Boeing/LockMart/USAF/NASA launch business model collapsing.

No power in the ‘verse can stop it.


Sweet ride. Somebody should write a book about it…

In the “it’s about @#$&! time” department, Aviation Leak & Classified Technology reminds us that the Skunk Works has still got it:

In a detailed report in the Nov. 4 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Senior Editor Guy Norris lifts the wraps on the SR-72’s cutting-edge design, including a propulsion breakthrough that would allow the aircraft to fly twice as fast as the Blackbird — six times the speed of sound — but still take off from and land on a runway like a conventional aircraft. Lockheed Martin and partner Aerojet-Rocketdyne have been working in secret for seven years on the concept, which centers on integrating an off-the-shelf turbine with a scramjet to power the aircraft from standstill to Mach 6. 

To which I say: AWW YEAH!

It remains to be seen if they can actually get the funding to build this thing. According to the linked article, LockMart has done about all they can do without securing a contract to start cutting metal. Or baking plastic. Whatev…

Now if past history is any indicator, this story could just as easily be a red herring and they’re much further along than indicated. The U-2, SR-71, and F-117 had all been flying for several years before there was any public acknowledgment of their existence.

They also seem to believe we’re at the end of the road for low-observable technology, so “speed is the new stealth.”

There were a lot of rumors about stealth development back in the ’80s and a great deal of speculation as to what a “stealth fighter” might look like. Anybody remember this?

The F-19 “Stealth Fighter”, by the top-secret Testors Skunk Works.

But as is often the case, fantasy looked a lot better than reality:

The real Stealth Fighter, brought to you by the geniuses at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works.

The F-117s became public knowledge after a couple of CFIT (controlled flight into terrain) accidents in the late ’80s. At the time, I remember it being reported that they were part of a test and evaluation squadron of 50 to 60 aircraft. And that’s when I knew they were operational: 50-odd aircraft isn’t a squadron, it’s an air group. Nobody buys that many airplanes for “test and eval.”

My hope (and that’s all it is, blind hope) is that LockMart’s tossing this out there as cover for a more mature program. The real breakthrough for this is the turbine-based combined cycle (TBCC) propulsion, in which a jet turbine and ramjet share common inlets and exhaust. That’s not as simple as it sounds, thanks to the complexities of managing the shockwaves that want to bounce around inside the inlets and the rapidly rising temperatures as it passes Mach 3. Jet engines don’t generally take well to superheated air, and cooling that hot air rapidly enough to feed the compressor stage without icing up at the same time is a real trick. This is the same phenomenon that Reaction Engines UK has been working on for the SABRE rocket-based combined cycle engine. They’ve likewise claimed a major breakthrough recently, but whatever the Skunk Works came up with for heat exchangers, they’re keeping it close.

As to this fantastic machine being flown by an actual person? Sounds like that ship has sailed:

The path to the SR-72 would begin with an optionally piloted flight research vehicle (FRV), measuring around 60 ft. long and powered by a single, but full-scale, propulsion flowpath. “The demonstrator is about the size of the F-22, single-engined and could fly for several minutes at Mach 6,” says Leland. The outline plan for the operational vehicle, the SR-72, is a twin-engine unmanned aircraft over 100 ft. long…

There’s a lot of talk that the next generation of fighters will be essentially be flown by gamers sitting in an air-conditioned van. I can only imagine how the current crop of up-and-coming military pilots feel about that. Even though I’d never have a snowball’s chance in hell of flying it, a part of me shares in their presumed impotent frustration. If I ever have the privilege of seeing such an aircraft in service, it’ll be a lot less exciting knowing that there isn’t someone inside of it experiencing the ride of a lifetime.


Taming the Beast

Not THAT button!!!

Via Behind the Black, a harrowing story of steely-eyed missile men that arrives just in time for the 30th anniversary of that space-age classic, The Right Stuff: Debugging a Live Saturn V.

As we got closer to the Saturn V it was shrouded in a white cloud of venting gases which relieved the pressures building up inside the vehicle fuel tanks.

Our goal was to enter this two level hermetically sealed, all welded steel coffin called the Mobil Launcher Base topped by a fully loaded 363 ft. high Saturn V, weighing 6.2 million pounds, and the permanently attached 380 ft. high Umbilical Tower, weighing 500k pounds. We finally stopped and left our van to walk up and into the second level of the Mobile Launcher Base. About this time, it came to my mind that during one of our training sessions we were told that one of the fully fueled prototype S-II rocket stages had been exploded out in the desert. The results showed that all buildings better be at least three miles from the launch pads – which they are. We were now within 25 feet of this 363ft tall bomb that sounded like its giant fuse had been lit, and we were soon going to get much closer.

As we climbed up the last step prior to opening the sealed submarine type entry door that led into the second level. We slowly opened the heavy steel hatch-type pressurized door it was like stepping into the jaws of a huge steaming dragon. The nitrogen fog, used to suppress fire, and the dim red glow from the emergency lights of level A made it look like a hollywood swamp scene. We started making our way through the 21 compartments to find our Relay Rack as the noise took on a more penetrating tone that seemed to bounce from wall to wall.

Read the whole thing.

Free Falling

Went to see “Gravity” this afternoon, and, well…HOLY CRAP IF IT ISN’T THE BEST $%#@!& SPACE MOVIE EVER.*

What’s really great about it is this isn’t science fiction…it’s just highly realistic fiction in a spectacular setting.

I don’t know what else to say except “stunning”. If you’re thinking about seeing it, don’t think. Just GO. And don’t even question whether or not you should kick in the few extra bucks for 3D: don’t see it without 3D. You’ll be catching your breath more than once.

Space nerds will have a few minor squawks, namely that the Hubble and ISS are in vastly different orbits. That was my only gripe; I’d have handled it differently but last I checked nobody’s paying me to write scripts. Yet.

I was surprised to see some criticism of the triggering event, namely a debris shower in orbit that initiates all this destruction and grows exponentially worse as more stuff is hit. It’s called an ablation cascade, also referred to as the Kessler Effect.

There was some fear this would happen a few years ago when the Russians tested an anti-satellite missile by blowing up one of their old spy birds in orbit (which not coincidentally is exactly the premise of Gravity). We’ve done it too, but in this instance there was no warning or coordination–they just did it.

How to clean up all that crap is of course the bazillion-dollar question. And it begs the question of what might happen in the aftermath of an actual space war: and I’m not talking Star Destroyers, all it would take is the destruction of a few satellites to put everything in their orbit at risk. Fortunately there are some smart people thinking about that.

More on the hazards of spaceflight (which we need to start figuring out how to mitigate as the commercial age begins) at Popular Mechanics.

*At least until someone buys the rights to Perigee.