Frozen Orbit is about NASA’s first expedition to the outer planets, prompted by the discovery of a top-secret Russian spacecraft, Arkangel, abandoned at Pluto around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. If you’re wondering how in the world they could have pulled that off given the state of technology, well…who else but the Soviets would’ve been ballsy enough to build an Orion-style nuclear pulse drive?
If you haven’t heard of Orion (and it’s most definitely not the current NASA project–it’s actually a travesty that they’re using the name for what is a decidedly less ambitious program), the concept is simple:
Build a spacecraft with a really big plate and shock absorbers.
Detonate a nuclear bomb behind said plate.
Keep detonating nuclear bombs until the spacecraft has reached a measurable fraction of light speed. And make sure you’re pointed in a safe direction.
The Air Force studied this back in the 1960’s, as did the British Interplanetary Society in the 70’s. Neither group was able to convince their governments to fund them, despite its potential to open up the solar system to us (and possibly even interstellar travel within a human lifetime). Frozen Orbit postulates that the Russians were enamored enough with the concept (and didn’t care about the cost in either rubles or environmental damage) to actually go through with it. Why no one ever heard of it, and more importantly why they never came back, is the crux of the story.
It pains me to say that. I spent a lot of time in their performance engineering school in Seattle, and after every course I came home feeling like a rocket scientist.
After today I wonder if their rocket scientists feel like rocket scientists:
For most space launches, a rocket will take its payload all the way to Earth orbit — but that wasn’t the case for this mission. The Atlas V deployed the Starliner into a suborbital path around Earth, a trajectory that would not keep the capsule lapping around Earth indefinitely. Unless it ignited its own engines boosting itself into an actual orbit, the Starliner would eventually fall back into the ocean. This plan was a conscious decision made by the Starliner team. The idea was to drop the capsule off closer to Earth — a safety measure added just in case there ever was an emergency on future flights with passengers on board. That would make it easier for the crew to abort the launch and come home more easily and more comfortably.
Of course, getting Starliner to orbit meant the capsule absolutely had to ignite its own engines in order to climb higher into space. Initially, NASA and Boeing said the ignition had been delayed, and for a while it was uncertain if it occurred at all. Now, it seems that some kind of ignition did occur, but whatever happened did not put the Starliner on the path it was supposed to reach.
I don’t pretend to have a clue what happened. Hopefully it’s easily understood and a quick fix–but in space program terms, “quick” is relative. At this rate, who knows when we’ll see a crewed Starliner flight?
Between this and the MCAS debacle, one rightly wonders what the actual &#$%@! is going on at the world’s leading aerospace manufacturer. It’s fair to wonder if this points to bigger problems, the rumblings of which I began to hear about 10-15 years ago after the McDonnell/Douglas merger. The engineers I got to know in Seattle were almost to a man concerned with the new management culture being imposed on them. They were afraid Boeing was becoming less of an engineering concern and more of a “business.”
That might have sounded like frightened old-timers protecting their rice bowls, but it looks like they knew what they were talking about. The bean counters took over, much to Boeing’s detriment. Moving the headquarters out of Seattle to Chicago certainly didn’t help. The 787 was a slow-motion fiasco, with supply chain and certification problems that delayed its entry to service by years, but at least the thing’s flying and hasn’t killed anybody yet. If only we could say the same thing for the 737 Max.
Safety and quality are always a balancing act: if you park all of your airplanes, you’ll never have an accident. You’ll also be out of business. You can likewise implement quality systems which are so onerous that nothing gets done. The opposite is to ignore safety and quality in the chase for dollars, and it can be surprisingly easy to rationalize cutting corners for the sake of “accomplishing the mission.”
By striving to improve their bottom line through questionable business decisions, this company has created some very expensive problems for itself. I just hope they’re not fatal, as I don’t want to see Airbus become a de facto monopoly. Despite their current issues, I think Boeing has always built a better product and I want to see that continue into the future.
It takes decades to build your reputation and seconds to squander it.
A resourceful filmmaker named Christian Stangl has animated thousands of NASA photos into a gorgeous video tribute to Apollo, well worth 7.3 minutes of your time:
UPDATE! Almost forgot this compelling short by Andrew Finch. It’s amazing when you see what his team accomplished on what must have been a shoestring budget – even using actual SFX models with the CGI:
I long ago came to accept the fact that any news from the aerospace world that makes it into the popular media is going to be laughably misunderstood and misrepresented. The meatgrinder of 24/7 “news” amplifies the problem as reporters rush to be first while receiving less and less editorial oversight.
One site where I didn’t expect to see this kind of nonsense was The Verge, where this epically dumb opinion piece on Elon Musk’s Mars 2.0 plans appeared. I’d say it smacks of the misleading tripe normally foisted on the Wall Street Journal or USA Today by LockMartBoeing corporate shills, but that would be unfair to misleading tripe. Nope, it’s just pig-ignorant right out of the gate:
Elon Musk is obsessed with traveling between any two points on Earth in less than 30 minutes.
No, he’s obsessed with driving down launch costs so humans can go to Mars. As anyone who actually pays attention to this business already knows. But hey, at least he consulted some experts:
“You can’t fly humans on that same kind of orbit,” Brian Weeden, director of program planning for Secure World Foundation, told The Verge. “For one, the acceleration and the G-forces for both the launch and the reentry would kill people. I don’t have it right in front of me, but it’s a lot more than the G-forces on an astronaut we see today going up into space and coming back down, and that’s not inconsiderable.”
First of all, it’s not really an orbit. It’s suborbital, which is the whole point. More accurately, it’s an antipodal trajectory. And why would the g-forces (apparently distinct from “acceleration,” but we’ll let that one slide for now) necessarily be more than what astronauts experience? It’s not like they’re being strapped to the nose of an ICBM. Sorry, but “I don’t have it right in front of me” doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in this guy’s expertise.
Mind you, I can’t see your typical airline passenger being willing or able to pull 3 or 4 g’s for extended periods of time but I do think there are enough people of means who’d be willing to spend serious money on a suborbital hop that actually took them somewhere. Unless the radiation environment fries them in their seats, that is:
Another problem with ballistic trajectory is radiation exposure in the vacuum of space, Weeden added. To be sure, astronauts on the International Space Station are largely shielded from this radiation, thanks to Earth’s magnetic field, which deflects most of the deep-space particles. But his indifference toward the impact that these interstellar concepts would have on human bodies is classic Musk.
Ignoring the “interstellar concepts” bit, we’re expected to believe there’s no way to keep a suborbital P2P trajectory below the Van Allen belts? Or shield the cabin? Planning for radiation exposure is already a major factor in long-haul polar routes. If only someone had studied these problems before! Oh, wait…someone did:
One of the most striking conclusions to come out of the DOT paper is the effects this type of futuristic travel could have on pilots. “The pilot will have to deal with activities ranging from direct control of the vehicle to oversight and situational awareness to planning,” the paper’s author, Ruth A. MacFarlane Hunter, a national expert on logistics and emergency management and a registered professional aeronautical engineer, wrote. “The much larger array of instruments and situations may require the pilot to quickly shift to a different activity using different instruments.”
Sigh. There’s a lot of good info in that paper, which happened to be one of my sources while doing research for Perigee. There’s also some ill-informed crap, notably this: “The pilot will have to deal with activities ranging from direct control of the vehicle to oversight and situational awareness to planning.”
How does any of that differ from the current environment, other than altitude and Mach number? There’s no doubt it’ll require a level of piloting skill not currently demanded of your average graybeard plying the airways in a 787, but I think they’ll be able to find a few who can handle it. There’s a lot of ex-military and even Shuttle pilots out there flying the friendly skies. And those guys aren’t exactly working alone, either. Oversight, situational awareness, and planning…sounds a lot like mission control to me. That’s why airlines have operations centers that rival what you might see at NASA: it’s a complicated business where things happen fast, and nobody expects the pilots to do all the work themselves. Hell, we don’t want them to. That’s also why we have dispatchers and load planners and ATC specialists and performance engineers: so all the pilots need to do is check our work and fly the airplane.
What scares me is this came from a Department of Transportation aeronautical engineer – in other words, someone who ought to know better. No wonder we have to put up with so much nonsense from the regulators…
This type of display, and the responsibilities of taking off and landing an interplanetary rocket full of men, women, and children, might be too much for normal pilots to handle. In fact, it could cause the pilot to have a total nervous breakdown.
So are we “interplanetary” or “interstellar?” I’m confused. This reminds me of the kinds of knee-jerk scaremongering from the early days of spaceflight (not that I was there, but I do read a lot).
There’s plenty enough to pick at without adding ill-informed assertions to the mix. For instance, I don’t see how this is going to be affordable for a very long time – certainly not in time for it to help bankroll Musk’s Martian dreams. Passenger safety is a huge concern – it’s also going to be a long time before this system is reliable enough to start selling tickets.
The riskiest phases of flight are takeoff and landing. When you’re talking about a spacecraft the size of an A380 doing that on its tail…well, that’s a whole new level of pucker factor. Everything we do when building an airliner’s flight plan considers the loss of an engine at the worst possible times: takeoff roll, over water, over mountains, on final. And if a big jet happens to lose everything (exceedingly rare, but it has happened), it can still glide. A BFR falling to its landing pad won’t have that option. If it loses power, it’s toast. Even a helicopter can autorotate and not fall out of the sky.
But if everything works – and I think it will, eventually – it’ll be awesome. Sign me up.
Overnight, Elon Musk finally presented the long-awaited update to his Mars plans from the IAC annual conference in Australia (thus the overnight thing).
Last year’s big reveal was grandiose but left a lot of questions as to how they planned to pay for it. This year’s version looks more realistic considering the work they’ve already done, but it still seems like they’d need to pursue an intermediate step. Something like Dragon V.3, maybe replacing the trunk with a beefed-up extended duration module – or a landing stage. I keep thinking of the old Estes Mars Lander:
Speaking for moi, I was polishing my resume surprised to see him offer point-to-point suborbital passenger service on the BFR. I’ve read about that somewhere, no doubt from some hack writer…
Nothing else really original from me so maybe the rest is just clickbait, but it’s good clickbait:
Every nerd’s favorite company, SpaceX, has been on a roll lately. They’re on track for a record year, including the debut of the eagerly anticipated Falcon Heavy.
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan, and it’s likewise no secret that I’m not a big fan of unaccountable bureaucracies that treat our hard-earned taxes like Monopoly money. Unfortunately this category often features the *other* perennial nerd favorite, NASA. Equally unfortunate is how conservative press outlets can almost always be counted on to utterly misunderstand and misreport the goings-on of both.
That’s why I initially read this Lifezette piece with skepticism, but by the end I think they mostly get things right:
While Americans might love that NASA has a space-defender position opening, what they don’t love is how NASA is shielding companies from their mistakes.
SpaceX, a company that usually gets much love among conservative and libertarian circles, cost the taxpayers $110 million when one of its rockets blew up in June 2015. The company still received 80 percent of its expected payment, and we still don’t know why the rocket failed on its mission to resupply the International Space Station.
The funny thing about this is that NASA promised the public there would be a summary released of the investigation. Yet the agency announced just a few weeks ago that it doesn’t need to anymore because “NASA is not required to complete a formal final report or public summary since it was an FAA licensed Flight.”
…It’s also funny because NASA didn’t do that when it came to another company. In October 2014, Orbital’s rocket blew up, costing the taxpayers $51 million. It was an FAA-licensed flight. It was conducted under the same NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program of which SpaceX is a part. Both involved aging rockets. Yet NASA still put out an executive summary for the Orbital incident within a year.
Lots of self-serving doubletalk at the link, but I think it’s clear that something doesn’t pass the smell test.
Does SpaceX have quality-control problems? Beats me. I’m in no position to tell, but it feels like the root-cause investigations of last year’s events were wrapped up awfully fast.
This comes from someone who really wants them to succeed. For just one example of the ancillary benefits, here’s how they finally got Canaveral’s range control to modernize.
It often (okay, usually) takes private industry to drag government agencies into the future. That won’t happen if they’re whitewashing potential failure points.
Oh, and they introduced this spiffy little number too:
About time somebody acted like we’re living in the 21st century.
I’m anxious to see what changes are coming for their Mars architecture next month. Last year’s Big Reveal was, at least to my untrained eye, too big too soon. There’s got to be some intermediate step between Dragon and the massive Love Boat to Mars that is the ITV.
In which NASA unwittingly threatens a big-budget production of the opening chapter of Perigee. There’s a lot to unpack here. First, The Verge on the the buzz it has created inside the agency (and the inherent challenges):
NASA is mulling over the idea of putting astronauts on the first flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) — the giant heavy-lift rocket the space agency is building to take people to Mars someday. Currently, NASA is hoping to fly the SLS for the first time in fall of 2018, and the original plan was for that mission to be uncrewed. But a new memo sent out to NASA employees this morning shows that the agency will start investigating the possibility of making the debut flight of SLS, called EM-1, a crewed mission instead.
Being a privately-held company, SpaceX’s finances have been notoriously opaque. No doubt Elon Musk prefers it that way, because he can’t be too pleased with last month’s Wall Street Journal “expose” of their account books. The story is still behind the WSJ paywall so we’ll have to take The Motley Fool‘s word for it:
In an expose compiled from “exclusive … internal documents” — probably obtained from the “former SpaceX employees” that it interviewed — theJournal confirms that SpaceX has in fact been losing money since at least the beginning of 2015. Says the Journal, not only did SpaceX rack up losses of $260 million in 2015, but it actually incurred “an operating loss every quarter, and also negative cash flow of roughly $15 million.”
For the record, this means SpaceX was losing money nearly one year before the company removed the famous “profitable and cash-flow positive” assertion from its website.
Not too surprising, considering that their launch rate was still well below target even before losing two boosters to “rapid unscheduled disassembly.”