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”


What giving up looks like. Credit: Inspiration Mars

After getting our hopes up last February, Dennis Tito’s Inspiration Mars project has finally released the results of their mission architecture study. Apparently they ran head-on into Grissom’s Law: No bucks, no Buck Rogers.

There’s really no other way to interpret this in my unprofessional opinion. Their presentation to Congress last week feels like a “Hail Mary” play that is less about available technology than it is available funding.

My guess is Inspiration Mars determined that a commercial approach was the most feasible. Given the current state of vehicle development, we’re much more likely to see actual working hardware from SpaceX than we are NASA. Going through their presentation, it’s clear they went to great pains to avoid throwing any hints in the direction of the former.

This is particularly telling:

Inspiration Mars’s chief technology officer Taber McCallum says the group made an exhaustive effort not to involve NASA, but ultimately failed. “Our bias really was, we’re going to do this commercially. That’s what we tried like hell to do.”

The issue is the sheer amount of gear required for a human mission. The crew will need a module that will keep them alive for the duration of the trip, including all their food, radiation shielding, and a separate pod to protect them during the high-speed re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Launching all this along with the crew is impossible with existing spacecraft, the report found.

Even if you break the mission into several separate launches, getting all the gear into space would take at least three launches with planned commercial vehicles, such as the privately built SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, which has yet to fly.

Gotta love that last bit. Falcon Heavy’s development is well under way and the first flight is planned for late 2014-early 2015. Given SpaceX’s record of actually doing what they intend to do, why all the skepticism? Does anyone really think SLS will be as far along before then, or that NASA could bring such a project in for under a billion?

Not to mention a stretched Cygnus module, closed-loop life support which doesn’t yet exist, and reentry in an Orion capsule variant that hasn’t even been discussed yet. As a wise man recently pointed out, our government used to launch men to the moon. Now they can’t even launch a website.

Where’s the unicorn in this picture?

Meanwhile, Dragon was designed from the outset to be capable of typical Mars-return reentry velocities. While IM’s 14km/sec entry is beyond even that high bar, it’s a safe bet that Musk & Co. are much more likely to come up with a capable heat shield than the current government arrangement.

While an all-commercial approach would’ve been the most likely path to success, that comes with a price – literally. This would have been entirely on IM’s shoulders, meaning real money needed to be spent to guarantee the hardware would be available in time for the 2018 launch window. Apparently the money wasn’t there, and wasn’t going to be there anytime soon.

I can see engineers advising Mr. Tito that a couple of Falcon Heavy launches with a Dragon capsule and some kind of Bigelow hab module would be just the ticket. Then the accountants stepped in and made it clear they couldn’t afford that ticket and no amount of frequent-flier miles would make up the difference.

So they dropped back to punt (yes I’m mixing up football metaphors but just run with me here), settling on a NASA-centric architecture in the hopes that they could gin up enough support, with the understanding that Congress and NASA are flailing about to find a purpose for SLS. If they’re hellbent on building it anyway, maybe this would give them better cover than just recreating Apollo 8. And a hard deadline certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Shrewd and desperate. But mostly desperate. At least it didn’t take long for NASA to see right through this and call BS on the whole deal.

Given SpaceX’s goals of reaching Mars, I was always curious as to why they weren’t the obvious partner for such a project even if it meant waiting until the 2021 window. That extra few years could make an enormous difference in capabilities while adding a manned Venus flyby to their intinerary. I’d be happy to throw a billion at that if my last name were Gates or Buffet.

A very disappointing development.

Getting There From Here

Private missions to Mars are attracting more and more attention from the serious press. Here’s a clip from a piece today in The Economist discussing Dennis Tito’s Inspiration Mars project:

Even if everything does go according to plan, though, cynics might question the value of a billion-dollar, one-and-a-half year trip that comes within spitting distance of Mars but does not land. Dr MacCallum points out that even a fly-by would generate a great deal of publicity. “It would be a [Charles] Lindbergh” mission, says Dr Zubrin. “The point would be to prove it can be done.”

Exactly. Sometimes you just have to kick the tires and light the fires if you want to get things done. A privately bankrolled mission doesn’t have to fine-tune every aspect of it to please capricious politicians (who could really give a crap) and a skittish public (in reality, a skittish and hyperventilating press but you get my drift). That is, treating safety itself as if it’s the overall goal while at the same time making it such a bloated do-it-all attempt that nothing gets done except burning up a few billions on Powerpoint Engineering.

Really…what was the last manned spacecraft development program that NASA successfully completed? Hint: we just stopped flying them last year. And I’m defining “successful” as “a completed vehicle that managed to fly.” Anyway, it appears The Economist’s editors have a similar take on things:

It is entirely possible—likely, even—that neither of these missions will happen. Mr Tito has the better chance, but there are many more ways for him to fail than to succeed. Mr Lansdorp’s plans look too ambitious to be credible. And NASA’s recent history suggests that its aspirations, too, will be blown off course by a future president. But all this will not deter true believers, who have been discussing how to run a Mars trip for decades. With the cost of space flight lower than ever, it seems unlikely that the dream will die.

In related news, SpaceX is still at it:

First test of the Falcon 9 reusable first stage. Credit: SpaceX

Boeing, meanwhile, is still plugging away on their CST-100 system. And I hate to say it, but of all the commercial crew projects out there this one might be the least likely to succeed – and it has nothing to do with design or expertise. Rather, it’s all about The Borg’s commitment to private space. Personally, I just don’t think it’s there. They’ve made comments before about not being able to close the business case – or even being all that interested in trying to – if the funding dries up. That cost-plus contractor legacy must be hard to shake, considering NASA’s money is chump change when compared to Boeing’s resources. Of all the CCDev projects, they could certainly afford to throw the most money at it without hurting the company.

As the big dinosaurs fight over their food supply, smart little mammals stay out of their way and just keep doing what they do. In the meantime, here comes the asteroid…

Wow. Who knew aerospace had so much in common with publishing?

Space Nerd News

Been a while since I’ve updated the blog (I’m largely staying away from the internet ’cause it keeps getting in the way of actually, you know, writing), but as promised here’s some links to interesting stuff:

Christian Science Monitor explores the pychological aspects of the Inspiration Mars effort. Short version: “Survivor” in space. Though I can think of a lot of “reality” TV stars that ought to be sent on a possible one-way mission to deep space. Like pretty much all of them. Buh-bye, media whores…

So how would they get there, anyway? Popular Mechanics has a nice overview of where things stand with commercial spaceflight: The Race to Cash in on Earth Orbit

And in not-unrelated news: Number of “City Killer” Asteroids “Very Large”, House Panel Told. As Professor Reynolds often quotes, “Asteroids are nature’s way of asking, ‘How’s that space program coming along?'”

UPDATE: Almost forgot, the brains behind Inspiration Mars have posted a response to Dennis Wingo’s analysis of their plan. Unfortunately it’s about what I expected: everybody loves the idea of a Venus-Mars flyby, but they’d have to be prepared to leave a good year ahead of the current schedule, which is ambitious enough already. An awful lot of tech currently in development would have to go just right for that to happen, and it sounds like they don’t want to bank on it.


This whole “Inspiration Mars” free-return mission is getting a lot of well-deserved attention, and one analysis I stumbled into today is worth pointing out.

A recent piece by Dennis Wingo at SpaceRef offers what may look like some convoluted routes to Mars, except that the peculiarities of orbital mechanics actually reduce the trip time in some cases. Sixteen months in a flying RV would really be worth it if you could also fly by the Moon and Venus on your way around Mars. Seems to me if you’re going to go to all that trouble anyway, you might as well tailor the orbit to do just that.

So it’s not exactly like the airline’s around-your-@$$-to-reach-your-elbow routes. Cleveland to LA via New Jersey, for example, isn’t quite the same thing as Earth-Moon-Venus-Mars-Earth.

A human Grand Tour of the inner Solar System, paid for with private funds: this is the age I’ve been waiting for.

The downside is they’d have to be prepared to leave in 2017, not 2018. But if outfits like SpaceX can keep this up, they might just make it:

I don’t know who said it first, but I first saw this quote at Rand Simberg’s place: “It shouldn’t be NASA’s job to send men to Mars. It should be their job to make it possible for the National Geographic Society to send men to Mars.”

As they say, Nature abhors a vacuum. If NASA wasn’t going to do it, somebody was eventually going to step up.

Pack the Air Freshener

“I told you to go before we left!” Credit: SpaceX/NASA

In case you’re thinking about signing up for that Inspiration Mars trip, there’s a little something you should know…

Radiation is a substantial risk to humans once they’re beyond the protection of Earth’s magnetic field. There are lots of ideas for mitigating this, most of which involve some form of just rearranging the stuff they’d already have to bring with them. Food and water immediately come to mind, especially water. Since any water supplies on such a long-duration flight would have to continually recycled, we’d be talking about a fairly constant volume. But there is one other “value-added” radiation shield that would build up during the trip.

Can you think of what that might be? Anyone?

Hint: monkeys fling it.


Vacation Plans

If anyone (and their significant other) is looking for a once-in-a-lifetime trip in a few years, then bazillionaire Dennis Tito has just the deal for you:

The Crazy Plan to Fly Two Humans to Mars

“Crazy” is PopMech’s choice of words, not mine. This seems eminently doable, though not without significant risk. We know how to make rockets work. We know how to make manned spacecraft work. We even know how to make inflatable spacecraft work (just ask Bigelow Aerospace). What we don’t know is how to keep all of it working for nearly a year and a half with no chance for shipping spare parts. No doubt they’ll bring spare parts for the stuff they figure won’t last, but if something critical goes hard down they could be really screwed.

Even though it’s a simple flyby, that’s how big things get started. Prove the concept, find what works, fix what doesn’t. If Inspiration Mars pulls this off, “historic” might not be big enough of a word.

But enough of my bloviating. You’re better off reading from people who really know what they’re talking about.