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 End In Sight

FARSIDEx2700BI can now say that whole “Second Novel Curse” thing is for realz, ya’ll. It defies explanation – for if I could that would mean that I understood it and could thus avoid the whole problem – but one would think after all of the work that goes into finishing a first novel, it would be no big deal to finish the second one…right?



Silly human. Don’t you realize that your brain immediately purges itself at the end of the creative process, leaving you a state of near-helplessness not experienced since your infancy (but without the wet diapers and boobies)?

Other writers warned me that the first novel seems to arrive almost fully-formed in your mind; your task as an author is to figure out how to tell the story. It’s all there bursting to get out and just waiting on you to prepare the way. The second novel is the reverse: now that you know how to do it, you have to scratch and claw your way to actually finding the story you want to tell in the first place.

There’s a difference between what happens in a story and what the thing’s actually about. I’m not afraid to say that every step in this process has been a struggle for a number of reasons. Some were of my own doing, many were not. Some were due to the fact that I have teenagers at home who needed more attention than I could have given if I’d instead devoted that energy to finishing this book two years ago. I can always write more but those boys will only grow up once. The world already has enough unprincipled yahoos in it, ya’ll don’t want me letting a couple more loose.

Just deciding on the title was a struggle, and in this case one where time was on my side. Back when I thought this would be ready in 2013, the title I’d planned on ended up being used by a much better-known author. While not necessarily subject to copyright, to me it seemed like very bad form to use the same title. Fortunately, enough time has passed that I’m now comfortable with it again.

So yes, the Perigee sequel is actually complete. Not “finished,” mind you, just “complete.” That means I’m in the midst of polishing the manuscript before sending it off for editing and book formatting. This is the fun part, too: things like settling on a title and finalizing cover art are good at providing a much-needed kick in the @$$.

FARSIDE will be available soon for pre-order on Amazon.

Virgin Territory

His name was Mike Alsbury, may the Lord rest his soul. Not yet forty years old, with a family, and no doubt with the future literally in his hands.

I spent much of the weekend scouring the space blogs for this news, as I served in the Marines with one of Virgin Galactic’s pilots and feared it might have been him (it wasn’t). It’s not like we were great friends, but like a good teacher he was one of those officers who left a lasting good impression.

This had to happen eventually, just as airline accidents are going to happen. Flying is inherently risky, something too many people lose sight of thanks to decades of learning how to mitigate those risks. Every now and then, the holes in the swiss cheese line up and something nasty falls through.

Spaceflight is even riskier and less forgiving. Machines are often performing at the edge of their capabilities, both the craft which have to withstand tremendous aerodynamic and gravitational forces, and their motors which contain (and release) enormous amounts of energy.

The nexus of these forces is something called Maximum Dynamic Pressure, or “Max Q,” a function of air density and velocity. If you’ve watched any space launches, you’ve probably heard this term. Put simply, it’s the point at which an aircraft or rocket experiences the greatest aerodynamic stress. Think of it as the normal static air pressure being amplified around a speeding vehicle; the air squeezes harder as the vehicle accelerates.

This generally happens around Mach 1, the transsonic flight regime. This is also the speed at which SpaceShip Two’s reentry feather was deployed, according to NTSB. They say it’s normally supposed to be unlocked at M 1.4, which makes sense. Standing shock waves and related compression drag are Max Q’s ugly sisters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if NTSB finds the tail booms were overwhelmed by them once unlocked.

Tail booms feathered for re-entry. This is not supposed to happen at Max Q.

It frankly doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how that would be very bad thing at Mach 1 while still down in the relatively thick air at 50,000′.

I’m alternately relieved and concerned that they’ve already figured this out. To be released this soon, it must have been face-poundingly obvious. While this is currently a “finding of fact” and not a “cause” there’s plenty of reason to think it’ll eventually end up that way. “Root cause” is a whole other matter, something that could easily take a year to determine. Ignore the credentialed talking heads on TV, as they’re certain to be talking out of their collective ass.

There was an awful lot of early speculation that this had something to do with the already-troublesome hybrid motor, but the oxidizer tank and solid fuel core were both found largely intact and appear to have functioned as expected. That’s only a partially good thing, as hybrids are reputedly difficult to scale up in size and this motor has a lot of development work left in it. I’ve seen them used frequently at amateur/high-power rocket launches, but am told that N2O starts to behave in strange ways when it’s pressurized at the kinds of volumes SS2 needs to use. Then there’s the fear that a chunk of solid fuel breaks off during the burn and clogs the nozzle. So yes, there’s lots of ways for a supposedly “safe” rocket to go boom (back to my point about containing enormous amounts of energy).

The problem is the airframe was designed around the shape and mass properties of the motor, so it’s not like they could just walk over to XCOR’s hangar and buy a couple of their liquid bi-prop rockets (or substitute the liquid motor Virgin’s working on separately, either). It’s created a pretty nasty sunk-cost trap, and this accident may be the only way VG can break free of it.

What little solace there may be here is found in the knowledge that it happened during testing and not on a revenue flight with paying passengers. One can only imagine how infamous (especially considering their clientele) that would be. What frightens me for the industry is that it almost certainly will happen at some unknown point in the future – the question is whether space tourism is far enough along that it can recover. Think about it: how many ocean-crossing passenger blimps have there been since the Hindenburg? A similar horrific accident during the early stages of passenger spaceflight might doom this new industry in the same way.

I’ve been to the NTSB Academy and seen their reconstruction of TWA 800, the 747 that exploded off of Long Island several years ago. It is a creepy thing to stand in front of that big open nose, stare down the empty rows of shredded passenger seats, and contemplate what those people went through as they continued to climb before falling out of the sky with the entire front end of the airplane blown off. I don’t envy the go-team that has to pick through this, but in the long run I have high hopes that whatever they find will benefit the whole industry.

Some investors and ticket holders are predictably starting to bail, and we can only hope Mr. Branson’s commitment to the project is enough to see it through this tragedy. It took the Apollo 1 fire to uncover latent problems with the program, and one can make a pretty good argument that we might not ever have made it to the moon without it.

Here’s hoping Mr. Alsbury is remembered with the long list of other test pilots who have given their lives to open up previously-unknown frontiers for the rest of us.

Under Power

SpaceShip Two finally had its first powered flight today, passing Mach 1 with a 16-second burn of its solid/liquid hybrid engine. The jury’s still out as to how much of a safety advantage that may be, but it sure does look cool:

To infinity and beyond!

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. And video is worth even more:

Lots more at Clark Lindsey’s place and New Space Journal.

UPDATE: In more mundane aerospace news, Boeing’s 787 is finally returning to service. That program’s been a massive Charlie-Foxtrot from the beginning, but I do have high hopes for this bird.

Cool Your Jets

Reaction Engines in the UK seems to be excited about something:

The Biggest Breakthrough in Propulsion Since The Jet Engine

Can you tell they might think this is a big deal? I for one hope they’re not exaggerating because this does have the potential to be a generational leap in engine technology.

If their pre-coolers can be made to work outside the lab, then the concept of airbreathing rockets (or rocket-based combined cycle, RBCC) isn’t so farfetched anymore. And cooling a fast-moving mass of air by over 1,000°C in a hundredth of a second ain’t no small potatoes.

Take a look at this cutaway view of their SABRE engine: the heat exchangers are those baffled rings between the inlet spike in front and the compressor in the middle. It’s meant to function like the intake of a normal jet engine – but at hypersonic speeds, temperature becomes more limiting than just about anything else (presumably the inlet spikes are managing the shock waves that are just itching to bounce around inside that engine while it’s moving through the air at Ludicrous Speed).

So anyways, air tends to get kind of hot when it’s being pushed and squeezed at high velocities. And when air gets really hot, jet intakes tend to not work very well. That was a big reason the SR-71 was limited to around Mach 3.5 (or so they say). For a combined-cycle engine, precoolers are pretty much ball game.

SABRE engine. Credit: Reaction Engines UK

A functioning SABRE engine would enable the kind of suborbital spaceplanes that I wrote about in Perigee. In fact, Reaction’s ideas were used extensively in my mental world-building while the story took shape. I’m a big believer in the potential for suborbital point-to-point airline service – if you’d be willing to spend a quarter-mil for a 30 minute joyride on Virgin Galactic, wouldn’t you spend that much to actually go somewhere?

Yes, I’m kind of excited about this. Could it eventually lead to a single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane like they propose with Skylon? Maybe. The energy needed to make orbit is exponentially greater than that needed for a 6,000 mile hop at Mach 10.

Skylon spaceplane. Credit: Reaction Engines UK

So my answer would be, “beats me, ask a real engineer.” I just play one at work. But hanging those heavy engines out on the ends of the wing strikes me as not being a real good idea. Any twisting moments (which will happen in atmospheric flight) would just be amplified. Which means beefier wing structure, which adds weight, which increases minimum runway, which also requires more power from the engines, etc…this is the kind of circular reasoning that is otherwise known as a “trade study.” Every decision about one aspect of a system’s design affects all sorts of other stuff in the system. This is especially true in aeronautics.

But perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome (in my view) is the apparent operating assumption that a passenger-carrying version of Skylon wouldn’t have a pilot aboard. They’d just pop in a passenger cabin, program the airplane, and send it on its way. There has been a tremendous amount of progress in the UAV world, but I have a hard time seeing how people would pay big money for an inherently risky ride with nobody up in the front office to deal with stuff when it all goes sideways. I have an even harder time seeing how FAA or EASA would ever certify such a bird to carry passengers (and that’s coming eventually, we can be certain). Unexpected bad stuff will happen, you can bet on it: flying is hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror. Thus shall it ever be.

11/30 UPDATE: io9 has more, but it sounds like they’re confusing Skylon with another Reaction proposal called LAPCAT.

12/01 UPDATE: Wired is on the case as well.

Fly Me to the Moon

Suborbital hops into space and back not enough of an adrenaline surge? Bored with flying in circles aboard the space station? Clearly, you are a discerning traveler who can be satisfied with nothing less than the most unique experience.

Or maybe you’re just a gold-plated pain in the @$$. If you’ve got the money, it don’t matter.

So how about a trip to the Moon? If that doesn’t light you up, then you must be dead. And please, hold the “no, but I’d be dead by the end of the trip” jokes to yourself, thankyouverymuch.

As with suborbital passenger hops, two companies are vying to offer different variations of the same amazing journey. In this case, each wants to be the first to send paying passengers around the Moon.

IRONY ALERT! Forty-three years after the US won that race, both plan to return by using – wait for it – Russian spacecraft.

Soyuz was originally intended to be the Soviet’s moonship, so it’s not too much of a stretch to think it’s still up to the task after 40 years of production and design improvements. It’ll require a better heat shield, life support, and nav/com, but these likewise have the benefit of 40+ years experience.

First up, let us dispense with what I believe to be the dark horse in this race: Excalibur Almaz. They’ve essentially salvaged 1980’s Russian military space station hardware to spiff up, attach to an Earth-departure booster, and put into lunar orbit. It would be reusable, as would the re-entry vehicles they bought to service it.

Hey, I didn’t make it up – that’s what they said. If they can pull it off, great. The idea of a small space-station-sized passenger vessel that regularly transits between Earth and Moon is a terrific idea. Heck, it might even make for a really good book.

The catch? Ion propulsion. Not only is their trans-lunar injection (TLI) stage based on technology that’s not really off-the-shelf ready yet, the low thrust means a long orbit – like six months round trip. It would actually take its passengers farther away from Earth than any other humans have ever been, according to their own information.

Now I’m all about traveling the scenic routes, but there ain’t that much to see on the way to the moon unless you’re pointed right at the thing. That’s an awfully long time to be cooped up in something the size of a school bus, eating freeze-dried food and inhaling your shipmate’s farts.

And did I mention this experience can all be yours for only $150 million?

Now for the one that I take more seriously: Space Adventures. This is the same outfit that’s arranged for several trips into orbit on Soyuz, including week-long stays at the International Space Station. They’ve long since learned how to suppress the giggle factor amongst the nonbelievers, and seem to have this jaunt planned out fairly well. To my layman’s eyes, it looks like a recreation of the original plans to send a crewed Soyuz into lunar orbit. Considering the price tag and exclusive clientele, they’ve also seen fit to purchase an extra hab module which will go up with the TLI stage. I would imagine it’ll work out to one pax in each module, with the pilot in the other. Which will probably work just fine for a 10-day trip, because this one uses good old-fashioned chemical rockets.

One seat has already been sold, supposedly to filmmaker James Cameron. And if I had that kind of money, I’d be right behind him in the ticket line.

Did I mention someone ought to write a book about this?