Chair Force Engineer

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Spacely Sprockets

I got to tour the SpaceX facilities in El Segundo and talk to some representatives of the company. In case you're wondering, I couldn't take any pictures.

SpaceX has six buildings in the El Segundo area; I got to see four of them. None of them seemed very big, like what you'd expect from a plant where EELV-class rockets are built. The company had some hardware on display and I found it all to be very interesting.

Meeting with SpaceX officials went well. A lot of my questions were answered, and I learned enough to ask more questions that had previosuly slipped my mind. The performance numbers they presented during the meeting looked a lot better than what I had been seeing for the past few months. Hopefully the upcoming launch of FalconSat II will confirm them.

The thing that impressed me most about the company is that they're constantly learning new techniques as they're going along building rockets. Improvements are continually being added at every step of production. SpaceX is a company that's hungry, and hungry companies are going to turn the space launch business on its ear.

Monday, October 24, 2005

More on the Rocket Monopoly

This morning, while waiting for my breakfast burrito, I picked up an Aviation Week from May 2005 with more details on the "United Launch Alliance" merger. I was incorrect about the marketing of rockets like Delta II & Zenit Sea Launch (which will remain with Boeing Launch Services) and Proton & Angara (which stay with International Launch Services.)

Aside from that, Boeing and LockMart view the merger as a way of making things more efficient (read: lay off employees and close excess facilities) because they are losing money hand-over-fist with the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. The official AIr Force position is that the merger will be good for taxpayers. Still, I would like to see some strings attached to this deal to ensure that emerging competitors like SpaceX's Falcon IX get some guaranteed launches early in their gestation. Northrop Grumman is also complaining that the monopoly gives more leverage to Boeing in selling satellites to the military. This fear should also be addressed as a condition of the merger. ULA must not be allowed to practice predatory tactics if the merger goes through.

At the same time, we should question why SpaceX wants to compete with the EELV's in the first place. With so few launches to compete for, there's little money to be made and a lot to lose in that market segment. SpaceX has an emerging market to tap into with the small-sats that may ride on Falcon I. Falcon V and IX are well-positioned to replace the Delta II for important missions like GPS and research satellites (Falcon V falls a bit short of Delta II performance, while Falcon IX exceeds it. With the trend towards smaller satellites, Falcon V may be preferred.)

Of course, Elon Musk & company have plans of expanding the pie instead of grabbing a bigger sliceof the tiny pie that exists today. What emerging markets do they see? Space tourism and space station resupply are the obvious choices. Robert Bigelow (Space Gigolo) has already tapped Falcon IX for a space hotel module. NASA's plan to contract out the resupply of ISS is promising, although many pitfalls lie ahead.

If Boeing and LockMart think there is money to be made in these emerging markets, they will compete. However, SpaceX and other small startups have been fortunate that Boeing and LockMart have been sleeping giants, largely skeptical of what the private sector can accomplish in space. That's why it was Burt Rutan and not Boeing who built SpaceShipOne; that's why Richard Branson and not Lockheed Martin will fly tourists in space.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

David vs. Goliath^2

Upstart space launch company SpaceX is suing to block a merger of Boeing and LockMart's space launch businesses into the United Launch Alliance (ULA.) If the Federal Trade Commission approves the merger, all American rockets (aside from the smallest ones like Pegasus and Minotaur) will be built by ULA and sold to the Defense Department, NASA, and commercial firms without competition.

The American spirit tends to embrace competition in the free market. It is competition that keeps corporations in check and prevents them from becoming too powerful. Competition also spurns innovation and lowers costs for consumers. Naturally, we should be skeptical about the ULA.

On the other hand, it's not accurate to assume that the space launch industry is truly competitive as it is. The Delta and Atlas rocket production lines are operating well below capacity due to a lack of payloads. The Air Force is also committed to maintaining two viable launch systems by supporting both Delta and Atlas.

The importance of this redundancy cannot be overstated. After the Challenger was lost, NASA seriously considered the HL-20 mini-shuttle as an alternate means of bringing crews to and from the space station. This idea was not followed through (neither were HL-20's successors, X-38 and Orbital Space Plane.) When Columbia was lost in 2003, the space station was choked by a lack of supplies and crew that would normally ride on the shuttle. Only Russia's Soyuz and Progress could continue to support a manned presence on the space station.

Should either Delta IV or Atlas V experience a major failure, it would make much sense to shift payloads on the grounded rocket to the functioning one. If the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) effort was truly competitive, Lockheed Martin could have offered an Atlas V Heavy after serious anomalies were encountered on Delta IV Heavy's test flight. However, Lockheed Martin has been slow to match the Delta IV in all capabilities; they started much later than Boeing did on the Vandenberg Launch Pad (and now LockMart is trying to muscle SpaceX from their existing pad nearby LockMart's Atlas V pad,) and they haven't seriously offered the Atlas V Heavy to potential customers.

If anything, ULA could save the taxpayers money in the short term. LockMart would close down its Atals plant in Colorado (featured in Michael Moore's travesty Bowling for Columbine,) and move it to Boeing's under-utilized Delta IV factory in Alabama. Presumably, ULA would continue marketing the Russian Proton and Angara rockets, as LockMart's subsidiary (International Launch Services) had done in the past. ULA would also be likely to market the Delta II, although that rocket's days in active service are coming to a bittersweet end.

If SpaceX's Falcon family can work reliably and approach the cost goals claimed by SpaceX, Boeing and LockMart might need the ULA to survive in the space launch business. Assuming that ULA does not choke SpaceX during the company's gestation, SpaceX could quickly grow to rival the bloated ULA juggernaut.

Americans love an underdog, and SpaceX is that underdog in the space launch market. It's going up against the ULA, a hollow shell of the aerospace industry in its cold-war glory days. In the short-term, ULA will be a monopoly, and it may have the potential to suppress innovative upstart firms like SpaceX. Once SpaceX emerges, however, ULA will be a needed force to balance a diverse space launch market with taxpayer savings.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Red Moon Rising?

With the rise of China's manned space program, there has been a wave of speculation (supported by boasts from a few eager Chinese space officials) that the PRC wants to put a man on the moon. If China's current space efforts are indicative of the future, it will be quite some time before a Taikonaut walks on the moon. When the Chinese flag is finally planted on the moon's surface, Americans should be there to greet him.

China should be commended for building a manned spacecraft with similar capabilities to the Russian Soyuz. But there is a vast technological leap between flying a Soyuz and putting men on the moon. China lacks the booster rocket that will launch a lunar spacecraft, and they lack a lander that can carry humans from lunar orbit to the lunar soil. These things took years to develop, even during the free-spending days of Apollo.

Even more telling than the lack of hardware is the lack of skills needed to fly to the moon. China still has to make a spacewalk, a docking, or a flight of two weeks duration with the Shenzhou spacecraft. And according to the current schedule, these feats will be some time in coming. Shenzhou 7 will demonstrate the spacewalk, while missions 8 & 9 will dock with each other. The problem is that Shenzhou 7 won't launch until 2007. If China continues with the trend of two years between manned missions, we won't see Shenzhou 8 & 9 until 2009. On top of that, China wants to launch a space station sometime after 2010. This will certainly push back the date for any proposed moon landing.

It's clear that China's space program has some military implications, although the degree is yet to be determined. It's widely believed that previous Shenzhou missions have carried either image intelligence or signals intelligence payloads. The fact that the Shenzhou orbital modules have stayed in orbit long past the reentry of the Shenzhou capsules makes some observers suspicious about their true purpose. I tend to view Shenzhou as a bastardized version of the Air Force's Manned Orbiting Laboratory proposal from the mid 60's. The most important thing to remember is that Shenzhou isn't purely military, but the unfurling of UN flags and other gestures of peace by Taikonauts shouldn't be seen as sincere, either.

China's priorities are pretty clear at this point, and the space program isn't being given a particularly high ranking. For now, China is content with a manned mission every two years. In the near future, we will see a Chinese rocket similar to the Delta IV and Atlas V. We will also see a space station similar to the Russian Salyut from the 70's. But we won't be seeing a red moon anytime soon.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Life of the Party, or, Take Me Home Tonight

Being the designated driver for your buddies isn't as bad as many people make it out to be. Companionship with your comrades is more important than intoxication, and knowing that somebody else had a good time because of your sacrifice has its rewards. Besides, when you're the only sober person in the room, everybody else looks to you for advice and thinks you're the wisest guy there.

Watching the White Sox beat the Angels at a sports bar was a great time, followed by joking around with the guys. We then went to a theme bar with a karaoke lounge, where the guys realized they'd had enough to drink.

Intoxicated only on my own hubris, I took to the stage and belted out Eddie Money's "Take Me Home Tonight." At first, I thought I murdered the song. But I improved, added some choreography, and got into the groove. I had won over the crowd. I took a lot of high fives, including congrats from two guys who identified themselves as members of the 58th Special Ops Wing. The ladies went wild too. It reinforces my theory that the way to a woman's heart is a monster ballad.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Bark at the Moon

Based on the blogs I've read, it looks like the space enthusiasts are generally disappointed with NASA's plan to go back to the moon. My general reaction is that they should stop whining, lest Congress decide that we won't be going back to the moon at all. Either we have a space program that does something exciting, or we lose the space program entirely. Congress and the American people are loathe to repeat the shuttle mistake again.

My disagreement with Michael Griffin's moon plan comes not from the mission architecture, as it's probably the best way we have of getting to the moon with the current technology. My disagreement lies with the economics of the Griffin plan.

When the military wants a new system, great efforts are made to avoid dictating the design of the new system to the contractors. Instead, the contractors are given a set of specifications and have great latitude in meeting them through various design choices. This method allows for more innovation and efficiency.

NASA's approach is completely different. Instead, NASA has studied the options and has arrived at the conceptual designs for its two launchers, which I call "Stick" and "Heavy." While NASA will probably put these designs out to bid, the contractors will only have to do the detail design work, with the concept already fed to them by NASA.

By relying on the infrastructure and propulsion technology developed for the Space Shuttle, NASA has made a deal with the devil. Development costs will be low, but the operating costs (which comprise the majority of the lifetime costs in aircraft, but not necessarily for rockets) will likely be higher. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to tell you that this method isn't sustainable over the long term unless new rockets are developed later in the program, or if economies of scale develop.

An alternative to Heavy and Stick is to launch the moon ship in 20-ton pieces with Delta and Atlas rockets. I favored this approach, because Delta and Atlas could be replaced in the future with a reusable launcher in the 20-ton payload class. Alas, it is not to be.

Monday, October 10, 2005

X-Prize Cup (Part 4/4)

The DaVinci vehicle that Brian Feeney hopes to pilot into space in October 2006 or so. This is the real deal, not a mockup (except the engine nozzle.) The structure is carbon fiber, coated with a heat-resistant material.

The interior of the re-entry capsule, which is spherical like the old Vostok capsule.

Rocky Persaud. In addition to his work with Da Vinci, he has performed a tour on the Flashline Mars simulation station (FMARS) and served as president of Mars Society Canada.

That's Brian Feeney on the left side of the picture, next to Red M&M. If I had a little less self-control, I'd have bitten the guys in M&M suits. M&M was a sponsor, having been on board the space shuttle since the program took off in 1981.

A SpaceShipOne mockup. Although it got a lot of attention, I didn't see any reps from Virgin Galactic or The Spaceship Company to talk about it.

A mockup of Rocketplane Ltd's XP. Astronaut John Herrington's name is painted below the cockpit windows.

A clear view of the spacecraft's recently-redesigned empennage. Pitch and yaw control in the atmosphere now comes from a V-tail.

Henry from Rocketplane Ltd was happy to field questions. He confidently claimed a 2007 launch date that would beat SpaceShipTwo into the commercial arena.

The Canadian Arrow mockup was on display, complete with its mobile trailer / erector. The program is currently testing the escape system. Commercial launches will take place from a barge in the Atlantic ocean to avoid the liabilities of overflying the land.

Dr. Chirinjeev Kathuria, co-founder of PlanetSpace, is on the left side of the picture. In addition to his work with Canadian Arrow and PlanetSpace, he seeks the Lt. Governorship of Illinois in 2006.

X-Prize Cup (Part 3/4)

X-Cor and Armadillo Aerospace both made powered flights during the day. I was taken by surprise when the flights started because of an ineffective PA system.

The X-Cor EZ Rocket, piloted by astronaut Rick Searfoss.

EZ Rocket being towed prior to its second flight of the day.

A mockup of Armadillo's space tourism vehicle.

One of Armadillo's test articles. During Armadillo's first flight, the test rocket lifted a short distance off the ground, hovered, translated while in hover, landed, and tipped over. No repeat of the DC-XA's tragic death, however.

The Cosmopolis XXI. It looks sleek, but not much has been made public about the project since the mockup was unveiled in 2002.

Starchaser's capsule. Starchaser's promotional literature explains that they selected New Mexico because of its uncongested air corredors. That's a polite way of saying there's absolutely nothing out here.

X-Prize Cup (Part 2/4)

There was a tent set up for NASA, educators, space tourism companies, community groups, and other vendors. The pictures herein are a small smattering of what was on display.

Strato-X has an interesting concept for near-space tourism. Two people will ride a balloon to 100,000 feet and stay there for two days. Joe Kittinger might be proud.

NASA models depicting the space shuttle design we got, and a space shuttle design we deserved (in this case, the Grumman-Boeing H33.)

A moon rover mockup.

A NASA helmet, an Apollo glove, and other space artifacts from the era.

A computer from the good old Apollo days.

A candid shot of Pablo DeLeon setting up his company's display. Pablo DeLeon and associates planned on building a space tourism rocket, based on the Little Joe II with hybrid propulsion. The plans are on hold while his company seeks funding. For now, they are focusing on the next generation of space suits. In five years time, the situation may be more favorable.

Analytical Graphics had a booth to promote the uber-powerful simulation software, Sattellite Tool Kit. Having recently taken a week-long course in STK in Long Beach, I can attest to its awesomeness.

Masten Space Systems, one of the event's sponsors.

David Masten explains the difficulties of ballistic suborbital re-entry. Because the spacecraft (XA-1.0) is coming down vertically through the lower atmosphere, the thermal environment is more severe than a typical orbital re-entry.

X-Prize Cup (Part 1/4)

The X-Prize Cup in Las Cruces, NM had this electric feeling in the air. Between the various exhibitors, it seemed like there was a boundless enthusiasm for man's future in space. The event was well-attended, and the people present represented a wide variety of ages and backgrounds. Star Trek: Voyager's Robert Picardo was one of the emcees (the novelty was lost on me, as I'm not a trekker.)

UP Aerospace seeks to make the inaugural launch from the New Mexico Spaceport in Upham during early 2006. Spaceloft, their sounding rocket, will take a 20-pound payload to 70 miles above the earth. The solid-fuel booster will be discarded after flight, but the payload section can be reflown.

Beyond-Earth also had a sounding rocket on display. The company wants to give people a chance to launch small items into space.

We caught an F-117 from Holloman making a few high-speed passes around 12:30. The picture is included because F-117's rock.

t/Space was present with a mockup of their Crew Transport Vehicle (CXV.) It's fairly spacious for a 4-man capsule, and will weigh in at 8,000 pounds.

The backside of the capsule is equipped with a hatch, docking collar, and two thrusters that will deorbit the capsule at the end of the mission.

t/Space's David Gump gave spectators "tours" of the capsule and answered our questions.

Two windows give the crew some visibility when docking with ISS. The inner walls consist of equipment storage racks.

Here's the notional control panel and "space shitter."

The seats are a simple cloth-on-frame affair. They swivel so that the astronauts are facing the capsule's nose during launch, while facing towards the hatch end during re-entry.

CXV's crew will wear the U-2 / SR-71 / Shuttle "Launch/Entry Suits" during, well, launch and entry.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Manned Spaceflight Milestone

Ben Cooper sends me this interesting tidbit, unreported in the mass media, about the launch of Soyuz TMA-7:

...with the launch of Expedition 12 aboard TMA-7, was completed the 100th manned Russian space launch in history, and the 250th time in world history that human beings have soared past the 100km mark.

Soyuz (the rocket and the capsule) has earned an impressive reputation for its reliability over the years. Aside from the tragic losses of Soyuz 1 & 11 (and several nearly-fatal accidents, like two aborted launches,) the system has been the most reliable orbital spacecraft in recent history. Several of the non-fatal Soyuz mishaps (like the ballistic reentry of Soyuz TMA-1) have demonstrated how robust the system is in getting its crews back safely.

EDIT (3 Oct 05): Some of the more astute readers may have asked how the 100th Russian mission and 250th manned spaceflight were counted. I will elaborate:

100 manned Russian space launches includes Soyuz 18-1, which aborted at an altitude of 192 km. It does not include Soyuz T-10-1, which was aborted when the booster caught fire on the pad.

The figure of 250 manned space flights above 100 km (the internationally-accepted boundary of space) includes Soyuz 18-1 and excludes Soyuz T-10-1. It includes China's sole spaceflight. It also includes the two suborbital Mercury missions, three flights of SpaceShipOne, and two X-15 missions (both with Joe Walker at the controls.) It does not include Challenger's final mission, STS-51L.