Chair Force Engineer

Sunday, September 28, 2008

One small launch for a rocket, one giant leap for newspace

My hat goes off to SpaceX for successfully achieving orbit on the fourth launch of Falcon I. I'm sure a lot of observers of this industry, and a lot of space enthusiasts feel the same way. It's been a rocky road to get to this point, and the road will be even bumpier from here out. But with that being said, this is a brief moment for SpaceX to bask in the glory of achieving orbit with a privately-developed vehicle.

The only concern I have from watching the launch video feed is all of the debris that seemed to hang around the second stage nozzle. With that being said, I thought that separation was much cleaner than on the previous flights.

While Falcon I has found success, Falcon IX will be a much tougher challenge. With nine Merlin engines on the first stage and a single Merlin on stage 2, it's a much more complex vehicle than Falcon I and its pairing of one Merlin with one Kestrel.

Another factor worth considering is the long-term profitability of SpaceX. The Pegasus launcher is case-in-point. Also developed with private funds, the Pegasus program was launched with claims of low cost per each kilogram of payload to orbit. Due to a lack of missions and a low launch rate, Pegasus prices skyrocketed beyond what was initially projected. SpaceX hopes that Falcon IX will have a high flight rate thanks to COTS and space tourism missions. But if these goals aren't met, Falcon IX will turn into little more than another fairly-expensive EELV-class rocket like Delta or Atlas.

With all that being said, today is a very encouraging day. The accomplishments of SpaceX leading up to today's launch may be more important than the other government-funded space stunts of this past week, at least in terms of advancing humanity's permanent presence in space.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

ISS Solutions, Made in China

As multiple commentators have noted, there are no good options left in dealing with US access to the International Space Station. The Shuttle doesn’t meet mission requirements for crew return, but buying Soyuz capsules will be rewarding Russia in spite of its invasion of Georgia and proliferation of nuclear technology to Iran. When trapped between a rock and a hard place, it’s time to ask ourselves, “What would Richard Nixon do?”

Of course, I’m alluding to Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972. When the Russians are giving you a hard time, turn to China and do business with them instead. The analogy could also work for the space program. If NASA seriously looked at an alliance with China and used Shenzhou spacecraft to reach the International Space Station, it might get the Russians to make NASA a bargain. It probably wouldn’t change Russian attitudes on Iran or Georgia, but it might make the Russians cut their prices on Soyuz flights, or acquiesce to other American demands on ISS issues.

Could Shenzhou visit the space station? There are a lot of challenges that need resolution before such a flight could be attempted. Shenzhou has only made two manned flights, and probably would make NASA extremely cautious about certifying the spacecraft’s safety. The technical means for Shenzhou to dock with the station would have to be developed. It’s also unclear to me if the CZ-2F booster has enough performance to launch a Shenzhou into the station’s 51-degree orbit. Serious doubts should remain about China’s ability to produce and launch two Shenzhou per year, given the 2-3 year gaps between manned Shenzhou missions. There’s also a host of tech transfer issues that have to be dealt with. In short, I don’t view Shenzhou as a realistic option for American astronauts at present.

At the same time, Congress should direct NASA to begin talks with the Chinese manned spaceflight program and perform studies on what it would take to make the Shenzhou option realistic. If nothing else, the Russians need to know that Soyuz isn’t the only game in town.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Happy to be Stuck with You

With politicians scrambling to come up with answers to the "gap" between shuttle and Orion, it's worth asking whether the US has taken a critical look at what its near-term goals in manned spaceflight are. Yes, the moon is the goal, but a 2020 landing is a long-term goal. What are our goals for the period before the first lunar missions take place?

Under the Vision for Space Exploration, the US had originally committed to supporting the International Space Station until the year 2017. This goal had appeared to be on-track until several factors popped up. First, the Orion capsule, billed as successor to the shuttle, has been delayed from "no later than 2014" to going operational in 2015 or later. Second, the COTS spacecraft, which were to partially compensate for losing the shuttle's ability to bring mass back to earth from the station, have not panned out according to the original schedule. Dragon was delayed and RocketPlane-Kistler's award was taken away, with Orbital Sciences filling their slot. Lastly, Russia invaded Georgia and gave Congress every reason to terminate the purchase of Soyuz spacecraft.

There has been a groundswell of support for extending the shuttle program in the wake of the Georgian invasion. Unfortunately, more shuttle missions will not solve the fundamental problem that ISS faces. The shuttle is great for hauling cargo up and down from the station. But the shuttle cannot stay on-orbit for six months to bring a crew home during an emergency. Without an American spacecraft docked to ISS for six months at a time, there's no way that America can go it alone without Soyuz.

Besides the reliance on Soyuz, there are myriad other ways in which ISS cannot survive unless the US and Russia cooperate. The various modules are too interconnected, and neither country can operate their contributions to the station without the other country playing along. It's conceivable that Russia could afford to build Soyuz without American money, by selling the American slots to space tourists. But a Russian-led ISS would still require use of American space modules.

America and Russia are left in a situation where it's unlikely that either will abandon the ISS, even though both nations are mired in growing mistrust. If I had to make a bet, I would say that the US and Russia will learn to grin and bear it, operating ISS jointly until 2017. When Congress looks rationally at its options, it will realize that it will have to begrudgingly buy more Soyuz if it still wants to participate in ISS.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

2010: A Space Jihad-yssey

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin refers to the Space Shuttle's forced retirement in 2010 as a "jihad" in a recent e-mail that's sure to get the space community (the factions supporting Griffin and the factions opposing him) worked up.

While the administrator's choice of phrase is already drawing strong reactions, it's not off-base for describing the situation at hand. If we define jihad as a war based on dogma rather than logic, the firm 2010 retirement date for the shuttle falls into that category.

The 2010 date originated in the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's report from August 2003, which called for a major program-wide re-certification of the shuttle fleet by 2010. The Bush Administration turned the 2010 date into official policy when the shuttle retirement plan was announced on January 14, 2004. While the Griffin letter claims that 2010 was based on completion of the International Space Station, the truth is that the space station's final configuration was curtailed to fit within the existing space shuttle schedule, not vice-versa.

Trying to find logic in CAIB's 2010 "re-certification" date is difficult, hence the validity of Griffin's claim of "jihad." If the shuttle was deemed too unsafe to fly, it should have been terminated in 2003. The problem is that the shuttle and ISS have always been wedded to each other, and ISS will never achieve full functionality without the shuttle's unique capabilities. If the political benefits of operating ISS outweighed the safety risks of flying the shuttle, CAIB should have tied the shuttle retirement date to the time in the future when ISS is permanently abandoned. Instead, we have a compromise situation where ISS is completed, the shuttle is retired, and ISS hopefully continues operating with support from European and Japanese resupply craft that were completely untested when CAIB announced the 2010 date.

Part of the Griffin e-mail seems like a bit of an attempt to rescue his legacy. The warnings he claims to have made about reliance on Russia have never been publicized up to this point. Perhaps he was making these points behind closed doors. And it would be bad policy for the NASA Administrator, a high-profile member of the executive branch, to publicly bad-mouth the Russians and undermine the State Department.

With all that being said, I think NASA is pursuing a responsible policy of determining what would be required to operate the shuttle in a situation where additional funding was found, and in a situation where NASA received no budget increase to handle both shuttle operations and Ares/Orion development. At the same time, Wayne Hale's recent comments on the subject don't give me much confidence that the shuttle can fly long beyond 2010 without expensive work to rebuild facilities and supply chains that have already been dismantled. Perhaps the shuttle will be "re-certified," as per CAIB's recommendation for 2010.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Point of Know Return

Wayne Hale, perhaps the best manager in the shuttle program's turbulent history, draws a line in the sand for the shuttle. He correctly points out that the shuttle supply chain is being dismantled, and an indefinite extension is not in the cards. His tone is that the shuttle program will end in 2010 as scheduled, but I do see some small space for wiggling.

The next president, whoever he will be, will almost certainly want to add more flights to the shuttle manifest. The Obama space policy calls for an additional mission to fly the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. John McCain has joined with other senators in asking the White House to halt the dismantlement of shuttle facilities and suppliers.

The biggest issue that NASA faces in assessing the prospects of extending the shuttle past 2010 is looking at critical parts and facilities which will be difficult or impossible to replace. Once the shuttle program has identified critical parts that are out of production, the quantity of these parts will likely dictate how many shuttle flights can be attempted without the need to find new vendors or perform a lengthy program-wide re certification (as called for by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.)

Putting a hold on the actions to shut the shuttle down is prudent for the time being. The next president should be able to enter office with all options open. NASA should seriously study what it will take to keep the shuttle going (an action that's probably going on as we speak.) While NASA management views a shuttle extension as a threat to Ares (which it is,) the 44th president deserves honest and detailed information for making a policy decision. Based on what I've read, it would seem that NASA could probably add a couple of shuttle missions in FY2011 based on the spares on-hand, but going any longer past that would be very dicey.