Yet another childhood milestone of mine has passed into the "you might be surprised to find..." category. Hell I can remember watching John Belushi's Weekend Update segment about this. Hello? John Belushi? Cheeburger? No?
Well then, get the hell off my lawn!
SpaceX's effort to create a fully reusable rocket has just passed another test. A+ for the sense of humor as well. Oh, and lest you think that was one brave chopper pilot flying so close, it was (apparently) a small RC quad copter that played the role of the camera vehicle. GoPro cameras, FTW!
I don't think the booster it's supposed to power will ever be built, but the effort to resurrect the iconic F-1 engine still just about defines cool. I'd wager most are in pretty good shape. Well, except for the ones that are at the bottom of the Atlantic. When they hauled them off the ocean floor a few months ago, they didn't look so hot to me.
If you're traveling to Central Florida this summer, don't miss the new Shuttle exhibit. This time they're hanging it from the ceiling, tilted, with the cargo bay doors open. It looks like visitors will get a lot closer to it, too. Much better than the "parked in a garage" exhibit we have over at Udvar. Of course, I'm pretty sure the Smithsonian didn't have 100 mil to blow on the exhibit, so there's reasons why it's shown off that way.
A company has announced plans to build a lunar base using 3D printer technologies. How much of the base will be built on site and how much will be shipped up the good ol' fashioned way isn't made clear in the article. Neither is the booster with enough oomph to do the job named. Still, it's nice to see someone working to make it back up there. I'm just not holding my breath until they do.
The Chinese are, probably, working on a lunar lander with an accompanying rover. It may launch as early as the end of the year. Go for the interesting development in exploration, stay for yet another picture of the "VAB with Chinese characteristics."
It seems NASA's effort to find buyers for its Canaveral infrastructure is proceeding apace. It's also nice to see them being frank about letting the market determine the price. Hopefully they'll find buyers. It'd be a (dangerous) shame if the VAB was allowed to rot into the Florida swamps that surround it.
Every once in awhile even a remote view can be powerful. In all honesty I'm not sure if I would've spotted that something had gone badly wrong from that distance, and back then I lived and breathed the space program.
Well, since they are designing a new space suit, why not make the color scheme white and lime green? I think we'll see lots more of this as time goes on.
The final surviving Space Shuttle is heading for its retirement home today. Since they're taking it from one part of KSC to another part of KSC, the move will be nowhere near as difficult. Since the thing is still about as big as a medium-sized airliner, there will still be a bit of drama. But only a bit.
Fans of Apollo-era gear (and really, who isn't?) will likely find this behind-the-scenes look at JSC's restored MOCR2 of interest. For those not fluent in NASA-speak, this is the mission control room that was responsible for directing most of the Gemini and Apollo flights of the 60s and early 70s. The article says it was restored in 1992, which means I just may have toured it WAY back in the day. To be honest, nowadays I just can't recall.
The secretive private space company Blue Origin has successfully tested the crew escape system of its upcoming manned capsule. Unlike the comment on the video, I think it hits with a pretty hefty thump at the end. I do like the weird way the parachutes gradually deploy, though.
SpaceX has released video that illustrates the engine failure they experienced with the recent Falcon 9 test flight. Reading between the lines of the article, it seems the rocket is designed to withstand the occasional engine explosion without even impeding the mission all that much. Still, it'd be nice if they fixed whatever made that happen before plopping some for-real folks onto its nose.
SpaceX's Dragon capsule will be making it's first-ever for-real cargo run to the space station in not quite two weeks' time. It seems like a lot to go through to haul up half a ton of stuff, but nobody said rocket science was cheap. Plus, it'll give their team more information to put toward the manned version of the capsule, which is a good thing.
A record-setting female astronaut has become only the second woman in 14 years to command the International Space Station. In other news, they're still stuck with just three crewmen per on the thing. SpaceX can't get its dragon capsule going fast enough, is all I'm saying.
Has NASA inadvertently "outed" the secretive spaceflight company Blue Origin? I'm thinking "no." That capsule's outline looks really similar to a Soyuz capsule to me. I'm thinking "prop," but hell what do I know?
A NASA team recently completed a successful untethered test of its Might Eagle autonomous lunar lander recently, and Space.com has the pictures to prove it. Bonus: the test took place around test stands originally used for Saturn V engine development.
WATCH FOR FALLING LANDERS. And exploding ones, too. Hey, folks, it's called "rocket science" for a reason, kno'wha'ah'mane?
Private space company (who's headquarters are so close to our house we drive past them a few times a week) Orbital Sciences has admitted their manned space booster has encountered a series of delays. Now they're thinking the first test flight will be in December.
SpaceX is moving from strength to strength, with a successful test firing of an improved Dragon rocket engine. The new design is said to be stronger and easier to make, allowing launch prices to continue to fall. With video!
I swear, you can't trust Yankees to do anything right. We get a real Shuttle and
con graciously gift them our prototype and what do they do? Run it into the side of a damned bridge. You just can't teach 'em anything!
SpaceX's Dragon capsule has successfully splashed down in the Pacific. They filled it full of trash and sent it on its way, and six hours later it went "sploosh." Or, maybe, "kersplash." I dunno. You make up the noise it made.
By taking the motto "cheap is good" to heart, a private space-flight firm is attempting to bring the stars to the masses. Looks to me more like a lipstick container mounted on the end of a bottle rocket. Then again, hey, it's your money. If you want to spend it getting flung across the planet like the world's largest artillery round, knock yourself out.
SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace have formally teamed up to create a commercial, orbital, space service. No prices or timeline just yet, but considering Bigelow's had prototypes flying for five years now and SpaceX is on the verge of a second test of its capsule, I'm thinking 2-5 years seems about right. And, unlike NASA, there's no set of congresscritters to please, hold things up, or generally make a nuisance of themselves. And protestors can make all the noise they want for all the good it will do them. This is how it's done, folks.
Another entry in the manned private launcher category has been announced. I was wondering where the Ares I people who got canned would end up. I'm not wondering any more. I'm thinking (dangerous, I know) that the Ariane V upper stage will be more powerful than what Ares was meant to use, but I'm not sure about it. Good luck to them!
SpaceX's next launch has been delayed again. Exactly by how much is unclear at the moment, but it seems to be for the same reason their test fire was delayed: to have more time to do more tests. Since it's not like you can pull a rocket over to the side of the road and call AAA when something goes wrong, a delay of this nature is likely a good thing.
And, whoa, what a throwback moment to realize Kennedy is reading the news again. She looks pretty good IMO!
Space.com is featuring a look at the Space Shuttle program's unsung heroes, the 747 transport aircraft. Not only were two 747s dedicated to the task, but another (presumably dedicated) bizjet-class aircraft was employed as a pathfinder. When cost is no object, objects tend to become costly.
Now that they're getting close to an actual launch, the media are starting to pay more attention to a couple of space start-ups. The article covers the already pretty well-known SpaceX, but also includes a review of (to me at any rate) the less covered Orbital effort. Orbital's headquarters is just down the road from my house, at the end of the famous "Warp Dr."
The ESA has successfully launched its heaviest payload to-date. The Edoardo Amaldi is effectively a giant supply robot heading toward the ISS. It's the third in a series of launches intended to help keep the station operational.
Elon Musk, president of SpaceX, thinks he can haul the cost of, well, hauling to Mars down to $500,000 per launch. And he's not talking about hauling another glorified golf cart, he's talking about people. Ambitious? Well of course. But, considering what SpaceX has accomplished so far, I wouldn't discount them out of hand.
Wanna know why Formula 1 is so awesome? Because without their need for long-range, high-definition video to be strapped to extremely small, extremely fast, extremely light things video like this probably wouldn't be possible. I'd known for awhile that the NASA guys had put cameras on the shuttle. I just didn't know they put on so many. With microphones!
Man, what I would give to go back in time and stash a few dozen of these on a Saturn V.
Russia has announced intentions to land a man on the moon by 2030. As with our own space agency's plans, that and a fiver will get you a cup of something at Starbucks. Oh, stop it. I can't be more specific than that, one of our regular readers has OCD and a Starbucks addiction. I don't need to give him more opportunities to go Starbucks-nerdy than he already gets.
New photos released by NASA are showing the Apollo 11 landing site in unprecedented detail. Well, unprecedented since the astronauts left for home, at any rate. You'd think this would put a fork in those "fake moon landing" people. I'm not holding my breath on that one, though.
The European Space Agency is poised to test a new booster designed to loft small satellites cheaply. It's primarily meant to free them from being held hostage by Russia, apparently, since this payload class is normally served by their converted ICBMs.
Elon Musk is getting a bit more specific about SpaceX's future plans. I'll give him this, he certainly doesn't lack for ambition. Better still, the stuff SpaceX is already doing is undercutting even China's launch business. So far his company's track record for turning ambition in to reality is pretty good.
Armadillo Aerospace has successfully completed another test of its new launch vehicle. This time the vehicle made it past 80 km. It wasn't a perfect test, but apparently went well enough to enable the next test in the series, due to happen some time this spring.
SpaceX's next Dragon launch has been delayed to allow more preparation of the vehicle. No new date has been announced, as the company must work with NASA to establish it. Rocket science is the definition of "hard," so I can't say this is all that surprising. It's not like you get a second chance if something goes wrong.
Space tourism is getting close enough to reality that you can actually talk to (selected) travel agents about it. At $200k per ticket, it's not something I'm saving up for any time soon. That said, it absolutely could be something given away as a grand prize for any number of contests, which I would, reluctantly, be willing to enter. Somebody's gotta win it!
The latest speculation of the current X-37B mission ('memba that? It's been up there since March) is it's spying on China's new space station. Or perhaps not. Nothing about the program makes a whole lot of sense objectively. I'd like to think that means it's doing something seriously cool, but I've been wrong before.
2012 looks to be shaping up as a pretty busy year in space exploration. I'm personally looking forward to the upcoming Dragon launch, even if it's still an unmanned one. The Curiosity landing will likely also be exciting, even harrowing, since for presumably good reasons those always seem to take place late at night local time. Here's to a great space year!
Look, ma, it's a VAB, with Chinese Characteristics. No, really! It's nice to know that, if it all fell in the pot tomorrow for my NASA peeps working on the manned side, they could always move to Jiuquan. It's never too late to learn mandarin!
With the exception of the fabulously expensive cockpit revamp they only ended up using half a dozen times, it's an opportunity to see what state-of-the-art looked like in 1979. They were fabulous achievements, but (IMO) not particularly successful vehicles. Yes, yes, I know why, and they're good reasons, mostly involving bad decisions and poor compromises. Me, I'm rooting for SpaceX!
The space shuttle Discovery has been turned off for the very last time. A bit sad, yes, but it at least sounds like they spent a ton of money ensuring it was properly preserved. Look at it this way: it's not like they're leaving it moldering in the tropical heat for thirty years. Bonus: Looks like it'll be showing up around here some time in April. Mark your calendars!
Space shuttle Enterprise is now officially owned by Yankees. Poor thing. On the bright side, us wily Southerners are trading it for a for-real space shuttle, Discovery. I'm thinking it really will be a swap, with Discovery showing up on the 747 that'll take Enterprise to its new home. That'll definitely be a day to think about taking off from work. I have no idea where they'll do the switch. I guess those cranes they use can be transported?
European booster manufacturer Arianespace has successfully launched a Soyuz rocket from its South American facility in French Guiana. This marks the first time in the history of that venerable booster that it has been launched outside the borders of the old Soviet Union. The inclusion of its services adds a valuable medium-weight launch capability to compliment Arianespace's own Ariane 5.
Boeing is now pitching an up-rated version of its X-37B spaceplane as a manned vehicle for reaching the ISS. The unimaginatively named X-37C would still be far smaller than the Space Shuttle, but would (apparently) require little new hardware to be developed.
The National Space Society blog is featuring an extensive article on why SpaceX's Falcon Heavy is important. This is all, of course, assuming it doesn't go "kerplooey" when they light the fuse. That said, if something like that were to happen we'd at least have the advantage of not stopping everything for three years while Congress peers up everyone's rectum for an answer to "what went wrong." Go, SpaceX, go!
Congratulations to the Chinese National Space Administration for the successful launch of Tiangon 1, its first space station. And it seems like (big surprise) I was wrong, Tiangong is considerably more than a booster stage with a docking collar. More power to them!
China is set to launch its first "space lab" this Thursday or Friday, weather permitting. From the very limited description, this seems to be the start of their version of the Gemini program, which leads me to believe the rumors might have some weight to them... China may actually be aiming for the Moon, if not further. Meh, more power to 'em, good luck and God speed!
SpaceX is jumping into the "VTVL" launcher game with a research vehicle called "Grasshopper". Short for "Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing" (I do wish you would do a better job keeping up with these things), it marks the third such effort into designing a reusable rocket that would look perfectly in place as part of a 1950s science fiction movie.
Rand Simberg: "The problem is that ... the government ... has always supplied human spaceflight, and when you propose to do it in any other way ... the same cries arise: “Are you crazy?! Why do you hate space exploration?! Spaceflight is hard! Only NASA knows how to put people into space! Who is going to do it if not NASA? These people are just hobbyists in garages! What if all of the commercial companies fail and go out of business?! ... What if they can’t hit their cost targets? What material will they use? What if we can’t store propellant in orbit?”
I actually have heard people make these arguments. I have a pizza bet with one of them. Read the whole thing.
SpaceX seems to be moving along smartly to its next Dragon mission. Scheduled for November 30 of this year, it combines all the tests and demonstrations previously meant for two separate flights, and will result in a rendezvous with the ISS. Good luck to them!
A returning ISS crew suffered an unexpected communications blackout during re-entry today. But don't worry, I'm sure when the New York Times reports it, blame will be correctly placed on the Bush administration. Glenn sees it happening all the time.
It seems the DIRECT team has got the upper hand over at NASA. Witness the striking similarities between the Jupiter proposals and the recently announced new heavy-lift launcher NASA says will carry astronauts to Mars and beyond. Not that any of it matters, since a) NASA will almost certainly not be able to afford it and b) even if it looks like they will, the propeller-headed program leads will get starry-eyed and grasp at new ideas that'll jack the price up so high it'll become unaffordable. Me, I'm putting my bets on SpaceX. Of course, now that there's this thing out there, it's possible my favorites will have a harder job than before. Such is the life which surrounds the last surviving design bureau of the Cold War.
By altering the orbit of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA scientists have been able to take even more detailed photos of various Apollo landing sites. You'd think this would go a long way to silencing the "faked moon landing" believers. Then again, there are still "flat earthers" still out there, so I wouldn't hold my breath.
I tell ya, it really does look like what we're going to get in DC is a Space Shuttle that's been left outside a chop-shop convention. I definitely find it sad to see these giants quietly shuffling (shuttling?) off to their final end, at least until I consider how incredibly expensive it all was. Then, then I think about SpaceX and Bigelow and the idea of a sustainable privately run space program, one not directly beholden to Congress's whims, and I take heart. The next generation will not so easily be cancelled, or held hostage, or frozen in the amber of a bureaucrat's fears.
I'm not sure why anyone's surprised by this: Boeing decides to use boosters made by... well, Boeing... to loft its upcoming 7-seat space capsule. First flight is scheduled for 2015, which I think puts them 3 years behind SpaceX? Competition is good!
The good news: Smithsonian's getting their new shuttle no later than next September. The bad: it might look like it's been parked outside a chop shop convention overnight. Hey, if reporters get paid to make a hysterically distorted headline, why can't I?
Scientists are working with SpaceX to re-tool their new Dragon space capsule as a payload delivery system. By using existing commercial products, the scientists hope to field their experiments for a fraction of the normal costs.
French Guiana will soon see Soyuz launches from its Ariane 5 launch complex. The location will allow the rockets to loft nearly twice as much payload as their normal launch pads, located much further north in the former USSR. Go for the brief, stay for the mangled description of why this is so ("spin is felt")?
What fun would a shuttle mission be without the occasional main computer reboot? Those systems are ancient, but they do the job. Mostly. Magnetic core memory, FTW!
SpaceX has officially broken ground on its new launch location for the Falcon Heavy booster. They will be renovating Vandenberg's Space Launch Complex 4-East to give them the ability to launch to polar orbits. This capability is critical if SpaceX is to compete in the intelligence satellite market, which is currently dominated by a single company.
It seems the American flags planted on the Moon may not be faring very well. I say that calls for a historical preservation mission of the highest priority! Thing is, if SpaceX's plans pan out, we may actually be able to do that in the not-too-distant future.
Not like 99.99% of us ever had a chance to view it another way, but there's now a fancy hi-rez panorama of Space Shuttle Discovery's cockpit available. This is the newer glass cockpit version. They were expensive as hell and never really did live up to their promise, but it'll be a long, long time before a space ship that big is produced again. Like the Concorde, there are reasons for this, but they'll be missed just the same.
At the nearly last moment, someone has finally got a wide-field view of a shuttle docked to a space station. That's what it was supposed to be doing the entire time it's been flying. My only disappointment is the space station seems kinda small, especially for the price.
Fresh from its crime-fighting duties, Endeavour will now be transformed into a safe museum piece. As with anything this big and complicated, it's not as simple as you might at first imagine. As mentioned in the article, having a line rust through one day and drip hydrazine on someone would be... bad.
Video of Virgin Galactic's latest spacecraft test has been released. The clip shows the first successful test of the innovative re-entry design pioneered with SpaceShipOne. A hands-off re-entry system... a good thing!
Mark gets a no-prize pointing onward and upward for bringing us news of the latest NASA space probe initiatives. The list includes yet another Mars orbiter, as well as a boat to float on the methane oceans of Titan. Here's to adequate funding and successful missions!
Mark gets a red no-prize for bringing us news that LockMart thinks we should land on Deimos before we try to land on Mars. It's my understanding nobody has any idea how to get something big and heavy enough to hold people safely down on the surface of Mars. We just don't have those kinds of propulsion systems at the moment. Why not go to the doorstep instead?
Looks like it's not just NASA that can't match SpaceX's price and performance. I think what's really remarkable is the market for space launch is now big enough to support, what, at least three domestic and two international companies?
NASA has announced the final destination of one of the shuttles. Sending Enterprise to Intrepid actually makes a lot of sense... of all the surviving shuttles, I would expect only this prototype to be even vaguely weatherproof over the long term. The others are filled with expensive, delicate, never-meant-to-be-out-in-the-rain stuff. One of the remaining three will take its place at Udvar. The destinations of the other two, as the article notes, are still "TBD."
Peanut gallery members cautiously interested in the future of private manned spaceflight may find this detailed description of the recently announced Falcon Heavy of interest. A booster that can loft Saturn-class payloads in two launches for one-third the combined cost should get everyone's attention. Of course, a planned booster is not the same thing as lighting the fuse and running like hell, but you can't begrudge their hutzpah.
It looks like there will soon be a new player in the heavy lift booster category. 32,000lbs to LEO is significantly larger than the (listed) payload of the shuttle, in fact quite a bit more than currently operational boosters in this class. An announcement is of course not the same thing as the actual article, but they've come through so far on everything else. Onward and upward!
So, is it a pretty picture, or is it just venting? I tell ya, it's darned hard to put a "no dumping" sign in orbit nowadays.
The final Discovery flight seems to be made for unique perspectives. This time an enterprising amateur astronomer has filmed it in orbit from the ground. The site includes a video which supposedly will provide a 3D view without glasses, but that didn't work for me. Regardless, it's fine to watch in "regular" mode.
I think it's strangely appropriate that one of the last Space Shuttle flights has resulted in one of the most remarkable videos of same. Let's hear it for ubiquitous video cameras!
By using a combination of public and private funds, the manufacturers of the two operating EELV boosters seem to be making good progress man-rating them. SpaceX still seems to be three or four years ahead of everyone else, but it's still cool to see at least three companies actively working on getting our folks back in orbit.
I post this not for the harsh (although, in my opinion, fair) comments about NASA, but rather as a distillation of why I am optimistic and enthusiastic about private enterprise in space. His argument about what NASA should become is also well made, and one that not only I, but at least some inside NASA itself, agree on.
Meet the new booster, same as the old booster. Looks like they ganked the already-proven Ares first stage and are planning to mate it with a slightly modified Ariane V upper. The J2X program was turning into a classic NASA "let's take a good idea and ignore all the cost savings and do something cool with it" over-reach, so the substitution makes sense. That said, from what I've read that wasn't where the cost overruns were coming from. Also, there's no mention at all about what sort of capsule might be used. Wouldn't it be interesting if SpaceX capsules would fit?
United Space Alliance is making what even it considers a long-shot bid to take the Space Shuttle program private. Why go to all the trouble of developing a new manned space capability when you can use what the taxpayers paid for already? I bet the SpaceX people are... unhappy... about the idea.
Robert H. gets an impressive no-prize he better not actually try to use for bringing us the latest research on the Soviet Union's failed effort to get to the moon and the mammoth booster meant to support it. The N-1 itself may never have launched anything into space, but the engines created for are the direct ancestors of engines still in use on rockets today.
Once the Space Shuttle (eventually, some day) departs the pad for the final time, a gigantic launch complex will be without a mission. So NASA's asking around to see if anyone maybe wants to, you know, rent a launch pad or something? Providing the infrastructure for manned commercial space transport is, IMO anyway, a perfect role for a government entity. More power to them!
In the, "rather be lucky than good" file, we have NASA's inadvertently successful deployment of an experimental solar sail. Seems like the thing was hung up inside the last stage of its launcher and nearly written off when it more or less sprang itself loose and unfurled as planned. Weirdly, all they seem to be talking about is drag chutes for satellites, instead of a potential thrust source as is usually the case.
A start-up private US space program is planning on using old Soviet-era gear as the technical core of their operation. By reputation, the Soviet stuff was crude, but it was also cheap and reliable. If it's stupid and it works, it's not stupid.
The famously reclusive astronaut Niel Armstrong has written a detailed reply to a column by NPR's Robert Krulwich regarding why the Apollo 11 mission seemed so limited. It's my understanding there were very firm distance limits set by NASA on all the moon landings to ensure the astronauts could rescue themselves if something went wrong with the space suits. Discovery dedicated a documentary to what would happen if, say, the rover fell down an unseen ravine when it was far from the LEM. The conclusions were, "it won't be pretty."
Folks curious about just what Space X is and who's behind it may find this earlier in-depth look at the company of interest. Sounds like they have the right combination of tech and talent to me.
Congratulations to SpaceX for the successful first launch of the Dragon space capsule. From the article, one of the main challenges they have man-rating the capsule is cooking up an escape system. Which is very interesting, since I happen to know someone...
Update: it appears the mission was completely successful. Woot!
Assuming the weather holds and the launch doesn't, Space X will attempt the first test of its manned space capsule tomorrow morning (EST). The test will be unmanned and seems to be a (hopefully) straightforward shakedown of basic capabilities. If all goes well, more tests in 2011 will ultimately lead to manned flights that same year. Fingers crossed!
Now that Virgin is proving some basic concepts in ballistic spacecraft launched from aircraft, NASA is (literally) dusting off their own older, and presumably much more expensive, version of the same idea. As long as they make the research public at the end, which I think they're required to do by law, I'm all for it.
The NASA's beleaguered manned spaceflight team now needs to add "congressmen sniffing around causing trouble" to their worry list. I guess it should be, "more than usual," since Congress seems to cause most of the problems NASA has in the first place.
For only the fourth time since 2004, a Delta IV heavy, one of the most powerful launchers currently in use, has lofted up something for the NRO. The article actually doesn't say how heavy the satellite it launched was, but does compare it to a seven ton communications satellite launched last year.
NASA seems to be taking renewed interest in rail launch systems. If the illustration is to be believed, by scaling down an SR-71 and flinging it down a horizontal Superman ride. It's been my experience that any program with a lead time greater than a single administration is a crap-shoot. Still, it's nice to see they're trying to screw together new technologies rather than screw with crap nobody's sure will ever work.
NASA has announced final approval to demolish Shuttle-related structures on the 39B launch complex. Regardless of what actually ends up being used, NASA will definitely not need the fixed and mobile bits that helped get the Shuttle off the ground, so there's no reason to delay taking them down. I still haven't gotten over the loss of the LUTs, so, well, bring on the future!
Looks like NASA's already becoming a primary customer of private space flight companies. I've come around to the opinion that the only sustainable road forward for the manned spaceflight part of NASA is to become more like the aeronautic part of NASA... do hard science that will benefit industry even, especially, when it's not clear if any of it will pan out. Don't tell private industry how to "carry the mail", just pay them to do it.
NASA has announced plans to fly its own solar-sail research craft. This first experiment is more about validating how to unfold the sail than it is about actually toodling around the solar system via a special sort of wind power. This is more important than it might at first seem. Unfolding something the thickness of tissue paper after it's been packed into the nosecone of a rocket and flung into space isn't one of the easiest of engineering tasks, donchaknow?
Someone over at NASA is mulling over shooting a chunk of the space station at the moon when it's done with its "usable life." Hello? Silent Running, anyone?
Actually, this isn't the first time I've heard about this. Last time around, as I remember, the idea was to strap a Shuttle to it, and push it to the moon, using said shuttle as a kind of glorified Isuzu Pup, towed behind the world's most expensive RV. Well, beats the hell out of letting it burn up, I suppose.
NASA's announced an institutional willingness to shake millions of dollars at the private sector to find out what they know. Which is what it'll take, because these guys don't do it on the public dime.
But that's OK, I guess. Me, I think NASA should farm out most of their manned stuff, the way the feds did with mail back the inter-war years for the airline industry. Except, you know, with astronauts. I think the rest of their time should be spent shoulder-to-shoulder with their aero buddies... figuring out how to try something nobody else's ever thought of on a shoestring, and then handing over the results to whoever wants them.
Giving the big stuff over to other people won't be easy. It never is, but I know of at least one person "on the inside" who thinks exactly this way. Could this initiative be the thin wedge of his generation wrestling control away? We can only hope.
The guys over at SpaceX are proposing a whole slew of new heavy-lift vehicles for future production. One is roughly as powerful as the Space Shuttle, another actually exceeds the capabilities of the venerable Saturn V. Proposing is, of course, not the same as building, but at least these guys don't have to go hat-in-hand to Congress every time they think of something clever.
NASA has a lot of things to worry about, but at least pleasing the local fishermen isn't one of them. The south Banana River area has been a protected fishery for nearly sixty years now because of all the launch complexes. I'm sure NASA buddy Kevin has heard many, many stories of just how fine the fishing is off the 39 complex. Now imagine if they could stop the launches, just to cast a few more lines...
China has announced plans to build a Saturn V-class booster. Planning is, obviously, not the same thing as building. The F-1 engine, which was so unbelievably powerful it only took five to start my favorite rocket on its journey, is rightly considered an utter marvel of engineering, a shining example of what infinite money and infinite talent can achieve. The Chinese don't have either of those things, but they do have fifty years of technology advancement to leverage. And having, what, a quarter of the world's population means their talent pool may not be deep, but it is pretty f-ing broad. I wouldn't count them out. And what the heck is wrong with it anyway, after all?
It seems a recent discovery about how magnetic fields interact with plasma may lead to a new way of protecting astronauts in space. It's been found that the way the particles interact with the field means their ability to deflect those particles much better than the simple strength of the field would predict. It's still not known if the effect will scale up enough to provide real protection to something as big as a space craft, but only time (and research) will tell.
South Korea: Good at making cars, still learning about launching rockets. Some day we'll figure out a way to get stuff into orbit that doesn't involve chemical rockets, which are proportionally so underpowered the rest of the launcher has to be so finely engineered it makes an F-1 car look like a tractor. An old tractor.
Hot on the heels of the successful Falcon 9 launch, we have even more news about progress in private space flight. I'm not such an ideologue that I can't acknowledge a good policy coming out of a bad administration. Obama definitely seems to be on the right track here.
Obama to NASA: Constellation, you can not haz.
NASA to Obama: We can haz cash?
Obama to NASA: You can haz small cash.
Private Enterprise to NASA: That R big cash to us!
I've always thought the manned program would be more effective farming out the stuff they already know how to do to private industry, and spending their energies on the propeller-headed stuff nobody knows will work or not. Sort of like what the aerospace guys do. But wtf do I know?
And yes, this is one of the very few places I think the Obama administration is getting it right. I think that's happening mostly because Obama doesn't really care about space, and handed it off to a bunch of propeller-heads who do while he "takes care" of the rest of the country.
It's a good thing, because when the Democrats are done "fixing" things I'm sure we'll all want a ticket off this damned rock.
Damion gets a no-prize you just better stand well down range of for bringing us this hi-def look at the business end of a Saturn V launch. Sometimes you want to see lots of cuts, lots of angles, to get an impression of what power really is. Sometimes you just need one camera, bolted down REALLY REALLY FIRMLY!!!
Looks like Orion has a future after all. ISS operators have wanted a higher-capacity lifeboat for years, but it seems to me this'll make for a damned expensive lifeboat. Maybe with a more constrained vision the spacecraft's price tag will also be more constrained? We can always hope...
To wit: Let's take a famously fragile example of high-style, high-maintenance engineering and park it outside on a pier in Manhattan. Listen up, sparky. I got a one-onethousandth scale model of those issues (it's even white), and it rusts if I just wave salt outside the garage door. If NASA wanted a shuttle to rot away in an inappropriate environment, they'd just park it outside the hangar for the alligators.
Rand Simberg has this well-reasoned rebuttal of astronaut Tom Jone's criticism of the new direction the Obama administration is taking with NASA. I thought the most telling part of the Augustine commission's report was this: As Jeff Greason of the Augustine Panel said (and co-panelist Sally Ride agreed), if Santa Claus were to deliver the system to them fully developed, they'd have to cancel it because they didn't have the money to operate it.
And yes, much as it amazes even me, it would appear I agree with a policy decision the Obama administration has made.
Oh stop it. Acting like you're having a heart attack is so Sanford and Son.
Amidst the gloom of yet another big program cancel at NASA, there definitely seems to be more than a little bit of silver lining. This all sounds like stuff people outside the agency have been urging NASA to try for years, if not decades. Seems to me that, at least since the 1970s, NASA's most successful programs have been ones in which they do research nobody else thinks will go anywhere, or that'll be put in the public domain once the project's done. This seems to re-focus the manned space flight segment in that very direction.
It seems the Obama administration is getting around to reshaping NASA. The conventional wisdom seems to be the two Ares designs are the best launch platforms NASA will never be able to afford, so it's nice to see using EELVs is back on the table. I also like the apparent focus on sustainability, which never seemed as prominent to me as it should've been.
I always knew it didn't take hundreds of thousands of people, billions of dollars, and the occasional college friend, to put up a space shuttle. Now I have definitive proof. The trick, it turns out, is not the up part, but rather... the down part. Actually, I'm stunned it worked as well as it did.
It's not often two different manned launch vehicles are out on their pads at the same time. Now that I think of it, I'm not sure it's ever happened before. If everything goes well, it would seem if all goes well it'll take off right at 8 am tomorrow. Our Tivo's set!
Looks like we all missed the Ares I-X roll out. Launch is scheduled for next week. Let's light that candle!
NASA has decided to move up its Ares test shot to October 27. If all goes according to plan, they'll light that candle while I'm... on the toll road heading into work. Ah, well. Unlike the very first Shuttle launch, this time I have Tivo!
The Ares team has had "going out of business" signs in the windows for so long the edges have gone yellow and curly. That said, the details of what just might end up an alternative seem to be getting clearer. And, at least in my opinion, they're starting to make a heck of a lot more sense.
Hey man, why not turn the test firing of what could be our next manned booster into a party? Will they actually end up building it? Who knows? But it sure was loud!
I guess it's just proof that even the most mundane materials can be made beautiful. I remember when the stuff sometimes froze up the drain, and threatened to damage the orbiter on re-entry. Now that would've been embarrassing.
Mark gets a hopeful but shaky no-prize for bringing us pictures of the Ares I-X test launcher in the VAB. Looks like they'll finally need to open all the doors to get this one out. It's been, what, something like 35 years since that last happened?
As spectacular as the films are, I think this is the most compelling footage of all. We've all spent nearly thirty years watching space shuttles go off this very same pad, with nearly this very same gear, like airplanes glued to bottle rockets. These are the same camera points, and, to me at least, nothing else really conveys the true sense of scale. The giant that dominated my imagination for my entire life left the world's stage with a roar, never to be seen again. I have missed it at least a little ever since.
No, really, it's happening right now. Likely we'll be in bed when they're scheduled to step out. And how much would you have given to be able to listen in, and watch, like we do nowadays with the shuttle?
NASA has released new pictures of the lunar landing sites as they exist today. Apparently these images were taken when the LRO was still stabilizing its orbit. They're promising much better pictures in the months to come.
Boy, I tell ya, the lengths to which those NASA weenies will go to perpetuate the biggest hoax in modern history is pretty impressive, eh?
All of this is happening, right now, 40 years ago. It wouldn't surprise me if the shot of the top of that Sat V had my dad in it. Unfortunately it's impossible to be sure.
Still, if the alternatives are taking a bumpy ride or getting blown to bits, please feel free to bump away. Escape tests are fun!
As if it weren't complicated enough, the space shuttle Atlantis now has an errant knob wedged up against a window. Seems shuttles expand quite a bit in orbit, and that's when this thing nestled its way into a gap between the dash and the window. Things crunched back down on landing, and now it's well and truly stuck. Being the redneck auto mechanic I am, my first thought was "cut it out." Likely that's what they'll end up doing. However, a window on my car pops out I just pull over and call AAA. Having a window pop out in orbit has somewhat greater undesired consequences, know'wha'I'mee?
Leave it to the media and various academic critics to not understand what "up-front costs" mean. And leave it to NASA administrators for not seeing there might be a need to make a conversion from SAE to metric oh, I don't know, twenty years ago. It's only expensive because you have to do it right now.
In an unprecedented scientific endeavor — and what may be one of the coolest space missions ever — NASA is preparing to fly a rocket booster into the moon, triggering a six-mile-high explosion...
I wonder if it'll be visible from here?
Mark gets a forward-looking no-prize for bringing us news that pad 39B is now officially property of the Constellation program. The pad, and as I understand it at least one mobile launcher, will need to be modified to accommodate the new Ares boosters. Assuming they build them :/.
In commemoration of Apollo XI's 40th anniversary, Popular Mechanics has an in-depth retrospective. Being only slightly older than a year at the time, I think what I remember is a clear summer day, my mom flipping out with excitement, and me running back and forth between the bedroom and the den because the sound from the radio was also coming from the TV! It was so cool!
No, I don't think it's a particularly reliable memory either, but it's a quick story that makes me smile.
Spaceflight fans should find this collection of SRB videos made during the last Shuttle launch of interest. Whatever they pay those cameramen, they need to double it. I bet the conditions are damned cramped in there. ;)
Pat gets a no-prize the likes of which will not be seen again for giving us this kinda-sorta retrospective on what this Hubble service mission means for the Shuttle. One down, nine to go, and that'll be it for the type. I think it will be a little sad when it launches for the last time, but in my opinion and from other things that I've read in places like Aviation Week, the thing is a monument to what happens when reach exceeds grasp, and political exigencies and inertia triumph over common sense and consistent goals.
The first segment of the first five segment Ares I booster is on the move. It appears to be a static test article, which I think means they're going to point it at a mountain, bolt it down, and light the fuse to see what happens. Hopefully, it will only be good things!
NASA's on-again, off-again Shuttle flight to the Hubble space telescope has now moved out to the pad. You'd think this would mean it's a done-deal, but with NASA anything's possible. Regardless, I'll bet the whole program will be glad to see this one over and out.
Mark gets a submerged no-prize for bringing us news of NASA's upcoming landing simulation tests of the Orion space capsule. I wonder how much extra it costs to have the test article "stop off" at various points on its journey to the test areas?
Folks with their own telescope may find using it to hunt for the ISS an engaging distraction. If it really is as bright as Venus, it should be pretty striking to see unaided. Unfortunately, if I'm reading the charts right, it appears quite low on our local horizon, so no idea if we'd get any benefit. I'd imagine people living further south will have more opportunities.
Making the rounds: last year it was a seagull that got run over by the Space Shuttle; this year it's a bat that got taken for a ride. Now that's some fine insulation. How was he supposed to know it'd move?
Mark gets an experimental no-prize for bringing us news that the final bits of the Ares 1-X test shot are on their way to KSC. I haven't heard any noises lately about the Obama administration canceling the thing, so maybe they actually will end up building the production version.
Another Shuttle Launch, another gee-whiz article summarizing just how hard it is to get a Space Shuttle off the pad. Sounds like there's one guy who does nothing but wipe sh*t down with alcohol. Engineer-driven, government-financed work at its finest!
Jeff gets a no-prize that very soon will fly no more for bringing us one of the very last looks at what'll probably be the most spectacular space vehicle in operation for quite some time.
Popular Mechanics is running this relatively even-handed article about the ongoing controversy over the boosters scheduled to replace the Space Shuttle. As I suspected, many of the problems seem to stem from decisions made by NASA leadership to use new and untested technologies. They just can't help themselves, it seems.
Problem: Feeding astronauts on the long, long journey to Mars.
(Possible) Solution: Silkworms:
Liu's team calculates that given a relatively normal diet with a three-to-one ratio of plant to animal protein, each astronaut would need to consume 170 silkworm pupae and cocoons a day to fulfill their animal protein needs. That number might be difficult to raise on a cramped spaceship but could be more feasible than raising an equivalent number of chickens.
Nom Nom Nom Nom
NASA recently rolled Discovery into the VAB to prepare for its next launch, and Spaceflightnow has the pictures. You'd think that, with all the money they spend on that thing, they'd wash it once in awhile.
But boy, those pictures sure are a bonanza for scale modelers. Look at all that weathering!
The rumor mill makes it seem increasingly likely the Obama administration will review the entire Ares program. According to Aviation Week, man-rating a booster is an extremely non-trivial task, which is why NASA decided to try shoehorning already man-rated designs into new tasks. Did the agency subsequently, as they have so many times before, allow mission creep and a fetish for new technologies ruin the savings they were looking to reap with this strategy? Heck, I dunno. Ellen let my Aviation Week subscription lapse three months ago. You go find out.
And call the Obama team. I hear they're sniffing around this very issue.
While the incoming Obama administration most likely wants to concentrate on other priorities, NASA just keeps popping up. There's another problem with keeping the shuttle going which the article doesn't address: the two programs are competing for the same resources, especially the two launch complexes. Both will require extensive modifications for the Ares boosters, and that can't happen until the shuttle stops flying.
This is a rocket that several male friends of ours decided to have a gift together. It was purchased in late 2004 and today we decided it would, finally, be a nice day to light the damned thing off. Did we think it would work? No. But it did and we got 5 shots out of it.
Nine teams have signed up to compete in NASA's "lunar challenge". The idea is to provide incentives for private industry to develop commercial lander technologies for both NASA and, well, I guess whoever else can pay for it.
NASA will incorporate a system of springs into its future Ares I rocket to prevent potentially deadly vibrations from shaking the astronauts it carries, agency officials said on Monday.
The days of the Marshal Boys' huge weight margin vanished along with the Apollo boosters they created. Nowadays, it's becoming increasingly evident the original idea of using a single SRB as the first stage was overly optimistic, even with the up-sizing that came with adding an extra segment and (now) another half. And Orion continues to gain weight.
The article itself cites some back-room lobbying being done by at least a few people in the astronaut office who want to ashcan the whole concept and start over with something bigger. Of course, if that happened it'd represent a reboot of a major section of the program, with the concomitant delays and over-runs.
The Shuttle is definitely on its way out, Columbia made certain of that. I'm just not at all certain what will replace it, and when.
It would seem not everyone is enamored with NASA's Ares I/Ares V concept. Big surprise, eh? According to Aviation Week, the latest iteration of the V is significantly larger than the original, enough so that they're starting to be constrained by the height of the VAB main doors. This "Jupiter" concept seems much taller than the original Ares V concept, so I gotta wonder if it'd even fit.
Right now, in my opinion it's a white elephant, almost certainly "the most expensive thing ever made." But if you strap a rocket to its butt, suddenly the International Space Station gets a whole lot more interesting. Long ago, during the funding debates for what was then Space Station Freedom, I kept thinking, "don't worry, just build it! We'll find lots of cool uses for it once it's built." I've long since chalked that up to youthful naivete, but if this becomes possible it'll be almost prophetic.
Ever wonder what an SRB separation looked like? From the shuttle's booster's perspective? Wonder no more. Don't know why, but I was surprised to see the sky is black when they pop free. From the ground, it all still looks blue. Must be because the blue is between me and them, eh?
The latest shuttle launch appears to have caused "extensive" damage to Pad 39A. Complete with bits of said pad splashing into the lagoons surrounding the complex, no less. Apparently NASA officials are confident they'll be able to repair the damage in time for the next launch, currently scheduled for October. However, it seems nobody has a clear answer as to why, after some 80+ launches, one of the pads would fail in this fashion.
Update: More detailed pictures can be found here... It would seem the bricks departed with enough force to tear apart a stout-looking chain link fence.
Mark gets a most impressive no-prize for bringing us this animation sequence detailing the construction of the International Space Station. I still think it's a white elephant, but at least now I think it's an impressive white elephant.
Mark gets a no-prize shaped like a space capsule for bringing us this update on the Orion space program. Seems the first hull mock-up is just about ready to be launched off the top of a dummy rocket to test the escape system. Picture a rocket-propelled champagne cork about the size of a bus and you won't be far wrong.
Having (for now) conquered Orion's critical weight problem, NASA must now conquer Ares I's predicted tendency to shake itself and its cargo to pieces. Because, you know, having the vehicle come apart around you would be bad.
Most likely this is a case of press-release journalism run amok. The thing is still almost literally on the drawing board, so changes are comparatively simple. I have no doubt they'll solve this one. Paying for it, well, that's a whole different issue altogether.
NASA is exploring plans to implement automatic unmanned docking for the Orion command module. The idea being if astronauts got stuck and couldn't reach the CM on their own, it could just navigate to them. I wonder just how difficult it would be to launch a whole unmanned Orion vehicle to rendezvous with a disabled Orion?
The predictable "oh-noes! The shuttle can't retire!" articles are beginning to appear. In addition to the problems mentioned in the article is one of capacity. According to Aviation Week & Space Technology, NASA needs both pads of the 39 complex to make the Orion program work, and they're already doing some creative schedule juggling to ensure they get converted to their new tasks in time. As it stands now, 39A (scheduled as the Ares I site) will end up being a "hybrid" pad during the new system's development. Having the shuttle stick around longer will only delay moving onto the new program.
They were a cool solution to a difficult problem, but in my opinion it's time for them to go.
This New Scientist "Space Blog" entry does a good job of explaining what went wrong with the space shuttle and what's being done to fix it. I've seen a few articles covering this before, but none had been as clear as this one. My Aviation Week subscription expired (GASP!), so I don't currently have the inside scoop like I normally do. It's been renewed, so hopefully I'll be connected again soon!
Making the rounds: the shuttle got caught in a hailstorm, and the external tank is definitely damaged. Which means they gotta roll the whole thing back to the VAB, then roll it all back out when they're done. What a nightmare!
Making the rounds: NASA's revealed its latest long-term plans for human space exploration. I don't think most people really understand the scope and scale of this fundamental change in direction. They really mean it this time, and are already making changes that will not be easily undone.
Assuming this all survives the next administration change, and by that time it's likely it will, the NASA Olivia learns about in school will have transformed from an agency that engages mostly in robotic exploration with some (extremely expensive) dabbling in human space flight, to a very human-centric agency that sends people to interesting places.
Notwithstanding the screams and shirt-tearing going on over at JPL, I'm cautiously optimistic about this new approach. We'll see...
NASA engineers are trying to make sure the Shuttle isn't in orbit on December 31st. The reason? They've never (in 20+ years of flight) had the thing in orbit when the year changed, and they're not sure what the computers would do. Seems to me you'd just light up one on the ground and keep ticking its calendar forward until it happened, but something tells me that in the Shuttle it's way more complicated than that. With the Shuttle, it usually is.
Well, if not the moon, at least space:
Electrician Alan Watts said he flew to and from the United States on Virgin Atlantic flights more than 40 times in the past six years, earning him enough miles to take the trip into space with Virgin's space wing, London's The Sun newspaper reported Friday. The trip cost 2 million frequent flier miles, compared to the 90,000 miles required for a first-class flight from London to New York.
Now that's what I call traveling in style!
Virgin Atlantic is now providing a "first look" at its upcoming Space Ship 2. The site includes details of what you'd actually get for your $200,000 ticket. Guess it's time to sell the house...
No, really, blogs in space:
Space tourist Anousheh Ansari's space blog is giving armchair tourists on Earth a unique, non-professional's view of spaceflight, including the trials of space sickness and the unique thrill of living and working in weightlessness 220 miles up.
The blog itself seems quite interesting, and can be found here.
Space.com is carrying this summary of upcoming events in the Orion and Ares programs now that a contractor has been selected. The testing program looks quite similar to what previous capsule-based programs used, right up to the unmanned "dummy" shots.
Aviation Week covered this extensively in their latest issue, and one interesting thing they noted was how the Ares I rockets will be launched. The external crane system used by the shuttle will have to be raised at least 100 feet, making the final stack sixty feet taller than the Saturn V system. Since the base of the Ares-1 is nearly identical to that of a shuttle SRB, the rocket will be mounted over the shuttle exhaust port closest to the crane system on the mobile launch platform, giving the whole thing a decidedly asymetrical look.
Also of note is the people who will be building the escape tower system are located about a mile away from my house. Now to see if I can score a tour...
Congratulations to Lockheed Martin for their successful bid to be the manufacturer of NASA's next manned space vehicle. As with anything NASA does, it's not without controversy, and there's still no solid guarantee it'll ever get built. But even if it's not a step in the right direction, at least it's a step.
Space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to lift off this Sunday, and Spaceflight now has an extensive review of the upcoming mission. Maybe they will actually complete all the flights before Olivia is old enough to remember any.
Space.com is carrying this report on what would seem to be a routine maintenance item... the replacement of some securing bolts on a large antenna structure in space shuttle Atlantis's cargo bay. Routine, until you read this:
Earlier this week, [NASA shuttle program chief Wayne] Hale said that between six and eight engaged bolt treads are preferred for each bolt to ensure they will hold Atlantis’ 304-pound (137 kilogram) Ku-band antenna assembly fast during the eight and a half minute climb into orbit. Inspections found that only two of Atlantis’ four antenna bolts were suitably secured, though a survey of all three NASA shuttles found that some were attached by as little as two-thirds of a tread, he added.
Let's hear it for government project quality control! However, "treads" sounds like it might be different from "threads", so who knows, maybe it means something else entirely. All I can say is, if I found out only a quarter-turn of a bolt held something important on my car, I'd be pretty quick getting a longer bolt!
Did you know a private company has recently tested a sub-scale model of an innovative new space station design? No? Not surprising, since I've seen nary a mention of it anywhere in the MSM. AvWeek's been covering it for some time, and space.com is carrying this look at the program so far.
The whole "blow-up-plastic-space-station" thing does give me pause, but hey, if it gets me closer to a ride, I'm all for it!
Space.com is reporting the name for the Space Shuttle's replacement is now "Orion". That'll be what they call the program and the manned part of the vehicle. Aviation Week earlier reported the boosters will be called "Ares", with Ares I being the SRB-based manned booster and Ares V being the later and much larger cargo hauler.
One can only hope that naming them brings them at least a little closer to reality.
Today marks the 37th anniversary of Apollo 11. Space.com is carrying this "special edition" to commemorate it.
If the reports coming out of Aviation Week are to be believed, and if future administrations hold the course (definitely a big "if"), I really think we're on our way back. Let's hope!
Aviation Week and Space Technology is carrying this detailed report on how the Crew Exploration Vehicle's cockpit design is coming along. The article includes a detailed comparison between what NASA wants to happen with the CEV and how similar things work on the Space Shuttle and how they worked on Apollo and earlier programs. The notes on how the pilot interface will be configured in particular really highlight just how old the Shuttle's design really is. 100 pounds of paper manuals!
I've been following AvWeek's coverage of NASA for (good lord) nearly 20 years now, and to me at least NASA looks very serious this time around. This is completely unlike the Delta Clipper and X-33 days of the 80s and 90s, when the relatively optimistic editors of AvWeek could barely muster enthusiasm, and frequently bashed the agency for mis-steps and goof-ups. The subsequent failures of those and other programs to me seemed to reinforce the view that NASA was ossified beyond repair. The brilliant success of SpaceShipOne promised hope, but when it came to going to the moon it was definitely a long-term one.
Now NASA seems to be in flux for the first time in decades. While classic agency bureaucracy seems to have definitely not left the building (witness the description of how the NASA design team has to submit questions to the two competing contractors), compared to earlier initiatives the impression seems to be one of a kicked over anthill.
After dozens of false starts, failed promises, and deep disappointments over the years, I can barely believe it. By God, we may actually be going back to the moon after all!
Space.com is carrying this update on how NASA's shuttle replacement, called the CEV, is progressing. The companies involved in the competition are understandably tight-lipped about details, but it's good to see progress is definitely being made.
Aviation Week carried a long article on this in their most recent issue. Things that I remember: the recently-retired Complex 40, which was used for Titan launches, has become a candidate for CEV launches. Complex 39, which currently is used by the shuttle, is still slated for use by the much larger CALV. Apollo-era hardware is going to be re-used, but a lot of existing commercial launch gear is also being considered, especially for the unmanned CALV.
Making the rounds: China has successfully launched another manned orbital mission. This time with two "taikonauts" instead of one, the mission is scheduled to last five days.
Making the rounds: NASA has officially "previewed" its plans for upcoming lunar and martian missions. Regular readers will find nothing suprising, but it does make for a nice confirmation/summary of what NASA wants to do. Unfortunately, since Katrina there's a lot more "if the money's there" talk. NASA watchers will understand this tends to be codespeak for "has become a pipe dream. Again."
Still, they are retiring the shuttle, so it's not as if they can just pretend alternatives never happened. But when it comes right down to it, alls I can say is "Go Rutan! Go!"
When the last shuttle mission returned I got a little wistful thinking Olivia won't be old enough to appreciate them before the last mission is over. Now it looks like, at the rate they seem to be launching them now, she'll be 17 before the last one goes:
As NASA continues to assess the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the future of the shuttle program, at least one official is warning it could take up to a year before the next flight takes off.
The space agency grounded future shuttle flights after a fuel tank insulation problem was found during Discovery's mission a month ago. The pre-Katrina hope was for a new shuttle flight in March 2006, but after NASA’s Michoud facility in New Orleans was hit during the hurricane, analysts expected that mission to slip into May. That now may turn out to be overly optimistic — and not just because of the hurricane damage.
The article does, eventually (gotta have a little hysteria to keep your attention, donchaknow), get around to mentioning even more launch delays are just a preliminary idea, and not official by any means. Still, it would definitely seem they are taking their time with this thing.
Slashdot linked up news that Russia and the European Space Agency are to begin collaboration on a "next generation" space shuttle. The plan is apparently to have a deep-space program developing in parallel to NASA's own CEV, but with a stronger emphasis on space station maintenance.
Welcome home Discovery! Here's to hoping the fleet's remaining flights are more routine than this one, but no less successful!
While this SF Chronicle report doesn't add much to articles already linked here last week, it does include pictures of Lockheed Martin's design proposal for the CLEV system. Aviation Week featured the same illustrations a few months ago, but they weren't this clear. While the article itself talks about parachute recovery, it seems to me pretty obvious the LockMart design is meant to glide back home. When all you're wanting to do is get people home, the glider can be made a whole lot smaller.
Slashdot linked up this much more detailed look at current planning for the shuttle's replacement. Includes far more proposed variants, as well as the pros and cons of each. Looks like no matter what they choose there will be some serious modifications required to the old Apollo complex.
Slashdot linked up this nice summary of what seem to be the most current shuttle replacement plans. It includes the first pictures I've seen outside trade publications of the proposed vehicles.
The quote from Alex Roland, who said these plans had "the aroma of a quick and dirty solution to a big problem." is quite simply wrong. Aviation Week has been covering this stuff for more than a year now, and what the NYT is reporting here was reported there several months ago. The heavy lift vehicle in particular has been kicking around NASA in one form or another since at least the late '80s.
It would appear from this report, and AW&ST's coverage, that NASA will be going for a series of designs utilizing existing, derived, or improved shuttle components instead of commercial and military heavy-lift vehicles. AW&ST has been implying this ever since Michael D. Griffin took over as the agency's director. While on the face of it not as exciting as a program based on nifty new rockets and technologies, it does neatly avoid a very thorny and potentially expensive problem... "man rating".
While I've never actually seen the complete details of this process, from what I have gathered there actually is a formal set of specifications that NASA requires any launch vehicle to meet before it will allow its astronauts to use it. These seem to mostly involve a sort of "hyper redundancy" in all aspects of a vehicle's operation. They are extensive and detailed enough that AW&ST reported some officials as being very unsure a vehicle not designed with this redundancy (i.e. the commercial and military vehicles initially proposed) would ever be able to meet these requirements, and certainly never be able to do it cheaply.
The shuttle components are already man-rated, and have been for decades. The claim of leveraging the existing shuttle infrastructure is in my opinion a little disingenuous, since the alternatives also have well-established infrastructures of their own. Then again, it should be kept in mind this has to be sold to Congress, and proposing a new program that would suck thousands of jobs out of the districts of the people who need to approve it isn't what one would call starting out on the right foot.
This approach would also have the advantage of, contrary to all previous replacement initiatives (including the hallowed X-33), using hardware on the shelves and known to work. No improbable speculation, pie-in-the-sky tech, or gigantic cost overruns just waiting to happen here. Spaceflight is perhaps the most complex human endeavour ever attempted, there is no need to make it more so just for the sake of it.
Plus, on a personal note, I just like the thought of NASA flinging Saturn V-sized rockets into space once more. I once worried Olivia would consider them the stuff of legends, and so I'm thrilled she might be the third generation of my family to watch such monsters in action.
Aviation Week's latest issue provides an in-depth look at Boeing's new heavy lifter, the Delta IV "Heavy", the largest all-liquid fueled rocket launched since the last Saturn V took off more than thirty years ago.
Boeing is pitching it and a slightly smaller Delta IV Medium as primary launchers for NASA's new manned space exploration efforts. While not man-rated as yet, with its liquid-fueled design and new engineering Boeing is calling it "man-compatible", claiming the full rating should be relatively straightforward. They also point out that NASA could save a great deal of money on ground support because the Delta IV launch complex is already in place and fully functional.
Of course, such a completely reasonable proposal will probably have zero chance with the "new new NEW NEW NEW!!!" attitudes NASA historically holds dear. The Astronaut Office in particular has already gone on record as stating "human rating should be designed in, not appended on." However, their problems seem to mostly center around the difficulty of "safing" the solid booster systems found on the smaller "medium" Delta and competing Atlas designs, which the all-liquid Heavy does not have.
Unfortunately the on-line article doesn't include the pictures in the print version... this thing is designed to set itself on fire as it launches, and the results are spectacular (but safe!)
While the Washington Post and AvWeek have both mentioned the private "space federation" being in mortal fear of regulation overload, neither talked specifics. Finally, this New Scientist article provides the info we need.
In a nutshell, the private-enterprise "space federation" folks don't mind the FAA specifying regulations to ensure their ships don't squash a shopping mall or condo quad. However, what they're desperately trying to avoid is the FAA being put in charge of passenger safety. If that happens, it seems, nobody flies anywhere without the FAA's say-so, and each time something changes the FAA has to come back out and stamp their approval again.
The federation folks would much rather build their own regulatory board. After all, the reasoning goes, if they got into the business of blowing up their passengers they wouldn't be in business very long. It's felt this private self-regulation system would be far more responsive, consistent, and rational than any government agency ever could be. Members of government, predictably enough, disagree, and some are quietly beavering away to ensure they get what they want.
Considering the feds's well-deserved reptutation for arbitrary, irrational, and contradictory regulations, I'm going to side with the business guys right now. The industry is so new, so expensive, and so risky, it almost certainly would just take a single beuracratic bungle to torpedo the entire thing. And we all know just how friendly and quick-thinking the boys in Washington can be.
This is not to say the FAA couldn't do it. They did, after all, shepherd another high-risk, high-cost industry to (eventual) prosperity. But they have enough trouble keeping up with the airline industry, and from the things I have read, the impression I get is they'd just as soon let the companies handle the safety of the passengers in what everyone understands is a very high-risk mode of travel.
The trick is convincing congress not to force the FAA to do it. Which is where the rest of us come in. If you eventually want your own ticket to ride, it's time to ring up your personal congress critter and let them know this is not an industry you want to see hanging from a noose of red tape.
Slashdot linked up this space.com article detailing new efforts at creating a more mobile space suit. By relying on new "smart" materials, a research group at MIT is hoping to create a space suit that is far lighter and easier to move in than existing units.
Put in a new article instead of an update because... well because it's our blog and I happen to think Saturn Vs are cool. Anyway, slashdot linked up the restoration story below and I found some neat stuff in the comments:
I've always told people who were heading to Disneyworld to stop at the Kennedy Space Center, and they always seem to ignore me. More's the pity, because the place is spectacular.
Washington Post today is carrying this comprehensive update on the preservation efforts surrounding the three remaining Saturn Vs in the world. The news, for once, is all good... Kennedy's is already in a nifty exhibit hall, Johnson's should be in a temporary shelter very soon and is slated for full restoration, and Marshall's is well on its way to restoration as well. Ironically (well, to me at least), both the Johnson and Marshall vehicles owe their improvements to a program headed by Hillary Clinton.
Just when you thought you'd finally figured someone out...
Ron gets a properly suited-up no-prize for bringing us this MSNBC article elaborating on why space station astronauts are having such a difficult time with space walks lately. Turns out a standard feature on Russian space suits is probably causing the problem:
To keep the spacewalkers cool during their exertions, the Russian-made Orlan suits use a standard technique that involves the evaporation of water ice in the backpacks. This process results in a weak spray of water molecules from a small port in the packs.
The tech has been in use for decades without any noticeable problems. However, it would appear that the space station is big enough to have some really nice leverage points, and even this small amount of thrust seems to be enough to start the whole thing turning when the spacewalkers are out on them.
There are, of course, procedures to deal with the space station getting out of position, but even these have proven to be problematic:
One of the pieces of equipment shut off by the computer [to save power during a recent "out of position" event] was the radio transmitter that was supposed to be used to warn the crew away from the station's thruster section [so the orientation could be corrected].
There was a time when I thought NASA was the only government agency that worked, and was only being held back by luddite congressmen who thought subsidising dairy farmers was more important than exploring the moon. However, the more I learned about how NASA actually works, the more I realized it was just another federal agency, differing from the Post Office or the IRS only in that they manage to shoot themselves in the foot by pointing the gun up.
I'm pretty sure we've now spent as much on the space station as we did on Apollo, even adjusted for inflation. When I realize that, I wish I hadn't been such a vocal supporter all these years.
Go Rutan! Go!
Space.com is carrying this article discussing NASA's intention to have a "backup" shuttle ready for the first two shuttle missions once they start flying again. If something goes wrong, the goal is for a "rescue" to be mounted before supplies run out on the one in orbit.
As if NASA didn't have enough stuff to spend money on already. Lord knows how much extra it'll cost to have two white elephants in motion at the same time. For awhile there in the 1980s it wasn't uncommon to have shuttles on both launch pads at the same time, launching them (when nothing went wrong) within a month of each other. Looks like those times are here again.
On a related note, during the Apollo 13 crisis, my dad says that NASA started a giant push to get Apollo 14 rolled out to stage a rescue. They called it off when it was realized that even pulling out all the stops would not have a spacecraft ready before supplies ran out on 13. But it was a wild experience.
Personally, all I can say is go Rutan, go!
Slashdot linked up this article noting NASA is taking steps to scrap the last remaining Launch Umbilical Tower (LUT) remaining from the Apollo era. This was the tall orange thing that was part of the mobile launcher, one of the bits my dad was in charge of all those years ago. It's sad to think it'll be heading toward the scrap heap, but at least NASA is giving a nascent non-profit a shot at preserving it.
If they do scrap it I hope they chop up the bits and sell them on e-bay. I'd definitely pick up a chunk or three.
My dad used to work on the Apollo space program. He has any number of stories, all of them funny. Some of them may actually be true. But this isn't one of them:
The thing about fighter pilots, especially fighter pilots in the gung-ho cold war 50s and 60s, was they knew everything about anything. Most particularly affected were Marine pilots, who had the additional liability of being a Marine added to that of being a fighter pilot.
One of the stranger things about Marine aviation was how often they ended up staying at Air Force bases. Every time a hurricane would blow into the Gulf of Mexico the Navy would scramble all the air stations on the coasts and send their aircraft inland. One of the places they ended up was Little Rock Air Force Base (LRAFB), in Jacksonville Arkansas, where my dad was stationed in the early sixties.
One night during one of these "sleepovers", while everyone was gathered at the Officer's Club, it was discovered the Marine Aviators considered themselves absolute experts on their brand new F-4B Phantom jets (at the time arguably the best interceptor in the world, and one of the most successful fighter designs in history). Without question, they opined in loud voices (after partaking rather generously of the O-Club's many fine distilled liquors), the F-4B was the fastest airplane in the world. It was just such a damned shame all these "low-slow" (Marinespeak for "bomber") pilots would never be able to experience the finer points of Mach-2 flight.
Eventually one of the bomber pilots got a little upset at these proclamations. "Fastest fighter in the world, huh?"
"Absolutely. World speed record and everything!"
"Faster than anything we got here, huh?"
"Yeah, damned shame too. Mach 2 is pretty spectacular!"
"Well, I think we got something here that'll probably come pretty close to that. In fact, I think it might even be a little faster than that."
"No way. You guys drive all these low-slows. All this plodding around hoping nobody notices ya and shoots ya down. You got nothing come even close."
"Want to put a wager on that?"
Well, of course they couldn't turn down a sure thing. So it was agreed: a timed race to 20,000 feet. Loser has to buy everyone drinks that night. The Marines went to bed with visions of free booze dancing in their heads.
What the Marines didn't seem to understand was LRAFB was one of just two places in the country where a wing of B-58 Hustler bombers was stationed. A medium-sized hotrod, and possibly one of the most gorgeous bombers ever built, it was ostensibly designed to penetrate enemy air defenses through raw speed alone. In reality, it was more an expression of Convair's political clout and the bomber community's desire for something a little more exciting than the ponderous B-52.
It really was a ridiculous aircraft. The wings were just big enough to hold the four General Electric J79 jet engines (the same engines found in the Phantom) that powered it, and the fuselage was only just big enough to hold the three crew and enough gas to perform the mission. The weapon was carried externally in a giant pod underneath the center fuselage that also held extra gas and electronics. It was easily the most sophisticated aircraft built up to that time, with early examples of electronics found on aircraft to this day.
And it was fast. Really fast. Eventually it would beat several world records for speed set by the Phantom itself, and was easily capable of sustained speeds over mach 2.
Not only were they fast in and of themselves, but this bomber pilot knew one of the planes had just come out of an extensive overhaul, and did not have the weapons pod or other armaments installed yet. Heavy, draggy armaments. In other words, at that particular point this specific B-58 was a hotrod above all the other hotrods.
So the big day arrived, a beautifully clear summer morning, with the final mugginess just wearing out of the air. The Marines, being gentlemen, decided to let the Air Force guys go first. What with how goofy and spindly that B-58 was, they wanted to make sure it at least got a chance. The pilot taxied all the way to the very end of the run way, carefully lining up so that by the time they took off they'd be right in front of the flight line and their small but growing audience. For fun, everyone was counting down. "3! 2! 1! GO!!!"
What the audience saw was a tiny metal dot against the dark green of the woods surrounding the base suddenly throwing blue and orange flame out the back. It started to accelerate as if a child had kicked a ball of aluminum really, really hard. The noise from four of the most powerful jet engines made rapidly went from a low rumble to a chest-thumping, ear-splitting, eye-tearing roar, 140 decibels of ripping canvas sound that simply filled the world. At precisely the right moment the pilot yanked the stick back, hard enough the engines briefly touched their skid plates, throwing a glittering rooster tail of titanium sparks. The engines were pushing so hard they promptly blew four shallow holes in the concrete runway. As everyone dodged flying bits of concrete the B-58 pilot barrel rolled up to 20,000 feet.
The Marines didn't even bother to take off.
My dad said the officer's club was more crowded than he had ever seen it that night.
Two reasons for this one. First, I'm out of NASA stories. Why not call the old man? Well, he's deaf as a post and can't hear anything through his cellphone even with his hearing aids (they switched off their "regular" phone... no, I don't understand it either).
Secondly, I always thought this story was the funniest but least believable story he ever told. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled across this, a story which in broad points matches my dad's very closely. There are, of course, still some problems, most notably the pilot's story happens in Texas and my dad's happens in Arkansas. But they're close enough I get the feeling someone is mis-remembering details (myself, my dad, or even perhaps the pilot), but damned if the story itself isn't true.
Anyway, apologies for it not quite being NASA related. Hopefully it's fun enough in and of itself.
My dad used to work on the Apollo space program. He has any number of stories, all of them funny. Some of them may actually be true. Here's one of them:
Today the Kennedy Space Center has been part of Cape Canaveral and Merrit Island so long it seems it has always been there. Not so. In 1949, when Cape Canaveral was designated the Joint Long Range Proving Ground, there was literally nothing there. A few sand dunes, some swamps, and a whole lot of alligators.
It was only with the formation of NASA in 1958 and the designation of Cape Canaveral as the nation’s “moonport” that things began to take off. But the cape itself, and later its Merrit Island extension, was off limits, and had been since it was a testing ground for Army rockets. The extreme violence of the continual rocket launches of various types was (usually) tightly contained, and so the areas around the main facilities were left almost pristine.
The cape had, but for some tightly controlled areas, essentially become a huge de-facto game preserve. This status was made official in 1963 with the creation of the Merrit Island National Wildlife Refuge. No hunting, no fishing, no diving. Of course, wildlife in the area exploded.
But it was the fishing that was the real attraction. Filled with costal lagoons and shallow rivers, the new game preserve caused the local game fish population to increase to two and a half times that of the surrounding area. Not only were there more fish, they were bigger, and it was not uncommon for world-record weight lunkers to be caught just outside the preserve's areas.
As with other attempts to fish the preserve, the problem wasn’t actually catching the fish, it was doing so without getting caught yourself in the process. Some folks resorted to small-scale camouflage attempts, but this didn’t result in anyone actually getting to eat anything. What was called for was something bigger, more elaborate.
Enter the fish commandos. One of the contractors had a group of guys who’d gotten proficient at netting fish. You know, the kind of nets you cast in a big circle and then haul in almost like a basket. In the right conditions, dozens of fish could be caught this way very quickly. They now had a way to catch them.
The next problem was timing. The local MPs and game wardens were not famous for their observational skills, but even they would notice a group of guys standing waist-deep in water furiously casting nets in a restricted area. They wanted to eat, but they didn’t want to do it in prison. So it was decided the best time to perform this covert gospel-like miracle would be the middle of the night. This wasn’t quite as absurd as it sounds, as most of the crews regularly pulled 12 and 24 hour shifts at this time. There were lots of people around in the middle of the night.
Of course, this meant there were lots of law-enforcement types around in the middle of the night as well, in addition to the great big fences that surrounded the launch complexes themselves. So a location was found far from any lights, inconvenient MPs, or other curious types who couldn’t be trusted to keep such an important secret. A bit of bolt and wire cutter work was all that was needed to create the perfect secret entrance.
This made transportation something of a problem, as people trudging around in the middle of the night with huge nets full of fish might attract unwanted attention. So a few resourceful individuals volunteered some old pickup trucks, which not only would provide their fishy ninjas with transportation, but also with the cargo capacity needed to haul the load back.
The final destination was chosen to be the half-completed 39B launch complex. Created more to ensure the renewal of federal funding than any real need to double NASA’s ability to launch Saturn Vs, 39B was at the time a warren of unused, half-completed storage and machine spaces far from the prying eyes of law enforcement or nosy bureaucrats.
So roughly once a week, a Saturday or Sunday usually, a pair of blacked-out pickup trucks would leave late at night on a mission. They’d go bouncing down unpaved and only vaguely marked roads to their secret fence door, where black clad men would leap out and quickly steal away into the dark, only to return minutes later doubled-over with nets full of their wriggling quarry. After ensuring their treasure was safely flopping away in the truck beds, the darkened vehicles would bound back up through the inky blackness to their safe-house, a half-finished concrete mound surrounded with silent cranes and stacks of iron bars. The trucks would rendezvous in front of a room already filled with crushed ice, where their catch would be stored for the next day’s big cookout. Their mission complete, they would return to their normal routine already savoring the fillets that would be theirs tomorrow.
Much later, a construction foreman was heard wondering out loud why just one storage room on the new pad always smelled so strongly of fish. “Must’ve been something in the concrete”, he was told.
It's hard for me to see a Saturn V without the mobile launcher right next to it. In real life, the only time a Saturn V wasn't standing beside the structures of the ML was when it was on the way to the moon. Now there's a place building photo-etched kits of all the complexes, from Mercury to the Space Shuttle. They're kinda pricey, but for such a specialized kit it's a wonder they exist at all.
Also, Save the LUT! The LUT is the Launch Umbilical Tower, the big orange thing which formed the most prominent part of the Mobile Launcher. Somebody at NASA didn't have the heart to get rid of all three of them, so one was hacked apart and left in a field behind the complex. It seems to be rotting in the tropical salt air. What can we do to save it?
Update: Also found spacecraftfilms.com, which sell DVDs that contain all the footage from Apollo launches. 16mm film, TV downlinks, the works. Looks to be pretty slick packaging too. Pretty darned cool!
Transterrestrial Musings has this interesting editorial about why rockets may be with us for a very long time.
Found this article from nasa.gov about a guy trying to track down all the trees sprouted from seedlings that went to the moon and back.
They packed all kinda strange things on these moon shots. Dayton has a section of the original Wright flyer skin that went on, I think, Apollo 15. My dad has a coin and a tiny American flag that went on Apollo 11. Sometimes I wonder how they managed to have room for the astronauts. But all in all, pretty cool.
Ya know, you'd think they'd have the brains to check on these things a little more often.
Factoid: The trackways the crawlers used are paved with Alabama river rocks because they allow for more even weight distribution across the crawler's tracks. Each time it passes the track it grinds some of the rock to dust, providing needed lubrication and lessening tread wear.
My dad used to work on the Apollo space program. He has any number of stories, all of them funny. Some of them may actually be true. Here's one of them:
It was no exaggeration to say the moonshots of the Apollo space program were some of the most complex undertakings in history. Tens of thousands of workers were split into hundreds of contractor teams all working together toward a single goal: getting a man on the moon in a great big hurry.
Of course things went wrong. Things went wrong constantly. But everyone was in "hurry up" mode and any failure that caused a delay would at the very least take your team down a peg or two in the hypercompetitive culture surrounding the space center. At the very worst it could lead to fines, government investigations, even dismissals.
One of the unexpected outcomes of this Riverdance-like mayhem was each of the launch teams became riddled with spies. Not for the Soviets, but for all the other teams. During a test or launch everyone's spies would be reporting to everyone else's teams, looking for a weakness to exploit.
Because if you had a problem that would cause a "hold" (a stop in the countdown of that test or launch), it meant you would catch six kinds of hell and have to buy beers for everyone else. Especially if it led to a "scrub", which is what a cancellation of the test or launch was called.
But you weren't the only one in line, and if you knew a guy further up the ladder was having a critical problem, you knew you could safely call "go" even with your "hold" problem, because the next guy would have to call "hold".
Dad's team was in charge of the Mobile Launcher, the construct that formed the interface between the Saturn rocket and the rest of the launch complex. His was the last "go" call before control passed to the rocket teams. And so dad's spies infested the Boeing team, which was in control of the first stage of the Saturn V.
The Boeing people hated this, because their spies would always know ahead of time that the Mobile Launcher crew was having a "hold" problem, and they'd think they were off the hook with their own "hold" problem. I can only imagine the look on their faces when "go" was called from the Mobile Launch crew, forcing them to call hold. Unless, of course, the North American guys (in charge of the second stage) were having a "hold" problem.
And so it went, a high-stakes game of chicken played with billion-dollar rocket parts. It's not as dangerous as it sounds. Most "hold"-quality problems NASA had were bureaucratic butt-covers for higher-ups who seemed to have little else to do than cook up more and more extreme failure scenarios for other people to solve. Everyone in the program was very competent, extremely talented, and well aware of which failures were critical and which were just rabbit holes for their bosses to hide in.
As with any poker-like game such as this, sometimes bluffs get called. While it looks solid enough, the platform of the Mobile Launcher was actually a sophisticated multi-level building complete with equipment spaces and offices. Built by a ship manufacturer, it was arranged almost exactly like a battleship, complete with bulkheads and oval dogged-down doors. This only made sense, considering the raging forces that passed through, under, and around the structure. But to make absolutely, 100%, never-ever-ever-gonna-happen sure that nothing got inside; they also pressurized it, at about 6 psi.
That was the problem. It was the final "go/no-go" call for Apollo 15, a full-up for-real moon shot with for-real astronauts sitting on top of millions of pounds of rocket fuel ready for a rendezvous with the moon. Everyone else's boards were full green. Everyone was ready to go.
Except for my dad's crew. The pressure gauge on the launch platform was reading zero. For whatever reason, the gauge was saying the platform wasn't pressurized. This was a full-hold condition, one that would require the mission to be scrubbed because you had to go out there to fix it and nobody wanted to go anywhere near a fully fueled Saturn V if they didn't have to. No pressure? Book says "hold".
Dad called "go".
Everyone kind of stopped at this point. All the spies that infested dad's own team had already reported the Mobile Launch crew had a hold problem. CapCom could see the same problem on their screens. So they asked again.
Dad called "go". Gauge is busted, he said.
At this point everyone took a big breath, all over both control centers. Gauges are designed to do only two things: measure something, and be reliable. Broken gauges were almost unheard of. Capcom called one more time, and now the entire cape was listening.
Gauge is busted. We're go.
Everyone shook their head. One of the lead cowboys of the contractor teams, someone who took on unions and won, someone who took on the entire Lunar Module team and won, had finally lost it. Screwed the pooch. Nobody was sure, but a "go" call on a hold condition with astronauts on the pad was probably something he could get arrested for, even if it was a dumb hold condition that wouldn't affect a damned thing. Certainly his butt was out the door as soon as the rocket was gone.
It was only after the Saturn V had cleared the tower that they all realized their mistake.
Dad's crew was the very first crew on the pad after the rocket was gone. The pad was still dripping water from the acoustic protection when they got there. And of that crew, my dad was the first one there. And his first job, the first job of the first person who was able to get to the pad?
Opening the flaps that depressurized the launch platform.
So, to this day probably, NASA considers the problem to have been a broken gauge, not something worthy of a hold.
Who knows? maybe they're right.
Also found astronautix.com, a comprehensive if somewhat-hard-to-get-around-in website that contains tons of history and information about spacecraft from around the world.
My dad used to work on the Apollo space program. He has any number of stories, all of them funny. Some of them may actually be true. Here's one of them:
The Apollo program, really the entire space program in the 1960s, was in such a godawful rush to get things done that it essentially ran on a "war footing". What this meant was that instead of designing, building, testing, and finishing item A, then designing building, testing, and finishing item B, then C, then D, you basically built A, B, C, and D all at the same time and then put it all together at the end and tested it as one unit. The bonus was you got it all done in a fraction of the time. The risk was you had to be extremely careful about it, because you didn't get to test anything until it was all done.
As this photograph shows, two of the things that were being built at the same time were the mobile launchers (on the right of the photo) and the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB, on the left). The mobile launchers were to be carted into the VAB by the crawlers, the Saturn V rocket would be assembled in the building, and then the whole thing would get rolled out to the pad.
Now, the program's tolerances, even on stuff this big, were always measured in fractions of an inch. It didn't take much of a margin of error to really screw things up. Making sure everything fit together was a real challenge, and a lot of times things didn't, at least at first. It was such a problem that NASA had ordered a Saturn V with no intention of flying it... they would just use it to make sure absolutely everything fit together (called a "boilerplate").
As the mobile launchers and VAB began to near completion, a few people started to get nervous. Nobody knew if the one would actually fit inside the other. And it could be really expensive if they didn't.
Today we'd use all kinds of whiz-bang laser guided measurement widgets and get all the dimensions down to a tenth of a millimeter. They didn't have anything like that, and while they had all the money in the world, they didn't have the time to invent it. Instead, they sent a guy up to the top of the mobile launcher with a big coil of rope, the yellow nylon kind you can pick up at pretty much any hardware store to this day. Before making the climb, knots were tied in the rope, at first every 50 feet, then every 25 feet, then every 10 feet, and then every foot when they knew they were getting close to the proper length.
Of course they knew about how tall it was all supposed to be, so the guy had roughly enough rope handy. The big problem, 380 feet + (115 m +) in the air, was wind. Every time he tried to lower the rope, the wind would blow it sideways. Can’t get a good measurement that way. So, being a self-starting gung-ho NASA type, he tied a roughly 5 lb (2.2 Kg) weight on the end. No good, wind still blew it sideways. Well, how about 10 lbs? Nope. 15? That’s better, but not quite. 25? There ya go. 25 lbs (11.3 Kg) was heavy enough that the rope stayed nice and straight even in the wind.
So the guy slowly lowered the now properly weighted rope from the top of the burnt-orange umbilical tower to the top surface of the launcher. Simply counting the knots was all that was needed to get a really good measurement. They already knew the heights of the other parts of the system, so the rest was just addition. And, sure enough, they had a good five, six feet to spare.
What nobody seemed to realize was something obvious to any second grader... rope stretches. When you're dealing with lengths less than 10 feet, it doesn't stretch very much, say only a few inches even when you pull it really hard. But with that much weight on the bottom of a measuring rope dropped over that great a span, it really added up.
And so the big day arrived. Getting a mobile launcher wheeled into the VAB was a major milestone in the program, and quite something to see. Lots of people gathered round, press folks, NASA bigwigs, contractor presidents, etc. But, as the crawler began to inch closer and closer to the door of the VAB, it became increasingly obvious that something was very wrong. Things happened slowly enough that a collision didn't actually occur, but the entire show was stopped within feet of the VAB entrance.
The mobile launcher was two feet too tall to fit inside the building.
Now, two feet isn't that much, but it would've been plenty enough to make lots of horrible grinding and crashing noises as the umbilical tower played a slow-motion game of chicken with the top of the VAB entrance door. If nothing else a really nice "blong" noise would've been heard as the thing hit the roof of the building. Instead of risking it, NASA made a big deal about how awesome it was and gee doesn't it look keen and as a special favor to you folks we'll just wait and let you take all the pictures you want and gosh look at the time seems like your passes have all expired time to go home seeya buh-bye!
It was only after a great deal of swearing, finger-pointing, jacking, cutting, and welding that the mobile launcher managed to safely make it inside the building.
At 2 a.m. the next morning.
The Apollo Archive is the website for all things related to the Apollo moon shots. Includes a very cool picture archive with lots of Saturn-V photos (so far haven't found one with my dad in it, but I'm still looking!) Enjoy!
Being responsible for the mobile launch platform (not the crawler, as previously reported... the MLP was the thing that sat on top of the crawler and actually held the rocket), my dad was also in charge of some of the various fuel systems that supplied the Saturn V, and the Apollo space capsule it carried, with power. One of these systems was the fuel cells.
Fuel cells create electricity by forcing hydrogen and oxygen past a platinum-coated membrane. The various electrochemical reactions this creates produce electricity. The problem was impurities. If you got impurities, especially in the hydrogen, it would cause tears in the membrane, potentially ruining the fuel cell. And, hydrogen being what it is, it was actually pretty darned hard to keep impurities out for any length of time.
The nice thing about hydrogen is that since it's by definition the lightest thing in the universe, any impurities will float at the top. In theory, all one needs to do is purge a little of the hydrogen out of the tank and the impurities will go out with it. Vent it out and all is well. Put an ignition flame at the end of a vent pipe, and you'll be sure not to end up with any really dangerous buildups.
That was the theory. In practice purging was a real pain. The valves used for venting had poorly designed seats, and the seals in them would blow completely out whenever you tried opening one. This meant you had to completely drain the tank down, pull the valve assembly apart, rebuild it, replace it, and carefully fill the thing back up again. It took hours, and it happened all the time.
(Why didn't they just redesign the valve? Well, I'm not sure. You have to remember everyone was in a titanic rush, and probably nobody had the time or inclination to fight through the government red tape to even convince NASA there was a problem. Note this is not to convince them of a fix, but to convince them there was a problem that needed fixing. You just couldn't afford the wait.)
So, the problem is that the hydrogen gas, being held in at no less than 6,000 psi (413685 millibars) mind you, goes out with such force that it blows out the seals in the valve. However, there were eight (I think) valves scattered around the tank. It stood to reason that perhaps if you let all the valves open at the exact same time, perhaps the pressure at each valve would be low enough not to blow the seals. So a plan was hatched.
A man was stationed at each valve, waiting for the signal to purge. At that signal, each man was to turn his valve as fast as he could. They were even told to stand a certain way to get maximum torque and synchronicity as they turned the valve. The signal was given, and true to form everyone did exactly what they were supposed to.
It was at this point that physics and engineering tolerances began to cause -- problems -- with the plan. The ignition source at the end of this particular vent dump happened to be a series of ignition flames arranged at the edges of the box-like vent structure. They were designed to function with the assumption that only a certain volume of gas would be flowing past them at any particular time.
Also, hydrogen all by itself isn't actually flammable. Combustion by definition needs oxygen to occur. A flame, properly introduced, will actually go out in the presence of completely pure hydrogen. Fortunately for NASA hydrogen quite readily mixes with oxygen, but, as with all good dance partners, they must be properly introduced.
Unfortunately the volume of gas actually flowing through the vent stack was probably eight times greater than the tolerances it was designed to work with. As near as anyone could tell, once that much hydrogen hit the vent stack at 6,000 or so psi, most of the flames just went out. The ones that didn't go out actually got bent out of true by the force of the gas, making them even less likely to properly ignite the stuff. Worst of all, the hydrogen went out with such force that it completely displaced the oxygen all around it, and started gushing into the sky like some titanic ghostly geyser.
Now, if the hydrogen had had the simple decency to keep exiting at 6000 psi, it probably would've just dissipated far beyond the vent stack's ignition points. Unfortunately that didn't happen. Like a balloon running out of air the pressure began to fall a bit, and that was all that was needed.
The gas escaped with such force that it was quite visible next to the Saturn V on the pad. A giant turbulent column of gas blasting into the sky is actually kind of hard to miss. Because of the lighting, you could see the turbulence on the edges of the column. That was the air (30% oxygen) that had got carried by the hydrogen high into the sky, gently making its way back down to earth, like leaves falling through a dust devil. This was what my dad termed the "ohshit" moment.
Because you see not all of the ignition points had gone out. Like tiny piranhas they waited, flaming mouths open, for the right conditions to set off a frenzy.
Almost in slow motion my dad picked out a particular curly-que of air as it tumbled down the column. Once it reached the stack, by now quite thoroughly mixed with the hydrogen around it, the entire thing ignited with a roar. However, because the center of the stack was still venting at a huge rate, a whirlpool-like sheet of flame started up the column like a brilliant cellophane wrapper around a piece of candy.
Even this would've just been particularly bright fireworks, if not for the top of the column, which was just sort of floating around about 500 feet in the air merrily mixing with the oxygenated air around it. Once the flame raced up to that point, it all went off at once with an almighty bang and a display that could be seen all over the cape.
Pretty much every alarm over the entire cape went off at once. Capcom started yelling on the air trying to figure out what the hell had happened, and every fire truck in the entire world rushed to the scene. Fortunately hydrogen isn't all that dense a combustible, so there really wasn't any damage done to anything.
Dad got his redesigned valve shortly afterward.
My dad used to work on the Apollo space program. He has any number of stories, all of them funny. Some of them may actually be true. But this isn't one of them.
The first six years of my life coincided roughly with the manned Saturn V missions. While my mother insists it's not possible, I am convinced one of my earliest memories is of the Apollo 11 launch. Now, considering I was only 15 months old, it's not much of a memory. What I recall is a bright, sunlit day. Our TV, a huge set, probably at least 24 inches, and one of the biggest pieces of furniture in the house, was set up in the corner of the den. It was a sunken den (a big thing in the 60s), with a wrought-iron railing at the end with the step. At the opposite end of the house, past the kitchen on the left and the "green" bathroom on the right, was my parent's bedroom, complete with a king size bed and a blue bedspread.
In the bedroom was a device I was completely fascinated with... one of those "flippy" digital clock radios. You know, the kind where all the numbers are on rolodex-like spools that "flop" down as the time changes. I loved this thing, and later on when I was more co-coordinated got into trouble because I kept re-setting it just to get the numbers to flop down.
Anyway, what I remember quite clearly is this very bright sunny day and my mom being very excited. What I thought was most remarkable was that there was a rocket on the TV and, if I ran down the hall, what was on the TV was playing on the clock radio!!! The exact same thing! This so completely tripped me out that I remember running back and forth down the hall screaming about it. Eventually my mom got tired of it and told me to settle down. This is where the memory pretty much ends.
The next one I think I remember, again this is pretty foggy, is Apollo 12. I know it was Apollo 12 because there was a storm blowing in, and storms kept me from playing outside. All I remember of this one is my dad coming home very angry, yelling about stuff and saying "astronauts" and "lightening" a lot. Apollo 12 was the one that got hit by lightening because NASA wanted to get it off before a storm closed the cape in completely.
The next time a Saturn V entered my life was Christmas of 1969 or 1970. Santa brought me one of the most completely inappropriate but perfectly memorable gifts I have ever received for Christmas... a 1/96th scale model of a Saturn V. It was nearly four feet tall (at least a foot taller than I was) and it dominated my grandparent's parlor room, where the Christmas tree was. I can still see it sitting on the white carpet (none of the grandchildren were ever allowed in this room unsupervised), surrounded by other presents. It was spectacular.
I remember running to it, lifting it up, and toting it out the room (I couldn't have been more than 2 and a half years old, so this may not have happened in sequence). I loved my "big white rocket", but what happened next did not bode well for its survival... I whacked the top of it on the door jamb and knocked the escape tower off.
The next thing that I remember is one of my #1 cherished memories, because we had a meal at my great grandparent's house that day. I remember my great grandmother as a very tall, somewhat scary lady with big glasses and a walker. I toted my rocket all the way there (they lived about two doors down), and danced around it in my great grandmother's house.
I am the only one of my generation of the family with memories of my great grandmother, and that is the memory of her that is most clear.
Unfortunately the big white rocket didn't last all that long. By summertime I'd lost all of the small pieces, and most of the big ones. Eventually all that was left was the top of the first stage... a circular piece of plastic no more than 6 inches across and maybe 1 inch thick, which got thrown away when I was 8. I obsessed over big white rocket model kits for the rest of the 70s and some of the 80s. Revell eventually re-issued it in the late 90s, and I am now again the proud owner of a big white (albeit unassembled) rocket.
I don't have any more specific Saturn V memories for awhile after this. The launches were going on, and I do remember pointing at the rockets on television and asking kid questions about what I saw. My dad says that I was an absolute encyclopedia of rocket lore, not just "big white rocket" but specific stuff like launch schedules and how the thing got set up. He says I used to talk rings around barbers and other grown ups that were dumb enough to ask me if I knew what the picture of the rocket on the wall was.
I do remember being brought outside at night for some sort of satellite launch, perhaps more than once. I was small enough that one of my parents picked me up so I could get a better look. Rockets are loud and bright and beyond cool. I remember waving and saying "bye bye rocket".
I also remember visiting the space center during some sort of open house. I remember the titanic VAB. I think I fell over looking at the ceiling over 500 feet above me. I was completely terrified by someone in a space suit. I remember seeing the hulking shape of the crawler my dad was in charge of, framed by the doors of the building. We couldn't, or at any rate didn't, go closer, as I recall because it was pouring down rain.
The final Saturn V memory I have is much clearer, as by 1972 my now nearly five year old brain was much better wired. My brother, myself, and I think some other kids (Scottie and Lodie? two friends's kids) were loaded up into my mom's big ugly red 70s station wagon one night. I don't think it was made completely clear to us what was going to happen, or if it was I don't think we completely understood. I do remember parking near some interesting looking buildings (it may have been the VAB... I was told later it was a special VIP area), and getting put up on the roof of the wagon. I think we were all starting to get a little cranky because it was getting late for us. I remember being fascinated that I could push my hand down and make the roof of the wagon dimple a little, and that dew was beginning to form.
Eventually however a countdown was read out and when it reached zero one of the most spectacular things in my life happened... a Saturn V was launched in complete darkness. The roar of the engines was simply inconceivable. It was sound made solid, hitting you in the face like a wooden box. The sky lit up with a blinding torch, but by straining and looking very closely I could just make out the big white rocket shape I had got so familiar with over the few years of my life. It was bright enough that you could read a newspaper by the light in Miami. To this day my dad insists NASA did it just to see what would happen.
That was the last of the moon shots, and the last Saturn V launch I would be able to see. The last Saturn V launch of all was when they lofted Skylab up the next year, by which time my family had moved to Arkansas. The giant that dominated my imagination for my entire life left the world's stage with a roar, never to be seen again. I have missed it at least a little ever since.
For a long, long time it simply never occurred to me how special all of it was... didn't everyone have a dad that worked with rockets and astronauts? It wasn't until I was a teenager and the shuttle started going up that it really sank in and not until college that I realized how valuable the whole experience was, if nothing else than to get a girl to talk to me for more than a few seconds. I now write and share them with the world via this website, because my dad's getting on up there and if someone doesn't write all this down then one day it'll vanish into the sky like that last big rocket.
My parents have clearer memories, my dad has much funnier ones, probably anyone over 35 has different ones, but these...
These are mine.
The Saturn V rocket was, and perhaps still is, the largest space vehicle ever built to be launched from earth. 330 feet (110 meters) tall, 33 feet (10 meters) in diameter. It could lift 259,000 lbs (118,000 kg) into low earth orbit. For comparison, the space shuttle, our current heavy lift champ, is 184 feet (56.14 meters) tall, 78 feet (23.8 meters) across at the wings, and can lift a maximum of 63,500 lbs (28,800 kg) into low earth orbit. The Saturn V was a giant among giants, and we shall not soon see its like again.
But the problem was that in 1967, nobody had ever seen anything like it. How do you test a rocket that, if something went really really wrong, could flatten everything in a five or six mile radius, and shatter the windows in Miami?
Well, if you're 1960s-era NASA (a place only rivaled by the old west in its "hell with the book, let's just get it done" attitude), you gas one up, trundle it out, and light the fuse. Don't bother with a cargo, since atomizing astronauts tends to generate bad publicity, just load a couple thousand pounds of concrete into the nose for ballast. Let's see what happens.
The Saturn V was, to say the least, quite a complex beast, even by today's standards. It had three "stages", sections that were optimized for the different conditions experienced in the course of the launch. Each section had its own set of engines and its own fuel supply. Three different companies were responsible for the construction: in order from bottom to top, Boeing, North American, and Douglas Aircraft. Boeing's reputation amongst the Canaveral crew was stellar... their stuff was reliable, well designed, and they were damned careful with it (perhaps a later story). Douglas's stuff wasn't as good as Boeings', but it was pretty good and again the crew's opinion, according to my dad at least, was that nobody needed to worry about Douglas.
That left North American. Conventional wisdom said the problem with North American's stuff, according to my dad at least, was that, when new, it always blew up. Not just quit, not just fizzled, but exploded in a right proper fireball. It was rumored that other engineers would bring weenies for roasting to the first launch of any new North American product just to annoy them.
North American was in charge of the second stage of the Saturn V, which put them in charge of the second-largest part of the largest rocket in the world. And of course at that point in the launch the third largest part of that rocket would be sitting right next to the second part, full of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. The fireball, it was figured, would be impressive to say the least. And everyone knew that without question the thing would blow up.
Now, again, it must be said that nobody'd ever fired a rocket this big in history. They really didn't have any idea what it would do. So they did what they could to ensure proper safety, and, well, pushed the button.
The best way to experience this first launch from this distance in history is to listen to Walter Cronkite's broadcast of the event. Mr. Cronkite (who, for those of you too young to remember, was the best known TV newscaster in the country, and a huge supporter of the space program) managed to get his transmission trailer closer than anyone else's so he could have the best view of the show. In retrospect, this proved to be a not-so-good idea. NASA put the press folks a little too close to the action, and the pressure waves from the launch sucked the windows out of Cronkite's truck with a BANG. To say he was surprised and concerned was an understatement, but he was so damned excited it didn't scare him. His voice just got a little higher pitched as he described the event. I think it also peeled the roof off the vehicle, but I have not confirmed that.
That first stage, which again nobody was really too worried about, was so powerful it not only damaged Mr. Cronkite's trailer, which was miles away, it also completely vaporized the solid-gauge guard rails around the launch platform itself, as well as all the cameras meant to record the event up close. Zip. Gone. Vanished without a trace. These were big cameras! They were big enough they may not have actually vaporized, but are instead still sitting at the bottom of the swampy marshes that surround the cape, flung miles away from the launch site. The rocket is perched on the top of a concrete pad (which is still used by shuttles to this day), and the heat was so intense it turned a good two inches of the solid-concrete flame trench into glass. The launch was registered on seismometers as far north as New York City, and could be seen in Miami.
Of course, everyone that was involved in the program knew that, in spite of how impressive this all was, it was only a prelude to the real fireworks that would be brought courtesy of the North American guys. The first stage burned only for a few minutes, about the same amount of time the solid boosters on the shuttle burn, and then, empty and useless, it would be discarded. At that point, according to the press release anyway, the second stage would ignite and continue the rocket's trip to orbit.
The announcer counted down the time to this event: "three, two, one... first stage cutoff. [long pause] first stage separation [long pause]" and at this point everyone who worked on the thing closed their eyes, said prayers, and put their fingers in their ears ... "second stage ignition! We have second stage ignition!" Swear to god you can hear the surprise in the announcer's voice.
It didn't blow up. Two of its five engines didn't work, but by god it didn't blow up.
And it never did, not once in the entire program did it ever even cause trouble. The North American boys finally got it right.
The big white building that they roll the shuttle out of is called the V.A.B. (Vehicle Assembly Building). The damned thing has to be at least 500 feet high, because the Saturn V it was built to hold was over 300 feet high, and the crawler and the tower over it added at least 100 feet over that. It is said that the top is so big you could fit Yankee Stadium on the top of it and have a whole acre of clearance around it. It was a time of giants.
Well, that particular giant needed its roof worked on, and the work involved sandblasting. The problem with sandblasting the roof was that the elevators didn't go all the way to the roof. They stopped about three floors from the top. You had to walk up staircases to actually get to the roof. This meant the construction workers involved had to schlepp 50 pound (22 kilo) bags of sand up three flights of steep, un-airconditioned stairs. Not fun.
So, when they were done, it was discovered that they had a few extra bags of sand left. This being government work, they would not be allowed to just leave the damned things up there, so the bags had to get to the ground. But it would be an even bigger pain schlepping them back down than it was getting them schlepped up. This is, apparently, when one of the "smart" ones had an idea.
This is where my dad comes in. The story goes that he was walking up to the V.A.B when he noticed guys on the roof motioning frantically at the ground. Further investigation revealed a white, flatbed, open-sided truck on the ground with a guide looking up at the guys on the roof, directing the driver to move the truck around. Eventually everyone decided that the truck was in the right position, and "thumbs-up" were motioned all around. The guys on the roof disappeared. A few seconds later (at this point in the story you can almost hear them shouting "ONE! TWO! THREE!!!") a small dot arcs over the roof of the V.A.B, decending rapidly. 50 pounds of sand began to demonstrate the newtonian theorem of gravity, with a 500 foot space within which to accelerate. You do the math to figure out how fast the damned thing was going when it reached ground level.
The amazing (!) thing was, they actually didn't miss the truck. They did, however, miss the truck BED, not that it would have made any difference. Apparently the bag hit with an allmighty BANG. It didn't actually smash the truck to bits. Instead it punched a cookie-cutter like hole in the roof, went through the cab, punched another hole in the passenger seat, and another in the floorboard, none with any other sort of cracking or tearing. Like you took scissors to the thing. It proceeded to tear the transmission completely from the mounts and bury it and the sandbag two or three feet into the concrete pavement below.
It is said that the roof workers were quite amazed.