Tag: Space

Saturday Night Science: Energiya-Buran

 

“Energiya-Buran” by Bart Hendrickx and Bert VisThis authoritative history chronicles one of the most bizarre episodes of the Cold War. When the US Space Shuttle program was launched in 1972, the Soviets, unlike the majority of journalists and space advocates in the West who were bamboozled by NASA’s propaganda, couldn’t make any sense of the economic justification for the program. They crunched the numbers, and they just didn’t work—the flight rates, cost per mission, and most of the other numbers were obviously not achievable.

So, did the Soviets chuckle at this latest folly of the capitalist, imperialist aggressors and continue on their own time-proven path of mass-produced low-technology expendable boosters? Well, of course not! They figured that even if their wisest double-domed analysts were unable to discern the justification for the massive expenditures NASA had budgeted for the Shuttle, there must be some covert military reason for its existence to which they hadn’t yet twigged, and hence they couldn’t tolerate a shuttle gap and consequently had to build their own, however pointless it looked on the surface.

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Tempus in Caelo Fugit

 

480px-Uranus2Today is the 30th anniversary of the Challenger Disaster, in which we lost an entire Space Shuttle crew during launch. It’s getting plenty of media attention, and for perfectly good reasons: It was the worst space-related disaster to that point (it’s now tied for that honor with the loss of Columbia) and it happened on live TV. But there are two other space-related anniversaries this week that deserve attention.

The first is happened only a few days before Challenger, when Voyager II made its closest approach to the planet Uranus. This 5.5-hour flyby was humanity’s first good look at what we now call an “ice giant” planet. In some ways, it was disappointing: Uranus was rather featureless at the time and — beyond discovering a few new moons — we didn’t find too many surprises (Neptune and its system would turn out to be much more interesting… and beautiful). Regardless, it was both an impressive technical achievement and a fascinating philosophical one: Up to that point, we’d been learning about things that had been studied and dreamed about since antiquity; with Uranus we were exploring something wholly modern that had only existed in our imaginations for a scant two centuries.

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Saturday Night Science: Countdown to a Moon Launch

 

“Countdown to a Moon Launch” by Jonathan H. WardIn the companion volume, Rocket Ranch, the author describes the gargantuan and extraordinarily complex infrastructure which was built at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida to assemble, check out, and launch the Apollo missions to the Moon and the Skylab space station. The present book explores how that hardware was actually used, following the “processing flow” of the Apollo 11 launch vehicle and spacecraft from the arrival of components at KSC to the moment of launch.

As intricate as the hardware was, it wouldn’t have worked, nor would it have been possible to launch flawless mission after flawless mission on time had it not been for the management tools employed to coordinate every detail of processing. Central to this was PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique), a methodology developed by the U.S. Navy in the 1950s to manage the Polaris submarine and missile systems. PERT breaks down the progress of a project into milestones connected by activities into a graph of dependencies. Each activity has an estimated time to completion. A milestone might be, say, the installation of the guidance system into a launch vehicle. That milestone would depend upon the assembly of the components of the guidance system (gyroscopes, sensors, electronics, structure, etc.), each of which would depend upon their own components. Downstream, integrated test of the launch vehicle would depend upon the installation of the guidance system. Many activities proceed in parallel and only come together when a milestone has them as its mutual dependencies. For example, the processing and installation of rocket engines is completely independent of work on the guidance system until they join at a milestone where an engine steering test is performed.

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Christmas Greetings from the Moon

 

The first manned mission to the moon, Apollo 8, entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve 1968. On that evening 47 years ago, the astronauts — Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders — held a live broadcast from above the moon’s surface, in which they showed images of the Earth and moon as seen from their tiny spacecraft. They ended the broadcast with the crew taking turns reading from the book of Genesis and wished a Merry Christmas to all the people on “the good Earth.”

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Member Post

 

That’s what you call sticking the landing! Space-X Orbcomm-2 launch and LANDING! Link is the entire video. Launch at 32:00. Good stuff at 41:45. (Perhaps someone who knows how to embed the video can do so.) More

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112 Years of Heavier-than-Air Flight

 

shutterstock_92768497It’s not an anniversary ending in a five or a zero, but 112 years ago today, a couple bicycle mechanics took off in a powered box kite on some windy dunes in North Carolina, successfully landed it, and started the era of aviation.

On the centennial of the event 12 years ago, I had essays at TechCentralStation (which no longer exists) and National Review, in which I noted that their big achievement wasn’t in taking off, but in landing. Also, on Fox News, I compared and contrasted the government versus the private sector, and noted that the space program needed the Wright stuff:

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Outward Bound

 
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Photo Credit: Blue Origin

The past couple of weeks have seen some notable developments in spaceflight. Not all of them were necessarily good, but they were useful. If for no other reason, they serve to clarify the government vs. private viewpoints.

First, we had Blue Origin’s successful all-up test of its New Shepard tourist spacecraft. Which, you may have heard, stuck the landing. From space. It’s a big deal, no matter how much Elon Musk tried to pooh-pooh it.

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Member Post

 

We often think of the 1960s as a “can do” time, when technological progress, societal self-confidence, and burgeoning economic growth allowed attempting and achieving great things: from landing on the Moon, global communications by satellite, and mass continental and intercontinental transportation by air. But the 1960s were also a time, not just of conflict and […]

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Why Mars Instead of the Moon?

 

moon-meetMaybe I am influenced by having read Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress when it was first published, but I am wondering about all the recent PR for a manned mission to Mars — even by some people who are not named Robert Zubrin — and whether it is just the romance of going to another planet. The Moon seems to make much more sense for a first permanent base (i.e. not an orbital space station) for a number of reasons:

  1. It’s closer.
  2. There is micro-gravity.
  3. If you go underground, you might be in decent shape for protection against high energy particles.
  4. There appears to be water ice in some of the craters.
  5. Mining on the Moon might, or might not, be worth the effort of going there. (Isn’t a useful isotope of Hydrogen available on the Moon and not on Earth?)
  6. The Moon, being out of the deepest part of Earth’s gravity well is, from a propulsion energy perspective, about halfway to anywhere in the inner solar system.

So what are the arguments in favor of Mars and against the Moon, besides “been there, done that?”

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“The Martian” Is Thrilling, Surprisingly Funny, and Scientifically Accurate

 

The_Martian_film_posterThe Martian features Matt Damon as NASA astronaut Mark Watney, who with a six-member crew including commanding officer Jessica Chastain, is on a month-long science mission on the beautifully desolate surface of Mars. Of course, one month is only the planned duration of their stay on the surface; the deep space transit to and from Mars takes several hundred days each way, which becomes important later in the film.

We enter the story partway into the surface mission. The crew is collecting Martian soil samples when NASA sends them an urgent message about an impending storm. The storm is apparently so severe that the rocket which is supposed to lift the crew back into space at the end of their mission won’t survive the harsh winds on the ground. So the crew is forced to abort their surface mission and perform a hasty emergency launch. In the rush and confusion, Watney is left behind, presumed dead. All of this introductory material is completed in a very breezy few minutes, plunging us right into the survival story.

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Book Review: “Sacramento’s Moon Rockets”

 

“Sacramento's Moon Rockets” by Alan LawrieIn 1849, gold was discovered in California, setting off a gold rush which would bring a wave of prospectors and fortune seekers into one of the greatest booms in American history. By the early 20th century, the grizzled prospector panning for gold had given way to industrial extraction of the metal. In an age before anybody had heard the word “environmentalism,” this was accomplished in the most direct way possible: creating man-made lakes on gold-bearing land, then using a barge to dredge up the bottom and mix it with mercury, which would form an amalgam with the gold. The gold could later be separated, purified, and sold.

The process effectively destroyed the land on which it was used. The topsoil was ripped out, vegetation killed, and the jumbled remains after extraction dumped in barren hills filled with tailings. Half a century later, the mined-out land was considered usable for neither agriculture nor residential construction. Some described it as a “moonscape.”

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What Happened to My Ride into Space?

 

Saturday was the 57th anniversary of the first satellite in orbit, the Soviet Sputnik. It was also (not coincidentally, because the date was chosen) the tenth anniversary of the winning of the Ansari X-Prize, a $10M award for the first vehicle to fly into space (i.e., above 100 kilometers altitude) twice within a period of two weeks. On that date, a decade ago, SpaceShipOne made its second flight into suborbit and claimed the money (technically, it wasn’t won until a day later, because one of the prize rules was that the pilot had to survive at least 24 hours after landing, presumably to ensure that the landing was sort of “safe”).

I attended the anniversary celebration in Mojave, with a lot of people more luminary than me. My old (in both senses of the word) friend Alan Boyle at NBC (who was also in attendance) has the story.

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Pluto: Terra Cognita (Almost)

 

Pluto_animiert_200pxThe image at your right is currently the best and clearest one we have of the former planet Pluto, now correctly classified as a dwarf planet.* If it looks unimpressive to you, you’re not alone. Based on a series of observations from the Hubble Space Telescope this fuzzy blur is the best we can do with the technology currently in place.

One of the great things about modern astronomy, however, is that our technology can move at incredible velocity. Literally. In the case of the New Horizons probe, our technology is moving at about 31,500 mph. On July 15, 2015 — one year from yesterday — that will put it within just 17,000 miles of this distant little ice world. For the first time, we’ll see exactly what Pluto looks like, and in HD. You’ll likely never see this picture again outside of a history book.

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Member Post

 

OK, I know that post title will excite almost no one, because no one (to first order) cares about space policy. It’s a prevailing theme of my (non-best-selling) book. But for those few who care, Eric Cantor didn’t give a damn about it. Neither did/does John Boehner More

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Remember When Heroes Were … Well, Heroic?

 

shutterstock_130076768As we get ready to celebrate the centennial of the Great War, there is another event (rightly overshadowed) with a coinciding 100th anniversary: the doomed but heroic adventure of Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition. This was one of the last great episodes in the age of adventurous and daring enterprise. The expedition was underwritten and funded by private donors and investors, and it was manned by volunteers recruited partly through classified ads. What an age!

A little over a decade later, perhaps the last great adventurous enterprise occurred with the race for the Orteig Prize, offered to the first person to fly non-stop from North America to Europe. (If you want to read a completely brilliant account of the contest, I’d strongly recommend Atlantic Fever: Lindbergh, His Competitors, and the Race to Cross the Atlantic by Joe Jackson. You won’t be disappointed ). Once again, the efforts were privately underwritten and funded. And the players, who ranged from the mighty and famous to the common and obscure, were visionaries and heroically motivated. The winner became the most famous and easily recognizable person on the planet!

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Member Post

 

As I mentioned yesterday, I had a conversation with Glenn Reynolds on the geopolitical implications of the new Cold War for the International Space Station. The interview is now up at Instavision. The conversation encompasses a lot of the themes of my book, which is now available in a digital edition at Google Play. More

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Space Invaders — Rob Long

 

This either bothers you or it doesn’t. From Yahoo News:

Chinese President Xi Jinping urged the air force to adopt an integrated air and space defence capability, in what state media on Tuesday called a response to the increasing military use of space by the United States and others.

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Simberg: Safe Is Not an Option

 

The successful expansion into space requires tradeoffs in cost and safety. But the government’s obsessively risk-averse regulations are preventing us from being able to make those tradeoffs. That’s the message of the new book by Ricochet member, CEI adjunct scholar and “recovering aerospace engineer” Rand Simberg. Safe Is Not an Option: Overcoming the Futile Obsession With Getting Everyone Back Alive That Is Killing Our Expansion Into Space is getting rave reviews from prominent experts, knowledgable politicians, and successful entrepreneurs.

Simberg notes that, throughout the history of exploration, science and technology has always entailed risk to the health and lives of the explorers. Yet, when it comes to exploring and developing the high frontier of space, the harshest frontier ever, the highest value is apparently not the accomplishment of those goals, but of minimizing, if not eliminating, the possibility of injury or death for the humans carrying them out.

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