Saturday, December 27, 2014

Parking a blog...

Readers with a discerning eye - or at least readers capable of performing date calculations - may have noticed that fresh content has been somewhat… sporadic around here. Sad to say, that’s what happens when two book projects, multiple musical efforts, and a host of Internet-related assignments all barge their way to the top of the prioritization list. My interest in the LOUDFASTBLOGS network subjects remains keen, so revitalization is just a question of time. How soon? Time itself will tell. But keep an eye out here - as Joe Strummer once wrote, the future is unwritten…

Friday, June 20, 2014

2011 in 2025?

In the 1970s American TV viewers were captivated by a program titled Marcus Welby, M.D. In the near future, the space community may be equally enthralled by a small asteroid known as “2011 MD.”

2011 MD in all its infrared glory, as seen by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Launched in 2003, the SST was the last of NASA’s Great Observatories and the only one of the four not carried to space by Space Shuttle. Instead, a Delta rocket carried the SST aloft. 

The 20-foot rocky celestial inhabitant – estimated to be either a collection of smaller rocks or a single rock – is being studied as a candidate for retrieval and subsequent investigation. It’s path through the solar system has brought it as close as 7500 miles from our planet.

The study is all part of an ambitious plan that will hopefully be ready to get off the ground in just over a decade. The first step: use a robotic spacecraft to capture a small asteroid – like 2011 MD – and bring it to a new home, in orbit around the moon.

NASA conceptual planning image of a robotic asteroid capture mission underway.

Once there, astronauts could journey to the newly arrived visitor for detailed analysis of its origins and composition, shedding light on some of the fundamental questions about our solar system. Of course, getting humans to the moon calls for realization of the Orion vehicle and Space Launch System rocket programs.

This type of mission is one of the benefits of the rise of commercial space endeavors, providing NASA with the freedom to focus on exploration.

For more, visit NASA’s Asteroid Initiative site:   NASA A.I.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A New Spatial Reality

In the late-1990s film Gattaca, employment by the space agency named in the film’s title is a highly-prized future profession. The film’s plot is based on obtaining a coveted crew slot on a mission to Titan, one of the moons orbiting Saturn. The film’s launch images convey the beauty of liftoff, but also a sense that here in the future, the sight of rockets arcing into the skies above population centers is a symbol of progress attained.

Off to a Saturn moon in Gattaca.

For many years significant spaceflight missions originating from United States soil began their climbs “uphill” from launch pads in either Florida or California. But now, reflective of the Gattaca imagery, the launch site palette of 2013 is expanding.

Proof of this was easy to spot the night of September 6, when the night skies of the 11 o’clock hour were brightened by a Minotaur V rocket accelerating to a velocity approaching two thousand miles per hour, passing through an area of maximum dynamic pressure 38 seconds after leaving the launch pad.

The rocket's red glare over Manhattan, September 6, 2013.

The Minotaur – bearing the eight-foot-tall Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) lunar studies vehicle – began its sojourn over the Atlantic Ocean not from venerable Kennedy Space Center or Cape Canaveral, but from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island in coastal Virginia. Though Wallops has been the site of origin for several significant launches in recent years, the tremendous visibility of LADEE’s journey to the moon – easily seen by millions in the densely-populated Mid-Atlantic region – has brought a new focus on Virginia’s spaceflight activities.

Virgin Galactic test flight over California's Mojave Desert, September 4, 2013.

Further to the west, operations are intensifying at Spaceport America, located in a New Mexico desert basin. This will be the operational inception point of Virgin Galactic’s suborbital passenger venture. Earlier last week, Virgin Galactic took another big step toward launching six-passenger crews into space with another successful test flight, this one taking place over the Mojave Desert. Spaceport Abu Dhabi is in the planning stages, although in truth the simplified launch methodology being employed by Richard Branson’s firm could be supported by myriad sites.

With increasing launch frequency on the board – including Orbital Science’s first attempt at an International Space Station resupply mission scheduled for a Wallops liftoff on September 17 – perhaps the future depicted in films like Gattaca is finally dawning.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Failure is not an option...


Last night’s explosive crash of a Russian Proton rocket attempting to launch three satellites into orbit dramatically pointed out a fundamental difference between the U.S. and Russian space programs: Russian rockets do not contain Flight Termination Systems.

Uncontrolled destruction: last night's chaotic Proton launch.

For the United States programs, keeping launches within their specified safe flight launch corridors is a primary concern. Depending on population density, two methods of terminating a launch can be used.
One method, utilized in cases where the potential for harm on the ground is deemed to be low, essentially involves cutting off the fuel to the propulsion system and letting the vehicle fall.
The other involves the utilization of explosives to destroy the vehicle in flight. The goal, of course, is to prevent a massive rocket from wandering off on its own trajectory – as the Proton did last night – but also to ensure that as much as possible of the rocket’s fuel is destroyed or consumed in the atmosphere.

Controlled destruction: a Titan IVA is safely brought down in the wake of catastrophic guidance problems.

One of the more spectacular examples of a termination system in action occurred on August 12, 1998, when a huge Titan IVA rocket was detonated off the Florida coast 41 seconds into flight. It was later determined that an electrical short caused by faulty insulation on a wire began to cause problems as normal launch vibrations shook the Titan. The guidance computer went offline, came back on, and attempted pitch and yaw maneuvers that exceeded the structural capacity of the Titan. Within moments, with the rocket at an altitude of 20,000 feet, explosive charges ignited which brought the flight to a safe – but expensive – conclusion.

Logo for the group charged with ensuring a rocket doesn't land in your backyard.
Range safety and flight termination standards are a shared concern for all U.S. launch operations. Indeed, the Range Commanders Council has compiled a near-500-page Flight Termination Systems Commonality Standard that addresses these issues. You can explore the topic in detail right here:   Flight Termination Systems Commonality Standard PDF 

At no time does the job description of the Range Safety Officer become more difficult than when the flight is manned. It’s a topic no one liked to think about, but having witnessed shuttle launches from as close as media were allowed, I can attest to the fact that an out of control shuttle stack would have been be an entity of nearly unfathomable force. Which is why both the external tank and solid rocket boosters of the assembly carried termination systems – though the orbiter itself did not. This aspect of the system only came into play once: in the moments after the tragic destruction of Challenger, the Range Safety Office bore the responsibility of destroying the two solid rocket boosters that had continued to fly on after the initial explosion.

Knowing that the Russian rockets do not carry such termination systems would likely have me thinking twice about attending a Proton launch – especially since this is the fifth failure of this launch system in two-and-a-half years. A 19-story rocket that weighs over 1.5 million pounds with a mind of its own? That is a scary thought…

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Losing the race?

The news of today’s launch of a Chinese rocket propelling three astronauts into orbit took many Americans by surprise. And it’s not just this mission; the fact that China has had an orbiting space module above Earth for nearly two years – Tiangong 1 - is not widely known among the American public.

A scale model of the Tiangong 1 module. National pride is a key motivator of the Chinese space program.

But the Chinese space program is building momentum – quickly. The current flight is the fifth manned mission, coming on the heels of a busy 2012 that saw more than a dozen Chinese launches aside from their manned efforts.
While the attention of the American public has been focused on the need for our astronauts to buy passage on the Soyuz spacecraft in order to reach the International Space Station, China has made a national commitment to its space program.

Todays's launch of the Shenzhon spacecraft in the Gobi desert, initiating China's fifth manned mission.

What are the implications of the rapidly accelerating footsteps of the Chinese space program? Well, as we’ve seen all too long ago, a focused national program can get you from ground zero all the way to the moon in just a handful of years.
Of course, the motivation for that particular space exploration pace was a desperate rivalry with the Soviet Union. Currently, our one-time rival’s space program is our only access to orbit – ironic to say the least.

The crew of the current mission includes China's second female astronaut.
Is there something familiar about those colors?

But the big question is this: are we comfortable letting China – a country growing ever more competitive in the world economic markets, decidedly a military super power – take the lead in space? Their program is still building a foundation, with nothing as complex as our mothballed Space Shuttle or as monumental as our storied lunar journeys. Yet one thing is clear: they are dedicated to making progress, and major steps can be taken in a short time.

China anticipates expanding its space station to this expansive degree - in less than seven years.

Perhaps this is the time for new space race – maybe not one that plays out as a drama driven by the threat of a nuclear arms race, but one chasing global economic opportunities.
The decision must be made soon. Playing catch-up is not a desirable position. And it’s all too clear that China is not going to wait.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Second Man on the Moon...

This week, the second man to set foot on the moon will be a keynote speaker at a conference designed to exchange ideas about a much more complex mission: sending men to Mars. Buzz Aldrin will be Wednesday’s keynote speaker at the Humans 2 Mars Summit being held at George Washington University, discussing the call for further human exploration of space detailed in his new book Mission to Mars. Others speaking at the three-day even that kicks off today include NASA chief Charlie Bolden and Dennis Tito, the man behind a recently-announced private mission to Mars covered in an earlier posting of Aerospace Perceptions.


Buzz Aldrin (left) and Jim Lovell (right) on the recovery ship after completing the Gemini 12 mission. Aldrin's future led to walking on the moon on Apollo 11, while Lovell would command the harrowing Apollo 13.


Buzz Aldrin has always been something of a controversial figure, during his military career and in the wake of his flight to the lunar surface on Apollo 11. In fact, while on the moon, Aldrin - a Presbyterian church elder - secretly carried out a communion service with a small kit, an action forbidden after atheist activist Madalyn Murray O‘Hair brought a lawsuit over a Scripture reading during Apollo 8‘s Christmas, 1968 lunar orbit. In darker days that followed, Aldrin suffered from depression and alcoholism, a period Aldrin himself has addressed in his books. I’ve heard him described as cold or standoffish by people who have encountered him, be it at book signings or other events. I can’t say I met him at a book signing several years ago, as he didn’t even look up from signing my copy.

Perhaps the most famous NASA photograph: Buzz Aldrin, as photographed by Neil Armstrong.


Aldrin also tends to be a magnet for criticism for commercializing his role as moonwalker. Buzz has appeared on Dancing with the Stars and voiced The Simpsons, and even had a role in the Transformers movie franchise. Rapping with Snoop? Yes, Aldrin’s done that, too. He admits to undergoing plastic surgery, and just divorced his third wife.

Buzz Aldrin in recent years.


To all that I say: so what? Despite the rare fraternity that Buzz became the second member of on that July day in 1969, he is still a human being, subject to the same long litany of bad decisions and problems that litter all of our lives. I’ve been fortunate to meet several of the Apollo astronauts over the years. Pete Conrad, who walked the lunar surface on Apollo 12, came across as serious. Harrison Schmitt, lunar module pilot of the last flight to the moon on Apollo 17, was gregarious. But they’re all different people. And nothing Aldrin could ever do to stir public disapproval can change the significance of the risks he took for the advancement of spaceflight more than forty years ago.

In the sports-mad Philadelphia area, where I live, even players who famously blew a play can live like local royalty, all faults forgiven. It seems strange to me that a man who successfully undertook one of the most dangerous, frightening, and glorious human endeavors can be the target of so much criticism for being just that: human.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Seen a rocket lately?

Those who live in the vicinity of Florida’s eastern coast still have a fairly routine ability to watch rockets launch despite the conclusion of the space shuttle program, as Kennedy Space Center continues to launch a variety of unmanned spacecraft. Those of us further north rarely see anything more interesting than commercial airliners fly by. That could all change later this week.

Although SpaceX has received most of the commercial space flight attention lately for its successful unmanned mission to the ISS (International Space Station), they are far from the only players in the commercial launch game. And on April 17, dramatic proof of that may come from Virginia.

Orbital's Antares rocket is raised into place on its coastal Virginia launch pad.

Sitting right now on a launch pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in coastal Virginia is Orbital’s Antares rocket. The vehicle is poised for the A-ONE mission, a test flight into space to be followed up by a flight to the ISS later this year. Those along the East Coast may - skies willing - be able to see the Antares rocket take flight in just a few days. Here’s a helpful viewing map.

Where to look to potentially witness Antares' ascent into space.

For more on the flight’s scheduling and Orbital’s efforts to supply the ISS, please visit: