Saturday, December 31, 2011

When there's a will there's a way

In general, the American public seems to emit mixed signals when it comes to a national space program. Yes, there is the perception that space should rightfully be the domain of the United States – after all, look at the proud legacy of space stations, space walks, and orbital rendezvous operations. And let's not forget the nationality of the crews who repeatedly went to the moon. Been there, done that.

The problems is that legacies refer to events of the past.

Now, on this last day of 2011, the national will to commit to future endeavors is either not there, or it exists in such a weakened state that the United States now finds itself in a predicament much discussed: for the time being, it's a country that can't even launch its own astronauts.

Despite all the talk of the Commercial Crew Development initiatives (and there is no doubt several private organizations have made true, significant strides chasing the goal of developing new implementations of manned space flight) the overall responsibility for deep space exploration and placing man where no man has gone before lays at the feet of NASA. The companies involved in CCDev are in it with an eye toward financial opportunities opening through low earth orbit operations; the profitability of deep space exploation? Well...

While NASA administers the CCDev program, it continues to struggle to fund its more glamorous-but-expensive exploration ventures in a political climate that is occasionally financially hostile and always unpredictable.

George W. Bush announces the Constellation Program in 2004.

Eight years ago, President George W. Bush announced the inception of the Constellation Program. As announced, the program was full of visions promising the development of new manned vehicles and a series of booster spacecraft, with a manned return to the moon as part of the deal. To make it happen, the plan also called for the retirement of the space shuttles in favor of refocusing work efforts on the new program.

As 2012 begins, the space shuttles are indeed retired, the orbiters gutted and nearly ready for museum display. As for Constellation, it was canceled by the current Obama administration – and perhaps not without financial reason, some argue. Instead, the new plan is to morph the foundation development done to date under the Constellation banner into a new combination: the Space Launch System will be the massive heavy-lift vehicle, and the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle Orion will loft the crews on new deep space explorations.

An artist conception of the Space Launch System lifting off from one of the launch pads at Kennedy Space Center.

Unfortunately, political support for the SLS/MPCV has been far from unwavering, and it would be safe to say there are differences of opinion throughout the aerospace community about the viability of the program.

In contrast, this last week of 2011 saw the release of a document by the Information Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, detailing that nation's own space plans.

Building on successes ranging from manned extravehicular activity in orbit to lunar probe operations, China is setting an ambitious agenda for the next five years and beyond. Their goals range from the development of a new generation of heavy-lift vehicles to creating the foundation required to place Chinese astronauts upon the surface of the moon in less than a decade.

It all sounds like an aggressive and exciting plan – but haven't we heard similar glowing visions of the space future before? Many aspects of the plans China has announced echo those of President Bush's own Constellation speech.

Here, though, the difference is simple: national will. China knows that space is a high-profile playing field. That translates into a certain means of drawing global respect with a successful space program dramatically checking off increasingly challenging milestones.

Yang Liwei within the Shenzhou V spacecraft, shortly before his successful orbital flight in 2003 - a tremendous milestone achieved for the People's Republic of China.

Already having successfully launched manned spacecraft, China is now at the unique stage that once characterized the Apollo program – balancing the critical requirement of moving forward carefully and safely with the burning desire to capitalize on each success with a headlong rush into orbit and beyond. But the greatest advantage this Chinese program has is simple: unwavering national support. Once committed to this effort, things will happen, progress will be made. Setting aside debates about political ideologies and how the People's Republic of China chooses to rule over those very people, when it comes to achieving its goals in space this government will adapt the words of a certain fictional space commander: make it so.

As those steps are taken by our rival on the global economic and scientific stages, perhaps the American vision will be forced to shift from legacies to the opportunities of the future. As this new year begins, only time will tell.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Astronaut Garrett Reisman on SpaceX, NASA, and more - Part Two

Last week, NASA made an exciting announcement about the future of low Earth orbit operations. Quoting from the December 9 press release: "NASA has announced the launch target for Space Exploration Technologies' (SpaceX) second Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration flight will be Feb. 7, 2012. Pending completion of final safety reviews, testing and verification, NASA also has agreed to allow SpaceX to send its Dragon spacecraft to rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS) in a single flight."

The planned February launch of Dragon marks an accelerated pacing of SpaceX's quest to begin supplying the ISS, and takes the organization a large step closer to its long-range goal: launching manned SpaceX vehicles.

Dr. Garrett Reisman, veteran of space shuttle flights and a tour of duty orbiting Earth aboard the ISS, is now employed by SpaceX. His main responsibility is to guide SpaceX's manned spaceflight efforts, a position crucial to the success of SpaceX.

The second part of my conversation with Garrett begins with that very topic...


After leaving NASA’s astronaut program to join SpaceX, you’ve accepted a new responsibility: making the SpaceX Dragon vehicle safe and man-rated for NASA. What challenges does this present?

My job is actually to run the program that is upgrading the vehicle that we have. So we already have a rocket and a spacecraft that brings cargo to the space station and my job is to convert that and get it ready to carry people so we can get our astronauts back to the space station. And part of that is safety. I'm very confident that we're going to develop a spacecraft and a whole transportation system, including the rocket, that's going to be an order of magnitude safer than the space shuttle. And the reason for that is that we're not trying to do everything that the space shuttle does as far as trying to combine all that stuff (so many aspects?) into one vehicle. We're concentrating on transporting people; we're not concentrating on doing spacewalks, or having a robotic arm, or demonstrating these technologies where we can land like an airplane. A lot of the things that the space shuttle was asked to do made it very, very complicated, and also made it very expensive. It was a fantastic machine and I loved flying in it, and I consider myself very lucky to have had that chance. But we lost two of them. And when you do something that complicated, you operate closer to the edges of what is safe. So, if  you look at what we're doing with the Dragon spacecraft and the Falcon 9, you'll see that out of simplicity and elegance of design comes a lot of safety. The fewer things that have to go right for you to be safe, the better. And that's exactly what we're doing.

The planet Earth glows behind Garrett as he works outside the ISS and the docked shuttle Endeavour.

In the wake of the shuttle program, we are seeing NASA’s own manned flight efforts directed at deep space exploration, with private concerns envisioned as the ones servicing the International Space Station. Do you foresee there becoming separate career paths for astronauts, as far as low earth orbit operations versus deep space exploration?

Well, first of all, let me say that a public-private partnerships works for not only getting astronauts into low earth orbit but eventually for those exploration missions as well. Right now, whenever NASA launches a mission to Mars, like one of the Mars rovers, it doesn't fly on a NASA-deigned rocket, it flies on an Atlas or a Delta rocket that's built by the United Launch Alliance, which is a commercial venture. So there's already a public-private partnership for exploration, and I think it's a good model that can be built upon. But as far as your question about the astronauts, that's something that has yet to be determined. We're still working out who will be the crews for the initial test flights of the Dragon. And it's possible that those crews are NASA astronauts, or those crews are SpaceX astronauts, or it can be a mixture of the two. But I think that yes, ultimately, as the commercial space industry matures and grows and we have this whole infrastructure – and basically have “spacelines” like we have airlines today – that eventually the crew of these spacecraft will be company crews, not just astronaut crews. I'm hopeful that it will become a job description. You know in the whole history of spaceflight there's only been about 500 people that have been to space, either as passengers or as crew. I'm hoping that number grows exponentially as we go into the future.

Garrett, center, in the crew portrait of STS-123, commemorating his first flight into space.

You mentioned the possibility of SpaceX fielding its own crews. Would you envision SpaceX looking for the same kinds of qualifications for its crews, or following a selection process similar to NASA’s model? And are you personally looking to return to flight?

I hope so – I hope that the skill set stays the same, and I hope they're not looking for better-looking people! (laughs) Because I'd definitely be out of the running... Basically, what makes a good astronaut is something we've figured out at NASA over the years, and I don't see why we would look for a different set of characteristics in the people we might pick to be the pilot of the Dragon. And as far as me personally, that's not the reason that I came to SpaceX. I had the opportunity to fly again if I would have stayed at NASA. I was offered a mission to fly on a Soyuz back up to the space station and be a space station crew member. But I really felt that the best chance for a robust, sustainable, cost effective and safe future in space was in the commercial world. I really, strongly believe that. So you know I could have flown, I could fly again and it would be a great experience and I would love it, but if I'm going to help change the course of our human history, if I'm going to be looked back upon as somebody that made a difference in getting humans out into the universe and not just constrained to Earth, then the place to do that is SpaceX.

Workstations in the SpaceX complex at Cape Canaveral. From this room, SpaceX hopes to successfully control the launch of an unmanned Dragon mission to the ISS in February, 2012.

The space shuttle was certainly one of the most complex vehicles ever created in the realm of aerospace operations. What will be its legacy in history of manned space flight efforts?

Wow... I would say... It's definitely a milestone. It's a magnificent vehicle. Given everything that it was required to do, it was a brilliant design. But it was hamstrung by what it was required to. The fact that it had to have such a big payload bay to carry out Dept of Defense missions, and you had to put it on the side of the rocket, you couldn't put it on the top, and that meant that foam could fall off the rocket and blow a whole in the wing and that's what happened with Columbia, and we lost seven of my friends because of that. The shuttle is... Given the technology – remember, this was designed in the 1970s – given the technology of the time, and given all the things it was made to do, it is a magnificent craft, and it will be remembered that way. It will also be remembered, in retrospect, as not necessarily the best way and certainly not the safest way and certainly not the most cost effective way to get people from earth to low earth orbit.

And that's where SpaceX comes in, to address the cost effectiveness?

That's exactly right.