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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.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Astronaut Garrett Reisman on SpaceX and the United States space program

With the space shuttle program now history, NASA intends to focus on exploration while delegating manned low earth orbit operations – including support for the International Space Station – to private ventures. The challenge for these entrants in a new kind space race? Create vehicles that are safe for manned flight. Dr. Garrett Reisman, 43, is up to that task. Born in Morristown,New Jersey and raised in Parsippany, NJ, Reisman flew aboard all three surviving shuttle orbiters and logged three months living in space aboard the ISS before leaving NASA earlier this year to join SpaceX, the aerospace firm established by PayPal founder Elon Musk. Reisman's daunting charge is to make SpaceX's manned spaceflight ambitions a reality. I spoke with Reisman while the Space Shuttle Atlantis was making its final flight. The first part of our conversation follows, with part two coming as the next installment of AEROSPACE PERCEPTIONS.


Garrett, you grew up in the years after the Apollo program, when the national fascination with space flight and America’s space program had begun to ebb. What drew a kid growing up in northern New Jersey to pursue a path that leading to a career as a NASA astronaut?

I always was fascinated with space, and with science and technology in general. Flying and aviation was always something I was interested in. I remember at Lake Hiawatha Elementary School in Parsippany going and taking out every book they had on airplanes – reading about turn and bank indicators when I was in third grade. So it was definitely a passion of mine from early on. But I never thought of it (space?) seriously as something I could do as a career. I used to watch films of the Apollo flights – we had a Super 8 movie of Apollo 11 that I watched over and over, so many times that the film kept breaking and I'd have to patch it back together with scotch tape. The weight of the tape on the reel was probably greater than the weight of the movie! So I was inspired by all that, and what NASA had done. I never thought, “Hey, this is a career that I can pursue” because I just didn't think it was within the realm of possibility. It wasn't until later, near the end of my time as an undergraduate, that I began to think that maybe this is something that was possible. So if you'd asked me when I was in high school in NJ what I was going to be when I grew up, I would have said maybe a doctor, maybe an engineer, as I was definitely interested in science and technology – but I never would have said astronaut.
Garrett Reisman's official NASA astronaut portrait.

Currently in New Jersey and most parts of the Northeast, we’re seeing a focus politically on local issues, while the concept of national visions seems to be a legacy of the past. With that in mind, how can the space program sell itself in this political climate?

There will always remain desires as long as we remain human beings, inherent desires to explore and go further and further. No matter how much the local news is talking about fights with the teacher union versus local politicians or whatever the issue might be, there will still be a kid in the back yard looking up at the stars. That's never going to change. And I guess what it takes in the current fiscal environment to achieve some of those dreams and enable that exploration is a new way of doing business. We can't continue to spend the vast sums of money that we have in the past on space transportation without being a lot more cost effective in how we go about doing things. And that's why NASA has started this commercial space enterprise, looking to private companies like SpaceX to take the lead in transporting people off the planet.

Going forward in this post-space shuttle era, how much of the American space program will be or should be surviving on government funding?

Well, the government is the anchor tenant. So for us at SpaceX, as we're looking to develop a rocket to bring people into space, the people that are our prime customers are NASA astronauts. So what we're trying to do is develop a craft that can get NASA astronauts from Florida up to the International Space Station. SpaceX has its own skin in the game, where we're making our own investments, and that's something that's new – that's something you can do in a commercial contract with the government that the government hasn't been able to do in the past. So we're leveraging private investment, putting private money up as matching funds to the government investment and we're achieving some tremendous results that way. So, for example, it cost us a total of $300 million to develop the Falcon 9 rocket, from a blank sheet of paper – no manufacturing capability, no launch pad, nothing at all – to the first flight of this rocket. Of that $300 million, roughly half of it came from NASA and half of it from private investment, our venture capitalists who have invested in SpaceX. So for $300 million, only half of which was government funds, we developed and flew this rocket. Now NASA and the air force have a cost model, where they estimate what it would cost to develop a rocket like the Falcon 9, and when they ran that model putting in all the data that represents the Falcon 9, they came up with a cost estimate of $4 billion to do that. And that is not a surprise – that is what it's cost in the past. So we're talking about $300 million, only half of which came from taxpayers compared to $4 billion, which is how we've done business up to now. So that's what I meant before when I said that the old way of doing things has got to change. We don't have the luxury of throwing that kind of money away any more – not when every single aspect of the federal budget's being gone through with a fine-toothed comb.
Garrett Reisman speaks with the media at the SpaceX facilities near Kennedy Space Center in July, 2011. Behind Reisman is the successfully flown Dragon capsule, the foundation for SpaceX efforts going forward.

Early in the run up to the next year’s presidential elections, we've seen several candidates bring up NASA as a topic – and sometimes a target – in debates. Do you think NASA is something that can conveniently be supported or criticized depending on which way the political winds are blowing?

Oh, absolutely. NASA, as an agency, is facing a bunch of cuts just like every other federal agency. But at the same time, there's this widespread... I would almost say despondency, or a lot of doom and gloom, anyway, about the end of the space shuttle program. So we just launched the last space shuttle, a week from today it's going to land, and that's going to be it – no more ability for the United States to launch people into space. We'll have lost that capability. And the only part of NASA's budget that's being spent on doing anything about that is the Commercial Crew program. The president requested $850 million for the next fiscal year to work on this and to do something about getting Americans back into space on American rockets and stop paying the Russians $53 million per seat to get our guys up to the space station. So the president requested $850 million, the Congress, in their authorization bill last year, said, OK, $500 million. So they cut it down to $500 million. And now in the most recent appropriations bill that just went to the house this week, it got cut down to $312 million. So we're talking about putting $312 million to do something about getting Americans back into space again, compared to NASA's  budget, which is, I think, $17 billion or so. So you're talking about a tiny, tiny percentage. So the same politicians that lament the fact that we're losing the space shuttle and our country can't put people into space anymore are also giving us virtually nothing to do anything about it.

Stay tuned for the second part of this conversation with Garrett Reisman...

Friday, October 21, 2011

Lost in Space with June Lockhart as Endeavour's New Home Becomes Official

Blogs are often based on personal experiences. Here at Aerospace Perceptions, though, I want to focus on sharing with people exciting developments in the realms of spaceflight and aerospace. But today, allow me to take a very personal trip back in time to Memphis, Tennessee, 1965.

Your host was enamored with the actual space program going on at that time: NASA’s Gemini flights were laying new paths into Earth orbit and Apollo was in sight. But as a kid, I couldn’t help but look to the future that I knew was coming. And part of that future was depicted in the CBS series Lost in Space, detailing the adventures throughout the galaxy of the Robinson family, stowaway Dr. Zachary Smith, and my favorite character, the Class M-3 Model B9, General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot. And yes, I had to Google that…

To me, the idea of flying around the universe in a flying-saucer-shaped spacecraft encountering aliens and seeing all sorts of amazing sights was exactly what spaceflight was all about. And though I enjoyed a kid’s life in Memphis – even seeing Elvis drive by while we rode our bikes to play under the real Memphis Belle B-17 bomber installed at the National Guard armory near the Memphis Fairgrounds – my mind was often on the heavens above.

The crew of the Jupiter 2 ready for action in their flight suits. Dr. Maureen Robinson, played by June Lockhart, appears second from left.

One day, we got huge news. June Lockhart – Dr. Maureen Robinson from Lost in Space – was actually in Memphis! In those more trusting times, the society page of the Commercial Appeal actually mentioned the family who was hosting her. I don’t recall if they also listed the address, or if we looked it up in the phone book, but later that sunny afternoon three ten-year-olds were wheeling their way into a strange – and quite wealthy - neighborhood. Having located the coordinates, we headed uphill, following a long, winding driveway.

Playing Dr. Maureen Robinson was certainly a more exciting role than that of the mom on Lassie!

We arrived outside a big garage and a back door to the huge house. Bikes parked, we boldly walked up to the door. It was opened by woman, obviously a servant at the house. "Hi, we’re here to see June Lockhart!" She looked surprised, but then smiled and as gently as possible told us that we weren’t really welcome there, and that June Lockhart was elsewhere at the moment. Dejected, we returned to our bikes. And at that very moment, a large car navigated the driveway and came to a stop by us. Several people got out, but we only saw one: June Lockhart, radiant in a white dress, her red hair fashionably styled in a complex arrangement. We immediately surrounded her, and I’m happy to say she was delighted to meet us – or at least she acted like she was. She asked us how in the world we managed to find her, laughing at our account. And, of course, she charmed us with some brief tales about her adventures in space. We rode off minutes later in a state of ecstasy, and I still have the autograph she personalized for me that warm, late afternoon. It was the greatest celebrity encounter of my Memphis years – except possibly for meeting Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. But that’s a topic for another day, and more appropriate for my music blog!

It's official: Endeavour is a resident of Los Angeles. Photo by Gene Blevins/LA Daily News.

This long-ago day came to mind when, on Tuesday, October 18, the official "ownsership" title of the Space Shuttle Endeavour was transferred to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Appropriately, the commander of the STS-134 final flight of Endeavour was on hand, Mark Kelly, along with members of his crew. But there was another special guest there, one who helped fire the spaceflight imagination of impressionable ten-year-olds more than four decades before: the lovely June Lockhart.

June Lockhart and Mark Kelly discuss their adventures in space, at the California Science Center on October 18, 2011. Photo by Gene Blevins/LA Daily News.

There's no question that Endeavour was a great spacecraft, traveling over 122,000,000 miles in its 299 flights into space. But I’m willing to bet June covered millions more than that in the Jupiter 2 – even if it was science fiction.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A new blog’s first flight: defining astronauts

What an incredible time to begin a blog about the world of aerospace!

After decades ranked as the preeminent force in manned spaceflight, the United States finds itself sitting in a vacuum, with no alternative to purchasing seats on the relatively low-tech Russian Soyuz rocket-and-spacecraft combination to carry its astronauts to low Earth orbit.

While some minds are boggled by that fact, in truth the Soyuz has a long history servicing the International Space Station. In fact, the first crew to thunder away from Earth for a stint serving aboard the ISS did so aboard a Soyuz in November 2000.

Still, it's clear that it will be a period of years - “the gap,” as NASA astronauts refer to it – before a rocket bearing a human crew will climb uphill from a launch on United States soil.

Exactly which rocket that crew will be using to attain orbit is yet to be determined. As NASA doles out funding to multiple flight contenders in its Commercial Crew Development stimulus program, it's far from certain who will emerge as the first commercial venture to send humans to orbit.

While that's a topic for future editions of this blog – and we'll be taking a look at one of those contenders in the near future – this is an excellent time to recognize a fundamental shift in manned spaceflight at a personal level.

Who would you rather venture into space with, a cool, calm, professional John Glenn or a somewhat disheveled Yaphet Kotto, as seen in the film Alien?

All of us have a mental image of what a NASA crew looks like. From the classic impressions of the Mercury 7 - “can do” attitude oozing from every pore, conservative jackets and ties topped by hair that was barely there - all the way to Space Shuttle Atlantis' STS-135 final crew, NASA astronauts render a crisp, finely-honed charisma.

And now think of the fictional crew from the movie Alien: dirty, unshaven, not anyone's idea of heroic in their mining ventures in space. OK, the crew of the Nostromo was dealing with an extremely hostile stowaway entity, but still – even before John Hurt unwillingly ingested the alien infant - it was obvious that a clean cut professional appearance was not at the top of this crew’s list of day-to-day concerns.

And yet, “the gap” may be offering us the first peek at a coming redefinition of our perceptions of “astronauts.” In the immediate future, some aspects of spaceflight will be taking take the first small steps toward becoming working class.

While NASA talks of the deep space capability of its Space Launch System and the Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle – bound for asteroids, Mars and beyond! - the companies fighting it out for the CCDev program seed money are trying to do nothing more than get astronauts into low Earth orbit and service the ISS.

You've probably seen images or video of the interior of the ISS – a maze of air ducting and circuitry that looks anything but glamorous. And that's where we are – reaching a point where work in low Earth orbit is becoming just that: work.

A question from your blog host, an answer from Dr. Sandy Magnus, as we talk career paths during the STS-135 post-landing press conference, Kennedy Space Center, July 21, 2011.

The morning Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center to conclude both the STS-135 mission and the space shuttle program, I had an opportunity to ask crew member Dr. Sandy Magnus if she thought we were nearing the point where the job description for “astronaut” might start branching off into two specific directions: explorer versus worker.

“Yes, I think that’s a conceivable idea,” she acknowledged. “Because as you get more access to low Earth orbit, of course the scope of missions possible increases, and so that would require a whole different type of skill set. So it becomes… I hate to say this, but it becomes kind of less of an exploration and more of a utilization, whereas the deep space missions are more of an exploration flavor and that requires different skill sets. So I think, just as when the shuttle came online, you saw an expansion of the types of opportunities available for people – we now needed scientists and medical doctors and a wider variety of skill sets for that – I think you’ll see the same thing here during this transition. So every little leap broadens the possibilities for people to go to space.”

So it seems that the astronauts themselves are aware that making a choice in the career path they follow may soon be a necessity.

How the public will perceive these redefinitions in the years to come obviously remains to be seen. But without public enthusiasm, NASA will, as always, find the funding of its manned exploration programs to be a huge challenge. And with the commercial spaceflight companies in the shaky business of trying to make money in space, it’s likely that we'll be depending on NASA for the unprofitable exploration side of things for decades to come. In turn, NASA’s fortunes will depend on how well it plays the political game.

The commander of the STS-135 final flight of Atlantis, Chris Ferguson (left), meets the press at Kennedy Space Center on the evening of May 31, 2011 as the final shuttle is moved to Pad 39A. He's joined by crewmates Doug Hurley, Sandy Magnus, and Rex Walheim. Keeping the public interested as the United States space program enters "the gap" was definitely on Ferguson's mind.

Weeks before the final liftoff of Atlantis, I asked Commander Chris Ferguson about all these challenges.

“We find out that sometimes when the space program ends up on the front page now it’s because we’ve had a problem,” he admitted. “And we certainly don’t want to be famous for problems, so how do you keep it in the forefront and keep young men and women interested in space? And that’s a challenge, because largely NASA is a victim of its own success.

“When we continue to do the same thing over and over again and make it look easy, suddenly it doesn’t become… it’s no longer front page news,” he continued. “I think the way to do that now is to just keep pushing forward and do those things that intrigue people. Maybe they’ll say, ‘My goodness, NASA is now going beyond low Earth orbit, they’re going to an asteroid, they’re going back to the moon.” I think it’s important to constantly keep it moving forward and keep it fresh... I think it’s important for NASA to keep its mission clear and focused and fresh. And I think we’re going to see that as we go beyond low Earth orbit again, hopefully within the next seven or eight years.”

So what do you think? Is the career of “astronaut” at a crossroads? Will space work ever become a “blue collar” profession? And how long will it take for work in space to become common – and will that hurt interest in exploration? Your comments, please...