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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:

Monday, March 25, 2013

It's more fun to compute...

In the late 1980s, I nearly moved to Florida to work for Lockheed Space Operations as a computer programmer working on Space Shuttle systems at Kennedy Space Center. Though a position was targeted for me, a government budget reduction led to that position and others being eliminated – and I dodged a big bullet of landing in Titusville FL only to become immediately unemployed.

State of the 1960s IT art: an Apollo Guidance Computer.

Having remained in the Information Technology realm, I’ve always been interested in the programming and technology aspects of spaceflight. When you consider that the onboard computers of the Apollo program look nearly prehistoric compared to an iPhone, it becomes apparent how so many of today's space exploration wonders are possible.

Linux into orbit: the SpaceX Dragon at the International Space Station.

Aerospace Perceptions has mentioned the efforts of SpaceX numerous times, and with their Dragon spacecraft scheduled to return to Earth just after noon tomorrow after a successful re-supply mission to the International Space Station, the company’s IT folk are surely working flat out. Many people imagine giant rooms of supercomputers when they think of spaceflight, but having visited SpaceX’s Launch Control Center operation in Florida, the center is essentially nothing more glamorous than typical PC workstations you might see in any office. And despite the exotic nature of spaceflight, the central concerns of SpaceX will sound familiar to anyone who works in IT: project management, logging of performance and defects, etc.

The deliverables may be extraordianry, but the infrastructure is standard-issue.

For all of you tech heads out there, here are two articles you may want to read in-depth. One contrasts the Apollo Guidance Computers compared to today’s technology, and the other is a detailed Linux look into SpaceX’s IT efforts used in almost every aspect of their spaceflight operations:

Friday, March 1, 2013

Stress testing marriage - the Martian way

This morning SpaceX took another step toward proving the validity of commercial space ventures with the latest launch of its Falcon rocket bearing the Dragon capsule. This is the firm’s second International Space Station resupply mission, and with each success SpaceX’s plans for manned missions grow nearer.

The SpaceX “garage” is the low building to the right in this image from this morning’s launch.

I toured the SpaceX facility at Cape Canaveral when I was covering the final Space Shuttle mission, and it’s efficiency is refreshing. Essentially, the prepared Falcon is towed out of garage-like facility a short distance to the launch pad, raised upright, fueled, and launched. There is a slight feel of, “Hey gang – let’s have a rocket launch!” But SpaceX have proven their functional model delivers results.
If the SpaceX approach comes across as no-frills, the description may be redefined by Inspiration Mars.

Official Inspiration Mars imagery.

Inspiration Mars is an initiative headed by Dennis Tito. The one-time NASA worker and current multimillionaire became the first “space tourist” a dozen years ago when he paid the Russians for passage to the International Space Station. But that Low Earth Orbit jaunt is nothing compared to what’s on his new agenda. If Tito and his team succeed with their development program, in five years a married couple will be on their way to a rendezvous with Mars.
While the Inspiration Mars vehicle will not join NASA’s Curiosity rover on the planet surface – the complexity of a landing will be dealt with in the future – the mission is designed to inspire future exploration and to present interplanetary exploration as a reality within our reach.

Artist Conception of the Inspiration Mars mission passing the Red Planet in August 2018.

Taking advantage of planetary alignments advantageous to a Martian visit, the mission is planned for a launch on January 5, 2018, passing by Mars at a 100-mile distance eight months later. Return to Earth would come in May, 2019.
Technical challenges? Certainly. But to me the most daunting aspect is life on the flight. I’ve flown cheap coach to Europe several times, so I can deal with no frills – but for hours, not months. Inspiration Mars demands a couple co-exist in a 600-square-foot inflated habitation module for a period of 18 months. Resource consumption must be kept to a minimum, luxuries virtually nonexistent. Mission planners believe a scientifically-oriented couple stands the best chance of succeeding as a crew.
In 2010 and 2011 six volunteers spent 520 days confined in a simulated space habitat near Moscow. With the lack of daily human rhythms and simple light cycles, the volunteers had difficulty sleeping and lost interest in fitness. Add in the stress of actual spaceflight, and it could turn out that the biggest obstacle to a Martian mission may be human rather than technological.
Regardless, Inspiration Mars should be fascinating to follow in the months to come.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Event Horizon 2013

Yes, technically “event horizon” is a spacetime boundary associated with gravitational pull around objects like black holes. But I’ve empowered myself to adapt it as a description of what’s on the horizon in the year to come, especially with regard to pending developments in manned U.S. spaceflight and exploration.
Last year was the first in recent memory in which no United States astronauts ascended to the heavens from a launch based in their home country. While we are in “the gap,” as this dependent-on-foreign-launch-resources period is informally known, anxious eyes in the U.S. are turned toward the progress of the CCDev (Commercial Crew Development) initiative.
Progress may seem to be slow in coming, but the four main CCDev players – Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX – all have an active year planned.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket boosts the Dragon capsule into orbit in May, 2012.

Boasting what is likely the highest public profile, SpaceX successfully flew an unmanned supply mission to the International Space Station in 2012. But a manned flight increases the complexity of the vehicle. The company plans to conduct crew-escape testing – both on the ground and in powered flight at maximum aerodynamic pressure – later this year. And SpaceX’s second ISS supply mission could take place as soon as next month.
Blue Origin conducted its own such ground-based escape system test late last year, pushing a capsule mock-up over 2000 feet in altitude and safely landing the vehicle by parachute. The company, founded by billionaire Jeff Bezos, continues toward the goal of developing rocket-powered Vertical Takeoff and Vertical Landing (VTVL) vehicles for access to suborbital and orbital space. Their newest engine, designated the BE-3, is expected to be test fired in a matter of days. And though the company is not participating in the latest stage of the CCDev program as it applies specifically to manned spaceflight development, they are obviously a significant and well-funded presence.
Boeing continues to develop detailed systems for its CST-100 spacecraft, planned to reach orbit via the reliable Atlas V rocket.

A full-size mockup of the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser.

Also eventually planned to be boosted spaceward via Atlas V is Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser. An unmanned glide test of the stubby-winged vehicle is planned to take place within weeks at Edwards Air Force Base.

On Jan. 10, 2013, the Saturn V F-1 gas generator completed a 20-second hot-fire test. Engineers are completing a series of tests at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

While these four corporate entities focus on the growing economic potential of manned commercial flight, manned space exploration remains NASA’s domain. In 2013, the space agency has been delving into a bit of “back to the future” research by studying the firing of Saturn V engine systems – the very technology used to carry NASA’s astronauts to the moon four decades ago. This is part of the foundation work for the Space Launch System, the planned future of manned exploration. This new generation spacecraft will require more thrust than is available in current boosters. Flight control tests of avionics for these new boosters are underway, with thrust control system tests taking place last week.
Finally, while not currently participating in the official manned flight efforts of CCDev, Orbital Sciences Corporation, planning the first launches of its Antares launch vehicle and Cygnus spacecraft, is an important presence. Orbital is currently focused on unmanned ISS supply missions, with a demonstration flight into orbit coming as soon as April. While SpaceX initiates its flights to the ISS from Florida, Orbital’s launch base is coastal Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.
All in all, the horizon for 2013 boasts a number of events that should reflect positive spaceflight developments.

Return to action...

There are few things sadder on the Internet than a blog that’s fallen into inactivity, digital cobwebs hanging from that distant date in the past when the content was last updated…

Well, as Patti Smith exclaimed upon her return to the stage after breaking her neck in a fall: “Out of traction, back in action!”
My blog silence was not the result of a medical condition (fortunately!). Instead, I had the opportunity to focus on one area of my range of interests, and it demanded full attention. So I’ve spent much of the last nine months living in the past while working on the music of my band of the 1980s, Informed Sources. This effort ranged from mixing studio multitrack tapes and preparing for a commercial release to practicing and playing a one-off show in Philadelphia. And, of course, there was the creation of a Web site:
But after all those weeks playing the roles of recording engineer, art director, sales manager, web developer, publicist, logistics coordinator – oh, and guitarist! – it’s time to end the hiatus and dust off these blogs.
Keyboard, computer, action!