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Friday, April 28, 2023

The Great Divide

Like most people with an interest in spaceflight, I watched SpaceX’s launch of a Starship vehicle on April 20. Following up on that liftoff, yesterday I had an opportunity for an in-depth viewing of the events from that day, courtesy of the Everyday Astronaut website, which has crafted an excellent collection of launch angles gathered into a single video. It’s a 14-minute portrait of the doomed flight of – I’m sure you can say it with me by now – “the most powerful rocket ever launched!”

From a safe distance the liftoff of SpaceX’s first Starship vehicle appears to be a nearly serene spectacle. Photo: SpaceX

My reactions during this granular viewing of the new video were not much different than my feelings witnessing the initial launch video stream. From the prolonged pad blasting hurling debris and an oddly drifting liftoff to the destruction of the vehicle after control was ultimately lost, any sense of wonder was suppressed somewhat by a series of “That doesn’t look right…” and “Is that supposed to do that?” moments.

One of the more obvious “that doesn’t look right” moments of the Starship launch, as numerous engines in the Super Heavy first stage assembly appear to have not ignited or have failed. Screen grab: SpaceX Video

In the days since the Starship’s short-lived and explosive flight, there has been a lot of scorching debate over the development methodologies of both NASA and SpaceX. I’m optimistic that there are people cheering on all spaceflight developments - no matter the source - as a silent majority. But there has been no shortage of hot-headed vitriol publicly expressed in the wake of the Starship’s ascension, perhaps inevitably reflecting the kind of divisiveness now characterizing American society.

Many people on one side criticize NASA for swallowing massive outlays of government funding in service of what they perceive to be a plodding pace of progress. The agency’s supporters point to last year’s first unmanned mission of the Space Launch System, one that successfully sent the massive vehicle and its Artemis payload into orbit, followed by a lengthy excursion to the moon where numerous orbital exercises were achieved before a successful return to Earth. Striking back, critics bizarrely lambast SLS for its dependence on older, proven engine technology, as if pulling off what was essentially an incredibly complex proof-of-concept lunar mission should not really count.

SpaceX, on the other hand, is often judged by rapid progress that many believe is measured in the outcome of “try it and see what happens” moments. The attitude is personified by Elon Musk’s April 14 tweet: “Success maybe, excitement guaranteed.” It’s an approach that has drawn the passionate support of a huge SpaceX fan base, with a disturbing undercurrent bearing cheers for the megalomaniac musings of the erratic, polarizing Musk.

Food for debate: if Starship was a NASA program, would a flight at this development stage ever have been attempted?

A SpaceX Starship is envisioned as the lunar landing vehicle for NASA’s Artemis program, carrying astronauts from orbit around the moon to the surface. Conceptual Image: SpaceX

Regardless, SpaceX and NASA are locked in as partners in the exploration of our solar system and the ramping up of ambitions for manned spaceflight, dependent on each other. One can only hope that the serious working relationships necessary among both entity’s branches of administration, science, and engineering are shielded from the hot keyboard conflicts being waged by the public on social media battlefields.


Starship launch video collated by Everyday Astronaut:

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

A Change in the Game

A favorite pastime at Aerospace Perceptions headquarters involves breaking out the big telephoto lens (no, the really big one!) and hoping for the right weather and sun conditions to allow photography of United States Air Force refueling operations taking place 26,000 feet overhead. An array of KC-135 Stratotanker, KC-46 Pegasus, and the soon-to-be-retired KC-10 Extender have all been spotted in the skies directly above, providing fuel to thirsty F-15 and F-16 aircraft on patrol. But in the future, the parameters behind such operations may well be very different, with a fundamental change in the game.

Refueling complete, an F-15 banks away from a USAF KC-10 Extender. Photo: Frank Moriarty/Aerospace Perceptions 

Recently Airbus Defense and Space announced they have taken major steps toward Autonomous Air-to-Air refueling as focus continues to hone in the usage of unmanned aircraft in addition to traditional vehicles. In one test over the Gulf of Cadiz off the shores of Spain, an Airbus A310 MRTT jet tanker interacted with a DT-25 unmanned drone. Control of the drone transitioned from ground control to the airborne tanker, which autonomously directed the DT-25 into position for refueling. Although no fuel was transferred from the tanker to the drone, the operation acted as a proof of concept for the development of autonomous fuel transfer while in flight.

Airbus A310 MRTT in the process of taking a major step toward autonomous refueling. Photo: Airbus 

 “The success of this first flight-test campaign paves the way for developing autonomous and unmanned air-to-air refueling technologies,” said Jean Brice Dumont, Head of Military Air Systems at Airbus Defense and Space, in comments provided by Airbus. “Even though we are at an early stage, we have achieved this within just one year and are on the right track for manned-unmanned teaming and future air force operations where fighters and mission aircraft will fly jointly with drone swarms.”

The full Airbus press release can be found at this link:

Video of the operation is viewable via YouTube:

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Hubble Vision

Thirty-three years ago today, I found myself once again in Florida wondering if I’d ever see a space shuttle launch. Despite making several long-haul trips to Kennedy Space Center, the temperamental technological complexity of the Space Transportation System had rewarded me with nothing but disappointment.

On this trip, three days earlier, I’d once again stood on the turf of the press site at KSC, anxiously watching the famed countdown clock descend to just four minutes before Discovery was due to loft the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit on mission STS-31. And that was the moment when the clock froze, technicians discovering a faulty valve in an auxiliary power unit.

STS-31 flight crew logo reflecting Discovery’s precious cargo, the Hubble Space Telescope. Image: NASA

Two weeks later, on April 24, 1990, I was back in the shadow of the massive Vehicle Assembly Building, the countdown clock again making its agonizing journey down to main engine start and the moment of ascension when the Solid Rocket Boosters kicked in. We sailed past the four-minute mark, down to one minute, watching each second pass, 33, 32, 31… Wait, still 31? The clock is stopped at 31? A recalcitrant valve was the culprit this time, but the issue was quickly resolved. The countdown resumed, Discovery came alive with a surge upwards at zero, and I witnessed one of the greatest aerospace sights I could possibly imagine.

My view from the Kennedy Space Center press site as Discovery hauls the Hubble Space Telescope “uphill” into orbit. Recorded, of course, on film. Photo: Frank Moriarty/Aerospace Perceptions

Though I returned to KSC numerous times over the decades that followed, and covered STS-135 Atlantis as that mission brought the Space Shuttle program to a close, I remain envious of my fellow media members for whom witnessing spaceflight is a regular occurrence.

Still, it was a privilege to attend the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, a payload that would have a seismic impact upon astronomy and our understanding of the vast realms that surround our solar system.

But now, with the successful launch and 2022 implementation of the new James Webb Space Telescope, the question becomes: what now for Hubble?

The Hubble Space Telescope at work, photographed May 19, 2009 – the last time the telescope had visitors. Photo: NASA

Already the subject of several technically challenging servicing missions – most recently in 2009 – Hubble is confronting the spacecraft mortality that most objects in orbit inevitably confront. Though Hubble will continue to contribute to science into the 2030s, the telescope’s orbit is slowly decaying.

In 2017 Sierra Nevada Corporation proposed utilization of their Dream Chaser “space plane,” to be launched by an Atlas V and then returning to Earth to a gliding landing, much like the Space Shuttle. In between, a crew would service Hubble and prepare it for a renewed lifespan.

But it wasn’t until September 22, 2022, that concrete action was taken. On that date, NASA and SpaceX, in a partnership with its manned mission Polaris Program, announced a Space Act Agreement to look into the feasibility of using SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft “to boost the agency’s Hubble Space Telescope into a higher orbit with the Dragon spacecraft, at no cost to the government.” NASA was quick to caution in its release, “There are no plans for NASA to conduct or fund a servicing mission or compete this opportunity; the study is designed to help the agency understand the commercial possibilities.”

The SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour, photographed two years ago near the International Space Station. Could a Dragon play a role in extending the lifespan of Hubble? Photo: NASA

It was envisioned that gathering technical data and analyzing all aspects of this proposal to determine “whether it would be possible to safely rendezvous, dock, and move the telescope into a more stable orbit” would take roughly six months of study. Which means that at any time now, we could hear the results of this initial effort.

Although inevitably NASA will some day face the challenges of deorbiting or disposing of Hubble, if that final chapter can be held off for an additional period of decades in the name of science, the legacy of the Hubble Space Telescope will become even more remarkable.