Quotulatiousness

September 17, 2014

SpaceX and Boeing get NASA funding for 2017 deadline

Filed under: Business, Space, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:11

In Ars Technica, John Timmer reports on the NASA decision to fund two of the three competitors for manned launches to the ISS:

Today, NASA administrator Charles Bolden announced that there were two winners in the campaign to become the first company to launch astronauts to low-Earth orbit: Boeing and SpaceX. The two will receive contracts that total $6.8 billion dollars to have hardware ready for a 2017 certification — a process that will include one crewed flight to the International Space Station (ISS).

In announcing the plan, Bolden quoted President Obama in saying, “The greatest nation on earth should not be dependent on any other nation to get to space.” And he promoted the commercial crew program as a clear way of ending a reliance on Russian launch vehicles to get to the ISS. But Bolden and others at the press conference were also looking beyond that; several speakers, including Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana and astronaut Mike Fincke, mentioned that the ultimate goal is Mars.

To that end, Bolden emphasized that NASA is still doing its own vehicle and rocket development. The Orion crew capsule, intended to be suitable for missions deeper into the Solar System, recently underwent a splashdown test in the Pacific. Its first test flight aboard a Delta IV rocket is scheduled for this December. Work on the Space Launch System, a heavy lift vehicle that can transport the additional hardware needed for deep space missions, was also mentioned.

September 6, 2014

P.J. O’Rourke on what’s wrong with modern rocket ships

Filed under: Humour, Space, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 12:10

From his post at The Daily Beast:

I was in the passenger seat of a small rocket ship when I realized what’s wrong space travel these days: I can’t do it yet. I’m still flying on pokey old Boeings for six hours from Boston to LA. The trip would take 15 minutes at 17,500 mph low earth orbit speed.

Also, rocket ships don’t fly. Or they don’t properly fly the way the rocket ships of Buck Rogers and Captain Video did. Buck and the Captain could use a hayfield with a windsock. A modern rocket blast-off produces so much shockwave commotion that the nearest safe viewpoint at Cape Canaveral is eight miles from the launch pad. That puts the Starbucks a long way from the gate when your rocket ship’s final boarding announcement is made.

Plus current rockets lack anything resembling Buck Rogers’ style. They look like evil corn silos or upright storm sewers or a trio of escaped steroidal church organ pipes wearing party hats.

Furthermore, at the moment, there’s no such thing as a small rocket ship.

The first rocket to reach space, the Nazi V-2 (which transported people only in the sense of transporting them to the next life) was 45 feet high and weighed 27,600 pounds. The 363-foot Saturn V used for the Apollo moon landing was 52 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty and almost 15 times her weight. And Lady L, tipping the scales at 225 tons, is no Mary-Kate Olsen. Now NASA is building a new Space Launch System (SLS) that’s even bigger.

All my rocket ship disappointments are the result of there not being enough private companies like XCOR Aerospace. I learned this at the Space Foundation’s annual Colorado Springs Space Symposium exhibit hall, where there was a full-scale mock-up of XCOR’s Lynx that I sat in.

The Lynx’s 30-foot fuselage and 24-foot wingspan would fit in a McMansion garage. And it’s as prettier than anything a rich car collector has in there now.

August 1, 2014

Old and busted – “I cannae change the laws of physics”?

Filed under: Science, Space — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:02

Call me an old fogey, but I’ve always believed in the law of conservation of momentum … yet a recent NASA finding — if it holds up — may bring me around:

Nasa is a major player in space science, so when a team from the agency this week presents evidence that “impossible” microwave thrusters seem to work, something strange is definitely going on. Either the results are completely wrong, or Nasa has confirmed a major breakthrough in space propulsion.

British scientist Roger Shawyer has been trying to interest people in his EmDrive for some years through his company SPR Ltd. Shawyer claims the EmDrive converts electric power into thrust, without the need for any propellant by bouncing microwaves around in a closed container. He has built a number of demonstration systems, but critics reject his relativity-based theory and insist that, according to the law of conservation of momentum, it cannot work.

[...]

    “Test results indicate that the RF resonant cavity thruster design, which is unique as an electric propulsion device, is producing a force that is not attributable to any classical electromagnetic phenomenon and therefore is potentially demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma.”

This last line implies that the drive may work by pushing against the ghostly cloud of particles and anti-particles that are constantly popping into being and disappearing again in empty space. But the Nasa team has avoided trying to explain its results in favour of simply reporting what it found: “This paper will not address the physics of the quantum vacuum plasma thruster, but instead will describe the test integration, test operations, and the results obtained from the test campaign.”

The drive’s inventor, Guido Fetta calls it the “Cannae Drive”, which he explains as a reference to the Battle of Cannae in which Hannibal decisively defeated a much stronger Roman army: you’re at your best when you are in a tight corner. However, it’s hard not to suspect that Star Trek‘s Engineer Scott — “I cannae change the laws of physics” — might also be an influence. (It was formerly known as the Q-Drive.)

July 21, 2014

NASA’s “random mode”

Filed under: Bureaucracy, History, Space, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:55

Robert Zubrin identifies two different modes of operation practiced by NASA since 1961:

Over the course of its life, NASA has employed two distinct modes of operation. The first prevailed during the period from 1961 to 1973, and may therefore be called the Apollo Mode. The second, prevailing since 1974, may usefully be called the Random Mode.

In the Apollo Mode, business is conducted as follows. First, a destination for human space flight is chosen. Then a plan is developed to achieve the objective. Following this, technologies and designs are developed to implement the plan. These designs are then built, after which the mission is flown.

The Random Mode operates entirely differently. In this mode, technologies and hardware elements are developed in accord with the wishes of various technical communities. These projects are then justified by arguments that they might prove useful at some time in the future when grand flight projects are once again initiated.

Contrasting these two approaches, we see that the Apollo Mode is destination-driven, while the Random Mode pretends to be technology-driven but is actually constituency-driven. In the Apollo Mode, technology development is done for mission-directed reasons. In the Random Mode, projects are undertaken on behalf of various internal and external technical-community pressure groups and then defended using rationales (not reasons). In the Apollo Mode, the space agency’s efforts are focused and directed. In the Random Mode, NASA’s efforts are scatterbrained and entropic.

Imagine two couples, each planning to build their own house. The first couple decides what kind of house they want, hires an architect to design it in detail, then acquires the appropriate materials to build it. That is the Apollo Mode. The second couple canvasses their neighbors each month for different spare house-parts they would like to sell, and buys them all, hoping to eventually accumulate enough stuff to build a house. When their relatives inquire as to why they are accumulating so much junk, they hire an architect to compose a house design that employs all the miscellaneous items they have purchased. The house is never built, but an adequate excuse is generated to justify each purchase, thereby avoiding embarrassment. That is the Random Mode.

NASA had an overriding mission from 1961 to 1974: the moon program. Almost all of its resources were devoted to that goal, and it was achieved. Then bureausclerosis set in, politics took over, and we left the moon (so far, for good). If the future of mankind is in space, it’s unlikely that NASA will be a significant part of that future (unless you count its role in working to hold back private enterprise from getting involved on NASA’s “turf” (can I call it “astroturf” in this context?)).

A few mitigating words for the late Senator Proxmire

Filed under: Government, History, Politics, Space, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:35

Many of you won’t even remember the heyday of Senator William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece awards: his personal choices for the worst public spending boondoggles each year. Most space enthusiasts remember him for his adamant opposition to NASA (for which he could never possibly be forgiven). As an early supporter of the space program, I thought Proxmire was a terrible man and that we’ve have had a much bigger, better space program without him. He left the senate in 1989 and died in 2005, so I’d almost completely forgotten about him until I saw this article in the latest Libertarian Enterprise by Jeff Fullerton:

The things I discover while googling for things. Such as in my efforts to substantiate that Senator Proxmire quote: Not a penny for this nutty fantasy for my previous article. Found an online version of the newsletter of the old L5 Society [PDF]; a space colony advocate group that was around back in the late 70s. Which was sort of a trip down Memory Lane. Remember seeing them on Phil Donahue’s show circa 1980. It’s kind of sad when you look at something like this on the boulevard of broken dreams. But also at times amusing.

Darth Proxmire?

The man space enthusiasts loved to hate like J.R. from Dallas! He was definitely the sort of villain that could grow on you!

The name Proxmire sounds Germanic — but he was no Werner Von Braun — his mindset was typical for the down to Earth culture of the Midlands and being a Wisconsin democrat, he surely had solid connections in Madison — the regional snake pit of Progressivism. Yet he was a conservative democrat — as in fiscal conservative being he gave his “Golden Fleece Awards” to many federal projects that really were an atrocious waste of tax dollars. His disdain for the space program may have stemmed in part from populist disdain for technology — I remember SF writers like Ben Bova and others calling him a Luddite — and that sort of thing was politically fashionable in those days (often referred to as a knee-jerk reaction) so part of his reason for jumping onto the anti-space bandwagon may have been a political calculation. Some of it was probably born of a zero sum mentality that was also vogue at the time. A few space advocates wrote funny editorials about converting Proxmire to supporting space exploration and colonization by finding a way to turn butter into rocket fuel — being that the Senator’s primary constituency were Wisconsin dairy farmers!

[...]

As for William Proxmire — I can’t be too hard on him anymore. Especially when you consider all that NASA has done to thwart any hope of establishing human settlements beyond Earth. At best a lack of vision being the space agency had long ago lost its mojo and is nothing like it was in its early days when could actually meet the challenge of JFK’s vision of putting boots on the moon in a decade — as opposed to shrugging and saying “maybe in three decades”? At best they are slow walking because NASA is much like the establishment of the Republican Party that sometimes talks “small government” but is in no hurry to deliver on it. And worst of all — NASA seems to have an ideological agenda aimed at preventing the colonization of space deeply entrenched within the bureaucracy and the story is the same within most other federal agencies and institutions.

Wikipedia (not traditionally staffed by fans of small government) has this to say about Proxmire’s legislative career:

He was an early, outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. He frequently criticized Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon for their conduct of the war and foreign policy decisions. He used his seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee to spotlight wasteful military spending and was instrumental in stopping frequent military pork barrel projects. His Golden Fleece Award was created to focus media attention on projects he felt were self-serving and wasted taxpayer dollars. He was also head of the campaign to cancel the American supersonic transport. Despite his support of budgetary restraint in other areas, he normally sided with dairy interests and was a proponent of dairy price supports.

[...]

Proxmire was famous for issuing his Golden Fleece Award, which identified what he considered wasteful government spending, between 1975 and 1988. The first was awarded in 1975 to the National Science Foundation, for funding an $84,000 study on why people fall in love. Other Golden Fleece awards over the years were “awarded” to the Justice Department for conducting a study on why prisoners wanted to get out of jail, the National Institute of Mental Health to study a Peruvian brothel (“The researchers said they made repeated visits in the interests of accuracy,” reported the New York Times), and the Federal Aviation Administration, for studying “the physical measurements of 432 airline stewardesses, paying special attention to the ‘length of the buttocks.'” Proxmire stopped numerous science and academic projects which were, in his opinion, of dubious value.

Proxmire’s critics claimed that some of his awards went to basic science projects that led to important breakthroughs, such as the Aspen Movie Map (though the Aspen Movie Map project did not receive the award). For example, Proxmire was criticized in 1987 for the Aspen Movie Map incident by author Stewart Brand, who accused Proxmire of recklessly attacking legitimate research for the crass purpose of furthering his own political career, with gross indifference as to whether his assertions were true or false as well as the long-term effects on American science and technology policy. Proxmire later apologized for several of those, including SETI.

[...]

Proxmire earned the unending enmity of space advocates and science fiction fandom for his opposition to space colonization, ultimately eliminating spending on said research from NASA’s budget. In response to a segment about space colonies run by the CBS program 60 Minutes, Proxmire stated that; “it’s the best argument yet for chopping NASA’s funding to the bone …. I say not a penny for this nutty fantasy”. Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven retaliated by writing the award-winning stories Death and the Senator, Fallen Angels, and The Return of William Proxmire. In a number of circles his name has become a verb, meaning to unfairly obstruct scientific research for political gain, as in “the project has been proxmired”.

June 27, 2014

QotD: The Iron Law of Bureaucracy

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

[I]n any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people:

    First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisors in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.

    Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself. Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.

The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization.

Jerry Pournelle, “The Iron Law of Bureaucracy”, Chaos Manor Special Reports, 2010-09-11.

May 14, 2014

Russia, the United States, and the ISS – an opening for SpaceX

Filed under: Europe, Space, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:48

Motherboard‘s Jason Koebler says that Russia’s threat to ban companies from shipping rocket engines to the US represents a great chance for SpaceX to cash in:

Russia just announced plans to shut down the International Space Station in 2020, and prohibited companies in the country from selling engines to Lockheed Martin and Boeing for military launch purposes. If this is more than just posturing, there’s at least one takeaway: SpaceX is about to get paid.

It was just a month ago that NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that Russia would never ban the United States from the ISS, and that his “contingency plan” for getting astronauts to and from the ISS was to continue working with Russia as normal until an American company is ready to fly manned flights to the ISS in roughly three years.

[...]

And that brings us to SpaceX. The company stands to gain greatly from both bits of news Rogozin announced today.

The company recently won (and then subsequently lost) an injunction to force the United States Air Force to compete for military satellite launch contracts. If Boeing and Lockheed Martin are blocked from buying Russian engines for their Atlas V and Delta IV from the other side (it’s worth noting that both countries have threatened to ban the companies from buying Russian engines), the Air Force once again has incentive to look at SpaceX as a legitimate option to launch military satellites.

The Air Force’s contract with the Boeing-Lockheed cooperative United Launch Alliance is worth roughly $70 billion through 2030 — SpaceX could potentially swoop in and take some of that amid the uncertainty.

April 14, 2014

SpaceX to test hover capability on next launch

Filed under: Space, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:25

In The Register, Brid-Aine Parnell explains what will be different about the next SpaceX launch to resupply the ISS:

NASA has said that SpaceX’s latest cargoship launch to the International Space Station will go ahead, despite a critical computer outage on the station, allowing the firm to test the craft’s hovering abilities.

[...]

The booster rocket that’s blasting the Dragon supply capsule into space is going to attempt to make a hovering soft landing after it’s disengaged and dropped back to Earth.

The spruced-up Falcon 9 has its own landing legs, which Elon Musk’s space tech company hopes will eventually make for precise set-downs on the surface of alien worlds. For this test though, the rocket will still be coming down over the ocean, just in case.

The launch is already a month late with its nearly 5,000 pounds of supplies and payloads, including VEGGIE, a new unit capable of growing salad vegetables for the ‘nauts to munch on. The ship was delayed from March after a ground-based radar system at Cape Canaveral was damaged.

November 24, 2013

QotD: Failure is always an option

Filed under: Quotations, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 11:59

The idea that “failure is not an option” is a fantasy version of how non-engineers should motivate engineers. That sentiment was invented by a screenwriter, riffing on an after-the-fact observation about Apollo 13; no one said it at the time. (If you ever say it, wash your mouth out with soap. If anyone ever says it to you, run.) Even NASA’s vaunted moonshot, so often referred to as the best of government innovation, tested with dozens of unmanned missions first, several of which failed outright.

Failure is always an option. Engineers work as hard as they do because they understand the risk of failure. And for anything it might have meant in its screenplay version, here that sentiment means the opposite; the unnamed executives were saying “Addressing the possibility of failure is not an option.”

Clay Shirky, Healthcare.gov and the Gulf Between Planning and Reality”, Shirky.com, 2013-11-19

July 28, 2013

Let’s go on a shuttle ride … on the outside of the booster

Filed under: Space, Technology, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 10:37

Published on 15 Mar 2012

From the upcoming Special Edition Ascent: Commemorating Space Shuttle DVD/BluRay by NASA/Glenn a movie from the point of view of the Solid Rocket Booster with sound mixing and enhancement done by the folks at Skywalker Sound. The sound is all from the camera microphones and not fake or replaced with foley artist sound. The Skywalker sound folks just helped bring it out and make it more audible.

H/T to Anthony Watts for the link.

May 13, 2013

Space Oddity … performed in space

Filed under: Cancon, Media, Space — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 07:59

International Space Station Commander, Chris Hadfield, performs a revised version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Seen in this video is the Larrivée Parlor guitar that has found it’s home on the ISS for the last decade. Chris has used this Parlor, the first guitar in space, to write and record the first musical recordings in space. Here at Larrivée we refer to Chris as “The Space Cowboy”.

Below is the original description as posted by Chris himself on his YouTube channel… enjoy.

Published on May 12, 2013

A revised version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, recorded by Commander Chris Hadfield on board the International Space Station.

With thanks to Emm Gryner, Joe Corcoran, Andrew Tidby and Evan Hadfield for all their hard work.

Update:

February 18, 2013

Chelyabinsk meteor provides impetus for enhanced detection network

Filed under: Space — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:11

Along with all the jokes about the meteor that streaked over Siberia last week, there has been some useful re-orientation of thought about the demonstrated need for better detection tools:

For decades, scientists have been on the lookout for killer objects from outer space that could devastate the planet. But warnings that they lacked the tools to detect the most serious threats were largely ignored, even as skeptics mocked the worriers as Chicken Littles.

No more. The meteor that rattled Siberia on Friday, injuring hundreds of people and traumatizing thousands, has suddenly brought new life to efforts to deploy adequate detection tools, in particular a space telescope that would scan the solar system for dangers.

A group of young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who helped build thriving companies like eBay, Google and Facebook has already put millions of dollars into the effort and saw Friday’s shock wave as a turning point in raising hundreds of millions more.

“Wouldn’t it be silly if we got wiped out because we weren’t looking?” said Edward Lu, a former NASA astronaut and Google executive who leads the detection effort. “This is a wake-up call from space. We’ve got to pay attention to what’s out there.”

Astronomers know of no asteroids or comets that pose a major threat to the planet. But NASA estimates that fewer than 10 percent of the big dangers have been discovered.

December 14, 2012

40 years ago today, man last walked on the moon

Filed under: History, Space, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:51

At sp!ked, Patrick West notes an under-observed anniversary:

It is a fine testament to NASA’s Apollo programme that of all the world-shaking events in living memory, men landing on the moon is the only one that doesn’t involve death. As Andrew Smith, author of Moon Dust (2006), notes, everyone remembers where they were when John F Kennedy was assassinated, Princess Diana died, or on 9/11. Most people, if they were alive at the time, also vividly recall when a man first walked on the moon on 20 July 1969.

Few, however, will remember what they were doing when the last man walked on the moon. That was 40 years ago today.

As he fired up the engines of Apollo 17‘s Lunar Module, Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, delivered a final message to the world: ‘America’s challenge has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And as we leave the moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return with peace and hope for all mankind.’ On this date, many of us lament that we haven’t gone back to the moon. Others won’t, citing the vast expense of this Cold War sideshow, equivalent to roughly $130 billion in today’s money.

We certainly aren’t likely to return to the moon in such cynical and pessimistic times, of Mayan prophecies, omens of economic stagnation and environmental catastrophe, Frankie Boyle misanthropy and books called Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit?. In other words, everything the Apollo programme didn’t represent. America’s race to the moon may have been partly a means of getting one over the Soviets, but it also embodied the spirit of adventure and progress, as encapsulated by Neil Armstrong’s first words from the moon.

October 29, 2012

The Dragon returns, bearing cargo

Filed under: Business, Space, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:37

At The Register, Brid-Aine Parnell reports on the mostly successful cargo delivery round-trip by SpaceX’s Dragon capsule:

The reusable cargoship dropped into the ocean yesterday evening around 250 miles off the coast of Mexico after resupplying the ISS and its crew. The Dragon was ferried to a port near Los Angeles where it will be prepped for its return to SpaceX’s test facility in Texas.

Some of the cargo brought back by the capsule is due to be returned to NASA in the next couple of days, including research samples from the station’s microgravity environment. The ship delivered 882 pounds of gear to the ISS, including scientific research and crew supplies. It returned with nearly twice that weight of stuff.

The mission was only a part-success, as the secondary objective was to launch a satellite for Orbcomm, but due to a malfunctioning engine in the launch phase, the satellite could not be placed in the correct orbit and was lost. Orbcomm is sticking with SpaceX for two more satellite launches in spite of this initial failure.

October 17, 2012

Elon Musk drops hints about next SpaceX development direction

Filed under: Space — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

Zach Rosenberg reports on the next big thing we can expect from SpaceX:

Launcher developer SpaceX has promised a new engine for a new rocket, larger than the Falcon 9 that NASA expects to become a mainstay of its Earth orbit operations.

Elon Musk, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who successfully parlayed the fortune he earned founding PayPal into launch systems developer SpaceX, said the new engine would not be based on the 160,000lb-thrust (712kN) Merlin 1 series that powers Falcon 9.

Musk said the new rocket, which he calls MCT, will be “several times” as powerful as the 1 Merlin series, and won’t use Merlin’s RP-1 fuel. Beyond adding that it will have “a very big core size”, he declined to elaborate, promising more details in “between one and three years”.

Musk declined to say what ‘MCT’ stands for, and declined to answer further questions on the project.

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