Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Still Lost In Space

My bottom line is that we have to have some kind of breakthroughs. What's needed is to create an environment to have breakthroughs and to try things that may seem illogical at first. ... When we're done with this, if it worked, could it lead right into flying the public? Could it be safe? I don't think that's been done to go to orbit. ~ Burt Rutan

What what's going on in the final frontier these day?

Atlantis survives. I don't know, but each successive mission looks more like a kindergarten fire drill than the last. Misbehaviing sensors on the pad that suddenly start working in time for launch, spacewalkers losing fasteners (which, at least, are smaller than spatulas), finding flotsam floating all around the ship, and through it all, Wayne Hale, Shuttle Program Manager, telling us over and over again not to worry, this stuff has always happened.

Well, Mr. Hale, if it has, how come nobody mentioned it?

To top it off, during the press conference the day all the stuff was found fluttering around the shuttle, Mr. Hale answered a question by saying, “You have to realize that this is still an experimental spacecraft.” (I'm going from memory here; he may have said “aircraft”). Let me see if I understand this: A spacecraft that's been in use for over twenty years is still experimental. So when does it become operational, Mr. Hale?

A reporter tried to bail him out by asking if they were seeing these things because they were looking at the ship “differently” now. Mr. Hale jumped on that one gratefully, saying that attention to these details showed that the lessons of Columbia had been learned.
Of course, if they had learned the lessons of Challenger, we might not have had to learn from Columbia.

Do you smell something? We can't leave this mission without a passing word to the ever-predictable Elektron oxygen generators. Basically, one of them isn't working. Evidently the Russians are no better at learning from mistakes than the Shuttle program is. Given the incredible number of problems encountered on Mir with these balky devices, one would think something would have been done. I guess the Russians are caught up in that “proven technology” nonsense as much as NASA is.

One of our rockets is missing. UP Aerospace christened the New Mexico spaceport by watching one of Spaceloft XL rockets go meandering to a place far, far away. The rocket got to 40,000 feet before coming back to Earth, and it took UP quite a while to find it. There were several stories about this failure, but the contained the most memorable quotes:

“The craft appeared to go into a corkscrew motion that was not part of the plan.” I don't think I've ever heard of a rocket trajectory where corkscrewing was considered SOP. Neither does UP, either. “It should not have wobbled,” said launch coordinator Tracey Larson.

Unbelievably, UP considered the launch a success, according to Bill Heiden, UP's CFO. “We gave young people ... a real look at what is involved. We're thrilled with what we accomplished today.”

If that's a success, I'd hate to see what UP considers a failure. But, what really bothered me is how they simply let an out-of-control rocket continue on. Where was the destruct mechanism? From 40,000 feet, the missile could have gone anywhere. Did Mr. Heiden consider the launch a success because they didn't come down in downtown Albuquerque?

Now, this is where someone comes along and chides me for forgetting that we learn more from failure than from success. That's true, if we recognize the event was a failure. It doesn't seem that UP is clear on the concept.

One of our partners is missing. Rocketplane Kistler, who has 207 million of our taxpayer dollars pointed in their direction, has lost partner Orbital Systems. It seems that Orbital Systems wasn't too thrilled with RK's business plan. RK, on the other hand, says Orbital wanted design changes that Rockeplane Kistler found unacceptable. These changes would have involved an “impact” to the timeline given to NASA, so RK decided to terminate the relationship. Interestingly, Orbital Systems was to put up $10 million of their own money, indicating that RK is little cash-tight, which usually translates into cutting corners somewhere down the line.

But, it's all good. RK has another partner ready to go. They aren't saying who it is, but they've got one. Honest. Really. They're comfortable with their new partner and feel it's a “good fit.” They're just happy as clams.

Personally, since part of the $207 million is mine, I'm not happy ... not happy at all.

Another blimp in space. Well, Mr. Bigelow is going to launch another blimp, Genesis 2, which, if successful, means he'll have Motel-6-in-space launched in 2009 or 2010. Genesis 1 is floating around doing not much of anything, and Genesis 2 will apparently do the same. Oh, there are “experiments” aboard Genesis 1, so we keep being told. After searching around, the only “experiment” I've been able to identify is a shoebox-sized package from NASA called Genebox to determine the effects of weightlessness on the genetic structure of microorganisms. No doubt this is a fascinating little package, but it means that, once again, NASA is helping fund a private enterprise project.

I'm not sure how launching two nearly empty “habitats” is supposed to provide sufficient information to turn around and launch a living facility. It would seem one would want to test docking, passenger transfer, and habitability before actually launching the real thing. But nothing about these commercial efforts seems grounded in real life.

The WOW factor. And then there's Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic pipedream. Hey, he says, we've got pictures of what it's going to look like! Well, I've got books that have pictures of Dyan-Soar, too, and I don't see those flying around anywhere. Mr. Branson got Brian Binnie, SpaceShipOne survivor, to talk about the joys of sub-orbital spaceflight. “Everything you see with your eyes is wow,” said Binnie, sounding like a stoned hippie of the sixties.

As if that isn't silly enough, Alex Tai, VP of Operations for Galactic said basically anyone who could hear thunder and see lightning would be able to fly on SpaceShipTwo, an interesting statement given the quote from Burt Rutan that starts this piece. But, then Mr. Rutan is building SpaceShipTwo despite that comment, or so everyone is assuming, since no one has been taken for a tour of the construction facilities. Supposedly, we'll see tests in 2008 with the system operational by 2009.

Oh, and if the sucker trade gets tapped out, SpaceShipTwo can carry a payload of up to 1763 lbs. Given that the average telecommunications satellite weighs about 4000 lbs., this means Galactic is planning to carry a lot of Genebox-sized experiments.

Mr. Bigelow better hurry up and get his Motel 6 up there before Mr. Branson takes away his only source of income.

An elevating experience. With far less fanfare than the original event, a new X-prize competition is about to take place. This one is for the only innovative space project happening anywhere, the space elevator. In October, teams will compete in two events, one to test a climbing robot and the other to demonstrate tether material. Unlike the original million dollar Ansari X-prize, this event gives only $200,000 for each event. Also unlike the previous X-prize, this one actually features a radically different approach to getting to space.

The space elevator has been determined to be theoretically possible for years. Moving from theory to practice is a huge step. So far, the teams working on this have not been awarded massive amounts of taxpayer money, so they're looking for ways to generate income in the meantime, like using the technology to provide Wi-Fi to rural areas.

Personally, I'd like to see what these guys could do with $207 million.


Brian Dunbar said...

So far, the teams working on this have not been awarded massive amounts of taxpayer money, so they're looking for ways to generate income in the meantime, like using the technology to provide Wi-Fi to rural areas.

Please note that using subsidiary companies and technologies to fund the main effort has always been our plan.

It was obvious that some means of keeping the circus going long enough to actually build the real-deal (if, yes, it can be built) was needed.

It's not as if capital grows on trees or anything.

I have to disagree with your analysis of SS2 - I think they have a chance to succeed. At the very least while Branson has his failures, he's become wealthy by being right more often than not.

The Gog said...

Sorry, that was meant to be a compliment. I like what the space elevator people are doing, which has not been favored by the ballyhoo that Branson, Rutan, et. al., have gotten.

Not only that, being a rural type myself who is never going to see broadband from the telco oligopoly (soon, a monopoly again), the possibility that someone might actally provide it is exciting.

As to Mr. Branson, I suspect those deposits for tickets he's getting are non-refundable. At the very least, he's going to collect interest on a lot of money for several years.

Mr. Branson ain't stupid, but that doesn't mean he actually is ever going to get anyone into space.