the challenger accident

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Shuttle Challenger, flying mission STS-51-L, with seven astronauts on board, exploded 73 seconds after liftoff on 28 January 1986. On board were

  • Francis R. Scobee, Commander
  • Michael J. Smith, Pilot
  • Ronald McNair, Mission Specialist
  • Ellison Onizuka, Mission Specialist
  • Judith Resnik, Mission Specialist
  • Gregory Jarvis, Payload Specialist
  • Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist, Educator

I was working directly for Martin Marietta (the future Lockheed Martin) at the east Orlando facility near Research Park and the University of Central Florida. MM had, and still has, a nice cafeteria facility with a large outdoor patio that allowed for great viewing of rockets lifting from Canaveral. I was watching because my wife was an English professor at Valencia College, and we were expecting our first child, a girl, in May. The launch had special meaning for me. I was there to cheer on, quietly in spirit, the women who were on that mission as well as the educator.

It was right before lunch, the day was cool, crisp, and clear out to the coast, and there were about two dozen of us standing and waiting on the patio. As Columbia’s launch plume cleared the tops of the trees we all started to talk excitedly. When the big bloom of smoke and the devil’s horns appeared about a minute after liftoff, the whole patio went silent. We knew. The patio cleared pretty quickly. Inside the facility all the TVs were tuned into the local news stations, and we all walked by constantly trying to hear the news. I went home that night numb.

Over the ensuing months we would learn what happened. It would come out formally in the Rogers Report. Nearly three years would pass before another shuttle launch. By then a lot had changed, and not for the better. One of the primary requirements drivers for the Shuttle, the Air Force, walked away from the Shuttle when they decided it too unreliable for their use and switched back to “dumb” rockets to loft their payloads. Belief in NASA’s invincibility was shaken, and drove an already slow internal bureaucracy to go even slower. This led to Shuttles continuing to fly, but failure after failure to find a substitute for the Shuttle. When all the Shuttles were retired in 2011 and mothballed to museums, the only way into space and specifically to the ISS was by buying expensive seats from the Russians on Soyuz.

Challenger has a special place in my heart and soul, for who and what we lost.

fallen giants

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Apollo 1 Crew, left to right, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee – via NASA

Grissom, White and Chaffee. I was a seventh grader when their names became permanently etched in my mind like no other astronauts. On 27 January 1967, during a ground rehearsal inside the sealed Apollo capsule, all three died due to a flash fire in pure oxygen inside the Apollo capsule. The fire was so hot and so fast, and the original Apollo capsule so poorly designed for emergency egress, that all three astronauts died before the hatch could be opened. Over the years America would go on to loose two more astronaut crews in the pursuit of space; Shuttle Challenger on 28 January 1986 (today’s date) during launch, and Shuttle Columbia on 1 February 2003 during re-entry. I’ll write about Challenger and Columbia in a later post. It’s the uniqueness of Apollo, its successes and tragedies, I want to touch on here.

I continue to pay special attention to the Apollo astronauts, especially those who landed on the moon, because they are the most unique of a unique class of individuals. Not all of them set foot on the Moon, but enough of them did, and humanity, as well as America, is far better and greater for their achievements. They truly where the “best of the best” as some want to mockingly remark today. All three of the Apollo 1 crew weren’t just test pilots, they were accomplished engineers as well. Grissom was a mechanical engineer, and White and Chaffee were aeronautical engineers. Those men didn’t just know how to fly, they knew intimately what it was they were flying. It was that knowledge that led Grissom to rightfully criticise what he saw as defects in the original Apollo capsule, defects that no one would listen to, and that contributed to their fatalities on that fateful day. But all of that’s now 50 years in the past.

The bigger problem is that those that went on to land on the moon have now reached an age where they’re beginning to die due to natural causes. We’ve now lost both the first man to walk on the moon and the last man.

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Neil Armstrong, 21 July 1969, Apollo 11 LEM, after walking on the moon.

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Gene Cernan, 13 December 1972, Apollo 17 LEM – via Nasa

Neil Armstrong passed away 25 August 2012 and Gene Cernan passed away a few weeks ago on 17 January 2017. We’ve now lost, through age, both the first and the last men to walk on the moon. We’ve thrown away an entire generation of technology and men that allowed us to literally stand on the edge of limitless space. I don’t know which is the greater tragedy, Apollo 1 or what we did to the legacy of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. We could have literally planted boots on the surfaces of multiple planets other than the moon, be building a permanent presence on worlds other than earth, and pushing the boundaries of our knowledge of the universe in ways unimaginable to us now.

Instead we have Trump World and Brexit.

spacex goes two for two

This photo provided by SpaceX shows the first stage of the company's Falcon rocket after it landed on a platform in the Atlantic Ocean just off the Florida coast on Friday, May 6, 2016, after launching a Japanese communications satellite. (SpaceX via AP)

This photo provided by SpaceX shows the first stage of the company’s Falcon rocket after it landed on a platform in the Atlantic Ocean just off the Florida coast on Friday, May 6, 2016, after launching a Japanese communications satellite. (SpaceX via AP)

While I was sleeping early this morning, SpaceX launched JCSAT-14 on its way to a geosynchronous orbit. And then, after first and second stage separation, SpaceX landed the “hot” first stage on its drone ship in the Atlantic.

What makes this landing special is two-fold. First, it’s the second consecutive first stage landing and intact recovery. Second, this was a hot and high launch of a large satellite into geosynchronous orbit. That meant that a lot less fuel was left for a first stage landing, and the first stage was traveling a lot faster before it turned around and came home. In spite of this it did and it came back successfully, as can be seen above.

This is the point where the management of United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Arianespace should be seriously concerned about their organization’s future. Both have dismissed SpaceX’s attempts to create truly reusable rockets, downplaying every successful step (moving the goalposts back). The next step in SpaceX’s march to stage reuse is to actually reuse one to send another payload into orbit. Ideally these stages would be used multiple times.

The best that the old-school launch providers have provided as a competitive alternative to SpaceX’s reusable stages is Arianespace’s Adeline, a proposed reusable system that only return’s the first stage main engines, throwing away everything else. According to Airbus Defense and Space, Adeline’s return of the first stage and avionic’s package will allow “80%” of the first stage’s “economic value.” First made public in June 2015, nothing has yet to be built, let alone tested. It remains just a paper proposal.

There is only one other company that has come anywhere close, Blue Origin with its New Sheppard launch vehicle. New Sheppard comes closest to the idea of Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO), a design and philosophy that were last used with the McDonnell Douglas DC-X test vehicle from the 1990s. It was never meant to go to orbit, but was a first step in testing vertical takeoff and landing (much like New Sheppard) and the necessary technologies for rapid turnaround, and thus, extremely cheap space flight. MD provided some remarkable testing until funding dried up around 1995, when NASA took over. It was under NASA’s control that the DC-X finally met its doom, due in no small part to the demoralization of the engineering personnel picked up along with flight hardware, by NASA’s burdensome bureaucratic processes.

Jeff Bezos, who owns Blue Origin, has kept NASA at arms length, and has allowed his engineers the freedom necessary to produce a truly impressive reusable rocket that has flown three times, the last two up to the edge of space and back. The fundamental difference between Blue Origin and SpaceX is that SpaceX has placed payloads into orbit, while Blue Origin has not. That lack of orbital reach by Blue Origin should not diminish what New Sheppard has accomplished. Both Blue Origin and SpaceX represent two important lines of research, lines that will merge into a single fully reusable space transportation system for both human and cargo transport into space and back. We have to have a fully reusable STS that will provide the same low-cost access to space the way our current fleet of airliners allow for low-cost access to just about any point on our planet. We will get there, but only with companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. Today’s SpaceX landing at sea, its second successive landing, is a vital step to that point in time.

a big problem with humanity on earth and in space

The last post got me thinking a lot about energy, especially how we use it, and as a consequence, how dependent we are upon energy. So I put together this really simple flow chart that shows four general steps used in our civilization to go from raw material to final product. This is a very broad generality, as every specific example is a variation on this. For example petroleum production combines refining and manufacturing into one step, producing products such as diesel and gasoline (among other products). For something like an automobile that uses gas or diesel fuels, it will take many refined products to manufacture a final product (the automobile), which will then consume the petroleum product (the energy) producing waste (exhaust primarily).

And therein lies a fundamental problem of going into space. Our current civilization is totally dependent upon the profligate use of energy in order to transform raw materials extracted from the Earth and transformed into items we can use. There’s even additional steps in this basic flow, logistics, which consists of transportation and the energy required to move any of this “stuff” around and storage to hold it all until it’s finally used. Whatever we do, it requires some sort of material input, mixed with energy that produces a transformation as well as waste byproducts. It’s bad enough on Earth. But in space it’s an even worse waste. Consider that the ISS uses the resupply cargo ships as garbage incinerators. After pulling the new material out of the cargo ship, all waste is put back into the emptied ship, then allowed to undock and plummet back to Earth, where it’s incinerated. All that trash literally gets dumped back to Earth, usually over a lot of heads as finely burnt ash due to re-entry.

Going into space means more than just building the ships to get us there and the habitats to live there. It means a fundamental re-think of how we live off the universe. Because the way we do it now is fundamentally unsustainable, either on Earth, and especially off.

personal moon shot – getting better organized

Over a year ago (November 2014) I wrote “personal moon shot – designing a personal spaceship to leave earth.” An awful lot has occurred since then, both personally and in the space industry itself. In particular were the launch failures of the Cygnus CRS Orb-3 ISS resupply and the crash of VSS Enterprise (with loss of life) in October 2014, followed the next year by the loss of Roscomos’ Progress 59 ISS resupply mission in early May, followed by SpaceX’s CRS-7 ISS resupply mission failure in late June 2015.

Space, in other words, is very, very hard. And its failures are heightened even more so because of the string of successes that lull us into a false sense of invincibility. The companies that do this already have incredible intellectual breadth and depth as well as a vast institutional knowledge built up over years of operation. Yet let your attention to detail waver just a little and you invite disaster. Who do this? Because when you succeed at space flight and space exploration, the rewards are immense and incredibly consciousness expanding in a very good way. Even for those of us on Earth doing this vicariously.

Which makes my little ramblings about building a personal spaceship appear even more ludicrous. But you never know until you at least investigate, and I have the history of space flight to imbue me with considerable humility.

Oddly enough, it was the success of this past Friday’s SpaceX launch and Falcon 9 first stage landing that re-invigorated my investigations. I’ve been wanting to go back and get re-organized and going again, and here was the perfect event to kick things off.

I’m using OmniGrapple to do my system diagrams instead of Visio. If you look at the high-level diagram from the first post it’s all over the place with oddball arrows connecting the various systems. This time I reorganized the diagram a bit, with easier to follow symmetry, and eliminated the arrows. I also want to stress that this is high level. As I progress in this exercise those high level systems may be changed, and in particular, we will be decomposing downward over time. As for dependencies, we’ll do that later.

Energy

Energy is one of those oh-so obvious needs, but one that’s always glossed over when talking about space flight and space craft. I’m always amused by the large and complex space craft in science fiction, especially on TV and in the movies. You see these huge artificial structures being driven across space with magical engines to faster-than-light speeds. And then there are the sybaritic living conditions on board these space craft. All of this demands vastly huge amounts of energy. Star Trek got away with powering the Enterprise with anti-matter, being deliberately vague on the details (along with those damnable dilithium crystals). So what exactly would a notional energy budget look like for a space craft built with more conventional technology? What would it involve?

  • Kinetic energy. This is the energy required to lift the total spacecraft (craft, crew, fuel, and supplies) off the surface of the Earth, allow for transfers from Earth to a destination, such as the Moon, landing on said destination, then lifting off again and returning to Earth, where whatever is left lands back on Earth. Always remember we have to deal with Newton’s First Law of Motion. Getting going is only half the problem. You have to slow down in a controlled fashion, and no, simply slamming into your destination is not an option, due to the consequences of rapid unscheduled disassembly.
  • Motive energy. This is the energy locked up in the space craft propulsive systems. I call it motive energy because it could be composed of many types propulsion systems. This is the energy used to satisfy the overall kinetic energy needs in the first bullet.
  • Operational energy. This is the energy needed to operate the space ship itself. Electricity of some form comes to mind as that’s what is needed to power all the onboard computer systems as well as the electrical control systems and life support. Without operational energy the space ship is a lifeless unresponsive hulk, and you wind up dead very quickly.
  • Thermal energy. This is a byproduct of the use of the first three bullets, as well as the thermal energy constantly coming from the Sun above the Earth’s atmosphere and bathing the spacecraft. That energy must be controlled, or else, once again, you wind up dead due to too much heat (Skylab had this issue) or too little heat (Apollo 13 had this issue). While it’s obviously important to maintain a comfortable temperature for the living passengers, complex computer systems also have their operational temperature limits. So you’re going to have to figure out how to manage heat by removing it from where it isn’t needed, to where it is, and somehow dumping the rest away from the spacecraft.

The next post will be about life support, specifically supporting humans in space. We’ll talk about daily fundamental needs and begin to look at how much is needed over time. It’s a logistical issue that the International Space Station has had to deal with on a large scale since Expedition 1 in November 2000.