Leaking Air


NASA researchers close in on why Mars lost its atmosphere.

“Not Recommended”

Former Space Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale discusses the problems involved in aborting short of orbit the flight of any crewed spacecraft. Suffice to say, the problem is a lot more complicated than a lot of armchair astronauts think. Most scenarios involve meat waffles or crispy critters. 

Hale frequently shares spaceflight war stories at his blog, along with the occasional nightmare scenario. Fascinating stuff.

Sunrise on Mars


Well, kinda, given that the Phoenix lander is near one of the poles:

SpaceX Makes It

NASA Watch has the on-board video. The first-stage separation still looked rough to me but they got away with it.

The Vision Thing

NASA Administration Mike Griffin teaches a little history:

The planned Apollo 20 mission was cancelled a few weeks after the Apollo 11 landing, and Apollo 18 and 19 were cancelled some months later. With those actions, the space program as we knew it in the 1960s was over, finished, and done. NASA is often blamed for its so-called lack of vision after the apotheosis of the Apollo years, but frankly, after those decisions, it didn’t matter what NASA did, or didn’t do. Our elected leaders had lost the vision and sense of purpose for our nation in space, and we retreated to low-Earth orbit.

We have become inured to what should be recognized as alarming trends, the subject of a recent hearing before the House of Representatives Science & Technology Committee. There are half as many bachelor’s degrees in physics awarded today in the United States than when Sputnik was launched in 1957. The number of engineers graduating with bachelor’s degrees declined by over 20% in the last two decades prior to a recent up-tick – but that up-tick is primarily due to an increase in the number of foreign students, who are increasingly returning to their home countries. In 2004, China graduated approximately 500,000 engineers while India graduated 200,000 and the United States graduated 70,000. In 2005, the United States produced more undergraduates in sports exercise than in electrical engineering. In 2006, only 15% of college graduates in the United States received a diploma in engineering or the natural sciences, compared to 38% in South Korea, 47% in France, and 67% in Singapore. The number of PhDs in engineering awarded by U.S. universities to U.S. citizens declined 34% in a single decade. Two-thirds of U.S. engineering PhDs are awarded to foreign nationals. In some surveys, U.S. public schools consistently rank near the bottom in mathematics and science as compared to their global counterparts. We are surpassed by, among others, Azerbaijan, Latvia and Macao.

Shuttle, Extended

Congressional sentiment in the wake of the Georgia/Russia incident is forcing NASA to reconsider the idea of shutting down the Space Shuttle program after 2010. But former Shuttle program boss Wayne Hale says logistics already make that a practical impossibility. NASA managers began shutting down the supply chain for parts four years ago and there’s no way to restart it:

You might think that simple things like bolts and screws, wire, filters, and gaskets could be bought off the shelf some where, but that thinking would merely prove how little you know about the shuttle.  The huge majority of supplies, consumable items, maintenance items, they are all specially made with unique and stringent processes and standards. 

Our shuttle history tells us that when we try to cut corners, trouble results.  Small, even apparently insignificant changes have caused big problems. 

It goes to show how short-sighted the Bush administration’s decision-making was, born out of pure cowardice following the Columbia accident.

In Space, No One Can Hear You Sweat

Mr. X at Chair Force Engineer thinks the fallout of Russia’s Georgian adventure will create more business opportunities for SpaceX. Maybe so, but I’d rather keep the Shuttle going too. On-orbit repair and capture-and-return are capabilities we’re going to miss when they’re gone.

Bump in the Night

SpaceX’s third attempt to launch its Falcon 1 booster was brought down by the same kind of separation failure as its second. A pretty basic hurdle not met. My prior point/concern about peer review stands. There’s a little too much groupthink going on there, I think. Nonetheless, here’s hoping they have a clean flight 4.

SpaceX Whiffs Again

Having watched the webcast of SpaceX’s latest attempt to launch its Falcon 1 booster, I can say the outcome was quite a bummer. But it also wasn’t really a surprise. As fellow watcher Dale Amon noted, there was something amiss from early on. The first-stage exhaust, as seen by the onboard camera, never really settled into a stable pattern.  SpaceX itself is saying the stages failed to separate, but I’m not convinced. The video cut out well before separation was to occur, which suggests either that the vehicle broke up or that the telemetry available to ground controllers was pretty clearly saying the flight would end badly.

The question now is, what next for SpaceX. Company founder Elon Musk says they will press on. I’m sure that’s true, at least in the short run. Eventually, though, they’ll have to produce. Unlike the government programs that pioneered space flight in the 1950s, SpaceX is reliant on private capital that in this country at least is constricted and risk averse. Once Musk burns through his own money, they’ll have to be flying, or someone will take the company away from him. 

There’s a lot to like about the SpaceX approach. The computer technology that’s going into its rockets is state-of-the-art, and the company itself is lean, personnel-wise. Maybe too lean. If what Musk is saying about a separation problem is true, that’s two flights in a row where they didn’t overcome a fundamental hurdle. In the previous flight, the first stage gave the second-stage engine bell a good hard knock as the stages separated. The question I have is whether there’s enough peer-review of the design occurring, or whether they’re suffering a bit of groupthink. If on the other hand the problem’s the first-stage engine, then I also have to wonder if SpaceX has focused too much effort on follow-ons like the Falcon 9 booster and not enough on making sure it flight-verifies its basic technology.