BetaBeat has an interview with Bill Nye, CEO of the Planetary Society. Not much of substance there, but we where heartened to see this:

Mr. Musk had a meeting with the board of the Planetary Society, said Mr. Nye. “He sat down with them and said, ‘I want to go to Mars. What do I need to do?’ And everybody said, ‘We need cheap access to orbit.’ It’s the key first step. Getting to orbit right now is too expensive.”

Indeed – and the same can be said whether the destination is the Moon, Mars, or anywhere else.

In the past, the Planetary Society was primarily a robotic space science lobby which showed little interest in cheap access to space. We’re glad to see they’ve come around.

Unfortunately, their legislative agenda does not yet reflect that realization and is still centered around futile attempts to increase the NASA budget. Old habits die hard.

Written by Astro1 on October 13th, 2012 , Space Policy and Management


Leonard David has written a column about new Federal regulations governing meteorite collection on public land. Reading the column, we spotted one quote that raised a red flag:

“We tried to account for every kind of occurrence out there,” said Lucia Kuizon, national paleontologist at the [Bureau of Land Management] in Washington, DC. “We felt the policy helps the public understand the issues, as well as for our own resource specialists out in the field when they get inquiries.”

Wait a minute? Meteorites are not fossils. Why is a paleontologist issuing statements about them? What’s going on here?

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Written by Astro1 on October 12th, 2012 , Space Policy and Management, Space Settlement

NASA Mars Science Rover Curiosity bright object

Imagine, a field geologist finds a scrap of foil – part of a candy wrapper, perhaps – that has slipped out of his pocket.

He then becomes distracted and spends an entire day examining the foil, instead of actual geology.

He’d probably be fired in short order.

That’s just what NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity did earlier this week, and no one has commented on it. For a $2.6 billion robot, it’s not a firing offense. It’s standard operating procedure.

Just something to keep in mind the next time someone says robots are more efficient than humans.

Written by Astro1 on October 11th, 2012 , Space Policy and Management Tags:

A few months ago, we reported on the Hubble-class telescopes NASA received as a gift from the National Reconnaissance Office. Nature reports that NASA is now putting together a plan for what to do with the telescopes.

One disturbing note in the story is this:

One way to reduce the cost of the NRO-WFIRST mission for NASA’s astrophysics division would be to launch it on one of the new fleet of rockets that NASA will be eager to test at the end of the decade as it moves beyond the now-grounded space shuttles. But that would involve NASA’s human space programme, an option that the science-definition team has been asked to consider.

We assume the new rocket they mention is the Congressionally mandated Space Launch System. (It’s hard to see what else it might refer to.) In that case, there are a couple things wrong with this statement.

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Written by Astro1 on October 10th, 2012 , Space Policy and Management

As expected, Sarah Brightman has announced that she will be the next citizen explorer to visit the International Space Station. Members of Brightman’s fan community and her newsletter subscribers will receive periodic updates on her training and mission. Those who aren’t members can sign up at


Some random connections: One of Sarah Brightman’s first (minor) hits was a song called “I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper,” whose title is an obvious homage to Robert Heinlein’s classic novel Starship Troopers. It dates to 1978 and was not a tie-in to Paul Verhoeven’s dreadful 1997 movie adaptation of Starship Troopers, although some YouTube mashups make it appear so. The Heinlein estate did receive significant money from the Verhoeven movie, however. That money was used to endow the Heinlein Prize for space commercialization and is also helping to finance Excalibur Almaz, which is planning to conduct deep-space missions using surplus capsules and space-station modules from the Soviet era. And now, Sarah Brightman has booked a flight to ISS on a Soyuz capsule developed during the Soviet era.

From the Space Adventures press release:

Brightman will be part of a three-person crew travelling to the ISS on board a Soyuz rocket. Once on the ISS, she will orbit the Earth 16 times daily and intends to become the first professional musician to sing from space. The final scheduling of her trip to the space station will be determined by Roscosmos and the ISS partners in the coming months.

Brightman will be part of a three-person crew travelling to the ISS on board a Soyuz rocket. Once on the ISS, she will orbit the Earth 16 times daily and intends to become the first professional musician to sing from space. The final scheduling of her trip to the space station will be determined by Roscosmos and the ISS partners in the coming months.

In conjunction with her role as a UNESCO Artist for Peace ambassador, Brightman sees life on board the space station – which requires the mindful, shared consumption of resources and a clear and unwavering focus on sustainability – as a model for how we might better inhabit our planet. During her estimated 10-day tenure on board the space station, Brightman will advocate for UNESCO’s mandate to promote peace and sustainable development to safeguard our planet’s future. Additionally, this journey will allow Brightman to advance education and empower the role of girls and women in science and technology in an effort to help close the gender gap in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields.

“I don’t think of myself as a dreamer. Rather, I am a dream chaser,” said Sarah Brightman. “I hope that I can encourage others to take inspiration from my journey both to chase down their own dreams and to help fulfill the important UNESCO mandate to promote peace and sustainable development on Earth and from space. I am determined that this journey can reach out to be a force for good, a catalyst for some of the dreams and aims of others that resonate with me.”

Over the coming months, Brightman will explore and further develop plans with UNESCO to combine their activities and her space journey. Upon her return to Earth, she will continue to work with UNESCO in an effort to plan multiple, epic ‘Space to Place’ concerts at UNESCO World Heritage Sites, biosphere reserves, and geoparks. Together, the over-arching aim will be to organize events including concerts and multi-media, to involve as many people as possible and to engage a generation of ‘dreamchasers’ from all walks of life to help create a more sustainable future for our planet.

Within the coming months, Brightman will be releasing a new record entitled “Dreamchaser” in January 2013 – a collection of songs that has been influenced by the feelings and challenges of her space adventure. Additionally, in 2013, she will undertake the most comprehensive global tour performing around the world, beginning in Canada at the end of January and visiting all five continents over the following months. Following that, Brightman will embark upon six months of training in Russia ahead of her flight to the ISS.

Written by Astro1 on October 10th, 2012 , Citizen Exploration, Space Adventures

Sky and Telescope reports that the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) is in danger of being shut down if its owners can’t find a buyer to keep it in operation.

The UK Infrared Telescope is not exactly a backyard scope. The 3.8-meter (149-inch) instrument is the second-largest infrared telescope in the world and the largest in the northern hemisphere.

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Written by Astro1 on October 10th, 2012 , Astronomy, Space Policy and Management


This summer, the European Southern Observatory Council approved construction of the European Extremely Large Telescope. The E-ELT, to be sited on the Cerro Armazones mountain in the Atacama Desert of Chile, will be the largest optical/infrared telescope ever built. The primary diameter will be 39.3-meter (129-foot). Rather than a single mirror, the primary element will be an array of 798 1.4-meter (55-inch) mirrors.

The estimated cost for the mega-telescope, which is expected to see first light in 2022, is €1.055 billion ($1.36 billion at current exchanges rates).

American taxpayers should take note. That price is less than 1/6 the cost of NASA’s infrared James Webb Space Telescope (assuming JWST does not suffer any further cost overruns). Yet, the angular resolution of E-ELT at mid-infrared wavelengths will be six times better than JWST.

As we noted recently, advances in ground-based infrared astronomy are one reason why many astronomers are strangely unexcited about the JWST. The E-EELT is a good example of that.

The Europeans have also shown the willingness to sacrifice ultimate performance for the sake of cost-effectiveness. The size of the primary element was reduced from 42 meters, as originally planned, to save money and speed construction. This reduced the cost by 18%, from €1.275 billion to €1.055 billion, at the cost of 13% lower light sensitivity. Yet, astronomers are happy with the tradeoff because it enables the instrument to get built.

The construction plans for this telescope require almost 800 mirrors to be fabricated, then shipped separately to the top of the 3,064-meter (10,052-foot) peak.

There are risks in that plan, which will require a massive number of trucks. Perhaps one of the trucks will accidentally drive over a cliff, before the project is complete. With that many trucks, accidents are almost inevitable. Then, all of those mirrors must be assembled by workers under difficult conditions, at an altitude almost two miles above sea level. Working in parkas and mittens is uncomfortable. Studies show that workers in comfortable, air-conditioned factories at sea level are more efficient. Instead of trying to complete a massive construction project at that altitude, wouldn’t it be better to fabricate one huge monolithic mirror and develop a supertruck to transport it?  Of course, no one has proposed such silliness. Yet, that’s the same “logic” used to justify developing superheavy lift rockets for space telescopes and other large space structures. We know how to make tradeoffs and compromises for the sake of cost-effectiveness on Earth, but never seem to do it for space projects.

Written by Astro1 on October 10th, 2012 , Astronomy, Space Policy and Management

Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, is planning to place an automated tracking beacon on the asteroid 99942 Apophis, according to a report in Russia Today.

Apophis is a 270-meter asteroid named after the ancient Egyptian god of darkness (and Stargate villain). Apophis was discovered in 2004. Initial calculations showed that it had a 1:223 chance of hitting Earth in 2029, although that estimate was later reduced. There is still sufficient uncertainty that some observers would like additional data.

In 2008, the Planetary Society, Spaceworks Engineering, and SpaceDev proposed a radio-beacon mission called Foresight to rendezvous with Apophis. No funding was forthcoming, however.


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Written by Astro1 on October 8th, 2012 , Planetary Defense

In the last few days, United Launch Alliance, Armadillo, and SpaceX launched rockets, all three of which showed performance anomalies.

On Thursday, October 4, United Launch Alliance launched a US Air Force GPS satellite on a Delta IV rocket. The first stage functioned according to plan, but the second-stage RL-10 engine underperformed, producing less thrust than its nominal 24,750-pound thrust. The engine burned for a longer duration to compensate, and the payload achieved proper orbit.

On Saturday, October 6, Armadillo Aerospace launched its Stig-B rocket for the first time at Spaceport America in New Mexico. The mission goal was to demonstrate flight to 100 kilometers and successful recovery using the supersonic ballute (balloon-parachute) system. The target altitude was not achieved. After launch, software detected that the rocket had reached an abort limit and shut the engine down. The rocket was successfully recovered, analysis is underway, and another flight is expected within a few weeks.

On Sunday, October 7, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying another Dragon capsule to the Internstional Space Station. Unlike the last Dragon flight, which was considered a test, this was officially an operational mission. About 1 minute 19 seconds into flight, one of the Merlin 1C first-stage engines failed, as can be seen in the following slow-motion video:


Based solely on the video, some observers have concluded that the event was a sudden catastrophic disassembly (i.e., engine explosion). At the moment, SpaceX is saying that it was an engine shutdown but has no further details. Update: SpaceX is now saying that the debris seen in the video is an aerodynamic fairing which ruptured when the engine shut down and lost pressure.

The Falcon 9 is designed to lose a first-stage engine, even explosively, and continue a mission. In the event of an explosion, shields protect neighboring engines from shrapnel damage. The Saturn V had a similar engine-out capability but was not designed to withstand an explosive failure.

If this this event was an explosion, it shows that the shrapnel shields work. Blowing an engine on a multi-engine rocket is similar to blowing a piston in an a piston-engine aircraft: a serious anomaly, but not necessarily fatal if the system is designed for it. During World War II, P-47 Thunderbolts would return to base with a lot of pistons shot out. In the jet era, the A-10 Thunderbolt II has been known to return to base with one engine shot away. The Falcon 9 was able to continue its mission, burning its remaining engines a bit long (like the Delta a few days earlier), and put its Dragon payload into an almost-perfect orbit. Perhaps SpaceX should have called the Falcon 9 the “Thunderbolt III.”

That having been said, Falcon 9 could not continue a mission after the failure of a second stage engine. (There’s only one.) So, this is a situation SpaceX will want to investigate.

Some critics will now say SpaceX cut too many corners and should have done more testing and analysis. Flight testing is always a good thing, and SpaceX is doing it right now. NASA may have classified this as an operational mission, but that doesn’t mean there’s no testing and analysis going on. Remember that the Space Shuttle was declared operational after only four missions, but NASA continued testing and tweaking throughout the 30-year program.

SpaceX could have done some additional flight tests, with dummy payloads, before starting cargo runs to ISS. That would have delayed payloads to ISS, cost NASA more money (those Russian Progress flights aren’t cheap anymore), and not resulted in any more test data than the actual cargo flights produce.

In the early days of rocketry, it was common to do a lot more test flights before committing to carrying cargo for paying customers. The economics of large expendable rockets changed that. That’s true for Boeing and Lockheed as much as SpaceX. The number of test flights is greatly reduced; to compensate, a lot more money is spent on analysis and systems engineering prior to the first test flight. All that analysis does not come cheap, however, and even the best analysis cannot uncover all the unknowns that crop up in flight.

If flight testing were cheaper and easier, vehicle developers could reduce the amount of systems analysis that’s required before first flight. That would reduce development time as well as development cost.

Optimizing rockets for cheap flight test would require a new design approach. What would a highly testable rocket look like?

A highly testable rocket would be cheap enough to fly often. It would require minimal preparation time, so flight tests could be scheduled quickly, when required. It would be recoverable after an anomaly, so engineers could examine the hardware to determine what happened rather than relying solely on telemetry data. It would be incrementally testable, allowing for low-altitude, low-speed flight tests early on, when systems are immature.

In other words, it would be a reusable rocket.

Nevertheless, the myth persists, in the aerospace industry, that reusable rockets are more expensive to develop. To quote the legendary late rocket engineer Max Hunter, “The people who say expendables are cheaper to develop forget that in order to develop a rocket, you have to fly a rocket.”

During the 1960’s, General Dynamics did an apples-to-apples comparison of a reusable rocket (the X-15) and an expendable rocket (the Atlas A) of similar size and performance. They found that the X-15 was more complex, but also more testable, more reliable, and cheaper to develop. The US Air Force performed a parallel study, using slightly different methods, and reached the same conclusion.

More recently, we have examples such as White Knight and SpaceShip One, a two-stage system developed for about $15 million. The development program included 66 flights of White Knight and 17 flights of SpaceShip One. By comparison, in 2011, NASA’s sounding rocket program had a budget of $45 million and conducted just 13 launches.

Rocket development, like other aspects of spaceflight, is highly immature. Jet engines and liquid-propellent rockets have been around for similar lengths of time, but the number of rocket engines that have flown is minuscule compared to the number of jet engines. So, it isn’t surprising that in-flight anomalies still occur quite often. The development of rocket engines has been arrested by decisions made back in the 1960’s, which led to 50 years of reliance on expendable rockets with trivial flight rates. Fortunately, that era is rapidly drawing to a close.

Written by Astro1 on October 8th, 2012 , Armadillo Aerospace, SpaceX

Virgin Galactic has acquired full interest in The SpaceShip Company, previously a joint venture of Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites. A brief press release appeared late yesterday afternoon:

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Written by Astro1 on October 6th, 2012 , Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic

NASA Administrator Major General Charles Bolden committed a gaffe during a Google+ “Hangout” with Elon Musk today. Asked about extraterrestrial resources, General Bolden said, “We currently spend a lot of time looking at what we hope will prove to be microbes on Mars from which we can produce materials like concrete, foods, and the like so that we don’t have the price of lifting tons of equipment and material from Earth to that destination.”

We’re sure the NASA Administrator misspoke and does not really believe it’s possible to produce concrete and food from microorganisms found on Mars. Nevertheless, his comment does highlight a fundamental disconnect in NASA’s Mars program. While NASA hopes to exploit Martian resources for future missions, it has invested very little effort in exploring for such resources. Robots such as Curiosity are designed primarily for answering scientific questions, such as whether there is (or was) life on Mars. While those questions may be interesting in themselves, they do little to pave the way for future exploration, development, and settlement.

On the positive side, it was good to hear the NASA Administrator once again talk about the commercial development of space beyond just trips to ISS. “NASA’s role… is to facilitate the success of a viable commercial space industry. While it’s critical to have transportation systems, it’s equally critical that the commercial sector develop destinations where those transportation systems can go. [Bigelow Aerospace] is developing alternative destinations. It would be very interesting to see the commercial sector expand the use of Low Earth Orbit for things like materials processing, pharmaceuticals, and the like that are done places other than the International Space Station.”


Written by Astro1 on October 5th, 2012 , Space Policy and Management

NASA has finally settled its lawsuit with the publishing industry over book scanning. Considering how aggressive Google has been with private publishers, its  handling of government documents seems rather odd.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of NASA publications on Google Books. Unfortunately, there are no full-text views for these books, only snippet views. Despite the fact that these are government documents and not subject to copyright.

One would think Google Books would know that. Especially given the close relationship between Google and NASA Ames Research Center. Let’s hope Google fixes this situation in the future.

Written by Astro1 on October 5th, 2012 , Books and Resources

NASA Watch editor Keith Cowing is upset because Sarah Brightman is spending her money the way she wants to, rather than the way Cowing wants her to.

In case you were wondering, for $51 million, according to a per-person cost of $2.58 from the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, you could vaccinate 19,767,442 people (yea 19+ MILLION) in developing nations with “5-in-1 vaccine” or“pentavalent” vaccine which protects against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), and hepatitis B. You could also buy 275,675 OLPC XO-1.75 laptops for students in a developing country at $185 each.

All emphasis per the original.

While we have serious reservations about the cost-effectiveness of Soyuz flights, we also recognize that it is Sarah Brightman’s money, to do with as she sees fit.

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Written by Astro1 on October 4th, 2012 , Citizen Exploration

ABC News is reporting that Phantom of the Opera actress/singer Sarah Brightman outbid NASA for a seat on a Soyuz flight to the International Space Station. Brightman reportedly bumped a NASA astronaut from the flight by agreeing to pay more than $51 million. (Update: NASA denies that any of its astronauts were bumped from the Soyuz flight. Update 2: Sarah Brightman has made an official announcement, as expected.)

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Written by Astro1 on October 3rd, 2012 , Citizen Exploration, Space Adventures, Virgin Galactic

We recently posted some observations from the second annual 100 Year Starship Symposium, which took place in Houston last month. Since that time, several people have asked us for our thoughts on how the 100 Year Starship Initiative ought to proceed.

We’ve been reluctant to offer any advice, due to the sheer enormity of the task which DARPA laid out for the initiative. Developing the technology to build and launch a starship in 100 years is an unprecedented challenge, which greatly exceeds any previous engineering project in both scope and duration. There are no precedents for the management of such a project.

After some reflection, however, one thing seems obvious to us. It is highly unlikely that the first starship will be built by NASA, DARPA, the 100 Year Starship Initiative, or any other Earth-bound institution.

The people who design and build the starship will almost certainly be living in space, with access to resources greatly exceeding those available to us on Earth and technologies beyond our current understanding.

Therefore, the most important thing the 100 Year Starship Initiative can do is to support near-term steps that will enable large numbers of people to move out into space, on a permanent basis.


Written by Astro1 on October 3rd, 2012 , Space Settlement

Earthrise over the surface of the Moon

Graduate student Ouliang Chang and Professor Madhu Thangavelu of the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering are suggesting that NASA should build a nuclear-powered mainframe supercomputer center on the Moon. For some reason, Wired Magazine is taking the idea seriously.

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Written by Astro1 on October 2nd, 2012 , Space Policy and Management

Citizens in Space, a project of the United States Rocket Academy, has been invited to present at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, to be held at the Moscone Center in San Francisco on December 3-7.

“We are pleased for the opportunity to discuss potential collaboration between professional and citizen scientists before such a distinguished audience,” said United States Rocket Academy president Edward Wright.


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Written by Astro1 on October 2nd, 2012 , Citizens in Space, Events

NASA Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover

Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University writes about “Pursuing Science Smartly” in the New York Times. Professor Krauss argues that robots such as Curiosity are cheaper and more efficient than humans, but he makes some significant mistakes.

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Written by Astro1 on October 2nd, 2012 , Space Exploration (General)

Back in August, we wrote about the perverse incentives of government space programs, in which projects that underperform or overrun their budgets are rewarded with more money.

A new report by the NASA Inspector General, reported by the IEEE Spectrum, indicates the problem is worse than we thought. Perverse incentives are now so common in NASA programs that managers have internalized them:

Many project managers we spoke with mentioned the “Hubble Psychology” – an expectation among NASA personnel that projects that fail to meet cost and schedule goals will receive additional funding and that subsequent scientific and technological success will overshadow any budgetary and schedule problems. They pointed out that although Hubble greatly exceeded its original budget, launched years after promised, and suffered a significant technological problem that required costly repair missions, the telescope is now generally viewed as a national treasure and its initial cost and performance issues have largely been forgotten.

IEEE Spectrum points out that the same psychology permeates the Defense Department as well.

“Help us, private sector. You’re our only remaining hope.”

Written by Astro1 on October 1st, 2012 , Space Policy and Management