U.S. Air Force 920th Rescue Wing in NASA Orion space capsule recovery exercise

Jeff Foust just tweeted this from the International Space Development Conference in San Diego:

Aldrin on capsule splashdowns: just because Elon loves salt water doesn’t mean thats’s the way spacecraft should return from space.

That is a bit unfair, since Elon Musk is developing technology to land future versions of his Dragon capsule on land — perhaps because of his experience with salt water. We suspect that Aldrin was twitting Musk and trying to draw a rise out of the audience.

Yet, he does have a point, as the United States government continues to spend billions of dollars to develop the Orion capsule, duplicating capabilities NASA had in the 1960’s. Meanwhile, the Dream Chaser spaceplane, based on 30 years of NASA and Soviet research, is in danger of cancelation even as it continues to advance toward flight test. It’s as if the Congress is determined to freeze the development of human spaceflight capabilities at 1960’s levels.

Every member of Congress who has a NASA center in his district seems to think that makes him an expert on space technology. Fortunately, their opinions may not be relevant much longer. The sooner we take human spaceflight out of the hands of politicians, the better.

Written by Astro1 on May 25th, 2013 , Space Policy and Management

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    Ed Wilson commented

    Yeah and Verily: The sooner we take human spaceflight out of the hands of politicians, the better. Amen! Amen! Amen!!!

    May 26, 2013 at 10:37 am
      Ioana C Wright commented

      I totally agree that a space exploration policy that makes technical and economical sense should not be decided by politicians. I’ve seen again and again how politics hampers true development, how political decisions actually harm people and human race more than doing good. However I keep asking myself if space exploration would exist without the dollars spent by the government? I keep asking myself how much politicians in fact truly represent the will of the voters that they represent?? My observation is that there are not many people who have and stick to a high ethics and who can put the good of humanity before their own good and fight for it. So if voters care about petty reasons then why should we expect politicians to be (and act) otherwise? Take the issue of the climate: it is not that it has not been brought up long ago and yet a recent pool shows that with all the information and knowledge that’s out there, some voters do not seem to care much and so do the politicians who represent them.

      Regarding the capsule theme-it is indeed old technology but the mentality is to build what has worked before because when you go through project reviews for some strange reason “heritage” seems to win. It gives the fake illusion that the system will be more reliable 🙂 Take the example of the TPS material on Orion: it won because of heritage reasons (same as on Apollo). Despite of the fact that we have stopped manufacturing it and the recipe was lost. And for the past 6 years Orion is working in recreating that recipe instead of simply taking what is being manufactured and has been flight tested (PICA material for example is the choice of material for Dragon as was for Stardust and Mars Science Laboratory). People within the organization have learned that they can milk the system without accomplishing much; hide behind the bureaucracy. People within the system have learned that they can use their positions of power to remove those who truly want to do good and advance state of the art. Like with any disease you have to learn where the root of the problem lies and treat that not the symptoms.

      May 26, 2013 at 11:07 am
    Ed Wilson commented

    The problem is KEEPING them out once we’ve accomplished that. Space is Power, and a Lot of IT. And not just electricity, but employment and economic development. California and Texas are going to be getting really hot at each other with SpaceX moving out (and a couple of others as well).

    It is now the time of the DC-3, soon – very soon, someone will build the first effective commercial space vehicle, and like Douglass Aircraft in 1935 the orders will flow (OK it was an aluminum avalanche, but each peace had a $$ attached). The money flow will bring a political power flow – and a big one, with it.

    And politicians are power addicts of the first water, and money hounds that are truly amazing. Keeping them from interfering with space development will be very very difficult. It isn’t so much getting the ones we want elected, it will be getting rid of the ones we don’t want un-elected.

    May 26, 2013 at 10:43 am
    Ed Wilson commented

    Ioana; I reserve the right to learn more from the comments than from the original post. Your’s is a prime example!

    What is TPS? A naval friend of mine said we couldn’t build a USS New Jersy anymore, some of the parts aren’t made, and the craftsmen who made them are all long dead.

    Also what is PICA? And what are they used for? (I’m not a capsule man).

    Ed Wilson

    May 26, 2013 at 11:20 am
      Fred Willett commented

      TPS = Thermal Protection System. For protecting a space vehicle from the heat of reentry.
      PICA is a TPS substance developed by NASA.
      PICA-X is a derivative developed by SpaceX with NASA help. Better and cheaper.

      May 27, 2013 at 1:11 am
        Ioana C Wright commented

        Agreed with the only correction that PICA is a material not a substance. Pica-X is a variant of PICA transferred to SpaceX by Dan Rasky (one of the inventors of the PICA material) and the director of the Space Portal at NASA Ames where I also work. PICA-X has indeed improved properties over PICA and it is also cheaper to manufacture. In fact one of the secrets of SpaceX’s success is that they manufacture pretty much everything in house.

        May 27, 2013 at 11:19 pm
      Coastal Ron commented

      “A naval friend of mine said we couldn’t build a USS New Jersy anymore, some of the parts aren’t made, and the craftsmen who made them are all long dead.”

      This is rubbish. My background is in manufacturing, and we have the same capabilities today that they had back in 1940 when the USS New Jersey’s keel was laid – and obviously far better capabilities too. Same goes for the engineering talent.

      Back to the subject at hand, I like the Dream Chaser, and if all things were equal I think it would be preferred by NASA and most LEO passengers.

      However I think SpaceX will offer far lower prices for their Dragon, and Boeing could lock up orders before Sierra Nevada does. It’s going to depend on how deep Sierra Nevada’s pockets are, and how quickly the Dream Chaser takes to become operational.

      May 27, 2013 at 9:57 am
        Ed Wilson commented

        If it is needful then we could build something better than the existing Iowa’s, faster, bigger / longer guns (which is why we’d build them), more of them, with at least some substantial air capability.

        We wouldn’t use oil fired engines for something that big (a big nuke like in the Gerry Fords or maybe another one – 3 of). I don’t see a fifth screw, but asopods would be nice.

        For the life of me I can’t see why anyone would try to rebuild the Titanic but… .

        I heard that the Chinese used #1 Canadian Maple as a heat shield on a re-entry vehicle, is this true? Seems like an interesting application for a one of use.

        May 31, 2013 at 11:19 am
      Ioana C Wright commented

      Ed-TPS stands for Thermal Protection System. Whether you have a capsule or a winged vehicle one needs TPS to protect against the high heating upon (re)entry in the atmosphere. Shuttle tiles are a classic example of reusable TPS however they do not protect you against too much heating though (maybe up to 100W/cm2). Capsules usually are exposed to higher heating and usually employ ablative TPS materials. (Stardust for example, a sample return capsule, is the fastest Earth reentry at about 15 km/s and the corresponding heating rate was about 900 W/cm2). Apollo’s TPS material was Avco manufactured by Textron. Avco is a silicone-based ablator. PICA stands for Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator. PICA was used for Stardust and PICA-X, a variant material developed by SpaceX is used on the Dragon capsules.
      I would not generalize the situation in a particular field with another. What may be true for some technologies pertinent to NASA may not necessarily be so for other government entities.
      My point here is that we are in the 21st century and yet our means of traveling on orbit and back (or beyond) are pretty much a capsule (technology developed 50 years ago) or a winged vehicle (not necessary of too much use to go the Moon or anywhere where there is no atmosphere). So far Elon is the only one trying to challenge these technologies by developing the Grass Hopper. But there are other concepts out there worth considering that could have been brought to a much more advanced state if the Constellation money would have been given to them. I think both SpaceX/Dragon and Sierra Nevada/DreamChaser have their place in the current scheme of things but we need to also think beyond.

      May 27, 2013 at 11:33 pm
    Fred Willett commented

    It’s not yet established if a winged vehicle or capsule is the best for a Earth to LEO vehicle. SpaceX & Boeing think capsule. SNC thinks winged vehicle.
    There may be a niche for both or one may win outright. Time will tell.

    May 27, 2013 at 1:28 am
      Ioana C Wright commented

      Well what are the criteria of deciding what is the best vehicle for Earth to LEO?
      For crewed vehicles/tourism:
      1. cost
      2. safety
      3. comfort (gloads)
      For commercial vehicles:
      1. cost
      2. payload mass and reliability
      The only operational capability so far is that of SpaceX/Dragon and it is limited to commercial payloads (not human rated yet).

      May 27, 2013 at 11:48 pm
        Astro1 commented

        The Space Shuttle was not man-rated.

        No aircraft has ever been man-rated.

        It is unclear what the benefits of man-rating actually are.

        May 28, 2013 at 12:17 am
          Ioana C Wright commented

          @Astro1: can you please be a little bit more explicit and tell us what you mean by man-rated? Thank you.

          May 28, 2013 at 3:14 am
            Astro1 commented

            Man-rating was a QA process developed in the developed in the 1960’s, to take guided missiles of questionable reliability and make them “safe” enough for astronauts. It imposed a huge paperwork burden on the manufacturing process in order to (supposedly) eliminate defects. This turned out be extremely expensive but historians say it had little effect on launch failure rates.

            There were also some minor hardware changes, primarily in the avionics to detect imminent failures and signal the capsule so the launch escape e system could be activated in time.

            May 28, 2013 at 9:45 am
            Ioana C Wright commented

            I am pretty puzzled by your strong statements. Could you give us some references to support them? I know that NASA has policies that differ when spacecrafts are designed for cargo vs human rated.

            May 29, 2013 at 5:58 pm
            Astro1 commented

            See “To Reach the High Frontier, a History of US Launch Vehicles” by Launius and Jenkins.

            Redstone, Atlas, and Titan were not designed for humans. They were designed by the military, for carrying warheads, and adapted to carry astronauts. The Shuttle (which carried 90% of all astronauts ever launched by the US) was never man-rated. NASA issued hundreds of waivers to its safety requirements (the requirement for a launch-escape system, for example). That leaves only two examples, the Saturn IB and Saturn V…

            Why should NASA have different standards for cargo and humans? A one-billion dollar satellite is more valuable than the life of an astronaut. (If it isn’t, then NASA should be giving each astronaut a $1 billion life-insurance policy.)

            May 30, 2013 at 12:58 pm