18 February 2018

Should We End Our ISS Partnership With Russia?

ISS, Earth, and Moon. Image credit: NASA
In August 1992, I was a new contractor employee at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. NASA JSC was at that time reeling from cuts in the Space Station Freedom (SSF) Program. At the same time, JSC engineers were trying to reconcile themselves to the agreement U.S. President George H. W. Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin had concluded in Moscow on 17 June 1992. The agreement called for a U.S. astronaut to live and work on board Russia's Mir space station, a Russian cosmonaut to fly on a U.S. Space Shuttle Orbiter, and a Shuttle Orbiter to dock with the Russian Space Station Mir, the first element of which had been launched by the Soviet Union in 1986.

In addition, NASA had paid Russia $1 million to assess use of a series of three-person Soyuz spacecraft as SSF lifeboats until a U.S. lifeboat could be built, and to look at possible U.S. purchase of other Russian-developed space technology (for example, the docking unit built for the Soviet Buran Shuttle, which was based on a U.S. design developed for the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Program and the Soviet design proposed for the abortive Shuttle-Salyut Program).

The Soyuz lifeboat was not intended to transport a crew to SSF. Instead, it would launch to SSF, which would circle Earth in an orbit inclined 28.5 degrees to Earth's equator, from U.S. soil in a Shuttle Orbiter payload bay or atop an expendable U.S. rocket. In November 1992, a NASA-Russia team traveled to Australia to assess its wide open spaces as possible emergency landing sites for Soyuz lifeboats.

Just before the joint team toured Australia, voters in the U.S. went to the polls to elect William Clinton as their President. NASA JSC trembled - many employed there as Federal civil servants and contractors felt sure that President Clinton would end SSF. In fact, he did just that, but he did not end the Space Station Program. Clinton also retained NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, an appointee of President Bush.

In March 1993 - 25 years ago next month - Clinton ordered NASA to provide three new, lower-cost designs for a U.S. space Station and tasked his Vice President, Al Gore, with overseeing the redesign. Gore appointed a committee to assess the three redesign options NASA would develop.

Also in March 1993, Yuri Koptev, director of the newly formed Russian Space Agency, and Yuri Semenov, director of Russia's chief piloted spaceflight design bureau, NPO Energia, wrote to NASA Administrator Goldin to formally propose the merger of the U.S. station with Russia's planned Mir-2 station. The Russian Federation was broke, so unless it could find a new funding source, Mir-2 would never fly.

In addition, Russian space engineers were going unpaid. It seemed likely that, if they could not work on Russian space hardware, they would sell their expertise abroad to the highest bidder. This could lead to world-wide missile proliferation at a time when the Russian nuclear arsenal was judged by many to be poorly supervised.

The U.S. House of Representatives nearly killed NASA's space station on 23 June 1993; by a single vote it survived in the NASA Fiscal Year 1994 budget. Meanwhile, the proposal to merge the U.S. station and Mir-2 gained momentum. A major sticking point was the orbit in which the station would be assembled. Nevertheless, as I celebrated a year of work at NASA JSC, I became increasingly confident that the joint station would be built. Space science arguments seemed not to move the Congress; Russian involvement, on the other hand, gave the station a geopolitical purpose Congress seemed ready to endorse. The U.S.-Russian space station plan became a reality in November 1993; at the same time, NASA and Russia expanded the Bush-Yeltsin agreement to include multiple U.S. Shuttle flights to Mir.

The International Space Station (ISS) would be built with contributions from the U.S., Russia, Canada, the European Space Agency, and Japan in an orbit inclined 51.6 degrees relative to the equator - close to the latitude of Baikonur Cosmodrome. This enabled Soyuz to default to its role as a space station crew transport. It would carry international crews to ISS, where it would remain docked for up to six months. If it became necessary to abandon ISS, Soyuz would land in long-established landing zones on Russian soil. The U.S. Space Shuttle could reach that orbit bearing U.S., Canadian, European, and Japanese station components, but with a diminished payload weight.

I need not go into the history of the Shuttle-Mir Program and ISS Program in great detail. Suffice it to say that the U.S.-Russian relationship was rocky at times. NASA, of course, had no choice but to make it work.

In March 1995, I left NASA JSC to edit Star Date magazine, but NASA was not through with me; I was hired to write a series of publications for NASA JSC and NASA Headquarters. I quit Star Date after editing two issues and in effect became my own company, just like Lockheed Martin, SpaceX, or Boeing. I retained a NASA JSC badge until 2001 and even worked for several months as a short-term Federal civil servant with an office in Building 2, which houses NASA JSC Public Affairs. I was offered a permanent job - editing the employee newspaper, The Space News Roundup - but ran away screaming for reasons I will not go into here.

In April 1996, on my own dime, I toured Russian space facilities and met Russian space engineering students, space engineers, cosmonauts, and Russian Space Agency officials as part of the first Friends and Partners in Space Workshop. I wrote about it for Astronomy magazine. Almost all the Russians I met were cordial, welcoming, and open.

At this moment, when the U.S. teeters on the edge of crisis, one detail in particular stands out in my memory. At the close of the workshop, we had dinner in the revolving restaurant high above Moscow on the Ostankino TV Tower. As the restaurant turned, we could see different parts of the city spread out below us. A closed-off neighborhood of mansions came into view. It stood out against the more ramshackle buildings of Soviet-era Moscow. I asked one of our student guides about it. He hesitated, looking nervous, but also a little disgusted. "Those are the mansions of the oligarchs," he said. "We do not talk about those."

In the mid-1990s, many hoped that Russia might become a functioning democracy, but that hope faded in the first decade of the present century. The corrupt oligarchs finished building their mansions and took power, led by Vladimir Putin. They began to "meddle" in the affairs of other nations, starting with countries that had been part of the old Soviet Union. As the years passed, their methods became more sophisticated and were expanded beyond the old Soviet sphere. Meddling became outright attack on democratic institutions.

At some point, many histories will be written about this period. I do not propose to attempt that here. Suffice it to say that the U.S. has been attacked and remains under attack. It will win through, but doing so will likely require drastic (though lawful) measures.

Among these could be the end of the U.S.-Russian partnership in space. So far, little has emerged to suggest that NASA and Russia might be in conflict (at least, they appear to be in no greater state of conflict than they have been before); however, if they are not in conflict, perhaps they should be.

I believe it is time to consider closing the hatches between the Russian Service Module and the U.S.-owned FGB and cutting all the connections that bind the U.S. and Russian segments together. Russia has attacked our most fundamental institutions; how can we continue to work with them off the Earth? Discarding the Russian segment would be a highly visible sign that the U.S. and its partners are not prepared to tolerate Putin's actions.

I am, of course, aware that U.S. piloted spaceflight is highly dependent on Russia. Russian Soyuz spacecraft transport Station crews, and Russian propellants and rocket motors keep ISS in orbit. I am also aware that, in the past, the U.S. has been able to respond with remarkable rapidity to attacks waged against it. I think we could do so again.

For example, SpaceX and Boeing could be required to accelerate their piloted spaceflight efforts - to put on hold, for the good of the nation and as a sign of their patriotism, other work until their piloted Earth-orbital spacecraft can be certified as flightworthy.

Modifications to one or all of the various commercial logistics vehicles that visit ISS might enable them to raise its orbit. The U.S. Air Force X-37 spacecraft might also be modified.

I expect there are other options as well. Perhaps Europe, Canada, and Japan could draw upon their technology and experience to provide options; for example, NASA might pay ESA to revive the ATV cargo vehicle. Perhaps ESA would do so for free; after all, among its members are nations that have also been subjected to Russian attack.

Protest and punishment mean nothing unless they inconvenience those they are directed against. The Russian segment would suffer an acute electricity shortage. Losing power from the U.S. arrays might, in fact, kill Russia's part of ISS, and with it, perhaps, its piloted space program.

There was a time when that knowledge would have led me to reconsider what I propose here. For me, however, that time is now over.

13 February 2018

Around the Moon in 80 Hours (1958)

The Earth-Moon binary as imaged by the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) Shoemaker Discovery mission during its Earth gravity-assist flyby on 23 January 1998. Image credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/NASA
On 29 July 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which created the civilian National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Eisenhower saw NASA as a way of separating the serious military business of nuclear missile and spy satellite development from "stunts" aimed at responding to Soviet prestige victories in space. In the old General's view, such stunts included launching a man into Earth orbit.

In a presentation to the American Astronautical Society at Stanford University the following month, Dandridge Cole and Donald Muir, engineers with The Martin Company in Denver, Colorado, detailed how NASA might launch humans around Earth's moon. First, however, they warned that the "Russians may have such a long lead. . .that they will have made landings on the [M]oon before. . .our first circumlunar flight." They predicted that the Soviet Union would be capable of a piloted circumlunar flight in 1963, four years before the United States. In a dig at President Eisenhower, Cole and Muir added that "on the technical side, at least, there seems to be no reason why this goal could not be accomplished [by the U.S.] by 1963."

They outlined a general plan of piloted spaceflight development. Within four years, Cole and Muir wrote, the first American would be launched into Earth orbit using a missile already under development. The same missile might then be used to launch components for a circumlunar flight into Earth orbit, components which would be joined to form a cislunar spacecraft. Alternately (and this was the method they preferred), missiles might be clustered to form a single large rocket capable of launching the circumlunar spacecraft from Earth's surface on a direct path around the Moon.

The four-stage "Missile B" rocket would launch the circumlunar astronaut around the Moon. Image credit: The Martin Company
The Martin engineers estimated that a 160,000-pound-thrust U.S. launch vehicle ("Missile A") could become available by 1963; to create their circumlunar launcher ("Missile B"), they proposed clustering four Missile A's to create a first stage capable of generating 610,000 pounds of thrust. Missile B's second stage would comprise a single Missile A, and its third and fourth stages a 40,000-pound-thrust rocket and a 10,000-pound-thrust rocket, respectively.

Though a two-week circumlunar trip would require the least energy (and thus the smallest launch vehicle), Cole and Muir opted for a trip lasting three or four days to protect the astronaut's psychological health. "For one man alone in a tiny sealed capsule on a journey of 250,000 miles from the [E]arth," they explained, "the difference between three or four days and two weeks might approach infinity."

Reduced trip time also would slash the quantity of life-support consumables the pilot would need. The amount of energy required to reduce the trip time from two weeks to three or four days would be modest, they estimated, though reducing it still further would demand a prohibitive amount of energy (and thus an undesirably large launch vehicle).

The bucket-shaped circumlunar capsule would weigh 9000 pounds. Cole and Muir may have based its shape on nuclear warhead delivery systems under development at the time they wrote their paper.

The capsule's circumlunar path would have three parts. The outbound leg would require 35.4 hours. It would be followed by a 9.3-hour "hyperbola" past the Moon. The capsule would pass just 10 miles over the unknown Farside, where the "synthesizing power of the human brain [would] permit collection of more accurate and more meaningful data than could be obtained by photographic techniques alone." The third leg of the mission, the 35.4-hour fall back to Earth, would mirror the outbound leg. The circumlunar voyager would be treated to a magnificent view of Earth rising over the lunar horizon as he began his journey home.

Cutaway of Cole and Muir's circumlunar capsule showing the water-filled "tub" for protecting the astronaut from high deceleration during Earth-atmosphere reentry. A variant of the circumlunar capsule would serve as the first lunar lander. Image credit: The Martin Company
The heat shield for high-speed Earth-atmosphere reentry would weigh just 500 pounds, Cole and Muir estimated. As Earth filled the capsule's view ports, the pilot's "bathtub-type" couch would fill with water to cushion him from reentry deceleration. A lid with a window would prevent the water from escaping in zero-G before deceleration commenced. Cole and Muir wrote that, because "the water would be needed only in the last phase of the trip, it could be reserve drinking or washing water." Despite the potential weight savings, they hesitated "to suggest that it might be water. . .already used for drinking or washing."

The capsule would enter Earth's atmosphere blunt nose first. As deceleration began, the bathtub couch would pivot so that the pilot faced the capsule's flat aft end. This would cause him to feel capsule deceleration through his back, enabling him to withstand greater sustained deceleration loads.

After a fiery atmosphere reentry, the capsule would deploy fins for steering. Landing would be by parachute at sea or on U.S. soil near a waiting recovery crew.

Cole and Muir expected that the piloted circumlunar journey would merely open the door to lunar exploration. A series of automated lunar landings would soon follow it. Some would deliver automated scientific instruments that would explore the lunar environment, while others would stockpile propellants and supplies on the surface.

Toward the end of the 1960s decade, the same multi-part "Missile B" rocket design that launched the circumlunar flight would launch a piloted lunar lander. The pre-landed supplies and propellants would, Cole and Muir wrote, enable use of a variant of the circumlunar spacecraft as a small, low-cost lunar lander. Landers would set down on the Moon with nearly empty propellant tanks, refuel using the pre-landed propellants, and draw on pre-landed supplies to enable ever-longer surface stays. A temporary lunar base would be established by 1970, and permanent bases permitting "extensive exploration of the major areas of the [M]oon's surface" would follow soon after.

Cole and Muir ended their paper with rousing words. "Time may well prove," they wrote, "that the man who climbs out of [the circumlunar] capsule to receive the cheers of the recovery crew. . .made a voyage of greater importance to the human race than that of Columbus."


"Around the Moon in 80 Hours," D. Cole and D. Muir, Advances in Astronautical Sciences, Volume 3, Proceedings of the Western Regional Meeting of the American Astronautical Society, 18-19 August 1958, pp. 27-1 through 27-30, 1958

More Information

"He Who Controls the Moon Controls the Earth" (1958)

Plush Bug, Economy Bug, Shoestring Bug, (1961)

Harold Urey and the Moon (1961)

Space Race: The Notorious 1962 Proposal to Launch an Astronaut on a One-Way Trip to the Moon (1962)

05 February 2018

Creation of an Artificial Lunar Atmosphere (1974)

The Lunar Module included a descent stage for descent from lunar orbit and lunar surface landing and an ascent stage for return to lunar orbit. This image, captured from television transmitted to Earth by the parked Apollo 16 Lunar Roving Vehicle, shows the moment the ascent stage engine of the Lunar Module Orion ignited. Hot gas from the engine plume blasted pieces of thermal insulation kilometers in all directions. Image credit: NASA
On the Earth's moon, nothing is a valuable resource. At the lunar surface, where astronauts hop and rovers rove, the environment is a nearly pure vacuum. The total amount of gas spread over the Moon's entire surface - which has an area greater than that of Africa - is less than 50 metric tons. This makes the Moon a potentially important site for high-tech industrial processes.

The Moon owes its lack of atmosphere to the Sun. Solar wind and ultraviolet light ionize gas atoms, making them susceptible to transport by the interplanetary magnetic field. Half the atoms escape into space and the rest are driven into the lunar surface material.

In 1974, in the pages of the prestigious publication Nature, Richard Vondrak of NASA's Goddard Research Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, pointed out that lunar vacuum "is a fragile state that could be modified by human activity." He urged that it be "treated carefully if it is to be preserved."

At the time Vondrak wrote, his concern was not wholly academic. In the early 1970s, not a few engineers within NASA expected that the Space Shuttle would lead to a return to the Moon in the 1980s. A lunar outpost where astronauts would conduct resource extraction and beneficiation experiments and test prototype high-vacuum industrial processes would follow soon after.

Vondrak estimated that each of the six Apollo landing missions had doubled the mass of the Moon's atmosphere. He cited two main sources of Moon pollution: life support gases released from Apollo space suits and the Apollo Lunar Module (LM) cabin and rocket exhaust from the Apollo LM rocket motors. The lunar atmosphere returned to normal after a month, however, leading Vondrak to assert that "small lunar colonies" and modest mining would pose "no lasting hazard to the lunar environment."

If, however, more "vigorous" human activity pumped up the lunar atmosphere to a mass of one billion metric tons, solar wind and ultraviolet light would be unable to ionize more than its outermost fringe. The thin lunar atmosphere would then persist for centuries even if no more gas were added, Vondrak wrote.

Vondrak looked briefly at the far-out prospect of creating an Earth-density atmosphere on the Moon by vaporizing oxygen-rich lunar dirt using nuclear blasts. At the time he wrote, the U.S. nuclear arsenal numbered about 28,000 warheads. He estimated that generating an Earth-density atmosphere would require roughly 10,000 times more warheads than the U.S. possessed. Not surprisingly, Vondrak judged this approach to be impractical.


"Creation of an Artificial Lunar Atmosphere," Richard R. Vondrak, Nature, Vol. 248, 19 April 1974, pp. 657-659

More Information

There's a Hell of a Good World Next Door

The Eighth Continent

Rocket Belts and Rocket Chairs: Lunar Flying Units

"A Continuing Aspect of Human Endeavor": Bellcomm's January 1968 Lunar Exploration Plan

03 February 2018

Update: New Job, New Plans

Gateway to the lunar surface base. Image credit: Boeing.
As some of you are aware, at the end of December I left my job as archivist, map librarian, and outreach guy at the U.S. Geological Survey's Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. I worked there for a little over 10 years. At the beginning of January, I started a new job as Community Outreach Specialist at the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera Science Operations Center (LROC SOC), which is part of the School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) at Arizona State University in Tempe, a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona.

I am currently working remotely and part-time - we'll move down to Phoenix in a few months and I'll go full-time - yet I find myself putting in a lot of extra hours to get to know LRO, LROC, SESE, and ASU as quickly as I can. This is, after all, a dream job for me. I had long hoped that I might become part of a space mission team, and now I've made it happen.

This is a big life-change, which unfortunately means that I have neglected this blog. I've stopped scratching items off my list of planned posts and stopped suddenly writing impromptu new posts. I've managed a couple of omnibus posts bringing together in chronological order links to past posts and also an opinion piece, but I completed my most recent meaty new post just before Christmas. I have completed a large portion of a post on early NASA circumlunar plans, but it has stalled for the time being.

It might sound as though I plan to abandon writing about spaceflight outside the boundaries of my LROC job. That is, however, not correct. In fact, my new job has me so fired up that I can foresee a day when I'll be settled in and have a lot of excess energy to expend. It feels like someone turned the oxygen back on.

I am looking for ways to make this blog serve two purposes: first, to be a really nifty blog that teaches people about cool space history stuff and, second, to help me learn things applicable to my LROC job. So - you heard it here first - I hereby declare 2018 to be The Spaceflight History Year of the Moon Base.

I know what you are thinking now. "Yeah, right, he's making promises again and he ain't gonna come through. He'll get distracted and it'll be like, 'Hey, look, Mars is at opposition!'" (More likely, it'll be like, "Dammit, kiddo, pack up your books, the moving van is due in 15 minutes!")

So, getting back to this moon base thing. You see, several years ago I contracted with NASA to write a lunar counterpart to my book Humans to Mars. Then my wife was killed and my daughter gravely injured in a car crash, putting everything on hold, NASA changed historians, and when I asked them about getting started on Humans to the Moon again, I found that they had lost interest.

I had, however, by then done much of my research. I still have the documents I collected, and now the time seems right to put them to good use.

Just to get you in the proper frame of mind, here are links to the few moon base-type posts that are already part of this blog. Enjoy!

"A Continuing Aspect of Human Endeavor": Bellcomm's January 1968 Lunar Exploration Program

As Gemini Was to an Apollo Lunar Landing by 1970, So Apollo Would Be to a Permanent Lunar Base in 1980 (1968)

SEI Swan Song: International Lunar Resources Exploration Concept (1993)

28 January 2018

Chronology: Failure Was an Option 1.0

Image credit: NASA
Periodically, I write a post in which I list in chronological order links to posts in this blog which I originally presented in no particular order. History is, after all, in large measure about chronology, so these omnibus posts are meant to aid understanding. This post brings together posts with the label "Failure Was An Option" and is offered as a memorial to the 17 persons who have died on board NASA spacecraft.

The end of January and beginning of February is a time of remembrance for NASA piloted spaceflight. On 27 January 1967, astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee lost their lives in the Apollo 1 fire. On 28 January 1986, the crew of Space Shuttle mission STS-51L (Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ron McNair, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe) perished after the Orbiter Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after launch. On 1 February 2003, the STS-107 crew (Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon) died when the Orbiter Columbia broke up during reentry after a nearly 16-day mission in Earth orbit.

Piloted spaceflight has never been routine, though sometimes, for reasons that have little to do with best practices in space engineering, it has been unwisely treated as such. Throughout the history of U.S. piloted spaceflight, however, NASA and its contractors typically have tried to anticipate possible malfunctions and, where possible, develop procedures for dealing with them.

What If an Apollo Saturn Rocket Exploded on the Launch Pad? (1965)

What If Apollo Astronauts Could Not Ride the Saturn V Rocket? (1965)

North American Aviation's 1965 Plan to Rescue Apollo Astronauts Stranded in Lunar Orbit

What If an Apollo Lunar Module Ran Low on Fuel and Aborted Its Moon Landing? (1966)

If an Apollo Lunar Module Crashed on the Moon, Could NASA Investigate the Cause? (1967)

What If Apollo Astronauts Became Marooned in Lunar Orbit? (1968)

A CSM-Only Back-Up Plan for the Apollo 13 Mission to the Moon (1970)

What If a Crew Became Stranded On Board the Skylab Space Station? (1972)

What If a Space Shuttle Orbiter Had to Ditch? (1975)

George Landwehr von Pragenau's Quest for a Stronger, Safer Space Shuttle (1984)

What If a Shuttle Orbiter Struck a Bird? (1988)

NASA's 1992 Plan to Land Soyuz Space Station Lifeboats in Australia

22 January 2018

Dreaming a Different Apollo 1.0

Lunar Truck. Image credit: Grumman
As long-time readers of this blog know, occasionally I get creative and change history. Not in my history posts, if I can help it, but through alternate history posts I group under the general title "Dreaming a Different Apollo." Some are silly, some not, and some (most?) are brazen exercises in wishful thinking. All, however, are entertaining to a greater or lesser degree (or so my readers seem to think) and maybe even a bit instructive, since I try to make them as realistic as possible.

Below is a list of all the "Dreaming a Different Apollo" posts so far, with a brief description hinting at what each is about. Have fun.

Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part One: Shameless Wishful Thinking (Apollo/Saturn continues indefinitely, much as has Soyuz in our timeline, but with more capabilities.)

Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part Two: Jimmy Carter's Space Shuttle (President Jimmy Carter looked carefully at the Space Shuttle he inherited from Nixon and Ford and said, "Holy crap, this thing is dangerous!")

Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part Three: Circumnavigation (The Mercury-Atlas 10 mission ended in tears, discouraging President Kennedy and emboldening the Soviets. The U.S. lost the moon race - but soon opened a new chapter in lunar exploration.)

Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part Four: Naming Names (Fleshing out Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part One.)

Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part Five: Victory Lap (A fully reusable Space Shuttle was phased in during the 1980s. A vignette about a hero returning to Earth.)

Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part Six: Star Trek as an Exemplar of Space Age Popular Culture (An excerpt from my Master's Thesis in an alternate timeline.)

31 December 2017

There's a Hell of a Good World Next Door

Image credit: U.S. Air Force
I am fond of Mars - honestly, who isn't? It looks a little like some parts of Arizona, the southwest U.S. state where I live, so at first glance it seems cozily familiar. The cultural history of Mars is rich: it has been a favorite science-fiction setting for more than a century.

Most exciting to me, Mars might yet prove to be a home to life. We'll likely determine whether Mars lives by exploring the planet's delightfully complex geology. It seems probable, given how inhospitable is Mars's surface, that, if there is life on Mars, then it will be life in Mars. After all, much of Earth's biomass lives deep within its crust, happily metabolizing rocks and hot water. A few kilometers down, Mars and Earth might provide virtually identical habitats for life.

Mars exerts a powerful pull on our emotions. That being said, however, one has to exercise caution when emotions are part of the mix (as they always are). The thought of humans on Mars is exhilarating. Should humans, however, actually set booted foot on Mars?

I think the answer to that question must be yes - eventually. Humans should travel to every place they can. As we gain experience, improve our technology, develop new spaceflight concepts, and mull over data received from our robotic spacecraft, we become more capable. As we become more capable, we increase the probability that we can achieve success.

By "success," I mean several things. There's the obvious one: we increase the likelihood that humans will survive the Mars trip without short-term or long-term injury and be able to perform meaningful exploration. We also increase the likelihood that we will not clumsily interfere with the study of any native living things by accidentally introducing terrestrial biological contamination.

It would be really helpful if we had a place nearby where we could prepare ourselves for journeys throughout the Solar System. A good-sized world with a range of exotic alien environments and a complex geology. A world from which we might return rapidly if we got ourselves in over our heads. Bonus points for a world we can reach cheaply, using technologies we have at hand, and from which we can extract resources that could facilitate our journeys to more distant worlds.

Such a world exists. It bears boot prints nearly half a century old. Using technology shockingly primitive by modern standards, 12 humans walked, worked, and drove there. When they needed advice and assistance, they spoke with a support team back on Earth with a one-way radio time-delay of only 1.25 seconds. One spacecraft suffered a crippling oxygen tank explosion, but Earth was close enough that its three-man crew was able to return home safely.

I've expressed my views concerning this nearby world before on this blog. I've called it a part of Earth. Together with Earth, it forms a binary world unique in the inner Solar System. Mercury and Venus have no moons; Mars has two, but they more closely resemble middling-sized asteroids than they do planets. Earth, however, has as its near neighbor the planet-size Moon, a world which, were it a continent, would rank after only Asia in surface area. It is the fifth-largest moon in the Solar System; only Ganymede, Titan, Callisto, and Io, all moons of outer Solar System gas giant planets, are larger.

We have barely explored our planet's moon. Automated and piloted orbiters have surveyed its entire surface off and on over the past half-century, but no functioning spacecraft has landed on the Farside, the hemisphere of the Moon we cannot see. Nor has any spacecraft soft-landed near its poles, where ice hides in permanently shadowed craters at temperatures near those the New Horizons spacecraft measured at Pluto.

The ice at the lunar poles might supply life support consumables and rocket propellants for at least tens of thousands of years. By virtue of its low gravity - just half that of Mars and one-sixth that of Earth - and its lack of an atmosphere, the Moon could become an economical water supplier for an Earth-Moon infrastructure that might include habitats, spacecraft service stations, powerful observatories, lasers for boosting light sails, human-tended factories, and other facilities. Many of these facilities could be built at least in part from lunar titanium, aluminum, and glass. By the time the Earth-Moon infrastructure attains that level of sophistication, propellants needed for fast and frequent piloted journeys to Mars will amount to an incidental fraction of the total produced on the Moon.

Developing the Moon also gives us time to try to determine, using robots, whether life exists on Mars. It buys us time to decide what Mars life - and, indeed, life of other worlds - should mean for us and our posterity. Microbial life on or in Mars might not be a dead end; it might instead be biding its time. After all, for nearly all of its history, life on Earth was strictly microbial.

Gaining experience in the Earth-Moon system opens up many new opportunities beyond Mars. If we determine that long-term habitation of Mars is undesirable, then the lessons we learn and capabilities we acquire by developing the Moon and cislunar space could be readily applied to worlds throughout the Solar System. Consider this: Earth and its moon resemble more worlds in the Solar System than does Mars. The Moon resembles any number of vacuum worlds with significant surface gravity (Mercury, Ganymede, Iapetus, Miranda, Pluto), while Earth shares traits with Venus and Titan. Only Mars combines significant gravity with just enough atmosphere to raise dust storms.

If Mars pulls on our emotions, then it is probably not too bold to say - without any hint of superiority - that the Moon pulls on our minds. Of course, people who value the Moon have an emotional stake in it. It seems different to me, however, than the exuberance many feel toward Mars. I suspect that, if you have read this far, then you might see a difference, too.

Image credit: NASA

The post title is a play on the last line of e. e. cummings' free-verse sonnet "pity this busy monster, manunkind," published in 1944. That line reads - "listen: there's a hell of a good universe next door; let's go"

More Information

The Eighth Continent

Harold Urey and the Moon (1961)

"A Continuing Aspect of Human Endeavor": Bellcomm's January 1968 Lunar Exploration Program

Rocket Belts and Rocket Chairs: Lunar Flying Units

Apollo's End: NASA Cancels Apollo 15 & Apollo 19 to Save Station/Shuttle (1970)

23 December 2017

What If a Shuttle Orbiter Struck a Bird? (1988)

Final approach: the Shuttle Orbiter Discovery lands on the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, at the end of its longest mission (STS-131, 5-20 April 2010). Image credit: NASA
The first NASA astronaut to die in the line of duty was U. S. Air Force Captain Theodore Freeman. Little known today, Freeman was a member of the third astronaut selection group, which NASA introduced to the world on 18 October 1963. The group included 10 astronauts who would become famous - Michael Collins, Edwin Aldrin, Alan Bean, David Scott, Russell Schweickart, William Anders, Eugene Cernan, Walter Cunningham, Donn Eisele, and Richard Gordon - and three besides Freeman who would perish before reaching orbit - Clifton Williams, Roger Chaffee, and Charles Bassett. Of the seven pre-Shuttle NASA astronaut groups, Group 3 experienced more pre-flight astronaut deaths than any other.

The astronauts had at their disposal Northrop T-38 Talon supersonic training aircraft. They used them in two basic ways: for training sorties to accumulate flight time so that they could keep their piloting skills well honed and retain their flight status, and as readily available, speedy transportation to NASA and contractor facilities and training sites across the United States. Transportation flights also contributed to the flight time requirement.

On 31 October 1964, 34-year-old Freeman took off alone in a T-38 from Ellington Air Force Base, located between downtown Houston, Texas, and NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC). He began his training sortie by flying over MSC, then out over Clear Lake and Galveston Bay.

NASA's Third Astronaut Group. Theodore Freeman is in the back row, fourth from left. Image credit: NASA
As he returned to Ellington, a flock of Canadian geese took wing to one side of his flight path. As he made a turn, the flock rose up around his T-38, and one bird struck and shattered the plane's plexiglass forward canopy. Plexiglass shards entered the jet's twin engines through their air intakes. Moments later, the engines began to fail.

The eight-pound goose did not enter the T-38's intakes, though some sources report that it did. In fact, after striking the canopy, it struck the plane's rear seat, then spun away along the jet's upper fuselage.

Freeman tried to line up with an Ellington runway, but the engines flamed out and his plane began a steep dive at low altitude. He ejected, but before his parachute had time to open he struck the ground and was killed.

In October 1983, nearly 20 years after Freeman's untimely death, The Christian Science Monitor published a puff piece on NASA's efforts to keep wild pigs and alligators off the 15,000-foot-long, 300-foot-wide Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) runway at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. The story was timely because NASA aimed to achieve its first Orbiter landing at the SLF in January 1984. The space agency had planned to land Challenger at the SLF at the end of mission STS-7 on 24 June 1983, but had to divert it to Edwards Air Force Base (EAFB) in California after KSC became fogged in.

The north end of the SLF is about a mile from the Visitor Center for the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (MINWR). MINWR and KSC both owe their origin to President John F. Kennedy's 25 May 1961 "moon speech." In 1962-1963, NASA acquired more than 140,000 acres of orange groves, swamp, and beaches to create a safety buffer around its Apollo Saturn V launch pads and other facilities. As landowners moved out, sometimes grudgingly, wildlife moved in.

On 28 August 1963, the space agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed that the latter would manage the roughly 90% of KSC that NASA did not actively use. The interagency agreement assumed that KSC activities would increase over the course of the 1960s and 1970s and that its facilities would steadily expand. Apollo-era construction leveled off in 1966-1967, however.

Major facilities expansion did not begin again at KSC until April 1974, when the Morrison-Knudsen Company began work on the $22-million-dollar SLF. The facility, modeled on flight research runways at EAFB, was completed in 1976. It became KSC's airport, supporting astronaut T-38s, Gulfstream II Shuttle Training Aircraft, and other planes and helicopters. The first spaceworthy Orbiter, Columbia, arrived at the SLF atop a 747 carrier aircraft in March 1979.

The Shuttle Landing Facility. Image credit: NASA
A NASA spokesman told The Christian Science Monitor's reporter that KSC and MINWR played host to "all kinds of bald eagles, vultures, lots of brown pelicans, and ducks in winter." This was, however, not of great concern; the Shuttle Orbiter was a glider, he explained, so lacked air intakes that might ingest birds.

The Christian Science Monitor reporter wrote that the Orbiter had "triple-strength windows." This was a reference to the design of the six windows making up the flight deck windshield; each was three panes thick, with empty spaces between the panes. The outermost pane, the "thermal" pane, was attached to the fuselage structure; the innermost pane, the "pressure" pane, was attached to the crew cabin structure. Between these, also attached to the crew cabin structure, was a thick "redundant" pane.

The article affected an almost humorous tone as it described measures aimed at keeping alligators and wild pigs off the SLF. It seemed impossible that the Space Shuttle, a pinnacle of U.S. technological know-how, could ever be harmed by mere animals. Its author did suggest, however, that running over alligators basking in the Sun on the SLF runway might damage the Orbiter's "delicate landing gear."

On its second try, at the end of mission STS 41-B in February 1984, Challenger glided to a safe landing on the SLF runway. NASA hailed the landing, little more than five miles from the launch pad Challenger had left just eight days before, as a major step toward routine Shuttle flights and Shuttle launch rates of up to 25 per year.

A little less than two years later, on 28 January 1986, Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after liftoff from KSC's Pad 39B, killing its seven-person crew. The disaster revealed that the Shuttle stack - twin reusable Solid Rocket Boosters, expendable External Tank, and reusable delta-winged Shuttle Orbiter - was much less robust than many had assumed.

Under intense scrutiny, NASA commenced a wide-ranging examination of Space Shuttle systems and operations. The U.S. civilian space agency soon found that many of its comfortable assumptions were incorrect.

Shuttle windshield: the Orbiter Endeavour during mission STS-123 (11-27 March 2008). Image credit: NASA

Karen Edelstein, with NASA's Johnson Space Center, and Robert McCarty of the Wright Aeronautical Laboratories at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, reported on results of their study of bird impacts on the Orbiter windshield. They determined that, far from being triple-strength, it was "a poor barrier to bird impacts."

In fact, computer modeling using a refined version of the U. S. Air Force Material and Geometrically Nonlinear Analysis (MAGNA) program showed that, in every case, a four-pound bird - for example, a typical turkey vulture - would penetrate all three windshield panes in less than a second and enter the flight deck if the Orbiter were moving above an indeterminate speed between 150 knots (172 miles per hour) and 175 knots (201 miles per hour). They noted that the Orbiter traveled at up to 355 knots (408 miles per hour) as it fell past 10,000 feet and 195 knots (224 miles per hour) as its rear wheels touched the SLF runway.

This meant that at no time during descent through altitudes where birds fly did the Orbiter's windshield provide protection from bird strikes. In fact, the crew on the flight deck remained vulnerable until about the time the Orbiter's nose gear touched concrete.

Edelstein and McCarty did not examine in detail a bird impact leading to a partial window failure; for example, broken thermal and redundant panes and an intact pressure pane. This scenario was expected to occur at speeds as low as 150 knots. One may speculate that at the very least a partial failure would make the affected window essentially opaque; it might also create extra drag, altering the handling characteristics of the Orbiter.

A turkey vulture. Its wingspan is about six feet. Image credit: Wikipedia
They noted that, short of a major redesign, there was little NASA could do to beef up the Orbiter windows. They urged designers of future space planes to seek materials more sturdy than glass when designing their windshields.

The Edelstein and McCarty paper did not lead to a major Orbiter redesign or new Orbiter window materials; NASA's allotted budget would not extend that far. Instead, the space agency redoubled its efforts to scare birds away from the SLF. Mostly it relied on loud noises.

For a time in the mid-1990s, however, KSC seriously considered putting falconers on its payroll. A June 1994 study noted that falcons had been used intermittently since the 1940s to kill or scare away birds at airfields in the U.K., the Netherlands, Spain, France, Canada, and the United States.

The study determined, however, that most of the more than 300 bird species that spent at least part of the year in MINWR had little experience with falcons, so were unlikely to be frightened by them. Falcons, for their part, were likely to be confused by wading birds such as herons and egrets.

The birds most threatening to Orbiters and other aircraft at the SLF, the 1994 study found, were various species of vulture. These were too large and numerous for falcons to tackle. It noted that groups of up to 30 individuals were frequently found around a single roadkill and that a "roost" of about 300 vultures had become established on the SLF runway's southern approach path.

The vultures, which weighed up to five pounds, took to the skies to ride thermals over KSC beginning in mid-morning. Mostly they glided lazily between 150 and 1800 feet above the ground. The air currents rising off the 526-foot-tall Vehicle Assembly Building were especially attractive to them. If the birds smelled a carrion buffet, however, they could fly rapidly, thwarting efforts to track and deter them. Loud noises, effective in driving away most other birds, were of little concern to vultures.

During the mid-morning launch of the Orbiter Discovery at the start of mission STS-114 on 26 July 2005, a vulture collided with the External Tank before the Shuttle stack cleared the Pad 39A launch tower. The bird probably weighed more than twice as much as the 1.7-pound chunk of External Tank foam insulation that had struck and breached Columbia's left wing leading edge on 16 January 2003, 82 seconds into mission STS-107. The foam chunk was estimated to have been moving at about 525 miles per hour when it hit the wing.

During Earth-atmosphere reentry on 1 February 2003, hot gases entered Columbia's left wing through the breach and rapidly destroyed its aluminum internal structure. NASA's oldest Orbiter broke up, killing the seven-member STS-107 crew.

Though the low-speed bird impact caused no obvious damage to the External Tank, NASA took notice because it occurred during launch of the first Shuttle mission since STS-107. The vulture might easily have struck a more vulnerable part of the Shuttle stack, or have struck it at a higher altitude, after the Shuttle had gained speed. KSC managers decided to apply SLF bird control techniques to the twin Shuttle launch pads. They also adopted a launch-day vulture "trap-and-release" policy.

By 2009, KSC's Bird Abatement Program relied on quick removal of roadkill to eliminate a major scavenger food source and pare down vulture numbers, bird detection radar and cameras, sirens, shotguns firing blanks and whistlers, and 25 liquid-propane-fueled "cannons." Installed along the SLF in 2007, the noise-producing cannons could be set off from the SLF runway control tower or by bird observers on the ground. They could also be set to fire automatically at random times and in random directions. Despite these measures, the risk to the Shuttle from bird strikes persisted until the Orbiter Atlantis rolled to a stop on the SLF runway at the end of STS-135, the final Shuttle mission, in July 2011.


"Space Shuttle Orbiter Windshield Bird Impact Analysis," ICAS-88-5.8.3, K. Edelstein and R. McCarty, Proceedings of the 16th International Council on Aeronautical Sciences Congress held in Jerusalem, Israel, 28 August-2 September 1988, Volume 2, pp. 1267-1274

A Review of Falconry as a Bird Control Technique With Recommendations for Use at the Shuttle Landing Facility, John F. Kennedy Space Center, Florida, U.S.A., NASA Technical Memorandum 110142, V. Larson, S. Rowe, D. Breininger, and R. Yosef, June 1994

"History of the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center," E. Liston and D. Elliot; paper presented at The (40th) Space Congress in Cocoa Beach, Florida, 28 April-2 May 2003

Fallen Astronauts: Heroes Who Died Reaching for the Moon, Revised Edition, C. Burgess and K. Doolan with B. Vis, University of Nebraska Press, 2016, pp. 1-45

"NASA Tries To Keep The Hogs and 'Gators Off the Shuttle's Runway," G. Klein, The Christian Science Monitor, 12 October 1983
https://www.csmonitor.com/1983/1012/101225.html (accessed 17 December 2017)

"It's a Jungle Out There!" L. Herridge, 26 June 2006 - https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/behindscenes/roadkill.html (accessed 14 December 2017)

"Bye, Bye, Birdies," C. Mansfield, 30 June 2006 - https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/behindscenes/avian_radar.html (accessed 16 December 2017)

"Bird Team Clears Path for Space Shuttles," L. Herridge, 12 August 2009 - https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/behindscenes/clearbirds.html (accessed 14 December 2017)

More Information

Where to Launch and Land the Space Shuttle? (1971-1972)

What If a Shuttle Orbiter Had to Ditch? (1975)

What Shuttle Should Have Been: NASA's October 1977 Space Shuttle Flight Manifest

29 November 2017

X-15: Lessons for Reusable Winged Spaceflight (1966)

An X-15 rocket plane separates from its B-52 carrier aircraft. During this 9 November 1961 flight, the 45th in the X-15 series, U.S. Air Force Major Robert White piloted X-15 No. 2 to a world-record speed of Mach 6.04 (4093 miles per hour). It was the first time a piloted aircraft exceeded Mach 6. Image credit: NASA
The X-15 a strong contender for the title of "Everyone's Favorite X-plane." Conceived in the 1952-1954 period, before Sputnik (4 October 1957) and the birth of NASA (1 October 1958), the North American Aviation-built rocket plane was intended to pioneer the technologies and techniques of piloted hypersonic flight - that is, of flight faster than Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound).

Between 1959 and 1968, three X-15 rocket planes, two modified B-52 bombers, and a dozen pilots took part in joint U.S. Air Force/NASA X-15 research missions. Before the start of each mission, an X-15 was mounted on a pylon attached to the underside of a wing of a B-52 carrier aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Wearing a silver pressure suit, a single pilot boarded the 50-foot-long X-15 as it hung from the pylon, then the B-52 taxied and took off from a runway.

Early X-15 missions were "captive" flights, meaning that the rocket plane stayed attached to the B-52, or gliding flights, meaning that it carried no propellants and relied on its wings, which spanned only 22 feet, to make a controlled - though fast and steep - descent to a landing. Early powered flights used stand-in rocket engines taken from earlier X-planes. By late 1960, however, the X-15's throttleable 600,000-horsepower XLR99 rocket engine was ready. The engine was designed to burn the nine tons of anhydrous ammonia fuel and liquid oxygen oxidizer in the X-15's tanks in about 90 seconds at full throttle.

Most missions followed two basic profiles. "Speed" missions saw the rocket plane level off at about 101,000 feet and push for ever-higher Mach numbers. The X-15 reached its top speed - Mach 6.72, or about 4520 miles per hour - during the 188th flight of the series on 3 October 1967 with Air Force Major William "Pete" Knight at the controls.

Knight flew X-15A-2, the former X-15 No. 2, which had rolled over during an abort landing on 9 November 1962, seriously injuring its pilot, John McKay. When NASA and the Air Force rebuilt X-15 No. 2, they modified its design to enable faster flights. McKay resumed X-15 flights after his recovery, though injuries he sustained plagued him until his death in 1975 at age 52.

For "altitude" missions, the X-15 climbed steeply until it exhausted its propellants, then arced upward, unpowered. X-15 reached its peak altitude - 354,200 feet (almost 67 miles) above the Earth's surface - on 22 August 1963, with NASA pilot Joseph Walker in the cockpit.

During altitude missions, the pilot experienced several minutes of weightlessness as the X-15 climbed toward the high point of its trajectory, above 99% of the atmosphere, then fell back toward Earth. Aerodynamic control surfaces (for example, ailerons) could not work while the X-15 soared in near-vacuum, so the space plane included hydrogen peroxide-fueled attitude-control thrusters so that the pilot could orient it for reentry.

It was during an altitude mission that the X-15 program suffered its only pilot fatality. On 15 November 1967, Major Michael McAdams piloted X-15 No. 3 to 266,000 feet despite an electrical problem that made control difficult. During descent, McAdams lost control of the space plane, which went into a flat spin at Mach 5, then an upside-down dive at Mach 4.7. McAdams might have recovered control at that point, but then an "adaptive" flight control system malfunctioned, thwarting maneuvers that might have damped out excessive pitch oscillations and compensated for increasing atmospheric density. The X-15 broke apart at about 65,000 feet.

Flights of early rocket-powered X planes, such as the first aircraft to break the sound barrier, the Bell X-1, took place over Edwards Air Force Base, but the X-15 needed more room for its speed and altitude flights. In both powered X-15 mission profiles, the B-52 released the X-15 about 45,000 feet above northern Nevada with its nose pointed southwest toward its landing site on Edwards dry lake bed. Two radio relay stations and six emergency landing sites on dry lake beds were established along the X-15 flight path. McAdams might have landed on Cuddeback dry lake bed, 37 miles northeast of Edwards, had he regained control of X-15 No. 3.

This NASA cutaway of the X-15 displays the aircraft's XLR99 engine, weight-saving aft skids, propellant tanks, wing, fin, and fuselage structure, cockpit, and forward landing gear. The lower tail fin was necessary for flight stability, but got in the way during landing, so was designed to drop away during approach.
During high-speed flight and Earth atmosphere reentry, the X-15 compressed the air in front of it, generating temperatures as high as 1300° Fahrenheit on its nose and wing leading edges. The rocket plane's designers opted for a "hot structure" approach to protecting it from aerodynamic heating. An outer skin made of Inconel X, a heat-resistant nickel-chromium alloy, covered an inner skin of aluminum and spun glass, which in turn covered a titanium structure with a few Inconel X parts. Heat caused the skin and structure to expand, warp, and flex, but they would return to their original shapes as they cooled. The X-15's cockpit temperature could reach 150° Fahrenheit, but the pilot usually remained cool in his pressure suit.

NASA's Project Mercury, which began officially on 6 October 1958, opted for a different approach to aerodynamic heat management: a blunt, bowl-shaped, ablative heat shield (that is, one that charred and broke away during atmosphere reentry, carrying away heat). As piloted Mercury capsule flights commenced (5 May 1961) and President John F. Kennedy put NASA on course for the moon (25 May 1961), public attention shifted away from the X-15 and Edwards Air Force Base and toward Mercury, Apollo, and Cape Canaveral, Florida. X-15 research planes continued to fly, however, pushing the hypersonic flight envelope well past their original design limits.

In the same period, some within NASA planned Earth-orbiting space stations. Before Kennedy's moon speech, a space station was seen as the necessary first step toward more advanced space activities. It would serve as a laboratory for exploring the effects of space conditions on astronauts and equipment and as a jumping-off place for lunar and interplanetary voyages. Station supporters often envisioned that it would reach orbit atop a two-stage Saturn V rocket, and that reusable spacecraft for logistics resupply and crew rotation would make operating it affordable. After the moon speech, station proponents hoped that, once Kennedy's politically motivated moon goal was reached, piloted spaceflight could resume its "proper" course by shifting back to space station development.

In November 1966, James Love and William Young, engineers at the NASA Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, completed a brief report in which they noted that the reusable suborbital booster for a reusable orbital spacecraft would undergo pressures, heating rates, and accelerations very similar to those the X-15 experienced. They acknowledged that the X-15, with a fully fueled mass of just 17 tons, might weigh just one-fiftieth as much as a typical reusable booster. They nevertheless maintained that X-15 experience contained lessons applicable to reusable booster planning.

Love and Young wrote that some space station planners expected that a reusable booster could be launched, recovered, refurbished, and launched again in from three to seven days. The X-15, they argued, had shown that such estimates were wildly optimistic. The average X-15 refurbishment time was 30 days, a period which had, they noted, hardly changed in four years. Even with identifiable procedural and technological improvements, they doubted that an X-15 could be refurbished in fewer than 20 days.

At the same time, Love and Young argued that the X-15 program had demonstrated the benefits of reusability. They estimated that refurbishing an X-15 in 1964 had cost about $270,000 per mission. NASA and the Air Force had accomplished 27 successful X-15 flights in 1964. The cost of refurbishing the three X-15s had thus totaled $7.3 million.

Love and Young cited North American Aviation estimates when they placed the cost of a new X-15 at about $9 million. They then calculated that 27 missions using expendable X-15s would have cost a total of $243 million. This meant, they wrote, that the cost of the reusable X-15 program in 1964 had amounted to just three percent of the cost of building 27 X-15s and throwing each one away after a single flight.

NASA test pilot Neil Armstrong flew the X-15 seven times in 1960-1962. Armstrong became a member of NASA Astronaut Group 2 ("The New Nine") in September 1962. He orbited the Earth as commander of Gemini 8 (March 1966) and became the first man to set foot on the moon during Apollo 11 (July 1969). Another X-15 pilot, Joseph Engle, became a member of NASA Astronaut Group 5 in April 1966. Engle flew the Orbiter Enterprise during Space Shuttle Approach and Landing Test (ALT) flights in 1977, commanded Columbia for mission STS-2 in November 1981, and commanded Discovery for mission STS 51-I in August-September 1985. Image credit: NASA
The last X-15 flight, the 199th in the series, took place on 24 October 1968. Flight experience gained and hypersonic flight data collected during the nine-year program contributed to the development of the U.S. Space Shuttle, though not exactly as Love and Young had envisioned.

When, in 1968, NASA Headquarters management first floated Space Station/Space Shuttle as the space agency's main post-Apollo piloted program, the Shuttle was conceived as a reusable piloted orbiter vehicle with a reusable piloted suborbital booster - that is, the design that Love and Young had assumed. By late 1971, however, funding limitations forced NASA to opt instead for a semi-reusable booster stack comprising an expendable External Tank and twin reusable solid-propellant Solid Rocket Boosters.

The space agency was also obliged to postpone its Space Station plans at least until after the Space Shuttle became operational. Saturn V was on the chopping block, so the semi-reusable Shuttle would be used to launch the Station as well as to resupply it and rotate its crews.

Shuttle Orbiter Columbia first reached Earth orbit on 12 April 1981, but no Orbiter visited a space station until Discovery rendezvoused with the Russian Mir station on 6 February 1995 during mission STS-63. The first Shuttle Orbiter to dock with a station - again, Russia's Mir - was Atlantis during mission STS-71 (27 June-7 July 1995).


Survey of Operation and Cost Experience of the X-15 Airplane as a Reusable Space Vehicle, NASA Technical Note D-3732, James Love and William Young, November 1966

"I Fly the X-15," Joseph Walker and Dean Conger, National Geographic, Volume 122, Number 3, September 1962, pp. 428-450

Hypersonics Before the Shuttle: A Concise History of the X-15 Research Airplane, Monographs in Aerospace History No. 18, Dennis R. Jenkins, NASA, June 2000

More Information

Space Station Resupply: The 1963 Plan to Turn the Apollo Spacecraft Into a Space Freighter

McDonnell Douglas Phase B Space Station (1970)

From Monolithic to Modular: NASA Establishes a Baseline Configuration for the Shuttle-Launched Space Station (1970)

An Alternate Station/Shuttle Evolution: The Spirit of '76 (1970)

Where to Launch and Land the Space Shuttle? (1971-1972)

25 November 2017

My Space Fleet (or, nostalgia concerning missed and lost toy spaceships)

Major Matt Mason, the moon, and a map. All stuff I've loved since forever. If I'd received this in a Christmas stocking at age eight, I'd have exploded. Alas, it appears to be a fan creation, not an authentic Mattel product. Image credit: I'm not sure, though it uses a NASA base map from after Luna 24 landed in 1976 and Mattel box art
I was born in 1962, just ahead of John Glenn's orbital Mercury-Atlas flight. The 1960s were a great epoch for space toys, but I fear that I missed out on most of those. My parents were not keen on encouraging my odd fascination with spaceflight. I had some Major Matt Mason dolls, but none of the large sets. It wasn't about poverty; I had a big metal garage with lots of moving parts, lots of Man from Uncle spy toys, and a baseball glove I never used. They just didn't see space as a "normal" sort of interest for a youngster. Perhaps they figured that I was peculiar enough already without adding space to the mix.

Oddly enough, though, they took me to see 2001: a Space Odyssey during its first theatrical run. (I think I had to seize hostages to induce them to take me - it's all hazy now.) I vividly remember building an Apollo LM model with my dad. I think that stands out because it was the only time he did something with me that was related to space.

The LM was great, but it was not enough for me. It was a display piece; I needed sturdy vessels with which I might conquer the Solar System.

I was eight or nine when I began to use materials I had at hand to make models of spacecraft of my own crude design. In the 1970-1975 period, in fact, I designed my own space program set in the then-distant year 2020. Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama and Earthlight were major sources of inspiration, as were the book and film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bob McCall's first art compendium, Our World in Space, also influenced my vision. Some Star Trek influence was inevitable, though my space travelers didn't wander among the stars or tangle with aliens.

Foam cups, pins, dixie cups, pens, popsicle sticks, colored markers, pipe cleaners, tape, curtain weights, and rubber cement were my construction materials. The weights made excellent footpads; by far the heaviest parts of my spacecraft, the disk-shaped lead weights helped them to stand upright in the face of stray breezes and casual sideswipes from affectionate cats.

Perhaps in keeping with Star Trek, my ships included two propulsion systems. Chemical rockets permitted proximity operations near space stations and facilities on asteroids and other vacuum worlds. A far more advanced "photonic" drive enabled high-gee acceleration with minimal propellant expenditure. Think the Epstein Drive from The Expanse series.

The first spacecraft I built was an all-purpose explorer/police vessel in the tradition of Endeavour from Rendezvous with Rama or Star Trek's Enterprise. I envisioned a fleet of such craft. It was not designed to land, though it carried a small sortie vehicle and a 2001-esque service pod. Sortie vehicle and pod could be combined to yield a beefier sortie vehicle and the sortie vehicle could be broken down to create a second service pod.

Much of the action in my space program centered on the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter and the asteroidal moons and trojan asteroids of Jupiter. Asteroid settlement was well under way in 2020. My explorer/police vessel could "dock" with low-g small- and middle-sized asteroids with compatible facilities. It could also dock with and push smaller vessels with higher-g landing capability, much as the Apollo Command and Service Module pushed the Lunar Module.

The second vessel I built was a long-range explorer with higher-g landing capability. It had a beefy photonic drive, powerful chemical verniers, and a small crew compartment - perhaps room enough only for four people. Basically, it was a big engine cluster with scientific instrument pallets standing in as skin, eight adjustable landing legs, and a crew module on top.

A more conventional vessel needed weeks to travel between worlds of the Inner System and the Asteroid Belt and months to travel between the Outer System worlds. The long-range explorer could reach Pluto from Ceres in five weeks. It could also descend through atmospheres: an optional disposable heat shield (a thick paper plate) enabled Titan landings. Mysterious Titan was a major focus of scientific exploration in my space program.

The third vessel I designed, the Vulpecula-class space tug/freighter, was a small ship capable of pushing a standardized cargo module between worlds. It could accompany a cargo module to its destination or simply boost it on its way, then dock with an incoming cargo module and return to port. It could operate with or without a crew and could land on higher-g vacuum worlds bearing a cargo module.

Though I only built a pair of cargo modules, I imagined that they would take many forms. They could, for example, serve as tankers for refueling spacecraft. Another module was decked out as a passenger pod. The influence of the Franz Joseph space freighter in the Star Trek Technical Manual is unmistakable.

I also built a fast courier. Like the explorer/police ship, vessels of the Pegasus class weren't meant to land on higher-g worlds. They had a photonic engine identical to the explorer/police ship's engine, but could accelerate harder because they included only a small crew module, no auxiliary vehicles, and minimal instrumentation. They were meant to move people rapidly between scattered ships and worlds. For example, if an isolated trojan asteroid colony urgently needed a surgeon, one could be dispatched in a fast courier.

Finally, I built a long-range explorer capable of really epic trips. An extended version of the explorer/police ship, I envisioned that only a few would be built. Most traveled in pairs to interesting worlds beyond Pluto. (I'm not sure if I knew of the then-hypothetical Kuiper Belt - probably I just assumed there would be more planets past Pluto.) Their large crews hibernated in shifts. They traded speed for on-site crew expertise.

I didn't spend much time on Earth-to-orbit transportation. I assumed that rockets larger than the Saturn V would exist. That's all I remember.

Individuals and companies could own Pegasus-class fast couriers, Vulpecula-class freighters, and cargo modules. Some fast couriers became the equivalent of private jets. Some Vulpecula-class ships pushed cargo modules outfitted for asteroid prospecting.

Though I often lamented never acquiring Major Matt Mason's big moon base, in retrospect I am glad that I was thrown back on my own devices. Missing out on ready-made 1960s space toys helped to turn me creative.

What became of my space fleet? After Star Wars came out, I switched to building kit-bashed hyperdrive starships. The foam-cups-and-popsicle-sticks fleet grew dusty on a closet shelf. One summer day, as I prepared to depart for my first semester of college, I ceremoniously set fire to that fleet. The foam, rubber cement, and paper burned rapidly, leaving behind in moments only blackened pins and curtain weights. At college, my spaceships mostly became built of words, and it has remained so ever since.

18 November 2017

Pioneer Mars Orbiter with Penetrators (1974)

Pioneer Venus Orbiter (PVO) in Venus Orbit. The Pioneer Mars Orbiter (PMO) would have been based on this design. Image credit: NASA
The name "Pioneer" was applied to several different spacecraft designs, all of which were meant to spin to create gyroscopic stability. The first U.S. moon probe, launched by the Air Force in August 1958, bore the name. Though Pioneers 0 through 3 failed, Pioneer 4 flew by the moon at a distance of about 58,000 kilometers in March 1959. It became the first U.S. spacecraft to escape Earth's gravity and enter orbit around the Sun.

Pioneer 5 (March 1960), a unique design, was a pathfinder for future NASA interplanetary missions. Managed by NASA's Ames Research Center (ARC), it set a new record by transmitting until it was 36.2 million kilometers from Earth.

The Pioneer series seemed to draw to a close. In 1965, however, NASA ARC applied the name to its drum-shaped interplanetary "weather stations." The first, Pioneer 6, entered solar orbit between Earth and Venus in December 1965, where it monitored magnetic fields and radiation. Pioneers 7, 8, and 9 performed similarly prosaic (and generally little noticed) missions.

The first Pioneer design included a solid-propellant rocket motor on top; this was intended to slow the spacecraft so that the moon's gravity could capture it into lunar orbit. Pioneer 0, launched under U.S. Air Force auspices, was lost when its Thor-Able booster exploded 77 seconds after launch. Pioneers 1 and 2, launched under NASA auspices, also failed to reach lunar orbit, though the former attained a record altitude of 113,781 kilometers and returned useful data before falling back to Earth (October 1958). Image credit: NASA
NASA's Pioneer 3 and 4 lunar flyby spacecraft were launched on Redstone-derived Juno II rockets. Booster failure doomed Pioneer 3, but Pioneer 4, shown here attached to its small solid-propellant upper stage, performed a distant lunar flyby. Image credit: NASA
Pioneer 5, intended originally as a Venus probe set for launch in June 1959, was launched instead in March 1960 as a pathfinder for subsequent NASA planetary missions. Image credit: NASA
Pioneers 6 through 9 were drum-shaped spacecraft that measured "space weather" conditions in interplanetary space near Earth's orbit. Image credit: NASA
The name regained star status when Pioneer 10 left Earth in March 1972. It became the first spacecraft to brave the Asteroid Belt and fly past Jupiter. Pioneer 11 launched in April 1973, bound for Jupiter and Saturn. It went silent in 1995. Pioneer 10 sent its last signal from beyond Pluto in 2003.

The final Pioneer launches occurred in 1978. The Pioneer Venus Multiprobe spacecraft dropped four instrumented capsules on Venus, while Pioneer Venus Orbiter (PVO) surveyed the planet until 1992. The latter was informally designated Pioneer 12 and the former Pioneer 13.

Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11, the only nuclear Pioneers, were Earth's first probes to traverse the Asteroid Belt and voyage through the outer Solar System. Image credit: NASA
Pioneer Venus Multiprobe deploys its one large and three small atmosphere probes. Against expectations, two probes survived landing and return data from the surface of Venus. No other U.S. spacecraft has landed intact on Venus. Image credit: NASA
If NASA ARC, the Planetary Programs Division of the NASA Office of Space Science, and Hughes Aircraft had had their way, the Pioneer name might also have been applied to a Mars spacecraft. In a 1974 report prepared on contract to NASA ARC, Hughes described a Pioneer Mars Orbiter (PMO) derived from the Hughes PVO spacecraft design. The PMO mission, set for launch in 1979, was intended as a follow-on to the twin Viking missions, which were scheduled to leave Earth in 1975 and seek life on Mars in 1976.

Hughes described the PVO upon which the PMO would be based as drum 2.5 meters in diameter and 1.2 meters tall with a 3.3-meter antenna mast on top and a solid-propellant Venus orbit insertion motor on the bottom. The company then cited differences between the PMO and PVO designs: for example, PMO's orbit insertion motor would need to be larger since it would arrive at Mars traveling faster than PVO would at Venus. In addition, PMO would operate in Mars orbit, about twice as far from the Sun as Venus, so solar cells would entirely cover its sides so that they could make enough electricity to operate the spacecraft's systems. PVO would operate in Venus orbit, so it would need to be only partly covered with solar cells.

The most obvious difference between the PVO and PMO designs were the Mars spacecraft's six 2.3-meter-long, 0.3-meter-diameter penetrator launch tubes. These would replace PVO's science instruments; apart from unspecified instruments in the penetrators, PMO would carry no science payload.

PMO, like PVO, would leave Earth on an two-stage Atlas-Centaur rocket. Because PMO would weigh more than PVO (1091 kilograms versus 523 kilograms), however, it would need a solid-propellant third stage to complete Earth escape. To make room for the third stage and penetrators, PMO's conical launch shroud would be 0.8 meters longer than its PVO counterpart.

PMO would need to reach Mars on 7 September 1980 so that its Mars orbit insertion motor could place it in its planned Mars orbit. To reach the planet on that date, PMO would need to depart Earth during one of 10 consecutive daily launch opportunities starting on 28 October 1979. 2 November 1979 would be the nominal launch date. The launch opportunities would only last from 10 to 15 minutes each.

The Centaur second stage would place PMO into a low-Earth orbit, then would ignite again 30 minutes later to begin pushing the spacecraft out of Earth orbit. The third-stage motor would then ignite to place PMO on course for Mars. PMO would weigh 1069 kilograms after third-stage separation. Launch on 2 November 1979 would yield a 310-day Earth-Mars transfer.

Following third-stage separation, PMO would use hydrazine thrusters to set itself spinning at 15 revolutions per minute (RPM) for stabilization. The antenna mast bearing the high-gain, low-gain, and two penetrator data reception antennas  would revolve in the opposite direction at the same rate, so would appear to stand still. Controllers on Earth would use the thrusters to carefully target PMO so that it would not accidentally hit Mars and introduce terrestrial microbes. They would perform a final course correction 30 days before Mars arrival.

One day out from Mars, on 6 September 1980, PMO would orient itself for its Mars orbit insertion burn and increase its spin rate to 30 RPM. The spacecraft's high-gain antenna would not point at Earth during the insertion burn. Controllers on Earth could, however, send PMO commands through the low-gain antenna.

Candidate PMO orbits. Image credit: Hughes Aircraft Company
PMO would reach Mars late in northern hemisphere summer, when the planet's south polar cap would be near its maximum extent. Hughes Aircraft proposed two possible elliptical Mars orbits - south polar and north polar - each with a period of 24.6 hours (one martian day) and a periapsis (low point) of 1000 kilometers. South polar orbit periapsis would occur above a point on Mars's surface 72° south of the equator, while north polar orbit periapsis would occur above a point at 37° north latitude. The spacecraft's high periapsis altitude would serve to forestall orbital decay, helping to ensure that PMO would not drop living terrestrial microbes on Mars. PMO would have a mass of 741 kilograms after orbit insertion.

The PMO mission's Mars orbit phase would last one martian year (686 terrestrial days). During this mission phase, PMO would deploy its six 45-kilogram penetrators singly and in pairs using a penetrator deployment system based on the Hughes-built TOW missile launcher. Before Earth departure the penetrators would be sealed inside their launch tubes and heated to kill hitchhiking microbes.

PMO deploys its first penetrator. The departing penetrator is at center right, while the exhaust plume from its small solid-propellant rocket motor gushes from the bottom end of the penetrator launch tube at lower left. On the bottom (left) side of the spacecraft, the Mars orbit-insertion engine bell is visible, as are the bottom ends of the six penetrator tubes. One tube is partly obscured by the exhaust plume, one by the orbit-insertion engine bell, and another by a neighboring penetrator tube. The top ends of three tubes are visible; one obscures the base of the counter-spun antenna mast mounted at the center of PMO's top (right) side. The high-gain dish antenna (center), two penetrator antennas, and the low-gain antenna are attached to the mast. Image credit: Hughes Aircraft Company
Penetrator deployment would occur near apoapsis (orbit high point), when the spacecraft's orbital velocity would be at its slowest. Hinged covers would open at both ends of the launch tube, then the penetrator's solid-propellant deployment rocket motor would ignite to launch it from the tube. Launching the penetrator in the direction opposite PMO's orbital motion would cancel out its orbital velocity and cause it to fall toward Mars. The dome-nosed penetrator, a Sandia Corporation design, would drop through Mars's atmosphere and implant itself in the surface up to 15 meters deep.

After impact, the penetrator would extend its antenna and begin transmitting data from its science instruments. PMO would record the penetrator data for relay to Earth through its high-gain dish. Chemical batteries in the penetrators would enable each to collect and transmit data from Mars for about eight days.

For their weak signals to be received, the penetrators would need to impact the surface not far from PMO's periapsis point. The orbiter could maintain radio contact with a given penetrator for at least eight minutes at a time. A PMO in south polar orbit would initially place its penetrators between 63° and 87° south; a north-polar-orbiting PMO would place them between 56° and 80° north. Periapsis would gradually shift north or south, however, permitting placement at other latitudes. With all six penetrators deployed, PMO would have a mass of 412 kilograms.

Viking 1 and Viking 2, each of which comprised a three-legged lander and an orbiter bearing cameras, were designed with certain assumptions in mind; for example, that microbial life on Mars would be ubiquitous, so that a scoop of surface dust and a jury of three biological experiments would readily reveal its presence. Unfortunately for the proposed 1979 PMO mission and NASA Mars exploration planning in general, the Viking biology experiments yielded equivocal results that were generally interpreted as indicative of a lifeless world. This, combined with the loss of the Mars Observer spacecraft as it attempted capture into Mars orbit in 1993, helped to create a two-decade gap during which no new U.S. spacecraft explored Mars.


Pioneer Mars Surface Penetrator Mission: Mission Analysis and Orbiter Design, Hughes Aircraft Company, August 1974

Pioneer Mars 1979 Mission Options, A. Friedlander, W. Hartmann, and J. Niehoff, Science Applications, Inc., 29 January 1974, pp. 61-99

Solar System Log, Andrew Wilson, Jane's, 1986, pp. 12-13, 16-17, 21

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