Here Be Dragons


Tweet from @ElectronJon:

Good point from @davidhitt on @SpaceX #Dragon: “A private company can now do a thing NASA cannot. The winds of change are blowing.”

When I made the tweet, it was just sort of an off-hand remark about the rendezvous. Having it called a good point made me stop and actually think about it.

And, it’s true. NASA no longer has any capability to deliver supplies to the International Space Station, and a private company does. In fact, a private company has arguably done something that NASA has never been able to do, with Dragon’s unmanned rendezvous with ISS.

But this is not a bad thing.

Lots of private companies can do things NASA cannot, from building cars to saving you money on your insurance. And that’s OK.

Under former administrator Sean O’Keefe, NASA had this as its mission statement: “To understand and protect our home planet. To explore the Universe and search for life. To inspire the next generation of explorers …as only NASA can.”

That last bit of the mission statement served two purposes. One, it was a reminder of the goals and capabilities of the agency — to do the things that no one else can do. NASA’s bailiwick is not the mundane; it’s the extraordinary.

But it was also a reminder of NASA’s responsibility to the nation. NASA needs to focus on doing the things that only NASA can do. It would be irresponsible for NASA to waste taxpayer money duplicating the efforts of others instead of investing those funds in its own unique missions. If a task is not one “only NASA can” do, leave it to the others that can do it.

If NASA needs a car, it’s not going to build a car. It’s going to buy a car. Building cars is not an “as only NASA can” task. It’s a task better left to private industry so that NASA can focus on its unique capabilities and responsibilities.

A year ago, within the United States, delivering cargo to the International Space Station was an “as only NASA can” task.

As of last week, it no longer is.

And that’s rather amazing.

Ad Astra, Per Latrina


Per Space.com:

NASA is considering using the International Space Station to practice for a trip to Mars, officials said …

“Clearly, in order to be able to explore beyond low-Earth orbit, we’re going to have to stay in orbit for longer than six months,” space station program manager Mike Suffredini said during a news conference today.

Suffredini said NASA is exploring the possibility of setting up a mock journey to Mars aboard the space station, where astronauts would stay for longer than the usual six months, and would be subject to other conditions that such a trip would impose. …

“It won’t be in the near future,” he said. “It’s probably not reasonable to expect us to be able to do this sooner than two or three years from now.”

First, let me say, I’m for it.

NASA’s lead up to the Apollo program was a perfect example of space exploration done right — test it at home, then do it for real. In order to successfully put footprints in the lunar regolith, certain capabilities were going to have to be developed and demonstrated, including increased spaceflight duration, rendezvous and docking, and extravehicular activities.

The moon is about four days from Earth. Low Earth orbit, on the other hand, is minutes from the surface. So rather than doing all of these for the first time when we went to the moon, all of them were first tested in Earth orbit, where, if something went wrong, home was just a stone’s throw away.

About four years ago, a toilet on the International Space Station failed. NASA took a lot of ribbing for it in the press, but I said then, and maintain now, that if the only thing that happened on the International Space Station was its toilet failing, it would still be worth doing.

Mars is about six months away. And that’s just one way. A mission there would involve a trip of six months out, six months back, plus whatever time is spent on the surface, which arguably should be long enough to justify the travel time.

Someday, humanity will go there. If I were an astronaut, and the toilet for that mission were going to fail, I would sure rather it be during an Earth-orbit test of the equipment than on the way out to Mars, leaving the crew without a toilet for months. Every single system and procedure needed to go to Mars should be tested in Earth orbit, broken, fixed and tested again, so astronauts heading to the Red Planet will know everything that can go wrong, and what to do when it does.

Right now, we have a spacecraft in Earth orbit that is capable of supporting tests the duration of a Mars mission. (I will note, however, that I don’t believe that should be step one — I think it would be much more responsible to first double the current seven-month record of ISS increments, and then move up from there.)

While the details are uncertain and constantly in flux, for the last eight years, the goal of American human spaceflight has been exploration.

It’s high time we can began fully utilizing the assets we have to support that goal.

Happy Birthday, John Glenn


In honor of John Glenn’s 90th birthday, a comic strip Lain, Jesse and I did many years ago before his return to space. For more comics, go here.


And in other space-related news:

– Here’s pretty awesome gallery of recent launches that a friend shared with me.

– I may write more about this later, but a flag flown on the first shuttle mission was left on the International Space Station by the last shuttle mission, and will be awarded to the first U.S. company to fly astronauts to the station. That’s pretty cool.

– Joy of Tech did a final undocking comic that’s not bad.

– Did you know astronauts can’t whistle on spacewalks? Learn something knew every day.

“My Radio Tuned to the Voice of a Star”


Heather talked to the space station Friday.

It was cool.

For those who don’t know, she’s been writing an official NASA blog for a while now.

So way back when, I suggested we should try to set up a downlink for her to talk to the International Space Station as material for her blog.

Downlinks aren’t necessarily that easy to get, but, I figured, if I could get one msyelf years ago, it wouldn’t hurt to try again for her.

Our friends from the education wing of the astronaut office at Johnson Space Center in Houston delivered, big time.

Not only did she get a downlink, she got a downlink while the space shuttle was docked with the space station.

i did my downlink back in 2004. I talked to the entire crew of the space station at the time — two people. U.S. astronaut Mike Foale, who was becoming the first American to spend a year in space, and Russian cosmonaut Sasha Kaleri.

Heather talked to eight people — the entire crew of Discovery, and both U.S. members of the space station crew.

I’m not jealous. Foale and Kaleri were both very interesting, and I had a great conversation with them. Plus, coincidentally, Sasha’s in space again right now. He talked to me on my downlink. He didn’t talk to Heather. We can tell who he likes better.

But that meant every U.S. astronaut in orbit Friday morning was participating in the downlink. The entire focus of America’s human spaceflight program for 25 minutes last week was talking to Heather. That’s kinda cool, too.

(Of course, I guess that was not only true of mine, but I was the focus of all the world’s human space complement. It seems less impressive when it’s just two people, though.)

Preparing for the downlink was a lot of fun. One of the goals of the downlink was to get student involvement, which we did, peaking with having two Marshall interns each ask a question of the astronauts.

But we also had to write several of the questions ourselves, and that was a neat opportunity. I’ve done a downlink before, we’ve both watched several other downlinks, and we’ve done astronaut interviews. We heard all the standard questions and all the standard answers, and challenged ourselves to come up with something different, to get the crews to give us something different.

I think we did a good job of coming up with questions, and I think the crew did a great job of coming up with answers.

The downlink took place in the Payload Operations Control Center at Marshall, essentially the “mission control” for space station science. If there’s something going on with vehicle or crew operations, the astronauts talk to Houston. If they’re talking about science, they’re talking to Huntsville.

It’s a cool room, with the flags of ISS participant nations on the ceiling and patches of supported missions on the wall and console stations with easily a dozen monitors. It was a great setting for the downlink, and it was an honor to be allowed in. (I did mine in a small supply room in the building I worked in. Totally not jealous about that, either.)

It was rewarding seeing the flight controllers enjoying the downlink. One said that in 11 years of watching them, this was the best she’d seen.

Heather did a great job. She was nervous beforehand, but, of course, handled it perfectly.

I suggested the downlink originally in part because I thought it would make for good blog content, but mainly because I wanted Heather to have that experience. I believe firmly in the value of doing things; I believe that hands-on experience gives you an insight and investment that you don’t get other ways.

I was glad she got this opportunity, and proud of what she did with it.

I got to help, too. I was the coordinating line. I stayed on the phone from an hour before the downlink until after it was over, communicating with the folks in Houston that were making the connection, and letting Heather know what was going on. When the downlink was extended three minutes before it was to end, I got to let her know that. (For my downlink, I had to manage both lines myself, with Houston on my cell phone on one ear and ISS on the landline on my other ear. Still not jealous.)

Going to the launch last week also enhanced the experience — Heather was talking to astronauts that she had just seen blast into space in person eight days ago.

It also meant that Caden, her five-year-old who was fascinated by the launch, was sufficiently interested to spend half an hour at 6 in the morning watching astronaut talk to his mom on television. (How many kids can say that? [On a personal note, it amused me that I now can say I have the clout to arrange for the space station to call my girlfriend. How many guys can claim that?])

Caden knew about the downlink, but wasn’t thinking about it earlier last week when he saw an airplane contrail and said, “I think that’s the space shuttle coming back to land.” I told Heather to remind him that the shuttle couldn’t come home until after they talked to her. I think he now thinks his mom has to give the shuttle permission to land. He has an interesting view of what she and I do.

Landing is scheduled for Wednesday. And they have Heather’s permission to come home.

Photos by Emmett Given of NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center.

NASA: Doing What No Else Can Do


The new social networking tool at work has a “Question of the Week” feature that invites users to share. This week’s question was “What is it about NASA that makes you proud to be a part of it?” Only a handful of people had answered when I did, and they started by talking about what they do, so I did, too. Here’s the answer I posted.


I work in education. I’m proud to, but I’m aware that I’m a very small cog in a very big machine.

My team got to be “mission” for STS-118. We were involved in a “real” payload, and when the crew visited Marshall after the mission, we were the ones invited to join them for lunch. But that was the exception. We have nothing to do with putting people into space, with exploring other worlds, with bringing crews home safely, with conducting science on the space frontier, or any of the other sexy things the agency does.

Our job is to help inspire the people who will do those things in the future.

I love my job. A lot. I’m proud to be a part of the agency. But, every once and a while, there comes a moment that reminds me just what this agency is that I’m a part of.

I hear a talk by Alan Bean. I watch a launch of the space shuttle. I talk with astronaut aboard the space station. And I’m reminded just what this agency is.

We do the things that no one else on the planet — or off, which in our case is a necessary distinction — can do. The only reason we can’t say that we do the impossible is because NASA takes those things that are impossible for anyone else and makes them possible.

Who else could have landed men on the moon? Who else could place two rovers, back to back, on the surface of Mars? Who else could deliver a crew of seven people to help construct the International Space Station? Who else could peer into the cosmos the way we have with the Hubble Space Telescope? Who else could inspire the people of America, and of the world, the way NASA has?

Who else? No one. NASA does the things no one else can do. These things must be done, and therefore we must do them.

And we do.

How could one not be proud to be part of an organization like that?

Buy Your Own Space Program


The new Liberty launch vehicle will use existing infrastructure at Kennedy Space Center, such as the Mobile Launcher shown here. (PRNewsFoto/ATK)

“These are the days of miracle and wonder.” — Paul Simon

It will be interesting to see which moment history records as the beginning of the era of commercial space.

Will it be Mike Melville making the first spaceflight on a commercial vehicle on Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne?

Dennis Tito becoming the first person to pay his own way to the International Space Station on a Russian Soyuz?

Ironically, there’s even a case to be made that the real turning point was Yang Liwei’s flight as the first Chinese taikonaut.

But, regardless, the net result is this. We live in a world in which the United Arab Emirates’ closest equivalent to a space agency is working with Bigelow Aerospace to establish a space program.  Essentially, the day is imminent when a nation could buy its own space program.

I listed Yang’s flight because to a limited extent, that was how he got into space. China bought access to the Russian space program, used and learned about their cosmonaut training facilities and derived their Shenzhou spacecraft from the technology in the Russian Soyuz. To be sure, China only bought the seeds of the space program. They got the concepts from Russia, but had to implement them themselves. And perhaps the most difficult piece of the puzzle, the launch vehicle, was homegrown.

The irony is that in the seven years since the first launch, China has put only six taikonauts in space. There was an official Chinese media report in 2005 that the second manned flight cost around $110 million, and that the project had cost $2.3 billion to date. Relatively cheap for the development of a manned program, to be sure.

But, during that same period, eight people bought their own way into space on the Russian Soyuz; at a cost of less than $400 million. China could have had a more robust space program at a much lower cost by investing a fraction of what it spent developing its own program outbidding space tourists for Soyuz seats. It would have meant less for national pride, but they could have outright bought a better space program.

The day is coming when a nation could have the best of both worlds, and buy its own national space program off the shelf. The ease of a turn-key purchase, with the national pride of not depending on another nation.

Bigelow, for those that don’t know, is in the space station business. They have flown hardware and demonstrated their technology. For enough money, a fraction of what space stations have historically cost, they could outright sell Dubai its own space station.

For the moment, the catch is that they would have no way up there. Potentially, Soyuz might provide a solution. The current production and flight schedule would not cover vehicles commercial use beyond the occasional seat to the International Space Station, but, theoretically, for enough money, Energia could build Soyuz for another customer. Of course, you then have a hybrid program — flying to the space station you control on vehicles that are still Russian-controlled.

Within a few years, however, that could change. Private corporations could be ready to build and sell launch vehicles that a nation could use to man its own space station. A fully operational modern space program, with zero development time or cost. A country could just write two or three checks, and have the equivalent of China’s space program, off-the-shelf and ready to go.

There are still several barriers to this. There are all sorts of international trade regulations that would come into play in selling rockets to other nations. One wouldn’t want to sell a Falcon 9 to a nation that’s going to decide not to launch astronauts into space in it but instead to stick a warhead on top of it and send it somewhere more terrestrial. And, of course, before the vehicles can be sold, they have to exist.

Another somewhat serious contender joined SpaceX’s Falcon rocket on the scene this week. I’d heard there was talk about this a year or so ago, but hadn’t heard anything since, and thought it might have fallen through, but ATK, responsible for the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters, has announced that it is working with European company Astrium, manufacturer of the Ariane 5 launch vehicle, to develop the Liberty rocket, essentially a commercial version of the Ares I replacing the NASA-developed liquid-fuel upper stage with an Astrium-developed Ariane-developed upper stage. Currently, the partnership is seeking support from NASA in developing the vehicle as part of the agency’s commercial crew capability program. I’ve not seen whether they would have any interest, as SpaceX is doing, in pursuing the vehicle on their own if NASA were not interested.

Either way, there’s a very real chance than in the next decade or two, there will be a lot more flags on crewed spacecraft in Earth orbit.

Painted right below corporate logos.

“ISO My Husband, Somewhere in Orbit”


NASA astronaut Mark Kelly and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona), who were married in 2007. (Credit: Giffords Flickr photostream)

It’s hard not to personalize tragedy. For the friends and family of those killed in Saturday’s shooting in Arizona, those losses are the focus. For many others, it was the shooting of a member of the U.S. House of Representatives that resonates. For me, even though the focus was on the same person, Saturday was the shooting of Mark Kelly’s wife.

Mark was one of the first astronauts I met when I came to work for NASA, and certainly one of the more immediately memorable. I don’t know whether the story of how he and his twin brother Scott would take turns growing and shaving off mustaches to confuse people is true, but it fits. Before the problems with the external tank delayed the next shuttle mission, the plan was that Mark would command a shuttle mission that would dock with the station while it was commanded by Scott. You don’t reach the point where you and your twin brother are both commanding literal spaceships at the same time without being incredibly competent, but the twins also have great senses of humor and affable personalities. I never met his wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, but I hurt for him and the Kelly family. Saturday was a tragedy for the NASA family, and its personal to us all.

I’m posting this, though, not to share my thoughts, but rather this link that Heather sent me, ISO My Husband, Somewhere in Orbit, from two and a half years ago, that puts a personal face on Saturday’s events:

After a busy weekend, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords flew into BWI yesterday, took the train to Union Station, then ran into a bar searching for a TV.

“I pleaded with the bartender, who had it tuned to some sports station, with a straight face: ‘My husband is the commander of space shuttle Discovery. They’re in the process of rendezvousing with the international pace station. May I please turn the channel?’ ” Giffords told us. “He looked a little confused and handed me the remote.”

The Arizona Democrat, who turns 38 on Sunday, became a NASA spouse when she married 44-year-old astronaut Mark Kelly in November. The two have maintained a long-distance marriage ever since: she in Tucson and D.C.; he in Houston — and for the next 11 days, 218 miles out in space. She’ll watch him on the news every day, and wear her Christmas gift: a meteorite he had made into a pendant for her.

This is Kelly’s third trip into space. He’s shepherding a $1 billion space lab, a pump to repair a broken toilet, a Buzz Lightyear doll and two items from his bride: a flag from the National Day of the Cowboy Organization (“I just thought we needed cowboy representation up there”) and her wedding band, inscribed: You’re the closest to heaven that I’ve ever been.“And he would know,” she said.

Here And There Online


My co-author Owen Garriott has donated a signed copy of our book, Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story, for the 2010 annual Astronaut Scholarship Foundation auction. Bidding begins a week from tomorrow, but you must be registered to participate. If you don’t want a signed copy of Homesteading, you can also do some Christmas shopping for me on the site.

I wrote a guest post for Heather’s official NASA blog, Taking Up Space. I’ve been writing for NASA for more than eight years, and I’ve been blogging for almost that entire time, but for some reason doing the two together for the first time makes me happy.

Along those lines, Face2Face director Eugene Banks this week posted my weekly post-show e-mail to the troupe on the Face2Face Facebook page again this week, which also made me happier than it should. For some reason, going on Facebook this morning and linking to my stuff that had been posted on Heather’s blog and my stuff that had been posted on the F2F page made me feel kinda like a writer, which is always a nice feeling.

I finally got tweeted to today by Lori McKenna, which, again, makes me happier than it should. I’ve heard a lot of new songs since her last album, Unglamorous, came out over three years ago, and I’ve been afraid that I would have already heard all of Lorraine by the time it comes out in January. She confirmed that the album will include a song that I’d not heard of before. This, again, makes me happy.

Talking Up Space


I’ve been a bit quieter than usual here lately, and part of the reason is that for the last couple of weeks, a decent number of my spare brain cycles have been going to support an exciting project we’ve been involved in at work.

I’ve written before about the fact that my coworker Heather got approval to write an official NASA blog about her work as an education writer. The blog recently reached the end of its first pilot phase, and is currently undertaking a rather cool project — a live downlink with the International Space Station.

After the space shuttle Discovery launches on its final flight next month, Heather will talk to a member of the crew while the shuttle is docked with the space station for about 20 minutes. Live downlinks are a rare opportunity, so it’s more than a little neat that she’s getting to do this.

Since this is a project for the blog, we’re bringing an education focus to the event, and we’re doing that by working to involve students in the interview. To accompany the blog, we’ve established Twitter and Facebook accounts that we’re using to get student opinions. Due to government restrictions we didn’t have time to get waivers for, we’re doing that primarily in the form of letting students vote on which areas they’re most interested in hearing asked about. Even so, it’s a very rare opportunity for the student public in general to be involved in an event like this.

It’s a really neat project, and Heather’s doing some great stuff with it (and I’m having a lot of helping).  I encourage you to go check it out and follow and like and vote and subscribe and retweet and share, etc.

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