Space to get excited about

Last month, NASA repeated an accomplishment they first checked off in 1964 – with some few improvements hardly worthy of the intervening half-century. But tomorrow morning, assuming the weather is a “go,” we will get to see a space travel event that has me far more excited. SpaceX is going to launch a rocket…and they’re going to turn the first stage around from high altitude and hypersonic speed to land on this:

SpaceX drone barge

in the Atlantic Ocean.

I love this.

I love this because of the technical meaning of the capability: being able to reuse a rocket would be seriously cool. It has the potential to alter forever the economics of spaceflight. And it’s not as crazy an idea as you might think at first – SpaceX has actually pretty much done it already, albeit without the barge underneath the landing rocket.

But I also love this because of what the event represents! Elon Musk estimates a 50/50 chance of success. SpaceX is trying this because nobody has tried it before. They are trying it because there’s no way to convince people it’s possible except by doing it. They are being incredibly ambitious, and they are willing to accept failure in order to learn from it.

In an industry increasingly defined by incrementalism and risk aversion, SpaceX recognizes that sometimes reward comes from risk. They are truly innovating; trying things that are new. It seems that while NASA’s human spaceflight programs once had the “right stuff,” they lost it in bureaucratization – but the “right stuff” didn’t vanish. It just moved – to the robotic explorers like Curiosity or New Horizons and to the “new space” companies like SpaceX.

Best of luck to the SpaceX team tomorrow. I know that even if you don’t succeed, you’ll be proud of your achievements and you will try again. But I’d bet you’ll see that first stage again!

Posted in NASA, Space | Leave a comment

A brief review of “The Martian,” by Andy Weir

THIS IS THE SPACE PROGRAM I WANT. NONE OF THIS PANSY CONGRESSIONALLY DESIGNED INCREMENTALIST SLS/ORION CRAP. THIS ONE. RIGHT HERE.

Fantastic, Mr. Weir.

Posted in Books | 1 Comment

Back to the Future

This week, NASA launched the Orion spacecraft on a test flight. I have a conflicted viewpoint about this event. To me, Orion is both exciting and deeply disappointing.

On the one hand, Orion is NASA’s first entirely new spacecraft for human crews in over twenty years. There have been only seven in American history: Mercury (first successful flight in 1959), Gemini (1964), Apollo (1966), Skylab (1973), Space Shuttle (1981), Space Station (1992), and Orion (2014). Those dates have been getting unacceptably distant from one another, and it is wonderful to see NASA getting its game back on. Test flights are NASA’s business. The agency is supposed to operate in the proving ground of technology. I want to see it doing new things, and the Orion flight was a reasonable first step towards NASA getting back to its roots. Those roots, after all, were triumphant!

On the other hand, though, Orion falls far short of what NASA could, and should, do. The spacecraft is an improvement over the last capsule NASA designed – the Apollo Command Module – but it is an incremental improvement rather than a revolutionary one. As an example, one of the technological advancements NASA has been touting about Orion is its glass cockpit. But this is the era of the iPad: in such a mass- and volume-constrained environment as a space capsule, the glass cockpit is simply not innovative – it is obvious. (For examples of innovation in space vehicles, try inflatable habitatsrockets that fly back to their landing pads or crew shuttles that could land at any normal-sized airport runway.) To make matters worse, not only is Orion an incremental step in capability from the early ’70s, but its development is horrendously stretched. For reasons that are political, programmatic, and cultural, rather than technical, the next flight of Orion will be in 2018. A human crew will not use the capsule until after 2021, at which point it will be almost a decade old itself.

I think the most bitter disappointment is the concept of what Orion will do when it finally does have astronauts on board. The current plan is to build the world’s biggest rocket, the Space Launch System, and use it to send an Orion crew to asteroids and Mars. I’m all for visiting those places, but the “giant rocket with space capsule” architecture – the architecture of Apollo – is a recipe for one-shot visits to other worlds. After the first astronauts return from such “flags and footprints” missions, there is a very strong risk of program cancellation. I don’t want to see our space program cancelled.

An Orion capsule riding a Space Launch System rocket is not even close to how I would design a sustainable, long-term space program. A much better approach is to use many different spacecraft, and specialize them for individual purposes. Think of the Apollo Lunar Module: it was a flimsy, silly-looking vehicle that was exactly suited for the prospect of landing and taking off from the Moon’s surface. Instead of building on Apollo and Space Shuttle heritage to make an “all-purpose” space capsule, I would like to see NASA lean on its Space Station experience to design a set of interplanetary transport spacecraft. These vehicles would stay in space for their whole lives: we would assemble them in space, launch them out of Earth orbit rather than from Earth’s surface, and we’d never use them to carry astronauts up from and down to the ground. Whenever they need more fuel, we’d send only the fuel up to them – not a whole new vehicle. When we need to rotate astronaut crews, we could always hire SpaceX.

That sort of multi-vehicle concept offers some big advantages. First of all, it’s much more flexible than giant, infrequent, one-shot missions. Second, it’s far more efficient and cost-effective. Think about this: 20% of Orion’s mass is its heat shield, a component only needed for the last ten minutes of its mission. If Orion is returning from Mars, then that means our Mars return rocket needs to be huge in order to push that heavy heat shield on its half-year-long journey back to Earth. And if the heat shield and Mars return rocket need to be huge, then the Earth departure rocket needs to be enormous. Instead, though, we could forget sending the heat shield to Mars in the first place. Forget having the vehicle that goes to Mars also be responsible for landing on Earth. When the astronauts come back from Mars, you just send a little rocket with a little capsule into Earth orbit – just enough to bring the astronauts to the ground. The lightweight interplanetary spacecraft stays in space.

In 2011, when Congress ordered NASA to begin work on the Space Launch System, internal NASA studies came out that agree with my assessment. Multi-vehicle approaches that we can re-fuel and re-use in space are more efficient and cheaper than SLS. They will also get astronauts to other worlds much sooner. Most importantly, such approaches won’t be reliant on one-and-done missions. They will be much more likely to keep our explorers in space.

That is why, while I applaud NASA’s successful demonstration of the ability to launch new vehicles, I hope the agency moves on quickly from Orion, and begins work on a new fleet of exploration vehicles to stay in space.

Posted in Concepts, NASA, Skepticism, Space | Leave a comment

Vhonn/Brawn (what could we do?)

Vhonn/Brawn

Wernher von Braun is one of the lions of the early American space program: a pioneer who engineered our initial forays into orbit, our steps onto the surface of the moon, and our designs for space stations and Martian colonies. He developed or directed the development of the technology to enable those feats. Without him, the United States might not have a space program as we know it.

But all technology is only as good as the people who use it. If von Braun had a personal failing, it was being willing to embrace the use of his devices for nefarious purposes, so long as he could work on them at all. His part in aerospace history began in Nazi Germany, with slave labor and vengeance weapons. Then, after he surrendered to the Americans, he secured a place at the US Army not by promising it the moon – but by promising it the intercontinental ballistic missile. The dual use of this technology was not lost on von Braun. As he famously said of the V2, “the rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet.” Since then, every single government to come into contact with von Braun’s work has first thought not of space exploration, but of ballistic missiles armed with weapons of terror.

Brawn

Two worlds. The reckless denizens of Brawn choose to use their technology for destructive ends. In their insecurity, they ultimately realized their driving fears. Now, all that remains of them is technological detritus: shattered pipelines, broken chain-link fences, and cracked bunkers; all are monuments to warnings ignored.

Vhonn

On another world, the policymakers kept their engineers focused on exploration, enriching and enhancing their culture. They ultimately landed an expedition on the neighboring planet Vhonn – a place harsh in its alienness, but full of scientific treasure troves, including keys to understanding life as they knew it. Their citizens are confident and inspired. They strive forward into the cosmos, and will eventually stake claims throughout their star system.

Today was once celebrated as Armistice Day, a day when the world laid down its arms to end the greatest war it had ever felt – a war that saw the development of weapons so terrible that an international convention gathered to forbid their use. Now, nearly a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, may we do so again. I hope that, one day, we live in a nation worthy of our veterans’ sacrifices.

Posted in Art, Politics, Social commentary | Leave a comment

Prints!

Hey there, anybody who has been a fan of my maps! I am proud to announce that I’ve uploaded 18 megapixel images of several of my favorite maps to Imagekind so that you can buy prints.

Prints of Archipelago, Zarmina, and Legends!

Prints of Archipelago, Zarmina, and Legends!

There are four maps available: Zarmina, Inkwash, Archipelago, and Legends. I’m pleased with how they came out! Of course, the tiny features on Legends are much better in the original…

There are also a couple details of Archipelago, which lent itself well to close-ups: a lone island in the sea and a colorful snippet with several islands.

Personally, I like the “small” size for the full images, and the smallest size Imagekind offers for the two details. The large sizes, and above, are an up-sizing from the original, and while I’m sure they will make a fine image, I don’t know that the smallest of my details will scale well digitally.

I’m looking forward to the experiment to see how much interest people have in these maps! I can tell you that I’ll be posting more, and I’ll be uploading them to Imagekind as I do.

Posted in Art, Maps | Leave a comment

Visionaries

The Space Review has a fantastic article that invaded my whole way of thinking this morning while I was trying to get into my groove for work. It casts the golden age of space exploration – the Space Race – as a contest of two visionary dreamers against their employing superpowers. It also goes a long way towards explaining the allure of SpaceX! The arguments presented therein may or may not be right, but they certainly form an interesting view to read.

It’s a fantastic and different historical perspective. Plus, some of the author’s writing includes delicious indictments of the use of space technology for evil.

Posted in Concepts, Politics, Social commentary, Space | Leave a comment

Gliese 581

Well, it turns out that Gliese 581g might not exist. But don’t worry – although Zarmina itself may not be a real place, my map still demonstrates a possible appearance for any other tidally locked world in its star’s liquid-water zone, which may be common around M dwarfs!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment