Now THIS is What I’m Talking About

Elon Musk announced that a SpaceX is developing the Falcon 9 and Dragon into a fully reusable launch vehicle/capsule system. In short, they are actually going to go for making the Falcon 9 live up to it’s namesake.

I can’t help but contrast this animated system with the SLS announcement from NASA. It illustrates my criticism of recent NASA policy perfectly: at Congress’s behest, the space agency has stopped innovating.

It’s not a super-heavy-lift launch vehicle that will enable expansion of the human exploration program beyond flags-and-footprints missions or the long-term development of space. Instead, it’s the fantastically easier access to space afforded by a rapidly reusable launch system like that presented by Musk. The control technology and hardware for such a system exists already; I hope to see test flights in a few years. With only a little luck, they’ll happen before the first SLS is supposed to take off.

Some Data

I was thinking about NASA’s new launch vehicle plans, and I decided to dig through some of the data in the public record and crunch a few numbers on launch vehicle performance. Specifically, payload mass to orbit.

I am proceeding from my favorite space-system-engineering assumption, which is that we can take more than one launch to build a spacecraft. Thus, the payload mass to orbit on a single launch is not the most important metric for a launch vehicle. I care equally about how frequently the launcher flies. So I crawled through launch dates and came up with numbers for the average (and peak) payload masses various launch systems delivered to low Earth orbit on an annual basis. (For example, between January and November 1985, the Space Shuttle launched a total of nine times, and in no continuous one-year period did the Shuttle launch 10 or more times, so I multiplied the Shuttle’s payload capacity by 9 to get the peak annual payload to orbit figure.)

Here’s what I came up with:

Launch System Mass to LEO,
Single Launch
Mass to LEO,
Avg Annual
Mass to LEO,
Peak Annual
Saturn V 119,000 258,927 476,000
Space Shuttle 24,000 84,019 219,600
Atlas V 29,420 169,107 205,940
Delta IV Heavy 23,000 15,119 23,000
Titan IV 21,680 47,337 108,400
Ariane V ES/ECA 21,000 47,049 147,000
Space Launch System 170,000 170,000 170,000

All masses are in kilograms, and for the SLS I used the “evolved” 2021 configuration of the vehicle and the projection that it will likely fly once per year. Averages are over the course of the entire available  service lifetime for the vehicle.

My points are these:

  1. While the Saturn V is still the behemoth of launch no matter how you slice it, some of the other systems come surprisingly close in certain metrics. Even though SLS will boost more than the venerable Saturn, it’s more of an incremental improvement – and the Saturn launched more frequently in its heyday than SLS is likely to. Cost information on the Saturn V (either total cost per launch or cost per kilogram) is a little tricky to come by; I don’t think there are good estimates, so it’s hard to see how that stacks the deck. I suspect that the Saturn V’s cost per launch would hurt it in this comparison.
  2. Historically, the Space Shuttle has already outperformed the projected mass to LEO of the fully evolved SLS. It didn’t always, but there were a couple year-long periods when I did count 9 STS launches/year. By the peak annual mass to LEO metric, then, SLS is a step back from the Shuttle.
  3. The commercial Atlas V is essentially already as good at putting mass in orbit as the SLS will be, on average. And its peak annual mass to LEO is 35 metric tons higher.

My biggest point, however, still is that if you count cumulative launch capacity over several launches, you can get enough material into orbit to build some really big things. We could have NASA developing self-contained habitats and interplanetary  spacecraft without developing any new NASA launch systems.

Senate to NASA: Back to the Future

Today, the group of Senators with a stake in the space program and NASA administrator Gen Charles Bolden had a press conference to announce key decisions related to the design of the Senate Space Launch System, or SLS. To summarize:

  1. The SLS is going to be based on a LH/LOx-fueled core, powered by 5 Space Shuttle Main Engines at the base and some Saturn V-derived engines on the second stage.
  2. The SLS is likely going to have strap-on solid rocket boosters, derivatives of (if not exactly the same production models as) the Space Shuttle’s booster rockets.
  3. The SLS will carry the Orion MPCV capsule.
  4. The first targeted flight of the SLS is supposed to be in the late 2010’s.
  5. NASA is supposed to paint it to look like a Saturn V. Saturn V Saturn V remember those? those were awesome, when you think of the Senate Space Launch System, think of a Saturn V.
Blatant paint job, huh?

I did not have high hopes for this announcement, because I am not a fan of the idea that NASA must have a heavy-lift rocket. I think that the premise the SLS is based on, that a super-heavy-lift rocket is a requirement for deep-space exploration, is flawed. To me, the SLS looks like the kind of rocket I would build if my goal was to send two or three people to an asteroid to plant flags and footprints, and then come home, and then let the space program atrophy away until nobody cares about it any more.

I think that, instead, NASA ought to leverage everything it learned from the Shuttle program about building things in space and construct a fleet of in-space vehicles, out of parts that could be launched on smaller, cheaper vehicles – such as Falcon 9’s or Atlas 5’s. These vehicles would remain in space for their entire lives, so that they don’t ever have to lug a massive heat shield all the way to Mars and back or anything like that. Every time we want to send another crew into deep space, we need only launch a new fuel tank and supplies – instead of a whole new spacecraft!

The SLS hardly represents a bold leap forward for NASA. Heavier and heavier lift is not so much of a challenge in innovation as it was in the ’60’s – and even the SLS is only fractionally more powerful than a Saturn V. It is supposed to use Saturn-V-derived (read: 50-year-old) engines on one stage and Shuttle-derived (read: 40-year-old) engines on the other. NASA artists went to great lengths to evoke the Saturn V in concept art of the SLS – but to me, that’s a bad omen. It demonstrates how much NASA has stagnated at the whims of Congress.

Worse, according to the New York Times, there are internal NASA documents showing that if the NASA budget remains flat, this rocket won’t have any manned flights until 2021 or beyond. And the NASA budget this year – in the very same appropriations process that generated the SLS – went down. I fear that Congress failed to learn the lessons of the Constellation program: that if you don’t fund a project like this, it will gobble up money from all the other science and technology and space research and missions NASA is supposed to be doing; and if all NASA’s eggs end up in one basket like that, then it really just takes that one project going over budget and coming in behind schedule to topple the whole thing.

I was pleasantly surprised by one bit of good news here, at least: the Senate has backed off a bit on over-specifying the SLS design. Allowing NASA to spec out a LH/LOx core rocket and put out the boosters for competitive bids is a Very Good Thing; previously, Congressional rumblings sounded like the rocket had all been awarded to ATK already. I worried about that because ATK has built itself a track record of running very behind schedule and over budget on NASA rockets, and a liquid-fueled design will be much more efficient than a solid rocket could ever achieve.

On the whole, the story wasn’t as bad as I thought is was going to be. However, I’m finding it harder and harder to be optimistic about the future of NASA with a project like SLS present. My prediction: SpaceX is going to come up with a Falcon 9 Heavy that totally outshines the SLS in capability, cost, and speed of delivery – and I can only hope that, before too many resources get sunk into the Big, Dumb Rocket, Congress wises up and says to itself, “hey, why don’t we just buy a bunch of those?”

The sooner Congress does so, though, the better – because that will give NASA more leeway to build the interplanetary spacecraft that I really want!

Time to Move On

Okay. It’s 10 September 2011, and I am 9/11’ed out.

Our nation experienced a tremendous tragedy on that day, and it deserves remembrance and reflection, but I am amazed at the extent to which the concept of “9/11” has been inflated and distorted in politics and the media. Our national sense of victimization has been used to justify all sorts of policies and actions, many of which I feel run counter to the ideals this nation stands for. After a decade, I wonder why our leaders and pundits have had such a hard time getting past the “every day is September 12th” mentality.

To me, the day of the attacks on 11 September 2001 demonstrated how we could come together as a nation under one flag, with common goals, common spirits, and common sympathies. Our divisions and distinctions meant very little on that day: instead, we were all Americans. 12 September 2001 was a powerful day in our nation’s history.

Since then, though, our reaction to the attacks has come to represent, to me, a series of national failures.

I look at the people who responded to the 9/11 attacks – people who demonstrated exceptional stoicism and heroism, people whose concern for their fellow countrymen and women overcame fears for their personal safety, people whose faith in their comrade responders gave them the strength to move towards danger rather than away from it. The thought that there were firefighters streaming into those towers and up the stairs until the moment they collapsed is truly astounding. And yet, to this day, our politicians bicker and dither on whether our nation should do some part to help support those who came to our aid in our darkest hour.

The whole nation of America has internalized the notion that we are victims of 9/11. People far from New York City feel that they, too, were directly attacked – a testament to New York City as a lasting icon of America and American ideals. Yet in the years since, I’ve seen neoconservatives in the punditry vilify the families of the people who lost their lives on 9/11, for whatever reason, while they are happy to simultaneously use the specter of 9/11 to justify who-knows-what actions, from torture to spying to invasion.

The United States went to war, twice, with the sentiment of September 12th. We have killed and died in the Middle East, and spent an amount of national treasure that makes the 2009 stimulus look like small change. Yet whether these wars made us more secure from terrorist attacks like those on 9/11 is still an issue for debate – and likely we will not know the answer to that question without the hindsight of history. In the end, it was not an invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq* that brought the true perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks to justice, but a small commando raid nine years after the fact – essentially, an international police action. And in the meantime, al-Qaeda was happy to put out announcements boasting about how much sympathy our invasion of Iraq had garnered for their cause. That it took us so much time, effort, resources, and lives to learn how to properly fight this ill-defined “war on terror” is disheartening to me.

During the time between 11 Sep 01 and the invasion of Iraq, I think that we as a nation began to confuse the concepts of patriotism and jingoism. There was a philosophy in the public sphere suggesting that to question the actions of the American government, and especially to question the justifications for invading another Middle-Eastern country, was not patriotic. Questioning torture was unpatriotic. Questioning whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was unpatriotic. In the words of our President, “You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists.” I believe that attitude damaged us as a nation, and a decade later, its effects on our politics reverberate with us to this day.

Most sickening to me is the backlash we have seen against American Muslims. This nation was founded on ideals of religious freedom – the thirteen original colonies refused to ratify the Constitution until it included protections against religious persecution, which have been enshrined in the First Amendment. America has always stood for the idea that anyone could come here and become anything that they wanted, even if it took us years to accept that that sentiment really did apply to everyone. We have learned: we learned from Irish immigrants and Asian immigrants, we learned from the Civil Rights Movement among African-Americans, we are still learning from the gay rights movement and from Hispanic immigration. The lesson we learn each time, though, is the same: we are all American. To see us take a step backwards by inventing hatreds against a people seemed, in a nutshell, profoundly un-American. It is not “in poor taste” to build a mosque in New York City – it is a triumph of American ideals over the philosophy of al-Qaeda. Let us never forget that, while the hijackers used Islam to justify their actions, Timothy McVeigh used Thomas Jefferson to justify his. Any person, philosophy, or religion can be taken out of context and distorted to justify a wide range of behaviors. So let Americans stop vilifying Islam because of the attacks.

I have to admit that perhaps this view of the legacy of 9/11 comes from my own reactions on the day itself. I felt angry and upset, but the events seemed remote to me and my feelings ended up…displaced. You see, on the morning of 11 September 2001, I was a senior in a Massachusetts high school, and sitting in calculus class when a runner came from the main office to deliver a note to the teacher. She read it and, while the students joked about who had to go to the office now, she mouthed “oh, my God” to herself. The students could all tell how much her mood had shifted, and we asked what happened.

At this point, I feel the need to reiterate that while we were in school, we were the senior class. Some of my classmates were old enough to vote. Some of them were old enough to join the military. We asked the teacher what the note was about and she put it aside, looked at us, and said the words: “This is way too important for you to know about.”

That was my school’s mentality: hide the events of the day from the students. It didn’t work at all. The vice principal pulled one of classmates out of the room to give him a brief sketch of events and tell him that his sister, in New York city, was all right – he promptly shared what little he knew with everyone in the room. Some students were pulled out of school by their parents, and before they left, they explained whatever they had gleaned about why. One of my friends used the cafeteria pay phone (barely anyone had a cell phone at the time!) to call home; someone in his family narrated the TV news to him, and he related it to the cafeteria at large. The net effect was that, at various times throughout the morning, students thought that there had been as many as a few dozen airplanes hijacked, or that maybe there had been a failure of the air traffic control system such that there were ten airline crashes at once in Pennsylvania, or that the White House and Pentagon had been blown up. I, for one, simply could not believe that the World Trade Center towers could have possibly collapsed, and my mind was filled with visions of them toppling sideways and crushing other buildings.

I was pissed off at the school – because at the time, I wasn’t just a nice, responsible, honors student who felt he could have handled this information. I also happened to be the Cadet Commander of the local Civil Air Patrol squadron. I had emergency services qualifications. On 9/11, after air traffic was grounded, the only aircraft in American airspace belonged to the military and to the Civil Air Patrol. Members of my squadron boarded their aircraft to fly blood for transfusions to New York City. One of my squadronmates was actually on the phone with NORAD to negotiate flight paths for those small Cessnas. Some of the first aerial reconnaissance photos of Ground Zero, giving emergency workers the ability to assess the damage and plan rescue and recovery efforts, came from CAP missions. I was angry at the school, because I could have helped. In some small way, I could have made a difference to the response efforts. In retrospect, I feel guilty that I didn’t just march down to the main office, show them my CAP ID, and demand to call the squadron commander.

I feel that it’s likely that my impotency on that day colored my reactions to the attacks in general, and fueled my frustration as I watch our national policymakers and news organizations struggle to come to grips with the conflicting ideas that America is the most powerful nation in the world and that a dozen bigoted zealots can cause us so much harm. Over time, their struggle has produced the policy failures I alluded to earlier.

But I harbor hope for the future. Slowly, our national debate is evolving, and I am sure that eventually the “9/12 mentality” will become a much smaller part of our discourse. We are starting to pick up the pieces from our wars abroad, and starting to focus on the shape of our policies at home. At some point, we may stop using the September 11th attacks to define what is and is not American. After all, the children who are too young to remember the events of 9/11 are in middle school now.

It is time for us, as a nation, to move on. Let us remember the courage and sacrifice of that day, and let us go forward with the memory of those who lost their lives to make this country a better place for their families.

On that final note, I will leave you with this poignant video:

* Yes, most of the argument for war against Iraq did not explicitly invoke 9/11. However, remember that one of the justifications presented to the American people in the run-up to the Iraq invasion was that the 9/11 hijackers had met with high-level Iraqi officials. Even without that explicit link, I doubt that the invasion authorization would have passed Congress, or passed muster with the American people, without the events of 11 Sep 01.

Review: “Elantris”

Elantris is Brandon Sanderon’s debut fantasy novel. It has a blurb from Orson Scott Card on its cover, to the gist that this is the finest fantasy in who knows long to catch Card’s notice. As my sister put it, this author must have died when he got that.

It’s an impressive debut, and certainly only of the more imaginative fantasies I’ve read. I really enjoy it when an author is able to construct a self-consistent, concrete world without falling into the overused Tolkeinian tropes. (You can’t see it, but right now I’m staring pointedly at every Vulcan-eared archer elf and bearded miner dwarf that has ever existed ever.) It certainly borrows from other fantasy mainstays, and it has a lot of commonality with some other things I’ve seen – Sabriel and its sequels, the Edeard storyline of Peter Hamilton’s Void Trilogy, even A Game of Thrones (though I actually like the characters in Elantris) – but Elantris is constructed in a very unique way.

The plot takes place in a land where the eponymous city was once the seat of magical powers that let its citizens live however they pleased, without worrying about any basic necessities or threat of invasion. A key aspect of the city’s magic was that only Elantrians could perform it – but anyone, anywhere in the kingdom, could suddenly find themselves struck by the transformation into an Elantrian. The culture of the kingdom is simultaneously elitist and egalitarian, and no one goes hungry or suffers from illness. And so life goes on, until one day a disaster strips the Elantrians of their power and turns the city, along with all its magical people, into decaying ruins. The remaining population of the kingdom throws down their now-impotent rulers and locks them all within Elantris’ walls, and the mercantile class become robber barons to impose their own feudal rule on the kingdom. Still…anyone, anytime can be struck by the transformation – but now they are shunned, despised, and imprisoned inside the fallen city.

The novel follows three key characters ten years after the disaster takes place. Raoden, popular heir to the new throne of the kingdom, finds himself turned into an Elantrian and immediately begins to unravel the mysteries surrounding the ruin after his father tosses him into the city. Sarene, a twist on the classic tomboy princess, is en route from another kingdom to join Prince Raoden in a political marriage when his transformation hits; with him declared dead, the treaty governing the kingdoms’ alliance makes their marriage binding as she remains ignorant of his true fate. She must get to know her new homeland while politically maneuvering to safeguard both kingdoms – as the alliance was an important move to present a united front against a third aggressor nation. Meanwhile, Hrathen, a high priest of that third nation, has quietly infiltrated the kingdom and seeks to convert its populace to his religion before his Emperor loses patience and decides to destroy them all.

A word of warning: minor spoilers follow. But I promise that they are tiny.

One of the things I particularly liked about this novel is how self-consistent the mechanism for doing Elantrian magic is. This magic is not vaguely defined – nobody “searches out with their feelings,” nobody “embraces the power rushing through them,” nobody practices the perfect flick of their magic wand. After reading this book, I realized that now I know how to do Elantrian magic, if I lived in this world. Going a step further, we readers actually get to see how research into magic would work in Elantris – that is, how to discover and construct new spells. It’s a very open-ended system, and very specifically defined, lending this fantasy an air of….well, perhaps “realism” isn’t the right word, so let’s go with “concreteness.” All this isn’t frivolous: the basis for and technique of Elantrian magic becomes a major plot point. And with us readers given the tools to follow along, I found myself able to solve the puzzle of Elantris before the characters did. (Fortunately, they were not very far behind!)

In fact, I’d have to say that this is one of the most economical novels I’ve read: Sanderson introduces very little into the book that doesn’t become important in some way or another. This is generally good, but at the same time, sometimes it makes events in the plot seem a little too easy to see coming. Of course the prince and princess eventually get together; of course the high priest’s overzealous acolyte causes his downfall; of course the autistic child we briefly meet has a super-important role to play in the book’s climax. This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of twists that are surprising – there are – or characters who die tragic deaths – there are those, too – or even unexpected relationships that develop – that also happens. It’s kind of amazing just how many events got packed into this book, for its relatively small size. I think I enjoyed the book more for being able to piece things together on my own: in a way, that proves the logic and consistency underlying Sanderson’s world and shows that his few basic principles go a lot further to move the plot along than a sudden “aha, reader! I bet you weren’t expecting me to throw THIS at you!” sort of forced “twist.”

Sanderson creates a colorful cast of secondary characters, but for the most part he seems to enjoy exploring the relationships that develop between them more than he likes looking at how the characters might evolve. In the cases of Sarene and Raoden, in particular, the plot is an affirmation of being true to oneself in the face of an adverse situation or heckling from others. They come out of their experiences richer, but that is more because they shaped the world around them than the reverse. Hrathen, though, is a much more interesting case: over the course of the plot we see him struggle with his faith in an attempt to reconcile its “convert or die” mentality with his personal belief that he is genuinely trying to help the people of the kingdom. The particular manner of his fall and transformation at the climax is a little surprising, yet makes perfect sense – like much of this book. Sadly, Hrathen’s part in the climax of the plot is also the subject of the novel’s most moralizing speechifying; Sanderson manages to stop just after making his point, though, before he gets overbearing.

The author closes Elantris not with a complete triumph of good over evil, but with the balance of power restored. Elantris leaves the door wide open for a sequel, with antagonists clearly still extant in Sanderson’s world and new facets of Elantrian (or other) magic yet to be learned. I will be happy to find out what those facets are when I can. For now, though, Elantris is a fine standalone novel that provides a fresh look at a lot of fantasy themes in a thoroughly imagined universe.