NASA COTS program paying off? Summary of Aviation Week article

I saw this interesting analysis of the commercial space launch industry in Aviation Week:  This is a 4-page article that’s definitely worth reading, esp. if you’re interested in the commercial space ventures and why the government should continue to support commercial space ventures through NASA’s COTS program.  However, here’s the down-low:

--NASA’s spent about $925 million dollars in seed money to commercial space ventures.  This has helped private space companies (like SpaceX, which is closest to its goal) to develop.

--As commercial companies become successful, they will drive down the cost of launches across the board as other companies work to keep their part of the market share.

--Big government contractors will also have to innovate in order to keep up.

--One example of innovation is the use of less expensive but more sophisticated safety systems, like escape systems.  These will rely more heavily on computer decisions to abort because the decision needs to be made so quickly to save the crew.

--The Atlas V is still a popular choice for launch vehicles because it’s reliable, it does the job, and it’s available.  Boeing and United Launch Alliance are using the Atlas V.  Since the Atlas is already used by the Air Force, using it for manned space will also mean more being produced, which lowers costs.

--SpaceX, of course, built its own rocket, the Falcon 9 itself, starting out with the intention of making it man-rated according to the Space Act Agreement, but it needs an upgrade to meet the Federal Acquisition Requirements for man-rating .  (It doesn’t say why the Space Act  requirements and FAR are not the same.  May I suggest government bureaucracy?)

--NASA has funded several programs for its “base period;” after which, it has an optional period where it will evaluate the competitors and decide who it wants to work with in the longer run.  Those will be the ones they work with fully man-certifying the launch vehicles.

--Just an aside, but Sierra Nevada is being bankrolled by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.  It’s interesting to me how many Internet business billionaires are funding commercial space.  Is it the geek factor?  If so, go, geek factor!

--Even if NASA were to only select one contractor for its manned space missions, it still wins because companies will have developed rockets that can carry unmanned capsules or launch other things into space.

--NASA asked for $830 million to invest in commercial crew launch.  Despite Obama’s promise to support commercial space, it was cut to $406 million, less than half of what they asked for and half of what they used the year before.  That’s going to delay commercial manned flights to the ISS by at least a year.  (During which time, we will continue to fund Russia’s space program.

--However, NASA isn’t the only potential customer for manned spaceflights.  Bigelow is continuing to perfect its inflatable space habitats, which could be used for tourism, science & industry, and other nations that don’t have enough resources of “lack the wherewithal to develop their own space laboratories.”  Sierra Nevada, meanwhile, is working on a shuttle-type system with the eye on satellite-servicing.

Although Aviation Week says the NASA investment will “pay off as soon as” April, they were not speaking financially.  Rather, they see the program as having sparked a space-launch market that didn’t exist before (that of manned space launch.)  Time will tell if this market can bear the industry being built.  Most likely, we will see companies rise and fall, just like in any industry, as new technology and new approaches (not to mention marketing) are tried.  It will also depend on whether there are customers enough for this market.  It may be a “cottage industry” for awhile, until we find a way to make it truly profitable.

Just a note:  SpaceX has delayed its launch until early May.  They have to get this one right, so they're being extra-careful.

  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit
  • RSS

Space Studies Tuesday: Lesson 1-3 The Solar System

The lesson didn't really talk much about the Kuiper Belt Objects, so I found this video:

Is anyone else reading the lessons along with me?  I'd love to get some discussions going.  This lesson is a good one, since we're so interested in asteroids not just because someday one might hit the earth (We've had some close calls, astronomically speaking.) but also because if we can find a way to capture and mine these asteroids, especially, we will go a long way to developing an infrastructure for colonizing the solar system.  (BTW, the lesson does not say what albedo is--it's simply how much light is reflected off a surface. as a comparison, the moon's albedo is .12.)

I think that if I write a story about asteroid miners, I will have to consider the Jovian LaGrange points.  LaGrange points are nice "balance points," between two large bodies.  Something in the LaGrange point will stay in that spot without having to expend extra energy.  It's commonly considered a good spot for space stations; in this case, a nice big mining colony sounds good.

This lesson had some good basic information, but it served to remind me about how much more I need to know about asteroids should I decide to write more about them.

Do you want to learn more about asteroid mining and what we're looking at now?  If so, I'll do some research; several universities are exploring this, of course, but I'm not sure if any companies are.  I think we first need to make getting to space cheaper.

  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit
  • RSS

ISS Crew stuck again?

Well, the launch to send the next crew to the International Space Station was to have happened on March 29, but the Soyuz capsule was damaged in a "botched pressure test" and it looks like the current crew will be up there until May 15 or so.  First a rocket, then the Mars probe, now the Soyuz.  They are not doing well lately.

On the bright side, the Dragon is to have its maiden voyage on April 30th.  This is the first time a commercial spacecraft will dock with the ISS, and the best things are it's new, it's been heavily QC'd, it's it's made in America.  I'm looking forward to this flight and what it will mean for America and space.

Credit SpaceX Jan 2012.

  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit
  • RSS

Space Studies Tuesday, Lesson 1-2 The Solar System

This week in the JPL class, we're learning about the planets themselves.  I found this neat video that  also gives some great info:

Here are the neat things I found in this lesson:
“The presence of life on Earth causes oxygen to be abundant in the atmosphere, and in this Earth is unique in our solar system. Without life, most of the oxygen would soon become part of the compounds on the planet's surface. Thus, the discovery of oxygen's signature in the atmosphere of an extrasolar planet would be significant.”
I knew that oxygen was necessary for life, which is why I thought we were looking for it.  I didn’t realize it was the other way around—that life may be necessary for oxygen retention!

Here’s something else I’d always wondered:  why can we see the sun and the moon at the same time?  It’s because of the moon’s distance.  Did you know the moon is gradually spiraling away from the earth?  38 meters/millennium. 

This caught my attention about Jupiter: 
“It emits electromagnetic energy from charged atomic particles spiraling through its strong magnetic field. If this sizzling magnetosphere were visible to our eyes, Jupiter would appear larger than the full Moon in Earth's sky.”   
I’m wondering how we’d harness that energy in the future.  It may become a Rescue Sisters story one day.  Also on the agenda for Rescue Sisters:  ice mining of Saturn’s rings and its moon Enceladus.

Did you read the lesson?  Learn anything new?

  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit
  • RSS

Microgravity and Eyesight

Last time, we talked about the effects of mirogravity on brain function.  Today, let's look briefly on microgravity and eyesight.

This has gotten some media attention lately, thanks to a study done by the University of Texas School of Houston, which did MRIs of 27 astronauts and found several of them had abnormalities that resembled intracranial hypertension, which basically means the high pressure of the fluid in the skull.

According to the article on BBC News: 

(The) team examined astronauts who had spent more than 30 days of cumulative time in the weightless environment of space.  The group found evidence for expansion of the cerebral spinal fluid space surrounding the optic nerve of nine of the astronauts, a flattening of the rear of the eyeball in six, a bulging of the optic nerve in four, and changes in the pituitary gland and its connection to the brain in three individuals. The pituitary gland secretes and stores hormones that regulate a variety of important body functions.
Unfortunately, I could not find a copy of the study, so I cannot tell you if this means that 19 of 27 astronauts had symptoms, or if some had multiple symptoms.  The article also did not say how this might compare to a similar group of earth-bound people.  However, another study of 15 astronauts by the National Academy of Sciences said 7 of the 15 had experienced blurry vision as a result of intercranial pressure, and 35 percent of all space station astronauts have experienced blurry vision of some sort.

So, this is a potential problem, especially if the effects are cumulative or damaging if continued in long term.  It's one reason astronauts are usually limited to 6 month tours in space as most.  However, if we ever get moving to Mars, this may be more of an issue.

In October, the ISS got a new ultrasound machine, and have been using it to make studies of the eyes. 

The challenges for getting to Mars are more then technical, it seems.

  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit
  • RSS

Space Studies Tuesday, Lesson 1-1 The Solar System

Thought we'd start this lesson with a song...

With that warm up--today's lesson is introduction to the solar system, with some cosmic perspective and some terminology.  Read it on the JPL web page then come back.  Be sure to take the quiz.  It's pretty easy.

Since we are learning together, I thought the best way to handle this is to ask all of you to comment with some insights you had and any questions.  I'll try to find the answers to the questions and post them in the comments as well.

I remember the argument about whether or not Pluto should be removed from the list of planets.  I liked this best--as a planet, Pluto was the odd kid who never quite fit in.  As a plutoid, it is the standard for similar objects in the solar system.  Makes sense to me.

The solar winds have long fascinated science fiction writers who have imagined solar sailing ships.  In 2010 Japan launched the first solar sail craft.  The latest I can find is that it passed Venus in December 2010 and was to keep going through March 2012, but the JAXA website is woefully out of date.  (Inquiring minds want to know!) They're obviously only going to be useful within the solar system, but is the boundary the termination shock or the heliopause?  Could make an interesting story--a ship adrift in the heliosheath.

Another interesting note, and one I have to remember for my worldbuilding class--if you are going to postulate a world undergoing some kind of communications crisis due to extreme sunspot activity, you'll need to know the year and figure out the correct sunspot cycle.  I'm not real fond of this scenario, myself, but every couple of workshops, it pops up.  Now, I can start directing my students to this class!

There are three things I got from this course, and as you can see, I'm reading this as a science fiction writer--how can I use the information, and how has it been used already.  What about you?  What did you find interesting? Useful?

  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit
  • RSS

And Now for Something Completely Disorienting

It's no secret that a lack of gravity can be as disorienting as it is fun.  When the middle ear cannot tell up from down, it can make you nauseous until you're used to it.  However, can microgravity affect your ability to think?

That's beenthe topic of many studies, outlined in this New Scientist article by Anil Ananthaswamy, which I found presented in whole on the Transhumantech blog.  Go there to read it, because it's very interesting, but let me give you a few highlights.

Our sense of balance is tied to the vestibular system, which is part of your inner ear.

However, the nerves that lead from the vestibular system connect with a lot of the brain, including where we process images and also control of hands, arms and eyes.  Studies on earth and in space have shown that messing with the inner ear can affect perceptions.  For example, one study found that tilting people 135 degrees affected their ability to recognize faces.  Another study, done on parabolic flights that simulate zero g, showed that people looking at a square from different angles are more likely to think it a diamond, while on earth, they would see a diamond when it's on or near its point.  So in space, you'd see this as a diamond.  This shows, they said, that we rely on gravity for interpreting images. By seeing how astronauts write letters (of the alphabet), they found gravity influences how we perceive things in the vertical dimension.

So, all very nifty, but what does this mean?  "Space fog" is a known condition among astronauts and has been the culprit for accidents, like then the Progress capsule hit the Mir space station in 1997.  This will be a particular concern when we start talking Mars missions, where humans will be years in microgravity far from home.  Obviously artificial gravity would be the best solution.  In the meantime, there's an "early warning" system aboard the ISS that can help astronauts know when space fog is affecting their abilities.  The data it's collecting will help us learn whether the effects get worse with time or if the body adapts.

There are other interesting inventions mentioned in the article for helping overcome space fog, like when on moon-walks to keep astronauts from getting disoriented.

  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit
  • RSS

Space Studies Tuesday! Who's in?

If there was one thing my dear friend, Walt Staples, was good at, it was finding interesting articles or information and foisting them upon his victims--er, sharing them with his friends.  Case in point:  when I started this blog, he started sending me links to news articles about space.  I'd dutifully scan them and often blogged about them, but I could never keep up.  Several were flagged to deal with later.

That leads us to today's blog and challenge.  He had sent me this e-mail back in November:

Hi Karina,

Were you aware that JPL has an online Basics of Spaceflight class? I think it's pretty good (brushing up on GTOs). You might think about mentioning it on the blog sometime.

I thought it looked like a lot of fun, not only to blog about once, but to make a group activity for my readers:  we would take the class together.  So I flagged it, and have just now come back to it.

There are 18 sections with one or more lessons each.  The lessons run about three pages each if they were in a book, with a small online quiz.  I propose we do one a week, over the weekend, and come back on Tuesday to report our test scores (optional) and any comments we have on what we've learned.  This will take us until Dec 18 to complete, but we'll have done ti together.  It'll be fun!

Here are the lessons:  I'll post them in the sidebar with the date we meet to discuss them.


1 The Solar System
2 Reference Systems
3 Gravity & Mechanics
4 Trajectories
5 Planetary Orbits
6 Electromagnetics

7 Mission Inception
8 Experiments
9 S/C Classification
10 Telecommunications
11 Onboard Systems
12 Science Instruments
13 Navigation

14 Launch
15 Cruise
16 Encounter
17 Extended Operations
18 Deep Space Network
Who's with me?
First lesson on the Solar System will be discussed on Tuesday, April 10.

  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit
  • RSS