Sunday, November 30, 2014

This Holiday Season..... Don't Miss These Launches!

Even though it's practically December that doesn't mean the year is winding down for spaceflight. On the contrary, it's going to be a busy month: Fourteen launches are scheduled for the month of December, roughly one every other day, and there are some you don't want to miss!

(No earlier than) December 2/3

Hayabusa 2 will launch on an asteroid sample return mission atop an H-2A rocket from Tanegashima Space Center, Japan. Hayabusa 2 is slated to rendezvous with asteroid 1999 JU3 in 2018 and tasked with returning a sample to Earth in 2020. This is JAXA's second asteroid sample retrieval mission. The first Hayabusa craft returned an asteroid sample to Earth in 2010. "Hayabusa" is Japanese for peregrine falcon.

If Hayabusa 2 launches on December 3, the launch time in the U.S. fill fall on December 2: 11:22 p.m. EST / 8:22 p.m. PST. Hayabusa 2 has been delayed twice due to weather. I will post updates here if the launch slips again. 

Image credit: JAXA

December 4

NASA is scheduled to launch its new Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle on its first uncrewed mission to space: Exploration Flight Test One (EFT-1). Orion marks NASA's return to human spaceflight and is widely expected to pave the space agency's path to crewed Mars landings and other deep space missions. 

A United Launch Alliance's Delta 4-Heavy rocket will carry the Orion craft to orbit. This is a heavy lift vehicle with a triple-body rocket that brings the power of the Saturn V from the Apollo era Moon landings back to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Orion will reach an altitude of 3,600 miles above Earth. For comparison, the International Space Station orbit is ca. 220 miles above Earth. The Space Shuttle, retired in 2011, was not capable of traveling beyond low Earth orbit.

Exploration Flight Test One will test many of Orion's critical systems, such as its heat shield that must withstand temperatures of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit as re-entry speed reaches 20,000 miles per hour. Other Orion components to be tested during EFT-1 include the launch abort system and the parachute system that will help land Orion off the coast of California after completing two orbits.

The launch window for EFT-1 on December 4 is 7:05-9:44 a.m. EST / 4:05-6:44 a.m. PST. This is going to be rough on us West Coasters.

 Image credit: NASA

Update 2 - December 18: SpaceX CRS-5 launch moved up into the first week of January 2015. Click here for current updates and more info about the new launch date and time.  

Update 1 - December 16: Launch re-scheduled for December 19, 10:22 a.m. PST (19:22 CET)

December 16 (original date before re-schedules)

Delayed multiple times since September 12, SpaceX's cargo delivery to the International Space Station is now scheduled for December 16, launching a Dragon cargo capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket from pad SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral. This mission will be the private space company's fifth cargo delivery to the ISS under NASA's Commercial Resupply Services contract. The mission is named CRS-5 and has a brief launch window: 2:31 p.m. EST / 11:31 a.m. PST.

For SpaceX, CRS-5 is quite a bit more than another supply run to the ISS, as the company will further test the re-usability of its flagship Falcon 9 rocket. From its inception, SpaceX has aimed to make spaceflight more affordable and accessible. Reusable rocket stages are a crucial factor in the quest to develop rockets that are significantly cheaper to fly than single-use rockets. 

On a mission earlier this year, SpaceX began post-launch re-usability testing by guiding the Falcon 9's upper stage (the rocket stage to be recovered) to hoever upright above the ocean for a few seconds before it tipped over sideways into the water. SpaceX uses a combination of landing legs, grid fins, retro rockets and stabilizing technologies to enable Falcon 9's upper stage to perform a precision soft landing on water and eventually on land.

This time, Falcon 9's upper stage is expected to land on an autonomous spaceport drone ship. Last week on twitter, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gave us a glimpse of what to expect on December 16 - a historic milestone never before achieved: precisely land and recover a rocket that is intact and reusable, without the need to fish it out of the water.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Dear Vultures: Go Away, Nothing To See Here

Yesterday's crash of a SpaceShipTwo vehicle in California's Mojave Desert is a painful blow to the spaceflight community, especially to those supporting the fledgling commercial space and space tourism industries. It's always more tragic when lives are lost, including Michael Alsbury, one of the SpaceShipTwo pilots.

                                    Michael Alsbury, 39, perished in the crash

At this time, the primary focus should be on the pilot's family and on the surviving pilot's needs. Pretty much everything else can wait, including publicizing the second pilot's name and condition. Yes, I've actually seen the mainstream press and social media rip into Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites for being "slow to disclose" all the details on the pilots and so far nothing on the cause of the crash.

Maybe this apparent entitlement to being in the loop is a holdover from the days when NASA was the only space-faring outfit in the land. The government agency really had no choice but to deal with the public. As a result, NASA is an expert at responsive public relations, holding news conferences, sharing information and generally keeping reporters and the public in the know. Private companies, by contrast, have no such obligation to share their business, their successes and failures with the press or the general public. In reality, of course, they do, since they'd hardly thrive otherwise. That does not give Mr and Ms Reporter the right to call into question Virgin Galactic's general competence because the company called a press conference in the middle of the Mojave Desert during a rainstorm and then dared to withhold the pilots' names.

The initial Virgin Galactic / Scaled Composites press conference after the crash was telling. Unlike NASA officials under similar circumstances, it was clear that those finding themselves in the spotlight didn't plan on being on TV that day, shaken, pressed to explain their company's first failure to a global audience. VG and SC reps seemed devastated during that press conference. It really doesn't help if all reporters and editors do is kick them when they're down and write articles about everything else they think is wrong with Virgin Galactic, or why the entire space tourism and commercial space industry is doomed for all time.

But then again, I'm not sure the mainstream press wants to help. From Time to National Geographic to Wired, writers and editors are proclaiming this the end of space tourism, the end of all of commercial space, and the end of billionaires daring to develop revolutionary technologies that benefit only the rich, initially. 

I'm not linking to these articles on purpose. Spaceflight naysayers are bad enough at the best of times. When it comes to covering the Virgin Galactic story, they are acting like nothing so much as a pack of starved vultures on a 3-day-old carcass. I needed hip boots just to read that stuff and brain bleach afterwards.

SpaceShipTwo disintegrating over the Mojave Desert on October 31, 2014

We're not exactly talking about well-thought out scientific or engineering arguments here. There are those who gleefully deliver "I told you so!"s for a 1,000 words only to reveal opposition to Virgin Galactic rooted in a personal dislike for billionaires finding ways to sell leisure trips to the edge of space to the wealthy elite. That's too bad, Mr Reporter, it's not your money. Go forth and make a few billion dollars from scratch like Richard Branson did, and maybe then you have something useful, or - think about it! -  supportive to say about a pioneering entrepreneur. But I doubt it.

Then there are those in the mainstream media peanut gallery who are offering up various - equally unhelpful and unsupportive - versions of "It's just too dangerous!", "This has always been a bad idea!" and "What is wrong with you people? Going into space is frivolous, dangerous and serves no purpose!" 

I've seen and heard this so many times in so many different incarnations that I haven't a facepalm left. Maybe those who think going into space serves no purpose have descendants that will agree, otherwise they'll find themselves obstructionists of their children's future. I've frequently come up against this seemingly irreconcilable divide: Those committed to our human future in space and those adamant that we must stay right here on Earth, where we belong.

While the latter choice is one that endangers survival of the human species in the long run
, in the here and now it is also an argument that is downright Luddite at its anti-technology core. It is a resistance to developing tech that will unlock whole new ways for human beings to live, thrive and form communities, even as some of us die to make these advances accessible not just to a wealthy elite, but to everybody. There is precedent in human history. Opposition to technology and science out of fear or misinformation is not uncommon. The calls I'm seeing in the mainstream media to end the dangerous madness of space tourism reminds me of those denizens of the 19th century who vocally opposed railroad technology because they believed that it wasn't possible for people to survive traveling at speeds over 30 mph. They were insistent. They were obnoxious. And they were dead wrong.

To me the path is clear. Commercial space and space tourism will recover from failure. We will pick up the pieces, literally, and move forward. It is what we do as a species, it is how we learn and evolve. Most of all, I firmly believe that moving onward, forward and upward is a crucial way to honor the lives of those who have died - and who will die - as they refine the technologies that will make humans a true space-faring species.

Thank you, Michael Alsbury for your courage and for your sacrifice. They will not be forgotten and they will not be in vain ~

Ad Astra!