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Posts Tagged ‘NASA

About bloody time, Boeing.

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When NASA laid contracts with Boeing and SpaceX a decade ago to develop spacecraft that could transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS), I don’t think anybody expected that it would be Boeing that would drop the ball on the job.

SpaceX was a newbie in an industry where deep-seated, careful design, engineering and testing was prized, and which Boeing had in depth. Most space industry observers thought that SpaceX was merely a backup to Boeing, a little bit of potential redundancy against development problems, but not expected to be the leader.

In fact SpaceX was the one that grabbed the prize, first developing the Dragon spaceship for sending freight to the ISS in the mid-2010’s, then modifying that vehicle into Crew Dragon, to carry humans into space. After an uncrewed test flight to the ISS in 2019, SpaceX got people there a year later in 2020, after some of their own problems. They’ve since sent and returned several ISS crews.

Meantime, Boeing’s problems with their Starliner spacecraft went from bad to worse. You’d think that being slow and careful would at least produce a good spacecraft, even if over-budget and years behind schedule. But that was not what happened, with test flights that went off course or were scrubbed because of potentially catastrophic failures with things like thrusters. It’s been quite the black eye for Boeing and, along with their production problems on the 787 Dreamliner aircraft and crashes of the latest 737 model, has raised serious questions about their engineering prowess.

Well, today they finally managed something with Starliner:

[Boeing’s] Starliner was successfully launched by the aerospace company and NASA from the Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on Thursday .

[It] docked with the International Space Station for the first time Friday. The uncrewed test flight docked with the space station at 8:28 p.m. EDT, NASA said in a tweet.

Sighs of relief all around I’d say, not just inside Boeing but NASA also since, as good as SpaceX and Crew Dragon have proved to be, it’s always nice to have a backup.

Written by Tom Hunter

May 22, 2022 at 1:29 pm

Posted in Aerospace, Space, USA

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Astronomy’s $10 billion Christmas Present

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Although it’s still in the process of unwrapping itself.

A few hours ago, on America’s Christmas Morning, the James Webb Space Telescope was launched by a European Space Agency (ESA) rocket, an Ariane 5, from the ESA site in French Guiana. About half and hour later it detached from the upper stage, as shown in the video below.

Rocket launches are always fairly tense, but at maximum when you’ve got a one-of-a-kind bird like this. The original plan had the telescope being launched by 2007 and costing a billion dollars, but for once I won’t throw shade at NASA about these factors because this telescope simply cannot be allowed to fail as it will be stationed about one million miles from Earth and therefore unfixable if anything goes wrong.

By contrast the Hubble Space Telescope orbits Earth about 300 miles up and was designed to be serviced by the Space Shuttles. A good thing too as when it was first launched in 1990 its images were blurred and NASA was horrified to find that its giant mirror had been improperly polished. A problem that basic in the very heart of the machine seemed like a show-stopper, but they finally fixed it in 1993 by fitting it with the equivalent of reading glasses.

It has since become one of the greatest science machines of all time, but astronomers were already planning its successor, built to see the first stars and galaxies that emerged from dust and gas of the early universe, only a few millions of years after the Big Bang. The Hubble can see back to within a billion years of that event. As a result the Webb telescope is sometimes fondly referred to by astronomers as the ‘First Light machine’.

Knowing that Hubble might not last more than twenty years and guessing that Webb would take a long time (although they never imagined it would be this long, and Hubble is still working – just) work on Webb began even before Hubble was launched – and given how Webb had to work, a repeat of the Hubble problem was not acceptable; the machine “is not allowed to fail”. As a result much of the last decade has been spent simply testing the hell out of it:

[Tests] involved lowering the telescope’s temperature to the minus 390 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 217 degrees Celsius) in which it will operate, and in a vacuum similar to that of space.

“The cryo-vacuum tests for Webb were long and gruelling,” [Project scientist] Kimble said. “It would take weeks just to cool everything down safely and then warm up again safely at the end of the test. And in the middle, when you are cold and stable, that’s when you do your detailed testing.”

And there’s a lot that can still go wrong. It has a lot of moving parts that must work to enable it to unfold in space like a giant origami sculpture:

Perhaps the most nerve-wracking move will be the unfurling of the sunshield, which is scheduled to occur in the first week after launch. The sunshield system has 140 release mechanisms, 70 hinge assemblies, 400 pulleys, 90 cables and eight deployment motors, all of which need to perform correctly to get the five thin membranes extended

The mirror consists of 18 hexagonal segments, each of which is made of beryllium and coated with a thin layer of gold.

That second link covers the engineering challenges and has a video of how it’s all supposed to unfold. The sun shade has five layers, spaced apart for maximum thermal cooling to allow the telescope instruments to be as cold as possible, which they have to be to detect faint infrared light from the oldest objects in the universe. That’s also the reason it has to be stationed so far from Earth. Hubble has IR detectors now, but was never designed for the job and so is too warm itself and too close to our warm planet, to be able to see the faintest (and oldest) objects in the sky:

[Webb] will orbit the sun, while simultaneously making small circles around the so-called Lagrange point 2 (L2)… At L2, the gravitational pulls of the sun and of Earth keep the spacecraft aligned with the two big bodies. 

It will take Webb about a month to fly to that point, unfolding all the way. Since they’re made of metal the mirror’s segments can actually be warped slightly by small electric motors mounted behind each one; all part of the process of turning those 18 mirrors into one mirror 6m wide.

If all goes according to plan, the telescope will detect cosmic objects 10 billion times fainter than the dimmest star you can see in the night sky without a telescope. That’s 10 to 100 times fainter than anything Hubble can pick up, NASA officials said. And Webb’s vision will be so sharp that it can see details the size of a penny from 24 miles (40 km) away, they added.

Fingers crossed but so far it’s all good. Check out those two links, Engineering Webb and Launching Webb for more details and videos about how it works and what it will do.

Written by Tom Hunter

December 26, 2021 at 2:07 pm

Posted in Aerospace, Europe, Science, Space, Technology, USA

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NASA is dead

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So I’m sitting on the upper deck this morning, looking at a clear blue sky, and there it is: a waning half Moon, as clear as crystal in the sky, and I sigh and wonder how much longer I have to wait to see a part of my childhood relived with men standing on the surface of Lunar.

And then I see this from space buff Robert Zimmerman, NASA IG: Artemis manned lunar landing will likely not happen in ’25.

Plus this bonus, courtesy of the latest Inspector General Report (pdf)

We also project the current production and operations cost of a single SLS/Orion system at $4.1 billion per launch for Artemis I through IV (p 4).

I knew things were bad with NASA’s Artemis program.

But not this bad.

… although the Agency’s ongoing initiatives aimed at increasing affordability seek to reduce that cost (p. 4 of the report (pdf)).

Perhaps they intend to hand the work over to Nigerian princes?

The cost of the Apollo program was about $156 billion in 2019 dollars, $172 billion if you add in the preceding Gemini program, which you should because it was essential to Apollo’s success. Taking into account all the test and operational flights in both programs, plus four flights of surplus Apollo gear from cancelled Moon missions that was used for the Skylab program, I figure that at about $5.6 billion per flight.

Except that this was for an effort starting from scratch that did the job in less than ten years.

By contrast Artemis has come only to this point after seventeen years of developing the system, starting with its predecessor, the Constellation Program in 2005, which was little different. That’s one of the killer aspects of this failure; it was built on previous developments that should have saved time and money. The Aries V rocket became the SLS, which itself extends rocketry used for the Space Shuttle since the 1980’s; the Orion spacecraft is the same, plus new spacesuits (the report points to them for delaying the landing to 2025), and changes to the launchpad, LC-39B, first developed for Apollo more than half a century ago. As Robert Zimmerman says of the schedule:

NASA’s Artemis program will likely continue to have repeated delays, announced piecemeal in small chunks. This has been the public relations strategy of NASA throughout its entire SLS program. They announce a target date and then slowly over time delay it in small amounts to hide the fact that the real delay is many years.

The final kick in the guts is that the IG report firmly states that the per launch cost of SLS will make any robust lunar exploration program utterly unsustainable.

This crap is already having flow-on effects, although they will be positive if the objective is the human exploration of the Solar System. Scientists have already been given the green light by Congress that one space probe, the Europa Clipper (to study a very important moon of Jupiter, Europa) , can launch on a commercial rocket, after years of insisting it had to be launched on the SLS, a sign that Congress has finally (and quietly) realised the terrible truth. Zimmerman has tracked down another obscure “White Paper” where scientists effectively told NASA that its way of doing things can’t work any longer in the face of SpaceX:

With Starship, missions to the Moon and Mars will no longer be very constrained in terms of weight. Nor will launch schedules be slow and far between. Rather than plan a few billion dollar NASA unmanned missions taking a decade to plan and launch, using Starship NASA could have many planetary missions launching fast and for relatively little cost, with far greater capabilities.

The scientists recognize this, and wrote their paper in an effort to make NASA’s hide-bound management recognize it as well.

What I suspect is going to happen is that the scientists will eventually bypass NASA entirely. Because of the lowered cost provided by Starship, they will find other funding sources, many private, to finance planetary missions. Those other sources will also be much more capable than NASA for reacting quickly to Starship’s fast timetable and gigantic capabilities.

Why bust your gut over sending a 1 tonne rover to Mars every couple of years when you can dump a dozen on the planet in one go? The Earth-based logistics of building and supporting them is another question, but scientists would likely regard this as a happy problem.

One last note that’s not about NASA but a SpaceX competitor, Blue Origin. Their proposal to NASA for a lunar landing vehicle was rejected (along with others) in favour of a modified SpaceX Starship vehicle, so they lodged a complaint with the Government Audit Office (GAO). When they lost that appeal they took it to the US Court of Federal Claims, who announced their decision a couple of weeks ago:

The Court finds that Blue Origin does not have standing because it did not have a substantial chance of award but for the alleged evaluation errors. Its proposal was priced well above NASA’s available funding and was itself noncompliant. Blue Origin argues that it would have submitted an alternative proposal, but the Court finds its hypothetical proposal to be speculative and unsupported by the record. The Court also finds that several of Blue Origin’s objections are waived.

Even if Blue Origin had standing and its objections were not waived, the Court finds that it would lose on the merits. Blue Origin has not shown that NASA’s evaluation or its conduct during the procurement was arbitrary and capricious or otherwise contrary to law. NASA provided a thorough, reasoned evaluation of the proposals, and NASA’s conduct throughout the procurement process was not contrary to law.

Ouch. It doesn’t get worse than that. The synopsis is that Blue Origin submitted a weak, overpriced bid, and when it lost on the merits, whinged and said it would have done something different if only had it known. What bullshit.

Still, the silver lining of this failure is that it may spur Bezos to STFU and start building the space capabilities he’s been taking about for a decade.


See also my 2020 post, Wanderers. Here’s the video.

Written by Tom Hunter

November 28, 2021 at 7:00 pm

Posted in Aerospace, Space, USA

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The 21st Century Space Race

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The news on April 16 that NASA has selected the SpaceX Starship design for two missions to the Moon was stunning enough on its own, but the last few months have seen some other important events that show that space exploration, including human exploration, is starting to rapidly increase its tempo.

April was an especially busy month.

There have been two spectacular robotic missions to Mars. The third SpaceX crew mission to the ISS was launched. Another four astronauts returned in their original SpaceX Dragon craft. The Chinese have launched the first module of their new space station into orbit, sent Taikonauts to it and landed their first Mars probe.


Yes, that is a drone helicopter on Mars.

What you are looking at in these pictures is the first flying machine on another planet. This is the spacecraft, Ingenuity, a little helicopter weighing only a couple of kilograms, and these pictures are from its 4th test flight, conducted on April 29. The first was April 19.

It was only expected to fly a few missions as a pure test vehicle, starting with a simple up-and-down flight, followed by moving around the landscape, returning to where it started and so forth.

However, like many other American robots of recent years, it has proved far more durable than expected, and since it provides the ability to scout ahead of the rover Perseverance (its “mother ship” that landed on February 18) the JPL team has decided to use it for that until it eventually fails.

Planning the route that such rovers have to drive is a slow and careful process; some years ago one of the solar-powered rovers, Opportunity, got stuck in an unseen sand trap. Ingenuity is a huge help in preventing that.

That map plan was from the 9th planned flight, which was completed a couple of days ago, with the machine flying a distance of 2,051 feet (625 meters) at 5 meters (16 feet) per second and remaining airborne for approximately 2 minutes, 47 seconds. They’re really pushing the little beast beyond its limits:

The onboard algorithm which lets Ingenuity determine where it is along the flight path, was designed for a comparatively simple technology demonstration over flat terrain and does not have the design features to accommodate high slopes and undulations that are to be found in Séítah. 

You can keep track of the flights at Robert Zimmerman’s Behind The Black blog.

However, the USA has finally been matched in the Mars Rover department when, on May 14, China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft landed and on May 22 sent its Zhurong rover trundling onto the surface. With its solar panels it looks awfully similar to the Opportunity and Spirit rovers (see An Everlasting Itch For Things Remote) sent to Mars by NASA in the 2000’s. It will be interesting to see if it lasts as long as they did.

SpaceX and the ISS

On April 23rd SpaceX launched a crew of four to the ISS in the company’s second such mission, called Crew-2. The key mission first was that both the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon spacecraft were reused machines. The Crew Dragon, named Endeavour, had flown the historic Demo-2 mission (their first crewed flight) and the Falcon 9 rocket had pushed the Crew-1 astronauts to the ISS last year, in the first operational flight.

They crossed paths with the Crew-1 team which also consisted of four astronauts, making things rather crowded on the ISS for a few days before they returned to Earth on May 2nd. As you can see from the link, these splashdowns are rather more casual than the days of Apollo when countless US Navy ships were deployed far out in the Pacific. Here, they’re only just offshore from the Florida coast, and SpaceX kept the exact landing spot quiet this time so that they would not be surrounded by rubber-necking boaties as happened for the return of Demo-2.

Space X is contracted for four more crewed missions but will likely get more than that as the ISS is expected to be up there for a few more years: 2024 has been discussed as a shutdown date, with the Russians perhaps quitting then. However, new modules continue to be launched, the station is working well and since there’s no replacement it seems silly to abandon it even if its equipment is starting to get aged and obsolete.

As a side note, one continuing disappointment has been Boeing’s CST 100 Starliner spacecraft – pictured on the right – which was supposed to have been on the same schedule as SpaceX’s Dragon so that NASA could have a backup. Instead it’s fallen badly behind schedule but will attempt another uncrewed test flight at the end of July.

China’s space station and Russia

Another reason the USA and ESA may hang on to the ISS for longer than planned, is that on April 29, just days after its Mars probe landing, China launched the first module of its new Taingong space station, followed by three “Taikonauts” on June 20.

Since then they’ve been busy conducting spacewalks, readying everything for the next modules to be sent up. The plan is to have it finished by the end of 2022. It will be about 1/5 the size of the ISS, comparable to the old Russian Mir space station.

By the time Mir crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 2001, Russia had already been hard at work for a decade with NASA on the ISS, just one part of the whole post Cold War effort by the USA to shovel money into Russian technology centres to keep their scientists and engineers in-country and not working with the likes of North Korea.

But the world has changed. Between losing the lucrative ISS passenger business to SpaceX and with their announced plan to stop using the ISS by 2024, Russia was clearly removing itself somewhat. Still, the US is proceeding into its post-ISS future with the Artemis programme to land astronauts on the Moon and establish a base there by the end of this decade and Russia could well have been expected to join that. So it came as a bit of shock in March when Russia announced an agreement with China to build a lunar base together, the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). No schedule has been announced but Russia clearly feels more comfortable in China’s orbit than in the US’s.

The US Military and SpaceX

A few weeks ago the US Air Force released a 462-page report detailing how it intends to spend its $200 billion budget. Such is routine bureaucracy, but on page 305, under the heading of “Rocket Cargo” was a very interesting section:

“The Department of the Air Force seeks to leverage the current multi-billion dollar commercial investment to develop the largest rockets ever, and with full reusability to develop and test the capability to leverage a commercial rocket to deliver AF cargo anywhere on the Earth in less than one hour, with a 100-ton capacity,

Although no company or vehicle was mentioned by name, there is only one vehicle even on the drawing boards that has that capability.

It will likely be a decade before this comes to fruition, as the USAF will want to see a lot of successful Starship cargo flights, including sub-orbital hops around the Earth, before it will start laying contracts to buy flights and possibly even order Starship variants to its specifications. In this it would be following in the wake of the Boeing 747, which was built with military as well as commercial use in mind.

Written by Tom Hunter

July 12, 2021 at 6:00 am

Splashdowns and flying Grain Silos

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I’d seen this a couple of years ago, but it was in real time, whereas this has been compressed into just 15 seconds.

Falcon 9 Vandenberg flightpath and ‘nebula’ area

It’s video taken of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch from the Vandenberg Air Force base in California and although it looks like it’s passing over Los Angeles its trajectory was actually out over the Pacific.

What looks like a nebula are the chemicals from the rocket’s exhaust, drifting like clouds through the atmosphere between sixty to ninety miles above the earth. At those altitudes the chemicals freeze and the sun is still shining, so the light is refracted through these frozen chemicals at different wavelengths, creating the spectacular displays. It’s called a “twilight phenomena” and it is not uncommon given the locations of Vandenberg, LA and the long sweep of the California coast.


The Falcon 9’s create an extra “nebulae” because their first stage doesn’t just separate but returns to Earth. If you look at the lower right of the video you can see the flare of the rockets as it drops back to land.

Meantime, it’s hard to believe that almost two months have gone by since SpaceX sent their first Crew Dragon spacecraft to the ISS with two astronauts on board. They came back home a few days ago, having pushed off from the ISS last Sunday, orbiting for 19 hours, and then reentering the Earth’s atmosphere and gently splashing down into the Gulf of Mexico just off the coast of Pensacola, Florida.

It was the first time a spacecraft has ever landed there. They were supposed to drop into the Atlantic off Florida’s East Coast, but a hurricane was threatening. The previous time astronauts landed on the water was when the last Apollo command ship splashed down in 1975 after the Apollo-Soyuz mission.

Despite the throwback return, a mark of changed times is the fact that the spacecraft was rapidly surrounded by dozens of small boats as the location and time had been announced in advance so people decided to go out and see the show, something unimaginable in the 1960’s and 70’s. And there was just one ship to pick up the spacecraft, rather than the fleets of vessels and tracking aircraft of yore: such is the confidence in modern guidance and control systems.

Florida seas rain storm

There will probably be several more such returns before an attempt is made to touch down on land. Crew Dragon’s designed to do that, with rockets that fire just before landing, and the Russians have been doing it almost from the start (Gagarin ejected, which was kept secret for decades). It makes the turnaround time faster and in some respects it’s safer. NASA will have to review all the data but it would seem that SpaceX is now fully certified to fly crew to and from the ISS, the final test having been this one with reentry 😬🥵, the heat shield 😬😅 and sea recovery 💦. The next flight will happen in late September and carry four astronauts to the ISS as part of SpaceX’s $2.4 billion contract with NASA for six flights

Meantime, SpaceX is not slowing down on their long-term plans. Just a few days later they launched their latest Deep Space grain silo on a short ‘hop’ of 500 feet at their factory in Texas.

This is actually the core of their new Starship spacecraft. Instead of the nose cone with a flight deck and cargo space or 100 passengers, they added a weight to the top, since it’s easier to balance such. Here’s a fuller YouTube item that covers that and other details, as well as those rather worrying flames seen coming out of the side of the new Raptor rocket engine!

Not commented on is the strange sight of no launch tower and the launch happening right beside the factory, a nearby carpark and presumably hundreds of people! I can’t help thinking they’re getting a little too cocky about their rocket control.

Written by Tom Hunter

August 9, 2020 at 5:32 pm

Posted in Space, USA

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Mars in 4K

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A few days ago I wrote a post about the upgrading of old video from the Apollo missions to the Moon, where it had been converted to run at normal speeds of 24 frames per second or more and with higher resolution, all the way to 4K in some cases.

It’s much easier to do that with modern spacecraft since their picture quality is higher to start with, and that’s what some people have done with the images from three NASA rovers on Mars: Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity. The first two are now inoperable, having got bogged down in Winter or dust storm conditions that they and their solar panels could not survive, although they lasted years past their expected expiry dates. Curiosity is nuclear-powered so should have at least a decade of life ahead of her.

She’ll soon be joined by NASA’s next Mars rover, Perseverance, which looks a lot like Curiosity and will be launched on July 30, landing on Mars February 18, 2021. Because of the weight of the rover they’re using the same “Sky Crane” landing method pioneered by Curiosity. Suspending a 1 Tonne rover by cables down to the surface from a rocket-powered mother ship sounds crazy complex – but it worked once.

One thing that will be different about this rover is that it includes a helicopter.

How such a thing can fly in the incredibly thin Martian atmosphere, which is just 1% as thick as that of Earth, is going to be tested for 30 days and seems to be dependent on the blades spinning at 2400rpm to lift the 1.8 kg machine into the air. It will fly for no more than 90 seconds at a time so it can be used as a spotter for Perseverance.

Written by Tom Hunter

July 25, 2020 at 11:04 am

Posted in Space

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Upgrading The Past

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Between crappy TV cameras and 16mm film cameras that only ran at 12fps (frames per second), it’s fair to say that video coverage of the Apollo missions to the Moon could have been better.

How much better? Well, the idea of using a computer to build new frames in between the old ones, to get the video up to the standard 24fps, has been around for decades. Basically each pixel in a new frame would have to be created and its movement between frames calculated so that the transition was smooth to the human eye. Plus calculating all the other things like colour, contrast and so forth. Throw in the idea of upgrading the picture to HD or even 4K and your multiplying the workload by orders of magnitude.

It could have been done decades ago on supercomputers but they were too expensive to be used for such frippery, and besides that the software did not exist. Only relatively recently have computers sufficiently powerful combined with software sufficiently sophisticated become common enough to be able to accomplish the task of upgrading old movies and video.

One of the best known examples of this is Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, where he took movies of WW1 and changed them from B&W to colour (itself still more an art than a science) and converting the slow fps of hand-cranked cameras into 24fps. If you have not seen that documentary then do so.

And now it’s being done to video and film from the Apollo missions. First up is the 16mm camera film of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. You can actually see his face inside the helmet in some shots, something I’d only ever seen on an Apollo 17 video (the highest quality of all those missions) where Harrison Schmitt is standing on the moon in just the right way to catch sunlight on his face but not reflect it off the visor – for a minute.

Original signal photographed at Honeysuckle Creek station in Australia

Incidentally the reason the original TV video of Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon is so crappy is that the TV camera on the LM was a slow-scan not compatible with any broadcast TV system and they “solved” that problem by simply displaying it on a TV screen and then aiming a standard TV camera at that. Some original filmed captures of the slow-scan display show clear, sharp and well-contrasted pictures like the one here. But the tapes on which that was recorded were wiped in the early 1980’s because NASA needed it for other purposes. You can read all about it here.

The following three videos are better than the Apollo 11 stuff because they have a lot more action. First up is a landing, this one is Apollo 15 in 1971 and they’ve jumped the speed from 12fps to 60fps.

Next is film of Apollo 16 testing out its Lunar Rover. This remake was made even tougher by the camera being a little shaky when held by astronaut Charlie Duke, but even that can be corrected for nowadays.

Finally there’s upgraded video of film that the Apollo 16 astronauts took while driving the rover. Watching it I kept wondering how the ride was not even rougher, given the rocks all over the place, as well as how the wheels avoided being smashed.

You can read the details here of how all this was done by a Dutch guy in his spare time using Open Source software (and a very grunty computer). He has a YouTube channel showcasing this and other efforts.

Perhaps before long these will have been converted into 3D holograms into which you can place yourself to explore the moon as these men did.

Written by Tom Hunter

July 21, 2020 at 8:17 am

Posted in Space, USA

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Iron Man goes Full Martian

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In the article, Not Iron Man Yet, I reviewed the brief history of SpaceX, looking at its success since its founding in 2004 in developing and flying commercial rockets more cheaply and with a lower fail rate than anybody else in the world – particularly nation-state space agencies that have been around for more than half a century.


But the company has more surprises in store, having started three more projects:
  • A new rocket engine called the Raptor, that is twice as powerful as the Merlin engines.
  • An even larger rocket called the BFR, that will loft 100+ tonnes to LEO: Note that this is still short of the Saturn V that could push 140 tonnes into LEO and send 50 tonnes to the Moon, but the BFR will be upgraded as the Falcon’s were until it reaches 150T to LEO.  BFR officially stands for Big Falcon Rocket, but everybody knows that Musk, with his usual sense of humour initially called it the “Big Fucking Rocket“.  This thing will have 37 Raptor rocket engines, which seems scarily close to being unmanageable.
  • A huge spaceship to fly on that rocket: 50m long, 9m wide with 1000 m3 of cargo space that can be converted to carry 100 people into Earth orbit and beyond. Naturally it’s called Starship. It can be a cargo vessel, fuel tanker or crewed vessel and SpaceX wants each one to last 20-30 years.
Stacking and launching something like this is going to be a challenge, not to mention the vertical landings back on Earth.


L->R Saturn V. Starship/BFR. Falcon 9

But almost all the features of the system have been played out by earlier SpaceX rockets and spacecraft: fully reusable; vertical landings, automated docking. And Musk intends this system to make Falcon 9 and even the Falcon Heavy obsolete as soon as possible.

But it gets even crazier. Musk has made it clear that this is an Interplanetary Transport System. With orbital refuelling it can reach the Moon and Mars, and possibly beyond them in later versions. And it’s designed to enter a planet’s atmosphere like the Space Shuttle, getting rid of 99% of the velocity via aerodynamics, but then landing vertically.

Those planets include Earth and Mars. Moreover the Raptor engine burns methane and oxygen, all of which can be produced on Mars. The first Starships help build that refuelling capacity: the later ones will use that to refuel and take off again.

It was at this stage, as all these aspects were seen together, that it became obvious that Musk had been deadly serious all along about his seemingly insane, long-term plans of colonising Mars, and that all the money the company made was being used to that end.

Back in mid-2017, Musk said that the Starship architecture could potentially allow a million-person city to rise on Mars within 50 to 100 years. This goal of making humanity a multi-planet species is obviously close to his heart. There’s no reason to do any of this without that goal.

Cargo Starship releasing a large payload into LEO.

In a recent interview with ArsTechnica, he ran the numbers:

“…what kind of tonnage do you need to make it self-sustaining? It’s probably not less than a million tons.

And how can you get a million tons to Mars? You need a fleet of 1000 Starships. And you need it in a decade. That’s why SpaceX is designing its factory to build one Starship per week, and then ramping that up to one every 72 hours. They’re building a machine to build machines.

“That’s fucking insane,” I said.
“Yeah, it’s insane,” Musk replied.
“I mean, it really is.”
“Yeah, it’s nuts.”
“As I look across the aerospace landscape, nobody is doing anything remotely like this,” I said.
“No, it’s absolutely mad, I agree,” Musk said

Much as I admire what he’s done with SpaceX I find this all a bit too much. Too many moving parts (perhaps literally) pushing too far and too fast.

But that’s what he’s always done, so I wouldn’t bet against him.

NASA’s Orion spaceship heading for the Moon

Besides, it looks pretty good next to the traditional alternative of NASA, where they’re still plodding along with their huge Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft after more than a decade of development. The Apollo Program this is not.

Artists’s view of SLS & Orion

In an effort to re-create Kennedy’s spur for that program, the Trump Administration challenged NASA to land on the moon by 2024 rather than the original target of 2028, but given the history of the SLS’s blown budgets and deadlines I doubt they’ll make it. The giant rocket is sarcastically known as the “Senate Launch System” because it has only survived due to the votes of key Senators to whose states the funding flows.

Musk may make it to Mars before NASA gets back to the Moon, and there’s no reason his Starship can’t land on the Moon as well.

And even if that doesn’t happen, what Musk has achieved already is a rebuttal of the grim prediction made back in 2011 by some hack called Gwynne Dwyer, who hit the roof when Obama cancelled the Constellation program to get to the Moon by 2020, writing an article titled Why The First Man on Mars will probably be Chinese, which included these choice lines:

In the real world, the United States of America is giving up on space, although it is trying hard to conceal its retreat. 

… for the next decade, at least, the United States will be an also-ran in space, while the new space powers forge rapidly ahead. 

And even if some subsequent administration should decide it wants to get back in the race, it will find it almost impossible to catch up. 

And that is why the first man on Mars will be probably Chinese or Indian, not American.

And his reasoning behind this was very simple; the private sector could not possibly do what NASA could and the whole thing was a “charade“:

Obama suggests this embarrassment will be avoided because private enterprise will come up with cheap and efficient “space taxis” that can at least deliver people and cargo to the International Space Station once in a while. And he’s going to invest US$6 billion in these private companies over the next five years. 

These entrepreneurs are mainly people who made a pile of money in the dotcom boom or in computer game design, and want to do something really interesting with some of it.  

People like Amazon president Jeff Bezos, John Carmack, programmer of Doom and Quake, Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, and Richard Branson of Virgin Everything.
“Our success is vital to the success of the US space programme,” Musk said recently.

No doubt they will get various vehicles up there, but if they can build something by 2020 that can lift as much as the ancient shuttles into a comparable orbit, let alone something bigger that can go higher, I will eat my hat.

I made a point at the time about Dwyer’s article:

You’ve really got to love the anti-capitalist and anti-American snark that Dwyer always brings to the table. Narrative: the dotcom boom was a massive exercise in capitalist excess and waste, and computer games like Doom are for kiddies, ergo…….these nuts will be just as useless in space.


Written by Tom Hunter

June 17, 2020 at 12:33 am

Not Iron Man Yet

with 6 comments

For NASA the first half of each year is always sad in terms of history, with a series of disasters to remember.

Jan 27, 1967 – Apollo 1 fire, killing three astronauts.
Jan 28, 1986 – Space Shuttle Challenger destroyed after launch, killing all seven astronauts.
Feb 1, 2003 – Space Shuttle Columbia destroyed during re-entry, killing all seven astronauts.
If you work at NASA you might start to look at late January/early February the way financial traders look at September/October.
But that’s NASA history. SpaceX and other private sector companies are the future.


Earlier this year I discussed SpaceX’s abort testing on its new Crew Dragon spacecraft, using its own Falcon 9 rocket to fly two NASA astronauts to the ISS. After one weather-driven abort, that launch and docking went without a hitch the other day and while re-entry will be a month or more away there’s no reason to think that won’t be successful as well.

This will lead to certification of Dragon by NASA and the start of regular flights from the USA to the ISS and LEO (Low Earth Orbit). Hopefully joining SpaceX later this year will be the Boeing ST-100 Starliner, flying to the ISS on commercial Atlas V rockets, although Boeing has been having a very bad couple of years.

Elon Musk with Mind Expanding Device

SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk, a South African-born businessman and entrepreneur. At age 30, Musk made his initial fortune by selling his two successful companies: Zip2, for $307 million in 1999, and PayPal, for $1.5 billion in 2002. He then announced that he was going to invest some of the money into a privately funded, startup space company, a sum reported to be $100 million.

People thought he was insane. At the time the biggest concern of the space industry was how America was going to compete with the European Space Agency (ESA), China and Russia in the launch game, all of whom seemed to be producing better, cheaper services. There was much talk of the US government providing more support to the behemoths of the industry to help them survive: Boeing, Lockheed, United Launch Alliance (a joint venture between the two), and others

For SpaceX it’s been a long, slow road for a company that likes to move fast.

Falcon 1 launches from Kwajalein Atoll, 2008

In 2006 NASA provided them with a small contract of $278 million as part of the COTS program (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services). That was a mark of respect for a company that had only existed since 2004. Other such firms fell away but the people who had pushed COTS figured that would be the case.

One interesting aspect is that early on, SpaceX asked NASA to run their expert rulers across its plans for the worlds first fully private-sector, liquid-fueled rocket – the Falcon 1.

NASA bluntly told Musk that it was just not possible to build such a rocket in the proposed timeframe for their proposed cost. They said it would take twice as long and cost several times more than SpaceX’s plan and budget allowed. Still, NASA also effectively said, “Hey, knock yourself out, this is what these little seed contracts are for“.

SpaceX thanked NASA for its advice – and then ignored it. Falcon 1 had three test failures before a success in 2008. As Musk told his staff at the time of the fourth test, they had no more parts or money for another.

With the Falcon 1 success SpaceX began to make money by launching small satellites (670kg). But those profits allowed them move on to their real, medium-term objective – building a rocket big enough to lift heavy cargo and passenger spaceships to the ISS as NASA wanted.

More years and failures followed with the Falcon 9 rocket series, which they’d already been working on in parallel with the Falcon 1, the result of Musk’s overall development approach:

  • Parallel development of vehicles, leveraging knowledge from one to the other.
  • In-house build with minimal out-sourcing.
  • Fast turn-around through design, build and test; an interative process lifted from his experience in the software industry.
  • Emphasis on reusability of rockets and spacecraft to reduce spaceflight costs, again with fast turnaround like commercial planes.

As such the Falcon 9 was expected to fly in 2008/09 but did not until 2010, and it had problems. But it could put 13 tonnes into LEO (Low Earth Orbit) amd in 2012 it finally lifted a Dragon cargo ship to the ISS. It should be noted that when the space station was developed in the 1980s and ’90s private spaceflight hadn’t even been considered.

Falcon 9 Launch

Within just a couple more years Falcon 9 had established records for successful flights, while also undercutting the price of every other rocket launch system in the world. Every competitor, including nation-states like China, is now scrambling to just match what SpaceX is doing now.

They charge $62 million per flight: the nearest US competitor is $73 million for a smaller payload. The Falcon 9 has also been steadily upgraded and can now push 23 tonnes to LEO and even 4 tonnes to Mars if called upon.

But SpaceX did not stand still and started going much further than they needed to for the NASA contract. In short-order they did the following:

  • Began building a version of the Dragon spacecraft that could carry humans and pitched for the NASA contract to fly people to and from the ISS. Since NASA became entirely dependent on Russia to do that job it was costing them $75 million per astronaut – briefly touching $82 million in 2015. SpaceX will do the job for $58 million.
  • Made the Falcon 9 even more reusable by landing it back at its launch site on land or at a mobile platform at sea. The response to this was eye-rolling and scoffing. The Shuttle SRB’s (Shuttle Rocket Booster) was reusable but had splashed down in the Atlantic, from where it was recovered followed by months of refurbishment.
  • Started development on a larger rocket called the Falcon Heavy that could loft 64 tonnes into space and be fully reusable. As yet another example of SpaceX learning, the first test flight was almost a total success, with only the centre stage failing to land back on earth. The two booster rockets – basically Falcon 9’s – landed together in Florida in what truly looked like a scene from a Science Fiction movie.
Space Tesla: Falcon Heavy’s test flight cargo
As of writing the Falcon 9 has flown 85 rockets, with 46 landings, and 31 of the rockets being used multiple times.


The Falcon Heavy successfully launched in February 2018 and costs about $90 million per launch. 

One aspect that really surprised me about the Falcon Heavy was the number of rocket engines involved. The more you have the tougher it is to control them all in perfect synchronisation. That was the main reason the USSR’s Moon rocket, the N1, failed in 1969; its 1st stage had 30 engines. The Falcon Heavy has 27 of the company’s Merlin engines, but then computer and physical control technology has come a long way.
And that sophistication is going to be needed considering the plans Musk has made for the future of SpaceX, and humanity, which are far greater and possibly more insane than just starting a private-sector space company.


Written by Tom Hunter

June 11, 2020 at 11:00 pm

America is back in space

with 2 comments

After two weeks on the road catching up on various jobs, I got back home yesterday to find I was so bloody tired that I slept for ten hours and missed SpaceX’s second attempt at launching astronauts to the ISS, which happened at about 7am this morning NZ Time.

And it all went swimmingly. After nine long years, America is back in space, and thanks to spreading the load beyond NASA to private companies, I don’t think we’re going to see another gap like that in US launching ever again.
In my previous article on this I made the point that the names for the ship-type and mission were a bit lame, but it seems the two astronauts on the flight decided to give their spacecraft a specific name, in line with the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions.
They’ve named it Endeavour, after Captain Cook’s famous vessel of exploration, and also because of Space Shuttle’s Endeavour. Like those ships, this one is intended to be used multiple times.
You can watch 14 minutes of launch highlights here on the following YouTube clip, which runs from 24 seconds before launch to the separation of the second stage at 200km altitude and 27,000km/h.

After that, the Dragon is headed for the ISS, where it will dock at 10.27amEDT tomorrow morning (2:27am NZ time). If they keep to that schedule it means the docking will happen only ten minutes before the ISS and Dragon fly over NZ, though they will not be visible.
You can continue to watch the flight live here at SpaceX’s website, as the Dragon chases after the ISS, steadily raising their altitude until they’re ready to dock. The diagram below shows the overall approach.
And the next diagram shows all the little maneuvers they’ll use in the final approach:
Amazing the things America can do even in the middle of a pandemic.

Written by Tom Hunter

May 31, 2020 at 1:32 am