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Here's the latest on space, and my opinions on it...
This is the legacy site, with blog entries from November, 2004 through June, 2011.
Updates after June 9, 2011 can be found at

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Friday, March 31, 2006

First Flight Success isn't the Whole Story
Note: This information has also been submitted to The Space Review

In the wake of the Falcon 1 failure on the 24th of March, Dwayne Day's essay "Our rockets always blow up" (The Space Review, March 27th 2006) makes a valid point that not all orbital rockets fail on their first launch. In fact, the list he uses shows that the first launch success rates are actually more than 50%, though not by much. He simplifies the argument a little too much, however, by drawing no distinction between rockets that were developed from scratch, such as Falcon, and those derived from other vehicles. Getting a long-range rocket with a payload to fly is hard, getting into space is slightly harder (it could be easier, if we worked at it), but getting into orbit with all-new equipment from a company new to the business is rare and much harder.

Why is this important? Because anyone who compares the fact that Falcon 1 failed on its first orbital flight while the Atlas B succeeded on its first flight is not giving the SpaceX team enough credit. The Atlas B orbital launcher was an improvement on the Atlas A intercontinental ballistic missile, and the Atlas A took three tries before it got a flight right. The Jupiter C orbital launcher, which put America's first successful satellite into orbit, was based on the Redstone intermediate range ballistic missile, which nicely absorbed flight failures in its development program, paving the way for Jupuiter C.

Let's revisit the successful list from "Blow up" and see if prior flight experience of similar rockets or a comination of previously working rockets may have contributed to some successful first flights:

Sputnik (Derived from the R-7 ICBM)
Jupiter C (Derived from the Redstone IRBM)
Juno 3 (Actually Juno 2 according to reference, derived from Jupiter IRBM)
Atlas B (Derived from the Atlas A ICBM)
Saturn 1 (Derived from the Redstone and Jupiter IRBMs)
Titan 2
Kosmos11k65 (Derived from the R-14 Ballistic Missile)
Diamant 1
Saturn 5
Long March 1 (Derived from the DF-3 IRBM)
Scout D
Ariane 1
Taurus (Pegasus upper stages, Peacekeeper ICBM first stage)
Minotaur (Pegasus upper stages, Minuteman ICBM first stage)
Atlas 5
Delta 4

So more than a third of the rockets listed here have easily tracable pedigree, meaning flight experience for both the hardware and the teams that work on it. Such a pedigree is not a guarantee for success, but it likely improves the odds. The Chair Force Engineer discusses other examples.

Count me as one of the many who attributed the failure of Falcon 1 to "The first flight blues" afflicting many rockets, and I was surprised that the percentage of successful first flights (pointed out in Mr. Day's article) was higher than I thought. While a first flight isn't a guaranteed failure, the number of items in a rocket that can't be tested together until a booster leaves the ground makes a successful first flight something to brag about. High flight rates at low cost with continuing success is the important goal to shoot for, however, and SpaceX still has that potential.
5:03 am est

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Kudos to NASA Select
I've taken swats at NASA Select in my book and several articles, due mainly to my previous experience with them showing old film clips over and over with little commentary or production. It has gotten much better recently, and today's broadcast of the total eclipse from Turkey was a great example. Filmed in an ancient ampitheater in the town of Side (see DA), the production had multiple filtered views of the sun as it approached totality, along with demonstrations of safe ways to view the sun without glasses and children tracking the dropping temperature as the sun went away. The hosts, Paul Dogherty and Dr Isabelle Hawkins, kept a pretty lively commentary going throughout the event, and even brought the mayor of the town on camera for a priceless exchange where he got to exercise his english (and, as I always say in this type of situation, I wish my Turkish skills were comperable to his english skills) and received a NASA hat and a plaque.

One nit: I wish they'd flashed back and forth to the darkening of the scene while the sun vanished. This could have been done as part of a replay. Admittedly, the sun is where the action's at, but some view of the land around the hosts would have been cool.

So again, kudos to NASA Select. Things are definitely moving in the right direction.
8:47 pm est

Mark Your Calendars
Researching today's eclipse, I got curious about when the next celestial show will cover the Continental US. Turns out the date is August 21, 2017 with a great one. I emailed a buddy who celebrates his anniversary that day.
4:54 am est

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Counterpoint Coming
Over at The Space Review, Dwayne Day makes the argument that orbital launches don't "always blow up." I don't have a real problem with his numbers, but there's a problem with the premise. Many of his entries in the "success" column are not originally-developed rockets, but derivations of other boosters or ICBMs. I'm putting together a longer, more coherent discussion that will be posted here and possibly at TSR.
5:01 am est

Sunday, March 26, 2006

First Photo (that I've seen)
The Bad Astronomer has a photo of Falcon fairly early in its flight. Looks like trouble started early, although Delta IV tends to have fires burning at its tail end at liftoff.
9:08 pm est

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Decision Process
I've never served on a big source selection board like what will take place for the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), but I sincerely hope that this kind of stuff is more for show than anything legitimate.

I'm not naive enough to believe it carrys no sway.
5:32 pm est

More Detail Coming to Light
Clark Lindsey (permalink appears to be broken on his site, the entry is titled "Falcon 1 prelim analysis points to fuel leak") links to some details. Looks like a leak started a fire which cut the main engine and let the booster fall into the sea. Either something fell off to cause the leak or something wasn't rated for the pressure it was carrying.

It's all preliminary, of course.
4:47 pm est

Friday, March 24, 2006

Setback for Falcon
I write this after the pieces of the first Falcon booster have come to rest, likely at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Details are sketchy right now, but apparently the rocket got about 1 minute of flight before the flight ended. Video footage ended much earlier. It's unclear whether the loss of video was due to the malfunction or an attempt at PR damage control on the part of SpaceX.

What does it mean? I've seen Elon speak, and he said he'd go with the idea of "three strikes" before considering himself out of the rocket race. That was before he unveiled the Falcon V and Falcon 9 boosters, and the Dragon spacecraft. I'm sure that determining the cause of the problem will weigh in on some of the decision process.

So now we find out how well he instrumented his rocket. There've been many claims about how SpaceX simplified rocket design, and all of them sounded good on the surface, but if an unspoken part of that simplification involved skimping on instrumentation on board the booster, that will make it harder to figure out the root cause of today's problem.

This effort is still important. Seeing someone build their own rocket and fly it successfully will be a pivotal moment in spaceflight. Just like Burt Rutan described SpaceShipOne's flight as the "Hey, I can do this!" moment of suborbital flight, I sense SpaceX's first successful mission will have a similar impact on orbital flight.

Long-term prospects? I'm still upbeat. The first flight of most rockets goes badly, so this one doesn't stand out in any way yet. The important thing will be to see how quickly they can isolate the cause, fix it, and fly again. Of course, that flight will need to be successful to prove the fix.

At least no one got hurt. It's easy for the media or other (dis)interested parties to dismiss this as a rich kid's folly as long as no one gets killed in the effort. When we lose our first life in pursuit of space tourism (either suborbital or orbital) I'll expect a firestorm.
7:18 pm est

Spaceflightnow is reporting that SpaceX confirms vehicle loss. About 1 minute of flight. Hopefully, we'll have more details later, I'll probably have some thoughts in a bit.
5:46 pm est

Falcon is up and...gone?
Spaceflightnow is liveblogging the launch. They report liftoff, a rolling motion, then a video cut. Apparently, the headquarters for SpaceX is looking at the same video, and they've lost it as well.
5:40 pm est

Mars is Ready for its Close up
Looks like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's main camera, HiRise, got checked out. Images look great, and reportedly have a resolution of 28 cm. Here is some more detail. Next images in November.
3:25 pm est

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Fly, Falcon!
SpaceX says they're go for launch tomorrow. I wish them well.
7:31 pm est

Something Other Than...
...water created the gullies on Mars? One team of researchers, looking over old photos of the moon from 1969, thinks they've found similar features there. Of course, there's no water on the moon, so maybe the same mechanism caused the gullies on both bodies and didn't involve water.
7:29 pm est

Monday, March 20, 2006

I took a couple moments to read over an article in The Space Review. The article deals with a new approach to reporting asteroid threats, and builds the story around a space rock named 2004 VD17 which has a chance of hitting Earth in 2102. (I suggested another approach in an earlier article,here) 2004 VD17 is currently the highest-ranking asteroid on the threat page, yet there is no press release on it. The article tells about some recently-discovered old images which may provide new data for 2004 VD17, but which the minor planet center has been a little cagey in describing how they're handling the new data. The lack of a press release probably has to do with the rethinking of the Torino Scale, where the rankings of 2-4 were changed from including the words "merits concern" to "merits attention from astronomers."
8:42 pm est

Looks like another good collection of articles this week at The Space Review. It's a weekly stop of mine, plus I download it to my Palm, so I can read at my leisure.
7:53 pm est

SSMEs Totally Out? reports on a trade study underway at NASA right now. The choices being weighed: go with the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) on the heavy-lift booster (on the left, with SSMEs) to be used in the next phase of human space flight or the cheaper-to-produce-yet-potentially-overall-complicating RS-68, used now on the Delta IV vehicles.

When I first found out about the heavy-lift booster, I heard that it was going to use RS-68s in the first stage, so the announcement of the official plans to use the SSME came as a surprise to me. Of course, no matter which engine they choose the engines won't be produced in any meaningful numbers, meaning that there won't be enough ordered to lower the price significantly.

(The "totally out" portion of the title comes from the fact that an air-startable SSME was dropped from the upper stage of the Crewed Launch Vehicle (CLV, though I may not have the expanded title right) booster a few months ago.)
7:51 pm est

Sunday, March 19, 2006

12 for 12 on a Mars Quiz!
CNN has a trivia quiz on Mars on their front page today (or at least at the time I wrote this). There doesn't appear to be a way to link to it directly. Page down to just below their headline image and look for Marvin the Martian. The questions go from the Warner-Brothers silly ("Why was Marvin the Martian upset at the Earth?") through the scientifically obscure ("Which of the following is NOT one of the three stages of Mars' geologic history?"). I'd say it's a good trivia summary.
7:32 am est

Friday, March 17, 2006

New Book en Route
...for me to read, though I've got projects in the mill. Orbit by John Nance has an interesting premise:
The year is 2009. For Kip Dawson, winning a passenger seat on one of American Space Adventure's commercial spaceflights is a dream come true. One grand shot of insanity and he can return to earth fulfilled. It's a bittersweet moment of triumph, however, muted by his wife's terror over his accepting the prize. The day of the launch, Kip tries to reconcile his wife's and daughters' fears and even tries calling his estranged son, to no avail. He sets off, vowing to make amends upon his return. But a successful launch quickly morphs into chaos when a micrometeor punches through the wall of the spacecraft, leaving the radios as dead as the pilot.

In the blink of an eye, Kip Dawson is truly alone and has no way of navigating the ship home. With nothing to do but wait for death, Kip writes his epitaph on the ship's laptop computer, unaware that an audience of millions has discovered it and is tracking his every word on the Internet. As a massive struggle gets under way to rescue him, Kip has no idea that the world can hear his cries -- or that his heroism in the face of death may sabotage his best chance of survival.
I first heard about it through a Transterrestrial link to an article written by the author.
3:34 pm est

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A few Items
  • "Hail MRO! It doesn't have the same ring as the IMAX show "Hail Columbia", but the MRO team deserves some kudos. There are now 6 spacecraft operating on or over Mars.
  • The astronaut who was on survivor got voted off. Here, he talks about how reality TV and space travel can relate. I wrote an article for Space Times on this topic. Unfortunately, there's no online version.
  • More info on NASA looking for users of its runway at Kennedy Space Center.
8:09 pm est

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Gettin' Close
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter approaches its quarry. The next couple days are the biggies. has the story.
7:53 pm est

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Two Biggies
SpaceX revealed a spacecraft they've been working on for a while, designed to visit/service the ISS. It's called Dragon. They say it can carry seven passengers. The pictures seem to show a ring on the back, which may be the guidance package from the Falcon 9. I remember when I read the description (more here) of the booster, it sounded like they were shooting for some sort of integrateable manned capability. Of course, first they have to get the Falcon 1 off the launch pad at Kwaj. Current launch date is late this month.

In a rather strange unveiling, Aviation Week has released an article about a military two-stage-to-orbit spaceplane that's supposedly been flying for years and now it's under consideration for being shelved. I join the skeptical crowd, even though I really wish that something like this existed, there are just too many holes in the theory. Fuels with the consistency of toothpaste and spare parts from exotic bombers (the XB-70) combined with an abandoned military spaceplane which was to be boosted into orbit by its own huge rocket (the Dyna-Soar) just don't make a compelling case for a valid program to me.
8:50 pm est

Sunday, March 5, 2006

What we Meant to say was...
Apparently, Wired got ProSpace's attention with their recent strange article.  I got an email from ProSpace saying that a new version of the article has been posted here (oooh, they added a note) and the letter complaining about the coverage is here.
Color me unimpressed with the integrity of Wired in how their handling this.  Hopefully, more correction is to come.
One of my favorite parts of the article is where it reports that an anti-nuke space activist got called by the ACLU so they could inform him that NASA was monitoring his phone calls.  If I were in the ACLU and familiar with this particular activist's claims, I would probably set up a call like this:
ACLU "Boiler Room" Pledge Operator:  "Hello, Mr X, this is Becky calling from the ACLU, we're working on our latest pledge drive this year.  Are you aware that government agencies could be spying on your phone calls?"
Mr. X:  "You mean like NASA and the Air Force?"
Operator:  "They're the ones"
Mr. X:  "Wow!  I always suspected that."
8:10 pm est

What will this do to Their Lunar Aspirations? is reporting that China has moved their next spaceflight to 2008.  The delay is reportedly to "give scientists time to create a spacesuit that can withstand a spacewalk."
I've read many discussions and threats of a Chinese space program, but haven't given the idea of China beating the US back to the moon much credence.  In some cases, the rousers misquote the date of their proposed lunar probe as the date they plan on landing on the moon.  In other cases, it's just the idea that "they're making huge leaps with each mission, and could easily accelerate and surprise us."  While I won't go on record saying that the last statement is impossible, I will say that there's been nothing suggesting that type of acceleration so far, and this latest 6-month delay is another example of a very methodical program that's not in any rush.  If they start building a heavy booster, that will get my attention.  If they start assembling spacecraft in orbit, that's another indicator, and here I'm talking about more than docking two orbital modules.  It would have to be something like launching a fueled upper stage, and sending a manned craft to dock with it.  Granted, when that happened, it wouldn't take much to "light the candle" and go pretty high above Earth, but it would likely take many such stages to do anything serious.  A hydrogen/oxygen upper stage launched by a rocket like this may allow a lunar flyby, if only such a rocket had flown.
7:48 pm est

Friday, March 3, 2006 Roundup
I'm down for the night with a virus. Not as bad as the kids had it earlier in the week, but plenty to slow you down. Hope it'll run its course through the night. In the meantime, here are some gems from
  • Jupiter has a new red spot
  • The Dawn mission's been cancelled. There's a bit of a flap about the timing of the cancellation, done right after a NASA official testified on space science to Congress.
  • Here's a report on why we should do a Mars Sample Return misison. One item not mentioned was that delays may get us out of the kooky international rendezvous plan that's been the norm so far. I admit that it could work, but a much more robust mission would use two craft, have them generate their own propellants, then bring them directly back to Earth. It also has the advantage of demonstrating an important technology for human missions to Mars.
8:35 pm est

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Wired or Weird?
I may have more to say on this later, but this article from Wired is a hoot for anyone who knows anything about ProSpace.

Update: Jeff Foust talks a bit more about the article here. Comments are enabled, and the first comment is about as well-reasoned as the Wired article.
9:55 am est

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