Welcome all stargazers to the Eastside Astronomical Society Student Blog! I am a high school senior and board member of the society. In this blog I endeavor to bring you the latest news from and my opinions on the Final Frontier. I'm keeping my eyes on government and private space programs so you can keep your eyes on the sky!

Monday, March 1, 2010

An Olympic Omen?

Last night I watched the closing ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics. Canada put on an excellent show, but one thing that was sadly absent from the "Made in Canada" segment were the Canadarm and Canadarm2 robotic arms. They may not be stereotypically Canadian, but they are quite awesome.

However, there was one part of the Russian preview that I found intriguing. In one scene, they showed a cosmonaut throwing Sputnik off into the void. Soon afterward, they showed a ballerina on a snowboard floating towards the Moon. Coincidence, or an abstract indication of future space plans?

Remember, Roskosmos is already working on a lunar tourism program. They expect that sometime within the next few years they will be sending a pair of tourists and a cosmonaut pilot around the moon, for a cost of $100 million per tourist. Who knows, in another decade, while we are still pulling our space program together, they may be returning to the surface of the Moon.

We defeated Russia once in space. If our mercurial planning (no pun intended, or even applicable) and halfhearted budgetary support continue, we might not even be a contender the second time around.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Congress's Decision: "Perfecting the Budget"

Well, I watched today's United States Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science and Space hearing on Obama's new budget plan. Chairing the subcommittee was our long-time ally Bill Nelson of Florida, and at his side was David Vitter, the ranking member from Louisiana. Although these two men are from different parties, they had few disagreements today. Both grilled NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on the new plan, trying to determine who in the agency or the executive branch proposed this "radical" new direction for NASA. Neither believed that Bolden, whom both complimented on his service and leadership, was primarily responsible for the new direction. Bolden said that he was not at liberty to disclose any "pre-decision" information, acknowledging that the President received information from many sources, including Bolden himself. Bolden also vigorously defended his lieutenant, Lori Beth Garver, whom Vitter believed to be the main source of the new budget request.

Bolden was equally vigorous in defending the new budget proposal. He revealed that NASA's new target would be Mars rather than the Moon, and stated that there was at least implied approval of that assessment. He also argued that a heavy lift vehicle was not currently necessary for doing the research necessary to reach Mars. He further put forth that extending the life of the space station, thus allowing many more years of conversations between astronauts in space and students, would do more to inspire children than planning a mission to Mars. However, when asked about the inevitable layoffs that will result from shutting down the shuttle and Constellation, Bolden grew teary-eyed. He said that he could not imagine how it must feel right now to be a young engineer with a family, and described how one young worker he met feared that they were no longer going to be doing a job that makes a difference. He promised, as he did throughout the hearing, that in the coming months' plans for a bright new future in space for the "NASA family" will be prepared.

The "second panel" to come before the subcommittee included one skeptic and two strong critics of the program. Astronaut Robert "Hoot" Gibson was probably the most-critical. He feared that commercial vehicles will not receive enough testing in the near future to be a safe way to transport crews to the station. He also brought up the danger of allowing Russia to hold a monopoly on trips to the ISS. As Anatoly Perminov, Russia's equivalent of the NASA Administrator, said, "We have an agreement until 2012 that Russia will be responsible for [flying foreign astronauts to the ISS]. But after that? Excuse me, but the prices should be absolutely different then!" Considering that they are already charging us two-and-a-half times what they charge individuals for a seat on a Soyuz, one can only imagine the markup once we absolutely depend on them.

Michael J. Snyder, an aerospace engineer, was the main representative of the average NASA worker. As he noted, the end of the shuttle program and of Constellation will mean that many experienced NASA employees will be fired. In the time it takes to develop a new program most will have moved to different states and different jobs to support their families, and who's to say how many will want to return to the volatile agency they had left? Snyder argued that the shuttle is a very safe vehicle that should remain in operation until a replacement is available. The new plan should have specific benchmarks and stepping stones to inspire and assure the workforce, and he proposed that a shuttle-based heavy launch vehicle may be the ideal way to get us beyond LEO while preventing a catastrophic loss of intra-agency experience. While I have been skeptical in the past of keeping the shuttle running, and I did write a short and negative review of a shuttle-derived heavy-lift vehicle, I have to admit that I'd much rather follow Snyder's plan than restart our exploration program from scratch.

A. Thomas Young, a Lockheed Martin retiree, gave some approval of the plan's increased funds for science and technology. However, he noted that most of the extra funds for science will go to earth-observing satellites, while funds for solar research will decrease slightly and funds for planetary and astrophysical research will remain unchanged.

One common theme expressed by these three critics was that NASA no longer had overarching goals. Gibson and Young both quoted passages from the Augustine commission to demonstrate how the new plan differs from that commission's bold vision. Snyder feared that having no clear-cut goals is severely harming morale throughout the space industry, and Young memorably noted that technological innovation without a goal can quickly become, or appear to become, nothing more than "hobby-shop" activities that can easily be canceled in the future. Both Nelson and Vitter appeared to share the concern over the apparent lack of a goal.

However, the remaining panelist to appear before the subcommittee, Miles O'Brien of "This Week in Space," disagreed with his fellow panelists. He found Obama's new direction to be a "grown-up" strategy for exploring space, as opposed to looking back on the glory days of Apollo. He believed that a lack of communication of the positive aspects of the program, coupled with public apathy and mainstream-media confusion, led to a "perfect storm" that has ruined the new plan's reputation. O'Brien argued that the best thing NASA can do is to "get out of the way" of companies headed for LEO so that we can move towards actually sending everyday people into space. He argued that public disinterest in NASA is mainly due to the fact that NASA flights only fly astronauts, and compared John Q. Public's minimal interest in the Moon program to the excitement so many felt watching the flights of SpaceShipOne. While I admire and share much of O'Brien's idealism in this area, I doubt that SpaceX or Orbital Sciences will be launching anyone but millionaires and (maybe) government astronauts into orbital space anytime soon.

Ultimately, the decision rests with Congress. However, it appears as though Obama's plan will be modified to address the concerns of critics. Senator Nelson noted multiple times that Congress now has the opportunity to "perfect" the plan. He even proposed an idea similar to one I suggested in an earlier blog, saving the Orion capsule and the heavy-lift launch program. When the issue of funding for these programs was considered, Nelson suggested that a large portion of the $2.5 billion required to close the Constellation program could be utilized for a heavy-life launch vehicle development program.

Regardless of what happens, I'll deliver the latest news on NASA's new direction as I get it. Keep reading!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Obama's Decision: A Poem

Obama has canceled our trip to the Moon
But he announced his decision way too soon
He's talked a big game
But it's really a shame
Because he's got no plan ready for June

In 2004 Constellation was deployed
In 2009 Constellation was destroyed
But with three billion not spent
During this time of Lent
Thousands could have been employed

Perhaps Obama might be right
Perhaps SpaceX will break this darkest night
But if he's wrong
It won't be long
Before Soyuz prices are hiked

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Obama's Decision: A Second Opinion

Patient: NASA

Symptoms: The Constellation Program has been eliminated in favor of commercial transport to the International Space Station. Although this supposedly will free-up NASA to work harder on going beyond LEO, there is, as of yet, no plan for NASA's new era of interplanetary travel.

Diagnosis: Although I believe that the real source of the disease is uncured chronic underfunding, there are some legitimate good ideas in the proposal.

Prognosis: If the condition is left untreated, the patient will hemorrhage jobs and be unable to perform its duty of keeping America the world's greatest space power. However, with some adjustments the patient may just pull through, or even improve.

Prescription: Go ahead with investing in commercial spaceflight, but do not totally cancel Constellation. The Ares V rocket will be a valuable resource to any trips beyond LEO, and thus should not be lost. Funds for the Ares V program can be procured from the Ares I program, which now seems to have been declared dead by politicians and experts alike. The Orion module has undergone much design and testing, and appears to be a perfectly spaceworthy vehicle. Instead of building a new rocket to launch it, it can instead be launched on a currently-available booster, or even with cargo on Ares V. This way, we will still have the framework in place for going beyond LEO in the early 2020's, but we will gain all of the potential benefits of commercial spaceflight.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Obama's Decision: The Wrong One

Before I begin, I would like to apologize for my long absence from the blogosphere. Applying for scholarships, finishing the semester and celebrating the holidays have taken up most of my time. However, I couldn't have chosen a better time to return to blogging, for very recently President Obama has made an important decision that will change the future of space exploration... for the worse.

President Obama is proposing to scrap the Ares system in favor of developing commercial crewed spacecraft. He further hopes to end the Moon program while extending the life of the International Space Station. Some would say that this follows the Augustine Commission's "Flexible Path." However, there is a clear difference between the Commission's path and the president's plan: the president does not appear to have any support for missions beyond low earth orbit whatsoever, while the commission proposed that we use Orion to visit the Lagrangian points and near Earth asteroids. Clearly, there is a huge difference between these two "Visions for Space Exploration."

I will admit one thing, the Moon program wasn't all it was cracked up to be. It didn't have as much focus on preparing for Mars as it should have had, and the thing was horrendously underfunded by the U.S. government. However, at least the Moon program would have taken us beyond LEO for the first time in years, and it had a decent chance of setting up a moon base, a valuable asset that might have given NASA a "foot in the door" to ensure future funding, including possibly funding for going to Mars. On the other hand, Obama's plan has no money for going beyond LEO. However, this is hardly the worst part of his new strategy.

The worst part of his new strategy is the amount of time and money it wastes. We have spent years and billions of dollars designing Project Constellation, yet now we are going to throw that all on the scrapheap of history. I know that Ares I wasn't the most-popular rocket in history, but he even proposes to end the Ares V program, which was much-praised by his own commission and the space community in general. Without the Ares V, we have no way of reaching the moon.

Okay, maybe not no way. A recent NASA study has suggested a shuttle-derived heavy payload system to replace the Ares system. However, this system would do little to make-up for the loss of Ares V. It has less payload capacity, is mounted on the side of a large booster tank covered in foam, and is a little bit ugly. They have proposed an initial plan for a Moon mission with this vehicle. However, with its limited space and payload capacity I doubt that we could go much farther than that. I'll admit that this spacecraft would be better than no ride at all. However, this vehicle still has yet to go beyond the proposal stage, and it doesn't seem that Obama is supporting this vehicle yet either.

And now, to the subject of commercial vehicles. I'll admit, I am a big supporter of SpaceX, the company most-likely to benefit from Obama's focus on supporting commercial crew vehicles. They are the only private company with a plausible orbital vehicle even remotely close to being fully developed. I also am giving them the benefit of the doubt on safety ('s "This Week in Space" has an interesting interview on the current feud between SpaceX and the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel). However, let's face it; the SpaceX Dragon is no Orion. As a matter of fact, it's not even as good as the Shuttle; at least that had a huge cargo bay. The Dragon has no huge cargo bay, yet it can't go any further than the Shuttle. It may be one giant leap forward for commercial space, but it is one small step backward for the American Space Program.

However, even if the Dragon were a comparable vehicle to Orion, I would not support its usage. Why? Because the Dragon is not ready yet! It won't be ready for years! Orion would probably not be ready until around 2017. We don't even KNOW when the Dragon will be ready for a crew, if it is ever ready. Although the Dragon is preparing for test flights with cargo, it is launching on a rocket that has less testing than even the Ares I system, and like I said, SpaceX is still only testing to see if the Dragon can deliver cargo. So what does this mean? It means that we will be literally BEGGING Russia to take our astronauts on the Soyuz vehicle for an even longer time. With current estimates at the amount of time it will take the Dragon to be ready (ten years, give or take), the space station will probably have been deorbited by the time the Dragon is ready. And considering that the Dragon can only go as far as the space station, this is the cosmic equivalent of "the bridge to nowhere".

So, in summary, Obama's new plan will leave our space program going to LEO on a commercial rocket in ten years. The space station will last until 2020, during which time not only Americans, but the world (with the exception of China) will be dependent on the Russians to take them into space. And during those ten years that the space station will remain up there, we won't even think about going to the Moon and Mars, ensuring that America will not go beyond LEO for probably two decades at least, plenty of time for the Chinese and Russians to reach the Moon and prepare for going to Mars. Who knows, by the time we realize something is wrong the Europeans, Japanese and Indians, all relative newcomers to space, may be far ahead of America in space technology. Does this sound like a good plan to you?

Why is President Obama doing this? My guess is money. In order to keep the Ares program and all of Project Constellation going at an adequate pace, he is going to need to shove out three billion dollars. His new plan will give no more than one billion extra dollars to NASA. My question is, with all that money we have left over from the stimulus, couldn't we find a few extra dollars for something as important as the space program?

Fortunately, Obama's plan is not going over well in Congress. Senators and representatives from states where the manned space program is important are not happy with the inevitable thousands of layoffs that Obama's plan would result in. Furthermore, despite the low funding, Project Constellation has significant bipartisan support in Congress. Thus, it is likely that Obama's budget may undergo significant changes before it returns to his desk, hopefully all changes for the better. To quote a famous space movie, "Help us, Congress, you're our only hope."

A final note; Michio Kaku gave an excellent critique on Obama's budget proposal, so good a critique that I am including the link below, and excuse me for ranting, but I'm kind of upset.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Augustine Commission: The Best and the Worst

Last week I discussed the importance of the Augustine Commission informing the U.S. Government that NASA is underfunded. Today I will discuss, with greater depth, the non-monetary recommendations of the Augustine Commission. Some of them are truly inspiring, others are a little less than exciting. However, I feel that the Augustine Commission is a bold new look at America's space program, and I think that their recommendations are worthy of further investigation.

In keeping with my last blog's teaser, I will go over the best part of the Commission first, their proposed "Flexible Path." The basic idea behind the Flexible Path is that we should not invest too many resources in going only one place. Instead of spending years on the Moon or betting the farm on Mars, we should send the Orion spacecraft to a variety of places in deep space to increase our experience in interplanetary travel. The Flexible Path will eventually lead to a return to the Moon or a first trip to Mars, or possibly both.

The thrilling element of the Flexible Path is the variety of places where it will lead us. One proposal is to use the Orion to service space observatories at Earth's Lagrangian points (sending the Orion to the Hubble to boost its orbit and make repairs has, as far as I can tell, not been proposed, despite the fact that Hubble now has an attachment for soft-docking). However, this is probably the most-mundane proposal made by the Commission. The next stop on their itinerary is a location of great fascination of scientists everywhere, near-Earth-asteroids.

The idea of an Orion asteroid mission is not new, but the Augustine Commission has given the idea new life. The early proposal called for using a modified Altair lander, stacked with an Orion vehicle, to "dock" with an asteroid, allowing astronauts to explore a small area around the landing site. A new proposal by Lockheed Martin stacks two Orion vehicles and an Earth Departure Stage. This proposed mission would orbit the target asteroid, allowing astronauts to reach the surface of the asteroid with MMU-like devices (a.k.a. "jet packs"). The advantages this proposal holds are:
a) the astronauts will be freer to explore the asteroid and
b) less new hardware and technology will be required.
Regardless of which expedition we choose, a manned mission to an asteroid will help us to prepare for stopping an impact event and will have a very-high "cool factor," at least with space buffs like me.

However, the final stop on the Augustine itinerary before we land on the Moon or Mars is definitely the most-exciting. The Commission proposes to visit one of Mars's two moons, Phobos and Deimos. These moons are exciting in their own right. Not only do they have interesting pasts as captured asteroids, but they provide an excellent viewpoint from which to map Mars and examine its meteorology (on a side note, who wouldn't want to send their local forecaster on a one-way trip to Mars? But I digress). However, the really important aspect of visiting these moons is that a mission to visit them will serve as a dry run for Mars. It is the interplanetary equivalent of Apollo 8, getting there and testing everything while we leave the lander at home. We currently have no plans for an Orion Mars Mission, and Congress at one point banned NASA from even considering such a mission. Hence, the Flexible Path gives us a far better chance of reaching Mars than our current plans would allow.

While the Augustine Commission's Flexible Path proposal is a dream-come-true for many, their recommendation of scrapping Ares I has met with mixed reviews. Many have been critical of Ares I, criticizing its design while mocking its shape with the nickname "The Stick." However, the recent Ares I-X flight seems to indicate that Ares I is a workable vehicle. The only major problem that occurred on this flight was a parachute failure that dented the booster, a truly minor setback since the booster would already have separated from the upper stage and astronauts if the flight had been real. There were a few other anomalies, but on the whole the system performed beautifully.

The Augustine Commission feels that Ares I should be canceled. Designing the rocket has been and will continue to be expensive, and the rocket will likely not be available until 2017. By then, the International Space Station may have been deorbited, or else it will be nearing the end of its life. Ares I is only designed to take a spacecraft to Low Earth Orbit, so once the Space Station is deorbited it will have nowhere to go until Ares V comes online, and Ares V's development will be delayed by the development of Ares I. Hence, the Commission felt that Ares I should be canceled to clear the way for the development of Ares V.

However, the Augustine Commission has ignored a few important facts in this area. Firstly, a significant amount money has already been spent on the Ares I. Hardware has been successfully tested, contracts have been made and teams have been assembled. To drop the program now would make all previous work nothing more than a complete waste of resources.

Secondly, the Ares I rocket will be a significant help in testing parts for the Ares V rocket. The five-segment solid booster being developed for Ares I will later be used on Ares V, and the J-2X engine under development for Ares I is a vital part of the Ares V rocket as well. Hence, work done on Ares I aids in the development of the Ares V.

Finally, the Ares I rocket is probably the safest rocket available for launching astronauts in the near future. It is estimated that Ares I will be ten times safer than the shuttle, and it has already been rated as safe for humans to fly on. The Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets may be capable of launching the Orion spacecraft into orbit, but they are not "man-rated," and even if we stopped work on Ares I tomorrow and focused on making one of these rockets man-rated, it is estimated that we would still not be able to fly for six years. I also regret to say that private industry will not be able to deliver crews to the station for many years to come. Even SpaceX, the front-runner in the race for a private orbital vehicle, has yet to make the first launch of their Falcon 9 rocket. It will be years before they or any other company will have tested their vehicles enough to be sure that they are safe for a manned launch. Hence, Ares I may be far behind schedule, but it is unlikely that using any other rocket will return America to space much sooner.

So there you have it, the best part and the worst part of the Augustine Commission. In my own personal opinion, I am greatly impressed with the Commission's findings. They have given us a bold new Vision for America's future in space and informed our lawmakers of the commitments that must be made to remain a great space power. Though I disagree with their findings on the importance of Ares I, I nevertheless view the review of the Commission as a major step forward towards America's future in space.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Augustine Commission: Revealing the Obvious

The Augustine Commission has informed the American Government of an important revelation about the Manned Exploration Program; we are rapidly falling behind-schedule on the road to the Moon thanks to chronic underfunding.

This fact is hardly the most important result of the Augustine Commission. In fact, in the space community, this is no more than a statement of the obvious. The Constellation Program has suffered severe setbacks due to budget limitations. The only major hardware test on America's new booster to date has been Ares I-X, and that test only came after many, many months of delay. No hardware tests have been performed on Ares V, the cargo-carrying backbone of the Vision for Space Exploration. NASA has not even proposed a final design for the Altair Lunar Lander. Only the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle seems to be relatively on-track, but with the Ares I booster lagging behind schedule it will have nothing to ride on.

The Augustine Commission has informed the President and Congress that without additional funds, NASA will have to deorbit the International Space Station in 2016, to the dismay of the Europeans, Russians and Japanese. Ares I will not even be ready by that time, so its ability to take Orion to LEO will be utterly useless. Ares V will not be ready for years afterward, and no mission to the Moon will be attempted before 2028.

I will not try to lay blame on any individual. The importance of space exploration has been overlooked by Congress ever since the last three Apollo missions were canceled, and few Presidents have been willing to do anything more than vaguely guide the space program. It is a pleasing irony that this commission was intended to find a way to run the space program effectively on its current budget, yet it quickly decided that it could not be done. Augustine may have led the Constitutional Convention of space exploration, rejecting the old budget and plans in favor of creating a more perfect Vision for Space Exploration.

The Augustine Commission's first recommendation is that NASA's budget be increased by $3 billion over the next few years, with inflationary increases occurring after 2020. The commission has further decided that Ares I is an unnecessary aspect of the Constellation Program that should be replaced with less-expensive alternatives, such as outsourcing Space Station crew and resupply missions to the private sector and launching Orion missions on existing rockets. Furthermore, the Commission suggests that the primary focus of Project Constellation should be developing the Ares V. After the development of this heavy-lift launcher there are many more roads available to NASA. One leads to the Moon and one leads to Mars, but their favored proposal, the "Flexible Path," deserves special mention, and will be the subject of this blog's follow-up.

The Augustine Commission has given America it's best chance since the 1960's at an adequately-funded space program. This moment may be the turning-point in American space exploration, the end of the Dark Age of short hops into Low Earth Orbit leading to a Silver Age of deep-space exploration.