Thursday, April 27, 2017

Votes for Science


A particularly witty March for Science sign. Image source: @RobertReyes Twitter account.


UPDATE April 29, 2017The Washington Post reports that the Environmental Protection Agency has deleted several web sites with detailed climate change data.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday evening its website would be “undergoing changes” to better represent the new direction the agency is taking, triggering the removal of several agency websites containing detailed climate data and scientific information.

One of the websites that appeared to be gone had been cited to challenge statements made by the EPA’s new administrator, Scott Pruitt. Another provided detailed information on the previous administration’s Clean Power Plan, including fact sheets about greenhouse gas emissions on the state and local levels and how different demographic groups were affected by such emissions ...

The change was ordered by a senior political appointee, according to an individual familiar with the matter who asked for anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, to avoid a conflict between the site’s content and the policies the administration is now pursuing.


Should science and politics mix?

Efforts by the new Trump administration and certain Republicans in Congress to destroy climate change research suggest that science by nature is political.

In his 2016 book The War on Science, author Shawn Otto writes, “... an observable fact is a political act that either supports or challenges the current power structure. Every time a scientist makes a factual assertion — Earth goes around the sun, there is such as thing as evolution, humans are causing climate change — it either supports or challenges somebody's vested interests.”

Wishing to sidestep the painful moral and ethical parsing that their discoveries sometimes compel, scientists for the last two generations saw their role as the creators of knowledge and believed they should leave the moral, ethical, and political implications to others to sort out. But the practice of science itself cannot possibly be apolitical, because it takes nothing on faith. The very essence of the scientific process is to question long-held assumptions about the nature of the universe, to dream up experiments that test those questions, and, based on the resulting observations, to incrementally build knowledge that is independent of our beliefs, assumptions, and identities, and independently verificable no matter who does the measuring — in other words, that is objective. A scientifically testable claim is transparent and can be shown to be either most probably true, or to be false, whether the claim is made by a king, a president, a prime minister, a pope, or a common citizen. Because it takes nothing on faith, science is inherently antiauthoritarian, and a great equalizer of political power. That is why it is under attack.


Author Shawn Otto speaks April 22, 2017 at the Washington, D.C. March for Science. Video source: Earth Day Network YouTube channel.

Scientific activism is in our nation's political genetic code.

Some of the most prominent leaders of the American Revolution were scientists. Benjamin Franklin, who researched the physics of electricity, wrote in 1734, “A new truth is a truth, an old error is an error.” Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, wrote in 1787, “A patient pursuit of facts, and cautious combination and comparison of them, is the drudgery to which man is subjected by his Maker, if he wishes to attain sure knowledge.” Article I. Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power, “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

In the last century, Manhattan Project scientists, concerned about the consequences of their atomic bomb research, founded the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The Doomsday Clock traces back to their first issue in 1947, when it was seven minutes to Midnight. Today it's 2½ minutes.

The Union of Concerned Scientists formed in 1969 during an era of war and violent civil dissent. “Appalled at how the U.S. government was misusing science, the UCS founders drafted a statement calling for scientific research to be directed away from military technologies and toward solving pressing environmental and social problems,” according to their web site.

At times in our history, scientists have been targeted by those in political power.

In 1925, a Tennessee high school science teacher named John Scopes was arrested for teaching evolution. A sensationalist trial, which came to be known as the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” tested a state law prohibiting the teaching of tenets contrary to the Bible. Scopes was found guilty, and the law stood for another 42 years.

During World War II and the subsequent Cold War, founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory were targeted by J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Frank Malina was harassed by the FBI, suspected of Communist sympathies. Qian Xuesen, born in China but educated in the United States, worked with Malina at the California Institute of Technology. Xuesen also worked on the Manhattan Project. His ties with Malina led to losing his security clearance. In 1955, he returned to China, where he helped start the Communist nation's rocketry program.

In 1953, Manhattan Project director J. Robert Oppenheimer was falsely accused of being a Soviet spy. His security clearance was revoked. Around the same time, the U.S. Public Health Service began to revoke grants given to scientists who were judged insufficiently loyal to the United States.

The George W. Bush administration actively tried to rewrite or block government reports documenting climate change. The Union of Concerned Scientists in 2005 documented how the Bush administration assigned non-scientists to rewrite science documents to cast doubt on climate change. In January 2007, scientists and advocacy groups testified to Congress that scientists at government agencies were advised not to use the phrases “global warming” or “climate change.”


Let's pause here to note the difference between “global warming” and “climate change.” According to NASA, global warming “refers to the long-term increase in Earth's average temperature.” Climate change “refers to any long-term change in Earth's climate, or in the climate of a region or city. This includes warming, cooling and changes besides temperature.” Climate change is the consequence of global warming.


In 2010, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) called for a criminal investigation of American and British climate change researchers. On February 26, 2015, Senator Inhofe tossed a snowball on the Senate floor, claiming it disproved global warming. According to OpenSecrets.org, Inhofe has received more than $1.8 million in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry during his political career.


February 26, 2015 ... Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) tosses a snowball on the Senate floor. Video source: C-SPAN YouTube channel.

The science community enjoyed eight years of support from President Barack Obama, but that ended when Donald Trump became President on January 20, 2017.

Four years before he was elected President, Trump claimed that global warming was a hoax perpetrated by China. During his presidential campaign, Trump repeated his claim that global warming is a hoax, but also claimed his China allegation was a joke.


A November 2012 tweet by Donald Trump.

Trump appointed Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt denies that humans contribute to global warming and has called for the U.S. to withdraw from the Paris climate change accord. The Trump administration's proposed Fiscal Year 2018 budget would cut the EPA budget by 31%, including a 50% reduction in the agency's research and development office.

The day Trump took office, all references to climate change were deleted from the White House web site.

Lamar Smith (R-TX), the chair of the House Science Committee, is an unabashed climate change denier. Smith falsely claims that climate change scientists ignore the scientific method, and routinely holds hearings to attack climate change science.

According to OpenSecrets.org, the Oil and Gas industry has contributed over $700,000 to Smith's election campaigns since 1998.


A March 29, 2017 House Science Committee attacking climate change scientists chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith.

Attacks on science are not limited to the conservative wing of the political spectrum. In a November 2012 Scientific American column, Shawn Otto writes that some liberals believe that cell phones cause brain cancer, or that vaccines cause autism. In January, vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. said Trump had asked him to head a commission on vaccine safety.

But it was the Trump administration's declared assault on climate change science that motivated the March for Science.

The idea was inspired by the Women's March on Washington, held the day after Trump's inauguration. A Reddit thread began with users urging that science believers needed to rally as well. The March for Science movement eventually aligned with the long-established Earth Day Network, which began on April 22, 1970.

Attendance estimates for these events are always questionable at best. A progressive anti-Trump web site claims 40,000 attended the Washington, D.C. rally, with another 40,000 in Chicago and 20,000 in New York City. According to CNN, more than 600 rallies were held worldwide. Florida Today estimated that “hundreds of attendees” were at the Titusville rally.

The numbers are not as important as the movement demonstrating a sustained ability to pressure politicians to support their cause.

Any President, or member of Congress, won't care about protestors unless it's clear that the politician's re-election is threatened. Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), who represents Brevard County, refuses to attend in-person town halls, relying instead on a “Tele-Town Hall” format. Posey is in a safe Republican district, gerrymandered through at least 2020, so he has no reason to respond to the minority of constituents who object to his vaccine denial and climate change denial.


March 26, 2014 ... Rep. Bill Posey denies climate change. Video source: climatebrad YouTube channel.

Posey has no science background. According to his official biography, his education is limited to a 1969 Associate of Arts degree from Brevard Community College.

A March 2015 Gallup poll found that highly educated Republicans tend to deny human-caused climate change, while highly educated Democrats believe humans are causing the phenomenon.


California experienced five years of drought from 2011 to 2016. During this last winter, heavy rains ended the water deficiency in most regions of the state. If California experiences drought for the next five years, we would say that California's climate is drought, but the weather for the winter of 2016-2017 was rainy. That's the difference between climate and weather.

On April 8, Stanford environmental science student Emma Hutchison wrote in the Peninsula Press:

Extreme weather events, like storms, floods and the California drought, are increasing globally. Understanding the connection between climate change and this extreme weather has become a hot topic for climate researchers and policymakers alike. But now, Columbia University climate expert Park Williams warned in a January talk at Stanford, the way that public figures are talking about the climate change-extreme weather connection may actually be undermining the scientific quest to accurately understand what climate change means for the future of our planet.

The problem, Williams explained, comes in oversimplifying the relationship between climate change and extreme weather events. He pointed to an example in which California Gov. Jerry Brown said that drought conditions were “the new normal” for California: a vision of permanent drought caused by climate change. This sparked pushback from many scientists. The new normal isn’t permanent drought, they said, but rather a whole new weather reality that includes more drought, more rainstorms and flooding, and a great deal of variability or “noise”: “When I see things like [Brown’s statement], I think: that’s inconsistent with my understanding of the climate in California, which is very noisy,” Williams said in his talk.

Brown is certainly not the only public figure to make a broad statement about climate change and extreme weather, but his “new normal” phrase has become a clear example of a common problem. Politicians tend to oversimplify the science, Williams said, because the public is more likely to understand an all-or-nothing story: either climate change caused an event like the drought, or it didn’t.

In May 2014, President Barack Obama suggested that Hurricane Sandy could have been linked to climate change. A year later, he acknowledged that “Climate change didn't cause Hurricane Sandy, but may have made it stronger. In fact, the sea level in New York harbor is about a foot higher than a century ago. It certainly made the storm surge worse.”


My personal opinion is that some of the climate change denial is motivated by an individual's willingness to accept data at face value from authoritative sources.

The Trump campaign at its core appealed to those who resent “elites.” Scientists are “elites” because they have a high degree of expertise and education most people are lacking.

A September 2016 Gallup poll found that 51% of Democrats trust in mass media, but only 14% of Republicans do. (Independents scored at 30%.) An October 2014 Pew Research Center report found that “consistent conservatives” are “tightly clustered around a single news source,” with 47% citing Fox News as their main news source. Those with “consistently liberal views” are “less unified in their media loyalty; they rely on a greater range of news outlets, including some — like NPR and the New York Times — that others use far less.”

Right-wing conspiracy web sites falsely claim a global conspiracy among scientists to falsify climate change data, without offering any actual proof themselves. A common point of contention is the claim that 97% of the scientific community believe in climate change. Conspiracy sites claim the number is phony. Politifact in April 2016 examined a number of studies and concluded, “The studies found that overwhelming majorities of these experts — sometimes, but not always as high as 97 percent — say humans are contributing to global warming.”

Right-wing sites have also claimed that NASA falsified climate data or that NASA has proven global warming doesn't exist. Yet NASA has a web site dedicated to presenting climate change evidence.


A NASA chart showing the increase in carbon dioxide emissions during the Industrial Revolution. Click the image to view at a larger size.

Of particular disappointment to Rep. Posey would be this statement:

The Earth's climate has changed throughout history. Just in the last 650,000 years there have been seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat, with the abrupt end of the last ice age about 7,000 years ago marking the beginning of the modern climate era — and of human civilization. Most of these climate changes are attributed to very small variations in Earth’s orbit that change the amount of solar energy our planet receives.

The current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is extremely likely (greater than 95 percent probability) to be the result of human activity since the mid-20th century and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented over decades to millennia.

Up to now, the science community has taken the high road, with few exceptions, trusting that the public will objectively look at the data.

Most of the public won't. They get their news from sources that tend to reinforce their beliefs, or gossip from friends, Twitter and other social media.

With few exceptions, most scientists lack the ability to interpret their findings into simple language that the lay person can understand. They write highly technical papers that must pass peer review. They don't write simple opinion columns for the town paper.

If the March for Science is to sustain itself, it must find ways to plainly communicate to the electorate how science works.


A science advocacy sign at the January 21, 2017 Women's March.

Peer review is a process largely unknown to the public. Partisan political web sites and bloviating politicians aren't subject to peer review. Scientists are.

The University of California Berkeley web site describes the steps of peer review:

1. A group of scientists completes a study and writes it up in the form of an article. They submit it to a journal for publication.

2. The journal's editors send the article to several other scientists who work in the same field (i.e., the "peers" of peer review).

3. Those reviewers provide feedback on the article and tell the editor whether or not they think the study is of high enough quality to be published.

4. The authors may then revise their article and resubmit it for consideration.

5. Only articles that meet good scientific standards (e.g., acknowledge and build upon other work in the field, rely on logical reasoning and well-designed studies, back up claims with evidence, etc.) are accepted for publication.

Science deniers will claim that scientists are unethical and approve each others' work without question, as part of a vast conspiracy to assure they all receive taxpayer funding. They provide no evidence, of course, to support these smears.

Scientists use the scientific method to reach their conclusions. The University of Rochester web site outlines their definition of the scientific method:

1. Observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena.

2. Formulation of an hypothesis to explain the phenomena. In physics, the hypothesis often takes the form of a causal mechanism or a mathematical relation.

3. Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict quantitatively the results of new observations.

4. Performance of experimental tests of the predictions by several independent experimenters and properly performed experiments.

The article notes, “It is often said in science that theories can never be proved, only disproved. There is always the possibility that a new observation or a new experiment will conflict with a long-standing theory.”

Yes, human beings are fallible. They make mistakes. They introduce biases. The scientific method, coupled with peer review, is designed to be self-correcting.

March for Science must go beyond marches in the streets. Its supporters must attend town halls, speak at rallies, challenge their friends and neighbors who question scientific data. I have done so many times over the years, to the point where certain people know they better not blather about conspiracies in my presence because I'll call them on it.

Many people, I've found, are sincerely interested in knowing why we can believe the data. I explain the scientific method, the peer review process, and the centuries of data gathered by sources such as drilling into polar ice to measure the concentrations of carbon dioxide. (The farther down you go, the less the CO2.)

I'm quite proud of when a skeptic opens his or her mind because I explain not only the science behind the data, but the integrity behind the science.

Skepticism is healthy and should be encouraged. Skepticism is part of peer review. When a skeptic asks me about the science behind climate change, I compliment the person for being a scientist. I explain that's what scientists do. They are skeptics who are always testing and validating.

That's why we know science works.

Letters to your local newspaper are fine, but it's better to directly contact the editor and publisher when a news story misstates scientific evidence. Many reporters are generalists who have little science background. Be polite, not accusatory, and simply explain the science in language the lay person can understand. Most reporters, and most newspaper owners, want to get it right. You can help them.

What is the self-correcting mechanism for politicians who deny science?

The ballot box.

If voters are unwilling to vote out Rep. Bill Posey or Senator James Inhofe for denying climate change and disrespecting science, then we doom ourselves to the consequences of our inaction.

Challenge people to withhold campaign contributions and their vote from any politician who denies the validity of science. Be sure that politician knows it. Contact your local media to urge them to report on a politician's falsehoods. Provide the evidence to support your position. The politician won't have any.

It's not quite as hopeless as you might think.

In February 2017, a bipartisan group of six members of Congress — three Republicans and three Democrats — declared their belief that U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved vaccines are safe.

A bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus has formed in the House of Representatives — 19 Republicans and 19 Democrats — to “explore policy options that address the impacts, causes, and challenges of our changing climate.” According to their web site,“The Caucus will serve as an organization to educate members on economically-viable options to reduce climate risk and protect our nation’s economy, security, infrastructure, agriculture, water supply and public safety.” The site states that they will keep their membership even between Republicans and Democrats.

Three Republicans and two Democrats from Florida are in the caucus. None, of course, are Rep. Posey.

The caucus site has links to ask your member of Congress to join the caucus, and to “tweet your support.”

You may wish to consider supporting these caucus members with a campaign contribution, or at least a letter of support and encouragement.

What will you do to defend science?


UPDATE April 30, 2017CNN reports on yesterday's Peoples Climate March in Washington, D.C.


Image source: CNN.

Protesters backing action on climate change are braving the sweltering heat Saturday in the nation's capital as part of the People's Climate March ...

Hundreds of sister marches were also planned across the United States and around the world.

Protesters marched through the snow in Denver. Demonstrations were held in Boston, New York, Seattle, Chicago, Amsterdam and London.

Coinciding with Donald Trump's 100th day in office, the protests are taking on the President's environmental policies, which have generally prioritized economic growth over environmental concerns. During those first 100 days, the Environmental Protection Agency has moved swiftly to roll back Obama-era regulations on fossil fuels while also facing significant planned budget cuts.

The Peoples Climate Movement claims over 200,000 marched yesterday in Washington, D.C. The number to my knowledge hasn't been independently verified.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Life Support


Click the arrow to watch the Expedition 50 crew landing. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Three International Space Station crew members, two Russians and one American, landed April 10 on the frigid steppes of Kazakhstan. Their Soyuz capsule was a design evolved from the original that first launched with cosmonauts in 1971.

No Americans were supposed to have been on Russian craft by now.

President Barack Obama's proposed Fiscal Year 2011 NASA budget planned to spend $5.8 billion during Fiscal Years 2011 through 2015 to develop American commercial crew spacecraft that would be operational by 2015.

Congress agreed to fund the commercial crew program, but over Fiscal Years 2011-2013 slashed the program's budget by 62%. Congress did so despite repeated warnings from NASA executives that the cuts would extend reliance on Russia until 2017 or longer.

The cuts were bipartisan. Many members of the House and Senate space authorization and appropriations subcommittees represent districts and states that have NASA space centers or legacy contractors. They objected to the Obama administration's proposal to cancel the Constellation program, which was to succeed the Space Shuttle. Constellation had run years behind schedule and was billions of dollars over budget. An August 2009 Government Accountability Office report concluded that Constellation lacked a “sound business case” and still faced many technical obstacles. An October 2009 independent committee review concluded that Constellation was unsustainable without a massive cash infusion. Its first crewed launch would be no earlier than 2017, probably later.

But Constellation employed both NASA civil servants and legacy contractors from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Alliant Techsystems (ATK), all three long-established aerospace companies with capable lobbyists and deep pockets to finance re-election campaigns.

When Congress finally approved a NASA budget for Fiscal Year 2011, the legislators reluctantly agreed to cancel the Constellation boondoggle, but imposed on NASA a new program called Space Launch System. Dubbed the Senate Launch System by its critics, SLS had no missions or destinations, but it did require NASA to use Shuttle and Constellation contractors without competitive bid. Commercial crew was slighted to fund the SLS porkfest.

As predicted, commercial crew's schedule slipped. NASA has been forced to sign contracts with the Russian space agency Roscosmos extending reliance on Soyuz until commercial crew is ready. In 2018, Roscosmos will charge NASA $81 million per seat to ferry U.S. and allied astronauts to the space station. A September 2016 Office of the Inspector General report concluded that NASA hopes to have its first operational commercial crew flight by late 2018, but challenges remain.

Rarely mentioned or contemplated by critics is the other side of the equation.

For years, the Russians have known that it's only a matter of time before their primary customers leave to launch once again from American soil.

Despite the country's autocratic leadership, occasionally Roscosmos executives and cosmonauts have publicly criticized their space program, noting that the NewSpace commercial movement in the United States will produce innovative new systems that will be far more modern and less costly than the Russian competition.


Expedition 31 crew members in the first SpaceX Dragon to deliver cargo to ISS. Commander Gennady Padalka is at the lower left. Image source: SpaceX.

Senior cosmonaut Gennady Padalka commanded the ISS in May 2012 when the SpaceX Dragon made its first automated cargo delivery. After he returned to Russia, Padalka criticized his nation's program.

At the traditional Russian post-landing press conference on Sept. 21, cosmonaut Gennady Padalka complained about the “spartan” conditions aboard the Russian side of the station, especially as compared with the American side. The conditions were cold, noisy, overstuffed with equipment, and cramped — each Russian had about one-seventh the living space that the American astronauts had. “All of this gives serious inconvenience in the operation of the Russian segment,” he said ... The equipment, he continued, was reliable and safe but was decades out of date. “Nothing has been done in the 20 years since the foundation of the new Russia,” he complained. The Russian space technology is technologically bankrupt and “morally exhausted.” It was, he told reporters, “frozen in the last century.” He contrasted those conditions with the spaciousness and modernity of the American modules, and praised the advanced technology he saw there: the robotics experiment (“As always, still under study in Russia”) and SpaceX's commercial spacecraft docking, for example.

A week later, Roscosmos General Director Vladimir Popovkin said in a public lecture, “Unless we undertake extreme measures, the sector will be uncompetitive within three-four years.” Popovkin predicted that by 2015, “Western equipment will be priced 33 to 50 percent lower.”

In October 2013, Popovkin was sacked and replaced by Oleg Ostapenko. Popovkin died in June 2014, from an undisclosed illness at age 57.

Ostapenko was sacked in January 2015, as Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin directed that Russian space activities be brought under tighter state control, the opposite of what the U.S. is doing. Ostapenko was replaced by Igor Komarov, who's managed to remain in the Director General position to this day. Although he began his education as an engineer, Komarov's career largely has been in banking and finance.

Rogozin was one of seven Russian government officials designated by the Obama administration in a March 2014 executive order which imposed economic sanctions on “individuals who wield influence in the Russian government and those responsible for the deteriorating situation in Ukraine.”


A January 2017 meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin. Image source: Vladimir Putin Blog.

The sanctions generally have been effective in depressing the Russian economy. At the time in March 2014 when the sanctions were imposed, the ratio of Russian rubles to U.S. dollars was about 0.027. Today it's about 0.018.

As the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, United States government officials worried that Soviet aerospace engineers might flee to nations hostile to American interests. Under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, NASA slowly intertwined itself with the Russian space program. By one vote in 1993, the House of Representatives nearly cancelled the Space Station Freedom project. The U.S. invited Russia to join Europe, Japan and Canada in building a new International Space Station, based on Freedom's earlier designs but now with Russian segments. NASA flew Space Shuttle missions to the Soviet-era Mir space station, to develop experience in assembling and servicing an orbital platform. Russian cosmonauts flew to Mir on the Shuttle, and U.S. astronauts flew to Mir on Soyuz spacecraft.

By the time of the Columbia accident on February 1, 2003, NASA, Roscosmos and the other ISS partners had learned to collaborate as one global space agency. No one questioned American reliance on Soyuz for crew rotations after Columbia. On January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush announced that the Shuttle would fly again, but only to complete ISS assembly to honor the nation's commitment to its spacefaring partners, and then the Shuttle would retire. Crew rotations would continue to rely on Roscosmos, even during the gap between Shuttle and whatever transport system came next.

In early 2014, Russian President Putin ordered troops to invade Crimea, today a part of the independent nation Ukraine but in times past a part of Russia. The U.S. and other nations imposed sanctions upon the Russian economy and Putin cronies, including Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin.

For months, Rogozin blustered that Russia would abrogate its ISS participation. He claimed that Russia would walk away from the ISS in 2020 — yet less than a year later Russia extended its participation to 2024.

Rogozin and Putin-controlled Russian media continue to spin one story for internal consumption, while another is told to the outside world. Russia Today reported on April 5 that Russia should plan for withdrawing from the ISS partnership in 2024, seeking a new partnership with China or India. A similar report appeared in Pravda. But at the same time, Director General Komarov was in Colorado Springs at the Space Symposium telling reporters that Roscosmos is willing to extend ISS to 2028.


Roscosmos Director General Igor Komarov April 4 at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. Image source: Space Foundation via Spaceflight Now.

The Russian space program continues to deteriorate. In June 2016, Roscosmos delayed a Soyuz launch, fearing that the spacecraft might roll uncontrollably as it approached ISS. In December 2016, a Progress cargo flight to ISS was lost after launch as it broke up over Siberia. By one estimate, it was the fifteenth failure of a Russian rocket in six years.

The Moscow Times reported on March 30 that “An investigation into quality control issues in the Russian space industry has discovered that nearly every engine currently stockpiled for use in Proton rockets is defective.” The Moscow Times is an independent English-language publication based in Moscow.

And to add a little intrigue, a former Roscosmos executive director was found murdered March 18. Vladimir Yevdokimov was stabbed to death in prison while awaiting trial on fraud charges. Yevdokimov had been in charge of quality control at Roscosmos.

In March 2016, the Russian government approved a ten-year budget for its space program. The total dollar amount was $20 billion, a bit more than what NASA spends in one fiscal year. It was nearly two-thirds less than the $56 billion ten-year budget proposal draft circulated in the spring of 2014, before the sanctions took effect.

On March 30, SpaceX launched and landed its first previously flown Falcon 9 rocket. State-controlled Sputnik News reported the next day that a Kremlin spokesman claimed Roscosmos is working on “no less advanced and breakthrough developments” to compete with SpaceX. Another Sputnik News article claimed that the Space Shuttle program ended because it failed to achieve its goal of reusable affordability. The article quoted a Russian military expert as saying, “Ultimately, the United States was left without its own spacecraft and delivery of their astronauts to the International Space Station is being provided by Russia.” The article claimed that the SpaceX design is flawed, and that a Russia-China partnership might develop a more competitive reusable system.

No mention has been made of Blue Origin, which is also developing reusable rocket technology. Blue intends to fly its New Glenn orbital rockets from Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 36 by the end of this decade.

Some emerging NewSpace launch companies are thinking small. Vector Space Systems, Rocket Lab and others are developing small rockets to launch small payloads into orbit. The Vector-R is designed to deliver 60 kilograms (130 pounds) to low Earth orbit. The company claims Vector-R is designed for up to 100 launches. It can be launched from a mobile platform, and will be retrieved by parachute.


A Vector-R test article on the mobile platform. Image source: Vector Space Systems.

Historians may look back at the American NewSpace movement as the defining technological advance of our era. It may compare to the 1920s, when the U.S. Post Office contracted with airplane owners to deliver mail, and eventually offered a subsidy to carry passengers. That program led to the commercial aviation industry and the airport hub system we have today.

The United States has a robust economy. Russia does not. Venture capitalists are discovering NewSpace. A February 2016 Tauri Group report found that “Venture capital firms invested $1.8 billion in commercial space startups in 2015, nearly doubling the amount of venture cash invested in the industry in all of the previous 15 years combined,” according to Fortune magazine.

CNBC reported on April 6 that Goldman Sachs is telling its clients to invest in NewSpace.

A new space age is emerging, and the so-called space economy will become a multitrillion-dollar industry within the next two decades, Goldman Sachs is telling its clients.

More than 50 venture capital firms invested in space in 2015, driving more VC dollars into the sector in that year alone than in the prior 15 years combined, analyst Noah Poponak wrote in a Tuesday note to investors. Those firms included SoftBank, Fidelity, Bessemer and the VC arm of Alphabet's Google, among others.

“While relatively small markets today, rapidly falling costs are lowering the barrier to participate in the space economy, making new industries like space tourism, asteroid mining and on-orbit manufacturing viable,” Poponak said.

With the exception of the Space Launch System, the United States is embracing private sector investment, innovation and competition. Russia is retreating into a Soviet-era model of state control, corruption and cronyism.

It didn't work the last time. It won't work this time either.

In the early 1990s, American policy analysts were concerned that Soviet aerospace technologists might flee into the embracing arms of hostile nations.

The collapse of the modern Russian aerospace industry might result in the same “brain drain,” but this time no one particularly seems concerned.

Vladimir Putin and his cronies may be set for life with their accumulated wealth. But the Russian space program is on life support.

Friday, March 24, 2017

"It's About Jobs"


Click the arrow to watch the bill signing. Original video source: NASA YouTube channel.

To be charitable, President Donald Trump is politically inexperienced.

His “drain the swamp” rhetoric during the 2016 presidential campaign appealed to those who were fed up with business as usual in Washington, DC, although such remarks suggested he had no concept of the art of governance.

Trump himself said little about NASA and space exploration during the campaign. In November 2015, Trump told a ten-year old New Hampshire boy that fixing potholes is more important to him. One can only wonder if that ten-year old's dreams of being an astronaut might have been dashed when the candidate suggested a career in road repair might be more vital to the country.

On March 21, Trump signed into law the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act of 2017.

During the signing ceremony, Trump robotically read a statement prepared for him, although he did make a few off-the-cuff remarks.

“We support jobs. It's about jobs, also.”

For once, Mr. Trump spoke the truth.

The Congressional representatives surrounding him at the ceremony were members of the House and Senate space committees largely responsible for the bill's contents.

Some of them were around when in 2010 Congress foisted upon NASA the Space Launch System.

Derided by some critics as the Senate Launch System, the SLS was created by Congress with no specific mission or use in mind. Its primary purpose was to protect Space Shuttle and Constellation program jobs.

During a September 14, 2011 media event, members of both houses lined up before the cameras to boast how they had saved jobs in their districts and states.


Click the arrow to watch the September 14, 2011 SLS media event.

Leading that event was Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), who provided a primer on the SLS design, calling it a “monster rocket.”

Since then, NASA has spent roughly $3-4 billion per year on SLS, the Orion crew capsule, and ground support systems. Some analysts believe SLS will be too expensive to operate, especially in competition with projected commercial options such as the SpaceX Falcon Heavy and the Blue Origin New Glenn.

During the signing ceremony, the President mispronounced the name for the Orion crew capsule, pronouncing it like a certain cookie with an “n” at the end.


Not NASA's next crew capsule.

Mr. Trump has spoken favorably about the commercial space sector, labelled NewSpace by some. While reading his prepared statement, the President added his own impromptu remarks.

This bill will make sure that NASA's most important and effective programs are sustained. It orders NASA to continue — and it does, it orders just that — to continue transitioning the activities to the commercial sector, where we have seen great progress. It's amazing what's going on. So many people and so many companies are so into exactly what NASA stands for. So, the commercial and the private sector will get to use these facilities, and I hope they're going to be paying us a lot of money.

If Mr. Trump thinks the purpose of the commercial space program is to generate revenue for NASA, he's mistaken.

The SpaceX lease of Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A transfers over operation to the company to get government costs off the books. According to Florida Today, “NASA sought to lease 39A to keep it active and save more than $1 million annually in maintenance costs. As part of the lease, SpaceX takes over pad operation and maintenance costs.”

NASA's commercial cargo and crew programs paid milestone awards to competitors in exchange for achieving government-specified objectives. The idea was to grow an industry from which NASA and other government agencies could affordably acquire services.

Trump made no mention of his baseless claim uttered in Daytona Beach last August, when he told a local reporter that the U.S. space program was like “a third world nation.” It was just another fact-free insult that he's yet to retract.

After Trump signed the bill, the politicians surrounding him interjected various comments, possibly hoping one might stick.

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), the Houston-area congressman who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee responsible for NASA funding, told the President:

Mr. President, just as Americans remember that President Eisenhower was the father of the interstate highway system, with your bill signing today and your vision and leadership, future generations will remember that President Donald Trump was the father of the interplanetary highway system.

Trump, of course, had nothing to do with all that. Culberson, in my opinion, was being a miserable suck up.

But particularly noteworthy was Trump's reply.

Well, that sounds exciting ... First we want to fix our highways. We're going to fix our highways.

Shades of New Hampshire.


UPDATE March 25, 2017 — This week's video presidential address was on the history of NASA and Mr. Trump's signing of the 2017 NASA Act. Beyond that, no real substance.


Click the arrow to watch the address. Video source: The White House YouTube channel.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Blue Origin Has Its First Launch Customers


Click the arrow to watch the New Glenn promotional film. Video source: Blue Origin YouTube channel.

Blue Origin announced March 7 that it has its first paying customer for a New Glenn launch.

Eutelsat will launch in the early 2020s, presumably from Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 36.

Blue Origin also released a computer animation of a New Glenn launch and landing. The booster would return to a ship at sea.

Founder Jeff Bezos said that New Glenn could deliver 45 metric tons to low Earth orbit. The SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, projected to launch sometime later this year, reportedly would deliver about 55 metric tons to low Earth orbit.

On March 8, OneWeb announced a deal to launch five satellites on New Glenn, so now Blue has two customers.


CBS News reports on the Blue Origin/SpaceX rivalry. Video source: CBS This Morning YouTube channel.

This week's announcements come on the heels of SpaceX announcing February 27 a contract to fly two unspecified customers to the Moon on a cislunar round trip.

The Washington Post reported on March 2 that Bezos, who owns the paper as well as Blue Origin and Amazon.com, had submitted a seven-page proposal to NASA for delivering commercial cargo to the Moon's south pole for a lunar base.

Bezos and SpaceX founder Elon Musk both sit on President Donald Trump's council of economic advisors. UPI reported March 8 that Musk attended the President's transportation infrastructure meeting that day, to discuss Musk's hyperloop technology.

Both visionary entrepreneurs have privileged access to the President. How much that matters, remains to be seen, but clearly the two rivals have captured media attention in the last few weeks.


NBC News reports on May 11, 2016 about Elon Musk's hyperloop technology. Video source: NBC News YouTube channel.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Blue's Origin, Part 6

Construction continues on the Blue Origin factory on Space Commerce Road just outside the Kennedy Space Center gate.

These are photos taken with my cameraphone. You're welcome to use these images elsewhere, just credit SpaceKSC.com. Click an image to view it at a larger size.





Earlier articles:

June 7, 2016 “Blue's Origin, Part 1”

July 3, 2016 “Blue's Origin, Part 2”

August 8, 2016 “Blue's Origin, Part 3”

October 30, 2016 “Blue's Origin, Part 4”

January 15, 2017 “Blue's Origin, Part 5”

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Once in a Blue Moon


Jeff Bezos at the September 15, 2015 media event announcing Blue Origin will come to Cape Canaveral. Image source: Space News.

The Washington Post, owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos, published today an “exclusive look” at plans for Bezos-owned Blue Origin to develop technology for robotic deliveries to the Moon.

Bezos, ranked by Forbes magazine last October as the second richest person in the United States, is best known for founding Amazon.com, an electronic commerce and cloud computing company.

Bezos in recent years has pursued a new service called Amazon Prime Air, which would deliver packages using aerial drones.

Now it appears Bezos wants to extend that concept to the Moon.

According to the article:

More than four decades after the last man walked on the lunar surface, several upstart space entrepreneurs are looking to capitalize on NASA's renewed interest in returning to the moon, offering a variety of proposals with the ultimate goal of establishing a lasting human presence there.

The commercial sector's interest comes as many anticipate support from the Trump administration, which is eager for a first-term triumph to rally the nation the way the Apollo flights did in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The article reports that Bezos submitted a seven-page white paper to NASA and the Trump transition team “about the company's interest in developing a lunar spacecraft with a lander that would touch down near a crater at the south pole where there is water and nearly continuous sunlight for solar energy.”

Bezos wants NASA to invest in the enterprise, perhaps with a milestone model similar to the commercial cargo and crew programs. The article states the white paper calls for NASA to provide “incentives to the private sector to demonstrate a commercial lunar cargo delivery service.”

There's no point in delivering a package if no one is there to receive it (much less sign for it), so “Blue Moon” as it's called would need for another entity, public or private, to establish a lunar base first.

Bigelow Aerospace is suggested as a possible technology for deploying a base infrastructure. Its Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is currently being tested at the International Space Station.

Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance and SpaceX all are developing technologies for human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit. NASA's Space Launch System with its Orion capsule is also in development for such missions, but is considered by most observers to be far more expensive and inefficient than projected commercial alternatives.


UPDATE March 3, 2017 — Jeff Bezos discussed Blue Moon and other Blue Origin projects last night at the Aviation Week awards ceremony in Washington, D.C.


Click the arrow to watch the interview clip. Video source: AviationWeek YouTube channel.

New Heights for Virgin Galactic


An artist's concept of LauncherOne. Image source: Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic announced today the formation of a company that separates their anticipated satellite launch services from commercial human spaceflight.

Effective today, our family of space companies numbers three. As with before, Virgin Galactic will be our commercial human spaceflight services provider and The Spaceship Company will continue to offer design, manufacturing and testing services to build vehicles for Virgin Galactic. And our small satellite LauncherOne team will become our newest company: Virgin Orbit.

In a separate press release, Virgin stated that the new company “will offer flexible, routine and low cost launch services for small satellites via the LauncherOne system.”

The press release states the system “is in advanced phase of hardware testing for every subsystem and major component of the vehicle-having already conducted long duration, full thrust firings of both of LauncherOne’s engines, cryogenic tank tests, and hardware-in-the-loop testing of the vehicle’s avionics.”


A December 2015 LauncherOne promotional video. Video source: Virgin Galactic YouTube channel.

Virgin Orbit will be headquartered in Long Beach, California, but LauncherOne flights may take off from the Space Coast.

In April 2016, small satellite company OneWeb announced that LauncherOne may deploy some of their “microsats” from the former Space Shuttle runway at Kennedy Space Center.

On February 28, OneWeb and Intelsat announced a “conditional combination agreement” that could merge the two companies. Intelsat CEO Stephen Spengler stated in the press release:

We believe that combining Intelsat with OneWeb will create an industry leader unique in its ability to provide affordable broadband anywhere in the world. As an early equity investor in OneWeb, we recognized a network that was a complement to our next-generation Intelsat EpicNG fleet and a fit with our long-term strategy. By merging OneWeb’s LEO satellite constellation and innovative technology with our global scale, terrestrial infrastructure and GEO satellite network, we will create advanced solutions that address the need for ubiquitous broadband. The transaction, including SoftBank’s investment, will significantly strengthen Intelsat’s capital structure and accelerate our ability to unlock new applications, such as connected vehicles, as well as advanced services for our existing customers in the enterprise, wireless infrastructure, mobility, media and government sectors, while also reducing execution and other risks.

In October 2015, NASA awarded $4.7 million to Virgin Galactic to conduct a CubeSat demonstration flight by the end of 2018. Part of NASA's Venture Class Launch Services program, the awards to Virgin and two other companies were intended to “represent NASA's investment in the future of the commercial launch industry for SmallSats,” according to the NASA press release.

The viability of the smallsat market was demonstrated February 15 when the Indian Space Research Organization launched 104 satellites into orbit on its PSLV C 37. It was a record for the most satellites placed into orbit with one launch. Most of them were smallsats.


The ISRO mission deploys 88 DoveSats for Planet. Video source: Planet YouTube channel.

Eighty-eight of these were DoveSats from U.S.-based Planet. Formerly known as Planet Labs, the company called it the deployment of “the largest satellite constellation ever to reach orbit.” Planet specializes in the collection of data and imagery for its customers.

Former U.S. Senator Dan Coats (R-IN), President Trump's nominee for Director of National Intelligence, expressed his shock that India launched 104 smallsats. He seemed ignorant of the U.S. small launcher market emerging through companies such as Virgin Orbit, Vector Space Systems, Rocket Lab, and Masten Space Systems, among others.

Virgin Orbit hopes to have the first test flight of LauncherOne by the end of 2017. Hopefully Mr. Coats will take note.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Golden Dragon


A 2012 concept for a commercial lunar flight to the Moon using a SpaceX crew Dragon on a Falcon Heavy booster. Image source: Golden Spike Company.

In December 2012, former NASA executives announced the formation of a commercial lunar spaceflight enterprise called The Golden Spike Company.

Named after the final spike driven to complete construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, Golden Spike offered to send two customers to the Moon for a circumlunar mission and perhaps a landing.

A notional concept posted on the company's web site depicted a SpaceX Falcon Heavy launching a crew capsule — presumably the SpaceX crew Dragon — to the Moon, where it would orbit and rendezvous with a lunar lander. In January 2013, Golden Spike announced a contract with Northrup Grumman to develop the lander.

By the end of 2014, Golden Spike had gone silent. The company's web site simply states, “Under Construction.” The last post on its Facebook page is dated October 13, 2014. The Golden Spike Twitter account is still active, with its last retweet dated February 23, possibly maintained by co-founder Alan Stern, but it has nothing recent about the company's activities.


A Golden Spike promotional video posted December 6, 2012. Video source: Golden Spike YouTube channel.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced today that he will be the next one to attempt to drive that golden spike into the track that leads from Earth to the Moon.

According to the SpaceX press release:

We are excited to announce that SpaceX has been approached to fly two private citizens on a trip around the moon late next year. They have already paid a significant deposit to do a moon mission. Like the Apollo astronauts before them, these individuals will travel into space carrying the hopes and dreams of all humankind, driven by the universal human spirit of exploration. We expect to conduct health and fitness tests, as well as begin initial training later this year. Other flight teams have also expressed strong interest and we expect more to follow. Additional information will be released about the flight teams, contingent upon their approval and confirmation of the health and fitness test results.

In a teleconference not available to the public, Musk declined to identify the clients to the media. He also noted the flight will require approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Who will train the two crew members was not identified. The logical candidate would be Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies (SGT), Inc., which in 2014 received a nine-year contract to “ provide mission and flight crew operations support for the International Space Station and future human space exploration.” To quote from the SGT web site:

We prepare the Astronauts and Flight Control Team to achieve mission objectives safely and effectively. This begins with initial requirements development, curriculum design, training product development, and training execution in off-line, computer-based trainers, and high fidelity simulations. We integrate training activities, facilities, and personnel to achieve certification for mission execution.

Axiom Space, founded last year by SGT executives, intends to operate a commercial space station in low Earth orbit. Their web site states, “Axiom Space is the only company in the world equipped to provide NASA-level astronaut training, and all operations required to keep astronauts and tourists safe and productive on orbit.”

Since Johnson Space Center eventually should have a SpaceX Dragon crew simulator, SGT seems the likely choice to train these lunar voyagers.


A September 2015 computer animation of the SpaceX crew Dragon in orbit around Earth. Image source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

A remote possibility might be Astronauts4Hire. According to their web site, the non-profit is incorporated in Florida, although their contact address is in Redondo Beach, California. “A4H’s principal service is to train its members as professional astronaut candidates who can assist researchers, payload developers, and spaceflight providers with mission planning and operations support,” the web site states.

Another dark horse might be Space Adventures, which arranges for private citizens to train on Russian Soyuz simulators.

According to the press release, this private flight will occur after NASA certifies the Dragon for its commercial crew program. On paper, that would occur sometime by the end of 2018.

Today's announcement comes just a few days after NASA announced the agency will study delaying its first Space Launch System test flight so that the Orion capsule and service module can be human-rated to carry two crew members on a mid-2019 circumlunar mission.


Listen to the February 24, 2017 NASA teleconference discussing the 2019 crewed lunar mission study.

The study was directed in response to inquiries from the Trump administration's NASA transition team. It's far from certain at this late date whether human-rating the system would be practical, much less safe. It would delay yet again a mission ordered by Congress in 2010 to launch no later than December 31, 2016.

Training two civilians in a year to be skilled astronauts capable of surviving a circumlunar mission seems like yet another audacious idea from Mr. Musk. It assumes that the Falcon Heavy technology will have matured, as well as the crew Dragon. Perhaps the most audacious assumption is that the FAA will license this.

But significant anniversaries approach for the Apollo program. December 2018 will be the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 8 circumlunar mission. July 2019 will be the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 and the first landing of humans on the Moon. Maybe the two customers are motivated by those anniversaries.

In my opinion, this mission will have more credibility once we know who are the customers, who will train them, and we've seen that Falcon Heavy can fly.

But where Golden Spike failed, SpaceX may succeed. Stay tuned.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

"Baby Came Back"


Click the arrow to watch the launch of SpaceX CRS-10. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

The third generation of spaceflight began today at Kennedy Space Center, when SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket from Pad 39A.

Eight minutes later, triple sonic booms announced the first stage landing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The booster landed at the former Launch Complex 13, used for the early Atlas rockets, now renamed Landing Zone 1.

Less than twenty minutes after the landing, SpaceX founder Elon Musk posted this on Twitter:


Later in the day, SpaceX released on YouTube this video of the landing.


The launch was postponed nearly 24 hours after Musk personally aborted the countdown at T-13 seconds. He was concerned about readings from a backup thrust vector control actuator on the upper stage. SpaceX lowered the rocket to horizontal overnight, replaced the actuator, then raised it to vertical again with the transporter erector.


The lowered Falcon 9 is serviced overnight on Pad 39A. Image source: Red Huber, Orlando Sentinel.

Today's events are historic, but the future will place the launch in its historical context.

Nearly eight years passed between the last Saturn V launch from Pad A, the Apollo-Skylab launch on May 14, 1973, and the first Space Shuttle launch on April 12, 1981.

Nearly six years passed between the last Shuttle launch on July 8, 2011 and the first SpaceX launch from Pad A on February 19, 2017.

SpaceX intends as soon as this summer to use Pad A to launch its Falcon Heavy, three Falcon 9 boosters connected side-by-side, with a combined thrust of about 4.5 million pounds. That would make it the most powerful launch system currently operational on the planet.

Pad A may be used as early as 2020 to launch the SpaceX Red Dragon mission to Mars.

A video released by SpaceX in September 2016 showed a modified Pad A used to launch Musk's Interplanetary Transport System. Musk's stated goal is to evolve his technology so it can be used to colonize Mars.


Click the arrow to watch a computer generated concept of a SpaceX interplanetary transport launch. Video source: SpaceX.

Later this year, SpaceX intends to use Pad A for the first launch of a previously flown Falcon 9, perhaps as soon as March. The next cargo delivery to the International Space Station will be the first use of a previously flown Dragon. SpaceX will also use Pad A for sending crew members to the ISS. The uncrewed test flight of a crew Dragon is projected for the end of this year.


Click the arrow to watch the post-launch media briefing. Video source: NASA.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Elon Pulls the Plug


Click the arrow to watch the abort of the CRS-10 launch at T-13 seconds. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Elon Musk personally called the hold that aborted today's SpaceX attempt to launch its first mission from Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A.

Musk wrote in a series of Twitter posts:






“TVC” refers to the Thrust Vector Control on the Falcon 9 upper stage. Earlier in the countdown, about fifteen minutes before launch, it was announced SpaceX was working an issue with the device. Another anomaly with the new automated flight termination system was resolved with a software update.


A thrust vector control actuator reportedly used on the Falcon 9. Image source: Jansen’s Aircraft Systems Controls Inc.

A page on the Jansen's Aircraft Systems Control web site states they produce the TVCs used on the Falcon 9. The page states, “Embedded within the single-ended piston is a dual-element LVDT, which provides two independent channels of position feedback to the external controller. A single D38999 Series III connector on the EFSV housing communicates all signals to and from the controller.”

“LVDT” is an acronym for Linear Variable Differential Transformer. According to the TE Connectivity web site, “LVDTs provide reliable position measurement for applications in subsea, power generation, industrial automation, aerospace, test and measurement, and more.”

A January 2015 SpaceX launch also was scrubbed due to a TVC actuator issue. According to the report by The Verge, “The launch was halted by the flight team because a thrust vector control actuator wasn't functioning correctly. The actuator was central to the landing mission and would have triggered an automatic abort if the team hadn't stepped in to stop the launch.”

As of this writing, a live video feed from SpaceflightNow.com shows the Falcon 9 has been lowered to the horizontal, out of view of the camera. This suggests it's either horizontal on the pad or back inside the integration hangar for inspection.

This mission will launch the SpaceX cargo Dragon to deliver payloads to the International Space Station. The next launch window is 9:38 AM EST tomorrow. According to Florida Today, a delay to Monday February 20 would require negotiating permission from Russia because that agency is scheduled to launch a Progress cargo ship to the ISS on February 22.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The SpaceX CRS-10 Pre-Game Show


Click the arrow to watch the NASA Social briefing for the payloads aboard SpaceX CRS-10. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.


Click the arrow to watch the pre-launch briefing at Pad 39A before the SpaceX Falcon 9 horizontal on the pad. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Almost three years have passed since SpaceX in April 2014 signed a twenty-year lease for Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A.

The first launch is scheduled for tomorrow.

SpaceX will launch its Falcon 9 booster with its cargo Dragon to deliver payloads to the International Space Station. Liftoff is scheduled for 10:01 AM EST.

As of this writing, the weather forecast is 70% favorable.

The only known issue being worked at this time is a small helium leak in the upper stage.

Click here for a NASA overview of the mission.

Click here for a SpaceX overview of the mission.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

President Trump to Visit Space Coast


SpaceX conducts a static test fire at Pad 39A on February 12, 2017, as filmed from Exploration Tower in Cape Canaveral. Video source: CocoaBeach365 YouTube channel.

Having completed its first static test fire on Pad 39A, SpaceX continues to target Saturday, February 18, at about 10:00 AM EST for its first Falcon 9 launch from Kennedy Space Center.

President Donald Trump may be targeting the launch too.

Florida Today has confirmed that Trump will appear that afternoon at 5:00 PM EST in Melbourne, about forty miles south of KSC.

President Trump's Twitter account tweeted this message today:

About the same time as Trump's Melbourne visit was announced, news broke that acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot had announced NASA will study changes to the Space Launch System schedule. Space News journalist Jeff Foust reports:

“The study will examine the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space,” NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said in a statement to SpaceNews confirming the planned study.

Current plans call for the EM-1 mission to launch in late 2018 without a crew. The first crewed flight would be EM-2, which NASA is planning to launch in 2021. However, an assessment in 2015 performed as Orion reached a development milestone known as Key Decision Point C indicated that there was a 70 percent chance the EM-2 mission would launch no later than April 2023.

Lightfoot, in the memo, said the study will examine the technical and schedule issues of flying a crew on EM-1. “I know the challenges associated with such a proposition, like reviewing the technical feasibility, additional resources needed,” he wrote, “and clearly the extra work would require a different launch date.”

The complete memo is in this article by Washington Post reporter Joel Achenbach.

Foust quotes the memo as stating this program change “would likely delay the EM-1 launch from its current estimated launch window of September to November 2018. Industry sources said they believe addressing the various issues would delay the mission to 2019 or 2020. That would still be sooner than current NASA schedules for EM-2.”

The announcement comes less than a week after Politico journalist Bryan Bender reported that the Trump administration was considering a “bold and controversial vision for the U.S. space program” that included a crewed return to the Moon by 2020.

The more ambitious administration vision could include new moon landings that “see private American astronauts, on private space ships, circling the Moon by 2020; and private lunar landers staking out de facto 'property rights' for American [companies?! — the word is missing in the article] on the Moon, by 2020 as well,” according to a summary of an “agency action plan” that the transition drew up for NASA late last month.

Such missions would be selected through an “internal competition” between what the summary calls Old Space, or NASA's traditional contractors, and New Space characterized by SpaceX and Blue Origin.

But the summary also suggests a strong predilection toward New Space. “We have to be seen giving 'Old Space' a fair and balanced shot at proving they are better and cheaper than commercial,” it says.

The timing of NASA announcing it's considering a 2020 crewed circumlunar mission seems a bit coincidental.

So does the timing of Trump's visit.

With a 5:00 PM rally down the road in Melbourne, it gives the troubled President lots of time to attend the SpaceX launch earlier in the day at Kennedy Space Center.


Elon Musk meets with Donald Trump and others December 14 at Trump Tower in New York City. Image source: Newsweek.

On December 14, SpaceX founder Elon Musk joined the President's Strategic and Policy Forum. Despite their differences, Musk continues to attend Trump's advisory meetings. Musk said that “engaging on critical issues will on balance serve the greater good,” despite calls that he resign in protest.

This privileged access, of course, gives Musk the opportunity to invite Trump to attend a SpaceX launch. What better opportunity than to attend the first launch of the third generation of spaceflight from Kennedy Space Center?

Given all the bad publicity Trump has received in recent days, he might see this as an opportunity to distract public scrutiny with a big brash announcement that seizes the headlines.

Perhaps he might announce a pivot of SLS away from Mars, back towards the Moon by 2020 in competition with SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin and anyone else who feels up to the challenge.

The immediate question, of course, is who would pay for it.

SpaceX and other NewSpace companies aren't going to divert their business plans just to make Trump look good.

There's also the question of whether all this will pass Congressional scrutiny. After years of acrimony between Congress and the Obama White House, a tenuous compromise existed at the end of President Barack Obama's administration. Congress by and large permitted NewSpace programs to continue so long as Space Launch System directed pork to the districts and states of key representatives, in particular those representing NASA centers.

Congressional porkers might not have the stomach for yet another pivot in NASA direction, although in the end I suspect they can be bought with more dollars directed to their districts. The question is whether the rest of Congress might go along.

The 2010 NASA authorization act directed the agency to have SLS core elements operational by December 31, 2016. That date, of course, quickly became meaningless. The current NASA line is that SLS is scheduled to have its first uncrewed test flight in late 2018, although many observers expect that date to slip. Yet another pivot in the program would buy NASA more time, but Congress as a whole might reach the consensus that enough is enough.

There's also the risk of launching crew on an untested rocket, one billed as the most powerful in history. But NASA did the same with the Space Shuttle in 1981, launching with two test pilot crew members, because the orbiter essentially required people to land it.

Despite the risks, Trump might see himself as acting boldly by proposing the 2020 Moon circumlunar mission, then heading to Melbourne to claim he'd just created more jobs for the Space Coast.

This weekend already was going to be historic. If President Trump attends the launch, history might become a three-ring circus.


UPDATE February 16, 2017NASA issued this statement late yesterday about the crewed EM-1 study.

NASA acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot has asked Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, to initiate a study to assess the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1, the first integrated flight of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft. The study will examine the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space. The SLS and Orion missions, coupled with record levels of private investment in space, will help put NASA and America in a position to unlock the mysteries of space and to ensure this nation’s world preeminence in exploring the cosmos.


UPDATE February 16, 2017James Dean of Florida Today reports:

Bob Walker, a former congressman and adviser to the Trump administration who helped craft the Trump campaign’s space policy, said the administration wants to take a more aggressive posture on human space exploration with at least a lunar flyby as quickly as possible.

“There has been a lot of controversy over whether or not the SLS has a definable mission,” he said. “And I think what you see playing out here is that NASA is trying to find a way to meet the time schedule that they think the administration is on in terms of going back to a flyby mission to the moon.”


UPDATE February 19, 2017 — Mr. Trump said nothing about space in his Space Coast rally last night. Read about the event in this Florida Today article.