Rand Simberg points out yet more reasons why the Space Launch System is nothing but a cathedral building jobs program.
I would disagree. Cathedral building at least produced something of beauty that lasted for centuries. SLS is more like a strip mine where there are no resources to be had. It keeps loads of people working digging the hole… until the public catches on to the fact that there is nothing there.
Close, but no cigar this time. Bodes well for the future tho.
– Elon Musk
The correct response to this is…
“I should give a shit why exactly? But please leave your name, address and accomplishments so I can critique your sartorial style in the unlikely event you are ever involved in something never done before in human history.”
But Matt, listen to me buddy… never apologise. Seriously, your friends do not need it and your enemies will still hate you regardless, so either ignore your detractors, or better yet, tell them to shove it.
hat tip: Darryl Watson
…mobile phone technology!
VICE has a very interesting report, looking at at how the US military is adjusting to the astonishingly rapid proliferation and deployment of cheap drone technology. Faced with using multi million dollar weapons platforms firing munitions costing hundreds of thousands of dollars against these things, they are seeking more feasible ways to counter air threats costing thousands or even mere hundreds of dollars. And the threat is not hypothetical: even the daesh Islamic State claims fairly plausibly to be using cheap reconnaissance drones right now, and Hezbollah appears to have fairly sophisticated armed drones (fast forward to 1:25 or thereabouts to see the boom and hear the invocations to Admiral Ackbar or whatever). We really are entering a new era not just commercially but also militarily.
It is rather hard to believe that an entire decade has rolled on since the first private manned vehicle released the surly bonds of Earth and flew into space, a realm where heretofore only governments had trod. It was the beginning of a new age, and much has come to pass since then. As with all prognostications, my thoughts of the time were both more and less than the reality of 2014 in commercial space.
I would certainly have been surprised by two things, one of which I would have predicted and one of which I did not even imagine. I am sure at the time I would with certainty have said someone would be flying passengers by now. I would have been equally surprised had someone told me I would be a member of the XCOR Aerospace team working on the Lynx space plane with my own desk in the same location from which I filed my stories that day, in the same room which I had pitched my air bed the night before the big event. I would likewise have been happily surprised to find George Whitesides, our then new Executive Director at the National Space Society, who appears in some of my photos that day, would now be CEO of Virgin Galactic.
So what has happened in the ensuing ten years? For one, SpaceX is now making deliveries to the International Space Station on a regular basis with its Dragon Cargo ship, lifted via its Falcon 9 rocket. They are now sucking up the launch vehicle market, once a near American preserve, that Old Space and their political cronies proved incapable of holding. Noone, not even the Chinese or the French can compete with SpaceX’s prices. Why? No one ever before built a launch vehicle from the ground up to be viable without government cost plus contracts to foot the bill. SpaceX did take government contracts, but they worked through fixed price commercial style contracting. Their startup capital was private venture money that came from the pockets of Elon Musk and friends of his. He put every cent he had on the line and very nearly lost it. He made it through the early Falcon 1 test failures (which I live blogged here as well) on a wing and a prayer. Those failures were pretty much an inevitable part of learning to do something hard in a different way. Elon stuck his own tuckus way out over the edge… and he won.
Virgin Galactic, the company that will be flying SpaceShipTwo, the follow on to the vehicle launched that day ten years ago, has had its share of difficulties, but the company is well funded and they are plodding along towards the finish line for a suborbital tourist vehicle. XCOR is doing pretty much the same, although with a more ‘right stuff’ flight experience.
SpaceX unveiled its Dragon II capsule a couple weeks ago. They will carry out escape system testing this year and will likely be in manned test flight next year. By 2016-17 they will be a Spaceline that is delivering passengers to the International Space Station and the soon to be launched Bigelow Aerospace space station. Robert Bigelow has been ready for years now… but it did not make business sense to create a destination in space until someone could provide a regular taxi service. When the manned Dragon goes operational, I expect his extensively space tested module technology (two ‘small’ ones are currently in orbit) will go up very soon thereafter.
SpaceX has also been working towards a re-usable first stage. They have succeeded in a liftoff, flight to 1000 meters and a precise landing of a Falcon 9R first stage on the spot in Texas from which it lifted. They recently returned one of those stages from a for-hire launch and brought it to a hover over the North Atlantic waves. Later this year they will fly one from a pad at Spaceport America in New Mexico, perhaps as high as 100,000 feet, and then bring it to a landing. Next year they plan to bring one back from a commercial flight to a dry land site. It will then be checked out for re-usability and possibly reflown. They expect ten flights per stage but even if they only got two, it would halve the capital cost of a launch. If they get the full ten, we are looking at a total collapse of Old Space, a Reardon Steel moment. The only survivors will be those few protected by the Wesley Mouch’s of the world.
Later this year, SpaceX will be launching the first Falcon 9 Heavy. It will have the largest cargo capacity available on Earth and that has only ever been outdone by one vehicle, the US Saturn V Moon rocket. One might make a case to put the Space Shuttle and the short lived Buran in that exalted class, but their actual payload to orbit was mostly vehicle weight.
So much is happening in the New Space sector in June 2014 or is scheduled over the next one to two years that I would need to write a far longer article than this to come close to a proper treatment of the topic. I have not even mentioned most of the companies in our industry. Sadly there is also much I cannot talk about as I am drawing my wages in the field and that places limitations on me. If you want more details on XCOR… you can go read the company blog which can be found via the XCOR home page.
And now… a trip down memory lane. Rand Simberg just wrote his retrospective and since he and I were traveling together for that momentous day, here are the stories I filed as well, plus one other by Johnathan Pearce. The pictorial is at the end. There are a lot of fond memories there!
Why outer space really is the final frontier for capitalism
The question is, why haven’t the moon’s resources been thoroughly plundered by now? Why hasn’t it provided us with the energy necessary to colonise the rest of space? I’ll tell you why: it’s because capitalism is weak and timid.
In principle, it shouldn’t be this way. Capitalism, said Rosa Luxemburg, always needs a periphery. There needs to be a non-capitalist outside to appropriate – new land, new resources, to provide profitable investment opportunities. Whether it takes the form of colonisation, privatising public goods, turfing peasants off their lands or creating “intellectual property”, there is a need to accumulate beyond the existing realm of capitalist property relations.
The geographer David Harvey points out that the world capitalist system needs to find $1.5tn profitable investment opportunities today in order to keep growing at its historical average of 3% a year. In 20 years’ time, it will need to find $3tn
Let he who dares accept the challenge in proper fashion. Still, betcha Richard Seymour will be the first to complain when the space barons do start exporting capitalist property relations where no man has gone before.
I have long been following the slow movement of the new classes of weapons via which will one day arm Space Navies. The rail gun appears to be developing nicely and is a hypervelocity weapon, a very good replacement for explosives laden terminal defense, and perhaps even the venerable shipboard 5 inch gun.
US Navy funds Phase 2 railgun maturity effort
The US Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR) has awarded BAE Systems a USD34.5 million Phase 2 innovative naval prototype (INP) contract to advance the technology of the company’s electromagnetic (EM) railgun. “During phase 2, we are focusing our efforts on three things: maturing the system to allow for multishot capability, maturing the thermal management system [the higher rate shots that are fired, the better our system will need to be at cooling and prevention of overheating] and incorporating an auto-loading feature,” Dr Amir Chaboki, BAE Systems railgun programme manager, told IHS Jane’s
Perhaps one day we will have to modernize a famous US Navy quote: “Don’t fire until you see the sparks of their railguns!”
I had a rather enjoyable evening at the Lancaster Museum of Art and History last night. Quite an unusual event, although perhaps not so unusual for a community that hosts the Skunkworks, is not all that far from Edwards Air Force Base and NASA Dryden Research Facility… not to mention the Mojave Spaceport where there is a higher density of folks working in New Space than in any other spot on the planet.
So. What was so special? Perhaps the proverbial picture (of the main room of the Art Exhibit) is worth a thousand words.
An early XCOR rocketship and several rocket engines are the central attraction of the art show. Copyright DMA, All Rights Reserved.
A work from Doug Jones’ Middle Period. Copyright DMA, All Rights Reserved.
Yep. There is a strong wing of the Art’s community that is excited about not just the concept of the adventure, but also the sheer beauty of the creations of engineers in the field. As major exhibitors, we were part of the after exhibit dinner in the museum and us rocket guys got on great with the artists. I found many of them think the ‘two cultures’ was a farce that needs to end. From my conversations I would say it was no accident some of the works refered to Leonardo da Vinci.
I also was quite surprised at one exhibit item that was a reproduction of the original. Gob-smacked might be a better word. It seems that a tiny art museum was smuggled on board Apollo 12. A tiny metal rectangle contained six even tinier works by 6 artists, among whom were Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Yes folks, there is an original, albiet tiny, work by Andy Warhole still attached to an Apollo landing leg. On the Moon.
After dinner, the remaining crew, made up entirely of artists and rocket guys. Sort of. Even us rocket guys gave lie to the two cultures thesis. Doug Jones, a long time reader of Samizdata, was a stand up comic for awhile. As for myself I was in the music business professionally for many years.
XCOR engineer Doug Weathers and his wife Anne discussing the EZ-Rocket cockpit with Lancaster artist and teacher Monica Mahoney. Copyright DMA, All Rights Reserved.
After the entire group of artists and XCORians were filmed flying about the exhibit room pretending to be airplanes… yes artists have fun doing silly surreal things… we headed for Bex’s bar across the street where a marvelous time was had by all as we sat outside in a perfect desert evening talking art and space flight.
I also talked to one businessman who is a big arts supporter and a fed up Republican who has a solid dislike for the religious right. He asked a key question: How are Libertarians different from Conservatives? I think the illegal Edison Light Bulb went on over his head when I explained.
Naturally I was the last one of the crew to leave the bar. Those old music biz habits die hard.
First I read Leo McKinstry’s Boycott book, and loved it. Then I read his Spitfire book, and liked that a lot also. But while reading Spitfire, I thought to myself that what I would also like to read – would really like to read – would be a book by Leo McKinstry about the Avro Lancaster, the big four-engined bomber that inflicted most of the British bomber damage on the cities of Germany during the latter half of World War 2. The Lancaster was one of my favourites during my Airfix years. Seeing a real live Lancaster flying at Farnborough in the summer of 2010 made me even more curious about this famous airplane. The more I thought about it, the more I realised how ignorant of the Lancaster’s history I was. So when McKinstry obliged with Lancaster, I did not hesitate. I bought it, and devoured it.
Ever since doing that, I have been meaning to write about this book here, but I never got around to finishing what I started. So instead of trying to say everything I might want to say about this excellent book, I will instead now focus mostly on the most interesting thing among many interesting things that I learned from reading Lancaster. I will focus on what a very strange birth the Avro Lancaster had.
In the late 1930s, believing that bombers would always get through and that they therefore had to have lots of bombers or lose the war, British Air Officialdom had two ideas about how to build a bomber. They accordingly announced two specifications, which different potential bomber-makers were invited to meet with their designs. They wanted a two engined bomber, like those that the Germans bombed Britain with in 1940 but better, or like the Wellington but better. And they wanted a much bigger four engined bomber, such as the Germans never got around to building, and like … well, like the Avro Lancaster.
So, the Lancaster was Avro’s answer to the second requirement? Actually, no. Or, not at first. Britain ended up with three four-engine heavy bombers, the Short Stirling, the Handley Page Halifax, and the Lancaster. But strangely, by far the worst of these three, the Short Stirling, was the only one of the three that was all along intended to be a four-engine bomber. Both the Halifax and the Lancaster started out as answers to the two-engine specification rather than the four-engine one.
This strangeness was caused by Rolls Royce then being engaged in producing two engines, the Merlin and the Vulture. The Merlin was proving itself to be very good (arguably it became the greatest single piece of mechanical kit of the entire war), but the Vulture was only revealing itself to be terrible. The idea was that the Vulture would power the two-engined bombers. But, with the Vulture already looking so bad, Handley Page quickly got permission to change their Vulture-powered two-engine bomber into a Merlin powered four-engine bomber. They switched specifications, in other words.
Avro persisted with their two-engine design, the Manchester, and Air Officialdom, in addition to ordering lots of Halifaxes, also ordered two hundred Manchesters to be made, long before they could be sure that it was a good airplane. Soon, they upped the order to over a thousand. Despite the Manchester being, to put it mildly, unproven, Avro started manufacturing them.
But the Manchester was a clunker. It was slow. It couldn’t carry many bombs. It handled abominably. It was a death trap. The pilots hated it. Avro did everything they could to make the Manchester work, but it never did, not least because Rolls Royce were never able to make much of their Vulture. As the Merlin began to prove itself to be the Merlin, Rolls Royce understandably concentrated on that.
At which point, in 1940, Avro proposed the Halifax solution to the Manchester problem. Turn the Manchester from a Vulture-driven two-engine bomber into a Merlin-driven four-engine bomber. Avro dramatically illustrated this idea when they showed a model of a Manchester to a visiting party of Air Officialdom. Right in front of their little audience of grandees, they took off the Manchester’s wings and shoved on different and bigger wings with two more engines attached to them. That, said Avro, is what we should be building.
→ Continue reading: The strange birth of the Avro Lancaster
ARKYD is a crowd-funded space telescope. You can pay to take pictures with it. The funding goal is met but there are seven days remaining to pledge $200 in return for the right to take a sensible space telescope photo of your chosen space object. The satellite also has a screen on its side. For $25 you can have a picture of the satellite displaying a picture of your choice with the Earth in the background. What frivolous capitalist fun!
Edit: the company making this telescope want to do asteroid mining. They have been answering questions about this on Reddit.
Planetary Resources is raising some of the money for a small space telescope via a Kickstarter and are close to their minimum goal of $1M. That such sums of money can be raised for worthy projects and in such short timescales strikes me as interesting in another way: might we be in the early days of a new way to deal with ‘the commons’? Could technology be delivering us a way to replace much of coercive government funding with true voluntarism?
And by the way, support these guys. I know several of them, and it is a way to push New Space forward in the public perception.