Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Article about how SLS benefits Russia

For those interested, my latest article for The Space Review is here:

Monday, June 16, 2014

Space Development Steering Committee's press release on Senator Shelby's "poison pill" for Commercial Crew

Following is a press release written by SDSC chairman Howard Bloom concerning Senator Richard Shelby's proposal regarding Commercial Crew and Commercial Cargo.  This release is a very good synopsis of the present situation.  The only note I would add to it is that the 50% to 200% cost increase I mentioned did not originate with me but came from Henry Vanderbilt of the Space Access Society:

Senator Shelby Slips “Poison Pill” to U.S. Spaceflight

America has a space gap and Senator Richard Shelby (R, Ala.) wants to make it worse.  Shelby has inserted what the Space Access Society calls  “a poison pill” into a basic budget bill, the Senate Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Fiscal Year 2015 Appropriations Bill. As Shelby puts it, he inserted language into the appropriations bill “that provides greater accountability and budgetary transparency in the commercial crew program and future commercial cargo missions.” What are the “Commercial Crew and Commercial Cargo” program? The Commercial Cargo program has purchased two flights of Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus capsule, which delivers cargo to the International Space Station, then burns up in the atmosphere, and four flights of Elon Musk’s Dragon Capsule, the only American vehicle capable of taking fresh supplies to the International Space Station and bring finished experiments and other used equipment back to earth. Even more important is the Commercial Crew program.  Since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, America has been forced to send its astronauts to the International Space Station on Russian Soyuz rockets and to pay Vladimir Putin’s space industry an estimated total of four billion dollars for the privilege.  On May 29th in Hawthorne, CA, SpaceX head Elon Musk unveiled a vehicle—his Dragon Capsule Version Two—that can end our dependence on the Russians.  In fact, the Dragon V2 can get us off the Russian hook as early as 2016.  But Shelby is trying to slow SpaceX down by a year or two, and make the ticket for a Dragon Capsule ride to space as expensive as possible. 
Shelby’s trick?  He wants to force SpaceX and other non-military-industrial-complex providers to use the same accounting system used by weapons contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. That accounting system—the infamous “cost-plus” system--demands an entire specialized accounting department working full-time.  It’s one of the reasons that plastic toilet seats for military airplanes cost $1,300 each.  What’s Shelby’s motive? Elon Musk’s Dragon capsule says the Space Access Society, “threatens to undermine the justification for Senator Shelby's missionless and massively wasteful hometown government mega-rocket project, SLS.”  The SLS, the Space Launch System, is a giant rocket based on 1970s Space Shuttle technology that some say will be too expensive to fly.  But the SLS supports 6,000 Alabama jobs and brings $2.5 billion to Alabama.

Space Development Steering Committee member R.D. Boozer, author of The Plundering of NASA, estimates that Shelby’s maneuver could increase costs of SpaceX and Orbital’s capsule flights by 50% to 200%.  And, points out Boozer, the last time an attempt was made to impose the burden of cost-plus accounting on SpaceX, Elon Musk said he just might stop bidding for Commercial Cargo and Commercial Crew contracts.   This could produce a problem. The Russians are charging us $71 million a seat to get Americans into space on the Soyuz.  SpaceX intends to charge $20 million.  That’s a saving of a whopping 71%. 
But a ticket on the SLS, the rocket being developed in Shelby’s home state, will cost roughly $333 million per seat—nearly seventeen times as much as SpaceX’s price.  In other words, you could fly 15 crews—102 astronauts-- to the International Space Station on SpaceX Dragon V2s for the price of flying just one crew of six astronauts on Shelby’s Space Launch System.  What’s more, you’d be able to fly a crew of astronauts on a Dragon V2 capsule in less than two years.  But you won’t be able to get an American, astronaut or not, into space on the Alabama rocket, the Space Launch System, for another eight years.  Or more.  The Dragon V2 is a bird in the hand.  The SLS is a bird in the bush. 

Former Space Shuttle astronaut formally endorses my book: The Plundering of NASA

The Plundering of NASA offers an insightful analysis of the agency’s struggle with external forces tending to distort a clear, long-term US vision for space exploration. In crisp and concise prose, R.D. Boozer calls into question NASA’s current “flight plan” for reaching its stated destination, and makes the case for recasting that plan in the crucible of the game-changing technologies needed for a truly sustainable and robust human exploration of space. An enlightening read for those who are not in the field and food for thought for those who are.

Franklin Chang Díaz
Houston, June 12, 2014

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Using AIP4WIN under the Windows 8 operating system

For years now, I have been working with Richard Berry's and James Burnell's excellent astronomical image processing software called AIP4WIN.  In 2009, I used it as my primary tool in my final research project for my Master's degree in relation to hunting for an exoplanet using photometric means.  The software's Magnitude Measurement Tool allowed me to get an enormous amount of work done in not a lot of time, giving me much more time to interpret results and write the research paper.  I am convinced that the extra advantage this software gave me helped me win the University Medal "for outstanding academic achievement at the Masters level".

Later, I used its image processing features to bring out the details in some of my deep space astrophotos.  Subsequently, those same photos won some astronomical photography awards.

Now I am returning to this software to examine light curves of stars that I imaged several years ago, but never got around to analyzing.  I will be looking for variability in these stars that was previously unknown and also maybe see if some have exoplanets that can be detected via the transit method.   However, I had difficulty getting the latest formal release (version 2.4.0)  to work on my new Windows 8 based computer.

For those who have been facing a similar problem with AIP4WIN under Windows 8, I thought I would let you know that it now works properly on my new computer.  The solution is to download the latest beta test version 2.4.1, which is available here:

Be sure to uninstall the earlier version of AIP4WIN before you install the beta version software.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Dennis Tito’s ‘Spaceship to Everywhere’: a Dead-end for NASA

By R.D. Boozer

Dennis Tito, the multimillionaire who was the first space tourist to visit the International Space Station, recently wrote an article for The Huffington Post called “The Spaceship to Everywhere” that was prompted by published criticisms of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket (SLS) and Orion spacecraft.  One such critical article that got widespread attention was my last op-ed for titled “Will SpaceX Super Rocket Kill NASA’s ‘Rocket to Nowhere’?

In his written piece, Mr. Tito states, “Short-sighted critics like to call it [SLS] the "rocket to nowhere," an incredibly uninformed reference that sells short the accomplishments of NASA and industry over a relatively short period of time, and which carelessly dismisses the significant investment and progress already made in "SLS/Orion."  In the article, he refers to the combination of the SLS launcher and Orion spacecraft as “The Spaceship to Everywhere”.

Contrary to Mr. Tito's claim, there are in fact many people who are extremely well informed about SLS/Orion who make very strong arguments that it is an enormous waste of money.  And those people exist both within NASA and outside of it.  They say it is a waste that NASA can ill afford during a period when its budget is falling and is unlikely to increase anytime soon.  Just a few of those many substantiated arguments follow …

According to a study that NASA itself commissioned Booz-Allen-Hamilton to do, SLS will probably only stay on schedule within its assigned budget for the first 3 to 5 years of development.   This situation would result from SLS being restricted to an annual budget of a size that Congress will actually appropriate.  It renders meaningless the claim that SLS’s meeting of its current development schedule is an indicator that the rocket is viable, since the total development time to date is still within the five year window specified in the BAH report.  In fact, the report says that after the window period, it is likely the amount of time between the accomplishment of the developmental goals will get stretched further and further apart.

Thus, it is possible a flight of the least powerful Block 1 version of SLS may occur on schedule in 2017 (within the 3 to 5 year period), but milestone test flights afterward are likely to be pushed indefinitely into the future.   Indeed, the continual delays between developmental goals may mean that the completion of the most powerful Block 2 version of SLS could be perpetually pushed into the future, never to actually fly.  Furthermore, studies from NASA itself, industry, academia and renowned veteran Apollo engineers indicate that using either SLS or a similar shuttle-derived vehicle is the least economically practical way to do significant spaceflight to the Moon and beyond and would not be the fastest nor safest way.  Given these points, a primary argument of Mr. Tito’s defense of SLS (saying it shouldn’t be canceled because of the work that has already been done on it) is just another example of the classic “Sunk Cost Fallacy”.

The Augustine Committee reported that if a large Shuttle-derived heavy lift rocket (such as SLS) were actually built, it would be so expensive to operate on a regular basis that NASA could not afford to use it. Oft touted figures of $400 million to $500 million per flight by SLS proponents either don’t count all of the total moneys spent when figuring per flight expense and/or assume unrealistic flight frequencies.

Mr. Tito is particularly gung-ho on using SLS with the Orion spacecraft to execute his Inspiration Mars plan to do a manned flyby of Mars by 2021.  Along with discounting the drawbacks of SLS, this idea unrealistically ignores certain facts about the Orion spacecraft.

Orion was originally designed for sending astronauts to the Moon, as such, it was decided that the heat shield (called a Thermal Protection System or TPS) used on the spacecraft would be made of AVCOAT; essentially the same heat shield material used on the Apollo spacecraft in the 1960’s.   This fact poses a problem using Orion on a Mars expedition.  Reentry speeds from Mars are much higher than those for a return from the Moon; thus, the spacecraft will experience much higher temperatures during atmospheric reentry than it is designed to withstand.   Lockheed-Martin (the primary contractor for Orion) is not even sure it is capable of handling reentry temperatures generated from a near Earth asteroid return.   This uncertainty stems from the situation where even though these asteroids’ relative closeness to Earth would involve a slower return than from Mars, the spacecraft’s reentry speed would still be much faster than a return from the Moon.    The truth of this statement is bolstered by the following statement in relevant documentation called Plymouth Rock: an Early Human Asteroid Mission Using Orion where they state on page 17:
Reentry velocities are 11.05 to 11.25 km/s for asteroid missions, vs 11.0 km/s for lunar return. TPS enhancement may be required depending on the ultimate capability of Orion lunar TPS.

Even the relatively modest enhancement of the TPS for a near Earth asteroid mission would probably require a hefty budget increase that Congress would not likely approve, implying the much more radical TPS alteration needed for a super-fast Mars return would almost certainly be a nonstarter.

In this op-ed, I have only touched on a few of the technical and fiscal pitfalls of SLS/Orion as there are too many of them to cover in a short article.  However, there is one point on which Dennis Tito and I both totally agree, when he states in The Huffington Post article that SLS/Orion is, “being built for NASA by the most experienced and skilled space manufacturing workforce in the world”.  Mr. Tito apparently doesn’t realize that the technology and contracting methods used for this endeavor were chosen for political reasons rather than what was most efficacious.  Those “most experienced and skilled” personnel should be working on something more worthy of their immense talents.  Instead of advancing NASA forward in the best way possible, SLS/Orion is retarding it from reaching ambitious spaceflight goals.  As I stated earlier, those goals could all be accomplished using alternate methods without increasing NASA’s budget and would allow America’s space agency to eclipse its Project Apollo glory days.

For a more in-depth examination of the SLS/Orion controversy, read the book The Plundering of NASA.