The Curious Case of MOL’s Missing Mission

20 06 2018

For those interested in diving down a spaceflight rabbit hole, I here detail a key term hidden amongst thousands of declassified pages that hints at a defunct space station’s secret mission – one that might soon find new life given the renewed talk of a “Space Force.” …if it hasn’t already been resurrected, that is…

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Artist’s rendering of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, or MOL. (Credit: NRO)


Rediscovering the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory

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A MH-7 training pressure suit created for the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory program. (Credit: U.S. Air Force)

It all began with the discovery of a mysterious pair of blue pressure suits at a Cape Canaveral Air Force Station facility in 2005 – suits that didn’t exactly belong to any known NASA space program. Thus, the secretive military Manned Orbiting Laboratory of the 1960s, or MOL, was re-discovered as security officers ventured into a long-locked storage room in a facility known as the Launch Complex 5/6 museum. There, they recovered two MH-7 training suits worn by Air Force astronauts that never got a chance to fly to space (at least not with the Air Force; several went on to successful NASA careers).

Subsequently, in response to a FOIA request, the clandestine National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in July of 2015 declassified tens of thousands of pages of MOL program documents and a gallery of images. Truly, the database is a trove of information on the formerly-secret military reconnaissance space program that might’ve been.

Now, I should admit that I found most of the released information to be soberingly bureaucratic in nature, and because many have covered the generalities of MOL in the intervening few years at great length, instead of describing the overall program I wanted to drill inward and focus on an intriguing series of omissions in the MOL literature.

Quite simply, I found that the nigh-overwhelming information release was much more interesting with regard to what it didn’t reveal as opposed to what it did…

To Man, or Not to Man?

In the space community, there is something of a longstanding rift between the “human exploration” and the “robotic exploration” camps. The former cite the dynamic advantages of human beings as intelligent, adaptive tools of exploration, while the latter cite the woefully-heavy and expensive life-support requirements of the former as a justification to send robots instead.

The pro-robot folks point to the many scientific successes of robotic spacecraft, such as Voyager, Galileo, Cassini, and New Horizons, while the pro-astronaut types point to being able to share the human experience and context of exploration in a way that no robot can.

And so the argumentation goes.

This conflict was perhaps best pioneered in the case of MOL, which as a crewed station eventually lost out in mortal combat over government funding to the ever-increasing utility of spy satellites.

But, in my opinion, it’s in the justification for human occupants that MOL gets most interesting…

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Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), an evolution of the earlier “Blue Gemini” program, which was conceived to be an all-Air Force parallel of NASA’s Gemini efforts. (Credit: U.S. Air Force)

Redaction Points the Way

Standing more in the “pro-astronaut” camp (and as a former spaceflight “Crew Systems” manager/analyst), I like to think of myself as quite versed in the many legitimate justifications for crewed spaceflight. That’s exactly why I found myself surprised to see some of the human spaceflight mission sections of the MOL documents redacted… 55 years after the fact.

Admittedly, some (if not most) of the redaction found in the released documents relates to the optical performance of spy telescopes or the detection of enemy nuclear missile launches. I can easily recognize the tactical benefit of keeping some of those details under our hat, even to the present day.

However, neither of those have to do with crewed spaceflight, and it is the presence of additional redaction in the human context that began to lift my eyebrows.

For example, in the “Manned Orbiting Laboratory Technical Panel, First Preliminary Report” (3/17/1964), which was tasked with generating a series of space experiment proposals for MOL, the list of study areas (p. 2) reads as follows:

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This redacts something other than “reconnaissance and surveillance,” into which our traditional understanding of spy satellites and nuclear launch detection squarely sits. It is also something other than satellite logistics, maintenance, and repair – dynamic activities typically reserved for the “pro-astronaut” folks…

The curious redaction was expanded upon in, “PRELIMINARY TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN FOR THE MANNED ORBITING LABORATORY” (6/30/1964), a report which detailed manned experiment study areas (p. 6-8):

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…and it was further highlighted later in the same document during a description of Extra-Vehicular Activities (EVAs), more commonly known as “spacewalks” (p. 6-22):

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These, again, redact something other than the well-known and well-trodden justification for astronauts performing EVAs, such as in-space construction, repair, rescue, etc.

Therefore, the question that took root in my mind was simply this:

“If the MOL concept was indeed rendered obsolete by spy satellite technology of the late 1960s, what concept for military human spaceflight is so good that it remains classified today – more than a half-century later?”

As fate would have it, there is at least one bread-crumb hiding within the thousands of pages of material that suggests an answer…

An Idea So Good…

Idling on a single table in one of hundreds of documents amidst the 20,000+ pages included in the whole of the NRO FOIA release on MOL stands a single, critical term.

On Table 1 of the “PRELIMINARY TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN (PTDP) FOR THE MOL PROGRAM” (3/10/1964), eight rows down on the right-side column, is the word, “SAINT” :

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Now, MIDAS – the term found one row up from SAINT – is something I had heard of before, relating to the detection of Soviet nuclear missile launches. As MOL was a secret reconnaissance platform, I found mention of MIDAS entirely unsurprising, and from the human spaceflight perspective, entirely irrelevant.

But what about SAINT?

A re-scan of the NRO documents finds the term turning up only one other time – in a summary document written after MOL’s cancellation, “History of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) Program” (2/1/1970):

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SAINT, then, appeared to be – at least in part – an openly-acknowledged Air Force military space program of some sort, along with Blue (Air Force) Gemini, which was the vehicle used to get to-and-from MOL.

But “Saint” in this instance wasn’t capitalized. So, what sort of space program was it?

SAINT Revelations

A literature search of Air Force planning documents from the mid-1960s turns up the following section on SAINT, excerpted from a June, 1966 document from the USAF Historical Division Liason Office, entitled, “The Air Force in Space. Fiscal Year 1962,” which identified SAINT as an acronym for Satellite Inspector.

(p. 19):

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(pp. 93):

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SAINT here is painted with somewhat vague but intentional strokes, using phrases like,“satellite capture and neutralization.”

However, SAINT is clearly described as a satellite (i.e., robotic) research and development program. Did MOL missions really include a human parallel to “satellite interception and neutralization” as suggested in Table 1 of the 1964 technical document?

When re-scanning the NRO documents for a related SAINT term, “inspection,” one manages to turn up one additional, fruitful mention, again in the MOL summary/history document, “History of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) Program” (2/1/1970):

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Mission (1) as described here casts SAINT in a darker, more aggressive light. Gone are the euphemisms like, “neutralization.”

Instead, we have, “Inspection and destruction of hostile satellites.”

Now, reviewing the original redacted sections above in the context of the Air Force SAINT program, one begins to assemble a clearer picture of one possibility for what I like to call this “missing” human mission.

…and while many are quick to characterize MOL as a relic of a “by-gone era,” this may also – due perhaps especially to its modern redaction – serve as a glimpse into our own human spaceflight future.

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Test subject Fred Spross, Crew Systems Division, wears the Gemini 9 configured extravehicular spacesuit assembly. The legs are covered with Chromel R, which is a cloth woven from stainless steel fibers, used to protect the astronaut and suit from the hot exhaust thrust of the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit, which was developed by the USAF for the MOL program. (Credit: NASA, Image ID:S66-33167)

Astronaut SAINTs

If viewing the MOL program as earmarking astronauts as human satellite inspectors, (might we refer to them as Astronaut SAINTs?), ancillary details of the MOL documentation detritus suddenly begin to fall into place.

For example, in the report, “PRELIMINARY TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN FOR THE MANNED ORBITING LABORATORY” (6/30/1964), mentioned earlier, look to the table titled, “Primary Experiments – Assessment of Man’s Utility,” and consider that the redacted position of experiment P-7 (“Inspection”?) is located right after P-6, “Extravehicular Activity.” That would make absolute sense from a planning perspective.

One has to learn how to walk before one can run, after all.

Consider also that the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit (AMU), seen above – a longer-range version of the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) that would be used by NASA Shuttle astronauts – was developed by the Air Force for the MOL program.

Why might military astronauts need to travel some distance from their station if via umbilical tether they can reach and repair any portion of the MOL station, itself? Signs point to SAINT.

Consider also another of the redacted sections considered above in report,”Manned Orbiting Laboratory Technical Panel, First Preliminary Report” (3/17/1964), in the section describing experiment “general areas.” The redaction eliminates an entire line but then leaves two words before a semicolon denoting the next section: “…satellite survivability.” Well, needless to say this would certainly follow sensibly after something like, “satellite inspection, satellite neutralization/destruction, and…”

Finally, note that Table 1 of the “PRELIMINARY TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN (PTDP) FOR THE MOL PROGRAM” (3/10/1964), in which I first discovered the mention of SAINT, appears to be ordered alphabetically. Perhaps coincidentally, the redacted term associated with SAINT sits between E (ELINT) and M (Meteorology).

“Inspection” fits there quite nicely.

Indeed, if we return to the Air Force history document, “The Air Force in Space. Fiscal Year 1962,” we find on page 95 that an intersection between NASA’s manned Gemini program and SAINT development was explored but – at least openly – nebulously dismissed based on mission requirements:

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I should point out that this is several years prior to the design and creation of the Air Force’s modified Gemini-B spacecraft, which may well have addressed some of these issues.

All this weighed together, it certainly seems like serious planning was given to human anti-satellite (ASAT) operations in the 1960s, and for reasons unknown, knowledge of this reality remains largely and intentionally obscured today. This sort of activity would have been an extraordinary venture for human spaceflight – far riskier than anything ever attempted in human extravehicular activities, aside from, perhaps, moonwalkers venturing a great distance from their lunar lander via rover.

Curiously, I discovered after all of this poking around that famed astronaut and astronaut-wrangler Deke Slayton may have quietly let the Astronaut-SAINT-cat out of the bag in his 1994 autobiography when he opined that the Air Force may have developed the AMU because, “they thought they might have the chance to inspect somebody else’s satellites.”

His choice usage of the word, “inspect,” suggests he might have known just a little bit more about plans for Astronaut SAINTs than he was letting on.

A Hint of Things to Come?

So, why might the proposition of Astronaut SAINTs remain classified today?

One is forced to consider the obvious possibility that it remains classified because such a role for future military astronauts is still on the table. Given the realities of the infamous 2007 Chinese ASAT test along with the recent Russian test of the PL19/Nudol direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon, this may not be surprising.

Further, the timing of the release and redaction, in 2015, might be noteworthy. As it happens, Russia launched its own “satellite-fixer/satellite-killer” satellite in 2014, which practiced sophisticated satellite maneuvering and rendezvous maneuvers. This may have (rightfully) spooked U.S. defense strategists into clamping down on all mention of SAINT.

…and, with the recent White House push both for increased commercialization of space as well as for a dedicated Space Force to go along with it, it is entirely possible that in gazing between the lines of these MOL documents we are also glimpsing a vision of military space activities that may yet come to pass.

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Calling the Space Privateers

6 09 2012

Closeup of pioneering planetary geologist Jack Schmitt at the LRV (Lunar Rover) with Earth overhead during Apollo 17 Lunar EVA #3. (Credit: NASA)

Today, I’d like to offer a rejoinder to Michael Hanlon’s article from The Telegraph a couple of weeks back, entitled, “There’s only one question for NASA: Is anybody out there?

In it, Hanlon offers an argument against regular human space exploration in favor of dedicated robotic missions devoted exclusively to astrobiology research.  Whether via orbiters, landers, rovers, or telescopes, he argues that working to answer the question of whether or not we are alone in the universe has the advantages of  “being scientifically valid, being relatively cheap and connecting with the public imagination.”

Some concessions about the efficiency of human explorers aside, Hanlon makes it perfectly clear how he feels about all research that isn’t astrobiology-related, deriding the Space Shuttle program as “pointless” and the International Space Station as an “orbiting white elephant.”  He lauds the recent spectacular landing of the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, as a model mission, while dismissing the broad appeal of human exploration to the public as “nebulous” and merely “vicarious excitement.” 

Well, despite Hanlon’s opnion, there are good and valid reasons to support human space exploration.   Because the manned-versus-unmanned space program argument has been done to death, I won’t rehash the whole diatribe here except to offer three quotes:

  • “Robots are important also. If I don my pure-scientist hat, I would say just send robots; I’ll stay down here and get the data. But nobody’s ever given a parade for a robot. Nobody’s ever named a high school after a robot. So when I don my public-educator hat, I have to recognize the elements of exploration that excite people. It’s not only the discoveries and the beautiful photos that come down from the heavens; it’s the vicarious participation in discovery itself.”  — Neil deGrasse Tyson
  • “The greatest gain from [human] space travel consists in the extension of our knowledge. In a hundred years this newly won knowledge will pay huge and unexpected dividends.” — Werner von Braun
  • “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program, it’ll serve us right!” — Arthur C. Clarke/Larry Niven

However, there is a much more intriguing aspect to Hanlon’s article, one that likely went largely unnoticed; A particular line in Hanlon’s article caught my eye, where he supercedes the tired, man vs. machine debate and instead advises that NASA should “leave the flag-planting, for now, to the privateers and to other nations.”

The privateers!

To my knowledge, this is amongst the first times the word has been used in a human space exploration context.  Let’s take a closer look.

The SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft is pictured just prior to being released by the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm on May 31, 2012 for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. (Credit: NASA)

In its 16th-to-19th-century context, “privateer” referred to a private individual or seafaring ship authorized by a government during war to attack foreign trade shipments.  These charges weren’t the equivalent of a charter, as the privateering ships went unpaid by the government.  Instead, they relied on investors who were willing to gamble on lucrative captured goods and enemy ships. 

This made the privateer fundamentally different from a mercenary.  In my mind, they became something more akin to Adventure Capitalists.

While not a direct parallel, the usage of this term in the modern space exploration context invokes tantalizing suggestions.  Might the government issue a non-binding license to claim unused space resources (satellites, junk) by their own or other nations, or perhaps to operate in proximity to national assets, (such as the ISS), in the act of attempting a rescue?

In this case, would private industry underwrite the cost of a spacecraft launch for tens of millions of dollars if the case for a suitable potential reward be made?  Might such a reward be measured in terms of salvaged materials or serviced satellites?  Perhaps purchasing a rocket and a spacecraft to have on standby in the event of an on-orbit astronaut emergency (medical, technical) would be lucrative if a successful rescue mission were independently launched and the crew recovered?  (Is a modest 100-200% return-on-investment too much to ask for the value of averted disaster and the possible loss of highly-trained human lives?)  In this context, venturing to fund a privateer is no more risky than drilling an exploratory oil well – the trick is nailing the reward. 

“Space Privateering,” then, suggests a new form of orbital venture capitalism that exists irrespective of government charters.  It means having a ship, a launch capability, and the foresight to use them when and where it might matter most to planetside governments and/or corporations.

So, how about it?  Are any corporations willing to bet against the house and fund privateers as international rescue, salvage or repair ships?  Would the FAA consider rapid privateer launch licensing?

I say we work to find out.  Calling all space privateers!





Revisiting Schmitt’s National Space Exploration Administration

27 06 2012

(National Space Exploration Administration logo, as imagined by Ben McGee)

Nearly a year ago, famed geologist, former United States Senator, and former Apollo Astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt recommended what to many was the utterly unthinkable:

Dissolve NASA.

To be frank, I agree with him.

While to those who have paid even a passing visit to this blog, such an admission may seem completely counter-intuitive.  But the reality is not that Dr. Schmitt has suddenly turned his back on his own legacy, nor have I on our nation’s triumphant space program.

Far from it.

Honoring the NASA Legacy

In an essay he released last year, Dr. Schmitt made a direct call to whoever becomes President  in 2013.  In it, he made clear that only by wiping away the bloated, competitive, politically-crippled bureaucracy that NASA has become and by forging in its place a leaner, more focused, dedicated Space Exploration agency may we honor the NASA legacy.

The claim made waves when it was released, ruffling the feathers of many of his own contemporaries, but (like most other calls for action) quickly flared out and faded away.  Well, I want to re-open the discussion, as this was (in my humble opinion) a damn good idea and one that deserves further promotion and consideration.

With this in mind, let’s revisit his logic.

Leadership has Failed Our “Window to the Future”

To quote Dr. Schmitt:

  • “Immense difficulties now have been imposed on the Nation and NASA by the budgetary actions and inactions of the Bush and Obama Administrations between 2004 and 2012.”
  • “The bi-partisan, patriotic foundations of NASA … gradually disappeared during the 1970s as geopolitical perspectives withered and NASA aged.”
  • “For Presidents and the media, NASA’s activities became an occasional tragedy or budgetary distraction rather than the window to the future envisioned by Eisenhower, Kennedy and the Apollo generation.”
  • “For Congress, rather than being viewed as a national necessity, NASA became a source of politically acceptable pork barrel spending in states and districts with NASA Centers, large contractors, or concentrations of sub-contractors.”
  • “Neither taxpayers nor the Nation benefit significantly from this current, self-centered rationale for a space program.”

It’s actually fairly difficult to argue any of these points, particularly considering the reality that Schmitt comes from a rare position of authority on all points.  He’s a scientist who has bodily walked on the moon and seen the inner machinations of our congressional system as an elected representative.

But, how could we possibly create a new agency from NASA?  Schmitt points out that there is already a precedent for this sort of evolutionary change…

The Precedent for Creating NSEA Has Already Been Set … by NASA

When NASA was formed in 1958, is was forged by combining/abolishing two other agencies.  The first was the famed National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), with its many familiar research centers, (e.g., Glenn, Ames, Langley,) which had been around since 1915.  It did not survive the transition.

The second was the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), the innovative military space missile (and manned space mission) effort spearheaded by the legendary Wernher Von Braun.  All manned spaceflight and space exploration activities were stripped from ABMA and rolled into NASA.

In truth, Schmitt’s recommendations for what to do moving forward aren’t so drastic as they seem.

Indeed, based on a surprising amount of overlap between NASA activities and those of other scientific national agencies and organizations, they make the utmost sense.

Decommissioning NASA According to Schmitt:  A How-To Guide in 6 Easy Steps

  1. Move NASA’s space science activities into/under the National Science Foundation, (including Goddard Space Flight Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.)
  2. Move NASA’s climate and related earth science research into/under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  (My extrapolation: physical space science activities should be wrapped into the United States Geological Survey – with emphasis on the Astrogeology Science Center.)
  3. Place NASA’s aeronautical research under the purview of a reconstituted NACA, composed of Langley Research Center, Glenn Research Center, and Dryden Research Center.  (California’s Ames Research Center, Schmitt proposes, is now redundant and should be auctioned off to commercial spaceflight developers.)
  4. Procure spacecraft launch services exclusively from commercial providers, (SpaceX, ULA, etc.)
  5. Retire NASA as an official agency as the International Space Station is de-orbited by 2025.
  6. Have the 2012-President and Congress recognize that a new Cold War exists with China and “surrogates,” and in response create a new National Space Exploration Administration, “charged solely with the human exploration of deep space and the re-establishment and maintenance of American dominance as a space-faring nation.”

A Breakdown of NSEA: Young, Lean, Imaginative

What would NSEA look like specifically?  Schmitt lays out the proposed agency in compelling detail.

NSEA would gain responsibility for Johnson Space Center (for astronaut training, communications, and flight operations), Marshall Space Flight Center (for launch vehicle development), Stennis Space Center (for rocket engine testing), and Kennedy Space Center (for launch operations).

NSEA’s programmatic responsibilities would include robotic precursor exploration as well as lunar and planetary resource identification research, as with the Apollo Program.

Instead of grandfathering the NASA workforce as-is, the new agency according to Schmitt would be almost entirely recomposed and given authority to maintain a youthful workforce – “an average employee age of less than 30.”  Why?  Schmitt claims that, like with Apollo, “Only with the imagination, motivation, stamina, and courage of young engineers, scientists, and managers can NSEA be successful in meeting its Cold War II national security goals.”

(Of note is the fact that during the Apollo program, the average age of mission control personnel was 28.  The average age of NASA employees is now 47.)

Clearing the Legislative Hurtles Before Beginning the Race

With an eye toward the chronic challenges NASA faces due to regularly shifting budget priorities and directives, Schmitt regards that the legislation that creates NSEA would also be required to include a provision that “no new space exploration project can be re-authorized unless its annual appropriations have included a minimum 30% funding reserve for the years up to the project’s critical design review and through the time necessary to complete engineering and operational responses to that review.”

This is a much-needed safety net for the inevitable unknowns that are encountered when designing new spaceflight hardware.

The National Space Exploration Agency Charter

Finally, Schmitt penned a charter for this new space agency, which simply reads:

  • “Provide the People of the United States of America, as national security and economic interests demand, with the necessary infrastructure, entrepreneurial partnerships, and human and robotic operational capability to settle the Moon, utilize lunar resources, explore and settle Mars and other deep space destinations, and, if necessary, divert significant Earth-impacting objects.”

Simple.  To me, this breaks down as four primary directives:  Develop the tech to sustain a human presence off-world.  Utilize extraterrestrial resources.  Stimulate the American economy and imagination while affording us the opportunity to assert space activities as peaceful endeavors.  Develop the ability to protect Earth from NEOs.

I think this is a bold new direction, one which honors the NASA legacy, enables direct, decisive space exploration activities, and streamlines the country’s scientific bureaucracy.

Let’s talk seriously about this.

Semper Exploro.





Veteran astronauts propose new space station law

6 07 2011

Debris from the reentry of the Russian space station Mir. (Credit: AP)

In a letter written to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and posted to SpaceRef last week, a contingent of veteran astronauts, while urging that the space shuttle not be retired, made a very interesting proposition:  A new, international rule for large objects in orbit.

So, what is this rule?  The letter states, “Any object placed in orbit that is too large for an uncontrolled reentry must have a spacecraft available to support independent EVA repairs.”  In short, the adoption of this rule would require the maintenance of the Space Shuttle as a viable craft beyond the last currently-scheduled launch later this month.  The Space Shuttle is the only spacecraft currently in operation with its own airlock and robotic arm – components necessary to conduct “independent” extra-vehicular inspections and repairs.

NASA's space station Skylab. (Credit: NASA)

Let’s take a step back for a moment.  Why is the ability to conduct independent EVA repairs important?  Back in 1979, Skylab, NASA’s troubled but pioneering space station, suffered an uncontrolled reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.  The event became an international fiasco with hyperpublicized potential for debris impacts in populated areas.  (Debris did land unexpectedly in Australia, though no injuries or significant damage were reported.) 

Should current or future space stations suffer damage from a meteor or orbiting debris, the ability to conduct an independent EVA and repair would be necessary to prevent that station from eventually falling victim to an uncontrolled reentry.  -And the impact may not be as forgiving as was Skylab’s. 

In general, I don’t disagree with the proposition, though I’m not sure continuing to pay through the nose to keep the shuttle aloft is the way to go.  Perhaps there is even a hint of a commercial service market here, with on-orbit tele-operated inspection and repair space-tugs available for a fee?  Certainly, I feel the necessity of rapid orbital inspection and repair is a pressing one, which deserves a conversation of its own.

Food for thought.





Views of a last space shuttle launch

26 06 2011

USSR's first and last Space Shuttle (Buran) launch, 11/15/1988. (Credit: RSK)

As NASA nears the final launch and retirement of its mainstay Space Shuttle, I think it only fitting to review another final Space Shuttle launch – one made twenty-three years ago.

In 1988, the U.S.S.R. launched its own Space Shuttle, the Buran, for what would be the first and last time.  Replay camera videos of the automated launch and landing (yes, automated – in 1988!) can be found here and here, respectively.

Watching this footage now leads me to strange musings on the Russian space program that might have been and provides an eerie foreshadowing of what it will feel like to watch Atlantis’s final launch in only a couple of weeks.  Will NASA’s shuttle fleet suffer the same fate?  Will what was once an arguably successful and certainly iconic space transportation system soon be reduced to an array of archival YouTube videos?

The Buran, which means "snowstorm" in Russian, staged at the Baikonur Cosmodrome prior to launch. (Credit: RSK)

Buran, which is an obvious response to NASA’s Space Shuttle, arose due to the perceived military potential of the shuttle’s cargo bay.  In a piercingly accurate assessment recounted by Russian rocket engineer and historian Boris Chertok, U.S.S.R. defense analysts projected that NASA’s new spaceplane could be profitable only if it flew more than twice a month.  Because this was not the case, the U.S.S.R. concluded that NASA’s shuttle was, in fact, military-subsidized.  A response was necessary, and Buran was the result.

The first flight of the Buran was an astonishing success.  A specially-designed rocket, the largest liquid-fuel rocket ever constructed, lofted Buran to an insertion orbit.  Buran separated from the rocket without incident and fired its own rockets to boost its orbiting altitude.  It remained on orbit to circle the Earth twice before automatically firing its rockets for descent and an unpiloted glide landing.

The automated landing system nailed the touchdown to within 30 feet.  (The idea that this shuttle landed itself when I still thought a Nintendo represented state-of-the-art computing power is absolutely mind-boggling!)

The eerily familiar sight of Buran lifting off from the Cosmodrome's Launch Complex 37, site 110 left. (Credit: RSK)

However, economic difficulties and political instabilities saw that the triumphant 1988 inaugural launch would be Buran’s last.  The U.S.S.R. disintegrated in 1991, leaving the expensive Buran space program unfunded and in disarray.  The Buran visited airshows periodically and remained in storage until it was destoyed in 2002 when the Kazakhstan hangar containing it collapsed due to neglect.

-A tragically undignified ending to a remarkable craft.

Now, history is ripe with ironic twists.  As it would turn out, NASA’s Space Shuttle was not military in nature, (though certainly defense-sponsored research and even a satellite deployment or two was performed from time to time,) and so the military push to produce Buran was off the mark in the first place.  However, the automated spaceplane landing Buran successfully achieved would not be replicated until just last year, when an automated military spaceplane was launched by the U.S. Air Force (see: X-37).

It looks like the Russians were a couple of decades ahead of the defense curve on that one.

Today, just as NASA’s shuttle fleet is being decommissioned, there are talks of the Russians resurrecting the Buran.  Time will tell whether or not funding and political support materializes from Russia, but perhaps America’s new, small, automated military spaceplane will once again provide the impetus for Buran to rise from the ashes.  (Frankly, I’ll take military paranoia when it spurs the advancement of space exploration hardware.)

Buran completing an unpiloted landing after its first successful orbital flight. (Credit: RSK)

So, as the sun sets on NASA’s workhorse fleet, I am given to wonder where all last-lofted spaceplanes will sit in the annals of spaceflight history.

Was the idea of the reusable orbital cargo spaceplane a needlessly complicated hiccup in the evolution of space transportation systems, or was it a visionary leap in spacecraft design?

-Something to ponder while watching launches and landings on YouTube.





Remembering VentureStar

27 05 2011

Lockheed Martin's VentureStar spaceplane lifting off from a hypothetical commercial spaceport. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

With the recent developments in new commercial suborbital spaceplanes, (e.g., XCor’s Lynx, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, Sierra Nevada/SpaceDev’s DreamChaser,) my mind is often turned back toward the premier commercial spaceplane of the late-1990s, which inspired many in my generation toward a career in space science in the first place: the venerable VentureStar.

Test of twin Linear Aerospike XRS-2200 engines performed on August 6, 2001 at NASA's Stennis Space Center. (Credit: NASA-MSFC)

With the VentureStar came the promise of a new era in spaceflight.  -A reduction in launch costs by an order of magnitude, a lifting body-wing design with no expendable parts, (called single-stage-to-orbit, or SSTO,) a bevy of composite materials to reduce weight, automated (pilot-less) flight control, and dual linear aerospike engines.

The project, which began at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works as the X-33 in 1996, was truly next-generation.  For those of us keeping watch in high school and early college, so too was the program’s use of technology for public outreach and engagement – a webcam streamed live images of X-33’s construction.

Due to cost overruns and technical difficulties, NASA scrapped their support of the program in 2001, and Lockheed Martin decided that without assistance their continuing the program alone didn’t make business sense.  Thus, with a dedicated launch facility constructed at Edward Air Force Base and a prototype 90% complete, was an entire new generation of space enthusiasts turned to cynics.

For me personally as well as for many that I know, having cancelled the program so many of us were rooting for instilled a sense of skepticism that human exploration could ever really take off while its funding was tied to Congress.  This meant that the future of space transportation and exploration would be have to be corporate, (which is ironically what Lockheed Martin was attempting to achieve with VentureStar.)

This is why so many of us see NASA support for Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) as a step not only in the right direction but also in the only direction with the possibility of not having the rug swept out from under its feet when a new administration comes in.  Hence, as NewSpace entrepreneurs forge their way into the field, I say their battle-cry should quite aptly be, “Remember VentureStar!”

…and with suborbital commercial success, perhaps we’ll see our SSTO spaceplane yet.





The National Space Exploration Administration

26 05 2011

Is a National Space Exploration Administration the future of NASA? (Hypothetical logo credit: Ben McGee)

I’m a convert.  Yesterday, Apollo astroanut, geologist-moonwalker, and U.S. Senator Dr. Harrison “Jack” Schmitt made what amounts to one of the most daring space exploration suggestions to date:  End NASA.  -And I think I’m all for it.

Allow me to explain.

Dr. Schmitt testing NASA Apollo program field logistics. (Uncredited)

In a sweeping and devastatingly logical essay published on the “americasuncommonsense” blog, Dr. Schmitt makes a compelling case that NASA as a force for exploration and national growth has lost its way.  Irrecoverably.

Being the only scientist-astronaut to ever walk on another world, Dr. Schmitt possesses a unique credibility and vantage from which to make this sort of assessment.  He proposes that NASA and its administrative shortcomings be scrapped in favor of a new agency, which he calls the National Space Exploration Administration, or NSEA.

There is a precedent for this sort of rebirth or evolution, which Schmitt is quick to point out.  NASA itself was created as a combination of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics and Werner Von Braun’s Army Ballistic Missile Agency, (which was reponsible for one of the most ambitious space exploration initiatives, Project Horizon.)  Likewise, the U.S. Air Force was formed out of the U.S. Army Air Corps.

According to Schmitt, NASA’s climate activities could be cleanly adoped by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA’s space science activities could be neatly rolled into the National Science Foundation, and NASA’s aeronautics research and technology would go back to the coalition of national research centers from which they were originally derived, a recreated National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics.

This, he argues, frees the new NSEA to do what NASA should have been doing all along – driving the human exploration of deep space and reestablishing American space superiority.  The straightforward mission of this new agency, as Schmitt envisions it, is as follows:

“Provide the People of the United States of America, as national security and economic interests demand, with the necessary infrastructure, entrepreneurial partnerships, and human and robotic operational capability to settle the Moon, utilize lunar resources, scientifically explore and settle Mars and other deep space destinations, and, if necessary, divert significant Earth-impacting objects.”

Finally,  this represents a clear-cut national space agency mission that (I believe) everyone who supports space exploration can wholeheartedly endorse.  -And, perhaps more importantly, having such a clear agency objective would end the space exploration/terrestrial science/space science budgetary tug-of-war that has chronically crippled NASA.

Check out the essay and decide for yourself.  I think it’s time to send our governmental representatives a phone call or an email and make them aware of this concept as well, so they will begin to ask the question, “is a NSEA the future of NASA?”








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