Everything You Wanted to Know About BEAM but Were Afraid to Ask

8 04 2016

Humanity’s first human-habitable inflatable spaceship, (or as those in the industry prefer to call it, “expandable” spacecraft), is soon to launch off-world.  Tucked inside a Dragon cargo transport‘s “trunk” and perched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, this momentous departure targets the International Space Station (ISS) and is slated to occur today.

The precious expandable cargo is itself a simple test article, (or as those in the industry are keen to refer to it, a “pathfinder technology demonstrator”), which was manufactured by Bigelow Aerospace right here in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Aptly titled the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, the craft is designed to attach to the ISS and stay put for at least two years to see how it behaves.

Now, media outlets large and small, having caught wind of this impending technological departure from the streampunk-like status quo, (where hulking, submarine-like cylindrical pressure vessels serve as our spacecraft shells), are repeating the same, few details with great enthusiasm.  However, general curiosity about BEAM’s design, structural elements, and expected performance is going generally unanswered.

Well, no more.  There’s no question too big or too small to answer, here!  So, for the intrepid of spirit, I hereby present the following 5-point breakdown of Everything You Wanted to Know About BEAM but Were Afraid to Ask… (using public-domain material, of course.)


1]  What are BEAM’s pair of small, antennae-like protrusions for, anyway?


BEAM’s aft bulkhead antennae? (Original credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

While they might look like tiny, satellite-TV-style dishes, these circular devices serve a radically different function.  Known as standard Flight-Releasable Grapple Fixtures, or FRGFs, they’re the means by which the ISS’s robotic arm will snare BEAM, yank it out of Dragon’s trunk, and plug it on to the ISS’s Node 3 module.


A Flight-Releasable Grapple Fixture, or FRGF, a necessary grip point for the International Space Station’s robotic arm. (Credit: NASA)

NASA provided Bigelow Aerospace with two FRGFs to install on BEAM as part of their contract.  Think of them as the receiving half of an enormous robotic handshake upon BEAM’s arrival at the ISS.


2]  What about the sleek, wavy metal collar on the ‘hatch’ side of BEAM?


Sleek style or something more? (Original credit: SpaceX)

As it turns out, this eye-catching part of BEAM’s exterior was manufactured by the Sierra Nevada Corporation and is known as a Passive Common Berthing Mechanism, or (you guessed it), a PCBM.  This is a standard mechanism for unpowered craft that can’t dock to the ISS using their own thrusters and must therefore be snatched up by the ISS’s robotic arm and manually ‘plugged in’ to one of the station’s active ports.


A Passive Common Berthing Mechanism, necessary for forming a tight seal with the International Space Station. (Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation)

The PCBM was supplied to Bigelow Aerospace by the Sierra Nevada Corporation as part of the NASA BEAM contract, and it was integrated into BEAM’s structure at Bigelow’s large North Las Vegas facility.


3]  So, what are BEAM’s walls actually made of?

BEAM softgoods

What makes sturdy spacecraft skin that can also crumple and fold for launch? (Original credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

Bigelow hasn’t released the specifics of the makeup of BEAM’s fabric walls, known as “softgoods.”  (Holding this extremely proprietary information close to the vest is unsurprising.)  However, despair not, curiosity-fueled space enthusiasts, for it turns out that much basic information about the Bigelow expandable spacecraft approach was published in a 2005 article in Popular Science, entitled, “The Five-Billion-Star Hotel.”

In the article, the walls of the expandable Bigelow “Nautilus” module under development at the time (later to be rechristened the B330 spacecraft) were described as having the following basic structure:

  1. “Five outer layers of graphite-fiber composites separated by foam spacers” that function as a micrometeorite and orbital debris (MMOD) shield.
  2. Moving inward, this is followed by a critical, intermediate layer known as the “restraint layer,” which serves as the load-bearing portion of the structure.  This layer is described as “a web of interwoven straps made of high-strength fiber.”
  3. Finally, the innermost layer, called the “air bladder,” is a “plastic film” that “keeps the internal atmosphere from escaping into space.”

Admittedly, it has been some time since the article was written, and details may have shifted somewhat in the intervening years.  -But, in a general sense, BEAM could be reasonably expected to follow the same sort of structural format.

For something a little more recent, one can also argue for a fairly close approximation of BEAM’s softgoods in another, modern inflatable spacecraft design.  European aerospace titan Thales Alenia Space (TAS), (responsible for the design and manufacture of the rigid shell backbones of the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle supply ships as well as the Cygnus cargo freighters, and others), has its own inflatable spacecraft design known as REMSIM.


A 2005 rendering of a REMSIM inflatable module, envisioned as a lunar habitat. (Credit: Thales Alenia Space)

Just as BEAM could be considered offspring of the cancelled NASA TransHab program, from which it inherited much of its technology and approach, so too does REMSIM descend from TransHab, making it a sort of European cousin to BEAM.   Standing for “Radiation Exposure and Mission Strategies for Interplanetary (Manned) Mission,” REMSIM was effectively the European Space Agency’s push (like Bigelow) to carry the TransHab torch into the 21st Century.  (REMSIM research and development is ongoing to this day.)

In landmark 2009 research presented at the International Symposium on Materials in a Space Environment, led by TAS researcher Roberto Destefanis, the REMSIM layers are revealed (and put through their paces).

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 7.15.18 AM

Softgoods layering details of the inflatable REMSIM spacecraft, a European cousin to Bigelow Aerospace’s BEAM. (Credit: Destefanis et al., 2009)

In the above diagram, MLI stands for Multi-Layer Insulation (think heat shield), BS stands for Ballistic Shield layer, and the rest are as described.  As can be seen, they generally agree with the Popular Science description of the Bigelow approach.

So, odds are, if you want to know what’s inside BEAM’s collapsible/expandable spacecraft skin, the REMSIM “stack” isn’t a bad place to start.


4]  Can BEAM really shield well against micrometeorite and orbital debris strikes?


Will BEAM’s soft sides stand up to space impacts? (Original credit: NASA JSC)

When many are introduced to the concept of an inflatable spacecraft, a natural first reaction is alarm.  On Earth, most inflatable objects are very vulnerable to punctures and ruptures (e.g., party balloons).  Wouldn’t an inflatable spacecraft be far more vulnerable than rigid aluminum modules to micrometeorites and bits of space junk zipping around at mind-bending orbital speeds?

Well, much like a Kevlar vest has no problem stopping a bullet, it turns out that expandable spacecraft have no problem holding their own against impinging space chunks.  While specific information on how well BEAM’s softgoods hold up under punishment is proprietary, we can return once again to REMSIM for a good example.


The aftermath of a micrometeorite impact test on a BEAM-similar expandable spacecraft design known as REMSIM, demonstrating that the inner layer remains unscathed. (Credit: Thales Alenia Space)

The Bigelow debris shielding approach, like REMSIM, uses what is called a Multi-Shock strategy.  Here, multiple thin, ballistic shield layers separated by some distance act to “shock” the incoming projectile and disperse its energy before it strikes (and potentially breaches) the pressure containment layer.

So, again returning to the 2009 Destefanis paper, REMSIM softgoods test articles boasted surviving getting blasted with half-inch aluminum spheres at speeds exceeding 15,000 miles per hour.  (This agrees with claims made in the aforementioned 2005 Popular Science article, which reports that Bigelow softgoods withstood a half-inch aluminum sphere impacting at better than 14,000 miles per hour.)  Not too shabby at all, and according to the research, meets or exceeds the debris protection performance of rigid ISS modules using traditional “stuffed” Whipple Shields.

This implies that BEAM’s protection factor against micrometeorites and debris is just fine, if not outright superior to rigid modules.


5]  What sort of radiation protection should we expect from BEAM?


This has been a big question, and one NASA has expressed particular interest in.  In fact, it’s one of the primary functions of BEAM to determine just how favorable the radiation protection qualities of a softgoods spacecraft are.

The problem with space radiation is that it is generally more massive and highly energetic compared to ionizing radiation encountered on Earth’s surface, which makes it difficult to shield.

The problem with talking about space radiation shielding is that it depends on a boatload of variables — the more active our Sun, the more it deflects even more damaging radiation from exploding stars in our own Galaxy (and beyond) but trades it for an increased risk of being hit with lower-energy but overwhelming solar storms.


Artist’s depiction of solar and cosmic radiation at the fringe of Earth’s magnetic field. (Uncredited)

Blanket statements about how anything shields radiation in space are therefore difficult to reliably make, requiring multiple models and depending strongly on orbit altitude, timing, and precise material breakdown.  As a result, experts tend to either sound uncertain or evasive.

Keeping all of this in mind, if we return to the 2009 Destefanis study one final time, we find it has something to say about this as well.

By placing test articles meant to represent different types of spacecraft and spacecraft materials in front of particle accelerators powerful enough to fling atoms as large and fast as those fired into the cosmos by exploding stars, researchers can reliably predict how materials will shield against space radiation.  This is exactly what the Destefanis study reports, using an iron-atom slinging accelerator at Brookhaven National Lab.

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 10.01.10 AM

Expected shielding performance of BEAM-like REMSIM compared with varying thicknesses of different materials and ISS module compositions. (Credit: Destefanis et al., 2009)

The results of the Destefanis work reveal that against the most damaging type of radiation experienced at the ISS (heavy Galactic Cosmic Rays), REMSIM shields nearly half as well (3%) as an empty ISS module (8.2%).  It achieves this with less than a third of the equivalent mass, demonstrating a pound-for-pound benefit in REMSIM’s favor, not to mention the unprecedented capability of squeezing into a tiny payload space during launch.

In a big-picture sense, the chart also reveals that REMSIM shields only 10% as well against heavy GCR as a fully-outfitted ISS module (3% versus 28.7%).  While this might sound terrible at first glance, this is due largely to the fact that Columbus is currently far from empty, ringed with equipment racks, piping, tubing, cabling, and supplies.  All of this extra material serves as supplemental shielding for astronauts located within.

By contrast, the basic REMSIM in this study is (like BEAM) completely empty, making the “10%” claim a somewhat unfair apples-to-oranges comparison.  However, numbers like these more closely match the current situation between BEAM and the rest of ISS.

So, ultimately, if the REMSIM-BEAM comparison holds, one might expect a similar ratio between GCR-radiation shielding measurements made in BEAM and parallel readings taken across the rest of the ISS.  And while the numbers might sound grim to the uninitiated, numbers like these are going to be exactly what NASA is looking for.


I hope the information compiled in this post has been helpful at least to some, and as always, feedback is welcome.

Semper Exploro!


Recalling Dr. Edgar Mitchell

24 02 2016



We recently lost one of humanity’s pioneers – one of twelve to step on another world and a man who made a distinct impact on me, though in an unexpected way.

Famous for his belief in extraterrestrial life and dabbling in the science of consciousness and extrasensory perception, he is most widely known for planting boot-prints on the Moon’s Fra Mauro Highlands during the Apollo 14 mission: his name was Dr. Edgar Mitchell.

A memorial was held today in his honor in Florida, but I won’t presume here to tread on the numerous articles detailing the many successes and fascinating aspects of his life.  Instead, I’d like to share a story that only I have – the brief tale of how, during a few quiet minutes, he kindly suffered my enthusiastic curiosity and changed my view of planetary exploration forever.

Boots on the Ground

It is a warm, spring afternoon in 2012, and the setting is the U.S. Space Walk of Fame Museum in Titusville, Florida.  Shortly after an interview with Dr. Mitchell held there that I participated in as part of a National Geographic Channel project, I find myself parked in a museum corridor with the affable astronaut while camera equipment is being packed up.

We have a couple of minutes to kill, and after pleasantries (and revealing my own astronaut aspirations, as I’m sure many who meet him do), I decide to make our remaining seconds of polite conversation count.  It’s also at this moment that the Director of Photography for the program is inspired to snap a photo:


Loitering with Apollo 14 astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell in the U.S. Space Walk of Fame Museum. (Image credit: Dave West)

Mercifully, I steer clear of the, “What advice would you have for an aspiring astronaut?” spectrum of questions.  (This is an explorer who’d ventured off-world during humanity’s lone period of manned lunar exploration, after all; he has much more valuable insight than opining on what looks good on a resume to a NASA review panel.)

Knowing that most of the details of the Apollo Program’s exploits have been well-captured in books and articles written during nearly a half-century of analysis and reflection, I aim to drill in on a single question I hadn’t yet heard an answer to.  A human question.

I simply ask: “So, what did it feel like to step into the lunar regolith?  I mean, what did it really feel like?  What was the sensation underfoot?”

His answer surprises me, (which, as a lifelong space obsessee, itself surprises me).  I thought I’d envisioned any of his possible answers, and I was wrong.

Dr. Mitchell cocks his head as he takes my meaning.  Then, he grins and thinks for a moment, (almost as if no one had asked him the question before), before replying:

“Honestly, I don’t really know.  The EVA suit was so rigid, we had such a tight timeline, I was so busy focusing on the mission objectives, and you’ve always got somebody chattering in your ear.” 

He shrugs and adds:

“By the time I’d have had time to think about something like that, the EVA was over and I was back in the lunar module.”

For a few moments, I’m flabbergasted.  “I don’t know” was the one answer I wasn’t really prepared for.  My mouth opens involuntarily, and I consider myself fortunate that I will it shut before I can blurt out, “What do you mean you don’t know?”

I mean, if he doesn’t know what it felt like to step on the Moon, who could?


Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell checking a map while on the lunar surface. (Credit: NASA)

The Reality of Exploration

Dr. Mitchell’s eyes twinkle slightly, almost as though he suspects the answer would catch me off-guard.  And then, several thoughts hit me in succession:

  • What an injustice that these explorers didn’t even have time to mentally record the sensation of their exploration!
  • But, wait – isn’t tactile information like that important?  Why wasn’t that made a priority?  An objective, even?
  • Doesn’t a sensory awareness of the surface beneath an astronaut relate directly to the ultimate utility an EVA suit on the Moon and the human factors of exploring beyond?
  • Don’t we need to know these things before we consider designing new suits and mission timelines for going back to the Moon and Mars?
  • Wait, did he just let slip a subtle indictment of micromanagement on the Moon?

But, shortly thereafter, the practicality sinks in.  Compared with larger, broader, more fundamental mission objectives, (e.g., survival, navigation, and basic science), smaller details like these were likely to be the first triaged right off of the priority list.  Especially considering that Apollo 14 was an “H-type” mission, which meant only a two-day stay on the Moon and only two EVAs,  they simply didn’t have the luxury of time.

Before I can continue the conversation, we’re swept away with a caravan to another location, and I don’t have another opportunity to pick up the discussion before we part ways for good.

In retrospect, the brief exchange forever changed the way I would view planetary exploration.  I consider it a true dose of lunar reality sans the romance.


Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell in the distance with the Lunar Portable Magnetometer experiment during EVA 2.

Lessons for Future Explorers

From this exchange, I was left with an indelible impression that every moment spent by future planetary astronauts on another world will be heavily metered and micromanaged.  Excursions will be rehearsed ad nauseam, and as a result, explorers in the thick of the real deal won’t be afforded much time to think about apparently trivial details like what it actually feels like to step on another world.

By all reckoning, it probably would feel much like another rehearsal.

But these details, even apparently small, do matter.  Things like suit fit, function, and feedback under different environmental conditions can have a huge impact on astronaut fatigue, injury, and mission success.  This is to say nothing of secondary geological information, (e.g., this type of regolith scuffs differently than that type), or the more romantic aspects of the sensation of exploration that are necessary for bringing the experience back home to those on Earth in a relatable way.

So, it should say something to us now that after traveling more than five football fields of distance on foot during the course of only two days, Dr. Mitchell couldn’t tell me what it really felt like to press a boot into lunar dirt.

Ultimately, the most unexpected lesson Dr. Mitchell was kind enough to impart was that unless we work to preserve these apparently smaller details of exploration, (as recalled by the limited number of explorers still with us who ventured onto the Moon), and unless we incorporate their implications into future plans, schedules, and designs, the path walked by future astronauts on other worlds will be more difficult than it should or need be.

“Astronaut Politics” Meme

11 09 2013

One of the universally-championed benefits of human space exploration is not actually related to any physical activities performed while in space.  Instead, an important aspect of leaving our world is the change in perception that space exploration has upon astronauts themselves, and the societies that receive them, upon their return.

ASTRONAUTPOLITICSMEME_MITCHELLQUOTEIrrespective of country of origin, religion (or lack thereof), cultural background, or political ideology, and having seen firsthand the fragility of Earth in the context of the rest of the cosmos, a great majority of astronauts return as prophets of a unified Earth and humanity upon it.

Hearing what they have to say is powerful stuff, considering that they’ve lived through something still very, very unique to human experience.

Fighting Fire with Fire

So, as a bit of a social experiment, I took one of my favorite astronaut images and paired it with some of the more poignant, (if not also somewhat charmingly coarse), “overview effect”-inspired astronaut quotes as a meme (see image at right for an example) to inspire the question:

“How might the world be different if astronauts ran it?”

The six images I whipped up in series are included below – if so inclined, feel free to distribute at will.  (Attribution not necessary – I want to promote their opinions, not mine.)

They’re intended to trigger the consideration that the same training, rigors, education, problem-solving skills, decisiveness, and unique experiences required of and provided to those selected to venture off-world might also happen to make them ideal for leading us here at home.

I’d argue that we need more out there communicating the idea that supporting human space exploration has more behind it than the development of new technologies, probing the laws of our universe, figuring out if we’re alone in the cosmos, turning a profit, or even capitalizing on our species’ deep-seated impulse to explore.

By no means a new concept, many have instead suggested that with the apparently-universal nature of the Overview Effect and an increasing number of astronauts in our midst, conflicts may be given a broader or different context, and world contention might thereby diminish.  (It’s an admittedly lofty hope, but that’s no reason to avoid testing it; In my opinion, it provides all the more reason!)

About the Meme: Why That Picture?

The picture itself, that of future moonwalker Alan Shepard severely chomping on a cigar while leading ground control during the Gemini 6 mission to space, provides several subtly unsettling contrasts that I hope inspire thought or debate.  On its face, by depicting a very assertive, gruff 1960s American male stereotype, we’re shown a side of science and exploration that is not really depicted today.

Next, by just placing the picture of an astronaut (not in a spacesuit) in a vaguely political context, I feel that the concept of the explorer and the politician – two seemingly unrelated or even incompatible archtypes – are juxtaposed in such a way that the idea of an explorer-politician might be seen as something beneficial or even desirable.   (Many are unaware that several astronauts have, indeed, gone on to political careers after hanging up their flightsuits, John Glenn and Harrison Schmitt being two noteworthy examples.)

Further, however, is the fascinating contrast made by the impression of the picture and the content of the quotes superimposed over it.  Most today would consider the quotes to be promoting “liberal” leaning opinions, (i.e., ideas that those of a “hawk”-style international relations stance would consider to be fundamentally weak views,) – yet the majority of the quotes were made my military men epitomized by the stereotype the image suggests!

In addition to highlighting that no personality types, even those perceived to be warlike, are immune to the power of the spaceflight experience, this contrast visually assaults two modern myths currently operating in America’s evolving cultural narrative:

  1. That stereotypical, “20th Century male” (i.e., overt or hegemonic masculine) personalities or gender identities are synonymous with physicality and are incompatible with intellect.
  2. That the same personalities typified (or classified) at the time by masculine stereotypes are synonymous with aggression and conflict and are incompatible with humanist views.

Meshed with the deconstruction of a stereotype, (to the point, several of our “Right Stuff” astronauts, themselves amongst the most disciplined and committed military men of our country at the time, admitted to being moved to tears at the simple sight of the Earth from beyond,) it’s my hope that their message finds a memorable channel to the public, if not to a virgin audience.


For those inclined to do so, let me know what you think, and please copy and “fire at will,” as they say, on your social media outlet of choice.  Who knows?  These might not get a single view, or they just might plant a seed to someone whose eyes drift over it in the daily waterfall of social media that washes over us all.

Hopefully, discussions will result.

Having had their eyes opened, (perhaps metaphorically-dilated by the cosmic darkness to resolve a reality we’re evidently excellent at blinding ourselves to down here on Earth), I believe that there is a pressing social motivation for broadcasting the consistent messages carried back by humanity’s astronauts.

Especially given the increasingly-polarized political views on display these days, and considering the global, long-standing ideological conflicts that persist to this day, I think the message from our off-world explorers is becoming only more, not less, relevant with time.


Talking Space Radiation Dosimetry at NSRC 2013

24 06 2013
Having an unashamedly good time stealing a few moments between talks inside the XCor Lynx spacecraft mockup parked behind NSRC 2013.

Having an unashamedly good time stealing a few moments between talks inside the XCor Lynx spacecraft mockup parked behind NSRC 2013.

I recently had the great pleasure to give a talk (and serve as co-author for a second) at the fourth annual Next Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC), held this year in Boulder, Colorado.

As a one-of-a-kind collection of researchers, entrepreneurs, spacecraft providers, students, and government representatives, NSRC’s intent is to foster collaboration of a sort that will enable the research world to fully utilize what amount to a fleet of new spacecraft looking to come online within the next 24 months.  In all, exciting to be amongst like-minded folks, great to see familiar faces again, and a thrill to forge new alliances.

Two Radiation Take-Homes for the Suborbital Space Community

IMG_4535So, what was I doing there?  In brief, on behalf of my spaceflight consulting firm, Astrowright, I made a daring and ill-advised attempt to shove a 40-slide presentation into 10 minutes, with (based on positive feedback) it seems at least a small amount of success.  (I wouldn’t have even made such a blitzkrieg attempt unless it was absolutely necessary in the context of my talk.)

The intent?  To give a broad enough overview of radiation detector theory so that I had a prayer of communicating to this very select audience two imminent realities of space radiation dosimetry:

  1. The private/commercial spaceflight world, particularly in the suborbital context, is primed to (mis)use off-the-shelf radiation dosimeters designed for the commercial nuclear world; these instruments will not deliver complete or ultimately meaningful numbers without applying specific scaling algorithms to the results, in essence calibrating them for the space environment.  User beware!
  2. The greatest benefit of bothering to outfit suborbital astronauts with radiation dosimeters might not be to the spaceflight participants themselves, (who would receive in all but the most extraordinary circumstances a practically immeasurable radiation dose).  Instead, the greatest effect may be to improve Earth-based low-dose modeling and safety standards, the researchers engaged in which would benefit immeasurably from having a completely new population group to study who are intentionally exposing themselves to low-dose, high-intensity radiation.  This is also, *hint hint*, a completely untapped research funding angle (contact me if interested in collaborating – seriously!).

So, there you have it.  If not taking advantage of my own firm’s radiation dosimetry services, my message to the suborbital spaceflight world was to at least engage in planning one’s own flight experience armed to understand that accurate dosimetry in the space environment is not something one can just pull off a shelf and slap on the outside of a pressure suit!

Space Training Roadmap

The second talk, which was expertly given by co-conspirator Dr. Mindy Howard of Inner Space Training, involved a task-based assessment of potential spaceflight tasks for suborbital spaceflight participant.  The objective there?  The development of a spaceflight training “roadmap” to help participants decide which training amongst the many types offered by providers is relevant and necessary for their personal flight goals.

The power to decide which training is or is not relevant to an individual should not, in my opinion, be left up to the spacecraft providers (who may and likely will not have your specific goals in mind)!  That’s where our roadmap research comes in.

Please feel free to contact me or Dr. Howard for any additional details along those lines.

Lingering Thoughts

Well, the pulse at the conference was that the next twelve months appear to be crucial.  With business plans starting to kick in and metal finally being flight tested, I feel as though there are two distinct options for NSRC 2014: It will either be aflood with the excitement borne of the dawn of commercial suborbital spaceflight, or attendance will plummet as cynicism and a fear of perpetual development cycles sets in.

For now, the future looks bright, and that’s good news!

Until next time, NSRC.  Cheers!


Having an equally unashamedly-good time having the opportunity to give a NSRC presentation about a topic that’s actually in my field of expertise! (I’ve been fielding for other sides of the house the past couple of years…)

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!

The Science Behind “Chasing UFOs” – Episode 6

4 08 2012

Me meeting with Apollo 14 astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell.

For those who might like to delve more deeply into (or simply know more about the science behind) the National Geographic Channel series “Chasing UFOs,” including paradoxes, Apollo astronauts, and billion-in-one reflections, look no further!

Direct link-through to my article on the NatGeo TV blog can be found here:




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.

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