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 FRGFs

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.

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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?

BEAM PCBM

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.

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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.

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).

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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?

BEAM MMOD

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.

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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?

BEAM Rad

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

EdgarMitchellSpacesuit

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:

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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?

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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.

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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.

Feedback/Distribution!

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.

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Hacking Classrooms via Mars

1 08 2013
Preparing for the Hackathon project showcase at Mozilla headquarters.

Preparing for the Hackathon project showcase at Mozilla headquarters.

A short report today on the inspiring Mars Education Hackathon I recently had the good fortune to be invited to attend in San Francisco.

Hosted by the Mozilla Foundation, digital studio MX, and local PBS affiliate KQED, the two-day blitz included six ad hoc project teams – fresh and interdisciplinary collaborations between planetary scientists, computer scientists, educators, innovators, multimedia producers, and historians.

Attendees represented the gamut of potential stakeholders, from NASA’s Ames Research Center to science and education TV production firm Spine Films.  I was there on behalf of MX studios, with whom I’d had the pleasure of supporting as a space/planetary science consultant.

What was it exactly that brought such a motley crew together near the Bay?

Working as fast as we could, our mission was straightforward:  Leverage recent advances in computing and networking technology in combination with the truly stunning quantity and quality of data available to us from the Red Planet in order to give science education a much-needed kick in the pants.

In my view, it was a rousing success.

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View of hacking in progress – two of the Hackathon working groups at KQED headquarters.

The team projects were each ambitious and varied from virtual science learning environments using actual NASA rover models to orbital flight trajectory and planning simulators; from helping students pack for a trip to Mars to using VR headsets to explore the Martian landscape with their own eyes from the comfort of a classroom.

(Yes, I finally got to try an Oculus Rift – it lives up to the hype!)

It was also an excellent opportunity both to meet new faces as well as finally assign faces to names I’ve known (or even been working with from afar) for some time.  (Many thanks to MX and Mozilla for their support!)

In the end, I truly believe the seeds of future models for using computing technology to integrate frontier science into the classroom were sewn here.  Education needs this kind of work to compete with gaming multimedia that, unfortunately, is usually just much more engaging than learning-based systems.  But it doesn’t have to be.

Mars shows us that.

More to follow on the fruits of this little side-adventure…

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Could frontier exploration environments like Mars be the key to bridging the divide between new web-based technology and classroom education experiences? (View from outside Mozilla headquarters.)





Treatise: Abandoning OldSpace’s Conceit

30 07 2013
Should this be considered space exploration?  "Pilot Felix Baumgartner jumps out from the capsule during the final manned flight for Red Bull Stratos in Roswell, New Mexico, USA on October 14, 2012." (Credit: Red Bull Stratos)

Should this be considered space exploration? “Pilot Felix Baumgartner jumps out from the capsule at 126,720 feet during the final manned flight for Red Bull Stratos in Roswell, New Mexico” (Credit: Red Bull Stratos)

Space Exploration is suffering an identity crisis.

Like atmospheric flight before it, space exploration is evolving to include a spectrum of public and private participants, motivations, and goals.  However, even amongst space enthusiasts and professionals, there is much (mostly friendly – I’ll get to that) debate regarding just what exactly it is that qualifies as worthy space exploration.

This debate tends to set itself up in terms of convenient binaries:

Human or robotic?  Public or commercial?  Lunar or Martian?  To seek out an asteroid where it orbits or capture one and bring it back to us?  (There are many more…)

Determining who or what is qualified (or makes someone qualified) to wear the title of “astronaut” and engage in space exploration seems to be the source of much of any contention amongst engaged parties.  And, in certain corners, the resulting conversation tempestuously swirls around whether or not some current private efforts to reach space even qualify as exploration at all.

With this in mind, and before the conceptual landscape becomes any more confusing or inconsistent, let’s take a detailed journey through the convoluted and fascinating history of just what it means to explore space and – not always coincidentally – to be considered a space explorer.

In this way, a new appreciation of the promise and potential of so-called NewSpace activities might be produced – one that thwarts brewing, (and in my opinion, shortsighted), negative bias amongst those in the established space exploration community…

Apollo 17 Lunar Module cabin interior after day 3 on the lunar surface: Helmets and space suits on the engine cover at left with Astronaut Gene Cernan looking on.  (Credit: NASA)

Apollo 17 Lunar Module cabin interior after day 3 on the lunar surface (12/13/72): Helmets and space suits piled on the engine cover with astronaut Gene Cernan at right. (Credit: NASA)

Deconstruction of the Space Explorer

It used to be considered that human beings had to bodily participate, a la the Lewis and Clark Expedition, in order for something to be considered “exploration.”  In this light, robotic space missions were once seen only as tantalizing forerunners to the delivery of human bootprints, when the real exploration began.

Now, however, based in part on funding, politics, and the march of technology, the robots have claimed much of the exploration center stage as competent cosmic surveyors, jaw-dropping photographers, and even mobile geologic laboratories.

While not autonomous, their successes have led many to seriously question whether human beings will ultimately have a primary role in space exploration, if any significant role at all.

Meanwhile, those who still endorse human ingenuity and adaptability as key components for space exploration face a simultaneous conceptual quandry.  Once something clearly defined in nationalistic terms, (and intentionally invoking, let’s be honest, Greek-demigod-like associations), the conceptual waters of the 21st century human space explorer have also been permanently muddied.

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Spaceflight participant Anousheh Ansari prior to her launch to the Int’l Space Station aboard a Soyuz spacecraft, 11/’06. (Credit: NASA)

Anyone who crosses the invisible and somewhat arbitrary 62-mile altitude line to “outer space” can be honestly called an “astronaut.”  However, a healthy handful of space tourists are now included in the fold of human beings who have crossed the threshold to space to become astronauts.  To make the landscape even more confusing, many have advised (NASA included) that out of respect and/or accuracy we should refer to these self-funded astronauts as “spaceflight participants,” not tourists.

So, are these participants to be considered explorers in their own right even if they are not considered career astronauts?  Or are they simple sightseers along for the ride with the true explorers?

Is or can there be a difference between a spaceflight participant and a tourist or sightseer?

Astronaut-Explorer: Still Synonymous?

Whatever the semantics dictate, with hundreds of additional, willing, and self-funded future astronauts waiting in the wings, it is reasonable to ask whether or not being an “astronaut” even implies space exploration anymore.

Is it the intent of the trip or tasks to be performed that is or are the key distinguishing factors between thrill-seeking and exploration, (i.e., is science to be performed)?  This might be a sensible definition, yet in asking this question it is noteworthy to point out that many of the astronaut-spaceflight-participants have performed scientific work while in space.

Despite this fact, many in the what I like to call the “OldSpace” community, (namely current or former NASA employees and contractors with a more traditional view of space exploration), balk at the idea that these participants represent legitimate space exploration.  This seems to imply that it is only professional astronauts that are to be considered the explorers.

However, the logic of making such a distinction quickly falls apart when considering the countless private expeditions throughout human history that have opened continents, frontiers, and knowledge to human awareness.

So, this is my first point.  We’re woefully vague when it comes to describing those who travel to or work in space.

Peering more deeply into the issue, one of the primary issues is the qualification of someone to become an astronaut.  Right now, by strict definition all it takes is a suitable increase in altitude for someone to earn their astronaut wings.

Is this an accurate or meaningful way to define an astronaut in the first place?  (Or do we need a new or different definition altogether?)

The nose of the Gemini-9A spacecraft over the Pacific Ocean during the second spacewalk in NASA history, on 5 June 1966.  (Credit: NASA)

The nose of the Gemini-9A spacecraft over the Pacific Ocean during the second spacewalk in NASA history, on 5 June 1966. (Credit: NASA)

Where is Space, Anyway?

Like a poorly-woven sweater, the more one pulls on this thread of questioning, the faster the whole thing unravels.  Consequently, it may be here that we find the clearest junction from which the many different views of space exploration begin to diverge.

Classically, “outer space” is considered the region encompassing the rest of the universe beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.  That’s simple enough.

However, we now know that the most rarefied portions of the Earth’s atmosphere (exosphere) extend out to more than 62,000 miles away from the Earth’s surface(!), while the more conventional uppermost portions of the atmosphere extend to 200-500 miles in altitude (thermosphere).  Yet at all of these fringe heights, the atmosphere is still little more than individual atoms zipping around a vacuum, separated from one another by so great a distance that they are practically indistinguishable from outer space.

To make matters more impractical, these altitudes vary by several hundred miles depending on how much solar activity is warming up the atmosphere at the time.

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View of Earth’s horizon as the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean as seen from the Int’l Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

So, where do we draw that magic line separating atmosphere from space?  Let’s take a look at the reality from the ground up ourselves (so-to-speak),  and you can decide whether or not you would have placed the dividing line to “space” where current convention has drawn it:

  1. Humans can generally function well without supplemental oxygen to an altitude of roughly two miles above sea level, or 10,000 feet.  I don’t believe any reasonable argument can be made that any region located hereabouts represents “outer space.”
  2. However, by the time one reaches little more than three times that, (at 36,000 feet, or 7 miles in altitude – the cruising flight altitude of most commercial airline traffic), not only would a would-be explorer require supplemental oxygen, be he or she has (surprisingly) already emerged from three-quarters of the bulk of the Earth’s atmosphere.  (That’s 75% of the way to space by mass!)
  3. By the time one reaches 12 miles in altitude or about 62,000 feet, (a.k.a., the Armstrong Line), In addition to oxygen, a pressure suit is absolutely required in order to prevent the moisture in one’s mouth, throat and lungs from boiling away due to the low pressure.  (Sounds awfully space-y.  Are we there, yet?)
  4. The atmospheric layer known as the stratosphere extends upwards to 170,000 feet, or 32 miles, and contains the planet’s ozone layer.  This is now a height that is above all but rarest, upper-atmospheric clouds.
  5. From there to roughly 50 miles (264,000 feet) is the Earth’s mesosphere, the region of the atmosphere where most meteors burn up upon entry due to friction with the atmosphere.  (Does the fact that meteors really encounter the atmosphere here mean that this is the real boundary to space?  Or are we already there?)
  6. The thermosphere extends from there to an average of 300 miles (1,584,000 feet) in altitude, where atoms in the atmosphere can travel for the better part of a mile before running into one-another.  The International Space Station is located within this layer, and I don’t think anyone would argue that we’re now definitely in “outer space.”

Where would you put the dividing line?

Current international convention, known as the “Kármán Line,” places it at 62 miles in altitude, or roughly 330,000 feet.  That’s out of the mesosphere and just peeking into the thermosphere.

Confusingly, however, (and perhaps unsurprisingly after reading the above), the U.S. has separately defined an astronaut as anyone who reaches an altitude greater than 50 miles, or 264,000 feet, in altitude.

Captain Joe Engle is seen here next to the X-15-2 rocket-powered research aircraft after a flight. Three of Engle's 16 X-15 flights were above 50 miles, qualifying him for astronaut wings under the Air Force definition.  Engle was later selected as a NASA astronaut in 1966, making him the only person who was already an astronaut before being selected as a NASA astronaut. (Credit: NASA)

Captain Joe Engle, a living example of the inconsistency surrounding use of the term “astronaut,” standing next to the X-15 research rocketplane. Three of Engle’s sixteen X-15 flights were above 50 miles, qualifying him for astronaut wings under the Air Force definition, and Engle was later selected as a NASA astronaut in 1966. This makes him the only person in history who was technically already an astronaut before being hired as a NASA astronaut. (Credit: NASA)

Been There, Flown That?

According to current convention, one needs to cross either 50 or 62 miles in altitude to reach space.  Yet the above altitude list demonstrates that what most would refer to as a spacesuit (a pressure suit) is required by anyone attempting even 1/5th that altitude.

Clearly, walking through the above exercise demonstrates that the human experience of “outer space” is reached far lower in altitude than these conventions currently dictate.  Further, it’s clear to see that a would-be astronaut has escaped more than 90% of the atmosphere by mass well before reaching the Kármán Line.

(To reiterate, this is a rub even between the U.S. and international bodies, whose definitions of the dividing line to space differ by more than 63,000 feet!).

Hence, this is where serious debates about space exploration begin.  For example, when private spacecraft aim to achieve suborbital spaceflight altitudes of 40 miles, such as XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx Mark I, they do not currently break through either the U.S. space line or the Kármán Line.  Consequently, any passengers aboard cannot be technically called “Astronauts” by the most generally-accepted definition of the term.

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XCOR XR-5K18 “Lynx” main engine test on the flight weight fuselage. The Lynx Mark I is designed to achieve an altitude of 200,000 feet, or roughly 40 miles. (Credit: XCOR Aerospace)

However, as anyone can see in the above list of altitudes and physical characteristics, 40 miles above Earth not only has long achieved the human experience of “space,” but it skirts the boundary above which even meteors pass by at many tens of kilometers per second (where entry friction would make even a sparse but significant atmosphere quickly known) without noticing anything appreciable.

Outer space, indeed!

However, particularly, from the OldSpace corner, I’ve personally detected the prevalent sentiment that since this sort of travel doesn’t even reach “space,” it therefore could not possibly be considered exploration, much less fruitful exploration.  Even those private efforts that do breach the Kármán Line are often scoffed at as repeats of old triumphs and rejected under nearly the same pretense.

So, in an effort to thwart what I see as burgeoning (and perhaps  unconscious) resentment within the more traditional segments of the space establishment with respect to new, private space technology, projects, and the human travelers that will utilize them, let’s delve further toward the heart of this identity crisis.

While the advent of space tourism (or participant-ism) began in the early 2000s, it is with one specific event that to my heuristic eye the socio-technical deconstruction of our once-clean concept of the human space explorer truly began:

The 2004 clinching of the Ansari X Prize by the private flights of Virgin Galactic‘s SpaceShipOne.

SpaceShipOne released from the White Knight mothership beneath a crescent moon. (Credit: Scaled Composites/SpaceDaily)

SpaceShipOne released from the White Knight mothership beneath a crescent moon. (Credit: Scaled Composites/SpaceDaily)

Suborbital: Not Space Enough?

Objectors to the idea that spaceflights like that performed by SpaceShipOne can be considered fruitful space exploration point out that SpaceShipOne was only a suborbital spaceplane, boasting speeds far less than those required to reach orbital velocity.

(Translation:  Suborbital spacecraft only have enough steam to peek out into officially-defined space for a few minutes before falling back to Earth.  In contrast, bigger spacecraft, like NASA’s former Space Shuttle or SpaceX’s Dragon, can power all the way up to orbital speed and remain in space until they choose to slow down and fall back to Earth or are slowly brought down by atoms in the sparse upper-atmosphere.)

Further, these objectors often and rightfully point out that these very low-altitude portions of outer space, referred to collectively as “suborbital space,” have already been traversed hundreds of times by astronauts.  (Indeed, more than 250 times during the Space Shuttle Program alone.)

SpaceShipOne’s achievement itself was a modern replication of the 1960s’ X-15 Program, the pioneer rocketplane that produced the world’s first astronauts and gathered invaluable research for NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle programs.

Hence, arguments against the concept of private suborbital space exploration typically conclude that, with all of this in mind, there’s no more exploration to suborbital spaceflight than driving down a paved road.  Suborbital spaceflight participants are therefore not explorers, nor can what they engage in while there be called space exploration.

Particularly amongst the old guard of space science, “exploration” is therefore reserved for those pushing the frontier in higher orbits, cislunar space, trips to near-Earth asteroids, Mars, and beyond.

Astronaut pilots Brian Binnie (left) and Mike Melvill helped Burt Rutan win the $10 million Ansari X Prize by completing two manned space flights within two weeks, each piloting SS1.  (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Astronaut pilots Brian Binnie (left) and Mike Melvill. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

However, before throwing in the towel on 21st century suborbital space exploration, we must address the reality that SpaceShipOne managed to privately achieve what until that time had only been accomplished by global superpowers – no small feat!  Further, it was a feat that led the FAA to award the first (and so far, the only) commercial astronaut spaceflight wings to pilots Brian Binnie and Mike Melvill.

Surely they can therefore be considered pioneers, and exploration seems a fitting term for their achievement.

Peeling the veil farther back, it’s true that so-called space tourists began purchasing trips to the Mir space station and then to the International Space Station as far back as 2001.  In order to participate, these private space adventurers had to endure and successfully complete the very same training as their Russian cosmonaut counterparts.

The intriguing question that follows is this: If what government-sponsored astronauts were engaged in was and is considered to be legitimate exploration, wouldn’t by extension the same label apply to all on the same voyage assisting in the same work?  If someone were to have purchased their way aboard Shackleton’s Endurance, would they be considered any less an explorer today?

Of course not.

Then, what of our oceans as a parallel?  They have been traversed hundreds of thousands if not millions of times in the last several centuries.  Does this mean that no exploration may be conducted on the Earth’s oceans in the 21st century?

Surely not.  Context is key.  (One may explore climate effects, seek out undiscovered ecological niches, probe poorly-mapped coastlines, explore archaeological evidence of our past activities, wield new technology to tease new data from an old environment, and that’s not even scratching the ocean’s subsurface…)

Just so, objections to suborbital spaceflight as legitimate space exploration logically fall apart.  In even greater degree than with Earth’s oceans, there is ample room and conceptual research justifications for the legitimate continued exploration of suborbital space.

So what’s the real issue here?  Why is there any resistance at all?

Evolution.

Or, more specifically, how we as a culture always tend to get evolution wrong.

An evolutionary path of spaceflight depicted.  (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

A depicted evolutionary path of spaceflight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Getting Evolution Wrong, or

“How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love NewSpace”

As a geologist, I’ve become very sensitive to a sort of teleological conceit that people tend to carry into the common understanding of biological evolution.  In other words, people tend to incorrectly believe that life evolves toward something.

We culturally call something that is more advanced more evolved, and we characterize something unsophisticated to be less evolved or primitive.  When something loses ground, we even say that it has devolved.

Well, much as the term “theory” is almost universally misused compared to the scientific meaning of the term, (people usually mean that they have a “hypothesis” when they say they have a “theory”), the terms “evolved” and “primitive” are fairly universally misused and misunderstood.

They’re relative terms, not universal terms.

One could paraphrase this misunderstanding by assessing the belief that there was a sort of biological, evolutionary destiny for algae – that given enough time and opportunity, the little, green “organism that could” would eventually evolve to become a human being.

This, in turn, reasonably translates to a belief that we as humans are more “advanced” than algae, and that we’re therefore “better” than algae.

One of the International Space Station solar arrays, which converts sunlight to energy.  (Credit: NASA)

One of the International Space Station solar arrays, which converts sunlight to energy. (Credit: NASA)

Many are consequently shocked to learn that all of these beliefs are untrue, based on a series of logical fallacies.  Science, quite surprisingly, shows us that quite the opposite is true.  Life will evolve in any number of convenient directions, even those that seem backwards to our modern perceptions.

Yes, human beings benefit from large brains, acute stereoscopic vision, and an uncanny ability to communicate, which we have wielded to our great advantage.  Algae cells possess none of these tools.  However, algae can convert sunlight into sugar using only a modest supply of water and carbon dioxide.  Our best attempts to use our “advanced” brains to perform this very same and ancient task have failed to come within even a fraction of li’l algae’s efficiency.  (Would that human beings achieve this apparently “primitive” feat, the human civilization would have permanently solved the social issues of hunger and starvation!  …That’s fairly “advanced” biological processing, if you asked me.)

So, by which yardstick are we to define “advanced”?  Conceit leads us to select our own attributes as more advanced, yet this is not scientific.  It’s arbitrary.

For a more specific example, the fossil record reveals in several instances that seaborne life, adapting to a changing and increasingly food-rich land surface, eventually (over the course of thousands or tens of thousands of generations) made feet of fins and took hold on land.  However, this same land-based life, under reverse pressure for food back toward the sea, over time reversed the trend and converted its feet back to fins once again.

The erroneous interpretation here, (like assuming that we’re more advanced than algae), is that feet are more advanced than fins.  The reality is that they are simply different biological tools that may be used, abandoned, and returned to if necessary or useful.

“More evolved” simply tracks the progression of evolution forward through time, whereas “more primitive” describes a rung in an organism’s ancestry.

(It is perfectly reasonable, then, in the reverse-adaptation scenario mentioned above, to have a situation where fins are more evolved than feet!)

In short, we see that instead of propelling itself toward a single destiny, life is flexible.  It responds to the pressures of the outside world, wherever they lead.  Evolution, therefore, is not so much the story of the noble rise of algae to one day become more “advanced” animal life to one day become even more advanced human beings who might one day build rockets to explore the stars…  Instead, biological evolution is a complex, daunting, nonlinear story of life surviving at any cost; adapting to any niche it can, and capitalizing to its fullest on whatever biological skills were close at hand.

So, too, is the same error present with our perception of spaceflight and space exploration.  As a modern, parasitic sort of conceit tagging along with our understanding of space history, we presume a linear destiny has been in play, when in fact it has not.

The original image above, a logo occasionally promoted by Virgin Galactic, intentionally relates evolution to spaceflight.  Ironically, it plays to both the incorrect and correct views of evolution.

People tend to view space exploration itself as a teleological journey toward more distant and exotic locations, describing it in apropos biological terminology as a migration of life toward a destiny amongst the stars, to new colonies, etc.

MarchofProgressThis is a feeling certainly visually-evoked by the above image of evolving spacecraft, a nod to the famous “March of Progress” illustration of 1965 simplified at right.  However, this view relies on the conceit that farther distances are more advanced or “better” than short-range flights.  When looking at the facts, this simply isn’t the case.

For instance, a phone in a pilot’s pocket aboard SpaceShipOne would have had literally thousands of times the computing power of the Apollo Lunar Module (LM) guidance computer, (to say nothing of SpaceShipOne’s onboard instrumentation).  SpaceShipOne, also leveraging new developments in the technology of aerodynamics, composite materials, GPS location and tracking, and with the novel innovation of a feathered wing configuration for reentry, was a much more technologically-advanced spacecraft than the LM.

The LM, it is also true to say, could not possibly have successfully produced aerodynamic lift or had enough thrust to land on the Earth, two feats SpaceShipOne performed with apparent ease.  But SpaceShipOne only poked its head out into space, whereas the LM both landed on and departed from the moon while enabling its passengers to perform extra-vehicular activities – all impossible feats for SpaceShipOne.

So, by which yardstick do we define “advanced”?  Here, our same algae/human conceit rears its head.  But clearly, destination and the level of technological advancement of a spacecraft are not related.  They are simply different.

In fact, looking more closely at the above diagram, this truth is actually captured.  An observer will note that the second to the last, most “evolved” spacecraft is actually the LM.  The final step in the sequence is SpaceShipOne, a ship whose maximum designed altitude does not come within 0.03% of the distance to the Moon.

It is this conceit, I believe, that is also at the heart of OldSpace’s reluctance to (or perhaps even resentment of) embracing private space exploration efforts and those who engage in them as space explorers.  We don’t like the messy version of evolution.

We prefer our teleology.

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Bigelow Aerospace’s Genesis 1 orbital module, a first-of-its-kind inflatable spacecraft boasting superior micrometeorite resistance than rigid modules. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

Evolving Our View of Space Exploration

In almost back-to-back recent events, what to me is an example of the true nature of the conflict between the many colliding conceptions of astronauts, space explorers, and space exploration was brought into sharp relief:

On the one hand, a NASA historian who I greatly respect alleged to me that private suborbital spaceflight and even new, commercial orbital space modules and transportation systems (which have recently received NASA funding to enhance the U.S. space infrastructure and give scientists more platforms and opportunities to conduct research),  were patently unworthy of NASA dollars.

Existing Russian and U.S. systems should be relied upon, and the already pinched NASA budget, he implied, should be saved and consolidated for the more worthy endeavor of exploring truly uncharted planetary territory.

Would I ever argue against probing the possible subsurface seas of Europa, the lakes of Titan or even the permafrost-spiked upper latitudes of Mars as worthy exploration?  Certainly not.  I became a geologist for precisely these sorts of explorations.

However, this bias once again recalls our comfortable teleological conceit.

Nearly simultaneously with this conversation, I gave a talk at the 2013 Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference where I championed the use of suborbital flights to gather new information to explore how low-dose, high intensity radiation exposures may affect the human body.  This untapped research, in turn, could help guide and revise radiation safety measures and protocols right here on Earth.

Admittedly, such work is not as thrilling or romantic as forging ahead into the uncharted lands of new worlds.  However, I would argue to the teeth that this research also presents a completely legitimate form of space exploration, one with potentially even more immediate application to life at home than exploring other worlds.

Likewise, expending the effort to create a private, orbital space transportation system may not seem to be breakthrough space exploration work.  However, the simple addition of more players, minds, and motives has the very real possibility of producing quantum leaps – at the very least by assaulting the status quo.  (On that note, keep an eye on SpaceX’s Grasshopper test program…)

This exemplifies what I see as the root of OldSpace’s resistance: The idea that ground already trodden has nothing left to teach us; That if it has been done before, especially by the hallowed pioneers of early NASA, it cannot be improved or expanded upon while possessing a legitimate claim to space exploration.

If this conception is as prevalent as it seems to me to be, it is with no small amount of urgency that we must confront this bias head-on.

Chiefly, such a perception amongst researchers and professionals in existing aerospace firms creates an entry barrier so impenetrable that private space exploration firms and the innovation that comes with them would be thwarted before they even had a chance to prove themselves in the space market.

Secondly, even if unwittingly held by those on grant review panels, in academic positions of leadership, or even in elected office, these perceptions would threaten the ability for new ideas, techniques, and novel research to receive the support they need to see the light of day, to the detriment of us all.

Like an accurate view of biological adaptation over time, we should afford our cherished concepts of space exploration the freedom to evolve with the pressures of the modern era.

The history of NASA spin-off technologies shows us that even one of these space-based innovations, which may not initially seem as teleologically-advanced as setting foot on Mars, may radically change life on Earth for the better.

Another, seemingly innocuous line of research explored in even the nearest atmospheric shores of so-called Outer Space could trigger the long-sought paradigm shift that at last transforms humanity into a thriving, spacefaring civilization.

Private, professional scientists preparing for hypobaric chamber astronaut training.  (Credit: Ben McGee)

Private, professional scientists preparing for hypobaric chamber astronaut training. (Credit: Ben McGee)

Reconstructing Space

When undergoing suborbital scientist astronaut training myself, a journalist for Newsweek who was there to chronicle the three-day training experience remarked something to the effect of, “People want to go to space because space is special, and the people who go there are therefore special.  So, isn’t it a problem that the more people go to space, the less special it all becomes, and fewer people will ultimately want to go or be interested in/by space?”

Essentially, he was wondering if our work to make space more accessible to both citizens and researchers wasn’t ultimately self-defeating.  It’s a fair question.

However, is that really what draws people to space?  Is it really simply the remoteness of outer space and a desire for the prestige associated with having been where so few have gone before?

Frankly, while I can’t speak for anyone but myself, this seems like the perception of someone who does not personally wish to engage in space exploration.  Of all the people I have known who wish to loose the bonds of gravity and touch the great beyond, it isn’t for bragging rights.

Instead, it’s a deeply personal calling – like those drawn to deep-sea or antarctic ice shelf research – something that seems to draw like-minded or like-willed people to the science frontiers to plunge their own hands past the realm of comfort and viscerally shove on the limits of knowledge and human experience.

By my internal compass, this is what separates mere sightseeing from honest exploration.  Bragging rights versus knowledge.

Adventure may be experienced in either case, but only in the context of the latter could a successfully-completed spaceflight ever be considered a failure, (e.g., if the experiment wasn’t successfully performed or a data-logger malfunctioned, etc.).  This is a healthy benchmark for an explorer, which becomes comfortably similar to how we define exploration here on Earth.

From this perspective, it finally occurred to me what it is that we really need in order to resolve these ongoing debates about space exploration and worthiness.  Quite simply, in order to allow space exploration to blossom, we must let space itself evolve…

…Our collective conception of space and astronauts, that is.

Pilot Felix Baumgartner jumps out from the capsule at an altitude of 24+ miles during the final manned flight for Red Bull Stratos, 10/14/12. (Credit: Jay Nemeth)

Pilot Felix Baumgartner jumps out from the capsule at an altitude of 24+ miles during the final manned balloon flight for Red Bull Stratos, 10/14/12. (Credit: Jay Nemeth)

Closing Thoughts

No matter where we determine the arbitrary dividing line separating the atmosphere from space to be, and irrespective of the motives of those who desire to travel there, the reality is that space is no longer an abstract location.  It’s a place.

In fact, “space” is many places.

Space includes suborbital space, near-space, low Earth orbit, the International Space Station, geosynchronous orbit, cislunar space, the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and all other natural and artificial celestial locales and bodies that now more than ever beg us to recognize them for what they are and pursue what they each, separately, have to teach us.

In so vast a series of environments, both literally and conceptually, there is ample room for all types of exploration, from the public and pure-science motivated to private and profit-oriented; From testing the farthest, uncharted reaches of deep space to surveying the near-space regions just beyond our atmosphere about which we have so much yet to learn, (take the recent discovery of upper-atmospheric sprites and elves as an example).

Just as the same, cerulean blue oceans beckon tourists to cruise in luxury within giant floating hotels, lure fishermen away from land to harvest food from the sea for both business and pleasure, and attract scientists to study its biological, geological, and climatological mysteries, so too will space invite a spectrum of sightseers, explorers, workers, and businessmen.

Consequently, I endorse an extremely broad and inclusive view of space exploration.  For example, while only half-way to even the most liberal current altitude line for reaching space, the Red Bull Stratos “space jump” served several significant space exploration research functions.

Specifically, in addition to wearing the trappings of spaceflight (i.e., pressure suit, pressurized capsule), the jump collected data invaluable to those currently modeling suborbital spacecraft passenger ejection systems, scenarios, and high-altitude parachute systems.  Likewise, prior to the jump (which broke several records), medical and physiological science had no idea what the effects of bodily crossing the sound barrier would be(!).

Further, I believe time will show that, long after our lingering 20th century biases have fallen away, legitimate exploration of all realms applicable to space exploration will be perfectly justified and therefore persistently embraced as such.

And in that case, exploration of each of these different regions of space and near-space will remain vibrant until the boundaries of our knowledge have been pushed so far outward that our civilization’s use of space makes it simply unrecognizable to us today.

It is then, perhaps, that space exploration will finally have abandoned our conceptual conceits and eliminated the vagueness of our young descriptions of the realms beyond our world and those who choose to work and explore there.

-And from the general term Astronaut-explorer I expect a new range of titles will have descended:  Astrographer, Stratobiologist, Orbital Engineer, Suborbital Astronomer, Selenologist, Areologist…

________________

Comments welcome.





Why Support Human Spaceflight?

7 01 2013

NASA plans to test the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle in low-Earth orbit in 2014. (Image credit: NASA)

It seems that an eternal question plagues conversations about the future of commercial or governmental spaceflight: “To man (a spacecraft), or not to man?”

-This query is one I am often posed when I reveal my own spaceflight ambitions.  Many wonder why we bother with the incredible expense of sending humans off-world when critics argue that 1) the same or better work could be performed with robotic spacecraft; 2) laboratory experiments in space add little value to what we can achieve here on Earth; or 3) that in the context of state-supported spaceflight these activities divert crucial funds from other social needs.

Well, as it would turn out, former NASA Director of Life Sciences Dr. Joan Vernikos has answers.

Defending Human Spaceflight

Astronaut Edward H. White II, pilot on the Gemini-Titan 4 spaceflight, is shown during his egress from the spacecraft. (Image credit: NASA)

Astronaut Edward H. White II, pilot on the Gemini-Titan 4 spaceflight, is shown during his egress from the spacecraft. (Image credit: NASA)

In a sweeping article she authored back in 2008 for the medical journal Hippokratia entitled, “Human Exploration of Space: why, where, what for?”, Vernikos exposes the many failings of these criticisms while highlighting a spectrum of commercial and societal applications for human space research.

  • For starters, she points out that the repair and upgrades of the Hubble Space Telescope – universally hailed as not only the most important telescope in history but also as one of humanity’s most successful scientific endeavors – was only possible via the use of skilled and trained astronauts.
  • Expressing a fair amount of foresight, Vernikos then goes on to point out that commercial space travel providers (see: SpaceX) will rely on the knowledge gained from human spaceflight to support a safe and secure experience both for researchers and adventurers.
  • There’s the classic and no-less-relevant argument that human explorers have capabilities for innovation, troubleshooting, creative problem-solving, and adaptation simple unavailable to robotic counterparts.  This is particularly useful when utilizing very sensitive instrumentation and performing research with many unknowns or variables.

But these points, suitable defenses on their own, pale in comparison to Vernikos’s description of the commercial enterprise that grew out of the Shuttle-era…

Exploring the Space Applications Market

The reality of trickle-down consumer technology and products that were originally developed for human spaceflight applications is breathtaking.  It truly seems that anyone who downplays the commercial and social trickle-down benefits of tackling the challenges of human spaceflight simply hasn’t done their homework.  For example, Vernikos (here emphasizing her medical background) describes in detail that space exploration is directly responsible for:

  • The ubiquitous reflective, anti-UV, anti-glare coating on eyeglasses
  • Small-scale blood-testing (requiring drops instead of vials)
  • The entire field of telemedicine
  • In-utero fetal monitoring
  • Genetic pathogen-detection sensors
  • Telemetry computing for the civil and environmental industries
  • Enhanced breast cancer diagnostics using the Hubble Telescope digital imaging system
  • Tissue engineering
  • Enhanced antibiotics generation
  • Bed-rest countermeasures

-And this is just the tip of the iceberg.  In this way, Vernikos promotes redirecting attention to the idea of the “Space Applications Market,” which is the name she gives to the commercial arena where these NASA-driven technological and knowledge advances are incorporated into commercial and societal applications.

Instead of the microgravity-tended orbital commercial manufacturing or power-generation facilities that many assumed would be the means by which commercial enterprise would capitalize on human space exploration, it’s been the smaller-scale technological innovations and applications that make a (if not somewhat obscured) powerful impact both on the economy as well as on our daily lives.  Just look at the above list of advances in health technology and medical know-how.

-And new research suggesting a possible link between exposure to ionizing radiation in space and neurodegeneration – an accelerated onset of Alzheimer’s Disease – means that the greatest medical advances as a result of human spaceflight may yet be ahead of us.

All it will take is support for human spaceflight.





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!








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