Leaving Bigelow Aerospace

20 03 2016
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Image of the 2100-cubic-meter “Olympus” mockup in the A3 Building at the Bigelow Aerospace main campus in North Las Vegas.

While I can’t speak too explicitly about the circumstances surrounding my departure, it’s time for me to update these chronicles to report that I’ve left my position as lead human factors analyst and radiation modeler/instrument designer at Bigelow Aerospace.

I expect that this news may perplex many readers who know how long I’ve been working toward a position precisely like the one I held at Bigelow, and the confusion would be well-founded without a view to the many experiences I’ve had these last two years.

Clarity, perhaps, may be best expressed (without violating company Non-Disclosure Agreements) in the immortal words of a certain legendary Jedi.  Quite simply, Bigelow Aerospace’s destiny “lies along a different path from mine.”  …at least for the foreseeable future.

A Little Context

It’s taken me some time to compose this post in large part because the entire Bigelow Aerospace experience has been an exercise in extremes.   Frankly, I haven’t been sure how best to distill what exactly it is that’s happened in the nearly two years since I started there.

Those who follow the industry will recall that Bigelow suffered a recent round of deeply-cutting layoffs, reported as between 20% and 30% of the staff.  While I was not amongst those shown the door shortly after the New Year, I will admit that this event did influence my decision to leave.

However, in the interests of moving forward, I’d like to focus here not on the motivation for my leaving, but rather, on revealing what it is that I’m walking away with.  Much, as it happens, can be learned by just spending a little time working at a small NewSpace company in the thick of the newest “Commercial Space” movement…

Interdisciplinarity is the New Black

Versatility and adaptability are not just advantageous attributes for those seeking gainful employment at a small NewSpace firm like Bigelow… They’re demanded by the nature of the work.  There, one doesn’t just wear ‘multiple hats.’  Those with the most longevity become experts at balancing and nimbly flipping between a spire of dynamic headwear as they sprint from need to need.

For instance, any of my given Bigelow mornings might have started with a conventional task, like formalizing human factors safety requirements or recommendations.  Before long, however, I’d be interrupted by a “fire drill” research effort – something like identifying power requirements or a mass budget for a particular life support system aboard the International Space Station.  This could be followed by performing a critical document peer review that a co-worker needs turned around quickly, which I’d barely have finished before getting pulled in as a “fresh pair of eyes” for a meeting on something I’m only tangentially related to, like power system depth-of-discharge.  Then, after managing a few more minutes on the task that started the day, I’d get entangled with having to help manage something like an unexpected spot audit for the radiation safety program or helping to bend Swagelok tubing for a looming deadline.  Finally, we’d be informed at the end of the day of an impending emergent project or task we hadn’t seen before, which would be our new priority one.  So it went…

My point is that, in much of the NewSpace world, companies’ smaller sizes make it a great commodity to be able to serve a useful role at any number of conference tables, laboratories, or shop floors on a given day.

Making Big Dents (whether you want to or not)

In many conventional aerospace firms it might be difficult or at least extremely time consuming (years) to make a ‘dent’ in the company, i.e., contribute in a way that makes a noticeable and lasting mark on a program or programs.  No so with smaller NewSpace firms.  (Quite the opposite, in fact.)

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The officially unofficial Bigelow Aerospace Crew Systems Program patch I designed in 2014. (Our motto, “Homines Ante Omnia” means, “Humans Before All Else,” or more loosely, “Crew First!”)

Take for instance the latest incarnation of the Crew Systems group at Bigelow Aerospace, which I helmed.  From designing the program’s first complete Concept of Operations on down to performing practical evaluations of physical items and procedures for future crew astronauts, I had an unprecedented opportunity to get my hands on the meat of a division’s scope of work, tasking, priorities, approach, and hiring.

In fact, I was shocked at how quickly I was given enough rope to really create something unique that pushes the envelope… (or hang myself if I didn’t think it through.)  Such is the nature of the beast at companies that must be nimbly staffed and move quickly to adapt to the needs of an emerging market.

Unfortunately, for the smallest companies, it seems that making a dent is almost a certainty.  This is true even (or perhaps especially) for those who under-perform.  In this case, missteps by even one engineer or manager have a capability to cripple an entire program or cost the company years in terms of lost time when work has to be re-done.

Don’t Get Too Attached

Given market fits and spurts or the risk of R&D grants not being renewed before something is ready to go primetime, etc., the odds are pretty high of a specific project you’ve been working on getting shelved, at least temporarily. Not to despair, though — if the company is still around, it usually implies that management is following the money/clients to more successful work.

(Take even the patch I mentioned above: after a management changeover, much of the earlier work we’d accomplished needed to be re-approved.  However, as a super-low priority, getting something as programmatically-cosmetic as a patch approved by upper management slipped between the cracks upstairs, and so to this day, the logo became officially unofficial.  Perhaps this will remain a vestige of our work to be replaced by a future incarnation of the Bigelow Aerospace Crew Systems group.)

Be Ready to Learn

I mean this in the truest sense.  Prepare yourself.  I’ve learned more about the aerospace field in the last two years than I did during a lifetime of leisure reading as an enthusiast and years of academic work on the subject(!).

Specifically, be prepared to hinge your skull back and brain-guzzle for the first few months, if not the first year.  The pace is breakneck and the content oh-so-alluring for those who share a passion for space.

The lesson types are threefold:

  1. Academic-style learning, that being more along the lines of facts and figures, e.g., “What kinds of tanks are used to store oxygen outside the Quest airlock on the ISS, who makes them, what are their properties, and how much do they cost?”
  2. Programmatic learning, e.g., “What do we need to get this piece of hardware from TRL-2 to TRL-9?”
  3. Lessons-learned – potentially the most valuable, e.g., “If only we had this particular expertise, we might have been able to meet this deadline or fill this critical knowledge/experience gap!”

If anything, my time at Bigelow taught me that if you’re not ready to learn, then NewSpace isn’t for you.

Looking Ahead

Despite the fact that my first foray into the aerospace contracting world is behind me, 2016 promises some exciting adventures.  With a little more time and energy available to me to devote to the blog, research, finishing up a Master’s Degree, and pursuing some field adventures of the cataclysmic kind, stay tuned for a lot more from Astrowright…

…and as always, Semper Exploro!

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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.





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!





Historic Dragon Caught: Dawn of Commercial Space

25 05 2012

(Credit: NASA)

Quite literally, the sun dawned across from the International Space Station minutes ago to reveal history in the making.

During a flawless night-time “grab,” Astronaut Don Pettit used the station’s robotic Canada arm to successfully secure SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft.  This makes SpaceX the first private company to launch a spacecraft into orbit and rendezvous with the station.

(Credit: NASA)

Human history will never be the same.  It is now living fact that entrepreneurs can leave our planet to seek reward beyond.

-And a mythical dragon took us there.

All looks well, and so-called “berthing” of the spacecraft (not to be confused with “docking,” which occurs under a spacecraft’s own power,) to the station should occur later today.

(Credit: NASA)

(Credit: NASA)





SpaceX chasing rocketry’s Holy Grail

24 01 2012

As many who follow and support spaceflight are well aware, a Holy Grail of modern space transportation is the concept of the fully reusable rocket, or Reusable Launch System/Vehicle (RLV).  Now, NewSpace orbital spacecraft provider SpaceX might just have this elusive target squarely in its sights.

1950s-era painting of a Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing, fully reusable spacecraft. (Credit: Chesley Bonestell Estate)

Many solutions have been suggested to achieve the true RLV space technology benchmark, which would herald a new era in space transportation by driving launch prices down at least an order of magnitude.  However, only a very few of these designs have lofted from the drawing board, and none have yet been successfully implemented.

Amongst these attempts are practically all of the famed, V-2 rocket-inspired Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) concepts, such as those Vertical Takeoff, Vertical Landing (VTVL) rockets populating 1950s science fiction (right), as well as the Vertical-Takeoff, Horizontal Landing craft (VTHL) such as Lockheed’s Venturestar from the 1990s.   

However, SpaceX, which has a cargo contract with NASA in-hand, is showing no signs of taking a breath prior to their first demonstration flight to the International Space Station later this year.  Instead of the traditional, expendable rocket stages typical of space transportation, SpaceX is aiming to make their Falcon 9 rocket fully reusable (and has been quietly doing so since 2009). 

This bears repeating.  SpaceX plans to try and save their spent stages.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. (Credit: SpaceX)

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. (Credit: SpaceX)

In a draft environmental assessment filed last fall, SpaceX calls the first reusable stage of the Falcon 9 the “Grasshopper,” and proceeds to generally describe potential launch and testing operations to be conducted from a test site in the city of McGregor, Texas.

The concept is simple.  With a little extra fuel, forethought, and extendable legs, each stage could conceivably guide its own return for a powered landing (video available here). 

(After all, the Lunar Lander Challenge is finding innovative solutions to this same vertical-landing problem from the other side of the conceptual fence.)

If successful, this forward drive from SpaceX could represent a watershed moment for conventional rocketry.  Perhaps, should Grasshopper prove the viability of the RLV, it will no longer be seen as permissible or competitive by launch providers to waste spent rocket stages.

Then, for the first time, we could see a substantial launch price shift along with the largest widening of the doorway to space since the 1960s.

Keep your eyes on this one.





NASTAR: Follow-up videos

1 11 2011

View of the Phoenix centrifuge simulator interior from the observation lounge.

For those interested in something a little more full-motion, I submit to you a quick post today pointing toward what civilian commercial scientist-astronaut training, (i.e., non-NASA) looks like.

Courtesy of Keith Cowing (of nasawatch.com, spaceref.com, and a phalanx of other space industry sites fame,) the video of our high-g centrifuge training at the NASTAR Center last May was recorded and uploaded as a live webcast (I’m second in the video).

NOTE: Because the video was recorded live, all commentary, hoots, hollars, and laughter is therefore uncensored and should be received in that light.

Click here for the archived webcast. (Be advised – the video is long!)

Each participant in the video takes three “flights” on a SpaceShipOne-style craft simulator built into a state-of-the-art centrifuge.  The first of these simulations is performed at 50% power, and the second two are at 100%, enabling trainees to experience exactly what the pilots of SpaceShipOne experienced on their way to space.

Video of the exterior of the simulator during a “run” may also be found here, while a view of the display inside the simulator during a run may be seen here.

It was a blast!  (I blogged the experience starting here.)  So, for the curious, enjoy the video, and many thanks to Keith for archiving this for posterity!





Future SwRI astronauts stomp on the accelerator

26 08 2011

SwRI's suborbital science mission patch. (Credit: SwRI)

A quick note today on the further development of the worlds’ first commercial scientist-astronauts!  The Southwest Research Institute‘s (SwRI) suborbital research program, after its stunning announcement last spring of the purchase of several research seats on upcoming suborbital spaceflights, is showing no signs of slowing.

Recently, after their three commercial scientist-astronauts-in-training, (specifically termed payload specialists,) completed basic astronaut training, they announced the release of their project mission patch (at left).

I’m not sure if anyone else feels the same way, but I’ll be brave enough to admit that something as technically irrelevant as a patch can make an endeavor feel suddenly very real.

According to their recent statements, the team is moving out of the phase of training and the construction of their spaceflight experiments to fine-tuning their payloads and integrating them with future spacecraft.  With SwRI and Dr. Alan Stern leading the way, the advent of commercial civilian scientist-astronauts is upon us, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.  I hope to follow right behind.

Ad astra, SwRI!








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