Blues in Space Predicted!

31 08 2011

There are a number of other space and spaceflight stories deserving of my attention, but I had to fast-track this one out.  Why the rush?  Frankly, I’m thrilled, for my previous prediction of blues in space has been proven true!

Astronaut Ron Garan and his blues guitar. (Credit: NASA)

In a fun “home video” piece, NASA Astronaut Ron Garan goes “missing,” and a search is made of the extensive International Space Station to find him.

Where is he holed up and why?  Well, upon hearing that the crew’s return home has been delayed due to the recent problems with Russia’s rocket launches, @Astro_Ron (as he is known on Twitter) retreated to the Soyuz spacecraft currently docked to the station, donned his shades, and began strumming up “The Space Station Blues,” an original(!).

In his own words:

“I wanted to do something light-hearted to let everyone know that we are all in this together, so I enlisted Mike Fossum to help me make a video poking a little fun at the situation.”

As far as I’m concerned, the advent of original blues on the space frontier marks this as a red letter day for space culture!  Way to go, Ron!

Now that I think of it, perhaps “The Space Station Blues” deserves a better treatment?  (Hmm…  I wonder if I could get the band back together for that one…)

So, as a 21st-Century Blues Brother in Space might say:

“It’s 190 miles to Earth, we’ve got a full crew, half a pack of supplies, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.  Hit it.”

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Russia announces new Nuclear Rockets for manned Mars trip

16 04 2011

1960s Aerojet General rendering of a nuclear rocket in flight configuration.

For the first time in possibly four decades, two electrifying space technology phrases have managed to show up in the same sentence in earnest.  Quietly nestled in the murky details of a somewhat thrilling AP news story about a potential new Russian spacecraft to be produced in the next few years are the words: “manned mission to Mars,” and, “new nuclear engines.”

This is fantastic, as “nuclear engines” can only mean a resurrection of the triumphant nuclear thermal rocket technology pioneered and successfully tested during the Cold War.

Why is this significant?  First, U.S. and Russian testing of nuclear rockets during the Cold War proved not only that the relatively simple technology worked, but that it was amazingly efficient.  So efficient, in fact, that the rockets tested under the NERVA Program are still twice as powerful as our best rockets today, (half-a-century later!).  Secondly, these rockets are of the weight and power necessary to significantly trim down travel times and make interplanetary manned missions feasible.

So, if the nuclear rocket technology is superior, why don’t we have this technology today?  Well, politics and paranoia led to the death of the nuclear rocket back in 1972, when:

  1. a new project called the Space Shuttle drew funding away from the NERVA Program and set our course in space exploration for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) instead of back to the Moon and Mars, and
  2. in the Cold War nuclear holocaust climate, the word “nuclear” became (understandably) a source of irrational fear.

Only a few experts remain alive who worked in the thick of original nuclear thermal rocket research and testing, and with NewSpace set to take over LEO cargo and crew transportation services, it is time to set our sights back on the more ambitious goals of lunar settlements and expanded human exploration of the solar system.  Nuclear thermal rockets will be the technology to take us there.  The Russians apparently realize that, and perhaps an international kick in the pants is what the U.S. research and industrial community needs to realize that it’s time to pick this research back up.

A nuclear arms race between the U.S. and Russia nearly ended the world.  It seems a fitting contrast that in the 21st Century, a nuclear space race between the U.S. and Russia could help humanity settle new ones.





China’s space lab rising

5 11 2010

Chinese National Space Administration. (Credit: CNSA)

As arguably the third most powerful space agency in the world, the China National Space Administration, which already has successful manned launches and a confirmed spacewalk under its belt, continues its determined drive starward.  In early October, the CNSA signed a cooperative space plan with Russia for the 2010-2012 timeframe, the contents of which are being held close to the vest but no doubt include the joint Russian-Chinese exploration and sample-return mission (Fobos-Grunt) to the Martian moon Phobos next year.

Now, as reported last week, China recently announced (confirmed) plans for a series of orbital space stations, beginning with the launch of an unmanned test module within the next five years and a fully-crewed, Mir-style station by the year 2020.

This places proposed CNSA activities right in the thick of NewSpace (e.g., U.S., U.K., Russian,) commercial space station and launch vehicle flight tests.  Now, it’s no secret that advanced space technology has dual military applications, and China’s military made everyone nervous with their anti-satellite (ASAT) test in 2007.  So, what are their intentions?  I’d like to believe the olive branches on CNSA’s logo are sincere.

-And, I should mention, if U.S.-Soviet space relations during the height of the Cold War are any precedent (Apollo-Soyuz), China’s space laboratory ambitions are sincerely peaceful.  Some of the most meaningful international olive branches have been traded in space.  Take the International Space Station, for example, which is the largest international cooperative effort in human history.  So, in that light, Godspeed CNSA.  The more permanent presences we have in orbit, the better it is for our space infrastructure in general.

And perhaps, working shoulder-to-shoulder off-world, the most effective Far-East/West bridges yet may be built in orbit.

Plaque commemmorating international coorperation assembled in orbit by astronauts and cosmonauts in 1975 as part of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Apollo Soyuz Test Project. (Credit: NASA)





NewSpace Station-Race begins

1 10 2010

Rendering of the Commercial Space Station (CSS) with Soyuz space vehicle attached. (Credit: Orbital Technologies)

This week has been pretty big for private space, (including astronomy / exoplanetology and development of space-related commercial products – more to come in future posts).

In something of a surprise announcement, Russian NewSpace startup Orbital Technologies announced a volley of corporate agreements and a proposed private, commercial space station to launch by the year 2015.

With what they call (unassumingly) the “Commercial Space Station,” or CSS, Orbital Technologies hopes to challenge Vegas space-habitat manufacturer Bigelow Aerospace‘s current monopoly on the private-space-station market.

Cutaway of the CSS. (Credit: Orbital Technologies)

The proposed Russian CSS will rely on proven Russian Soyuz spacecraft for crew transport and resupply (via Soyuz “Progress” cargo modification.)  In doing so, Orbital Technologies has (at least in concept) been able to leverage the most reliable spacecraft on Earth to date as part of their business model.  While there has been no evidence of “bent metal” so far, (unlike Bigelow, who already has two test modules in orbit,) the seriousness of the commercial relationships this company demonstrates out-of-the-gate makes them a definite contender.

In offering a space station along with Soyuz transportation to get there, Orbital Technologies is perhaps the only firm in direct competition with Bigelow Aerospace, which has partnered up with U.S. aerospace giant Boeing to supply CST-100 space transports to Bigelow’s inflatable space habitats.

Not-so-coincidentally, Bigelow Aerospace also has a target launch date of 2015 for their first manned space station.

CST-100 rendezvous with a Bigelow Aerospace space station. (Credit: Boeing)

The architecture of the CSS appears to be a single module, and options for expansion are not discussed in Orbital Technology’s literature, as opposed to the Bigelow Aerospace station, which is intentionally modular and expandable.

Power on the CSS is also an apparent issue, with no visible solar panels in the renderings supplied to-date — drawing power from a docked Soyuz spacecraft is an option.  (If true, this differs significantly from the Bigelow architecture, which includes onboard power for each module via solar arrays.)

Competition in a very real sense can only be a positive force for the development of destinations in space.  So, let the NewSpace Race begin.

It’s about time.





Russians take over Space Station… transport.

11 04 2010

In light of all of our (the U.S.’s) budget woes, the looming retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA program cancellations and shake-ups (Constellation,) and considering that most private commercial spacecraft (Cygnus, Dragon, etc.,) are still in the testing phase, it looks more likely than ever that there will be a lapse in U.S.’s ability to transport astronauts to orbit.  NASA isn’t blind to this reality, and they just hired the Russian Federal Space Agency to provide transportation services to the International Space Station through the year 2014.

On that note, let me say a little something about the Russians’ warhorse spacecraft that’s slated to step in, Energia’s Soyuz.

Quite simply, it’s the most successful spacecraft ever built.  On our side of the pale blue dot, we tend to think of the shuttle as the pinnacle of human-rated spacecraft, but in reality it’s really hard to top Soyuz’s reliability.  The Russians have it down to a science.  Soyuz has been flying since 1966 – that’s nearly 45 years – with only one fatal accident during that time.  It’s a simple, Space Race-era design that even the Chinese have recently copied for their manned space program:

It’s a thing of beauty, frankly.  And not in a sleek, aerodynamic way.  Rather, it glares with a boxy, utilitarian sense of purpose, an indellible imprint from the Cold War that’s impossible to miss.

Now, take a moment and compare this to renderings of Dragon and Cygnus, the front-runners of U.S. commercial space transportation:

See a family resemblance?  It’s only natural that new spacecraft would follow the design architecture set by the most successful craft in history.  My point this evening is simply this: Having the Russians take charge of space transportation should be a point of concern with regard to the implications for the U.S.’s immediate competitiveness in space operations capability.  Having the Soyuz take over should not, however, be a point of concern with respect to the safety of future astronaut crews.  The Russians know how to build a spacecraft.

They’ve been doing it longer than anybody else.

Progress module (a cargo-only version of Soyuz) docked to the ISS. Credit: NASA

 








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