Like most people who’ve made their career in IT I’ve spent a great deal of my spare time dabbling in things that (I hope) could potentially lead onto bigger things somewhere down the line. Nearly all of them start off with a burst of excitement as I dive into it, revelling in the challenge and marvelling at the things I can create if I just invest the time into them. After a while however that passion starts to fade into the background, slowly being replaced by the looming reality of the challenge I’ve set myself. In all but one cases this has eventually led to burn out, seeing the project shelved so that I can recoup and hopefully return to it. The only project to ever survive such a period was this blog, but even it came close to being shut down.
Shown above are the stats for this blog over the past couple years and each of the big changes tells a story. As you can see for a long while there was a steady increase in traffic, something which constantly drove me forward, to keep me writing even when I wondered why I was bothering. Then the slow decline started happening and I honestly couldn’t tell you why it was happening. Then I stumbled onto the fact that 20% of my visitors were disappearing between the search engine and my site, indicating that my blog was just loading far too slow for most people to bother waiting for it. Migrating the server to a new host saw an amazing spike in traffic, one that continue its upwards trend for a very long time.
Of course I eventually got curious as to why this was and found that that the majority of users weren’t visiting my site per se, they were just incidental visitors thanks to Google’s Image search. I had figured that this wouldn’t last, dreading the day when the hit came, and when it did the drop in traffic was significant and brutal. Indeed I had come so close to one of my personal goals (20K visits in a month) that losing it all was a big hit to my confidence as a blogger. Still the always upwards trend continued and motivation remained steady, that was until the start of this year when, inexplicably, I took yet another hit.
Try as I might to diagnose the issue the downward trend continued and, unfortunately, my motivation began to follow it. It all came to a head when my site got compromised and I inadvertently deleted my entire web folder, leaving me to wonder if it was worth even bothering to resurrect it. Of course I eventually came to my senses but I’d be lying if I said that my motivation for this wasn’t in some way linked to the number of page views I get at the end of each day.
I had mulled over writing this post for a long time, not to start a pity party or anything like that, more as a catharsis for my current situation. Honestly I had felt that there was something wrong with me as I should have been doing this for the love of it, not for the ego stroke reward that a page view is. However reading over Scott Adam’s (creator of Dilbert) treatise on how to be successful struck a cord with me, showing me that I’m not alone in being motivated by passions that ultimately get dashed by the lack of success. This blog then was the example that getting results is the way to keep yourself motivated and it should come as no surprise that it went away when the apparent success did as well.
For now I’m simply taking it day by day, continuing what I’ve always been doing and enjoying the act of writing more than the pageviews. It’s been helped somewhat by the fact that I’ve been able to make some changes that have directly resulted in little bumps in traffic, nothing crazy mind, but enough to show that I’m on the right track. It’s going to be a long time before I reach the dizzying heights that I was at just under a year ago but hopefully those numbers will be genuine, a real reflection of the effort I’ve put into this place since I began it almost 5 years ago.
The Proton series of rockets are one of the longest running in the history of spaceflight. They made their debut back in 1965 when the first of them was used to launch the Proton series of scientific satellites which were super high energy cosmic particle detectors. Since then they’ve become the mainstay of the Russian space program being used for pretty much everything from communication satellites to launching the Soyuz and Progress crafts that service the International Space Station. In that time they’ve seen some 384 launches total making it one of the most successful launch platforms to date. However that number also includes 44 full and partial failures, including a few high profile ones that I blogged about a couple years back.
Unfortunately it appears that history has repeated itself today with another Proton crashing in a rather spectacular fashion:
To put this in perspective there’s been about 37 total launches of the Proton rocket since 2010 with 5 of them being either partial or full failures. This isn’t out of line with the current failure rate of the program which hovers around 11% but 4 of those have happened in the last 2 years which is cause for concern. The primary problem seems to be related to the upper stage as 3 of the recent 4 have been due to that failing which can be attributed to it being a revised component that only came into service recently. This particular crash however was not an upper stage failure as it happened long before that component could come online, indicating the problem is with the first stage.
The reasoning behind why this crash ended so spectacularly is pretty interesting as it highlights some of the design differences between the American and Russian designs. Most American launchers have a launch termination system built into them for situations like this, allowing the ground crew to self destruct the rocket mid air should anything like this happen. Russian rockets don’t have such systems and prefer to simply shut down the engines when failures like this happen. However for the safety of the ground crew the engines won’t shut off prior to 42 seconds after launch which is why you see this particular rocket continuously firing right up until it tears itself apart.
Additionally the Russian rockets use a rocket fuel mixture that consists of Unsymmetrical Dimethylhydrazine and Nitrogen Tetroxide. When these two compounds mix together they react in a highly energetic hypergolic reaction, meaning they burn without requiring any ignition source. This is where the giant orange fireball comes from as the aerodynamic stresses on the craft ruptured the fuel and oxidizer tanks, causing them to come into contact and ignite. Other rocket designs usually use liquid oxygen and kerosene which don’t automatically ignite and thus wouldn’t typically produce a fireball like that but the launch termination systems usually ensure that all the remaining fuel is consumed anyway.
Needless to say this doesn’t reflect well on Russia’s launch capabilities but it should be taken in perspective. Whilst the recent failure rate is a cause for concern it has to be noted that the R-7, the rocket that launches both the Progress and Soyuz craft to the ISS, has experienced 0 failures in the same time frame with a very comparable number of launches. It’s quite likely that the failure isn’t part of a larger systemic issue since we’ve had multiple successful launches recently and I’m sure we’ll know the cause sooner rather than later. Hopefully Russia can get the issue resolved before too long and avoid such dramatic incidents in the future.
It’s strange, looking back over all my space posts of the past 3 years I couldn’t find any that were dedicated to the European Space Agency’s cargo craft, the Automated Transfer Vehicle. Sure I mentioned it in passing back when JAXA sent its first HTV to the International Space Station but even its second flight, named Johannes Kepler, obviously wasn’t inspiring enough for me to take notice. The only good reason I can come up with is the maiden voyage happened well before I got into blogging, but that doesn’t excuse me ignoring the significance of the ATV.
The ESA’s ATV is the only craft that the ESA has that participates in the ISS program. It’s a derivative of the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module that the Shuttle used to carry up to the ISS and is meant to work alongside the Russian Progress craft that have been resupplying the ISS for years. Compared the Progress its something of a monster being able to deliver almost 4 times the payload although that’s offset significantly by the fact that it’s current launch rate is about once per year. The majority of the payload is taken up by reboost and attitude control propellant as the ATV is capable of reboosting the ISS, something which no other craft is currently capable of doing (the retired Shuttle was the primary reboost craft prior to this). The rest of the payload consists of crew and station consumables, roughly equivalent to the amount that a Progress craft would deliver.
Today sees the ESA’s 3rd ATV docking with the International Space Station:
Whilst it’s not pushing any boundaries or developing new capabilities the successful docking of the Edoardo Amaldi shows that the ESA can make the yearly launches of the ATV without incident. That’s quite an achievement in itself and means that the 2 currently planned ATV launches should go off without a hitch. With the upcoming flights from companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to the ISS you might be wondering why we’d bother having a craft like the ATV, especially when something like the Dragon has similar capabilities whilst also being reusable. The answer, from my perspective is two fold.
For starters neither of the upcoming private craft have the ability to reboost the ISS. Now doing this is non-trivial so its unlikely that either craft will gain that ability in the near term and as far as I can tell there are no other craft, current or planned, that have that ability. That surprises me as the second argument for the ATV’s existence, redundancy in capabilities, doesn’t exist with ISS reboosting. It’s possible that the upcoming Space Launch System with the Orion capsule might be able to do this but I can’t find anything that states that.
The second reason, as I alluded to before, is that when it comes to maintaining a human presence in space it doesn’t hurt to have redundancy for different capabilities. Whilst you can argue that there will be much better ways of doing things in the future it never hurts to have a backup that you can rely on. The ATV, with its rock solid yearly launch schedule, makes for a good fall back for other re-supply missions should they encounter any issues. Now all that’s required is finding another means by which to reboost the ISS and then we’ll have full redundancy across most of our manned space program activities.
It was just over 2 months ago when a Russian Progress craft crashed shortly after lift off. It was a devastating blow for the International Space Station project as the Progress spacecraft and the Proton rocket it rides to space on are the lifeline that keeps the ISS going. The failure of a Progress craft also called into question the man-rated Soyuz craft as they’re quite similar craft and should they be unable to launch that would effectively spell the end of human activities on the ISS. Investigations into the disaster continued and they finally nailed down the cause of the failure.
The cause turned out to be contamination of the fuel lines in the Progress craft. This in turn caused a low fuel supply to the gas generator which the on board computer interpreted as a fault and shut down the engines completely. This left the craft on a sub-orbital trajectory eventually leading it to crash in the Atlai region in Russia. The investigation revealed that this particular fault was of no immediate threat to either the Progress or Soyuz craft however so Roscosmos saw no need to delay any of the following flights further than they already had.
Yesterday then saw the first launch of Progress since the incident back in August, and thankfully it was completely successful:
An unmanned Russian cargo ship launched toward the International Space Station Sunday (Oct. 30) packed with nearly three tons of supplies for the orbiting lab’s crew in what marked the first delivery run to the station since an August rocket crash.
The cargo ship, called Progress 45, lifted off atop a Soyuz rocket at 6:11 a.m. EDT (1011 GMT) from a launch pad at the central Asian spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome. It will arrive at the space station early Wednesday.
The successful launch of the Progress craft means that missions using the manned Soyuz craft can continue on without fear of them failing in the same way. This is crucial to the on going ISS mission as prior to this launch the future of the manned crews was in question and could have resulted in the ISS being unmanned for the first time in a decade. The reasoning behind this is simple, if the Progress and Soyuz are grounded then there’s no launch system that can take over their capability. Sure we have things like the JAXA HTV and the ESA ATV which are proven cargo delivery vehicles but they’ve both only launched once and neither could keep up with the rapid launch rate that the Progress offers. The Soyuz is the only means we currently have to get people onto the ISS and it being grounded would effectively end our ability to keep a human presence there.
With the shakedown of the Progress complete and the mission looking to be a success it looks like we’ll be able to reinstate the full crew size of 6 in the ISS. Whilst the station can be run with only a crew of 3 (indeed it was for the majority of its life) there’s a lot more work that can be done when the crew is doubled, especially if EVAs are required. With the SpaceX Dragon demonstration missing rapidly approaching we’re not far off having another means with which to reach the ISS. As these recent events have shown having another launch capability is critical to ensuring that our missions in space can continue uninterrupted and hopefully we’re not too far off a time when there’s more than just 2 manned launch providers.
Russia’s space program has a reputation for sticking to ideas once they’ve got them right. Their Soyuz (pronounced sah-yooz) craft are a testament to this, having undergone 4 iterations since their initial inception but still sharing many of the base characteristics that were developed decades ago. The Soyuz family are also the longest serving series of spacecraft in history and with it only having 2 fatal accidents in that time they are well regarded as the safest spacecraft around. It’s no wonder then that 2 of the Soyuz capsules remain permanently docked to the International Space Station to serve as escape pods in the even of a catastrophe, a testament to the confidence the space industry has with them.
Recent news however has brought other parts of the Russia space program into question, namely their Proton launch stack. Last week saw a Proton launched communications satellite ending up in the wrong orbit when the upper orbital insertion model failed to guide it to the proper geostationary orbit. Then just this week saw another Proton launched payload, this time a Progress craft bound for the ISS, crashed shortly after launch:
The robotic Progress 44 cargo ship blasted off atop a Soyuz U rocket at 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT) from the central Asian spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and was due to arrive at the space station on Friday.
“Unfortunately, about 325 seconds into flight, shortly after the third stage was ignited, the vehicle commanded an engine shutdown due to an engine anomaly,” NASA station program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters today. “The vehicle impacted in the Altai region of the Russian Federation.”
Now an unmanned spacecraft failing after launch wouldn’t be so much of a problem usually (apart from investigating why it happened) but the reason why this particular failure has everyone worried is the similarity between the human carrying Soyuz capsule and the Progress cargo craft that was on top of it. In essence they’re an identical craft with the Progress having a fuel pod instead of a crew capsule allowing it to refuel the ISS on orbit. A failure then with the Progress craft calls into question the Soyuz as well, especially when there’s been 2 launches so close to each other that have experienced problems.
From a crew safety perspective however the Soyuz should still be considered a safe craft. If an event such as the one that happened this week had a Soyuz rather than a Progress on top of it the crew would have been safe thanks to the launch escape system that flies on top of all manned Soyuz capsules. When a launch abort event occurs these rockets fire and pull the capsule safely away from the rest of the launch stack and thanks to the Soyuz’s design it can then descend back to earth on its usual ballistic trajectory. It’s not the softest of landings however, but it’s easily survivable.
The loss of cargo bound for the ISS does mean that some difficult decisions have to be made. Whilst they’re not exactly strapped for supplies at the moment (current estimates have them with a year of breathing room) the time required to do a full investigation into the failure does push other resupply and crew replacement missions back significantly. Russia currently has the only launch system capable of getting humans to and from the ISS and since they’re only a 3 person craft this presents the very real possibility that the ISS crew will be scaled back. Whilst I’m all aflutter for SpaceX their manned flights aren’t expected to come online until the middle of the decade and they’re the most advanced option at this point. If the problems with the Proton launch stack can be sorted expediently then the ISS may remain fully crewed, but only time will tell if this is the case.
The Soyuz and Progress series have proven to be some of the most reliable spacecraft developed to date and I have every confidence that Russia will be able to overcome these problems as they have done so in the past. Incidents like this demonstrate how badly commercialization of rudimentary space activities is required, especially when one of the former space powers doesn’t seem that interested in space anymore. Thankfully the developing private space industry is more than up to the challenge and we’re only a few short years away from these sorts of problems boiling down to switching manufacturers, rather than curtailing our efforts in space completely.
I believe everyone is familiar with the concept of being “in the zone”, I.E. that state you attain when you’re so intensely focused on something that time becomes irrelevant and all you’re focused on is achieving some certain goal. I personally find myself in this state quite often usually when I’m writing here, gaming or programming. Whilst I knew it was a common phenomenon I only learnt recently that its also recognised as a part of psychology, where they’ve termed it Flow. The concept itself is interesting an most recently I’ve started to grapple with one of the more subtle aspects, defined as point number 8 of conditions of Flow or “The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action”.
Now this weekend just gone past saw me back, as I almost always am, coding away on my PC. Now since I’m somewhat of a challenge junkie I’ll always seek out the novel parts of an application first rather than the rudimentary and the first day saw me implementing some new features. This always goes well and I’ll be firmly in Flow for hours at a time, effortlessly jumping through reams of documentation and masses of Google searches as I start to nail down my problem. Once the new feature is done of course then I’ll have to choose another to start work on, thereby maintaining my Flow and project progress.
There’s a great quote by Donald Knuth (of The Art of Computer Programming fame) that says “Premature optimization is the root of all evil” which is basically a warning to avoid over optimizing your code when its still in the early stages. I’m a firm believer in the idea that you shouldn’t act like you have problems of scale until you have them but there are some fundamental differences between regular and scalable code that could prove to be incompatible with your codebase should you not make the decision early on in the piece. Of course optimization comes at the cost of progress on other pieces of work thus a balancing act between the two is required if your code is ever to see the light of day.
I guess I find it strange that optimizing my own code was so detrimental to achieving that state of coding nirvana. It’s quite possible that it was just the problem that I was working on as a previous optimization I had done, developing a cache system for a web service I was querying, seemed to have no ill effects. However that particular challenge was quite novel as I hadn’t created anything like it previously and the feedback was quite clear when I had finally achieved my goal. Unfortunately I have the feeling that most of the optimization problems will be more like the former example than this one, but so long as I write half decent code in the first place I hopefully won’t have to deal with them as much.
After reaching 1.0 of Lobaco I’ve taken a breather from developing it, mostly so I could catch up on my backlog of games and give my brain a well deserved break from working on that problem space. It’s not that I’m tired of the idea, I still think it has merit, but the last 6 months of little free time on the nights and weekends were starting to catch up with me and a break is always a good way to kick start my motivation. It didn’t take long for numerous new ideas to start popping into my head afterwards and instead of jumping back into Lobaco development I thought I’d cut my teeth on another, simple project that would give me the experience I needed to migrate Lobaco into the cloud.
The weekend before last I started experimenting with ASP.NET MVC, Microsoft’s web framework that based on the model-view-controller pattern that I had become familiar with after deep diving into Objective-C. I could have easily done this project in Silverlight but I thought that I’d have to man up sooner or later and learn a proper web language otherwise I’d be stuck in my desktop developer paradigm for good. The results weren’t spectacular and I could only bring myself to spend about half the time I usually do coding on the new site, but there was progress made there none the less.
The slow progress really frustrated me. After finally gaining competence with Objective-C I felt like learning yet another new framework would be easy, even if it meant learning another language. Somehow I managed to forget that frustrating first month where progress was almost nil and I convinced myself I wasn’t procrastinating when looking for other solutions to my problems. Eventually I came to the realization that I was still grokking the new framework I had chosen for my application and that I shouldn’t be expecting myself to be blazing trails when I was still establishing my base of fundamental knowledge.
I see lots of people go through the same struggle when trying out new things and can see how easy it is to give up when you’re not making the kinds of progress other people are. Believe me its even worse in the tech/start-up area where every other day I’m reading about someone who hacked together a fully usable service in a weekend whilst I struggle to get my page to look like it wasn’t written in notepad. The realization that you’re still in the grok stage of learning something new I find to be quite a powerful motivator as past experience has shown that it’s only a matter of time and persistence between floundering around and becoming quite capable.
I’m usually the first one to tell people to stick with what they know as re-skilling is extremely expensive time wise (and can be $$$ wise too, Objective-C set me back a few large) but the pay-offs of diversifying you skills can be quite large. Whilst I’ve yet to make any semblance of a dollar from all my adventures in iPhone development I still count it as a valuable experience, if for the mere fact it’s given me a lot of perspective and oodles of delicious blog fodder. Time will tell if this current foray into yet another web framework will be worth my time but I wouldn’t be doing it if I thought there was no chance of it ever paying off.
4 days ago the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched the first flight ready version of their HII Transfer Vehicle (HTV) line. Whilst on the surface that might not sound like much it marks a significant step forward in Japan’s space capability, as up until now their involvement with the Internation Space Station only involved the Kibo laboratory, all of which was hoisted up by their American counter-parts. It’s quite an interesting craft due to the omission of certain things and the reason it was built. Before I get into that however here’s a bit of eye candy showing it’s rendezous with the International Space Station:
Apart from the amazing view of earth that this video shows it also demonstrates one of the oddities of the craft. Now the HTV isn’t the first of this kind of spacecraft to visit the ISS. The most frequent visitor is the Russian Progress craft, which has been responsible for delivering the majority of supplies to the space station. It’s basically a Soyuz craft minus all the gear to support a crew replaced with cargo storage, as it was impractical for the Soyuz craft to be used for both crew and cargo (it is quite small after all). The other is the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) which made its madon voyage to the ISS in March last year. What separates these from the HTV is that they both have an automated docking capability allowing them to hook up to the space station with no involvement from the ISS crew. That’s why you see the CANADARM2 stretching out to grab it. You’re probably wondering then, why the heck do we need another cargo ship to supply the ISS and beyond?
The HTV is something of a special purpose craft. Whilst its payload capacity is less than that of the ATV it does sport a much larger docking portal. That by itself doesn’t sound like much but the ATV can’t carry the Interational Standard Payload Racks because of this limitation. The only other way of getting these things inside the ISS is through Multi-Purpose Logistic Modules which fly with the space shuttle, something which is scheduled to stop happening in the near future. In essence the craft is a cheaper alternative to getting standard cargo payloads up to the station once the shuttle is retired, which is a good niche for JAXA to fill.
It might not be the most sexy or exciting craft around but the more countries that develop a capability like this means a lot to humanity at large. We’re starting to see a critical mass developing in both the public and private sector space industries and for a space nut like myself it provides many an hour of slack jawed reading and gazing. Japan’s fresh view on how to get cargo into space is an idea that not many have considered in the past and I hope they continue their involvement past this endeavour.
Big thumbs up to you guys 🙂