I’ve long held the stance that NASA should be shifting its activities away from the rudimentary tasks of getting things into orbit and focusing more on pushing the envelope of their capabilities. Whilst there are no private agencies yet at the same level as what NASA was capable of with the Shuttle and other previous launch systems there are many that are coming very close, some only a couple of years away from sending people into space. Unfortunately due to the tough times that the United States is currently facing it seems that all agencies over there have had to suffer some set backs and this has put many of NASA’s cutting edge projects in jeopardy.
The James Web Space Telescope for instance has recently been placed under review due to the massive cost overruns that the project has been facing. Pegged as the spiritual successor to the Hubble Space Telescope the JWST was initially priced scoped at costing roughly $1.6 billion but the latest estimates have it costing well over 4 times that, threatening other programs that NASA runs. That’s bad enough in itself but NASA has also had its budget cut by appoximately $1.9 billion, a quarter of which was dedicated to funding the JWST. That means that if the project is to continue either additional funding has to materialize or NASA will have to cut other projects to see it through. Some of the possible projects included the as of yet unannounced replacement for the Shuttle, which would mean a significant delay for the return of NASA’s ability to launch humans into space.
However NASA does appear to be dedicated to the challenge that President Obama laid before them some time ago and have just recently announced their plans for a new ambitious rocket called the Space Launch System:
SLS will have an initial lift capacity of over 70 metric tons – about 154,000 pounds (70,000 kg). That’s three times the lift capability of the space shuttles! In the event of a Mars mission that can be upgraded to 130 metric tons – about the weight of 75 SUVs.
The first developmental flight is targeted for the end of 2017.
SLS will be the first exploration-class vehicle since the giant Saturn V rockets that carried the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Using rocket technology developed during the shuttle era and modified for the canceled Constellation program, combined with cutting-edge manufacturing processes, SLS will expand the boundaries of human spaceflight and extend our reach into the solar system.
On paper it’s quite an impressive rocket, able to heft a whopping 130 tons into orbit if required to do so. Compared to the Saturn V this is about 11 tons more payload into orbit and whilst the initial designs show Shuttle like solid rocket boosters on the side the ultimate goal is to eliminate those entirely. The rocket’s intended goals are to form the basis of future exploratory missions to the moon and beyond, with the first launches scheduled for 2017 on an unmanned trip around the moon.
Keen observers will notice how similar this design looks to the DIRECT proposal I briefly talked about just over a year ago. Indeed many of the aspects that they advocated should be in a new launch system made their way into the SLS including reuse of many key components and man-rating designs that already have a proven launch record behind them. Their designs however aren’t currently feasible due to the shutting down of several key manufacturing plants but you can definitely see the heavy influence that DIRECT advocates have had on the SLS. Whilst this might reduce the launch gap that the United States will experience I’m not 100% convinced that this launcher has been conceived with the best of intentions.
The shuttle’s design was, in many ways, heavily influenced by politics and pork barrelling. A good portion of the shuttle isn’t built anywhere near the launch site with its various construction facilities strewn all about the USA. The worst of these was by far the external tank which is built in New Orleans and then needed to be shipped by barge across to Cape Canaveral. The reasoning behind this was simple, it spread the shuttle’s economic benefits across different states thereby garnering more support for it to proceed. Unfortunately this also had the terrible side effect of tying NASA to multiple states making it nigh impossible for them to do anything that could negatively impact on one state or another, even if it would be beneficial for the shuttle program overall.
The SLS then (sometimes dubbed the Senate Launch System) looks to be going down a similar path thanks to the reuse of current components which will undoubtedly mean using the same suppliers. Whilst I don’t disagree that this will create “good American jobs” I don’t like the idea that NASA exists solely for the purpose of being a pork barrel endeavour that’s only use is to redistribute government money to the public. This is especially true when you consider just how little government money they get in the first place and way too much of it is spent on keeping the giant force of people on staff rather than doing what they were initially formed to do: to push the envelope of human capabilities in space.
Maybe I’ve just been in the Slashdot/HackerNews echo chamber for too long but I’m becoming increasingly disillusioned with NASA and their endeavours in space. They still do great work from time to time but so often I see them getting caught up in political mine fields that I wonder why the USA keeps them running at all. NASA once served to inspire generations of scientists, aeronautical engineers and mathematicians that all wanted to push humanity into the final frontier. Today however NASA seems to be more of a political punching bag than anything else, and that saddens me deeply.
I still hold out hope that I’m just cynical, however.
Pop quiz: how many times has man landed on the moon? Whilst most people know the answer is “more than once” few know of more than 2 missions to the moon, namely Apollo 11 and 13. The first is firmly cemented in our history as one of the ultimate achievements of mankind. The second has stuck with us because of the near tragedy that befell those astronauts who, thanks to the brilliance of the NASA personnel, returned to Earth unharmed. Today I’m going to give you a brief history of the 5 other missions that touched down on our celestial sister and why they mean just as much to us as the two that burn so brightly in our minds.
The second mission to land on the moon was Apollo 12, crewed by astronauts Charles Conrad Jr, Richard F Gordon Jr and Alan L Bean. The launch was a dramatic one being launched in the middle of a thunderstorm. Moments after take off the Saturn V rocket was struck by lightening causing the main power source for the command module to go offline. It was at this time that flivght engineer John Aaron made the call that’s widely attributed to saving the entire Apollo 12 mission from abort, telling the astronauts to “Try SCE to AUX” which would switch them onto a backup power supply. No one, apart from Alan Bean, knew what the hell the command meant but Bean made the switch and brought all systems back online. The rest of the mission was quite tame in comparison.
Apollo 12 delivered many scientific instruments to the moon’s surface including a nuclear powered ALSEPthat functioned for almost 8 years after it was deployed. There were also many light hearted moments such as when Bean, the savior of the mission, inadvertenly pointed a new colour camera directly at the sun frying the tube inside. The backup crew for this mission also managed to slip miniature centerfold pictures onto the astronauts mission checkbooks that were on their spacesuits, much to their delight. Bean also attempted to smuggle a camera self timer so that he and Conrad could take a picture together, confusing the image analysts when the film was developed. Bean never got to see this plan through as he misplaced the camera timer during the mission however.
Apollo 14 was crewed by astronauts Alan B Shepard, Stuart A Roosa and Edgar D Mitchell. Unlike its predecessors the launch was smooth and there were little troubles getting into orbit. However there were some problems docking the command module with the lunar lander and the crew, in essence, rammed the lander to get the latches to engage. Upon separating in lunar orbit the lander encountered two major problems, the first being a faulty switch causing the ABORT signal to be sent. Should this happen on approach the lander would automatically abort and return to lunar orbit. The fix required Mitchell to enter in a software patch requiring over 80 keystrokes in the lander’s console. This had the unintended consequence of causing the radar altimeter to not work until they were within 15KM of the moon’s surface, leading to some very tense moments just before touch down.
This mission is also famous for the attempted golf session that astronaut Shepard attempted whilst on the moon’s surface. Shepard said his shot went for “miles and miles” however more realistic estimates show it only went for a few hundred meters, still interesting considering the conditions. Mitchell then decided to start the first lunar olympics by using one of the lunar scoops as a javelin. The backup crew for Apollo 14 stashed their mission patches in every single locker and compartment of the lander and command module, drawing the ire of Shepard every time one would come flying out.
Apollo 15 was something of a technical and scientific marvel and was crewed by David R Scott, Alfred M Woden and James B Irwin. This mission was significant in that the astronauts underwent extensive training in geology prior to flight, all receiving honorary degrees or masters. This mission was also the first to carry one of the famous lunar rovers, even though it was originally slated to be a mission identical to that of its predecessors. It was also the first to carry the SIM bay, a collection of instruments that could perform a multitude of experiments during the time that the astronauts were on the lunar surface. This also necessitated an EVA on the way back to Earth so that the film could be retrieved before reentry.
This mission was important scientifically not only for the wealth of information that was gathered but also for one, distinct object that was brought back: the genesis rock. During the astronaut’s training they were told that if they should find something like this it would not only be a major geological find (as the rock would be almost 4.5 billion years old) it would also provide evidence for the giant impact hypothesis for the moon’s formation. Scott also performed Galileo’s experiment of a feather and a hammer, proving that two objects of differing masses would accelerate at the same rate in a vacuum.
Apollo 16 was crewed by John W Young, T Kenneth Mattingly Jr and Charles M Duke Jr. This mission shared a lot of the same qualities as the Apollo 15 mission, bringing along the SIM and lunar rover as part of their equipment. The launch and journey to the moon could not have gone smoother, with only a malfunction in a backup unit gimbal unit (responsible for aiming the engines) causing brief concern. Many of the issues that plagued Apollo 15 were rectified in this mission, such as allowing the astronauts additional sleep and a change in diet to ensure they wouldn’t suffer electrolyte loss.
This mission brought back the largest single piece of the lunar surface, nick named Big Muley and weighing in at 11kg. Young and Mattingly also took the opportunity to test out the limits of the lunar rover, achieving the highest speed ever set by a vehicle on another planet’s surface at 18KM/h. The rest of the mission was as routine as it could be and the astronauts returned to earth just on a week later with almost 100kg worth of lunar surface material.
Although never scheduled to be Apollo 17 was the last of the Apollo missions and the final time that a human would walk on the surface of the moon. Crewed by astronauts Eugene A Cernan, Ronald E Evans and Harrison H Schmidt Apollo 17 was the first ever night launch of a US human spaceflight. During the trip to the moon the crew took one of the most famous photographs in space history, the one known as the Blue Marble depicting Earth as a beautiful gem hovering in the cold blackness of space. It was also the first mission to carry a scientist astronaut (Schmidtt) as all other astronauts had been selected directly from the military. This was also the longest lunar mission to date, setting no less than 3 time records and boasting the largest lunar surface haul at 110kg.
The landing site for Apollo 17 was actually selected based on observations from the Apollo 15 mission called Taurus-Littrow. This site was chosen as the formations there looked to be lunar bedrock, something that hadn’t yet been acquired. They also investigated some strange orange soil (technically regolith) which turned out to be the result of long gone volcanism that formed glass beads. Overall the mission spanned a phenomenal 12 days and still stands as humanity’s longest ever mission past low Earth orbit.
For a youngster like who despite being too young to experience the stories of the Apollo missions unfolded they still mean a great deal to me. These brave souls took an extreme risk in pushing the human frontier further that it had ever gone before and I rightly salute them for it. I hope one day soon in the future that humanity will return to our celestial sister and hopefully will make our presence there permanent. I know its a hopelessly romantic idea to colonize the harsh, barren environment of the Moon but I know that one day we’ll do it and humanity will be all the better off for doing so.
With the world still reeling from the myriad of celebration events signalling the 40th anniversary of America’s greatest achievement in space to date you would be forgiven for forgetting about the primary reason they went there, to beat the Russians (then the Soviet Union). Over time the stories of the United States greatest competitor have been drowned out and there are many little know facts about their aspirations to get to the moon. Granted part of this was due to the secrecy of the Soviet Union of the time who wanted to belittle the American’s achievements by making it look like they weren’t interested in a race at all. With the arrival of Glasnost almost 20 years ago all the secrets came out, and the reds secret dream for the moon was revealed. It makes for quite an interesting story.
For a long time the Soviet Union held the lead in the space race. Back in October of 1957 they surprised everyone by launching the first ever artificial satellite Sputnik-1, which the United States played down at the time but in fact sent them into quite the flurry. With this simple move the Soviets then aggressively built upon their success by sending several more sputnik class vehicles into space. This all culminated in April of 1961 when they succeeded in sending Yuri Gagarin into space and orbit, making him the first human to travel into outer space. Yet again America was shaken to the core, as they had believed that their aggressive pursuit of space had put them ahead again. This did little to stop the Americans however, and they continued to actively pursue the further goal of landing on the moon.
The next 3 years saw the Soviets achieve several firsts in space namely mutli-manned crews, longer duration flights and extra-vehicular activities but after that their manned accomplishments seemed to end. They continued sending probes out (to Venus and to the Moon) however any further progress appear to have been ceased. The official line at the time was that they had already won the space race and were no longer interested in fighting the Americans. However behind the scenes the tale was far more interesting.
In order to win the race to the moon the Soviets developed a lunar lander called the Lunniy Korabl which would take a single soviet cosmonaut to the moon for a couple of hours and return him home safely. This was a marked change from their original plan which was to assemble a massive lunar lander in earth orbit before attempting a moon landing. The idea was that they could use only 1 of their heavy lifting rockets to win rather than the 3 they had originally planned. This was the glimmer of hope that kept their program going although they were to suffer another failure which would knock them out of the race completely.
With the United States already well on the way to successfully launching their first heavy lift vehicle the Saturn V the Soviets needed a similar launch vehicle if they were going to have any chance of getting to the moon. Enter the N1 rocket which made some different trade offs in order to achieve their goals. Whilst the rocket produced more thrust and was cheaper overall than the Saturn V it lacked the payload capacity. Additionally the insanely complicated arrangement of rocket engines on all stages (30 engines vs the Saturn’s 5) plus the added complexity of 5 stages (Saturn had 3) lead to an incredibly fragile launch system. Adding in the additional complexity that the rocket had to be fully assembled first at their construction plant, disassembled so it could shipped, and then reassembled at the launch center. All of these issues lead to all 4 N1 rockets that were built as flight ready to fail, with the longest flight lasting only 1 minute and not even making it into stage separation.
It’s an unfortunate trend for the Russian space endeavours as they are usually the pioneers in the field (check out their impressive list of firsts) but fail to take it any further then that. Whilst a lot of this can be blamed on the political turmoil they have suffered throughout their space program they also have a very ingrained belief in “if it works, don’t change it” as demonstrated by their continued use of the Soyuz space vehicles. For the most part though this works well for them, and for a while they will be the only government owned way of getting to the International Space Station (although NASA is probably more likely to buy rides from SpaceX than the Russians if they can avoid it).
As the old saying goes “history is written by the winners” and it pays to look back and see what the people who were on the other side achieved despite the eventual outcome. Truly we owe much of where we are today in terms of space endeavours to the Russians as they blazed the path that we now tread.