Sunday, April 28, 2019

All You Need To Know About The Modern Space Race

In the modern world, space is more prevalent in daily life than ever. Whether it be satellites so you can watch tv, navigate to work, or know what the weather will do, military intelligence, or the science being performed in the ISS, space is more important than ever. The profits that can be made from space and the draw of exploration and new discoveries has ushered in a new space race between private companies and government entities. 

The four most powerful government space agencies are currently NASA, Roscosmos, ESA and CNSA

  • Nasa's recent plans to send humans back to the moon by 2024 will further reaffirm their presence at the top of the space food chain. Their tentative plans to land humans on Mars in the 2030's and the establishment of the lunar Gateway will give them dominance in deep space exploration. 

  • Russia's monopoly of transport to the ISS via the Soyuz rocket has made them a world space power. Their pursuit of a new heavy-lift vehicle, Angara, will also increase their influence. in the future, the stated top priority of Roscosmos will be to establish a moon colony, which they plan to accomplish by 2040.

  • The European Space Agency has many current planetary and earth science missions in use, most notably ExoMars, Mars Express, and CryoSat. Future missions include ExoMars RSP, a Mars rover, Plato, which will discover exoplanets, and a solar orbiter. The ESA regularly sends astronauts to the ISS from Canada, Germany, France etc.
  • CNSA is China's agency for space exploration. They recently landed the Chang'e 4 mission, a mission to explore the far side of the moon to learn more about the chemistry of the moon. Information is hard to come by due to state-controlled media, but CNSA looks to further its lunar presence in the coming years.

The other, newer side to the space is the private companies that are sprouting up and almost competing with longstanding government agencies. The likes of SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Rocket Lab are creating cheaper, faster, and in some cases reusable rockets to compete not only with governments but with each other. 

  • SpaceX is the most established and the most trusted company in the group. Its Falcon Heavy rocket is the most powerful rocket in the world, and the boosters can be landed and reused. This makes spaceflight much cheaper and attainable for smaller companies, albeit still very expensive. SpaceX has partnered with NASA in the commercial crew program to send astronauts up to the ISS from US soil for the first time since the shuttle. Their Crew and Cargo Dragons have also made several trips to the ISS already. SpaceX is by far the most innovative, exciting company of this group. 
  • I view Blue Origin as the little brother of SpaceX. On the rise, but not close yet. Blue Origin has created both the New Shepard and the New Glenn, which are reusable rockets that are claimed to drive down costs and increase availability for customers. The NS and NG rockets have a capsule on top to transport cargo and eventually humans for short flights in space. The New Glenn is Blue Origin's Falcon Heavy, a heavy-lift reusable launch vehicle. Blue Origin excites me because they seem more dedicated to reusability than SpaceX, and the New Glenn will be a monster of a rocket.

  • Rocket Lab is a small company with headquarters in Huntington Beach, California. The company is mainly involved in flying satellites to LEO, with 25 already launched at this time. Their Electron rocket is a small but frequent rocket that can carry a maximum payload of 225 kg. Rocket Lab is still a relatively small company compared to others on this list, but it is making space accessible to more companies and people than ever before. Rocket Lab and others like it are the future of small, commercial spaceflight.
Yes, I know this isn't a comprehensive list of the spaceflight industry. ULA is a huge company that is regularly trusted by NASA to launch payloads and the Indian Space Agency just successfully tested their anti-satellite weapon. There are many more private companies working to bring space closer to humans than ever before, so maybe one day you'll be on a rocket yourself. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

4 Questions for NASA and Vice President Pence after the New Goal of Boots on the Moon by 2024.

In a recent speech to the National Space Council, Vice President Mike Pence called upon NASA to step up its game and charged them with a new mission of putting humans back on the moon by 2024. Sure, if NASA landed astronauts on the Moon by 2024, everyone would be psyched about NASA's new technology and productivity. But to do this, NASA needs to change many aspects of the organization. We all want to see a Moon landing in 2024, but is there enough time for NASA to make the necessary changes without the risks being too high? This is one of many questions that must be answered before we land on the Moon again. Let's discuss some other pertinent questions I and many others in the space community have for NASA. 

1. What will NASA use to get humans to the Moon and back?

Perhaps the most relevant question is how will NASA possibly be able to pull this off? Administrator Jim Bridenstine recently spoke about the commercial options available to NASA for EM-1 and beyond. He said that, over a two-week span, NASA engineers looked at all the currently available commercial options to launch EM-1, and came to the conclusion that the most feasible option would be a Falcon Heavy with an ICPS second stage topped of with the Orion MPCV and the European Service Module. This configuration can make it to and around the Moon for EM-1, which is the first step toward the end goal. This option also leaves NASA's SLS for a future flight to carry the Gateway or another important payload to orbit. Other options were discussed, like 2 Delta IV Heavies or a Falcon Heavy and a Delta IV Heavy, but these configurations had many technical and logical difficulties like docking two Delta Heavies or the issue of launching them from the east and the west coasts, etc. It was concluded that Falcon Heavy, ICPS, Orion MPCV, and ESM is the most logical and probable option for EM-1.

2. How will NASA land on the Moon?

Lockheed Martin's ascent vehicle docked to the Gateway
This might seem like a simple question, but if there is no lander, there is no point in even discussing the other questions, right? On the day that I am writing this, Lockheed Martin just released their design for a lunar lander and ascent vehicle that would dock to the Gateway after descending to the Moon's surface. Lockheed Martin has said this design, a two part design of the non-reusable landing stage and the ascent vehicle, can be ready by 2024 as long as they are provided with enough resources. NASA has not yet contracted any company for the production of a lander, but Lockheed Martin is the obvious choice, assuming they fit within the budget for the 2024 push that should be released by NASA next week sometime. NASA has asked private industry to produce designs for a lander, with contracts being awarded sometime later this year. Considering Lockheed Martin's past cooperation with NASA and its strong track record, LM is looking like the probable choice to build a lander, so long as NASA can get the Gateway up and running by 2024. 

3. How will NASA pay for it?

NASA is scheduled to submit a tentative budget for what funds they need in terms of resources by April 15th. Bridenstine has commented on the lack of funds, down $480 million from last year's budget, to get to the Moon by 2024. He is confident, though, that NASA will get increased funding since this is a mandate from the top of the government. No matter the difficulties, Bridenstine says, he is confidant NASA will reach the goal in the timeline set by Mike Pence and the Trump administration. However, I am skeptical that the government will provide funding. Pence has said to achieve the goal by "any means necessary", but if Congress is not willing to approve more funding, where will NASA get said means? Yes, commercial companies have driven down the cost of rockets drastically, but they still cost hundreds of millions of dollars( Delta IV Heavy: $350 mil. Falcon Heavy $150 mil. in expendable form). Unless NASA receives more financial support and less hyped up talk, I believe they cannot achieve their goal without pulling resources from other areas of NASA, whether it be research, experiments, or other missions. 

4. How will NASA ensure the safety of their astronauts?

This is the most important question for me personally and I know that feeling is shared by the larger space community. When you decrease deadlines to this extent, basically cutting it in half, the question must be asked, how will you make sure the humans are safe? What corners will be cut by manufacturers just to make sure they meet the harsh demands by NASA? How can you ensure the rockets are human rated if you only have a few years to test the rockets? These are questions that NASA needs to answer. Bridenstine has obviously reassured the public that NASA will not fly astronauts to the Moon by 2024 unless they are absolutely sure of their success, but political pressure from Congress and the Trump administration could push Bridenstine and NASA to assume more risk than they usually would. Safety should be the number one priority, and the new goal of 2024 could rush manufactures into making tiny flaws that could lead to bigger problems and potentially tragedies, which no one ever wants to see. Sure, the "boots on the Moon by 2024" slogan sounds inspiring and brave, but we must realize real safety issues that must be dealt with first. 

We all want to see humans back on the Moon. It gives us an addicting sense of pride and nostalgia. But before the public gets fully on board with this, we need answers from NASA so we know that the safety and preservation of human life and the NASA organization are top priority in the long run. When you look at the big picture, we must realize that the technology being developed and used to get humans back to the Moon will look very similar to the technology used to get humans to Mars. This is essentially a practice run for that goal. When we realize this, we must understand that the Moon is not the end goal and rather the beginning, and that we must get things correct now, so we don't run into issues and bigger problems in the future.

My take on NASA's announcement that they will let commercial companies bid to fly to the ISS

As you have probably heard, NASA recently announced that they will allow private companies to send individuals to the ISS to conduct science...