Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Spacing out (again)

Because for space-travel-related posts, "Spacing out" is just too apt of a subject line to retire after a single use. (So would be: "Lost in Space.")

A Falcon 9 test launch
ANYway ... as NASA set its sights on a more caffeinated endeavor (we'll come to that), SpaceX continues to innovate. Their Falcon 9 launcher is impressive enough in its own right. Ditto their Dragon cargo capsule, used three times (so far) for deliveries to the ISS and being upgraded for crew rating. ISS cargo delivery flight CR3, involving that launcher and cargo capsule, also introduced a new element: a soft-landing test of the booster.

That test was successful. The demonstration represents a big step closer to reusable boosters, technology that will make a significant contribution toward reducing the too-high cost of putting anything (or anyone) into space. Not bad for a twelve-year-old company ...

One of whose ambitions is putting a person on Mars within the next twelve years: "SpaceX Founder Elon Musk Plans to Send Humans to Mars by 2026."

A complication for any crewed Mars mission that only recently came to my attention is that long-duration spaceflight can damage eyesight. See: "Possible Mars Mission 'Showstopper': Vision Risks for Astronauts." Showstopper strikes me as hyperbole, but -- as I confirmed with a doctor friend -- some vision degradation from long-term spaceflight (including whirling about in LEO) is real. That said, protection against radiation (whether in transit or on Mars itself) continues to top the medical-complication list for any future crewed Mars mission.

Goals are good
But that may be getting ahead of ourselves. First up -- and more ambitious than anything NASA plans anytime soon -- is "Incredible Technology: Private Mars Mission Could Return Samples by 2020."

The private entity is a not-for-profit named BoldlyGo (get it?); their clever idea is to collect and return with Martian atmospheric dust -- and the atmosphere there is dusty. Forgoing a touchdown and return launch makes the BoldlyGo mission (comparatively) simple compared to returning samples collected on the Martian surface.

Now let's turn our attention to a few space endeavors closer to home.

JAXA SPS concept
Solar power satellites (SPS) are at the heart of my 2012 novel Energized. I was most pleased to read "How Japan Plans to Build an Orbital Solar Farm: JAXA wants to make the sci-fi idea of space-based solar power a reality"-- and then further delighted when I discovered how closely JAXA's plans paralleled what I had envisioned for my novel. JAXA is targeting a demonstration SPS in the 2030s.

(I had foreseen a demonstration SPS in 2023. Of course, with an author's God-like world-building powers, I had invoked the worst energy crisis ever as motivation to Actually Do Something.)

Why the snarkiness? To start, the USAF still requires Russian boosters to launch national-security payloads. Madness! As for any made-in-the-USA replacement, (see "Russian Engine for Launches Needs Replacement, Panel Says"):

The new engine may cost as much as $1.5 billion and take as long as six years to develop, the panel of government and industry space advisers said in briefing charts submitted to the Defense Department and the Air Force.

I can't imagine it will take that long to certify the Falcon line of SpaceX launchers. (No, I don't own stock in SpaceX -- it's privately held -- nor do I have any affiliation with the company beyond admiration.)

And NASA? Have they been resting on their laurels? Hell, no!  And thus we read, "Orbital Brew: Astronauts to Get 1st Space Station Coffee Maker."

Okay, to be fair, NASA also recently awarded a contract for the next-gen Space Launch System (SLS):  "Boeing Co., NASA finalize SLS core contract." And to what did the two parties commit?

The imaginary crewed SLS
The Boeing Co. will earn $2.8 billion to develop the core stage of NASA's giant Space Launch System exploration rocket, which is targeting a first, uncrewed test launch from Kennedy Space Center in December 2017 ...

NASA expects to spend between $7.7 billion and $8.6 billion to get the entire rocket ready for its first launch. Ground systems supporting that launch at KSC are expected to cost another $3 billion.

How about NASA putting a person back in space -- other than by paying someone else for the service? How much will it cost to have a crew-rated SLS, and when might it be ready for its first flight?

Don't hold your breath.

NASA has not disclosed the cost to build another SLS rocket for the first crewed flight planned around 2021, or the cost to develop the larger versions and to operate the program.

That's a program with no designated destination. IMO, "some asteroid" in 2025 -- at least two presidents hence -- doesn't begin to count as serious.

Sigh. I need coffee.

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