On Sunday, skydiver Felix Baumgartner stepped out of a high-altitude balloon and plummeted 40 kilometers back to Earth. I wanted to watch it live but missed it due to an appointment I had to keep. I heard it was heart-pounding, and Twitter went nuts over it. I wish I had seen it!
Still, my feelings on it are mixed. While I really am glad it got people excited, I couldn’t shake the feeling it wasn’t more than a stunt. A cool stunt, but a stunt. It was plugged as a way to learn more about spacesuits and all that, but I had my doubts. Having it sponsored by a sugary caffeinated energy drink marketed to teens also made me a bit wary.
I was thinking of writing something up about it, but then my friend and space historian Amy Shira Teitel wrote an excellent piece crystallizing my thoughts, so go read her article for more in that vein (which is also mirrored on Discover Magazine’s blog The Crux).
But what I really wanted to write about was this image I saw around Twitter and Facebook:
Why do I want to write about this? Because, in a nutshell, it’s everything wrong about attitudes on our space program. If I sound a little peeved, I am. Here’s why.
This meme was started in a tweet by revulv. I suspect it was just a joke, and to be honest it’s funny enough; I smirked when I read it. But someone took that joke and added the picture, and then it got spread around. And I can tell by the comments I’m seeing people really think it’s true – this idea has been around since the Shuttle retired, and it’s unfair. It’s simply not true.
First, as Amy points out in her post, Baumgartner’s jump was a record breaker, but he wasn’t in space. Our atmosphere thins out with height, and doesn’t really have an edge where air ends and vacuum begins. Because of this, there’s an arbitrarily agreed-upon height where we say space "starts" – it’s called the Kármán line, and it’s 100 km (62 miles) above sea level. Baumgartner was less than half that high. When I talked about his jump I used the phrase "edge of space", which is probably fair. He was in a pretty good vacuum by ground standards, but in space itself he was not.
Second, he wasn’t in orbit. A lot of folks confuse being in orbit and being in space, which is understandable. When we say something is in space that means it’s just higher than that arbitrary limit. You can get there via rocket by going straight up 100 km and then back down, for example. That’s a suborbital flight.
But being in orbit is different. An orbit is where you are free-falling around the Earth. Think of it this way: in orbit the Earth is pulling you down to the surface, but you’re going fast enough sideways that you never actually hit (to paraphrase Douglas Adams: orbiting is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss). Your velocity down and your velocity to the side add together to give you a circular (or elliptical) path.
Baumgartner used a balloon to go straight up. He wasn’t in orbit.
And that’s two of the three things that bother me about that meme picture: he wasn’t in space, and he wasn’t in orbit, two things the US has rockets that can do.
Now, some people will point out that in fact the US cannot do that, at least not with people. We don’t have any rockets rated for human flight into space.
That’s true, but brings up my third point, the most important, what a lot of people don’t seem to get: you need to add the words "right now" to the end of that sentence.
We can’t launch humans into space right now. But in just a few years we’ll have that ability. In spades.
SpaceX is working on making sure their Falcon 9 rocket is human-rated for flight – even as I write these words they have a Dragon capsule berthed to the International Space Station. ATK is another. There’s also Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin (which just had a successful engine firing test), XCORR, and others. Let’s not forget Virgin Galactic, too. [Update: D'oh! Shame on me, and ironic too: I forgot to add Boeing and ULA's work on this as well.]
Both SpaceX and ATK think they’ll be ready to take people into orbit in 2015. Virgin Galactic and XCORR may be ready to do commercial suborbital flights before that date. [Note added after posting: I want to be clear; these are not NASA programs, but some have contracts with NASA, and I'm talking about the US as a nation, not necessarily as a government space program.]
The Space Shuttle was retired in 2011. We’re in the middle of what’s planned to be a five year gap where the US can’t take humans into space. Mind you, when the Apollo program shut down there was a nine year gap before we had a program to take humans to space again (with the exception of a few Saturn flights to orbit for Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz mission; even then there was a six year gap until the Shuttle launches began).
My point? Things aren’t nearly as bad as people think. Yes, the Shuttle is retired, but to be brutally honest, while it’s an amazing machine, it could not nor would it ever be capable of taking humans beyond low-Earth orbit. It also cost way more than promised, and couldn’t launch as often as promised. I’ve made this point before, and it’s one we need to remember. Getting to space is not easy, and if we want to do it we have to do it right.
And let’s not forget we are still throwing rovers at Mars, probes at Jupiter, and one satellite after another into Earth orbit. We’re still going into space, if by proxy. Humans won’t have to wait much longer.
We need to learn from the past and keep our eyes on the future. By looking at the past we can see by comparison things are not so bad right now; we’re just in a lull before the storm. We’ll soon have not just the capability to put humans in space, but many capabilities to do it! Space travel will be easier and cheaper than it ever has been since the dawn of the Space Age.
My goal is to see nothing less than the permanent colonization of space by human beings, and I strongly suspect we are not that far from achieving it.
[Note (added at 18:00 MDT): Some folks are saying the headline here is misleading, and on further thought I see the point. It's not that NASA selected SpaceX to return astronauts to space; it was one of three companies and in my opinion (based on scheduling) that they'll be the first to do so. I don't like changing headlines on posts for various reasons, so I've decided to keep this one intact and leave this note here at the top of the post so everyone sees it.]
BIG news: NASA announced this morning that it has awarded a total of $1.1 billion in grants to three different companies to put American astronauts back into space. The kicker: they chose SpaceX as the company, and their Falcon rocket as the vehicle, to be the first to return US astronauts to space from American soil… and this may happen as soon as 2015!
NASA retired the Space Shuttle last year, and has had to rely on foreign partners to launch American astronauts into orbit ever since. While NASA is developing a new launch system (that is, a human-rated rocket), it won’t be ready for quite some time.
In May, SpaceX showed that it can successfully launch an uncrewed rocket and capsule into orbit and dock with the International Space Station. Riding on the wave of this mission, NASA is giving SpaceX $440 million dollars to develop and build the hardware needed to launch humans into orbit.
SpaceX has created this (pretty cool) promo video with the highlights:
The Dragon capsule is already essentially ready to carry humans, but after the two Shuttle disasters, NASA has more stringent requirements for human safety that must be met. What this boils down to is an abort system that can carry the crew away safely in case of a catastrophic problem. SpaceX is designing a rocket system for the Dragon capsule that will have sufficient power to take it rapidly away from the Falcon rocket and get the astronauts on board back on Earth safely, which may involve either an ocean splashdown (which the Dragon capsule is designed for anyway) or the ability to touchdown on the ground on landing legs. It will also work at any point of the mission, from the moment of launch to just before achieving orbit.
SpaceX expects to have this system built and ready to go very soon – they announced they will be ready for their first crewed flight as early as 2015. That’s about the timeframe that’s been expected for a while now, but the company had to prove itself with the mission in May, and also win this new NASA contract. Between now and then they plan 10 cargo flights to the space station as well which will help iron out any equipment wrinkles and prep them for human flight.
This really is huge news. There has been a lot of rending of garments and tearing of hair online and in political speeches about NASA not being able to put humans in space. I have written about this myself many, many times, and as I’ve said I’m not convinced at this stage of history that NASA should be building rockets for the "routine" launching of people and supplies to orbit. Their job is to innovate and clear the path, to look ahead, while leaner, more flexible companies like SpaceX can follow. The United States is a long way yet from an actual launch of humans back into orbit, but this is a giant stride forward.
And there’s more: NASA also awarded the Sierra Nevada Corporation $212 million to continue to develop their Dream Chaser space plane, a vehicle that will be mounted on top of a rocket and capable of bringing humans to and from low Earth orbit as well. Testing of the Dream Chaser has been going pretty well, and the company expects to be able to start launching humans into space in 2016. This is also fantastic news! The more people we have building these vehicles, the better. And since Sierra Nevada’s HQ is down the road from me in Louisville, Colorado, this gives this news a little bit of an added kick for me.
Boeing actually received the largest share of the NASA grant, getting $460 million to develop their CST-100 spacecraft, which looks much like NASA’s Orion capsule (itself a capsule much like that of Apollo; a proven design). and can be mounted on a variety of rockets to launch humans to low-Earth orbit.
I hear so many people lamenting NASA’s lack of ability to launch humans into space. I agree, and think we should be doing this, but I think a lot of these complaints are misguided – a lot of these complaints are about private industry, saying NASA should be developing this tech. I disagree. I strongly feel that NASA partnering with private industry is the best and strongest way to get back into space and stay there. It’s the best of both worlds: NASA’s government backing and history gives them some stability which private enterprise may lack, and the companies themselves don’t have the massive bureaucratic overhead NASA is saddled with.
I just hope that with this, and with more success, both the White House and Congress will see that NASA and private industry are critical to our future in space, and fund these ventures as fully as possible. Our future in space is – for the moment – bright and alluring. May it always be so.