Space X is looking good to launch its Falcon 9 + Dragon capsule on Saturday morning at 08:55 UTC (04:55 Eastern US time). NASA tweeted about it, saying there’s a 70% chance of good weather at that time. It’s Florida, so that can change in an instant. Check with NASA and Space X for updates.
The private company Space X is set to launch its Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon space capsule to the International Space Station on Saturday, May 19, with a backup launch date of May 22.
The launch is set for 04:55 a.m. Eastern time, which is
09:55 08:55 UTC — there’ll be a live webcast at Space X’s site and no doubt NASA TV will carry it as well. They have what’s called an "instantaneous launch window", which means if they don’t launch right on time they can’t just wait a few minutes and try again; they’ll have to go to their backup date. The reason for this is the vagaries of orbital dynamics. The space station is circling the Earth, the planet is rotating underneath it, and the rocket itself has a certain amount of thrust to get Dragon into orbit so it can catch up to ISS. All this adds up to a single Go/No Go decision at the appointed time.
If all goes well, it’ll launch on Saturday, and then the Dragon will take a day to match orbits with ISS. It will undergo a series of tests, including a pass only 2 or so kilometers from the station, to make sure all the controls are OK. If it checks out, it’ll approach close enough for the astronauts on ISS to grab it with the robotic arm, and they’ll pull it in for docking. The Dragon has some cargo for them (supplies and scientific experiments) which they’ll offload, and then the capsule will remain docked for a week and a half, during which time it will be loaded with cargo to bring back to Earth. After that, it undocks, pulls away, does a de-orbit burn, and then comes back to Earth in the Pacific, where it will be retrieved.
This launch will be the second demonstration flight for Space X, proving to NASA they can do this. NASA has money for private venture to do various task — in the case of Space X, there’s about $400M waiting for them if the flight’s successful. And as I’ve said before, whether it’s Space X or a different company, I love the idea that re-supply flights and such are done by commercial ventures. NASA should be in the business of innovating, and let private companies deal with the more routine stuff.
As far as Space X’s statements about all this go, I have to say, I rather liked this part of the press kit:
Pushing the Envelope, Success is Not Guaranteed
Demonstration launches are conducted to determine potential issues so that they might be addressed and – by their very nature – carry a significant risk. All spaceflight is incredibly complicated, and this flight introduces a series of new challenges – it is only the third flight of the Falcon 9 rocket, the second of the Dragon capsule, and the first for a number of all-new components necessary to berth with the International Space Station. If any aspect of the mission is not successful, SpaceX will learn from the experience and try again.
I think this statement is pretty forthright — imagine NASA saying that before a Shuttle launch! — so I give them credit for that. I imagine it could also be interpreted as trying to make an excuse for a problem before the launch… which honestly, it is. But I think it’s a good idea to get this out in the open now, before the launch. I hear a lot of grumbling about delays; this flight has been postponed many times. But remember, the Shuttle launches suffered constant delays, and this is the first time Space X is trying to do such a complicated mission. I figure, let them take their time. Better to do it right. Pushing schedules too hard blows up rockets.
Right now, the future of US human space exploration is a little unsettled. NASA is still talking about building a new rocket system to replace the Shuttle, but it’s unclear how long it will take and how much it will cost. Space X is a private company that has already launched rockets into orbit, and is working to make their vehicles rated to carry humans (there are strict rules about that, which I’ll get to in a sec). They’re planning an uncrewed launch of the Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon space capsule to the space station for May 19, which is a massive step in their plans to be the go-to company for launches.
Other companies are working on this as well. Jeff Bezos — billionaire creator of Amazon.com — has Blue Origin, a secretive group that is looking to launch sub-orbital and eventually orbital vehicles. Sierra Nevada is working on the Dream Chaser, another orbital vehicle (and they’re pretty far along with it, too). Orbital Sciences plans two test launches this year, including a pass of the space station as well.
And now ATK steps up. I’ve heard about their Liberty rocket, but I haven’t been sure where they stand with it. Well, now we know: ATK has announced it will be ready to put humans into orbit by 2015, potentially ahead of Space X.
[Note: image above is artwork; the rocket is not yet built. Click to liftoffenate. Credit: ATK.]
ATK — a company with a complicated history of mergers and name changes, but with solid rocket experience — has the wherewithal to come through on this claim. The tech they use for Liberty is based on the now-canceled NASA Ares rocket as well as the European Ariane V vehicle. They’ve built rockets before (part of the company’s legacy is Morton Thiokol, which built the solid rocket boosters for the Shuttle) so this isn’t out of the blue.
As promised, today President Obama released his planned NASA budget for the year. Not too surprisingly, it’s pretty much as the rumors indicated. There’s a lot to say here, and I have a lot on my mind, so please hear me out.
The Good News
The good news for sure is an increase of $6 billion over the next five years. It stresses new technology and innovation (to the tune of over $1.5 billion), which is also good. A lot of NASA’s successes have been from pushing the limits on what can be done. It also stresses Earth science, which isn’t surprising at all; Obama appears to understand the importance of our environmental impact, including global warming. So that’s still good news.
The very very good news is that half that money — half, folks, 3.2 billion dollars — is going to science. Yeehaw! The release specifically notes telescopes and missions to the Moon and planets. That, my friends, sounds fantastic.
Bye bye Constellation
Now to the other aspects of this budget. As I have written before, this new budget axes Constellation:
NASA’s Constellation program – based largely on existing technologies – was based on a vision of returning astronauts back to the Moon by 2020. However, the program was over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies. Using a broad range of criteria an independent review panel determined that even if fully funded, NASA’s program to repeat many of the achievements of the Apollo era, 50 years later, was the least attractive approach to space exploration as compared to potential alternatives. Furthermore, NASA’s attempts to pursue its moon goals, while inadequate to that task, had drawn funding away from other NASA programs, including robotic space exploration, science, and Earth observations. The President’s Budget cancels Constellation and replaces it with a bold new approach that invests in the building blocks of a more capable approach to space exploration…
I can’t say I disagree with much that’s written there. A lot of it is based on the conclusions of the Augustine commission, a blue-ribbon panel of experts appointed by Obama to look into NASA’s future plans and make recommendations.
The Space Station
The budget calls for extending the International Space Station beyond the 2016 timeline, perhaps for four more years. I would say this is a bad idea, BUT the budget also asks for extending the ISS’s scientific capabilities. I would be happy to see that; ISS is very limited as a science platform. However, the dang thing is already built and in orbit, so it makes sense to spend a little bit more (I was surprised to see only about $180 million for this) to make it useful scientifically. If that becomes the case, then a lot of the issues I have with ISS go away.
Incidentally, the budget calls for a guaranteed $600 million for the next five Shuttle missions to ISS, even if a launch slips into FY11.
Back to the Moon?
So, where does this leave us as far as going back to the Moon? It leaves us delayed, again. That sucks. However, as I have pointed out before, Constellation was already a mess. Behind schedule, over budget, and starved of funding. It was a mandate from the Bush White House, but never got the money it needed from them or Congress to ensure it could be done (this didn’t work when it was attempted from the Bush Sr. White House/Congress either).
I don’t want a repeat of the Apollo program: a flag-and-footprints mission where we go there, look around, and then come home for another 40 years. I want to go there and stay there. Apollo was done as a race, and the goal of a race is to win. It wasn’t sustainable. We need to be able to figure out how to get there and be there, and that takes more than just big rockets. We need a good plan, and I’m not really sure what we had up until this point is that plan.
Building a heavy-lift rocket that can take us to the Moon, Mars, and near-Earth asteroids is not really easy. It’s not like we can dust off the old Saturn V plans and start up the factories again. All that tech is gone, superseded, and we might as well start from scratch with an eye toward newer tech. This budget is calling for that, as well as relying heavily on private companies.
And about that. I’ll say this again: private companies have not yet put a man in orbit, but Space X, as an example, is close to doing so. Once the Shuttle retires later this year, private companies will be putting humans in space before NASA will have the capability to do so again [UPDATE: please see my comment below; the above statement about companies beating NASA is correct]. I am no fan of paying the Russians or other countries to do this for us, and going the route of civilian space makes sense.
Now, Space X doesn’t have the heavy lift capacity that an Ares 5 or other planned NASA rocket might have had… but with routine launches to space covered by private companies, NASA can concentrate on what it should: innovation, pushing the limits, paving the road. Once the road is laid, let others use it.
So I don’t see this as doom and gloom. I see this as 1) putting science and innovation first, and 2) freeing NASA up to do what it does best: explore the boundaries.
Here’s what I think. Warning: political complaining ahead.
Remember: the way we’ve been doing things for 40 years has gotten us literally in circles. It’s perhaps long past time to shake things up and try something different. In my previous posts on this (see Related Posts at the bottom), people are complaining that Obama is killing our Moon plans and gutting NASA. That’s simply not true. I think this may very well save NASA and our future manned exploration capabilities, if this is all done correctly.
As for that, and having said my piece that I think this is a good idea, it may not matter: the other thing to remember is that this must pass Congress first. I honestly don’t think that will happen. For one thing, two many Congresscritters have too big a stake in NASA to let go; if you don’t believe me, read this article where Alabama Congressmen complain about the new budget. When Republicans whine about privatizing something, you know you’re in for a fight, and it’s not like Congressional Democrats haven’t been all that useful in backing up Obama’s plans.
We’ll see how this goes. If it’s business as usual with Congress, then I suspect it may be a lot like the health care plan all over again: lots of spin and noise, lots of knee-jerk reactions because it’s Obama’s plan, lots of "compromise" that’s really just watering down something to make it worse, and then a budget will be passed that won’t be able to get anything done.
I’m pretty damn tired of that, and I’m going to do something about it. I’ll write my Congressmen, and I’ll tell them that the time for bending over backwards is long gone. It’s time to grow a spine, time for boldness, time for innovation. Whether people like it or not, this is the new budget being proposed, and if Congress wheedles over it, then yeah, NASA really will be screwed, and we’ll spend the next four decades circling our planet and gazing at the Moon, wondering when we’ll ever go back.
Perhaps it’s fitting that this news is released on the anniversary of the loss of Columbia — it’s been seven years since that day when the orbiter broke up upon re-entry. A very good case can be made that complacence played a big role in that event. When it comes to space exploration, we must never rest on our laurels, we must never have the arrogance to think we have it all under control, and we must never forget that to explore means to push ahead into unknown territory. That is the lesson of Columbia.
The Moon, Mars, and all of space await us. This new budget may not be perfect, but I strongly suspect it’s the best we can do, and far, far better than the course we currently have laid out. If we don’t push for this now, we may never go back.
A ship may be safe in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.
For criminy’s sake. What is it with people and all the rending of garments over the impending doom of NASA?
1) The reports of Spirit’s death are greatly exaggerated.
OK, yes, Spirit is now stuck. It looks like even if it survives the Martian winter it may no longer be able to traverse the Red Planet’s landscape. But that doesn’t mean it’s dead. Instead of a rover, it’s now a stationary platform capable of doing a lot of science on the cheap (since most of the cost was getting it there).
If you’d rather not have a lander sitting on the surface of Mars doing science that we simply cannot do from millions of kilometers away on Earth, then fine. But astronomers and scientists and science journalists should know better. Stop saying it’s dead.
[And I can picture Opportunity on the other side of Mars, waving its mast frantically, saying, Hey, remember me? Still moving, still doing cool stuff!]
Next, and more importantly:
2) The reports of the manned spaceflight’s death are greatly exaggerated.
OK, yes, it does look like (assuming the rumors are true) the Obama budget for NASA is cutting out the Constellation rocket program in general and Ares in particular. But that doesn’t mean manned spaceflight is dead.
As I said in that above link, private space companies are still a ways off from putting people in orbit. However, I strongly suspect they’ll be doing it before Ares would’ve been ready to do it anyway. Private companies like Space X may be two years from that, while Ares wouldn’t have been ready for five, assuming NASA could even get Ares ready by the scheduled time and in the assigned budget (which I would give a chance of, oh, say, precisely 0). So it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that after the Shuttle retires later this year (or early next) companies like Space X will be able to reach the International Space Station with rockets before NASA could.
As far as going back to the Moon, we still don’t know exactly what the budget for NASA will be like, but it was made clear in the leaked reports (again, assuming they are true) that money will be spent to look for a better heavy lift vehicle than Ares. No specifics were given (though the Commercial Spaceflight Federation says it may be 6 billion bucks, a huge chunk of change), so let’s wait until we actually see the report, hmmm?
Also, a lot of folks thought Ares was a waste of time, money, and with little or no chance of working well. Heck, the Space Frontier Foundation praises the killing of Ares! So not only is it unfair to lament the death of manned spaceflight, some people think — with some evidence, mind you — this will spur it on even more.
That last sentiment rings true to me. NASA’s manned program has been endlessly circling the Earth for almost 40 years now, with no real end in sight. I don’t have a lot of faith, so to speak, that Ares can do the job in breaking this cycle. I suspect a lot of the same folks who are decrying this move by Obama are the same ones who would be first in line to say that NASA has had its wings cut for decades now, making one bad decision after another when it comes to space exploration. Maybe it’s time — maybe it’s long after time — that we let someone else have a stab at this.
When I look at the Moon, I see a place where people will one day work, live, breathe, play, and explore. I also see that future receding two years for every year NASA doesn’t have a rocket to go there, and I’ve been watching that movie play for many years now.
I’m tired of it. When I look out my window now I see a future I’ve been dreaming of my whole life, a future that seems just out of my reach. When my children, my grandchildren, look out their windows in that future, y’know what I want them to see?
The blue-green crescent Earth hanging in a pitch black sky over a cratered horizon.
Let’s give space a chance.