Wednesday, December 8, 2010

COTS-1 Launch Successful

Okay, I couldn't let this go by without a comment. SpaceX's COTS-1 mission is pretty much an unqualified success. Following up on their successful first launch in June, the Falcon 9 vehicle worked perfectly and inserted Dragon to the destination orbit even despite an issue with the niobium nozzle extension that mandated cutting off four feet of the nozzle just yesterday. A video of the launch and ascent can be seen below.

Following that (as can be seen on the video at about 10 minutes in) the Dragon separated from the second stage leaving the trunk section attached to the second stage. It then maneuvered on its Draco thrusters for several orbits, satisfying the FAA's requirements to clear the capsule for entry and testing on-board systems. At the same time, the first stage has been reported as sending telemetry from the water, where the best stage recovery team in the business (namely the Space Shuttle SRB Retrieval ships) is going after them. While Dragon was maneuvering, the second stage also deployed several nano-satellite payloads (reported as two National Reconnaissance Office cubesats, two more from Las alamos National Labs, and one Army SMDC-ONE cubesat) which are now communicating well with the ground.

At this time, the last reports I heard had Dragon in the water awaiting recovery. There's going to be a post-flight press conference on NASA TV at 3:30 EST, and it should be good. Personally, I think that after the post-flight analysis of this spacecraft, it should go to the Smithsonian and be placed in the milestones of flight display in the main hall, like SpaceShipOne and the Apollo 11 command module. It is, after all, the first private and commercially-operated spacecraft to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. If that's not historic, I don't know what is.

UPDATE: SpaceX now reports that splashdown was on target and the recovery team already has floats onto Dragon.

Monday, December 6, 2010

It's Only Rocket Science

Well, SpaceX finally got their static fire test after three attempts (one yesterday, one at 9:40 AM EST or so this morning, and the final success at 10:50 AM EST). The issue appears to have been startup transients in the engines and being unsure exactly how much to allow before an automatic abort (with the number six engine proving to the hurdle in both aborts, first due to over-pressure and then under-pressure), so they were trying out several configuration files to get one that did the job.

Anyway, this reminded me of the "crash the code until it stops failing" approach that's sometimes required in coding, so I thought I'd talk some about what I've been up to in the last few weeks. One major thing I've had in the works is the TransHab module calculator that is now live on the Atomic Rockets website. (Thanks to Adam Schwaninger for his assistance with the interface, and to Winchell Chung for providing the web space.)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Late-Breaking News

Well, either my jinx is getting less potent or SpaceX is getting better. (I hope the latter) Anyway, the static fire went off today at about 1:00 PM, and though the webcast still has similar issues to those encountered back at the Flight 1 launch in June (indeed, maybe worse), once things got going the actual fire seemed pretty incident-free. This morning, the two Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster recovery boats, which SpaceX has hired to use to attempt booster recovery for analysis on this mission and possibly reuse on later missions, left Port Canaveral to head out to sea, so it looks like everything is coming together. It's hard for me to adequately explain how much this flight excites me, but my heart jumped when this thing rolled out with the first man-capable vehicle to be developed in the US in my lifetime even if it's only being used for cargo at the moment, and today's success means that it could fly as soon as next week.

UPDATE (2:08 PM EST): Looks like all was not well. Apparently the test was aborted between T+1 and T+2 seconds (before the full runtime) due to a high chamber pressure on one engine. They're hoping to recycle for another go at it, but the range limit is 3 PM today. Crossing fingers... Anyway, thanks as always to the great people at NASAspaceflight and NSF L2 for keeping everyone informed.

UPDATE: (9:05 AM EST Saturday): Just woke up, and they're going for the second attempt. Counting at T-25 minutes, webcast is at the same place. Come on Falcon!
Falcon 9 Vehicle and Dragon Rolling Out for COTS-1 Static Fire
Dec 3, 2010
A bunch of great pictures came out of SpaceX with this static fire through their twitter feed (including the one above) and their twitpic account. I may post a few of my other favorites later today, and the closing link would be a video of the firing, but all the videos so far are off the jumpy low-resolution webcast. Oh well, can't be helped.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Don't Look Now...

I've had really bad luck predicting SpaceX's activities thus far, and it seems every time I predict something with the COTS-1 launch I immediately hear about a delay. Therefore, I am not going to advise anyone interested in spaceflight to check out the live webcast of the static fire from 8:00 AM to 9:00 AM of the Falcon 9 vehicle tomorrow (Dec. 3) in preparation for the flight Tuesday if all does well. If me talking about it doesn't jinx things and this test goes well, the flight Tuesday should be very interesting. This mission will be the first flight of the Dragon spacecraft, which is being designed for cargo and possibly manned orbital missions.

Simulated image of Dragon spacecraft in Earth O

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

It's Only a Model

So, I've been interested for a while now in Bigelow Aerospace's TransHab-derived module designs. The concept of a module that it is compact when it needs to be at launch, yet larger when its internal volume is put to use in orbit. The solution is elegant in a way that I really like, and so I've been following their designs with great interest. However, nobody is perfect, and they seem to have messed something up in the display model they had at the International Symposium on Personal and Commercial Spaceflight 2010. Specifically, their model seems to be representing something different than what they said it did.

Does this really show a 100-ton 2100 cubic meter module?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Some Real Engineering

So, I've been pretty busy the last few weeks, notably with another checkpoint on my now-70-page (!) portfolio for Intro to Flight. So I haven't had much time to write. However, I've been thinking about the title of this blog (Engineer in Progress) and thought I might talk some about the actual engineering that I have, you know, in progress.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Matter of Some Gravity...

If you compare manned vessels in hard science fiction, soft science fiction, and speculative fiction, you'll see a lot of variations. But there's one thing nearly all of them will have in common: artificial gravity. Why? Let's look at the reasons and some of the issues involved in making it practical.

Gearing Up

Okay, I saw this the other day and meant to post it, but...well, homework. So it's coming now. It's not spaceflight, but does appeal to my core demographic of "me, coming back to find links to stuff I thought was cool". It's a demonstration of the operation of what look like impossibly-shaped gear mechanisms.
Watch Video Here

The gears in this video are myriad in design and wonderful to watch in motion: Square gears! Spiral gears! Fish-shaped gears! There's a lot of clever design work here, and the result is amazing to behold. Each new mechanism brought me a fresh sense of "Nah, it couldn't really work like that, could it?" and then a "Wow! Guess it can!" I'm particularly interested in what the odd shapes due to rotation rates--two circular gears have a constant rate of rotation when spinning one another, but it looks like there may be some interesting effects going on here with some of the arrangements.

Looking at it reminded me of a pair of videos I found a while back about mechanical computers. As I said in the "Out There Ideas of Yesteryear" post, I like ideas that are novel or unusual, because even if their own merits are no longer greater than their drawbacks, they can provide an interesting outside perspective on the ideas that are more mainstream. Thus, I find mechanical or analogue computers fascinating, because in addition to the fascinating engineering and design elements of them they also offer an outside view back at the amazing modern computers we (or at least I know I) often take for granted. As an engineer in an era when computer cycles are so cheap and plentiful that the average household has access to many times the computing power used to send men to the moon and mostly uses it for watching cute web videos, it's amazing to look at the kinds of tools my predecessors--perhaps even people I may work alongside once I graduate--had to make due with and admire the kinds of ingenuity they used to work around these limitations.
A Boy and His Slipstick
Me messing around with the ThinkGeek slide rule
I received for my birthday last month
Tools like the slide rule, which for decades was as symbolic of the technical fields as the stethoscope is of medicine but has now vanished almost completely, or mechanical computers of the sort used to aim bombs, torpedoes, and guns in WWII used elegant applications of problem analysis and mathematical tricks to
do with simple mechanisms what we today do with digital calculators and computers. Admittedly, a slide rule  is less powerful a portable, general-use tool than, say, the TI-83 I keep in my backpack or on my desk, and the mechanical computers I mentioned were limited by their construction to a limited set of uses while a digital computer doing the same tasks can also be reprogrammed to do others, but their obsolescence now does little to reduce my admiration of their incredible history of design and use.

Further information on mechanical computing mechanisms can be found in this 1950s-era training video about naval gunnery control computers, or in OP 1140, a 1944 Navy publication that serves as a fairly definitive reference on the topic of mechanical analogue computers. If you have the time, at least check out the video; it offers some of the same kinds of mind-expanding feelings as the gearing video at the top of this post, but with the added benefit of learning a few things about the history of computing.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Seems Like it's Been Forever...

Well, school's been running me pretty ragged lately, so I haven't had time to sit down and write down the thoughts I've had the last week or so, which I'd like to rectify . However, there's a couple different topics, so let's start with the one that caught my interest most recently: The ISS just surpassed the Mir record to take the top spot on longest  uninterrupted human presence in space. It turns ten years old in a week or so at the start of November. A neat series of desktop images of the ISS assembly sequence up until 7-15-2009 is here, but reflecting on these images made me remember something.

Despite now being the oldest manned object in space and all its scientific value so far, the ISS isn't done yet. There's still the Permanent Multipurpose Module, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, and at least one more Russian module, the Multipurpose Laboratory Module. It's been operated for almost ten years, and it's only just now almost done. That's...incredible. Now admittedly, some of those delays haven't been the fault of the ISS, but rather of the Shuttle, and the modularized design of ISS means that it's been a capable scientific platform even while not being completed, but it's still kind of incredible that it's not quite finished yet.

It's especially incredible to me because of a video I saw the other day of the Bigelow Aerospace booth at the International Symposium on Private and Commercial Spaceflight. It's a neat video, showing some nice physical models of the first station they're currently working on, based off two Sundancer modules, one BA 330, and a propulsion/docking node. There's also cutaways of the Sundancer and BA 330, and a cutaway of a Bigelow module sized for a 100 ton 8-m launch vehicle coming in at 2,100 cubic meters, and the booth manager mentions a 70-ton 8-m-launch-diameter module sized at 1150 cubic meters. Both of these HLV-sized modules (which happen to fit well onto a J246 or J130 launch vehicle like SLS may resemble) would exceed ISS by a significant margin in terms of volume, and do so with a single launch.

BA 2100 (100-ton, 8 m fairing, 2100 cubic meters)
What's really interesting to me is that with the kind of diameter this module type could have (about 16 m), it's enough of a spin radius that a full-sized centrifuge creating a significant fraction (20%-80%) of Earth's gravity is possible without requiring spin rates that are too extreme. Thus, the living section of the station could be in spin gravity, with the labs and mechanical spaces in zero-g, and the whole thing inside the pressure barrier of the module. The hub could be pre-installed as part of the rigid core along with bearings and utility connections to the fixed portion of the station, with the rim/floor and the spokes attached to the hub to complete the assembly as part of fitting out the unit once it was inflated on-orbit. Such a centrifuge could provide increased crew comfort and enable research into the effects of life at different gravitational levels over time.

I have more on the big list of Things I Want to Talk About, but I think I'm done for now. As a closer, I offer a Sesame Street segment featuring my favorite JAXAnout, Soichi Noguchi. I'm not sure when this was filmed exactly, it must have been before his departure from the station back in June, but it appears to have aired fairly recently. Regardless, it made me smile. I used to watch Sesame Street all the time when I was little, I always enjoyed it, and I hope the kids watching it now got a kick out of this bit.

Additionally, I'm going to once again recommend checking out the series of images of the ISS under assembly that I mentioned up above. They can be found here, and it's really interesting to see how the station has grown and changed over the years.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Out-There Ideas of Yesteryear

I'm a bit of a sucker for a novel concept, as strange as they can be. Usual thing to happen is that I'll find a concept at the end of a train of links, investigate it for a while (which can be minutes, or it can be days), toss it around, and then decide whether I like the notion or not. Some ideas I like for their engineering sense, even if at the expense of practicalities. There are others I like and/or remember for the romance or cool factor--this is a large part of my continued fondness for airships, despite the fact that they've been obsolete in most applications since about the 1940s, if not earlier.

Above: Factual Airship-Launched Fighters (USS Akron, ZRS-4, US Navy)
Below: Acceptable Substitute to Play on Weekends (Crimson Skies still)

Aerospace produces a lot of these sorts of things; there's whole sites and blogs full of interesting prototypes like the Curtis Ascender or the Burnelli lifting bodies or this thing that made interesting use of the technology of the time, and occasionally actually contributed something useful to more, well, to be frank successful aviation projects. However, the concepts that tend to really stick in my mind are space-related, especially from the first two decades or so of spaceflight.

I was up early yesterday (see: sleep schedule, issues with) and after an unsuccessful attempt to watch the ISS as it passed over the terminator (it wasn't high enough on the horizon to be seen over the trees and buildings of campus, and my ten minutes of planning couldn't get me someplace better) I was browsing a few favorites, and stumbled across a few new ones. While I was on the thought train, I thought I might as well mention it here on Engineer in Progress, because...hey, I said "whatever I feel like," and I feel like it.

My two favorite "out there" notions (of the "how strange, neat to think about, now go back to work on something sensible") are the opposite ends of the size scale: the monstrosity that was Sea Dragon and little re-entry lifeboats like MOOSE or the Paracone idea. So let's start small and then go big. Let's say it's the 1960s, and you're planning a space station. Now obviously, if things go wrong, your crew wants a way to get home fast, but whatever entry system this is means extra mass you have to launch. If you need a big 9 ton capsule for every six crew, then your 30 man crew (astronauts were always going to be men and there would always be large crews aboard stations in these plans) needs 45 tons of just re-entry lifeboats. That's...a lot. That's tons of pressure vessels, tons of control panels, tons of the heath shields to decelerate all those tons of equipment, just to bring down maybe 2.5 metric tons of actual astronauts. So, as rocket scientists tend to do, they looked for something lighter to do the job, and boy did they come up with a doozy.

If you thought a Mercury capsule was just too big with the heat shield six inches behind your seat and the control panel and periscope a foot in full front of your face, with the parachutes just in front of that....well, do I have some re-entry systems for you. Let's start off with the cheap end of the line with the Douglas Paracone and the General Electric MOOSE (Man Out Of Space, Easiest--I'll note they didn't say safe, they said easy).
Douglas Paracone
So, what you have here is are two one-man open spaceships, each with with a single manually pointed solid rocket motor and some cold gas thrusters to orient. After you've retrofired, you pull a lever and inflate a foam-filled aeroshell around the back of the chair (or in the MOOSE it actually encases you), and then sit back and enjoy the 4000 k air whipping past your head. Once the show's over in the Paracone, the design of the aeroshell and chair slow you to a terminal velocity of 42 km/hr before crushing to absorb even that, and you step off, hopefully onto the same continent you were aiming for while your friend in the MOOSE activates his parachute for his landing. If you two weren't so lucky (maybe you have hand tremors like my grandfather?) and you messed up, then what's left of you might be scattered across the countryside. Fun ride!

Still not buying it? I can see you are a person of refined and luxurious taste, so let's show you the big luxury model, the top of the line minimum-mass lifeboat. Allow me to present the GE life raft (again via astronautix).
Look at this! Standard equipment is a 3 meter non-ablative aeroshell with a foam core, a rear-mounted solid retro-motor, some cold-gas thrusters for alignment, and a nifty little heads-up display for your pilot to guide you in on. Truly the LEXUS of space compared to Paracone or MOOSE, but by using suits and fitting three to a unit instead of one (spreading the weight of the more-accurate guidance and alignment out over three men), you still only need 140 kg of dead mass per person. Not too shabby. Still, I really can't see it being used as anything but the last of the last ditch efforts. I love the idea, but I really, really am not sold on the notion of the open-top cabriolet spaceship. This last one actually saw some testing, but nothing more than drop tests and foam mixtures. I'd love to explain this to the tourists on a space hotel, wouldn't you?

Well, say the mission planners, if you're going to splurge on all that, clearly we'll need a bigger launch vehicle. Big and cheap, because we are not made of money, so the extra performance has to fit the budget. Well, okay, allow me to present without further ado: Sea Dragon.

That is indeed a rocket the size of a destroyer floating on the open ocean next to an aircraft carrier. Your eyes do not deceive you, you merely wish they did. Sea Dragon was an innovative idea for reducing the cost and complexity of rocket launches by accepting higher dead-weight than normal coupled to a truly enormous rocket design that looks like Werner Von Braun and Mike Griffin's group project. The idea of saving money was actually pretty smart: the rockets were designed to be built with cheaper but heavier materials to looser tolerance but with higher safety factors, so the net was a heavier-for-the-same-capability but overall cheaper launch vehicle. So instead of the spacecraft to carry your 10 ton sat to space massing 20 tons dry, maybe it masses 40, but at less cost. (Something similar to this exists in the modern notion of Minimum Cost Design)

So maybe you can build the rockets cheaper, now to launch cheaper. This is where the "Sea" part comes in. Normally, launch infrastructure is expensive and complex. VAB, HAB, crawlers, strong backs, erectors, it's a lot of stuff all for the purpose of assembling, rolling out, and going vertical. Is it really needed for an exploration-class rocket? Robert Truax, who worked on the Polaris and Thor missiles, didn't think it was. Instead, his minimum-cost launcher would be built at a shipyard, towed empty out to sea, filled with LOX and LH2 from electrolysis of sea water (which is what the aircraft carrier is up to above, its reactors are providing the power for all this), then when everything is ready you simply fill some trim tanks at the tail and it sinks to a vertical orientation. Light the engines, lift off, and you're going. This was actually tested with the Sea Bee and Sea Horse rockets, modified sounding rockets and missiles to test the trimming and underwater ignition. Apparently, reuse was possible, and the ignition worked well enough. So maybe this is indeed possible, even if it means everything does now have to be salt-water resistant. Let's talk about the elephant in the room---why the vehicle is sized to launch elephants.
The Sea Dragon that Truax designed as the final goal was to be huge, almost double the length of the Saturn V and more than double the diameter. Gross mass on launch was to be something on the order of 18,000 metric tons, and  the payload to orbit a staggering 450 tons--enough mass to launch the entire ISS and a Apollo moon mission at the same time. Why it's depicted as only launching a CSM with those stats I do not know, but it's this huge size that leads to much of my issues with this concept.

See, I can grasp the notion of Minimum Cost Design. I'm not an adherent of the build-it-out-of-1/2-inch-steel group, but I can see where the notion comes from. But the benefits of those lower cost-per-vehicle only really pay off with frequent launches. Over the last 20 years, we've barely launched 450 tonnes altogether. Where would the payloads be to justify such a huge rocket flying more than once? Even with 60s funding, I don't see it, not right off the bat. And in order to do this, you have an enormous vehicle, with just two enormous pressure-fed engines. Oh yes, those engines on there, each large enough to take a Saturn V up the throat? Those are to be pressure-fed to avoid "complexity". Complexity? How about combustion instability from runaway pressure waves the size of houses? It took seven years to stop combustion issues from killing the F1 on test stands, and if it hadn't been started in the late fifties as a research project, it would have delayed the entire moon program. This thing is supposed to be orders of magnitude bigger. Seems like a fun R&D program.

Is bigger always better? No, I don't think so. And to be honest, I can't believe Traux did either, it seems to clash with the very notion of reduced complexity his version of MCD wanted. I get that capability shapes mission shapes payload shapes launcher shapes capability and on in a vicious cycle that you have to break somewhere, but why with a 450-ton IMLEO beast to break the bank too? I've heard the term "Battlestar Galactica" use to refer to mission plans with more mass and cleverness then they have to by people who like things like Mars Direct, but Sea Dragon is the cream of that in my view. Maybe if they'd tried the core notion of a sea-launched cheaply-built booster with a more practical payload (20 tons? 50?), then it might have actually done something to contribute instead of falling into the history books.

Best is the enemy of good enough, too much cleverness and shooting for perfect can kill a project as dead as not enough cleverness or doing shoddy work. The little lifeboats and the giant Sea Dragon stick in my head as good examples of this, on the end of "what can we do without by being clever" and "what can we build to launch the biggest thing EVAR". I try and hold myself to the same standards--I have to, with how I can get caught up in fancy if I don't reign myself in (see: zeppelins, above). Maybe some time I'll talk about past and current designs I think hit the balance in a good way. Or maybe I'll talk about lunar comsats.

If you've made it all the way through this to here, more power to you, I know I don't have any clue when to shut up once I warm to a topic, no matter how little anyone but me cares. As a reward, check out Contact Light, it's a reconstruction of restored film from on-board and ground cameras and mission audio tapes to produce a full audiovisual recreation of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It's about 17 minutes, so not quick, but the history is amazing. I hope someday not too far off that I or at the least someone of my generation will be at the consoles or controls making this happen again.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Night Work

So, since my body have apparently decided after three days of late nights that sleep is something other people do, I'm left awake pondering the future of NASA after the successful passage of the NASA Authorization Act of 2011, which happened at about 11:30 PM last night, with an (as always) excellent detailed report on the proceedings filed by Chris Bergin of It should head to the White House early next week for official signature, but it seems like a veto is an outside shot, especially since the bill passed with the unanimous consent of the Senate and a 304-118 margin in the House--well more than the 2/3 that would be needed to overturn a veto. So, what does this mean for NASA, and what does it mean for spaceflight as a whole?

NASA's immediate future isn't perfect. I'm not entirely sure of the status of things during the continuing resolution's span, and even if the SLS program and everything else started today, it wouldn't reverse the job losses that have already happened. However, things seems a lot brighter than they would be if the bill that was passed had not been in several ways. First, Ares I at least is almost definitely dead the instant the President signs the bill into law. This is good, in my view, since it would have provided similar capacity to manned EELVS, Falcon 9, or Taurus II at several times the cost per flight while requiring flying crew on top of a single huge solid rocket motor, which has always scared me. Hopefully, the Stick design can be put away in the Round File. Second, NASA's future has a definite short-term goal: build SLS and Orion. Get them flying before 2016. This is definitely possible; the DIRECT team estimates something like their J130/J246 could have a core vehicle ready for testing in three years, while Lockheed Martin is apparently now planning on first testing Orion on a Delta IV Heavy sometime in the 2013 range.

Overall, though, I think the thing that I really like about this bill is that it brings to program planning the same thing NASA engineers have brought to spacecraft designs since the beginning--failure tolerance and redundancy. With it's support of commercial space and possibly even commercial crew, SpaceX, and Boeing may both see the case close on their manned LEO vehicles, providing some degree of redundancy if Orion runs into issues (which it hopefully shouldn't now that it's away from the anemic payloads of Ares I). It's not a 1:1 replacement, both Dragon and CST-100 are primarily designed as LEO taxis,'s more choices than have been available before. As far as boosters, in the next few years we may now see the man-rating of Atlas V and Delta IV, along with SpaceX's Falcon 9, Orbital's Taurus II,  and maybe even Falcon 9 Heavy joining the ranks of flown and proven boosters. There's BEO mission architectures that can be done with such boosters, especially if depot technology does make the list of tech demos funded under this new direction. So even if the SLS Heavy bloats from something like DIRECT back into the good old "Battlestar Galactica" of Ares V, by around 2014-2016, we should have a good choice of boosters that could be worked into a mission architecture for exploration beyond Earth orbit.

So in summary, by 2016, we should have oodles of choices in launch vehicles (SLS, EELV, NuSpace) and  capsules (Orion, Dragon, CST-100) even without mentioning the possibilities offered by our international partners in the ESA and Russia (such as the proposed crewed derivation of the ATV or whatever Russian launchers and vehicles end up turning out). This is really exciting to me, because this means that our ability to get elements of BEO missions to low Earth orbit might just be triply redundant. As Robert Heinlein once said, "If you can get your ship into orbit, you're halfway to anywhere." The Lunar module was developed in 6 years, start to flight. I bet if we started in 2016, we could put humans back on the moon by 2020. Give us a Bigelow Transhab module or ATV-derived habitat, and we could send humans to Martian orbit or a near-Earth asteroid about the same time, if not sooner. Give us another few years to work up a Mars lander, and we'll give you bootprints on Martian soil.

To sum this up in a quick form: I approve of the whole new NASA direction because it may give us the kind of redundancy in access to Earth orbit for crew and mission elements that we normally ask of the spacecraft we send there. In doing so, it then allows us to focus our attention firmly on the other half of the problem of going to exciting and intriguing new worlds and making them places the same way the moon became one in the minds of the world when we had men living and working on its surface. Even if parts of this don't fully work out, that redundancy means exciting and wonderful things can still happen.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A New Day Coming?

Well, I guess one's pretty much going to come thanks to planetary motion and all that, but you'll have to excuse me the metaphor. Anyway, it looks like the House may bring the S. 3729, the Senate's NASA Authorization Act of 2011 to the floor tomorrow. I've been up working on a paper (More of what's been keeping me from writing more here. When this blog comes up against Intro to Flight homework in the fight for my writing time, the academics win) and watching the discussion over what could happen tomorrow--if, finally, the House will vote on the Senate's version of the bill. Whether the votes are there to pass it. It's evoking in me the same feelings I got last year at the first test flight of our AIAA competition plane.

TOM, the plane whose fuselage is under my arm in the image to the left, represented months of long evenings and weekends spent in the wind tunnel working with epoxy and carbon fiber and sanders and drill presses and claps and all that good stuff. Finally, this was the moment of truth. When Chris throttled up the engine, either it would take off and fly, or we would have spent all that time and funding producing something that didn't work. Our only options remaining would have all been poor. Part of me knew it would work, but another part was terrified that the fact that everything seemed to be going well was a sign it wouldn't. (See note on my issues with worrying in the earlier post on this topic) Of course, in the end, TOM flew (even if we did end up landing one wheel short--one of the main gear wheels fell off and we ended up just landing on the carbon fiber skid). I only hope that this vote will turn out that well. Even so, I'm waking up early to voice my support to a few Ohio Reps whose offices were closed already when I called yesterday. There's not much I can do, but I'm doing what I can. This is important.

On a maintenance note, if the bill passes and I finally get some more free time, expect more updates--I've had a couple of things I didn't feel like writing about as long as it looked like we still might be stuck in LEO. Maybe even the fabled return of lunar comsats (I know everyone has been waiting with baited breath). Anyway, sleep beckons and tomorrow's going to be a busy day.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Schroedinger's Program (With special bonus reflection at the end)

I'm a longtime space fan, but it's only in about the last year and a half or so that I've really been paying attention to the decision processes that go into making it happen. (Hey, tying into the blog title! Let me just check that off in the little complementary manual...) Previously, I was more interested in cool ideas like lunar lava-tube habitats or reusable orbital tugs. But the FY 2011 NASA budget made me sit up, take notice, and dig into the process of actually turning dreams into hardware. I've spent a lot of time since then digging through PDFs of reports and the like, and I have to say that when the Senate passed their compromise bill, I actually thought I knew enough to say that compromise had produced a solution that was perhaps both politically feasible and technically possible, perhaps even desirable, which is more than I could say about the Ares I and Ares V after reading more about them than the performance numbers that were all I'd looked at when the designs were first released. Now, as the fiscal year drags to a close and the only things the seem to be coming out of the House of Representatives are...not great, I'm not feeling so optimistic.

There's mission targets and architectures both in and beyond low-Earth orbit that can be done with a booster like what I suspect the Senate bill's Space Launch System would resemble: probes to the moon, returning humans to the moon, expand/replace ISS, perhaps even a crewed Mars mission. There's architectures for doing a lot of that in more modest fashions with boosters like Atlas, Delta, Falcon, and Taurus. They're perhaps more technically challenging depending on the reports you read and not quite as grand in some ways (at least in my opinion), but it's also possible to do a lot of the same stuff if more slowly and smaller. What there isn't an architecture for is what you can do with no action, no direction, no idea of spaceflight as more than a money tube to key Congressional districts. Well, maybe Ares I, but other than that, not really. I'm worried that NASA could end up there if nothing happens, which is seeming more and more likely as the time in FY 2010 runs out with no further Congressional action. I don't think I'm the only one who feels this way, the forum sections about spaceflight's future have been getting...heated as of the last month or so, and I think much of that is simply the indecision gnawing at everyone. I know personally if I'm outside at night, like I was last Tuesday or this evening, I find myself staring at the moon. I want to see people go back there, I want to see it become the place it was when people from this planet stood on it and touched it and studied it up close and sent back images and data and videos that helped the whole world feel like they were there too. I want it so much that not being able to say "this is how we go back there" with any certainty makes me turn away and go back inside.

Okay, so here's the secret bonus material that I'm sure part of my future readership will find engrossing, because I'm about to mention some of the Magic Words. I figure this blog is/will be read by three kinds of people: myself in the future looking for links to stuff I referenced and then misplaced, friends and family I direct here, and future employers trying to see who I am and why they should hire me. I think the last group will possibly be interested when I say that I think that the reason this situation bugs me ties into My Biggest Flaw as a person and as an engineer. I like solving problems, I like working on projects, and I'm not terrible at doing so if I say so myself. But when things go wrong, or are stalled or behind schedule, I tend to proceed as though the solution is for me to throw more and more of my time and mental cycles at it until the issue is resolved. It's not great sometimes, but it can yield results with stuff like a coding project or Aerodesign where my work actually can be enough to help a little, even if at the expense of sleep and social obligations. That I might do so to the extent that it hurts myself and any wife and family I hope to someday have is one of my major fears. But in situations like the NASA budget debates here, there's not much I've found that I  can do to really help. I've called the offices of every Ohio representative I could, and I read the latest developments on NSF and other space news sites, but...that's all I can do. They scratch the "I need to do something about this" itch in my mind, but I can't really do anything of meaning. I don't like being powerless. This is a field I want to work in, something I want to make my career in, but at a moment when this field is in a crisis that could shape its future for the next decade or more, I can't try and push towards a solid architecture and plan. I can't lobby for money. I can't even lobby to just get something other than the Schroedinger nightmare state that we're in right now. I just have to find ways to let myself turn off the computer, stop worrying in violation of everything my brain tells me, and keep going with my daily life. Like, for instance, writing all this here so I can get to bed right now and not go back outside and stare at the moon some more.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

To the Moon!

It doesn't take a lot to put space on my mind.  Last night, I went stargazing with the school astronomy club. Initially we were just looking at Venus until it dropped below the level of the humanities building. Depsite the viewing breaking up around 8:40 once Venus dropped below the roof of the humanities building, I hung around with Carl and we talked a bit longer as he walked back to his car. A little while later, the moon broke through the clouds that had been hiding it and we set up the telescope Carl was carrying and looked at that for a while. I have to say, despite being a space nut, I'm not as familiar with the night sky as I could be, this was one of the first times I've looked for a long time at the moon with an instrument other than the naked eye. Still, Carl and I ended up having an interesting talk about how the moon was different from Venus in our minds--the moon is a place, one where people have been. Hostile as it is, there is also much to learn there and on top of that, it's just cool. It almost felt unfair that a distance the little telescope could bridge was getting in the way of seeing all that stuff up there up close.

So today I wake up to a post over at Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog about some of the mysteries of that place we can currently access right now only by looking through instruments, and it got me thinking more about one of my favorite notions. Basically, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter team has spotted more pits that look a lot like what we'd expect skylights into a lava tube to look like, and one of the new ones is seriously big. Phil has a good explanation on his site for how such features form, fur what interests me is the nature of the feature they leave behind: long empty tubes. The one in the Sea of Tranquility that this pit opens into is big, the skylight alone is 100 m in diameter and the floor is about 100 m down. I read once about a concept to put habitats in there, either inflatables or actually sealing and filling the entire cavern to shirtsleeve pressures. Because they're below the regolith and some bedrock, the radiation shielding requirements of the surface are taken care of, and I've recently seen a source that suggest that the natural cave walls may be sufficiently airtight to not require any major lining operations (beyond pluging large holes like the skylight that let you find it in the first place, I guess). Oxygen could be produced from regolith, or I suppose imported from a polar base cracking ice sheets for rocket fuel. If you do this, you end up with a possibly huge pressurized volume, and for pennies on the cubic meter. The Sea of Tranquility has some nice things--history, I think the orbit is a little easier to get to, and you can communicate directly with Earth via surface dishes without requiring relays (yes, more is coming on commsats, I just haven't gotten my thoughts in order enough to write them up). What do you do with all that volume? Colony? Manufacturing? I don't know. Too much volume is never an issue space exploration has had before to my knowledge.

Oh, also on the subject of awesome space stuff last night and today, Falcon 9 flight 2 went vertical at LC40 last night and they've been doing tanking tests all day. I'm not sure I'll get the rocket flight for my birthday I was hoping for, but I think they may actually make their current "Oct. 23rd or earlier" goal. There's some occasional visibility on cameras here, I've seen it on 11 and 12 off and on depending on where they decide to point the cameras. Good luck, SpaceX. We're all eager to see what you can do, or at least I know I am.

Monday, September 13, 2010

More About Me

I'm going to talk more about lunar comsats later, but I'm away from my desk right now and thus don't feel like writing more about that (I get so used to pulling up info on my second monitor and writing on the primary that I always feel hamstrung trying to do without). Instead, I thought I'd talk more about who the heck I am, anyway.

As I've mentioned, I'm a second-year student at the University of Dayton in the MEE/aero program. And yeah, that's second-year, not sophomore, because according to the University I'm a junior due to all the AP classes I took back in high school, but claiming to be a junior just...I don't know, it seems like it's not true. Second-year student seems to better represent the important stuff about me than the term junior or sophomore.

For the same reason, I feel more comfortable talking about my work with the school's Aerodesign Team than the student section of the AIAA. AIAA, important as it is (and I've given the "why you should be in the AIAA" spiel to so many groups of freshman that I can now recite it from memory) is something where my role is mostly going to be to get speakers in and co-ordinate schedules. In Aerodesign, I'm helping the team design and build the plane. So it seems to me that claiming to membership in Aerodesign is more honest than talking about being the vice-president of the school's AIAA chapter. I'm the VP because I was the one who stepped up to do the few things it involves, so getting the title seems kind of false, whereas I'm eager to claim membership in the Aerodesign Team because I really feel like it's something I'm really helping with and that's really making me more than an engineering student. Spending a few hours with a bandsaw, drill press, and epoxy to create false ribs for the wings (which is what I'm working on in the image) feels more like something I can take ownership of and be proud of than spending fifteen minutes in Excel getting speaker dates set up.

Actually, that feeling is where the title of this blog comes from. Last year during the build month (which should have been more like a week, but I don't feel like re-hashing all of what went wrong last year in the public eye since the people who actually need to know have talked it over and are working to avoid it happening again), there was one weekend session where we were almost ready for one of our first test flights. As a result, we came down to the wind tunnel, did about ten or fifteen minutes of work that we could, set the batteries to charge to be ready for the next day, and then...we were done. It felt strange, I didn't want to go back to my dorm and work on homework. I would have been fine staying in the tunnel and just chatting, because as long as I was there, I wasn't just an engineering student. I was an actual engineer who just happened to also still be learning the job. So that's where the "engineer in progress" name comes from.

Lunar Communications Relay Constellation

I was watching one of the Apollo documentaries and was struck by how many critical burns happen during radio blackout from Earth: Lunar orbit insertion, trans-Earth injection, and I think the pre-burns for powered descent as well. During those times, there's no telemetry for the ground, so no fall back if something happens that the crew cannot detect or diagnose. The lack of relay options other than the CSM also limited real-time uplink of imagery and data, which in a modern lunar mission would seem to be something to plan on, what with cameras being pretty cheap. If I were able to, I'd have cameras on everything. One for each astronaut (still and video, maybe combined), one or more on any rovers, some on the lander both for site visuals and also maybe diagnostic applications. Maybe have one streaming that users could control (pan/rotation/zoom) from a website? I bet that server crashes due to requests after ten seconds. But all of it requires more robust data connections and relays than can be obtained by simply repeating Apollo's comm set up.

So now you're talking about relay satellites, not in orbit of Earth, but in orbit of the moon. What will they need to have on-board? How many do you need to provide coverage? Where do you put them to get the coverage you want/need? It's a hairy problem, and I can't say I understand all of it. Heck, there's areas where I can do nothing more than admit my lack of knowledge and move on. However, it seems like a worthy goal to explore if we're going to be serious about further exploration and perhaps even development on the moon. I have more to say based on my research and talking to others more knowledgeable, but I fear writing more when I have to wake up at 8 AM tomorrow to be lectured about sizing our plane for Aerodesign Team this year. I'm not going to be lead on that this year, but I owe it to myself and next year to make sure I'm awake enough to give it my best effort at comprehension.

Statement of Purpose

Greetings to anyone who might be reading this!

My name is Rob Davidoff, and I'm a second-year student at the University of Dayton working towards a degree in mechanical engineering with an aerospace concentration. I'm a lifelong aerospace geek with a dream to one day work in the spaceflight field. Currently, I content myself with being Vice-President of the school's AIAA section, a member of the University of Dayton Aerodesign Team and reading as much as I can about spaceflight.

I'm creating this blog to house my thoughts on matters relating to aerospace, any spaceflight concepts I create or see that I think are worth remembering, or any reflection on my life as an engineer in training (hence the title). This blog is an experiment for me, I don't expect much response or views outside myself and my friends, but am not adverse to substantive input or responses related to concepts I mention. If you do find this blog by accident or whatever and are interested, drop me a note in the comments section or an email--though I'm still working out how best to set that up.