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.