Friday, May 18, 2012

SpaceX Readies Falcon 9 Rocket---No, Not That One

The excitement of waiting to see a launch can do strange things to me. Tonight, it can make me fall asleep at 6 PM, instead of my more usual midnight to one AM, so I can get sleep before the upcoming SpaceX CTOS-2+ launch. It can make me so excited that I woke back up after just three of the five hours I'd hoped to spend asleep. And, apparently, it can spur me to blog for the first time in...a while. Anyway, I'm probably going to be sharing several pictures of Falcon 9 and Dragon tonight, but I have some special ones first. THESE ARE NOT COTS-2+. This is the next Falcon 9, whose first and second stages are already in storage at a site near the SpaceX launch complex at LC-40 (specifically an old Delta facility, Hangar AO). There's only room for one rocket at a time in the main SpaceX integration hangar, and right now COTS-2+ is filling it (well, not right now, since it's rolled out to the pad, but it has dibs :) ). Hangar AO serves as a surge facility, letting them store hardware that won't fit in the main hangar until it's actually needed or there's room for it.
If all goes well tonight, in the next few weeks this hardware will be sitting where the COTS-2+ rocket was a few days ago, being readied for the next launch. Similarly, another Dragon is being completed at SpaceX's factory at Hawethorne. If tonight's launch and the coming mission goes well, that flight could become CRS-1, the first operational commercial launch to ISS. Otherwise, it becomes COTS-3, a third demo flight to prove that they can fix whatever the forces of Murphy's law might throw at them on COTS-2+. As I hear, that would be planned for August or September--driven by the time to finish preparing the Dragon and for a hole in the ISS's packed visiting vehicle schedule.

For SpaceX, the next critical goal after flying Dragon to ISS is to demonstrate that they can achieve the kind of flight rate needed to satisfy both NASA's CRS cargo contracts and the contracts they have to launch satellites for research, communications, and navigation. To do this, they have to step up their game in terms of launch rate and production. Having this hardware at the Cape already is one small step in that direction.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Status Update, February 2012

Well, it's been a while. No excuses, I'm not going to lie to a blog basically no one but me reads, but I've just had other things on my mind. What sort of things? Well, here's a basic rundown:

1) Work: Since late January, I've been working as a co-op for GE Aviation here in Cincinnati, in a Quality Control position at their Erlanger Distribution Center in Erlanger, KY. Despite the name, it's actually right next to the Cincinnati airport (CVG), mostly because the Cincinnati airport (for long and complex reasons I do not fully comprehend) is located in Kentucky. It's been pretty cool, chief among the attractions being that it's a workplace where I can sit in the break room at lunch and see airplanes powered by the engines I'm chasing parts for take off and land just down the hill and across the airport boundary fence. I'm not allowed to take my own pictures, so this is roughly the view I have, except further back and slightly higher up so I can see the runways.

Anyway, it's been a great experience so far, and I'm looking forward to continuing there for the rest of the summer.

2) Aerodesign Team: As with the last two years, I've once again been a member of the University of Dayton Aerodesign team. This year, I was leader of the Missions Group, responsible for all things rules and payload. I've also been pitching in a lot on the 60-page competition report, which we finally finished and submitted last week. As part of getting the report ready, we were pushing hard for a first flight so we'd have flight data for the paper. Unfortunately, the fuselage manufacturing team was delayed due to the long holiday break, and I was seriously worried we weren't going to fly before submitting the report. This was troubling because Dr Altman, our advisor, stated he thinks this paper may be one of the best we've submitted, and didn't want to see our performance in the scores at competition compromised by penalties for lack of flight data. Leslie, the team captain, managed to pull together the team and work a miracle at the 11th hour, and they got a prototype kludged together from the wings, tail, landing gear, and tail truss from this year's aircraft, combined with a fuselage stolen borrowed from a past aircraft.

It wasn't pretty, but it worked and we got the flight data we needed for the report. However, I think we definitely have a lesson to take away from this for next year: if the break is as long again as it was this year, at least a few members of the team must come back early to begin construction and ensure that sufficient buffer is allowed to absorb any slips and still allow flight before the paper is due. This plane flew two weeks ago, and again this week, generating some useful results about the lifting capacity of the wings and facilitated some messing with motor setup and props, but a more complete aircraft using the proper fuselage, improved wings and tail, and generally fully embodying this year's design is hopefully to be completed this week. I'm planning on going up later this week to help with that assembly and catch up on what I've been missing being away from campus.

3) Extracurriculars: In addition to all this, I've also had projects of my own. Chief among them lately has been Eyes Turned Skyward, an alternate history timeline I've been co-writing and publishing roughly weekly on the forums. You may notice it's been running for a while, but this is the first I've felt up to talking about it on Engineer in Progress, largely because I'm aware it's probably full of amateurish technical mistakes and generally bad writing. Never-the-less, I'm pleased to say we've managed to reach nearly 27,000 views and over 400 comments on the 24 posts so far in the timeline, and we've received the Atomic Rockets Seal of Approval from Winchell Chung of the Atomic Rockets reference site, meaning we stand alongside works like Mass Effect 2, Orbiter, and the Beyond Apollo and Rocketpunk Manifesto blogs. Ah well. If we cannot be seen from afar, it is because we stand amid the ankles of giants. A lot of the reason I haven't been blogging much is that when I have been writing, it's been for this.
Official Atomic Rockets Seal of Approval, as received by Eye Turned Skyward.
Beyond working on Eyes, I've also been working on one final project. For the past year or so, I've been talking a good deal with Winchell Chung, and because of this he came to me for advice on preparing a poster showing off the jaw-dropping mesh he's done of the Polaris, from the "Tom Corbett, Space Cadet" series. He often uses the Polaris as an example, and he created a pretty detailed model of the Polaris as part of this. For this, he was kind enough to send me a copy of the final poster, which is currently hanging on the wall next to my desk. It's amazing, and the image below really can't quite do it justice.

Polaris Poster Thumbnail. See here to buy, or here for more on the Polaris.
In addition to the advice I provided on some details of the poster, I've also been providing some thoughts about revisions to the Polaris, including a rather substantial redesign of her pods. I provided a basic concept based on the role envisioned (basically to transit between the ship and stations while in orbit or as an inspection pod--kind of a useless role, but it's the best way we could find to rationalize the pods from the series). Compare the pod shown in the poster above to the draft concept I sent Winchell, and the amazing model he made based on that. I can't link them in here, but check the album out. It's been a fun little project. It's been particularly cool because Winchell's site is one of the main things that made me realize back in high school that rocket science was something I could actually do and made me decide that I did want to go down the aerospace engineering path that's taken me to where I am today. In a way, helping out with this has felt like paying that back.

Anyway, this ended up being a longer post than I thought it would be, so I'm tying it up here. Long story short, I've been doing some stuff that's kept me away from blogging for a while. I'm not sure that'll change anytime soon, but...I'll try to make time.