Thursday, December 24, 2015

SpaceX, Mars, and Someday the Stars

First of all: Merry Christmas! I'll have something more seasonally-appropriate ready by Sunday. That's the plan, at least.

Today I'll be talking about spaceships, practical and otherwise: and why NASA cancelled InSight's March 2016 launch.
  1. SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Cargo Runs
  2. InSight Launch Delayed — and Robots
This post is less rigidly organized than many of mine, which is saying something.

Instead of trying to analyze the reasons, I'll just get started with the December 1938 issue of Amazing Stories, Columbus, Robert Goddard, the Hanseatic League, and why airlines don't use disposable airplanes — not necessarily in that order.

Imagining, and Building, Spaceships

Rocket engines don't have spark plugs, and the tiny hydrogen/oxygen fuel tanks seem barely adequate for attitude thrusters.

But the "Space Ship of 2038," in December 1938's Amazing Stories isn't as wildly far-fetched as it looks.

We do use hydrogen and oxygen as 'rocket fuel,' and whoever wrote this piece realized that getting into space would take more energy than 1930s-era technology could provide.

Make that technology in common use. Scientists and engineers, inspired in part by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's 1903 publication, were working the bugs out of liquid-propellant rockets.

Robert Goddard's 1926 test flight lasted two and a half seconds and landed in a cabbage patch: but was a big deal because the thing actually flew.

Alcubierre's metric, published in 1994, is an intriguing solution to Einstein's field equations. The White-Juday warp-field interferometer test results were "inconclusive."

But the last I heard, some physicists say a 'warp drive' based on Alcubierre's math is impossible, others say it'd be dangerous, and still others are tweaking the numbers to get power requirements down to something achievable.

I'd be astonished if the first interstellar ship is built in my lifetime. But I'd be a bit surprised if it's not built during the next millennium. (August 14, 2015; October 3, 2014)

Today, though, we're still getting the cost of hauling cargo and people to and from Earth orbit down to something affordable.

Faith, Fear, and Being Human

These days, fears that the telephone was destroying civilization — I am not making that up — are old hat. (January 25, 2014)

Today's trend-conscious worrywarts are in anguish over GMOs and climate change. My take is that any technology, including fire and string, can be dangerous if we don't use our brains. (December 4, 2015; March 6, 2015; December 5, 2014)

I keep running into the notion that Christians oppose science, and thinking in general; and are against any tech invented after the mid-19th century. I also run into a few Christians who seem determined to support that stereotype.

I've discussed St. Thomas Aquinas, artificial intelligence, robots, and getting a grip about technology, before. (June 12, 2015)

Like I keep saying, Using the brains God gave us is part of being human. (Wisdom 7:17; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 35, 159, 1730-1738)

We're rational creatures, created in the image of God, who are "little less than a god:" with the power and frightening responsibilities that come with our nature. (Genesis 1:26-27, 2:7; Psalms 8:6; Catechism, 355-373, 2402, 2415-2418, 2456)

We can use our ability to reason for good or ill. It's our decisions that make a difference. (Catechism, 35-39, 1704-1707, 1950-1960)

Using reason, we can see God's work in the universe. Studying this world is okay: scientific discoveries are invitations "to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator." (Catechism, 35-36, 282-289, 1704, 2292-2295)

1. SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Cargo Runs

(From Reuters, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The upgraded, 23-storey-tall rocket took off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station"
(BBC News))
"SpaceX rocket in historic upright landing"
(December 22, 2015)

"US company SpaceX has successfully landed an unmanned rocket upright, after sending 11 satellites into orbit.

"The Falcon-9 craft touched down late on Monday night, about 10km from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

"It is not the first spacecraft to land a booster vertically; that feat was claimed by the much smaller New Shepard rocket in Texas last month...."
This is a big deal, and I'll get back to why that's so.

New Shepard is Blue Origin's suborbital system: a booster that lifts a crew capsule and lands vertically; and a crew capsule that separates from the booster and deploys a parachute. It flew on April 29. 2015, reaching 93.5 kilometer/58.14 miles/307,000 feet, and reached Mach 3. (Wikipedia,

They got the crew capsule back in one piece, but the booster developed engine trouble. Blue Origin tried again on November 23, 2015. Both units worked that time, after getting to 100.5 kilometers. (Wikipedia)

(From Blue Origin, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The New Shepard rocket lives to fly another day"
(BBC News))

That's rather impressive, and an important step in Blue Origins development tests. But it's not getting cargo into orbit.

SpaceX has been handling cargo runs to the International Space Station since 2012, using its Falcon 9 booster and Dragon orbiter. The SpaceX system, like the planned Blue Origin orbital system, is only partly reusable. But both are a step in that direction.

I put a 'backgrounder' link list at the end of this post: to Wikipedia pages about efforts to make spaceflight practical; and my blog posts, giving my take on why it matters.1

Spaceships and History

(From SpaceX, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
"SpaceX rocket in historic upright landing"
(December 22, 2015)

"...Nonetheless the Falcon-9 flight, which also went twice as high as New Shepard, is a milestone towards reusing rockets.

"SpaceX aims to slash the cost of private space operations with such reusable components - but the company has not launched a rocket since one exploded in June.

"On that occasion an unmanned Falcon-9 broke apart in flames minutes after lifting off from Cape Canaveral, with debris tumbling out of the sky into the Atlantic Ocean...."
Some national governments can afford to build spaceships like the ones that made history a half-century back: Sputnik 1, Explorer 1, Vostok 1, and Apollo 11.

My guess is that if the Cold War hadn't been in progress, we might be working the bugs out of reusable spaceships today, with the first orbital flight still a few decades off.

Instead, the Soviet Union and United States designed and built increasingly large disposable rockets: leading to the N1 and Saturn V. That made sense, sort of, at the time: but it's no way to run a spaceline.

Think about it: how long would the airline industry last, if companies had to throw away an Airbus, 787, or Tu-204, after each flight?

Things were different, five and a quarter centuries back, when Spain's government had three Mediterranean cargo ships refitted for open-ocean sailing.

They'd have gotten the NiƱa, Pinta, and Santa Maria, back: if the Santa Maria's steersman hadn't decided to take a nap. I don't know what happened to him, and that's another topic.

I'm also not sure why Spain didn't use ships like the Hanseatic League's Peter von Danzig: the von Danzig had been decommissioned by then, but at least some Europeans were building large ships designed for Atlantic voyages near their coasts.

I've mentioned the Hanseatic League before: there's nothing quite like it today, and that's yet another topic. (August 21, 2015)

2. InSight Launch Delayed — and Robots

(From NASA/JPL-Caltech, used w/o permission.)
("This artist's concept depicts the stationary NASA Mars lander known by the acronym InSight at work studying the interior of Mars."
"NASA Suspends 2016 Launch of InSight Mission to Mars, Media Teleconference Today"
NASA/JPL-Caltech (December 22, 2015)

"After thorough examination, NASA managers have decided to suspend the planned March 2016 launch of the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission. The decision follows unsuccessful attempts to repair a leak in a section of the prime instrument in the science payload.

" 'Learning about the interior structure of Mars has been a high priority objective for planetary scientists since the Viking era,' said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. 'We push the boundaries of space technology with our missions to enable science, but space exploration is unforgiving, and the bottom line is that we're not ready to launch in the 2016 window. A decision on a path forward will be made in the coming months, but one thing is clear: NASA remains fully committed to the scientific discovery and exploration of Mars.'

"The instrument involved is the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), a seismometer provided by France's Centre National d'?tudes Spatiales (CNES. Designed to measure ground movements as small as the diameter of an atom, the instrument requires a vacuum seal around its three main sensors to withstand the harsh conditions of the Martian environment...."
NASA has a pretty good Introduction to the InSight program. Basically, the InSight lander is a robotic geology field station.

That's why everything has to be in good working order before launch. Robotics and artificial intelligence has come a long way since my youth: but artificial intelligence still isn't all that smart, not for tasks that are simple for a human.

We're bit closer to having robots like C-3PO and R2-D2.

But AI that's up to doing in-flight repairs? Robots are still doing well to avoid falling over when using a drill. (August 22, 2014; June 12, 2015; August 15, 2014)

That's yet again another topic, and so are these posts:

1 Making spaceflight practical:


Brigid said...

Missing word: "space would more energy than 1930s-era technology"

Missing word again: "Both units worked landed safely that time,"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...

Brigid: found, fixed, and thanks!

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I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.