One large step… (the first Dragon mission to the International Space Station)

Tuesday morning (May 22nd, 2012) at 3:44 AM (EDT), SpaceX will (again) attempt to take one large step forward on the path to the commercialization of space. The mission is an ambitious flight of the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule to the International Space Station (ISS), and is packed from countdown to splashdown with high-pressure performances.

5/22 Update: Congratulations SpaceX on another successful Falcon 9 launch! The Dragon is in orbit and all systems are nominal, with successful solar panel deployment and absolute GPS lock obtained.

Watching the Falcon 9 light up the sky on its way to its third completely successful launch, I had a strong feeling that I was watching America’s next astronaut launch vehicle… Great job, and good luck with the rest of the Dragon test mission!

5/19 Update: Approximately two seconds after ignition of the Falcon 9 first stage at 4:55 AM (EDT) on 5/19/2012, the rocket automatically aborted due to a high combustion chamber reading in Merlin engine #5. Because of the nearly instantaneous launch window, there was not enough time to recycle the countdown, and the flight was scrubbed until 5/22 at 3:44 AM (EDT). The hold-before-launch design is one of the reliability features of the Falcon 9, ensuring that the rocket doesn’t leave the ground unless all nine engines are operating nominally three seconds after ignition, but the drawback is more aborts. Good luck SpaceX with your next attempt on Tuesday!

To watch the mission, visit one of the following sites, or check out the #DragonLaunch Twitter hashtag.

Below is a rundown of the most challenging aspects of each phase of the flight.

Countdown

The Falcon 9 booster has launched twice before but has yet to hit T-0 without delays, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX President, revealed at the pre-launch briefing on 5/18. The launch window to reach ISS is mere seconds long, so any glitch in the countdown after the last scheduled hold means that the rocket must wait until the next launch window, on May 22nd.

The countdown sequence is highly automated and SpaceX has performed remarkably quick turnarounds from technical glitches in prior countdowns, but the rocket is still young and the window is unforgivingly short. As a result, Ms. Shotwell estimated that there was a 50% chance of making it to T-0 on time 5/19.

Launch

The nine “Merlin” engines on the Falcon 9 first stage must ignite and evenly power the rocket through Max Q (the point of maximum aerodynamic stress on the rocket) and then to main engine cutoff (MECO) three minutes into the flight. Five seconds later the second stage is pushed away from the first stage. It coasts for seven seconds before igniting its engine, a vacuum-optimized Merlin. After a six and a half minute burn, the second stage releases the Dragon spacecraft into a precisely planned orbit, 310 km x 340 km.

The most common problems in this phase of flight are engine failures, staging problems, and inserting the payload into the wrong orbit. SpaceX’s smaller Falcon 1 rocket experienced an engine failure on it first test flight, and on its third test flight the first stage “rear-ended” the second stage.

But SpaceX has learned from its failures. To prevent another loss because of an engine failure, it now uses stainless steel nuts instead of the aluminum nuts that corroded in the salty ocean air and led to the fuel leak that ended the Falcon 1′s first test flight. It also designed the Falcon 9 to tolerate one or more engine failures during flight. To address its staging problem, SpaceX adjusted the timing of the staging separation. As a result of these (and other improvements), the next two Falcon 1 launches and both launches of the Falcon 9 have gone flawlessly, with accurate orbital insertions each time.

On orbit checkout

Once in orbit, the Dragon will embark on a series of tasks, most of which SpaceX has never attempted outside of a terrestrial test chamber. During the first ten hours in orbit, the spacecraft must deploy and test its solar arrays and proximity operations sensors. Then the Dragon must demonstrate its ability to abort from a simulated rendezvous with the space station. If the craft cannot complete any one of these tasks, the mission is over, the Dragon returns to Earth (if it can), and the remaining objectives are postponed to the next flight.

Rendezvous

After the Dragon demonstrates that it’s operating properly, it performs a series of firings of its “Draco” orbital maneuvering rockets to carry it to precisely 2.5 kilometers from the station, arriving on the second day of the mission. At this point, NASA and SpaceX go through a series of communication and control tests using the COTS UHF Communications Unit – CUCU (yes it’s pronounced “cuckoo”). If the tests proceed according to plan, the capsule will fly under the station on day three, then loop over the station and drift behind it – a delicate demonstration of orbital dynamics in close proximity to the roughly $100 billion facility.

This is perhaps the most likely part of the mission to experience issues. Realizing this, SpaceX set up the mission to maximize the amount of propellant available, enabling them to make multiple attempts, should something go wrong.

Berthing

On day four, the spacecraft incrementally steps towards the space station, approaching to 1.2 km, then 250 meters. At 220 meters, the ISS crew will command the Dragon to retreat to 250 meters and then re-approach in a test of its LIDAR and thermal imaging systems.

Assuming that these precise maneuvers can be performed to the satisfaction of SpaceX and NASA, SpaceX will command the Dragon to approach to 30 meters for one last hold. Flying in formation at over 17,000 mph, SpaceX will then command the Dragon to inch its way to its capture point, a mere 10 meters from the station. At this point, astronaut Don Pettit will use the station’s 58′ long robotic arm to grapple the capsule and gingerly berth it to the space station.

As with the rendezvous, the berthing operation is an extremely complex and difficult task. A Russian cargo ship rammed the Mir space station in 1997 during a similar operation (causing part of the station to depressurize), and SpaceX will likely be thrilled if they can succeed with a fraction of the steps while avoiding a similar fate, even if they must postpone the berthing until the next flight.

Reentry

After the capsule is berthed and the hatch is opened the following day, the ISS crew will spend about 25 hours over a two week period unloading the one thousand pounds of cargo the Dragon is carrying – mostly food and clothing, but also student experiments on microbial growth and water purification in microgravity, among other things. They will also load almost 1500 pounds of experiments and hardware for return to Earth, the first time a significant amount of payload has been returned from the space station since the retirement of the Space Shuttle.

Following the cargo transfer, the ISS crew will grapple the Dragon again, removing it from the station and releasing it where they found it 5.7 million miles ago – 10 meters away from the station. The Dragon will then fire its Draco rockets again to carry it on a safe path away from the station.

Four hours later, the Dragon will perform a seven-minute deorbit burn and then reenter the atmosphere at over 17,000 mph.

Reentry is another risky part of the flight, and this will be the first time it’s had to perform the critical tasks of jettisoning its unpressurized “trunk” and closing its sensor bay hatch. The failure of either task could lead to a so-called “ballistic” (uncontrolled) reentry like the Soyuz TMA-11 mission, with the capsule likely landing hundreds of miles off target, or a breach of the heat shield like the Space Shuttle Columbia’s last mission, with the capsule possibly breaking up on reentry. However, SpaceX has tested its trunk separation and hatch mechanisms on the ground, and its SpaceX manufactured Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA-X) heatshield and SpaceX Proprietary Ablative Material (SPAM) backshell performed better than expected on the first Dragon mission, so this dangerous phase of flight could also be considered one of the easier parts of the mission.

Splashdown

During reentry, the Dragon will repeatedly fire its Draco thrusters to steer the craft into a precise landing zone 250 miles off the coast of southern California. The Dragon deploys two drogue chutes at 45,000 feet followed by its three main parachutes at 10,000 feet. Although parachute deployments are another common problem (there were reportedly eleven partial failures of the Space Shuttle solid rocket boosters’ parachutes), the Dragon is designed to safely land a human crew with only two functioning parachutes, and all three parachutes performed perfectly on its first mission, with the Dragon landing within a mile of the center of its landing target.

Conclusion – failure is an option

This is an uncrewed test flight and failure is an option. SpaceX plans to fly the Falcon 9 probably twenty more times and the Dragon around ten more times before flying humans. There will be time to apply the lessons learned from this mission regardless of whether it’s a complete success, a partial success, or as rocket scientists say, a rapid unscheduled disassembly. Regardless of the outcome, it should be fun to watch.

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NASA Authorization Act of 2010: Back to the Past

Senator Bill Nelson (D, Florida) introduced the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 to the Senate commerce committee last week, and it is slated for a committee vote and discussion on July 15th. If enacted, the bill would add one or more space shuttle flights, cut $2.1 billion in funding for commercial crew transportation to the International Space Station (ISS) and speed development of a super-heavy lift rocket, likely derived from existing work on the troubled Constellation program.

Over the past several years I have performed exhaustive research on the state of the commercial spaceflight industry in support of a book that I’m in the process of writing. This research has led me to believe that the president’s FY 2011 NASA budget request, which is quite different from Senator Nelson’s NASA Authorization Act,  is a brilliant move to revitalize NASA and take advantage of America’s rapidly growing commercial spaceflight sector. Over the long-term, it’s likely to be the first step towards a vibrant new sector of our economy, one in which American companies are at the forefront, led by NASA’s guidance and explorations. Success is likely because of its emphasis on sustainable exploration that provides a market to American spaceflight enterprises. NASA can both encourage the growth of this market, and reap the benefits in the form of reduced costs, potentially increased safety, and faster progress towards exploration.

However, this bold new vision is unpopular with members of congress from states heavily invested in the current plan of record (“Constellation”, which consists of the Ares 1, Ares 5 and Orion programs). As such, Senator Nelson is attempting to derail the president’s FY 2011 NASA budget with the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. The act undercuts the path to sustainable exploration on two fronts. First, it dramatically reduces funding for commercial crew transportation to the International Space Station (ISS). This would reduce the attractiveness of crew transportation contracts, and also increase “the gap” between the retirement of the Space Shuttle and the fielding of a new American crew transport vehicle (requiring expensive flights on the Russian Soyuz in the interim). Second, it calls for the immediate start of an expensive and unnecessary heavy lift booster program. This would likely hurt our long-term exploration prospects by costing too much to develop and operate, and by eliminating the benefits our commercial launch providers would gain if we crafted an exploration architecture that uses existing boosters at a higher flight rate (lowering costs through increased production volume).

I strongly encourage our senators (I called mine today) on the commerce committee (references below) to either vote for Senator Warner’s amendment to restore full funding to the nascent commercial crew program, or attempt to block the act entirely. If the act does move forward, I also encourage our senators to vote for Senator Udall’s amendment to ensure that the Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research program is fully funded at $15 million/year, as this program also helps the commercial spaceflight sector get off the ground, so to speak.

I believe that attempts to preserve elements of the existing Constellation program are largely motivated by job retention. While this is an understandable motivation in these difficult times, the proposed NASA plan would create new jobs that would partially offset those lost, and lead to a more robust commercial spaceflight sector that will benefit the entire country.

Jason Gerend

References

“We are on a path right now, for a system that requires [roughly] double the current budget just to operate,” said Jeff Greason, a panel member and co-founder of XCOR Aerospace.

“If Santa Claus brought us this [Constellation] system tomorrow, fully developed, and the budget didn’t change, our next action would have to be to cancel it,” he said.

“Yup,” responded (former astronaut Dr. Sally) Ride.

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The Most Important Rocket Launch Since the First Space Shuttle

Starting Friday morning at 11:00 AM Eastern Time, a plucky startup company founded by Elon Musk, the cofounder of Tesla Motors and PayPal, will begin the first attempt to launch what is possibly the most important new rocket since the Space Shuttle.

The company is SpaceX, and the rocket is the Falcon 9. It is designed by SpaceX to be the successor to the Space Shuttle, eventually carrying seven astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) for a fraction of the current cost, and with higher reliability than any previous rocket. However, before the Falcon 9 can accomplish these lofty goals it must first surmount a number of technical challenges and an even more treacherous obstacle – politics. And with an intense debate under way in the halls of Congress over the future of American human spaceflight, the success or failure of this first test flight could have repercussions far beyond the reach of the test program – it could sway the debate over NASA’s new plan to ferry astronauts and cargo to the ISS using fixed-cost commercial providers such as SpaceX instead of continuing development of the much maligned Ares I and Orion crew launch system. Not since the first Space Shuttle launch have the stakes been higher.

For launch coverage, see the Falcon 9 Mission Status Center on SpaceflightNow or the SpaceX website.

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NASA: The Moon Had At Least $88 Million Worth of Water Before We Vaporized It

Today NASA announced that the LCROSS mission found (and vaporized) around 100 kg of water near the south pole of the moon, worth around $88 million. NASA discovered this by impacting the Moon with two large objects: a Centaur rocket upper stage and the LCROSS spacecraft. Scientists then measured the spectra of the resulting plumes of material ejected from the newly formed craters and discovered a strong presence of vaporized water.

This novel technique for determining whether there is water on the Moon got me thinking about how much the vaporized water is worth, and whether future lunar explorers would find the technique barbaric. Currently, it costs around $400,000/lb to deliver material to the surface of the Moon*, and the scientists estimated that they vaporized around 100 kg worth of water (around 220 lbs), yielding a value of approximately $88 million USD. While that’s a lot of money, the cost of determining whether water is present on the Moon in a definitive, non-destructive manner would likely cost in excess of $300 million (a rough estimate of the cost of a NASA Discovery class mission to send a lander to the south pole of the Moon). The LCROSS mission cost: $79 million, a relative bargain, even considering the $88 million worth of vaporized water.

* Lunar Payload Delivery Cost Estimate by Dr. Diamandis

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Windows Vista Media Center Now Records DRM-free Cable TV

Users of Windows Vista (and Windows 7) Media Center and Cablecard TV tuners (specifically the ATI TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner) will be thrilled to hear that we can now record TV shows without DRM encryption preventing us from playing them back on other computers.

To do so, you’ll need the latest firmware, and the TV shows must be broadcast with the Copy Freely tag. My hasty testing showed that I could record and copy Standard Definition (SD) programs from Comedy Central and High Definition (HD) programs from HDT. I could not copy programs recorded from ShowTime, which was as expected from a premium channel. To record, I used a computer running Windows Vista Home Premium and all of the latest updates, along with an ATI TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner and a Cablecard provided by Comcast. To play back, I used a laptop running Windows 7 Enterprise, though I expect the results should be similar on other computers running Windows Vista.

I’m sure that we’ll be hearing a lot more about this in the coming days as other users get a chance to play with this cool new feature. For more information, check out The Green Button.

Firmware Version: 1.19.12.09050155, May 1 2009, downloaded from Windows Update on 11/10/2009 (it’s an optional update).

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Recommendations to the US Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (the Augustine Commission)

There are only two ways that NASA can achieve more lofty goals in space – spend more money, or reduce the cost. The Apollo program successfully used the former strategy, but in the process demonstrated the difficulty of sustaining an expensive program during troubled economic and social times. The Space Shuttle program attempted the latter approach, but failed to significantly lower costs due to a combination of mistaken assumptions (including high flight rates), a design that may have been too aggressive, and the need for a small army of personnel to operate, with their associated salaries.

Regardless of the budget, NASA can get “more bang for the taxpayers’ buck” by leveraging the most efficient mechanism available for cost-reduction – free-market competition. Combined with an incremental approach that builds on the fruits of this competition, NASA could ultimately achieve greater goals than if they continued on their current path.

For decades, companies have pursued the concept of “commercial spaceflight”, but virtually every company has failed. However, the field appears to be finally growing through adolescence and into early adulthood as multiple commercial companies are successfully fielding significant spaceflight capabilities. Orbital Sciences and now SpaceX have successfully commercialized small satellite launchers (Pegasus and Falcon 1), and are on the cusp of fielding medium-lift launchers and cargo supply vehicles for the NASA COTS and CRS contracts (SpaceX’s Falcon 9/Dragon and OSC’s Taurus 2/Cygnus). Virgin Galactic is entering the flight-test phase of its eight-person suborbital commercial spaceflight program, while other companies such as Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin and others are making lower-profile, yet still significant contributions to the fields of vertical takeoff and landing (VTVL) and aircraft-like operations.

To take advantage of this “next space race”, NASA should cancel its Constellation program and all internal programs (such as the Ares I and Ares V) that could be more cost-effectively achieved by providing a customer to the free-market. Doing so should save money and/or allow more significant accomplishments while spurring US industry to greater competitiveness and creativity – potentially spawning new markets such as tourism, microgravity pharmacology research and manufacturing, and others yet to be identified.

In the process, NASA should abandon the current timeline for crewed lunar missions, and replace it with an incremental plan that builds capability sustainably over time, carefully laying a strong foundation for affordable, reliable and flexible transportation and the commercial utilization of space. 

The goals of the program should be to expand human exploration, foster scientific and economic utilization of space resources, and eventually colonize the solar system, all at an economically sustainable rate. To provide direction, NASA should be looking at destinations that provide resources, scientific interest and technology development opportunities. This likely means exploring and utilizing the resources in the Earth-Moon system before moving on to near-Earth objects (NEO) to explore and utilize.

For simplicity of discussion, this can be thought of as occurring in a number of spirals or steps:

Spiral One: Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Infrastructure

  • ISS crew transport (launcher and spaceship)
  • Propellant depots

Spiral Two: Cislunar Infrastructure

  • Cargo lift vehicle (25-75 mt)
  • Earth Departure Stage (preferably reusable)
  • Cislunar crew transport (preferably reusable)
  • Low Lunar Orbit (LLO) or L1 propellant depot (architecture dependant)

Spiral Three: Lunar Exploration and Resource Utilization

  • Lunar crew and cargo transportation (preferably reusable)
  • Lunar resource extraction facilities
  • Lunar power sources (including nuclear)

Spiral Four: Deep Space Exploration

  • Deep space crew transportation
  • Deep space crew habitation
  • Simulated gravity studies and experiments
  • Radiation mitigation studies and experiments
  • Aerobraking studies and experiments

For each component of a spiral, NASA should ideally fund four competing options in two groups – two competing (yet compatible) “front burner” options that are on the critical path and fully funded, and two “back burner” options that are funded at lower levels to hopefully provide a seed for next generation capabilities.

To provide an example of how some of Spiral One might look (depending on the outcome of the competitions):

  • ISS Crew transport (“front burner”) with all pieces interchangeable (i.e. Atlas V 401/Dragon or Falcon 9/Orion lite)
    • Atlas V 401/Orion “lite” crew transport
    • Falcon 9/Dragon crew transport
  • ISS Crew transport (“back burner”): Two options, competitively awarded, possibly including: t/Space CXV, PlanetSpace, Orbital Sciences?

Spiral Two might include the following cargo lift vehicle options (depending on the outcome of the competitions):

  • Delta IV Heavy (possibly upgraded to ~50 mt lift)
  • Falcon 9 Heavy (possibly upgraded with hydrogen upper stage to ~50 mt lift)
  • International cooperation from ESA (Ariane V) and others

By capitalizing on the continuing advances of the free-market, NASA can revolutionize itself and human spaceflight. While progress may be slower for the first few years as commercial capabilities are established, it should accelerate past what NASA could achieve using its current Constellation architecture. This would happen as the commercial spaceflight industry experiences a positive feedback loop where higher flight-rates (provided initially by NASA’s purchases) drive down costs, leading to greater potential for independent commercial utilization, leading to yet higher flight rates and even lower costs. As costs drop and technology matures, the scope of what NASA can accomplish should expand far beyond what is currently planned.

By taking bold action, NASA could save money, stimulate an exciting and inspiring new American industry, and achieve more than if it “stayed the course”.

Footnote: Thanks to Dr. Donald J Gerend and Miranda Veenhuysen for reviewing and providing thoughtful comments.

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"Final" Hubble Space Telescope Repair Mission and the Inevitable Death of Hubble

Space Shuttle Atlantis is currently in orbit performing the last repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. The flight is interesting for a number of reasons. It is the final mission to repair and upgrade one of the most amazing scientific instruments in existence. It also carries a larger amount of risk than most shuttle flights. If NASA discovers any problems with the Space Shuttle Orbiter’s heat shield while in orbit, the crew will not be able to use the International Space Station (ISS) as a safe harbor. Instead, NASA would have to launch a second Orbiter for a risky shuttle rescue mission.

However, for commercial space enthusiasts, the most interesting part of the mission might be the launch of the Soft Capture Mechanism (SCM). The SCM is a rendezvous and docking target for Hubble that will allow spacecraft other than the Shuttle to dock with the telescope.

You see, Hubble was designed around the Space Shuttle. It was launched by the Shuttle, and serviced four times by Shuttle astronauts wielding its robotic arm (this mission is the fifth). And because Hubble is large enough to cause localized destruction on Earth if allowed to reenter the atmosphere in an uncontrolled manner, it was designed to be returned to Earth at the end of its mission in the cargo bay of the Shuttle.

However, when Space Shuttle Columbia burned up on reentry, it became clear that Hubble would not end its life with a funereal ride on the Shuttle to the Smithsonian Museum (as was once considered). Instead, a $1-1.6 billion robotic mission to service Hubble was drafted that would have used a version of the new International Space Station (ISS) arm to service Hubble one last time. When this proved too complex, a simpler version was studied to attach a $170 million propulsion module to Hubble that would deorbit Hubble, sending it to a death of fire and water over (and in) the Pacific Ocean.

Deorbiting Hubble After the Shuttle Retires

To better ascertain what Hubble’s future will look like after the Shuttle retires in 2010 I interviewed Mike Moore, the Program Executive for Hubble. Here’s an excerpt of our email conversation:

Gerend: I understand that there are no official plans to service Hubble past SM4, but are there any ideas of how to deorbit Hubble that you can share with me?

Moore: “We have done several studies on how to de-orbit the observatory, and as you might guess, there are lots of ways to configure a system to do the job. Fortunately for us, it seems that the Solar cycle will allow us to stay in orbit for some time to come, so the need will not be with us until 2020 or so.  That means we have the opportunity to take advantage of all the developments that will occur in the coming few years.  By that time, there will be several systems that are able to do rendezvous and docking in some fashion, including the European ATV, the Japanese HTV, and our own Orion system.  All of these will provide a basis for an automated system that can attach to the observatory and provide the push needed for an accurate re-entry…”

I have specifically not tried to spec a system that would do the mission now, just because the potential in the future is so great that what we can do now could be so old hat by the time we actually do the job that it might just sound silly.

Gerend: The LIDS adapter was put there conceivably to allow visitation by Orion, so I assume that this is the baseline deorbit method. Is that correct, or is it simply to provide better options for when deorbit planning begins?

Moore: You have hit the nail on the head with your latter comment.  The Orion, as I mentioned above, is one of many potential “off the shelf” systems that might be made to work in the time frame noted.  However, so can many other systems…”  “What the adapter does do, we hope, is make the process of docking easier and cheaper.

So what would the real final Hubble mission look like? Here are some of possibilities:

  • A crewed Orion mission The mission could look like this: NASA’s next generation space capsule Orion docks with the telescope, fires its retro rockets to put the pair into a suitable reentry trajectory, and then undocks and adjusts its own trajectory to reenter in the appropriate location.
  • An unmanned ATV mission The European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) is currently the most capable spaceship for this task, assuming it could be fitted with a LIDS docking port. It has automated rendezvous and docking capabilities as well as more than adequate propellant reserves. Like the Orion mission profile, it is likely that the ATV would have to disconnect from Hubble before reentering-the combination of both large objects reentering simultaneously would produce a little too spectacular a fireworks (and aquatics) show!
  • An unmanned SpaceX Dragon or Orbital Sciences Cygnus vehicle This would be the cheapest option if the private sector can successfully deliver their ISS cargo vehicles, currently under contract with NASA. The mission would have the cargo craft dock with the Hubble’s new LIDS docking port and then place it in an appropriate reentry trajectory or possibly a higher, long-life “museum” or graveyard orbit. However, neither craft (nor the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle)  is designed for automatic docking. They are designed to be grappled by the ISS robotic arm and manually docked, so these options might not be workable until automatic docking capabilities are developed.
  • A crewed SpaceX Dragon mission If the unmanned version of the Dragon or Cygnus cargo vehicles can’t achieve the automated rendezvous and docking task, a small crew could be launched on the crewed version of the Dragon to manually assist with the docking.

Conclusion

As you can see, the final Shuttle flight to the Hubble Space Telescope is a noteworthy mission with an interesting repercussion for the commercial spaceflight industry. The Shuttle isn’t quite the wonder-spaceship it was supposed to be, but it is nonetheless the most capable orbital servicing ship ever created, and when it retires, a significant capability will be lost. However, the inclusion of the new docking port on Hubble means that NASA will have more options when it comes time to service Hubble again or deorbit it, and it’s likely that a commercial option might be the cheapest and best. It also might set the stage for private orbital servicing missions that begin to replace some of the Shuttle’s capabilities.

References

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New Animation Reveals Additional Details of SpaceX’s Dragon Spaceship

SpaceX Falcon 9 on the pad

SpaceX posted a new animation to their Web site yesterday illustrating what a launch of their new seven-person spaceship, the Dragon, will look like, and some new details that are sure to intrigue space enthusiasts.

SpaceX is a private company started by entrepreneur Elon Musk (of Paypal and Tesla Motors fame) with the express purpose of lowering the cost to orbit by a factor of 10. Their first rocket, the Falcon 1, achieved orbit on its fourth test flight and is now the lowest-cost production satellite launcher in the world.

Dragon is a low-cost cargo and/or seven-person space capsule that SpaceX is developing for a series of NASA space station resupply contracts. It is designed for launch on their new Falcon 9 booster rocket, which is slated to make its first launch this summer. The first test of the Dragon is also scheduled for sometime in 2009.

The Dragon and both stages of the Falcon 9 are designed to be recovered via parachutes and a water landing, and eventually reused to further reduce costs. If SpaceX can successfully implement reusability of both stages and the space capsule, it will be the first fully-reusable spaceship in the world (the Space Shuttle discards its external fuel tank with each launch). Even without reusability, the Falcon 9 should offer the lowest cost per-pound for an orbital booster, and the Dragon the lowest cost per-person to orbit.

Both the Falcon 9 and the Dragon are being designed for crew transport, though NASA has not yet funded any work on using the Dragon for humans. Such a capability is being referred to as the Commercially Operated Transportation System (COTS) “D” capability. It is believed by many in the industry to be the fastest way to field a replacement for the Space Shuttle, which is currently slated for retirement in 2010. After the shuttle retires there is a scheduled gap of  five years before the first flight of NASA’s next spaceship, the Orion. SpaceX claims that a crewed version of the Dragon could be ready for test flights by 2011, and be fully operational by 2012.

The latest video shows details of what an operational Dragon crewed mission to the International Space Station might look like. Some of the tidbits not seen before include the following:

  • The SIRCA tile heat shield on the front of the second stage, which should hopefully allow the second stage to successfully reenter from orbit. This would be the first orbital booster other than the shuttle to return from orbit.
  • Docking with the International Space Station instead of berthing. The cargo version of the Dragon will approach the station close enough to be grappled by the station arm, which will then “berth” the capsule to a docking port. This video shows the Dragon docking itself to the station, which might indicate that SpaceX would like to get the Dragon approved for docking, which is an extremely difficult approval to get (currently only the European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) fully meets the ISS docking standards). It is possible that having an onboard pilot can help ease the approval process, but I think we’ll have to wait and see.
  • The recovery process of the Dragon capsule. In the animation, a helicopter is shown lifting the capsule with the astronauts still inside, and flying it away, presumably to a nearby ship. SpaceX has previously said that their nominal plan is to recover Dragon off the coast of California, so it’s possible that they’d fly the capsule all the way back to land, though I’m not sure if this is feasible. I’m also not sure I’d want to be inside the capsule when it starts swaying…

Anyway, check out the video for yourself. There’s a High Definition (HD) version available for download as well.

Photo: SpaceX Falcon 9 on the launch pad in Florida (courtesy of SpaceX)

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An Improvement to McCain’s Concession Speech

I was extremely impressed with the graciousness of McCain’s concession speech last night as well as Obama’s victory speech. However, part of McCain’s speech struck me initially as slightly insensitive. Here are some excerpts:

(Relating to our treatment of African American citizens) We have “come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation’s reputation…” “America today is a world away from the cruel and frightful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States. Let there be no reason now … Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth.

When I first heard this, it sounded a lot like “now that a black person is president, we can finally say that racism and bigotry is no longer present in America”. In reading the transcript of the speech, I can see that this is not what he said, nor what he intended. However, as a writer, I take misinterpretation of my words as a sign that I should reevaluate them and strive to improve their clarity. In that vein, I think he could’ve improved his message here by saying something like this:

“Let today represent how far we have come from the darkness in our past. Although we have not declared victory over bigotry, today the people of our country and the world can view the election of an African American citizen to the office of the president of the United States as a glowing symbol of hope. A symbol of hope for a future when all men and women are treated equally, not only in the eyes of the law, but in the hearts and actions of our citizens."

Minorities of all types in this country still face hardship, and although I believe President Obama will make major strides forward to promote equality, discrimination still exists and will continue to exist in four years, in eight years, and probably even 80 years. We’ve made great progress from the days of yore, but we still have far to go, so let us not become complacent in our efforts to treat each other with the respect and consideration that we all deserve.

In any case, McCain delivered a very respectful and gracious speech, and I applaud him for his efforts to support our new president-elect and pave a smooth path to bipartisan cooperation under the Obama administration. Kudos to both candidates yesterday for their exemplary behavior at the end of this long and bitter campaign.

Reference: Full transcript of John McCain’s concession speech.

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Windows Vista Sucks; Vista SP1 Doesn’t

Windows Vista has gotten a lot of bad press since it was released. One of my managers here in Windows Server User Assistance said that this is because of customer perception, and I agree. Customers perceive that Vista sucks. Probably because it does.

Fortunately for Microsoft and everyone using Vista, Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1) doesn’t suck, and is actually quite a good operating system that addresses many of user’s complaints with Vista, as I’ll discuss below. But first, let me talk about why I think Vista (pre-SP1) sucks.

Windows Vista crashes a lot

I was part of the Windows Vista Reliability and Release Criteria survey group internally here at Microsoft, during which time my computers were analyzed for problems. Afterwards, I provided some characteristically to-the-point feedback about Vista. It read something like this:

“Windows Vista is the least stable Microsoft operating system that I’ve used since Windows 95, and really needs another three months of bug fixing before we release it.”

There were some good business and technical reasons why Microsoft ignored me and shipped Vista when it did, but they’re not super-interesting, so let me get back to my point of Vista sucking.

When Vista was released to manufacturing (RTM), I performed a clean install of it on my desktop at home (homebuilt Athlon X2 3800+), my work laptop (Thinkpad X60 Tablet), and my work desktop (Dell Optiplex 755). Of these three systems, only my work desktop (running 64 bit Windows) was reasonably stable – the others were crashing maybe 1-6 times per week. Not good.

It turns out that one of the big reasons that Vista crashed a lot was badly written drivers. As part of a lawsuit against Microsoft, it was revealed that only 17.9% of the Vista crashes were known to be caused by Microsoft (during an unspecified portion of 2007) – the rest were third-party drivers or unknown causes. So, not all MS’s fault, but still not good.

Applications don’t run well on Windows Vista

When Vista first came out, lots of applications didn’t work well on it. Some wouldn’t install, others crashed. This is somewhat typical of new operating systems, but it doesn’t make for a lot of fun.

Windows Vista is slow

There is a perception that Windows Vista is slow. Some of this is easily confirmed with benchmarks (see below for SP1′s benchmarks), but some of it is subjective. The interface doesn’t always keep up with the user and sometimes lags behind or feels slow.

Much of this is because of slow display drivers or because Vista uses more eye-candy which slows things down. Some is because Vista likes fast new hardware, and some is just frankly because Vista is slow. If you don’t have 1 GB of RAM, don’t run Vista. If you do have 1 GB, upgrade to 1.5 or 2GB +. More on this later.

Why Vista Service Pack 1 Doesn’t Suck

Here’s the tough thing to sell for a disillusioned audience: Windows Vista Service Pack 1 doesn’t suck. It’s actually my new favorite OS and what I recommend to everyone with a computer that can run it.

Vista SP1 is really stable!

I recently had to switch desktops, so some of my data isn’t very old, but my previous Vista SP1 desktop had been subjectively very reliable until I replaced it.

  • Work desktop (clean SP1 install): 0 Windows failures or Miscellaneous failures in 9 months. System stability index: 9.45
  • Work laptop (clean SP1 install): 1 Windows failure (bluescreen) and 4 disruptive shutdowns in 8 months. System stability index: 9.25 on 11/4/2008
  • HP Media Center PC (home PC originally running Vista RTM – upgraded to SP1): 11 Windows failures and 5 disruptive shutdowns in the 10.5 months I’ve had the system. System stability index: 9.24. This system used to be “pretty good” when running Vista RTM (crashing every couple of weeks), but after installing SP1 and identifying an unstable nVidia display driver four months ago, this system has crashed only once. Not bad considering that system is running 24/7 recording HDTV, doing video editing, running Zune software as well as Outlook, etc.

Vista SP1 is as fast as Windows XP SP3

According to synthetic and gaming benchmarks performed by ExtremeTech, Windows Vista SP1 now matches or outperforms Windows XP SP3. This is largely due to improved display drivers, but is also partially because Vista SP1 is faster than Vista RTM.

Subjectively, Vista SP1 rarely feels slow anymore on my systems. It does what I want when I want it almost all of the time.

What Still Sucks about Vista

Although Vista SP1 is worlds better than Vista RTM, it’s still not perfect. Here’s what I think still sucks about Vista SP1:

Applications still crash too much

This probably isn’t Vista’s fault, but it’s still annoying. Some applications have compatibility issues with Vista, though mostly the problem is just poorly written applications that crash. Here are the programs that crash most often on my computers:

  • Internet Explorer 7 (part of Vista…)
  • Outlook 2007
  • Word 2007
  • Adobe Photoshop Elements 4
  • Windows Vista Sidebar (also part of Vista)
  • Windows Explorer (also part of Vista – usually related to bad network latency)

External monitor detection still sucks

This has been improved, but still isn’t good enough. I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been to where someone can’t get their laptop to talk to the projector properly. To be fair, this is probably not just Vista’s problem – a large part of it might be in the projector, but still – this is supposed to be Plug and Play, not Plug and Pray.

Conclusion – Vista SP1 Is New and Improved – It Sucks Less

As you can see, I think that Vista (original version) sucks, but that Vista SP1 is new and improved – it sucks less (I’m waiting for marketing to approach me for that slogan). I went from one of the biggest Vista critics (I tried really hard to delay shipment of it), to a reluctant fan. I haven’t used the latest version of Mac OS X or a recent distribution of Linux on a regular basis, so I can’t make an informed comparison with those operating systems, but when compared to Windows XP on a relatively new computer, it’s no contest. Vista SP1 is the winner.

*Disclaimer: Your mileage may vary. I have friends who happily used Windows ME for years with no trouble while I seem to make all operating systems crash. For best results, apply to new hardware, don’t install random software from the Web, and keep things as simple as reasonable. Unlike me.

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Film vs. Digital – Marriage Counseling of Mr. Pixel and Mrs. Grain

There’s a pretty amusing series of short films (videos?) about the benefits of film vs. digital imagery, as told through marriage counseling of Mr. Pixel and his wife, Mrs. Grain. Pretty funny for student of film and video.

http://www.freshdv.com/2008/10/mr-pixel-and-mrs-grain.html

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First Sample Return Mission From A Comet Performs Soft Landing at the Smithsonian

Stardust capsule in UtahThe first sample return mission from an object other than the Moon (I’m not counting solar wind), and the first space probe run by a friend of mine, principal investigator Dr. Don Brownlee, just performed a soft landing in the halls of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

Congratulations to Don and the entire Stardust team!

Read more on Space.com.

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10 Best Fish to Eat (and the 10 Best to Avoid)

The Environmental Defense Fund and MSN have just published an excellent article about the 10 best fish to avoid eating, as well as the 10 best to eat. Check it out!

http://green.msn.com/Articles/article.aspx?aid=650

Also check out the handy Seafood Selector that shows what seafood is healthy for you and the environment.

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SpaceX Achieves Orbit – Access to Space Just Got a Lot Cheaper

Today at 4:15 PM (PDT) the private company SpaceX successfully launched its partially reusable Falcon 1 rocket into orbit for the first time after a string of three prior failures. The rocket, and the company, was built from scratch over the last six years with the goal of reducing the cost of launching payloads, and eventually people, into orbit. In doing so, SpaceX has developed the lowest priced launch vehicle in the world, at $7 million/launch, and only the second privately-financed orbital rocket in history. Orbital Science’s Pegasus rocket was the first, and until today the lowest-cost orbital launcher in the world, costing $30 million/launch.

However, while the Falcon 1 rocket itself is a worthy accomplishment, it is particularly noteworthy because it serves as a test bed for the much larger, fully reusable, Falcon 9 rocket that is scheduled to fly in 2009. If successful, it will be the first fully reusable launcher in history and provide the lowest-cost per pound of any launcher in the world. NASA has a contract with SpaceX to fly demonstration cargo flights of the Falcon 9 and its Dragon space capsule to the International Space Station and could enter into a contract to fly astronauts as soon as 2011 in the seven person capsule.

You can watch the launch video at SpaceX’s Web site.

Falcon 1 Flight 4 liftoff. Image courtesy of SpaceX.

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How to Avoid being Nickel and Dimed (and Dollared) by Airlines

Airlines have lately gone ala carte as a way to keep the sticker price of tickets down, while still getting you to open your wallet wide. For example, both American Airlines and United now charge $15 for the first bag you check, and $25 for the second bag. I’ll bet that those overhead compartments get a lot more crowded…

Here’s a compiled list of fees courtesy of my favorite deal hunter Web site, Dealnews.com.

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Blu-ray is a Moribund Format – Why the Future is Online

Update 6/22/2009: HD-DVD is momentarily winning the format war (more players sold; more movies selling), even though it already lost. Huh? These numbers are probably transitory or even just plain wrong, but they match at least my experience. I’ve been buying up cheap HD-DVDs and renting HD movies from X-Box Live instead of buying an expensive Blu-ray player. This option gets even better in the Fall when Xbox/Zune 1080P instant-on video downloads become available.

Geek columnist Robert X. Cringely recently proclaimed that normal television programming will die in 2015. He predicts that increasing Internet bandwidth (average users will have 100 Mbps connections) will make it cheaper to send a “Full HD” (1920×1080 progressive high definition video) video signal to every potential TV customer than it is to broadcast the same stream over-the-air.

What he didn’t say is that this means that the days of Blu-ray are also likely to be numbered. The Blu-ray high-definition (HD) disc format “won” the HD disc wars over HD-DVD, and is supposedly the successor to DVDs. The problem is that as soon as the HD-DVD camp folded, all of the excitement around HD discs seemed to dissipate, at least to this observer (Blu-ray fans and manufacturers will no doubt disagree).

What happened? First, Blu-ray player prices jumped from around $250 back up to $400, and have stayed there (at least if you want full BD-Live support). Second, until very recently, Blu-ray players haven’t been as advanced and polished as the now-obsolete HD-DVD players were from their beginning a couple of years ago. This is finally remedied by the BD-Live feature (that is just now making its way into expensive players, and the Playstation 3), but the format has been playing catchup. Combine these two factors with over one million early-adopters that purchased HD-DVD players, and you have a good recipe for apathy.

The Future is Online

When the HD-DVD format died, I looked into what it would cost to make the jump to Blu-ray: $400 (vs. the $160 I paid for my HD-DVD player nearly a year ago) and another device in my living room. Instead, I decided to turn to my Windows Media Center computer and Xbox 360 for movies and TV. I record high definition media using my computer’s Cablecard tuner, and then watch it on my HDTV via my Xbox 360.

When I want to rent HD movies or purchase TV show episodes, I use the Xbox Live Marketplace feature of my Xbox 360. I can rent a LOT of movies on my Xbox before equaling the cost of a Blu-ray player, which seems to be part of Microsoft and Apple’s strategy to lure customers to their platforms instead of Blu-ray (despite Apple being a member of the Blu-ray Disc Association). So far, my partner and I have been happy with the results, though downloading movies will be a bit painful until your Internet connection hits the 6 Mbps mark (almost fast enough to stream the 6.8 Mbps HD content on Xbox Live). Most movies take around 3 hours to download on my cablemodem connection.

Reviewers seem to conclude that for the present, Blu-ray holds a small edge over other current mediums in video and audio quality when viewed on a good 1080P TV. However, when viewed on a 720P display, HD movies rented from Xbox Live are equally good as HD-DVD or Blu-ray, with AppleTV HD downloads very close behind. Cable TV video-on-demand seems to be worse, perhaps no better than upscaled DVDs.

So while I love the pristine picture and audio quality of Blu-ray, I’m probably not going to jump until the price for a decent player dips below $100, and maybe not even then. The future of my HD movies is online. Blu-ray is currently the king of visual and aural quality, but it’s days are numbered as online HD video comes into focus.

References

  • Xbox Live HD movies and TV shows are 1280x720p with 6.8 Mbps VC1 codec, and requires an Xbox with a hard drive ($300 for an Xbox 360 w/60 GB hard drive). As of 9/9/2008, 218 HD movie rentals and 77 TV series in HD (roughly the same as AppleTV, according to estimates).
    It can also act as an Windows Media Center Extender, allowing you to watch HD TV from your Windows Media Center computer – a feature that I use for all of my TV watching.
  • Apple TV/iTunes HD movies and TV shows are 1280x720p with 4.0 Mbps bitrate. Requires an Apple TV ($230 for an AppleTV w/40 GB hard drive).
  • (Update) Vudu also has a set-top box for $300 that does 1920x1080P $6 video rentals with an average 9 Mbps data rate that yields an image that supposedly gets close to Blu-ray quality. Here’s a review of the Vudu Box. BestBuy is giving $200 of movie credits when you buy one, which makes this an enticing deal if you’re not already invested in Microsoft or Apple paraphernalia.
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Windows Live Writer, Blogs and WordPress

I just setup this new blog, and I’m trying out Windows Live Writer as my authoring tool with WordPress as my blog server (hosted by Godaddy). I started by using Windows Live Spaces, which worked pretty well, but was basic and had ads. I abhor subjecting readers to ads and didn’t want to spend more money for an ad-free site, so I figured I’d use my long disused Godaddy Web hosting account to host a ad-free blog. So far so good!

Windows Live Writer Errors

(Warning – boring technical details)

However, I immediately ran across this error when trying to publish:

Error Accessing Local Post

Unexpected error occurred while accessing local post (UnauthorizedAccessException)

Access to the path ‘\\<servername>\<sharename>\My Weblog Posts\Drafts\About this blog.wpost’ is denied.

It turns out, opening my draft posts from my Documents\My Weblog Posts\Drafts folder and then publishing the posts made the problem go away. Weird, but OK.

Update: It turns out that I continued to have problems when using my 64 bit Windows Vista SP1 desktop at work for a couple of days, and then mysteriously not. This computer uses My Documents redirection to store my Documents folder on a network share. For some reason, Windows Live Writer was having trouble accessing this folder, even though my work laptop can fine (using 32 bit Vista SP1). Also works fine on my 32 bit Vista SP1 desktop at home.

I also had trouble publishing to my blog from my work laptop when at work until I installed the ISA Server firewall client. It couldn’t detect the publishing method, and didn’t accept WordPress 2.2+ when I specified it manually. If you’re trying to post from a corporate network that uses a Microsoft ISA Server, you might need the client.

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