Outbound Operational Plan for Space Migration: Human Orbital Flight

Certainly, we just talked about suborbital flight in light of Yuri Gagarin’s achievement in the orbital realm, which I think was a mistake on Russia’s part at the time. Certainly, it was a huge geopolitical win for the USSR, and whether I think it was technical overreach at the time, it spurred the United States to loft their own orbital missions. I would term this next step in general lockstep with the initial operational plan for Outbound as Human Orbital Flight. (OPS.5)

There are many goals for getting humanity on an Outbound track, and to really do that, humans have to be a part of space travel. Orbital spaceflight is the real point where the human element is needed to claim a foothold. The OPS.4 Suborbital phase is meant to dip the metaphorical toe into the pond, but OPS.5 Orbital means taking a real swim. You have to let go of familiar Earthly physical and biological norms, and acknowledge the technical advancements needed to allow for that disengagement. Orbital spaceflight demands real adaptation just for survival, and beyond that hints at the things we need to know to be truly useful in space.

There are so many things to be considered in successfully crossing the threshold into a sustained spacefaring activity, of which the below is only a minor subset to consider:

 

Advanced Life Support

Space-based Navigation

Powerful Propulsion and Control Systems

Improved Reentry Systems and Materials

 

Of course, the above very short list only addresses some of the needs of orbital spacecraft to merely exist, but a smart approach to such development is to also begin to anticipate the greater function for those spacecraft in Earth orbit. In the historical space race the goal was to use Earth orbit as a transitional stage to a further mission to the Moon. We were not overly focused on hanging around the planet and keeping our permanence there. Again, as with the rush to beat each other in a political race, a logical technical progression of human spaceflight development was set aside, this time on the American side.

Outbound Operational Plan for Space Migration: Human Suborbital

As KönigKosmos, I would say the next step of an initial operational plan for Outbound would be the development of Human Suborbital Flight. (OPS.4)

Of course, this is another area where we have already explored in human history. This was a particular battle in the Cold War between the United States and the USSR, a battle the communists won. Yuri Gagarin, a lieutenant in the Soviet Air Force, was the first human being into orbit, bypassing suborbital flight entirely. It was a gutsy move, there is no doubt about it, and even though I am an American who grew up during the Cold War, I have nothing but respect for Gagarin. He was a brave man to have gone into space at all, let alone take such a bold mission.

This gallantry on Gagarin’s part is still a farther step than I would be willing to go if I were starting my own program from scratch. I don’t approach this from a sense of timidity, though, rather that the research progression is not served well by skipping this step. There are mission-related factors during flight that only occur during suborbital phases, namely abort scenarios. You have to plan for aborts, because, face it, not every launch is going to work right off the pad. So having a Human-In-The-Loop (HITL) test of abort scenarios tell planners and designers a lot about how the vehicle is going to perform if a real abort is needed.

Also, from an incremental design and systems engineering approach, a simplified mission helps determine the validity of assumptions made on how the spacecraft is configured and how the crew interacts with it. Via testing, such determinations are easier to make when fewer factors are present to filter out. In the long run, Suborbital Human Flight testing gives much deeper insight and speeds up development.

Alien Day 2019

Ah, Alien Day! It is upon us again, like a xenomorph wheeling wildly up your hallway, and this year is a milestone, the 40th Anniversary of the initial release of the iconic film. Anyone who knows me is aware that I am a complete fanatic for the Alien universe. The fact that the original movie remains so popular today, four decades later, it is a testimony to something special.

For this week, there are a number of rollouts to commemorate the occasion. Rather that steal their thunder, the Alien Covenant Forum has a comprehensive breakdown of a whole clambering horde of information for us here.

We’re Here to Party!

Outbound Operational Plan for Space Migration: Human Analogs

The next step of an initial operational plan for Outbound would be the development of Human Analogs. (OPS.3)

That’s a stuffy term I suppose, “Human Analogs”. What does it mean? Essentially, it means developing systems that mimic some or all of the human interaction with its environment, in order to predict human responses to that environment when humans actually interact with that environment later. It’s a risk-avoidance strategy.

Human analog activities are pretty mature now, and we started such activities quite early in the history of space exploration, from 1947 onward. Ranging from all sorts of animal testing, such as insects, mice and reptiles, even cats and dogs, such as the Soviet mission with Laika in 1957. Unfortunately for the Russian pup, she never made it home. In the scheme of things, and purely as a pragmatic matter, I suppose losing a dog rather than a human being to such test flights is much preferable. It still is disappointing, though, from an emotional perspective. Aerospace engineers do like their dogs like anyone else, make no mistake. And as years have gone by, and with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the demise of Laika has taken on a softer, more regretful tone. At the time, it seemed like a good idea, but now everyone is not quite so sure.

The next step in the history of human space analogs were the primate flights in the U.S. space program, most typified by Ham the chimpanzee. His one flight in 1961 was a media sensation in America to be sure, despite the relatively short 16-minute flight. He did come home and lived a relatively long life, having accomplished his mission. Through his participation, and that of his primate predecessors (not all of whom were so lucky), we learned a great deal about how primate physiology reacted to the space environment, and we even learned some significant things about how they perform in a frankly alien environment. Honestly, we knew very little about all of that, but after Ham and the all the research before him, we knew a lot more.

Of course, it seems that I’m focusing on animal testing, and I suppose that I am. Not to bash the “old guard” as it were, because they were working with the tools they had, with knowledge me now benefit from today. And we did mature enough to realize that to really know how humans react to space is to, well, fly humans. The risk had to be transferred to the real operators, astronauts and cosmonauts, and it was. Having those biological, animal analogs removed a lot of the uncertainty for human spaceflight, and who knows what would have happened without it.

Today, we have the benefit of both the animal trials and the missions of human space explorers. We owe them so much, it is difficult to quantify. From that we know a great deal what success looks like, and failure, too. Now we have many options to simulate digitally how human systems in space will work, and another stable of techniques to simulate physically how the human-in-space system operates, and we pursue that a lot now. There is no experience like being there however, and getting bogged down in simulation and testing is also a danger. Analysis Paralysis, that would be the term. Risk is a part of life in this big cosmos of ours, and Outbound is a concept not fixated on excessive introspection.

Outbound Operational Plan for Space Migration: Satellites

Continuing the generation of an initial operational plan for Outbound, the next milestone would be the development of Satellites. (OPS.2)

Such efforts are mature these days, and have been for many decades, which mean they’re pretty much complete in terms of operational TRL, though advancement continues. The next big challenge in the technological lifecycle of satellites beyond is what to do at the end of their useful operational lives. For many years, the main obsolescence strategy was to abandon a system in place, under the assumption of either “space is a big place” and collisions were unlikely, or the satellite would degrade and reenter on its own. Of course, with all the launches that we’ve lobbed up there, space is seeming less and less big.

There have been some recent efforts to improve the situation, especially for Geosynchronous satellites. In 2002, the U.S. Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has made it a legal requirement that such systems commit to placing themselves into a “graveyard” orbit at end of life, or they won’t be given permission to launch. So that is something. A lot of satellite providers are now also including deorbiting in their overall mission plan of their own volition, as well, under the recognition that if Earthly space becomes too cluttered, it only makes further space-based business activities harder to do.

Regardless of these changes in disposal planning, there are a lot of satellites orbiting our planet, and an emerging technological market is beginning to open in response to the problem. A British effort being run out of the University of Surrey, called RemoveDEBRIS, has thus far flown three missions to evaluate techniques for capturing this space junk. Their most recent mission was just this past week, using a harpoon-like appendage to skewer a simulated target, and met all their test objectives.

The debris removal market could be the next big advancement in satellite technology, and probably not a moment too soon.

Outbound Operational Plan for Space Migration: Pre-Crew Rocketry – Ballistic Studies

I’ve often asked myself what I’d do if I were king of the cosmos and controlled how humanity migrated into space. You know what? In the tradition of Albert Einstein and “thought experiments”, I’m going to explore that. Let’s call it Outbound Operational Plan for Space Migration, or OPS, for now.

There are a list of developmental milestones that I think we ought to reach going forward, at least in very broad strokes. For each milestone, there would be associated Technology Readiness Levels, or TRLs, as the space industry calls them. These TRLs indicate the level of feasibility and confidence any particular technology holds for being used on a space program.

As my first act as KönigKosmos, I’d say the first milestone would be Pre-Crew Rocketry – Ballistic Studies. (OPS.1)

This is essentially complete in terms of its TRL, as the hurdles in that technology were cleared back in the 1940’s and 1950’s with things like the German V2 weapons programs, and the American and Russian follow-on work improving on on German rocketry after World War II. That phase was well validated as we went into the Mercury Redstone flights leading into the crewed Mercury flight missions. Certainly, things must have been going well for the Soviets, as well, since they beat us into manned spaceflight with Yuri Gagarin!

Of course, that doesn’t mean that new companies aren’t even today exploring that phase all over again, either in the quest to relearn the same lessons for themselves or to work on new ways of satisfying the milestone. The latter is being well-explored by companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, and also by a whole slew of other, smaller companies hungry for the Outbound journey. And I suspect that more companies will keep showing up at that milestone gate.

Bennu, Not a Potato This Time

This week has humanity reaching out to another asteroid, this one named Bennu, the target of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. Bennu is not content to be a tumbling potato in space, but is rather geometric in shape, with even some flat facets that are eerily regular in appearance. One wonders what mechanism has produced such an enigmatic shape.

 

 

 

Bennu from about 50 miles away. (Click the image to see an animation.)

 

If all goes well, we’ll be getting a sample of the rubble-like surface in September 2023, and it may be some of the oldest stuff in our solar system. For more information, see:

https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasas-osiris-rex-spacecraft-arrives-at-asteroid-bennu

First Man – First Impressions

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to get a sneak peek at the new film “First Man”, based on Neil Armstrong’s life and his eventual walk on the Moon. It is a good movie, if a bit uncomfortable at times. I’m not much for high-drama, angst-dripping movies, and there is some of that here, though not completely unrealistic as such movies sometimes are. Throughout the movie, there is a common thread of loss for the Armstrong family, especially for Neil personally, and a lot of it would tend to make a person emotionally withdrawn. Neil seems introspective by nature in both his portrayal here and in what I’ve read about him in the past, and certainly the filmmakers bank heavily upon that in the script. That’s definitely part of my discomfort, of course, and it was amplified by how long the director dwelled on these introspective moments. How long did he dwell, you ask? The whole movie was a study in introspection as observed in third person… Sometimes, that became quite dull.

That said, there were highlights of Neil’s career that punctuated why he did the things that he did, and why there is so much value in the movie for the audience. The Gemini flight that went so well, until a stuck thruster on the spacecraft sent Neil and his crewmate Dave Scott tumbling at more than one revolution per second. Of course, history shows that they overcame that problem and survived the mission, and the film shows that too. And wow, how well did it show it! Honestly, it was one of the most insightful, most energizing bits of cinematic peril I think I’ve ever seen. The portrayal is a signature moment in Neil’s career as an astronaut, and the public may finally be able to really grasp what happened over the heads of the world back then.

Speaking of portrayals, there is one thing that did grate on my nerves in this film. Cleanliness. Or lack thereof. Oh, hell no, NASA facilities never were, and are not, the grime-ridden warrens of under-lit locations some of the scenes conveyed. There is one scene where during a particularly stomach-churning training session that Neil and another astronaut find themselves heaving in a facility restroom. I’ve been in cleaner restrooms in backwoods truck stops. Having worked around or within NASA facilities over the past few decades, I’ve seen a few of the various restrooms. While some of the postings have been old, originally-equipped places, they are kept clean and functional. Doubly so for anything the crews use. The idea that the astronauts were using a NEW facility that looked like it had been intentionally dipped in grease then a bucket of mildew, well, that’s nonsense.

The spacecraft were no exception here, and were pretty ridiculous. Without exception, every spacecraft looked from the get-go as if it had already flown more than one mission. The Apollo 11 command module was the biggest offender, with dirty work surfaces and banged up handles and such. The tools used by the crew for training are not for flight, which allows for some rough handling and wear and tear. However, the flight tools are usually tested for operational suitability, and after handling with great care, are packaged for each crew for use only on their mission. Again, it looked like their tools had been used to fix a big rig at a truck stop somewhere, and kicked around on the ground a bit. Used as a hammer, too. And rusty (rusty!) toggle switches. That bothered me a lot. I can go today and walk right up to the Apollo 17 command module and even at five decades old, there are no rusty, crusty switches. The Apollo 11 CM, and indeed all NASA spacecraft, have been and still are clean as an operating theater, at least on their first mission.

Honestly, I think this all comes down to impressions, those that the filmmakers wanted to create. The austere, even cold Neil Armstrong, the dirty, grim NASA environment, it seems that an intentional effort was made to forge a picture of a grim but determined life leading to a great achievement at the end of one major milestone. I can understand from the point of view a good dramatic work of art, and this film is certainly that, but as a space geek both professionally and personally, these inconsistencies stood out like a sore thumb. A greasy sore thumb with a small, open laceration off to one side of the nail, whilst doing brain surgery with torn gloves.

There is a lot more that I could say about this “First Man”, but I think my biggest impression is the stoic feeling of pushing through loss to excel at a worthy attempt at exceptional goals. That’s going to play well with audiences I think, and it should, because it’s very well done.

Apollo 11 and Self-Awareness

I just figured out something about myself, courtesy of this post by Aesop at the Raconteur Report:

Happy Peak of Western Civilization Day

I’m not going to expound endlessly on this, as Aesop says it so well, but I realized that the reason I’ve hung on so tenaciously to my work in the space industry is tied in very closely with my personal views on society. Whether or not I am a member of this world, I am an American, and a Western construct. The height of Western accomplishment absolutely is the Moon landing.

I don’t mean “Murica is Number One” sort of jingoism (though I guess I don’t NOT mean it, either) but a deeper heritage of exploration that a lot of civilization have failed to embrace. Either they never had that urge, or they didn’t take it as far in the past, or they are only really moving on it now. There is one more possibility, of course, they followed the call, but abandoned it, indeed somehow shrunk from it for various reasons. That’s what concerns me, and drives me. The Western world has been in a holding pattern and seems to be losing ground the past few decades, navel gazing, or maybe trying to convince itself via globalization that following the herd is somehow safer and smarter. We’ve been moving on that abandonment track for too long.

This manifests itself in how the Western human space exploration and exploitation has stalled. We’re risk-phobic, afraid of what failure “looks like” as a media matter and loss of funding. We use our space programs as a geopolitical tool instead of a leadership program. Between those two problems, we end up moving too slow and too timidly, trying to achieve perfection and also not piss anybody off. When the rest of the world looks to the West for leadership, they end up pissed off at us anyway because we are so concerned with avoiding failure by also avoiding accomplishment.

I work to bring back the idea that risk is not a dirty word, and risk to cement humanity off-planet is required, as it’s always been required to breach a frontier. As a Western man, I want to reclaim that heritage in space, because we need new peaks in the history of our civilization, and we are still capable of making the climb.

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