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And Here I Thought I Was The Only One

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In my rants all over the web about president Obama’s decision to kill Orion, I have yet to find anyone who understands the point I have been trying to  make. Now of course I could just be way off base, or I’m just not being very understandable. But I have a worrisome third possibility in mind, that after reading Astronaut Tom Jones: Flight Notes I think might be more likely.

I’ve commented before on the publics lack of comprehension when it comes to science. Our nation is facing a serious problem in the growing ranks of the ignorant who have no clue what the scientific method is, much less what constitutes a valid theory versus pseudoscientific quackery. Talk about a subject for future posts; there’s a weeks worth right there!

 I think that lack of comprehension is part of the reason why the death of our national space programs crowning ability isn’t registering as highly as it should. Most people for instance, think that Burt Rutan made it into space because he reached sub orbital altitude. After explaining the difference between sub orbital altitude, and docking with the ISS, they STILL don’t seem to get it. It was refreshing to see someone, an astronaut no less, hit most of the same points I have. My math might be loopy, but at least I’m not nuts.

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Yellow Cab, Space Travel by The Mile?

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So, the big thing in the media is going to be the shot in the arm for private industry that this shifting of the Space Programs manned spaceflight priorities represents. Well, judging from the headlines in Florida Today at least it is. The idea seems to be that private industry can somehow put human beings into space more cheaply than, and just as safely as Nasa. How this idea has come about isn’t exactly clear.

We have some small successes in private industry, most notably Virgin Galactic and their Spaceship One accomplishments. From a purely technical point of view, yes, they TECHNICALY reached space all on their own, but as I’ll show there is a huge difference between hitting the numbers, and hitting the target.

Let’s look at what kind of progress private enterprise has made over the last 10 years.

Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship one, has a history dating back before 1997 when Burt Rutan began conceptual designs for a launch system aimed at winning the X prize. In 2004, Spaceship One made its award winning flights. It achieved 112km altitude with the equivalent of three persons on board. For comparison, the Space Shuttle regularly flies over 300km in altitude in order to service the ISS. A 200km difference, which represents a massive gap in orbital capabilities between private and federal operations as achieving orbital speed which is a basic requirement for human spaceflight require 60 times more energy than hitting 100km altitude.

It is that 60 times more energy, that is responsible for the cost of practical spaceflight. And as you increase the size and weight of payload, that energy requirement grows. Putting several human beings into orbit reliably and safely represents almost 100 times more necessary energy! Now imagine launching tons of materials plus human beings.

 Virgin Galactic as of yet has not demonstrated the potential for achieving orbital flight. Currently planned operations for Virgin Galactic have no design or potential for achieving this.

Bigelow Aerospace
B-A has no means or plans for developing orbit achieving orbital capabilities. Its current success’s in putting privately built experimental habitats into orbit relied on Russian launch services.

Blue Origin is another private firm, which has had success with suborbital flight. Again, no immediate plans for orbital flights, just sub orbital, which as mentioned, requires a great deal less energy which is equivalent to much less money.

If you go through the rolls of private firms seeking to exploit space, you’ll find that not a single one has ANY practical designs for achieving the necessary requirements of effective orbital spaceflight. What Nasa does, and has been doing for decades is still far beyond the reach of private industry and there is no indication that this is set to change anytime soon.

I’m surprised to see such firms and “experts” claiming they can achieve the ability to regularly and reliably place astronauts in space when they cannot put an experimental craft higher than 112km. I’m even more surprised that our government is willing to let them take over at this point in time the job of putting our astronauts into space.

I’m of the mind that if there were a much cheaper and easier way to do it, and Nasa has for 30 years been looking for that way, then it wouldn’t it be manifest by now?

Wouldn’t Russia have found it by now? China? France? England?

It’s no coincidence that the problem is the same for every nation on earth. The higher into space, the higher the energies needed, the higher the price tag. It boils down to simple physics. A certain amount of energy is needed to get into orbit. Only a couple ways to harness that energy exist. And they are dangerous and expensive.

 In order to reach space the necessary amount of energy represents a huge amount of fuel i.e. potential energy. Escape velocity represents a given amount of needed energy. Energy =Fuel= weight. More weight= more energy needed= more fuel.  It’s almost exponential in its growth. Consider in the needed hardware and things get crazy big.

Nasa estimates the cost of propulsion at $30,000 per kilogram.

For twenty tons that’s 18143.695 kilograms

Multiplied that’s $544,310,850

Nasa has the cost per launch of the Shuttle at $450 million.

The Shuttles gross takeoff weight is 2,000,000 kg
 
Approx 90% of a rockets weight is fuel.

So by the numbers, Nasa is actually launching the shuttle very efficiently in a cost for energy scenario.

Added up between all the Shuttle flights energy represents the single biggest expenditure.

Using Nasa’s costs energy for all shuttle flights to date cost them approximately $58,050,000,000

Until some way is found to produce the energies needed to achieve escape velocity more cheaply it will remain very difficult and very expensive no matter who does it, and none of the private firms have shown any way to achieve that improvement.

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Resources

Being a freelancer I have loads of bookmarks I reference regularly. While most of you probably aren’t going to be so interested, I’ve decided to mention a couple that others looking to enter the freelancing world may find of use.

For me at least, there is nothing better than being able to learn from someone else’s experience. With all the resources available, and so many people willing to share what they know, there is just no excuse for not having at the least a grasp of the basics.

One the blogs I have been visiting most frequently this last month has been Caroline Middlebrooks. She’s loaded her site with tons of useful information that will take you weeks to process.

Another that I have not reviewed enough yet, is Freelance Writing Jobs  Network. Some partial reading suggests it has a lot of potentialy helpful information, and could be a source for decent leads. It’s a bit convoluted in it’s construction ( I found navigation takes some getting used to), but overall well done.

I realize this is a bit of a copout posting links like this today, but getting some work done takes precedence.

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So where are we going?

So the numbers trickle in. Obama’s call to hand off transportation of our nations astronauts into space to private firms is set to ignite fierce bipartisan resistance, and factual support for the decision is slow in appearing. Projected to create 5,000 jobs nationwide, and 1700 jobs on the space coast, the measure already faces a deficit in immediate benefits. Florida’s space coast is projected to lose at least 7000 jobs with the discontinuation of the Shuttle fleet, with a large number of those losses previously expected to be offset by the switch to the Orion project. With the White House seeking to definitively end Orion, Nasa is expecting job losses higher than the previously expected 7000 and no way to replace any of them. With the Space Coast already experiencing unemployment over 12%, this loss of long term stable jobs represents a huge blow to an already struggling state economy. With the real estate boom effectively over, and not expected to rebound significantly any time soon, Florida is facing a serious question of whether it can rebuild its economy on a stable platform. The loss of a dedicated project of Orions scope promises to make building that stable economic platform more difficult.

Compounding the distress is the question of whether the private sector is even ready to undertake such a complex and vital role as responsibility for transporting astronauts into low earth orbit. Note that term, “low earth orbit”. You’ll hear it a lot in the coming media references to this new shift of our space programs direction into the commercial sector. I suspect because it sounds a lot less dangerous and complex than “launching astronauts into space”. Low earth orbit sounds more like the nonstop flight to Paris and besides, Burt Rutan got his space plane up there didn’t he? Well, there is a huge difference between popping a small glider into a suborbital glide for 30 seconds, and launching tons of cargo into orbit or docking with the ISS. About 45 years and hundreds of billions of dollars experience worth of difference.

Already policy experts are calling this move by the Obama administration a risky move with potentially huge future payoffs which is a common and understandable theme with Obama’s administration and the current economic climate. However, unlike the national economy our space program does not suffer from a wealth of legislative or regulatory maladies that demand improvement or repair. The space program’s biggest hurdle has been the continually insufficient funding that has become the main directional force guiding American space flight goals and objectives. With the erasure of the Orion project, the American space program will no longer have any sort of clear objectives or goals reachable into the near future.

 The realignment of our nation’s space program towards a reliance on the unproven private sector puts the ability to realistically pursue any goals involving a human presence in space into jeopardy for the next ten years at the least. Ten years, where you can rest assured, nations such as China and Russia will be working diligently to expand and advance their own space based agendas. Not only is it uncertain whether the private sector is up to the task of reliably and safely putting human beings into space, but there are no contingencies in place to safeguard their efforts to do so. This is not a case where mistakes can be simply made, corrected and progress resumed. Mistakes in this case, represent years of  lost work and progress, and cannot be simply made up overnight.

It is not clear, how cost overruns, scheduling lags, and design failures can be financially absorbed by a private firm under contract. We already know from long experience, that getting into space is not cheap, and that going over budget, is a regular part of reality. We also know that private firms do not always succeed. They fail, and die. What is at stake here is more than the economic future of Florida’s Space Coast. It’s the future of America’s ability to independently pursue space based research and exploration, which many experts feel is where mankind’s ultimate destiny resides. It would be one thing to already have a viable alternative, and to shift efforts into that alternative. It’s quite another to simply discard what is already proven, and effective, in favor of assumptions and guesses.

It’s very simple. Fund the Orion project and keep our ability to put human beings into space intact and operational, and in the meantime encourage and support the private sector in efforts to develop an alternative. The one thing that is clear, is that getting this decision through the legislative process is going to be yet another in a series of drawn out political challenges that the American public is quite simply tired of dealing with.

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