Wednesday, December 31, 2008

NASA Releases Report on Shuttle Columbia Disaster

Disclosure: Columbia Space Shuttle Commander Rick Husband and I were classmates at Texas Tech University in the U.S. Air Force ROTC program there. While Astronaut Willie McCool attend high school in Lubbock, Texas, I never met the man and only knew about his connection to Lubbock, Texas, in the weeks leading up to the January 16th lift-off of the Shuttle Columbia. The above photo is a AP picture.

On December 30, 2008, NASA releases its report on the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster of February 1, 2003.

For those not keeping up to date with things, the Columbia was the oldest shuttle of the shuttle fleet and she was returning home that morning when the heat of re-entry further damaged the left wing that was hit by a large piece of foam on lift-off 16 days before. She broke up over the state of Texas. Many residents, including this blogger, heard that sonic boom that morning. The 400-page document gave a detailed account of how Columbia's seven crew members last few seconds were like before the total break up of the shuttle happened.

Columbia's crew was killed in seconds and had only a brief 40-second time window between the shuttle's lost of control and its de-pressurization and destruction. By that time, the crew was being flung about the cabin as the shuttle tumbled and broke apart. Bottom line: while crew members tried to work the problem, the accident was not “ultimately survivable.”

The NASA report made 30 recommendations and cited some lessons to take away from this accident. Mostly related to to the crew's spacesuits and seat restraints.

1. One of the most immediate safety changes made was in the current inertial wheel lock modifications on the crew seats. The mechanism locks an astronaut's seat restraint due to external forces much like the current seat belts on cars today during a sudden stop or impact. In this accident, those seat locks did not lock as designed, subjecting the astronauts strapped in place to extreme forces and trauma. Seat modifications will also be employed on the new Orion Capsule.

2. Launch and Landing Pressure Suits for Orion crews will also be designed to be sealed during re-entry. The current orange partial pressure suits seep pure oxygen into a shuttle cabin when the visors are sealed – which violate NASA's flammability rules. During the Columbia accident, one of the crew members was not fully strapped into place. Another did not have a helmet secured, while the six that did have their visors opened. Also, three of the crew members did not have their suit gloves locked in place.

3. NASA has also update pre-landing milestones to allow astronauts to focus on their own preparations in addition to getting the orbiter ready for re-entry.

4. NASA also has adjusted its training process for de-orbit. Before, there was more concern about getting the vehicle ready for landing than about the crew. Now its suppose to be 50/50.

Wayne Hale stated that “Spaceflight takes eternal vigilance. Our goal here is to do our best to prevent accidents in the future and that is not a subject that is ever going to be closed.” This report is expected to be NASA's last investigation into the Columbia disaster.

Ref> article by Tariq Malik “New Columbia Accident Report to Help Astronaut Safety.” December 30, 2008.

Monday, December 29, 2008

China's Small Satellites/Space Booster Program

Found this interesting article in the December 22/29, 2008 issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology by Craig Covault (see reference at end of article). Photos released by Chinese Internet on December 11, 2007, shows two views of the semi-lifting body booster shaped rocket under the belly of a Chinese H-6 “Badger” bomber. From the photographs, the boosters appears to be reusable since it appears to have thermal protection tiles on its nose and wings.

From, their evaluation is that this is a test article for hypersonic research. Even if this rocket was launched from an improved H-6K Badger with D-30K turbofans which would carry the carrier aircraft up to a much higher altitude, the Shenlong would only be capable of short-duration LEO (Low Earth Orbit) over Chinese territory.
But getting back to the AW&ST article, the microsatellite production offers Beijing three major benefits. It provides support for national development, lucrative and geo-strategically relevant foreign sales. And also potential military space control.

The problems facing US space military planners are: What are microsatellite (and smallsat) capabilities does Chinese currently possess, and how might these capabilities develop in the future? These are some of the concerns voiced by Andrew S. Erickson, assistant professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. Erickson is well versed in all things Chinese. He speaks Chinese and holds a Ph. D. In Chinese aerospace studies. The latest Chinese research into the micro and smallsat programs crosses several national technology efforts in that country's research and development. Bottom line is that China's surge into the micro, smallsat spacecraft is to gain a strategic advantage over the United States with increasingly capable, low-cost satellites that can be launched as easily with, as Erickson puts it “reconstitutable assets.” This is important in that the costly and cumbersome systems can be stuck on the launch pad because of heavy booster complexity.

This yeas(2008) is a good example year to point out the differences between the Chinese and the American Space programs. In 2008, China launched 10 ELVs(Expendable Launch Vehicle) missions, several with multiple lightsat payloads with dual-use military/civil objectives. The United States launched the same number of ELVs. After 40 years of effort, the Chinese are now even with the United States in space operations. As for the US ELV effort this year, several were delayed by heavy booster or spacecraft problems.

Erickson also said, “China today has only a fraction of the overall space capability of the U.S., and still has major gaps in coverage of every satellite application. But development by the Chinese Academy of Space Technology (CAST) of a new generation of satellite buses indicates standardization, quality control and emerging mass production ability-part of a larger trend in China's dual-use military technological projects. By studying the capabilities of power and propulsion subsystems, and the satellites that use them.”

China is employing thousands of people to push the bounds of micro technology development through the assembly of dozen of new microsats and smallsats for launch by the end of the decade. Professor Erickson also told reported Craig Covault that he had found global aerospace contractor collaboration on many of the less military-oriented projects and the adoption of U.S. And European management reforms, even in the military programs. The ISO 9000 management initiatives in several of those smallsat production facilities. Now on the geopolitical side, China is using the effort to garner more partnerships among Asia-Pacific-region nations. And another motivation is foreign sales, in which Chinese satellites, components and launch and training services have performed relatively well.

At a April 2008 meeting in Beijing that was in part, sponsored by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies; smallsat initiatives were a key topic of that meeting. Sun Laiyan, the head of the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA), stressed how they form the core of development for Earth and space science missions in his civilian agency, especially for new disaster-monitoring satellites. But it is also pointed out that Sun was also the vice minister of China's Commission of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense. That agency plans military technology development.

For 2009, Chinese launch plans include the Hummingbird I and the 1A that will demonstrate close-proximity operations. The potentially historic Yinghuo 1 smallsat that is to be launched into Mars orbit via a Russian sample-return mission to the Martian moon Phobos. China is also scheduled to launch its HJ-C radar smallsat. This is a major military/civil smallsat project.

Now getting back to the Shenlong booster. It is to be launched from the carrier aircraft in much the same way as the U.S. Pegasus air-launched booster. The most notable difference is that the Shenlong is designed to be recoverable. And is believed to be designed for ASAT (Anti-Satellite) missions. It is expected that the Shenlong will become operational by 2010.

Of concern to U.S. Planners is that when China launched it's ASAT a few years ago now, it was based upon a microsatellite bus which could use infrared, radar, or pulsed radar guidance, or a combination of all three systems.


Ref. AW&ST article “Size Doesn't Matter China is developing bi military space capabilities using small satellite payloads” by Craig Covault. Pg 23-24.

Much more information, including what organizations are working on the Shenlong at

Thursday, December 25, 2008

United Planets Cruiser C-57D Found At Last!

A "lost" artifact from Hollywood's past for the past 38 years has finally resurfaced and it went straight to the aunction block.

On December 11, 2008, this iconic flaying saucer from the 1956 MGM classic film"Forbidden Planet" will be aunctioned off in Calabasas Hills and is expected to get anywhere from between $80,000 to $120,000 for its North Carolina owner who had the prop stored in his garage and didn't realize its true market value.

The flying saucer is 82 inches in diameter and constructed of wood, steel, and fiberglass. The central landing base extends from the bottom of the craft by internal movement mechanisms with electric motor drive, as does the ladder and two conveyor-loading ramps that serve as the stablizer legs. It was the chief prop used to create the movie 'Forbidden Planet." The saucer was the United Planets Cruiser C-57D. The movie starred Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, and Jack Kelly. The film made a major sci-fi impression on the mid-century pop culture and was a major inspiration for Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek), and it was paid homage by filmmaker George Lucas, who borrowed a line of its dialogue for his "Star Wars" movie.

The saucer ended up being a MGM prop for many "The Twilight Zone" episodes including the famous "To Serve Man" episode. Then in 1970, it was sold off at a studio auction, but there was no record of who bought it.

From the LA Times December 8, 2008. Article by Geoff Boucher entitled: "The lost saucer of 'Forbidden Planet' reappears". Here is the weblink( ).

WhiteKnightTwo Has Maiden Flight This Month

Virgin Galactic's carrier aircraft known as WhiteKnightTwo (or as SpaceShipTwo Carrier) made a successful maiden test flight on December 21, 2008 at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The aircraft designed by Scale Composites lifted off with its four Pratt and Whitney PW308A turbofan engines at 8:17 am. The maiden test flight ended at the same runway at about 9:17am PST.

Virgin Galactic has on order five of the SpaceShipTwo rocket planes and two of the carriers (WhiteKnightTwo Carrier). Burt Rutan told "Overall, 99% on target and everybody is really happy. You get an airplane that's this weird and get it up and get it down.. and it's safe on deck."

Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic added, "White Knight Two is the world's largest all carbon composite aviation vehicle. And of course she really is also a first stage space launch system capable of carrying enormous weight to the edge of the atmosphere, training astronauts with her zero to six G flying capability and being a scientific payload at the same time."

In other Virgin Galactic news, on December 15, 2008, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) announced that Spaceport America has received its Record of Decision and license for verticle and horizontal launch operations from the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation. The Gerald Martin Construction Management of Albuquerque, New Mexico, will oversee the construction of Spaceport America. The NMSA is expected to have a signed lease agreement with Virgin Galactic by the end of the month. Terminal and hangar facility construction will began in 2009 and hopefully completed by late 2010.

Ref. Article on by Leonard David, "SpaceShipTwo Carrier Craft Makes Successful First Flight"Posted on December 21, 2008. photo taken by and posted to Bill Deaver (Mojave Desert News).

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Skylon / Sabre is coming

This is something that I have been wanting to post about for a few weeks now since I first read about it in Aviation Week & Space Technology (December 8, 2008. pgs 56-58). Work has been progressing on a new hybrid rocket technology that if successful – can lead to a full-scale development of a single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) reusable launch vehicle.

News from Reaction Engines, a company that was developed 19 years ago for the design and building of a reusable launch vehicle known as the “Skylon.” They got their feet wet while working on the aborted Hotol (Horizontal takeoff and landing) vehicle. A joint BAE Systems venture with Rolls-Royce SSTO spaceplane project that was canceled in 1988. The true promise of the HOTOL was in its RB545 air-breathing hybrid rocket engine. Alan Bond, who worked on that project and is now a managing director of Reaction Engines for their improved engine design known as SABRE (synergic air-breathing engine). “We learned an enormous amount from Hotol, and that has enabled us to look at a new vehicle of this complexity in its entirety. Hotol is therefore the foundation on which Reaction Engines is built.”

Quoting from the AW&ST article: “Skylon is designed to routinely and repeatedly carry large payloads to low-Earth orbit, with each vehicle capable of some 200-plus missions. Although designed to take 26,450 pounds (12 tons) to equatorial low Earth orbit (LEO), or up to 19,400 pounds to the International Space Station (ISS) from an equatorial launch site.” Reaction Engines believes that with aircraft-like turn around times between missions, it will reduce resupply costs to around 1/50th that of comparable conventional launch vehicles.

The Skylon is to be built out of composite structures and other innovative design features, including a fiber-reinforced ceramic aeroshell. But the real key to Skylon will be the Sabre engines. They will power the sleek spaceship from a standing start on the runway up to orbit. Before with the Hotol, they had some engine installation issues that in the end killed off Hotol. That was because the engines were mounted in the tail which made that vehicle impossible to control. The Skylon design solves this problem by moving the engines to mid-body, mounted on stub wings close to the payload and center of gravity of the spacecraft. The wingspan for the Skylon is 80 feet and from the illustration included with the article, one can see the Hotol roots for the design. Or to think of it in another way – the Skylon is something George Lucas's Star Wars team would have come up with for the planet Naboo.

The liquid hydrogen-fueled Sabre burns atmospheric oxygen from take-off (300 knots at least) through Mach 5 plus and up to an altitude of 16 nautical miles (30 kilometers). At this point in the flight profile, the air is too thin and thus the engines switch to on board oxygen supplies for the final acceleration to Mach 25 and on into orbit. Returning to Earth, the engines can be reactivated to assist with a power descent and landing. Landing speeds will be more manageable in the 130 knot range, even with a full payload Mr. Bond reports.

While there have been other air-breathing scramjets before, Sabre has a different oxygen extraction process. Sabre is more closely related to liquid-air-cycle (LACE) that use the cooling capacity of cryogenic liquid hydrogen fuel to liquefy the incoming air. LACE however requires high fuel flow rates because of the large quantity of coolant used in the condensation process. Plus there was the technical challenges of dealing with clogging in the condenser from frozen carbon dioxide, argon, and water vapor as the limiting factors to LACE technology.

Mr. Bond went one to talk about a related technology known as ACE (air collection engine) that is similary compromised. Sabre gets around the LACE/ACE problems by only cooling down the air to the vapor boundary (at around 80K) and avoiding liquefaction. This then allows the use of a relatively conventional high-pressure turbo compressor and avoids the requirement for an air-condenser as well as saving a large amount of cooling flow.

Now the Rolls Royce engine RB545 is also similar, but uses high-pressure hydrogen to cool the air directly. But it has a problem at high Mach numbers by making the metal in the pre-cooler brittle. To get around this snag, Reaction Engines interposes a helium loop between the incoming air and the hydrogen system. The helium system is used to drive the air compressor, and enables nore heat-resistant alloys to be used in the pre-cooler.

Air collection is done through a two stage conical shock inlet with “a translating center-body to maintain shock-on-lip conditions.” Reaction Engines told AW&ST “We sized the inlet for around Mach 5. We take-off with the max throat area and move the center body forward at Mach 1.5 to form an oblique shock wave. The center body also moves forward for reentry to close off the engine inlet. Excess air is spill out via bypass ducts where it is controlled by nozzle guide vanes and mixed with surplus hydrogen before being reheated in ramjet fashion to recover the momentum lost through the capture shock system at Mach 3 – 4. “The bypass system is used to match the variable captured air flow to the engine demand and “in air-breathing mode fuel consumption will be much better than in rocket mode.” Mr. Richard Varvill chief engineer/technical director for Reaction Engines. To go from Mach 5 onwards, Mr. Varvill added: “We start the liquid oxygen turbo pump and run the engine down to a lower thrust and dump air delivery overboard. A valve is switched to bleed air out, and we start to replace flow of air into the combustion chamber with liquid oxygen. The hydrogen flow continues (in a 6:1 rocket mode).”

Right now, Reaction Engines is waiting on funds to launch into full scale development. In the meantime, they are focusing on testing and verifying the key technologies at its laboratories at Culham Science Center. Along with the heat-exchanger technology, Reaction Engines also is working on the frost control technique developed and prefected in the company's cryogenic wind tunnel. Mr. Alan Bond stated that the Sabre is not possible without frost control. Now the frost control is used in the pre-cooler heat exchanger which reduces the temperature of air entering the engine from a peak of around 1,000 degrees C at Mach 5 to about -140C prior to compression. Although no appreciable moisture exists at the higher altitudes beyond 6.5 nautical miles, the system is needed at low altitudes where atmospheric moisture would otherwise instantly clog the heat-exchanger matrix with frost as it precipitates directly from vapor.
The helium loop exchanger (HX3) is made from silicon carbide(SiC) and delievers a constant inlet temperature to the air compressor's main turbine. SiC was chosen because of the oxygen-rich character of the exhaust from the pre-burner and the high temperatures in the heat exchanger.

Following some shakedown tests to begin with the new year, Reaction Engines will be getting some of their funding from the British National Space Center and partly by the ESA (European Space Agency) over the next three years.

In conclusion, Mr. Alan Bond told the AW&ST reporter, “We've never seen it as a development that a single company would do. We'd like the industry to develop it and sell it around the world to the space launch market. This could happen under a public/private parnership with maybe a 30-year payback time. If someone gave us the money today it would be about 9.5 years to the start of production.”

Ref. AW&ST Dec. 8, 2008 article “Positive Reaction. Upcoming pre-cooler tests hold key for air-breathing hybrid rocket technology.” by Guy Norris/Abingdon, England. Pag 56-58.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Blue Origin's New Shepard Rocketship

Billionaire Jeff Bezos of fame has been putting his money into a new project for several years now – Blue Origin is the name of this company and they are developing a reusable spaceship known as “New Shepard” that looks like a egg standing on four legs. It is in fact – a Dropship. Please go back to the September archive on this blog to look for a article about the 10th anniversary of the First Single-Stage-to-Orbit test vehicle – “DC-X What the Future SHOULD Have Been” (September 10, 2008).

The New Shepard is designed to fly multiple astronauts into suborbital space at very competitive prices. First tests of the vehicle have been staged at their private launch site in West Texas, not too far from El Paso, Texas. Blue Origins plan, aside from offering flights to tourists, would provide opportunities for scientists to fly their experiments into space and in a microgravity environment. And they have been getting some help from NASA's Alan Stern, the former chief of space science. First remotely controlled or unpiloted flights can begin as early as 2011 with the first manned launches to follow within a year of that target date.

The New Shepard vehicle consist of a pressurized Crew Capsule carrying the experiments and astronauts atop the Propulsion Module. Once in space, the Crew Capsule separates from the Propulsion Module and the two craft will reenter the atmosphere separately. The Crew Capsule will land softly under a parachute at the launch site. The Crew Capsule is reported to be able to carry three of more astronauts depending on the mission profile.

Ref. : ( ). Article by Leonard David posted December 8, 2008. “Secretive Space Vehicle Tested at Private Texas Site”

Sunday, December 7, 2008

67 Years Ago Today

It was sixty-seven years ago today that the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and brought the United States of America into World War Two.

I will always remember even though I was not alive when it happened. I was alive for the September 11, 2001 attacks, but that just gives off a whole different set of vibes when one thinks back on it - at least it does for me. How to explain it, I cannot at this time.

Thanksgiving UFO over Irving, Texas

One must always pay a visit to Ms. Linda Moulton Howe's website at least once a week. Due to some personal issues in my life, I have been a slacker to that rule. But now I am making up for it and with good reason. You must check this one out.

Ms. Howe received a email from someone calling themselves Ovi who took some amazing photographs of a zeppelin or cigar-shape UFO on November 27, 2008. Time of the sighting was about 8 pm. Its worth it go click on the link to read and view those photographs. Ovi estimated that it was almost 100 feet in length and was cruising at a slow rate of speed. Pay attention to photo number 9 that they cropped and enlarged. One end, the narrower end is discharging what looks like sparks. There is also something on top of the hull – and for a lack of a better word, I'll refer to it as a conning tower (like on a submarine).

Ref. ( ) Strange Aerial Object Over Irving, Texas by Linda Moulton Howe.