Something Isn’t Right In Space

So what the hell is going on? Why would we jeopardize our low Earth orbiting fleet (which doesn’t include most weather, communications and TV satellites, but does include the International Space Station, Space Shuttle, GPS, mapping and spy satellites) in an act we’ve already condemned when executed by others?

Back in January I wrote about the US spy satellite that will soon come crashing to the Earth. Sure, it’s got all sorts of scary chemistry (specifically hydrazine) on board, but there’s nothing to worry about, right?

Last week most of the experts were poo pooing the danger this satellite’s fiery reentry would bring. Satellites… even big satellites… come down all the time. That’s what they said until Thursday.

All of a sudden we want to shoot this school bus sized piece of space junk down. Shades of Bruce Willis!

From the Chicago Tribune:

Speaking to reporters, Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff , and James Jeffrey, the deputy national security adviser, said the Navy’s window of opportunity to strike the satellite before it enters the Earth’s atmosphere begins in the next three or four days. Cartwright said the window would likely remain open for seven or eight days.

If the satellite is not intercepted, it is expected to enter the atmosphere in late February or early March.

“This has no aerodynamic properties,” Cartwright said of the satellite. “Once it hits the atmosphere, it tumbles, it breaks apart. It is very unpredictable and next to impossible to engage. So what we’re trying to do here is catch it just prior to the last minute, so it’s absolutely low as possible, outside the atmosphere, so that the debris comes down as quickly as possible.”

A satellite is one lone object. Shoot it down and you get thousands, maybe tens of thousands of tiny objects, all unguided and some likely to remain in orbit for a long time. At orbital speed, even a small object with little mass is destructive.

Back in 1996, after the space shuttle had shifted its course to avoid a dead satellite, the New York times published this:

Dr. Donald J. Kessler, NASA’s senior scientist for orbital debris studies at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in an interview that space junk was a growing problem threatening the safety of spacecraft and astronauts. The Air Force tracks more than 7,000 pieces of debris larger than a baseball, including old rocket parts, outmoded satellites, discarded tools, remnants of explosions, and other odds and ends moving in orbit at more than 17,000 miles per hour. And researchers estimate there are more than 150,000 smaller objects that also pose a danger of collision.

“It’s common for space shuttles to show evidence of frequent hits, but nothing catastrophic has happened,” Dr. Kessler said. “We are now getting good international cooperation to control space debris, but it will continue to be a problem for a long time and we have to take precautions.”

Illustrating how real the problem is, Dr. Kessler said astronauts servicing the Hubble Space Telescope found a half-inch hole punched through its main antenna. And after a flight of the shuttle Columbia last October, engineers found a similar-sized crater in a cargo bay door caused by the impact of a tiny piece of solder, he said.

Here’s the operative sentence: “We are now getting good international cooperation to control space debris.” In other words, space debris is bad and everyone should stop creating it.

In fact, last January, after the Chinese blasted one of their own satellites out of orbit, the US Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva said:

…the January 11 event created hundreds of pieces of large orbital debris, the majority of which will stay in orbit for more than 100 years. A much larger number of smaller, but still hazardous, pieces of debris were also created.

The United States is concerned about the increased risk to human spaceflight and space infrastructure as a result of this action, a risk that is shared by all space-faring nations. The United States and many other nations have satellites in space in conformity with international agreements that provide for their national security, and foreign policy and economic interests.

So what the hell is going on? Why would we jeopardize our low Earth orbiting fleet (which doesn’t include most weather, communications and TV satellites, but does include the International Space Station, Space Shuttle, GPS, mapping and spy satellites) in an act we’ve already condemned when executed by others?

Is there something that vile or that secret in this spy satellite? Are we looking for a little target practice to show everyone we’re every bit as capable as the Chinese? I don’t know.

My “educated amateur” space knowledge says, something doesn’t seem right… something doesn’t smell right… something doesn’t add up.

There are missing pieces to this story I neither possess nor understand. I sure hope someone else does, and they are free to speak.

About The Shuttle

I’ve beaten this dead horse a dozen times… but in case you’re a new reader, the Space Shuttle scares me. I don’t think we (currently) need to risk people’s lives to explore space. On top of that, much of the mission of the Space Shuttle and International Space Station is worthless.

Yesterday, NASA revealed a little problem with some thermal insulation.

A NASA spokesman said the gap appears to be the result of an unusual fold in the blanket.

“We’ve landed safely with damage (in the same area) that’s similar or worse,” Kyle Herring said. “I don’t think concern is the right word; there’s no urgency with the situation.”

There’s no doubt, this story is being played down in Houston. NASA placed the news halfway through the last of seven paragraphs in today’s press release:

The robotic arm cameras took a closer look at an area of insulation blanket on the port orbital maneuvering system pod that pulled away from adjacent thermal tiles. Engineers are analyzing the imagery. Olivas took additional photographs of the area this morning.

NASA seems assured. The insulation shouldn’t be a problem. This has happened before.

That, of course, is what was said by NASA when a ‘small’ piece of insulation broke off and hit the shuttle during Columbia’s launch. The very same thing had happened before.

Columbia disintegrated as it plunged into the Earth’s atmosphere in preparation for landing. Seven astronauts were killed and the space program put on hold.

I’m not saying NASA’s characterization is wrong. However, they probably know less than they’re letting on.

This insulation protects a surface that ‘only’ warms to around 1,000&#186 Fahrenheit – much less heat than Columbia’s ruptured skin faced. Is it critical to the aerodynamics of the shuttle as it hurtles back toward Earth? Only NASA knows… or, by later today, only NASA will have an educated guess.

With all their detailed checks and rechecks, how the hell could this happen?

The shuttle is extremely complex and inherently dangerous. The more times we fly the fleet, the more problems we’ll face. The shuttle fleet has gotten old. Atlantis (flying now) was delivered in 1985.

It’s been 46 years since Americans first sent a man to space. It’s time the government stepped away. Space exploration demands the kind of creative thinking and agility NASA can no longer provide.

This is not the kind of business government is suited to run.

I Should Have Gone To Yale

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know I really enjoy photography. As of tonight, “Clicky” has taken 24,123 shots. Obviously, I try and take pictures any time I can.

Tonight, I had my chance to shoot a basketball game. Yale was playing Columbia and I got a pass to sit on the baseline at the John J. Lee Amphitheater on the Yale Campus in New Haven.

It was Senior Night, which is nice. It was also the night of the Jones Brothers. Yale is coached by James Jones. Columbia is coached by his brother Joe.

I haven’t really shot a lot of sports. I’ve been to some Major League Baseball games, shooting from the stands, and stood on the sideline at the UCONN vs Army game a few years ago at Rentschler Field in Hartford. This was my first attempt at hoops. I am humbled.

Shooting basketball is much more difficult than I had imagined. it took about sixty seconds to come to that conclusion!

First, an observation I made after shooting the UCONN football game. Still photographers can get great shots, but they seldom get ‘the big play’ the way TV cameras do. Still photography doesn’t cover the field the same way. You often have to aim and wait for the play to get to you.

Basketball poses even more problems. It moves very quickly and is played in a relatively dimly lit gym. My lenses, fine lenses for an amateur like me, are just too ‘slow&#185’.

There were a few professional shooters at the game as well. I needed four to eight times as much light for the same shot!

I wanted to keep my shutter speed as fast as possible, so I compensated in other ways, which is why all the shots are very, very grainy. It might look like a nice artistic touch, but it wouldn’t be there if I had any choice.

In this game, Yale was blown out. Columbia was red hot. I haven’t seen the stats, but it seemed they just couldn’t miss a shot!

There was a a lot going on off the court. As with most colleges, Yale has a cheer squad They also have an unusual pep band, the Yale Precision Marching Band.

I didn’t see them march, though after the game they did play while crawling on their knees!

The YPMB also featured one guy wearing a “Harvard Sucks” t-shirt. At Yale, that sentiment is not an idle boast.

I felt very comfortable in these surroundings. It’s a shame I was so awful as a student growing up, because I would have fit well at Yale. And, my guess it’s, it’s much more prestigious to be thrown out of Yale than it was to be thrown out of Emerson College!

None of the shots from tonight will be printed. On the other hand, there is a little artistic merit there. I put a few of them in my gallery, if you’d like to take a look.

&#185 – When a photographer talks about a slow lens, it’s a lens that needs more light. The name comes from what you must do to compensate – slow down the shutter. The slower the shutter, the less sharp the action will be. It’s a vicious cycle.

Challenger – 20 Years Ago Today

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the Challenger disaster, January 28, 1986. I still have that morning indelibly etched in my mind.

Helaine and I were living in Branford. Steffie wasn’t quite a twinkle in our eye. We went to sleep late and woke up later.

From bed, we turned on CNN. I’m not sure we had any anticipation of seeing a space shot that morning, but as the set came to life, the countdown was in its final two minutes. There was no way we were going to turn away.

We watched what happened live. James Oberg writing on MSNBC today said that was the exception not the rule. I knew something was wrong right away. No one had to tell me.

Twenty years ago, the bloom was already off NASA’s rose. Few people cared the shuttle was being launched. From time-to-time on previous launches, I’d run a few seconds of tape. But really, there’s was little news value. I was indulged because it fit so well with my TV personna.

On January 28, 1986 only CNN had a live reporter at the Cape&#185.

Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire school teacher was onboard to help NASA drum up some good publicity – the mother’s milk of funding. It doesn’t seem fair, considering the risk she faced.

Should NASA have known the shuttle was in danger that cold January morning? Was there a push to launch no matter what the circumstances? Truth is, it makes no difference.

Even if this explosion hadn’t happened then, there were other dangers hidden. Everything that brought Columbia down was already in place long before Challenger. There are other hidden perils we’ll see when the shuttle flies again… if it ever does.

Challenger came before my stint as host of Inside Space. I knew a little, not a lot about the space program when I started. The more I hung out where ‘spacemen’ hung out, the more I learned. This was my first step in deciding manned spaceflight was, and is, a hugely dangerous waste of money, resources and time.

Climbing onto a missile and having someone light the fuse is in and of itself dangerous. I have commented to astronauts on more than one occasion, it’s a job that can kill you when you’re just practicing. That’s what happened with Apollo One.

Today, everything that can be done on the shuttle can better be done robotically. There’s really no need to put people at danger. Anyway, even when the shuttle was flying, there wasn’t much science being performed.

NASA would like you to think otherwise, but what I’m saying is so. Look back at what was aboard Columbia – it’s embarrassing. I’ve heard talk of metallurgy and pharmaceuticals in space for decades – but it’s never happened in a way that would lead to the promised commercial applications.

Don’t get me wrong, the astronauts and NASA’s scientists are dedicated people. It didn’t take long to figure that out. I have met more brilliant minds at NASA facilities than anywhere else I’ve ever been. They are not the problem.

Flying people into space is a macho thing. It somehow seems more significant and worthy if a person is at the controls and not a machine. Until that mindset changes we will accomplish little and endanger many.

&#185 – I’m not sure who it was, though probably the late John Holliman, a very nice guy and space enthusiast.

Trouble With The Shuttle

Earlier this evening, a well connected friend sent me an instant message with bad news from NASA. A window cover on the shuttle had fallen, striking the shuttle’s protective tiles.

At the moment, NASA says they can fix everything in plenty of time to launch tomorrow. Get out the duct tape.

Isn’t this the real problem with the shuttle program in a nutshell? The Columbia tragedy was also an incident they felt they could work through. A piece of frozen foam… lighweight foam… hit the shuttle. “Harmless,” was the conventional NASA wisdom.

But no one really knows. These are all just calculated guesses. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re not.

I play in a lot of no limit poker tournaments on line. There’s an analogy here. I can go with the odds and win a dozen showdowns, all-in hands. But, if I lose one – just one – I’m done.

It’s the same with the shuttle. Guess right 99 times, but if you’re wrong on number 100 you’re 100% wrong, not 1%.

Overall, there is little room for error. In some specific cases, it could be argued, there is no room for error.

So, again I get on my soap box to say, “Don’t fly.”

And, again, I’ve looked to see what this mission is accomplishing. Other than servicing the International Space Station, it will be 13 days of not much.

Sure, there will be safety procedures examined and quantified, but that wouldn’t be necessary if we didn’t insist on men in space. In fact, neither would the ISS servicing.

I will be watching tomorrow at 3:51 PM and hoping for a safe journey. I will even attempt to see the shuttle while it passes over Connecticut during some of its orbits&#185. I just won’t be convinced it’s a worthwhile risk or use of our money.

&#185 – In servicing the International Space Station, the shuttle uses an orbit that brings it closer to the poles than in ‘standard’ missions. It will get as high as 51&#176 north and south latitude.

Hurricane Live Shots – Enough Already

I spent a lazy day around the house this afternoon. For much of the day, Comcast decided I didn’t need cable access – thanks.

For part of the afternoon I buzzed around the cable news channels and TWC. I saw a variety of “harm’s way” live shots and I’ve had it. Enough already.

Whatever it is that defines the words ‘public service,’ this is the opposite.

Part of what broadcasters do (maybe we did more back when we pledged to serve the public interest, convenience and necessity) is inform viewers. In the case of an approaching major hurricane, we should be informing them about the coming storm and proper safety procedures.

Having these cowboys (and cowgirls) on from the scene sends exactly the opposite message.

As was shown with the Columbia shuttle disaster (and I suppose Einstein talked about this a little too), even an object with low mass can be trouble if moving at a sufficiently high rate of speed. What won’t hurt you if hurtling at 120+ mph?

Can rocks and pebbles fell you? Sure. Will a tree branch or aluminum sign sever a limb? Possibly. Can you get killed in a dozen ways or more? Absolutely.

Reporters stand outside, between buildings, claiming they’re in a protected area? Doesn’t anyone remember the Richelieu Apartments in Pass Christian, MS? Sturdy, concrete construction – leveled.

Actually, the reporters have the advantage. They’re using both eyes. The photographer is myopically staring through the camera lens… robbed of peripheral vision and depth perception.

This is very different than tornado chasing, where the periphery of the storm is much more well defined. In tornadoes, no one tries to get inside the funnel.

More than anything, this just sends the wrong message to the general public. And, of course, it emboldens news directors and assignment desks to send more people and equipment into the storm. Competition is, after all, competition. Who wants to be beaten on a story like this?

I don’t want Jim Cantore, Anderson Cooper, John Zarella, Rick Sanchez or their unseen cameramen and producers, to die. But someone is going to die – and for what?

That’s what’s going to put a stop to this. Someone will die or be terribly injured. I will take no solace knowing I told you so.

Bogger’s note: I write something similar to this every year. You can see it’s had no effect at all

Building a Better Space Program

There’s something about me that’s always surprised my co-workers. They know I’m tuned in to the Space Program and, through my work hosting Inside Space on The SciFi Channel, got to see lots of neat hardware and meet some very bright people. They assume that means I’m a fan of what NASA does.

I am not.

NASA is populated with very dedicated people (and has one of the best websites on the net), but the idea of a bureaucracy leading us into the great unknown is wrong in so many ways. By definition, a bureaucracy wants to take the safe, well marked path to the future. That’s how you end up with a vehicle like the Space Shuttle, which costs a fortune and does hardly anything.

To me, the Columbia Disaster was no real surprise. NASA had stretched very old technology thin… dodging enough bullets that they felt bulletproof. The fact that the mission Columbia was on was a ‘nothing’ trip to space with minimal science, makes it all the more tragic.

The International Space Station is another ‘white elephant.’ What has it accomplished? Even our Russian partners take advantage of us by selling seats on their missions to the ISS to get cash. You can feel NASA seething, but they are incapable of complaining, lest they point out the devil’s pact they made to keep the project going.

Enough NASA bashing.

It’s likely that the current real center of space innovation is with the private companies working toward the X-Prize.

The ANSARI X PRIZE is a $10,000,000 prize to jump start the space tourism industry through competition between the most talented entrepreneurs and rocket experts in the world. The $10 Million cash prize will be awarded to the first team that:

* Privately finances, builds & launches a spaceship, able to carry three people to 100 kilometers (62.5 miles)

* Returns safely to Earth

* Repeats the launch with the same ship within 2 weeks

The ANSARI X PRIZE competition follows in the footsteps of more than 100 aviation incentive prizes offered between 1905 and 1935 which created today’s multi billion dollar air transport industry.

When Lindbergh flew the Atlantic (taking off from the current site of a mall on Long Island), he was competing for a similar award, the the $25,000 Orteig prize. So, there is a precedent for this sort of thing working.

Yesterday, one of the teams working toward the X-Prize made a giant step into space. Carried airborne by a conventional jet, SpaceShipOne separated and then climbed to 40 miles on its own power.

Launch conditions were 46,000 feet and 120 knots. Motor light off occurred 10 seconds after release and the vehicle boosted smoothly to 150,000 feet and Mach 2.5. Subsequent coast to apogee of 211,400 feet. During a portion of the boost, the flight director display was inoperative, however the pilot continued the planned trajectory referencing the external horizon. Reaction control authority was as predicted and the vehicle recovered in feather experiencing 1.9M and 3.5G

When It Comes To Men In Space, I’m Not Alone

I have written, more than a few times, about the U.S. manned space program. It’s a good idea on paper, or maybe it was thirty years ago. There’s little reason anymore to send men into space as explorers in the 21st Century.

Advances in remote sensing and robotics in general (and for these purposes I consider vehicles like the Mars rovers to be robotic) now allow machines to do more than humans, in harsh environments, without the life support costs and without the devastating downside of failure that humans bring.

More than once, on the news set, after a story about the space program has run, my colleagues have turned to me and said, “I bet you’d really like to do that.” It would make sense. I’m a science kind of guy. My answer is always, no. It always has been.

I just finished an article from the New York Review of Books by Dr. Steven Weinberg, the University of Texas/Austin Nobel Prize winning physicist and am amazed that he and I agree so fully about sending men to space. We both say, “no.”

His well documented essay goes point by point to show that we send men into space because of our emotion – not for the sake of science. He points out, as I did earlier, that the tragic Columbia disaster was a mission with minimal science, in a program with little purpose or hope of ever fulfilling its original reason for existing.

I found Dr. Weinberg’s email address and sent him a note – as if a Nobel laureate needs my reassurance that his ideas are sound. Maybe the note really wasn’t meant to benefit him. Looking back, it was reassurance to me that I’m not a Luddite… at least as far as space is concerned.

Blogger’s addendum – After writing to Dr. Weinberg and telling him “It is good to see I’m not some lone Luddite fruitcake sniping at the manned space program (or, if I am, that there are two Luddite fruitcakes out there),” he responded “One good thing about fruitcakes – they stick together. SW.”

He deserves another Nobel for that line alone!.

Sending People Into Space

Today is the 1st anniversary of the Columbia disaster. No one knew, as the Shuttle was climbing from the pad, the die had been cast. Even scarier – if we would have known at that point, nothing could have been done.

There is no doubt the astronauts who fly the Shuttle and International Space Station, and before them the earlier crews, know the dangers they face. Do we?

It should have come as no surprise that astronauts died a year ago. Leaving our atmosphere is inherently dangerous. There are thousands of critical components and systems, any one of which could shape the same outcome. NASA has had plenty of close calls before.

It has been my opinion, and it seems to be born out by what I’ve read, that NASA has taken a less than rigorous attitude toward full safety. The conditions they allowed the astronauts to fly to aboard the Soviet MIR were shocking, to say the least. Of course we’ve all read that NASA experts played down fears about the very foam collision that was the Shuttle’s undoing.

We will fix the foam, and the wings and anything else that’s been made obvious by the events of February 1, 2003, but the changes will only marginally improve the safety of the crew. There are still those thousands of parts and systems. As long as men fly in space, there will be danger and there will be death.

This is a profession so dangerous that you can get killed just practicing – as we found out with Apollo One.

It’s time we, as a nation, took a look at the facts, and made a decision. Is what we’re doing in space worth jeopardizing human lives? I say no.

Look back at Columbia. It was a ‘junk science’ mission. There was little of any scientific import on board. Our other major manned program, the International Space Station, isn’t much better. Even if it weren’t crippled by a caretaker crew, it would be accomplishing few things worth writing home about.

Why are we doing this? Is it a matter of pride? In this day and age there’s a better way to explore – robotically. We are proving, on Mars, with Stardust and other missions , that robots can accomplish the same, or more, than man. And, it’s being done at a significant savings, with little human danger.

Don’t underestimate the cost. My producer at SciFi used to say that if, somehow, the Shuttle’s payload bay was mysteriously filled with gold while in orbit, the mission would still lose money!

The time to change our attitude is now. If the goal is to explore space, let’s do it the right way – so there can be worthwhile science and exploration. As it stands now, the space program is crippled by the fear of further disaster… and there will be further disaster. It’s only a matter of time.