Eyes Turned Skywards

Part II: Post 14: Spacelab Operations Through Spacelab 28
  • Good morning, everyone! In last week's update, we reviewed the millitary side of the American response to Vulkan, with a particular focus on SDI--and touching on some of the interesting offshoots from that work. This week, we're returning to the manned space side of the response, checking up on operations in orbit, and preparations on the ground for both Mir and Freedom. We'll also be checking in on the work for Multibody, and the status of Saturn 1C operations. I promise that doesn't end up as boring as it sounds. With no further ado, then, let's get on with it, shall we? 983 replies, 120588 views

    Eyes Turned Skyward, Part II: Post #14

    Despite their new neighbors, most American on-orbit operations between 1983 and 1986 were routine, carried out according to plans set before Vulkan Panic. The Apollo Block III+ proved as solid of a spacecraft as its three predecessors, with no mission-critical failures occurring. In addition, the cargo upmass capability provided in the MM on every flight proved a valuable addition to the existing Aardvark far beyond the simple numbers. While 1,000 kg per flight might have seemed insignificant compared to the nearly 12,000 kg of payload each Aardvark carried to the station, the benefit wasn’t so much in the sheer mass, but rather in the regularity of its availability. Even the expanded requirements of Spacelab’s 5-person crews still required only one Aardvark flight a year, where Apollo’s MM capacity was available every three months. This meant low-mass but time-sensitive payloads (such as experimental samples, spare components, or crew preference items) could be sent up more regularly even when they couldn’t justify an entire extra Aardvark flight by themselves. However, carrying cargo downhill remained a major constraint, since while Apollo’s heat shield could handle the extra mass, the 5-person crews of Block III+ left very little excess volume inside the cabin. It was thus possible to return only relatively small and high-density items, and not entire used experimental apparatus for study or failed equipment for inspection. While Spacelab’s low-modularity system design had taken this inability into account, Freedom’s more modular experiment and equipment racks would benefit substantially from an ability to return and reuse entire experimental setups instead of smaller samples, or being able to return, inspect, repair, and re-certify failed equipment. As a result, NASA examined several plans to provide such downmass, including dedicated small cargo capsules or flying short-crewed Apollos on “mail runs.” Eventually, the need for downmass would be met by the European Space Administration’s proposal to develop their Minotaur recoverable logistics capsule for station logistics contributions. NASA’s acceptance of the vehicle’s lower upmass was in part due to how well its design let it address the critical downmass requirements for Freedom [1]. In addition, NASA developed a small interim cargo system, consisting of a small capsule which could be flown up with an Aardvark, filled on-orbit, then substituted for an Aardvark’s docking system during its departure. After the Aardvark’s deorbit burn, the capsule would separate, and be recovered in much the same fashion as film capsules for the Key Hole series spy satellites, with a payload of roughly 50 kg.

    The crew operations similarly continued trends already established in earlier missions. The long-duration flights begun with Story Musgrave’s 8 months on-orbit were followed by other, similar-duration flights, and the results were examined closely to establish the chance for even longer flights, either on Spacelab or in the future on missions to the Moon, Mars, or beyond. Additionally, the Spaceflight Participation Program continued, making use of a mix of full-rotation flights, such as those used by Japan’s second astronaut in 1983, while others continued to make use of some “short-stay” opportunities that the long-duration flight experiments created. American beneficiaries of the SFPP tended to be part of NASA’s public outreach and STEM education programs, with teacher Laura Kinsley [2] becoming the first American non-astronaut to fly in 1984. William Anderchuk also flew in 1984, spending a full rotation on board Spacelab 22 as part of the international element of the SFPP, his flight being bargained as part of the diplomacy relating to the international agreements over Freedom. 1986 would see the flight of Turkey’s first astronaut, part of efforts to reach out to the Middle East, but the bigger news in the US was the flight of journalist Jim Lehrer. The PBS anchor was selected to avoid showing favoritism to any of the three major networks. Though reluctant to leave his duties to his co-host for the required training period, the chance to be the first reporter in space proved enough to convince Lehrer, especially the added access to Freedom and insight for comparison to the ongoing Soviet program. He spent a week and a half on-board Spacelab during the overlap between Spacelab 26 and 27 in May, recording video of the station’s operations and of the Earth below, and documenting the experience of being in space, both his own thoughts and those of the astronauts he shared the station with.

    For the American’s new Soviet neighbors aboard Salyut 7, their operations required learning the routines of modular assembly and multi-crew operations. Much of the drive for Vulkan’s high flight rate was the logistic needs for Salyut 7. In fact, though this had been foreseen, it’s exact impact and cost ended up going above expectations. Once again, Glushko’s decision to insert the transitional facility between the small Salyuts and Mir seemed both a blessing and a curse. The benefits in being able to put ideas to the test prior to using them on Mir’s MOK modules proved invaluable in finding the optimal ways to use the TKS system for manned and unmanned cargo, and identifying the problems of modular stations in practice while there was still time to modify the MOK and DOS modules that would make up Mir, but the costs of developing and supporting Salyut 7 (and the need to incorporate lessons learned) resulted in yet more slips to the MOK construction and outfitting schedule, pushing the first launch back another year into 1987, almost three years behind the original 1984 target. While Glushko’s ambitious plans had certainly had the desired effect of spurring respect for the Soviet Union’s technical prowess abroad, his inability to control the growth of Mir’s costs made the Central Committee even less favorable towards his ambitious dreams of following up on Salyut 7 and Mir by using the heavier 5-core Vulkan-Atlas to launch lunar missions or perhaps flights to Mars.

    Even though Glushko’s long-term dreams were steadily being pruned, his present plans were moving forward steadily. The two MOK cores and 4 DOS labs that would make up Mir were being steadily assembled and checked out at Baikonur. The sheer scale of the endeavor would stress the Soviet’s payload handling capabilities. For one, like the Vulkan cores themselves, the MOK labs were too large to transport by rail from the manufacturing plants in Russia and Ukraine to the launch pad at Baikonur; while this would not have been a problem in the American program, with barge access to Kennedy, for the land-locked Soviet program it was a major constraint. While the DOS labs could thus be constructed in Moscow as usual and shipped by rail to Baikonur for launch, the MOK cores would have to be assembled and fitted out at Baikonur itself, as their weight and size made them incapable of being transported in their entirety. The need for these large fitting-out spaces required extensive and costly construction to be completed before final integration could be carried out, but in 1986 the final integration and checkout for the MOK cores was finally underway, with the first demonstration flight of a three-core Vulkan-Herakles being prepared to clear the way for the station’s launch.

    Meanwhile, on-orbit, Salyut 7’s operational tempo stood in stark contrast to its American neighbor. Unlike the clockwork regularity of Spacelab’s logistics flights and crew rotations, Salyut 7 continued the more chaotic pattern of previous Salyuts. Some crews would stay up for only three or four months, while others were on-station for more than six, and logistics flights with TKS were equally irregular. The added headaches of working out station resupply flight schedules given the needs of the more military side of the program, who had grown used to their sole reign over Proton, only added to the growing pains of the Soviet program. It was never entirely unplanned, but at times the results were stressful both for station personnel and ground-side engineers and technicians.

    Like the Soviets, ESA was also having to step up its preparations. The first flight of Europa 3 finally came in March 1985, even as their new Minotaur program was mandating the acceleration of the development of the revised Griffin core, Blue Streak boosters, and shortened Aurore-B upper stage for the Europa 4 family. In addition, development and testing was afoot to define the details of Minotaur, the Columbus lab, and the two nodes for Freedom, with the result being a tremendous strain on ESA’s budgets. Even with 4 years, accomplishing all the tasks required required increases in the funding levels provided by all the major participant nations, and even so the planned development to allow phasing out of the solid-boosted Europa 2-TA in favor of the Europa 2-HE had to be deferred to no earlier than 1990 to save on costs and preserve engineering development and testing resources. Nonetheless, ESA was able to stay on track to meet the requirements for the Freedom program, though resources were tight in terms of both time and money. Their astronaut corps continued to expand, as they cycled to and from Spacelab. Unlike the Americans, who tended to recruit based on an assumed average of 2.5 flights per astronaut, the Europeans instead flew more astronauts with an average more like 1.5. While some ESA astronauts would fly multiple times, it was less common than in the American program, partly reflective of a desire to cycle astronauts from more nations through flights, and to build a cadre of experienced astronauts for potential future manned Minotaur missions.

    Similarly, American preparations for Freedom and Multibody were well underway. By 1985, Rockwell began delivering results on the newly refreshed American logistics vehicles, including static test articles and hardware-in-the-loop testing for the enhanced AARDV bus, optimized with the ability to carry larger fuel supplies for acting as a tug to the larger modules of Freedom, as well as its derivatives, the Aardvark Block II logistics vehicle with its enhanced cargo capacity and the new unpressurized cargo bay and the Block IV Apollo with its enlarged Mission Module intended to enhance both cargo capability and crew support capability in the event of off-nominal missions. In addition, Rockwell had delivered the hull for the American laboratory module to McDonnell, where it began to be outfitted alongside the tank-derived hull of the Habitat and Support Module (HSM). As for the launch vehicles that Freedom depended on, after three years of increased production, by the end of 1985 a surplus of nine Saturn 1C first stages had been completed and placed into storage, which was to be sufficient to meet the needs of both the Spacelab program and the remaining Cornerstone-class science missions that would use the Saturn 1C, particularly the Saturn/Centaur-E pairing. 1984 had already seen the launch of the Galileo Jupiter probe, 1985 had seen the launch of both Kirchhoff and the Hubble Space Telescope, and May 1986 would see the launch of the International Solar Polar Mission and the start of conversion work for allowing the VAB cells to handle the Multibody family. Unlike the production lines at Michoud which could simply be stood down in preparation for Multibody conversions, the VAB was in constant action supporting Spacelab, and would be until Freedom flew. Thus, the four cells and three MLPs had to be carefully allocated to ensure the constant availability of two MLPs and two VAB cells to the active program, while still ensuring that conversion remained on track. It is a tribute to the skill and planning that this operation, which was so vast in scope, managed to occur almost entirely without issue, with launch operations never being substantially interrupted. However, in September of 1986, the Spacelab 28 launch would throw a major wrench into both the preparations for Multibody and the ongoing clockwork of Spacelab operations.

    As had been the practice since the stockpiling of Saturn 1C cores began, the first-stage used on Spacelab 28 was stored at Michoud for the two years following its construction in 1984, until in June of 1986 it was drawn from the stockpile and shipped to Kennedy Space Center by barge. Once there, it was checked out in the VAB’s low bay, then moved to the transfer aisle, lifted to vertical, and moved into position on a mobile launch platform in High Bay 3, with the the S-IVB upper stage then being delivered, checked out, lifted, and stacked onto the first stage. As standard practice, this was performed months in advance of the actual flight to ensure availability of a backup Saturn if the flight before it should encounter difficulties at Spacelab that might mandate on-orbit rescue. When this once again proved un-needed, the flight’s Mission Module received final loading and checks, and then was lifted into place atop the booster. The launch fairing was added to enclose and protect the MM and support the capsule proper, which could then be lifted and stacked onto the vehicle, along with its abort tower. Finally, a week before launch, the completed stack and its MLP was lifted on the back of one of the massive crawlers, and transported to LC-39A, where the MLP was connected to ground fuel and oxidizer lines and other pad infrastructure. A series of wet dress rehearsals and launch simulations were conducted to ensure that the vehicle’s tanks and seals were working and that the launch staff and mission crew were ready, then the day of launch, the vehicle was loaded with kerosene, oxygen, and liquid hydrogen, and final preparations completed. Despite a delay of thirty minutes required to clear a particularly persistent pleasure boater which had been intruding into the downrange keep-out zones, the flight proceeded through a nominal countdown, and at 2:35 PM on September 19th, 1986, Spacelab 28’s F-1A main engine ignited, followed three seconds later by the release of the MLP’s hold down arms, and the 44th Saturn 1C lifted off the pad on top of two million pounds of thrust.

    The launch initially proceeded nominally. The vehicle cleared the tower, and control was passed from the launch site in Florida to mission control in Houston as the vehicle pitched and rolled into the gravity turn trajectory that would minimize drag and gravity losses on the climb to orbit. However, when the vehicle’s computers commanded the vernier roll thrusters and the main engine gimbal to return to neutral settings after the completion of this maneuver, the main engine gimbal overshot the correction, which caused a slight but increasing reversal of the commanded trajectory. At the same time as this warning sounded on the flight dynamics officer’s console, the booster’s computer began to report low hydraulic pressure in the main engine’s gimbals. It became clear within moments that the booster was no longer controllable in pitch, as the booster continued to pitch in spite of the commands from the onboard computers. The call was clear--what had been moments before one of the most complex assemblages of technology in the history of mankind was now an out-of-control bomb. Just as the ground controllers were coming to the same conclusion, and calling for an abort to be initiated manually, the Emergency Detection System in the Apollo capsule saw sufficient data to initiate an automatic abort. The booster’s engines were commanded to shut down, then the Launch Escape System fired, its powerful solid rocket motor pulling the capsule away from the booster. Between the thrust termination on the first stage and the more than 12G acceleration of the LES, the capsule was more than half a kilometer away when, three seconds later, the booster was destroyed at the command of the range safety. Explosive packages vented the tanks and destroyed the vehicle’s integrity, and it disintegrated in mid-air. Meanwhile, the LES’ motors burned out, and the tower’s canard assembly flipped the capsule and tower to put the base of the capsule forward. This completed, the tower had done its job, completing its entire primary objective in just 14 seconds of operation, and the abort tower and boost protective cover separated, leaving the capsule positioned to deploy parachutes. As the capsule’s attitude stabilized, and the drogue and then the main parachutes deployed, leaving the capsule drifting gently down to the waters of the Atlantic Ocean below, the mood in the Mission Control Center in Houston grew tense as the tracking cameras relaying video from Florida worked to stay on track with the capsule. Finally, after a few seconds that seemed like an eternity, the computer screens began to fill again with telemetry from the capsule. In a soundbite that would run as breaking news on every major news channel, Spacelab 28 Commander Don Hunt’s voice came through on the communications circuit. “Houston, this is 28. Rough ride up here, but we are okay. Do you copy?” The room erupted into cheers, and it took several seconds for the Flight Director to restore order, and get recovery assets to the projected landing point. In the end, only 35 minutes after lifting off the pad, the Spacelab 28 capsule was winched aboard the rear deck of the recovery ship Liberty Star [3], and the crew was assisted out of the capsule. It became clear that all the tension in Hunt’s voice in the communications was not just stress--he had been reaching to manually trigger the abort just as the automatic systems had commanded it, and the acceleration had slammed his wrist against the corner of his armrest, breaking it. With the crew safely recovered and one their way into port, the focus of NASA quickly converged on documenting the investigation into the cause of the failure aboard Spacelab 28. With Multibody still a year and a half away and Saturn 1C production shut down, it was critical to determine what had gone wrong--and if the rest of the stockpiled Saturn 1Cs were similarly suspect.

    [1] Similar to OTL ISS after Shuttle’s retirement--if you look around, the real benefit Dragon contributes isn’t necessarily cargo up or cost, it’s the cargo it can bring back down. Note that CRS-1 brought more cargo home than it carried to orbit.

    [2] Fictional. Teacher in Space gets started a couple years early due to Vulkan Panic. She flies a short-stay.

    [3] OTL, this is the name of one of the two specially-built SRB recovery ships. In Eyes, it’s one of several relatively standard workboats NASA operates, deploying them to cover abort zones off both the Pacific and Atlantic as needed.
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    Part II: Post 15: Unmanned Exploration of Venus
  • Well, we left off last time with a crew successfully escaping from a cloud of hot, caustic gasses. So, speaking of places containing high temperatures and inhospitable to human life, who's up for some checking in on Venus? (Alternate awkward segue: "So, speaking of things that almost kill you, how about that finals season?") 1018 replies, 123460 views

    Eyes Turned Skywards, Part II: Post #15

    Venus, named after the Roman goddess of love, is perhaps most famous as the closest thing the Solar System has to classical depictions of Hell. With a surface temperature of over 450 degrees Celsius, hot enough that lead would melt and flow like water, and a surface pressure of over 90 atmospheres, similar to the pressure at a depth of one kilometer in Earth's oceans, it is easy to see why this is the popular depiction of the planet: hot, inhospitable, and thoroughly unpleasant. And yet, at the same time Venus retains some of her traditional allure. The planet remains the largest terrestrial planet aside from the Earth, and in many respects is very Earth-like, even more so than Mars. Furthermore, Venus is relatively easy for space probes to reach, with frequent windows and short flight times augmenting relatively low trans-Cytherean[1] delta-V costs. Thus, even after early Mariner and Venera flights, together with ground observations of the surface by radar, scientific interest in the planet continued, strengthened even despite the harsh surface conditions. While the United States quickly lost interest in the planet, the Soviet Union saw both an opportunity--somewhere they could compete without the Americans getting in the way--and an easier target than Mars, which was quickly becoming notorious for swallowing up space probes, especially Soviet ones. Through the 1960s and 1970s the Soviets took active advantage of this opportunity, dispatching probes at nearly every launch window and racking up an impressive list of firsts on the way. These were not, however, mere stunts, but filled a valuable scientific role, providing reams of data about the atmospheric conditions of Venus, the pressure gradient of the air, and the temperature at various altitudes.

    By the late 1970s, however, the Soviets had moved on from the relatively simple atmospheric penetrators and orbital probes that they had previously been launching, ambitiously aiming to land probes just as sophisticated as any American Mars probe on Venus' surface, returning far more data about surface conditions and particularly the material composition and surface properties of Venus. The first of these new probes were Veneras 9 and 10, launched during the 1975 window. While outshadowed by the contemporary Viking program to Mars, they returned the first images of the surface of Venus, and proved an entirely new and considerably more complex probe design for future use, a design which would go on to be used for the remainder of the Soviet space program. Following them up in 1978, and in parallel with the American Pioneer Venus mission, were Veneras 11 and 12. Besides testing a series of new instruments on the surface, instruments which would also return data useful to planned future probes, the probes would also use the new 5MV bus design for support during cruise flight and to relay data from the surface probes back to Earth. Besides this vital function, the flyby probes would also provide important engineering test data for the 5MV design prior to its use for a pair of Mars missions the next year. Unfortunately, Veneras 11 and 12 did not go to plan. While the flyby segment performed well, and assisted in research into the phenomenon of gamma-ray bursts, both of the landers had issues with the newly-installed sample-collection drill intended to provide the first in-situ look into Cytherean surface composition. They also had problems with the lens caps on the panoramic cameras intended to provide a view of the Cytherean surface; on Venera 12, both caps failed to eject, while on Venera 11 one of them did. However, the other instruments functioned as planned, and overall the missions were a great success.

    At the same time the Veneras touched down on Venus, though, the Lavochkin bureau, in conjunction with the French space agency CNES, was already preparing for a more ambitious mission to launch in the 1981 window. This time, a modified 5MV bus would deliver a 600 kg balloon designed by the French to the Cytherean atmosphere, while another Soviet spacecraft would place itself in orbit about the planet. In a similar fashion to an earlier French experiment on Earth, the Eole satellite, this orbiter would track the movement of the balloon, gathering data about wind motion in addition to the usual gamma-ray burst tracking, ultraviolet imagery of the atmosphere, and information from the balloon's own suite of scientific equipment. The entire project was named "Eos," a reference to the predecessor Eole and an ancient Greek term for Venus as seen at dawn, "Eòsforos". Underway since 1972, even increasing French involvement in the reconstruction of ELDO/ESRO into the ESA did not halt their work on the probe, and after the success of Veneras 11 and 12 Lavochkin could finally devote its full attention to the project. Together, development proceeded well, and the last Protons to serve a Soviet planetary probe hurled them skywards in late October and early November 1981. The Eos balloon successfully deployed following atmospheric entry, marking yet another first for the Soviet Venus program--the first balloon (or, indeed, atmospheric vehicle of any type aside from simple penetrator probes) ever deployed on another planet. Almost at the same time, the Venera 13 orbiter successfully concluded its own orbital insertion burn, sliding into a 24-hour highly elliptical orbit to begin its own measurements of Venus and its periodic polling of the Eos balloon. The balloon continued to operate for over a month before the slow loss of buoyancy from tiny helium leaks brought it to too low an altitude to survive, providing a significant amount of data about the high-altitude atmosphere at a variety of locations in the process. The orbiter, like Pioneer Venus before it, continued to return scientific data long past its primary mission.

    By this time, however, NASA was already thinking of making a return to Venus. In the 1970s, JPL had been involved in a mission using a then-novel technology, synthetic aperture radar, to study not another planet but instead Earth's own surface, through a satellite mission and a series of aircraft flights with a test radar installed. The scientists involved became interested in using the technology on planetary missions, and Venus was the obvious target due to its eternally opaque cloud cover preventing other wavelengths from penetrating the atmosphere. Such a mission would be able to surpass not only previous radar-carrying probes, such as the Pioneer Venus Orbiter, but also the ground-based sites that had been imaging the planet since the 1960s. The Venus Orbiting Imaging Radar, or VOIR, probe which grew out of this involvement promised to be a beauty of a scientific mission. In addition to the imaging radar, VOIR would carry a radar altimeter and an entire suite of instruments to study the Cytherean atmosphere. Furthermore, due to the low, circular orbit needed for imaging and the continuous return of scientific data to Earth, it would be able to provide gravimetric data about Venus' interior, further assisting geophysicists in understanding Cytherean surface structures and the internal properties of the planet. Unfortunately, VOIR did not exist in a vacuum. By the time it had been written up in a formal proposal and submitted for funding, it had strong competition in the form of the Kirchhoff cometary mission. The exploitation of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to encounter Comet Halley perhaps proved decisive for the latter, as it won the support of President Carter and then Congress during planning for FY 1980, while VOIR was left out in the cold. Even while VOIR's supporters regrouped, President Reagan's election led to a hostile climate for planetary exploration, and given that JPL was fighting to keep current projects alive it was not even submitted for the 1982 budget. The launch of Vulkan and the subsequent demand for more space exploration ensured that VOIR would be given another chance, however, and development was quickly approved in the 1983 budget.

    By this time, VOIR had gone through several rounds of redesign to reduce costs, consistently fingered as the number one problem with the concept. The scientific suite had been pared back to just the radar imager, the radar altimeter, and the gravitimetric experiments, while as many instruments and components as possible were spares from previous or ongoing missions. So many parts were leftovers from other missions, in fact, that VOIR earned the joking title "The Flying Scrapheap," not only from others in the laboratory but even from the project team itself. Nevertheless, the probe was ready to fly by the expected 1988 Venus launch window, and it duly departed for the planet atop a Delta 4000 during March. Its transit towards Venus proved uneventful, and it settled into orbit around the planet only a few months later. Several more months were consumed in slowly lowering and circularizing the orbit, as well as trimming it into the proper polar plane. Once these orbital maneuvers were complete, data collection could finally begin. And what a collection it would be! A constant stream of data raced back from the orbiter to Earth, coalescing on powerful computers into detailed maps of the surface, revealing previously invisible features of all sizes. Besides mere imagery, a topographic map could be compiled from the data returned by the radar altimeter and stereo images created by the main radar, allowing not just flat maps but a three-dimensional visualization. Finally, very precise tracking of the carrier wave used by the communications signal allowed tracing out tiny fluctuations in the Cytherean gravitational field that could reveal the presence of subsurface features otherwise invisible, such as masses of magma. In short, VOIR was rapidly returning more data about Venus' surface than existed about Earth's, swaddled beneath near-global oceans of opaque seawater, and nearly as much about its near-surface interior. The resulting massive data sets would occupy scientists for years as they intensively studied it to unlock the secrets of the Cytherean interior.

    The mere presence of NASA did not mean that the Soviets had given up on Venus, however, nor was VOIR was the last word in Cytherean exploration. Instead, they had merely taken a brief hiatus, before launching their final and most ambitious Venus exploration project: DZhVs, an abbreviation for "Long-term Surface Station". Intended to survive for the incredible duration of 30 days on the surface, work on DZhVs had been underway since the mid-1970s as the only practical way to achieve seismometry on Venus, given the alternative of deploying explosives to the planet. Advancements in high-temperature electronics for drilling, highly insulative materials such as aerogel, and high-capacity heat sinks made such a mission seem practical, though not easy. Due to this difficulty, the Soviets chose not to simply leap to their goal, jumping straight from the one to two hours of previous probes to a duration over 600 times as great. Instead, they would proceed by steps; first, a one-day probe to prove many of the basic techniques and technologies, then a 14-day probe to requalify them for an even longer duration, and finally the full 30-day probe, beneficiary of several more years of technological development and refinement. By late 1985, engineers and scientists at Lavochkin were confident that the DZhVs-1 was ready, and Venera 14 and 15 leapt towards Venus aboard Vulkan rockets late in 1986. The new 6MV bus design on both probes performed exactly as its designers desired, and both probes successfully landed later that year. For the first hour and a half, as their busses remained above the horizons and could serve as data relays, they intensively explored their surroundings, taking the first color photographs of Venus and carrying out several chemical and material analyses of the surrounding surface. After the relay link broke, however, the probes switched to their limited high-temperature instrument suites, beaming the resulting data directly back to Earth. Venera 14 continued to operate in this fashion for over 12 hours before collapsing to the heat, while Venera 15 did so for an astonishing 28 hours, shattering previous Soviet surface survival records. Among other things, data collected during the extended phase definitively proved the existence of "Venusquakes," validating the underlying reason for the DZhVs development. Unfortunately, this proved to be the last gasp of the Soviet Venus exploration program. While technically amazing, political and economic events far outside of the scope of planetary exploration would prove its downfall, with the DZhVs-14 missions first postponed twice, then canceled with the hardware over three-quarters complete. While the newly formed Russian Federation and the Confederation of Independent States attempted to find outside funding for the mission, other countries were either uninterested in Venus exploration, unable to believe the probes would work, or unwilling to put up the tens of millions of dollars that would be needed to complete and launch them. The hardware for Venera 17 and 18 slowly rotted away at Lavochkin, preoccupied with international (and therefore funded) projects over ambitious but unfunded dreams.

    [1]: This is a somewhat obsolete semi-poetic term filling the same role as the (now) more common Venusian. Its use here is purely a matter of personal preference.
    Part II: Post 16: Satellites, Telecoms, and Television
  • Well, it's actually Tuesday, so it's that time once again. Last week, we reviewed the exploration of the mysterious world lurking beneath the gases of Venus. This week, we're turning to an even more bizarre world: television broadcasting. Truth is life and I would like to thank the Brainbin for his generous contributions to discussing the altered broadcasting landscape ITTL and for reviewing several drafts of this post. 1033 replies, 125845 views

    Eyes Turned Skyward, Part II: Post #16

    The idea of using communications satellites not merely to replace cable and microwave backbones in carrying signals across oceans and great expanses of land, but to replace conventional systems of distribution altogether by beaming signals directly from one location to another was developed soon after the concept of the communications satellite itself. The development of actual satellites during the late 1950s and early 1960s only intensified the conceptual development of these systems; although it was soon recognized that fully point-to-point communications were far beyond the then-current state-of-the-art, only a little development seemed necessary to use satellites in a system of national broadcasting, which development was quickly entered into by both the United States and the Soviet Union as a way of efficiently delivering communications worldwide. The launch of the American experimental satellite ATS-6 in 1974 and its subsequent success in beaming television programs directly to viewers ranging from Indians to Inuit was only the tipping point in this building trend towards the direct broadcast of television by satellite. Only weeks after the launch, by which time the success of the satellite was abundantly clear, the Radio Corporation of America's satellite division proposed that the second generation of Satcom satellites, expected about 1980 to replace the first generation satellites then being built, be used not just to support conventional broadcast television but also to directly beam television to subscriber's homes. Besides potentially being profitable in its own right, such a scheme could support RCA's subsidiary, the National Broadcasting Company, then in the midst of a severe ratings slide, which could be responsible for much of the system's programming. After mulling over the proposal, RCA's board of directors gave the go-ahead to the project in early 1975, deciding to abandon a decade's work on a promising but troubled video system[1] in the process.

    As work on the second-generation satellites and the direct-broadcast system progressed, it became increasingly clear that the initial vision for the project was unworkable. The most serious issue was the basic design of the network itself. In the initial concept, the network would be a sort of NBC Premium, going above and beyond NBC's normal programming to deliver a wide variety of NBC-branded channels. There might be an NBC Kids channel, carrying child-oriented programming around the clock, an NBC News, carrying nothing but news programming, including in-depth reports on the underpinnings of current situations or constant coverage of important events, and so on and so forth, in whatever combinations could be dreamed up by NBC executives. The programming for these channels would be produced in a conventional way, either in-house by existing NBC assets (in the case of NBC News, for example) or by contracting outside production houses for some or all of the material, but the method of distribution would make this a decidedly novel asset in the television world. Not only could RCA profit from both monthly service fees and channel advertising, but by eliminating any need to support NBC's affiliates they would have a larger profit margin, despite expecting to sell satellite reception equipment at a loss. Unfortunately for NBC, however, the world was not standing still while RCA developed its satellite brand. By the mid-1970s, the first buddings of cable television were beginning to appear, with stations such as the Home Box Office and Ted Turner's WTCG, later WTBS, the first superstation and a milestone in increasing access to syndicated and rerun programs, achieving some degree of success on early cable networks. When NBC began pilot testing the proposed initial lineup of premium channels (using cable for distribution in most test areas), they were surprised to find that many people actually preferred these alternatives to NBC's channels, despite multiple attempts to draw viewers away from other channels via incentive packages, cutting advertising so far the channels were actually being run at a loss, and various publicity moves. Drawing in customers to the NBC-branded channels was so difficult, in fact, that it seemed doubtful that the satellite network could be very successful with only those available. As it evolved, the eventual lineup of the "basic" satellite package became remarkably similar to "basic" cable, featuring a similar channel lineup (with the large exception of NBC News, one of the few NBC channels without an established cable competitor), and additional "premium" channels available for an additional fee. While more expensive for RCA than NBC channels would have been, the additional customer volume would more than make up for increased costs, or so it was hoped.

    Poor marketability was not the only challenge NBC Satellite faced from its design, however. In an entirely unsurprising reaction to the initial NBC Premium design, most affiliates responded with fury to RCA/NBC essentially proposing to make them irrelevant, especially as NBC's pilot testing of satellite systems revealed that most customers abandoned over-the-air television entirely with satellite or cable systems. Fearing for the viability of their businesses, the affiliates rapidly banded together into regional, then interstate, then national organizations, eventually joining forces to form the NBC Affiliates Association, or NAA. NAA stations complained to the FCC about their own parent's anticompetitive activities, then threatened to desert NBC en masse and form an entirely new network, tentatively termed the United Broadcasting Network, or UBN , if NBC continued to pursue its anti-affiliate policies. Faced with annihilation of its terrestrial unit (aside from the few stations it owned directly), NBC blinked, guaranteeing a slice of bandwidth for local affiliate stations on its satellites at the cost of eliminating a planned NBC channel. This deal, however effective it was at ensuring NBC's affiliate network would remain with NBC, only deepened NBC's woes as now ABC and CBS began to complain about RCA's business plans. Despite the presence of competitors who had also scented the possibility of new markets and new business generated through direct broadcast, RCA had far and away the most advanced project, and the one with the greatest corporate and financial backing. Faced with yet another significant threat, once again NBC's management attempted to neutralize it before it could become significant, this time suggesting to management at ABC and CBS that they meet with NBC's executives to try to avoid drawing in the FCC and develop an effective self-regulating regime. Over a week of "working vacation," the executives hammered out an agreement that eventually formed the basis for most later regulation of satellite and cable television providers. At the deal's heart was the notion of "carry one, carry all"; if a provider carried the local affiliate of any one of the networks in a given market, it would have to carry affiliates of all of the networks in that same market, along with the local PBS affiliate in a sop to notions of broadcasting "for the public good". Although this might remove two otherwise RCA-controlled channels from play, the threat of legal action or heavy regulation from the FCC led RCA to perceive the agreement as the lesser evil in their quest for direct broadcast success. The Vineyard Deal (named after Martha's Vineyard, where the executives met) led ABC and CBS to halt their action against RCA and NBC while awaiting the service's launch, even as it allowed RCA to finally focus completely on getting NBC Satellite on its feet.

    The first satellite of the Satcom-D series launched in September 1980 aboard a Titan III, closing out Martin Marietta’s era of Titan commercial space launches as it headed for its designated east position, hovering just off of Brazil's coast to cover the country from the Rocky Mountains to the East Coast [2]. The first regularly scheduled television program in the world delivered directly by satellite to the subscriber's home was the October 3rd, 1980 episode of Days of our Lives[3], broadcast on a local NBC affiliate, a surprisingly mundane yet perhaps inevitable beginning to the service. After all, soap operas had been one of the first programs to migrate from radio to television in the early 1950s. Nevertheless, growth was slow at first, with competition from cable operators and the tail end of stagflation and the long recession conspiring to keep customers from spending on expensive gadgets and entertainment services. However, due to the low operating costs of a satellite system compared to terrestrial cable or even terrestrial broadcasting, the system quickly began to show an operating profit for RCA, motivating them to further expand the network's viewership. Lower prices, channel selections tailored to the interests of particular regions, and above all else an improved array of channels to distribute all featured in their attempts to woo customers away from cable and terrestrial television. In the latter case, of particular importance was a deal signed by Warner-Amex Satellite Communications, Warner-Amex Cable Communications, and RCA in 1982, giving Warner-Amex the right to distribute certain NBC channels, particularly NBC News as a hedge against Ted Turner's new CNN, in exchange for allowing NBC Satellite to distribute certain Warner-Amex channels, such as Nickelodeon.

    At first, this deal was of only slight importance to RCA, which saw viewership of NBC News and subscriptions to NBC Satellite rise modestly over the following year, perhaps as much from the sharp decline in oil prices and general economic recovery starting in 1982 as anything else. However, outside of the figures available to executive officers, a slow groundswell of interest was building in MTV, one of the channels obtained in the Warner-Amex deal. With the channel now being distributed nationwide, an increasing number of teenagers and young adults were incorporating the channel into group entertainment; in a similar fashion to video games a generation later, watching a few music videos was becoming de rigueur even for gatherings with a different ostensible purpose. The release of three extremely popular Michael Jackson music videos during 1983, culminating in the groundbreaking Thriller, merely moved this trend into national visibility. Suddenly, the audience was no longer content to merely watch a few videos with friends; instead, they wanted their MTV, and they wanted it now. Hitched to MTV's rocket, NBC Satellite quickly went from being modestly profitable to being one of the most valuable properties in RCA's portfolio, just as NBC itself turned around from its 1970s-era flailing to reestablish itself as one of the most successful networks in television, in the face of greater competition than it had faced a decade earlier.

    [1]: This is SelectaVision, which OTL proved to be a disaster to the tune of more than half a billion dollars in losses for the company, and was a major factor in their collapse and subsequent acquisition in 1986 by General Electric, their erstwhile founder (RCA was a division of GE from 1919 to 1930, when it was spun off into an independent firm). This is why NBC is effectively 49% owned by GE at the present time. The Satcom is actually as OTL, more or less, except of course for the direct broadcast part.

    [2]: Three satellites are planned for the Satcom-D (for direct) system; East, West, and on-orbit spare vehicles, similarly to NOAA's GOES weather satellites.

    [3]: October 3rd, 1980 was a Friday, and did indeed see a broadcast of Days of Our Lives. At, I believe, 11:00 AM.
    Part II: Post 17: Commercial Spaceflight of the 1980s
  • Well, I hope everyone's been having a good holiday so far. I know I've been enjoying my break and the chance to dig in on some writing again after a couple weeks of final papers and presentations eating all my time. Anyway, last week, we looked at the birth of commercial satellite television, this week we're looking at the vehicles to launch the next generation.

    Eyes Turned Skyward, Part II: Post #17:

    The first communications satellite, depending on your definition, was launched in 1958, with Project SCORE, 1960 with the Echo series, or 1962 with the first Telstar. For the first decade of spaceflight, they were an essentially governmental and experimental affair, with the only private involvement being in the construction of satellites, and then only for the Western world. Intelsat, an intergovernmental organization (in fact, its original name was "Inter-Governmental Organization") controlled international satellite communication, while only the Soviet Union had been building a domestic satellite network. It was not until the early 1970s, after the Syncom and Intelsat series of satellites demonstrated the viability of geosynchronous communications satellites, that commercial interest in them began to appear. After Canada built and launched the Anik series of satellites, designed to extend telecommunications to its thinly populated and barren north, so too did interest from other foreign nations with natural or financial barriers to telecommunications projects. A satellite was cheaper and more flexible than a submarine cable or a microwave repeater link, and far easier to put into place in many areas. For similar reasons, the military had been working on its own satellite communications network, although the utility of a satellite-based telemetry system, for communicating with satellites far away from any ground stations (such as spy satellites) offered its own attractions. Slowly, a small communications satellite industry was growing, spearheaded by the American firm Hughes.

    However, there was one problem with satellite communications: launchers. Existing launchers were often unreliable, expensive, inflexible, overused by military and national concerns, or otherwise unsuited to the needs of satellite communication providers. The appearance of non-broadcast television was a complicating factor, as such outlets found satellites to be an efficient method of distributing their programs from a central studio to local cable distributors, as they generally had a much higher bandwidth than conventional microwave links and were capable of beaming multiple channels to a potentially huge number of ground stations simultaneously. At the same time, a number of firms had realized that private, intra-firm communications that had previously relied on conventional telephony, facsimile transmission, or similar processes, could be conducted more effectively, efficiently, and securely by satellite. Together, these were driving satellite demand even faster and higher, making the shortage of launchers increasingly critical to multiple businesses. A canny investor looking at the situation might very well wonder why he (or she, although few of the canny investors of those days were female) couldn't make a buck or two by developing a new method of launching satellites. Combine that with the layoffs which plagued the American aerospace industry throughout the 1970s, providing cheap, experienced, and often eager labor, and you have all the makings of a space launch boom.

    Indeed, dozens of companies were founded and attempted to carve out a significant share of the launch market during this time. Almost all of them collapsed upon realizing there was a lot more to rocket science than just new, clever ideas; and even if it wasn't that, the recession of the early '90s put paid to most of the firms that had survived up to that point, leaving only a few scarred survivors. One of the most prominent failures was Gary Hudson's American Space Launch, Inc. A proponent of Single Stage To Orbit launch vehicles, he enthusiastically recapitulated ideas that had originated with Phil Bono in the 1960s that (according to fans) would lead to a revolution in space launch. Skeptics pointed to numerous technical difficulties in the concept, but in the end it was his own inability to either fund the firm himself or attract investment that doomed the company. Perhaps with the resources of NASA or Boeing behind him, or a substantial personal fortune, he would have succeeded, but as it was he went down as just one of the most well-known of the many failures of the era. By 1990, American Space Launch had completely collapsed, with Hudson becoming almost a messianic figure for a certain part of the space enthusiast community.

    Another significant player, all the more so for being from perhaps less entrepreneurial Europe, was Lutz Kayser. As early as 1975, he had founded Orbital Transport und Raketen AG, usually just OTRAG, with (like Hudson) a revolutionary new approach to space launch. Unlike Hudson, rather than use a technologically advanced and capable system, such as SSTOs, he went with the simplest possible approach, clustering cheap pressure-fed modules to build satellite launch systems. While a technically feasible approach--indeed, American Launch Services, by far the most successful of the '80s insurgents, used a similar system except with retired Minuteman I stages instead of customized liquid modules--and far from lacking funding, OTRAG ended up collapsing as a result of Kayser's poor political decisions and the political landscape of 1970s Europe. Kayser's decision to test the rocket in Zaire and later in Libya awakened the opposition of many who had no desire to see two brutal African dictators gain long-distance rocket technology, while his status as a German citizen and OTRAG's foundation in Germany led to fears (which seem quaint and ludicrous today, but loomed large at the time) of Germany again threatening Europe with missile technology, leading the Soviet Union, Britain, and France to pressure Germany into removing its support for the project, causing OTRAG's effective collapse by the mid-1980s. More conspiracy-minded observers have also cited the difficulties then being experienced by Europa in garnering business, especially from outside Europe itself, in OTRAG’s failure. Hampered by a bureaucratic management and political disputes between ESA member states, especially Britain and France, the argument goes, Europa was never going to be an effective commercial launch vehicle the way some, mostly French, individuals desired. However, OTRAG, founded by an entrepreneur and not burdened by policies such as “geographic return” and governmental bureaucracy, posed a particular threat to dreams of Europan commercial success. Thus, France in particular, heavily invested in Europa’s success, organized a coalition of opposition to Kayser which eventually brought him down.

    One of the few survivors of the era, American Launch Services, Inc. became the only insurgent to offer full-scale orbital launch services with its flagship vehicle series, Caravel. Named after the capable but relatively small vessels that served as the vanguard of European exploration during the 16th and 17th centuries, like its namesake Caravel was hoped to be the precursor to humanity's expansion into space, although less capable than its larger siblings. During the early 1970s, the Air Force's first-generation solid ICBM, the Minuteman I, had been phased out in favor of the Minuteman II and Minuteman III, but rather than being destroyed the solid rocket motors that powered the missile were put into storage. Influenced by Lutz Kayser, in 1979 ALS proposed to use these missiles, together perhaps with the solid rocket upper stages developed for the Delta in previous years, to launch payloads into space. A single vehicle or small cluster could be used for sounding rocket or microgravity research purposes, while a larger cluster, equipped with an upper stage, could launch satellites into orbit. After garnering the interest of NASA, newly interested in privatization during the Reagan years, ALS was able to begin testing its vehicle concept in the early 1980s. While the maximum payload size was not large--the largest Caravel variant could lift less than 3 tons into orbit--the small satellite market quickly proved to be dramatically underserved commercially. With the working out of Caravel’s bugs in the late 1980s, NASA quickly became a major customer, both for orbital and suborbital launches. Often, the microgravity environment on board an ALS rocket would be superior to that on board NASA's "Vomit Comet," with several minutes of continuous exposure being typical, while at the same time costing less. Similarly, the larger clusters filled a payload gap between NASA's very small Scout booster and the much larger and more expensive Delta 4000, allowing an innovative range of low-cost Explorer payloads to be flown which otherwise would never have seen the light of day. ALS also built the first commercial spaceport in the world, with their launch facilities on Matagorda Bay in Texas seeing multiple launches per year and becoming a favored launch site for other private launch concerns, eager to avoid the bureaucracy of Cape Canaveral or Vandenberg.

    Undoubtedly, however, the most important player to enter the launch market in the 1980s was Lockheed. Coming off of the relative success of its L-1011 TriStar airliner, in the early 1980s Lockheed executives saw an even better potential market opening up in space launch. Unlike most of their competitors, their goal was nothing less than a full frontal assault on the major launch providers of the time, a mix between semi-governmental United States launches and haphazardly organized Europa flights. Their opportunity came when Martin, desperately (and ultimately unsuccessfully) attempting to beat off a hostile takeover attempt from Bendix Corporation, offered their entire Titan production line for sale. Seeing an opportunity to branch into the launch business, Lockheed snapped it up, quickly turning around and persuading the Air Force to allow them to use existing Titan facilities at Cape Canaveral for commercial services. The new Lockheed Astronautics division, a merger of the newly acquired Titan division and earlier Lockheed space enterprises, quickly set to with a will trying to find customers for Commercial Titan, and just as quickly found them. Unlike its main competitors, the Delta 4000, Atlas-Centaur, and Europa, Commercial Titan was only lightly burdened by government management, meaning that commercial customers found themselves first in line, not last as at McDonnell Douglas or when trying to persuade the Europa consortium to allocate a flight[1]. Furthermore, Lockheed Astronautics could offer a "complete package": order a satellite and its launch, and you only have to deal with one contractor, Lockheed itself. Titan for the launch vehicle, Agena for the upper stage and satellite bus, and the experience of Lockheed in managing most of America's spy satellites allowed them to offer a highly integrated and less expensive package than their competitors. Their low prices were also aided by the Air Force's own indirect subsidy to Lockheed, guaranteed due to the national security importance of Titan and Agena until the introduction of Saturn Multibody and the full retirement of the large spy satellites designed for the old booster[2]. Between low initial prices and good service, Lockheed quickly captured nearly half of the commercial launch market, with the remainder roughly evenly divided between Europa and the Delta 4000, and even began to challenge Hughes in the satellite development business. In 1989 it attempted to purchase Hughes--now the Space Division of Ford-Hughes Aircraft Corporation, a subsidiary of Ford since it had purchased Hughes from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute following Hughes' death[3]--but was blocked by regulators concerned about Lockheed dominating the satellite market. Nevertheless, Lockheed had gone from a nobody to a major operator in the launch business in less than ten years, along with growing an increasingly large and important satellite production line. If American Launch Services was the most important of the new corporations, then Lockheed was by far the most influential of the previously existing major aerospace firms by the end of the decade, at least in the space launch business.

    [1]: No Arianespace here! The French want to reorganize the business on commercial lines (they did OTL), but the other major ESA members aren’t as interested in it, especially Britain, which has prevented it from actually happening. With the experience of several years of development, too, the business case for space launch looks more doubtful than IOTL, so the French are more invested in commercializing the existing program than in starting a new one. However, the attitude in Britain towards privatisation may be changing...

    [2]: IOTL, recall, KH-9s and KH-11s were launched by Titan into the late 1980s despite the introduction of Shuttle, which was supposedly going to take care of those. Of course, that was largely because Shuttle could not lift those satellites into their desired orbits without the Vandenberg launch site, which was never used. Still, it would be prohibitively expensive to recertify satellites designed for Titan launch to Saturn launch, so the Titan has a few years left in it after the buyout taking care of older satellites.

    [3]: OTL, Hughes was bought by GM, and Ford was one of the unsuccessful bidders (this means that GM was briefly the largest manufacturer of satellites in the world). Just a small butterfly showing up now.
    Part II: Post 18: And Now for Something Completely Different: The Lockheed L-1011 Aircraft
  • Another week, another update, this one on Christmas Day! (I swear we didn't plan it that way). I hope you all are having pleasant holidays; to allow e of pi to spend time with his family, I volunteered to take over posting today. So don't expect any more updates at 7:30 AM Central Standard :p

    Today's post is a little bit of a break from rockets to delve into the aerospace industry, specifically the curious comment from the last post about the L-1011's relative success. A little bit of an interlude for Christmas Day.

    1073 posts; 130,996 views

    Eyes Turned Skyward, Part II: Post #18

    Lockheed has always had a troubled relationship with the airline industry, with a series of on-again, off-again starts marring what was, at times, a highly successful business for the California company. After the failure of their turboprop airliner, the L-188 Electra, due to safety problems and its unfortunate introduction just as jets were beginning to dominate the industry, the company once again chose to withdraw from the industry altogether. However, its depature was brief, as an entirely new opportunity was beginning to open up in the aircraft industry, widebody aircraft. With projections indicating a drastic increase in passenger-miles by the mid-1970s, interest in what was then generically called an "airbus" was high amongst aircraft executives, and Lockheed took the chance to try to break back into the commercial market with a new widebody design, the L-1011. Designed to the specifications of several major US airlines, the L-1011 would be a revolutionary aircraft, at the absolute forefront of aviation technology. Besides the advanced avionics, including one of the world's first autoland systems, and innovative design features, it would also use an innovative new engine designed by the British corporation Rolls-Royce, the RB.211, which would use a triple-spool design and carbon fiber fan blade to give unparalled performance. Unfortunately, such advanced technology meant equally large risks, which soon came back to haunt Lockheed and Rolls-Royce. In particular, the development of the RB.211 was enormously difficult for Rolls-Royce, with the entire engine project, but especially the extremely advanced carbon-fiber fan blade, straining their engineering capabilities to the limit. The company nearly fell into receivership due to the costs incurred while developing the engines, but fortunately bureaucrats overseeing Rolls-Royce's defense and space projects detected discrepancies in the firm's account-keeping, leading to a change in management and a massive government bailout for the company, with bankruptcy or nationalization only narrowly averted. Meanwhile, Lockheed was suffering its own issues as concurrent L-1011, C-5, and AH-56 development programs strained the firm's resources enormously. As with Rolls-Royce, Lockheed was forced to seek aid from the government. As a vital defense contractor, though, that aid was readily available, and development of the TriStar, as the L-1011 had become known, continued without interruption.

    The prototype first took to the air in mid-1970, and the type was finally ready for full-scale production in mid-1971, just a few months behind its Long Beach rival in the trijet market. Immediately, a fierce competition emerged between McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed to sell their aircraft. Lockheed quickly scored successes in the projected "airbus" market, selling the L-1011 to a number of airlines both in the US and abroad interested in relatively short-range but high-capacity flights; however, weight problems and the protracted development of the RB.211 engine limited the aircraft's long-range capabilities, allowing Douglas' DC-10 to gain strength in that market, assisted by GE's development of a new, more powerful version of the CF6 used to power the aircraft. Lockheed and Rolls-Royce immediately responded with the Weight Improvement Program, which would lighten existing TriStars and implement a new -100 standard for future construction, a new L-1011-200 specially designed to maximize range, and the RB.211-350, with even greater thrust than the original. By mid 1973 this had borne fruit, with the first -200s rolling off the assembly line in a direct challenge to the DC-10-30. Once again, Lockheed had matched McDonnell Douglas blow-for-blow, although they had not established a decisive advantage; indeed, through the 1970s both companies intensively competed for the same market niche, cutting prices and increasing capabilities in a fine demonstration of the value of free markets to their customers. One month, Lockheed had won the coveted contract for a series of Japanese internal "airbuses"[1]; the next, McDonnell Douglas had won a major sale to Air France, supplementing their new Concordes and 747s for long-range transport. For the manufacturers, however, the news was not so bright, as there was only a limited pool of airlines willing to buy either craft, and their competitors, both the established Boeing and the new Airbus, were beginning to eat into that pool. At the same time, unlike their competitors, they did not enjoy dominance in other market sectors to support them, relying instead on military and governmental contracts that were beginning to feel increasingly limited for support. However, despite the economic downturn of the beginning of the decade and the oil crisis that followed it, both were enjoying the beginnings of commercial success for their flagship aircraft, with both the L-1011 and the DC-10 selling at a reasonably brisk rate. Although Lockheed did seize on the highly publicized safety issues of the DC-10 to promote the TriStar, with some success, McDonnell Douglas quickly recovered from the setback. By the end of the 1970s, if neither competitor was doing quite so well as they had hoped at the beginning of the decade, they at least were both staying afloat, and ready to start a new round of competition, even as Boeing and Airbus were doing their best to break both firms.

    In this environment, Lockheed announced that it had begun work on its follow-ons to the L-1011: the 1011-600, with extensive avionics upgrades including a full glass cockpit and fly-by-wire[2], and the L-1012, a version with many of the same fuselage and wing structures but only two engines instead of the TriStar's three, positioned to compete with the Boeing 767 and 757, and with the Airbus A300 and A310. As with the original TriStar, the family would be technically ambitious, with Lockheed focusing on integrating the increasingly advanced and capable computer technology that had been developed over the 1970s into the aircraft. As with the TriStar, the autopilot would--theoretically--be entirely capable of flying the aircraft from takeoff to touchdown with no human intervention whatsoever. More than that, however, it would be able to constantly optimize the aircraft's position and throttle settings in flight, saving fuel and reducing wear and tear on the aircraft's components, while at the same time monitoring all of those components for failure and warning the flight crew or maintenance personnel as necessary, increasing the amount of time that the TriStar could spend in the air, making money, rather than sitting in a hanger, spending it. Most ambitiously, Lockheed hoped that a combination of fly-by-wire and glass cockpit would make flying the BiStar and TriStar virtually identical on the flight deck--to the point where both could be issued a single type certificate, for the purpose of pilot training. This would mean that pilots could easily be transferred from BiStar to TriStar service and back, without needing to spend an excessive amount of time training and maintaining their skills on one or the other aircraft, thus giving operators of both a significant operational advantage. Finally, the TriStar and BiStar would, for the first time, gain multiple engine options, including the popular General Electric CF6, and would see a number of other more minor upgrades. Lockheed also began studies on developing a freighter or combi version of the L-1011 to compete with the DC-10 in the transport business, which accelerated after the successful conversion of several retired TriStars to serve the Royal Air Force in the tanker/cargo transport role after the Falklands War. While several TriStar operators signed on to be launch customers of the -600 and the BiStar, sales to other airlines proved slow, not helped by the inability of the flight control software to make flying both aircraft quite as similar as Lockheed had originally hoped. However, as deliveries began, orders began gradually to pick up, helped by an improving economic situation, falling oil prices, and gradually increasing appreciation for the advanced features of the family in the airline business world. By the end of the decade, Lockheed was moving from strength to strength, enjoying success not only in its airliner division but also in its space and military businesses, and setting near-record income levels and profits.

    In the meantime, McDonnell Douglas' airliner division was beginning to suffer badly from intense competition, with the Lockheed jets, the Boeing 767, and the Airbus A300 chipping away at its high-end DC-10, and the 737, A320, and a spectrum of newly-introduced regional jets competing with the DC-9 and its new MD-80 variant in the smaller and shorter-range market. Nevertheless, buoyed by a series of major military contracts and an improving general economy, the aerospace firm began work on the MD-11, a massively upgraded version of the company's flagship DC-10, together with further upgrades to the venerable but still competitive DC-9. Unfortunately for the firm, development suffered from a lack of clear vision among the corporation's higher-ups about the purpose of the upgrade--was it to reduce operating costs? Increase passenger comfort? Increase payload and range? All of those? None of those?--that led to repeated emphasis changes in the MD-11 development program, and repeated delays and budget overruns. By the time the MD-11's design finally stabilized, the L-1011-600 was beginning production, and several customers switched their orders to the Lockheed aircraft rather than continue to wait on McDonnell Douglas. By the time the MD-11 started production, manufacturers and operators of twinjets had persuaded international air safety bodies to adopt new rules for the operation of their aircraft over water. While in the past reliability concerns had limited those aircraft to remaining near the shore, in case of engine failure, modern engines had shown that they could be operated continuously for long periods of time with few operational issues, rendering the older rules anachronistic and obsolete. The result was a relaxation of what soon came to be called the ETOPS rules, allowing twinjets to travel up to 90 minutes away from the nearest emergency field. Although twinjets were still barred from many major transatlantic and transpacific routes as a result, the days of the trijet were clearly numbered, as their chief commercial justification had become their ability to fly long international routes that the twinjets could not, and for less money and wasted capacity than a 747. Twinjets, however, were cheaper still, and if they could fly the same routes as the trijets, then the question arose: What purpose did trijets have, after all? In such an environment, even more carriers chose to annul their orders of MD-11s and purchase L-1012s, 767s, or A300s instead. In the short term, the company was hanging in, as McDonnell had won several major military contracts, including the C-17 and F-15E projects, and its Delta 4000 was a linchpin of national space launch capability. However, by the late 1980s the pressure was clearly on as a harsh competitive environment continually weakened the firm's position, and McDonnell’s executives considered increasingly desperate measures to retain the company’s profitability.

    [1]: This contract was won by the 747 OTL; therefore, the JAL Flight 123 crash is certainly butterflied.

    [2]: AFAICT, Lockheed heavily pushed the state-of-the-art in avionics on the original L-1011. It is reasonable to assume that they would do so with continuing major models, and the early 1980s is juuust about as early as a glass cockpit and fly-by-wire could be implemented in civil aviation (see the MD-80, introduced in 1979; the A310, introduced 1982; and the 737-400/500/600 family, introduced 1984, OTL).
    Part II: Post 19: Galileo and the Giant, Exploration of Jupiter
  • Well, I hope everyone is having a good New Year! 2012 has been an amazing year for me, I've gotten to see a lot of things happen that I'd been waiting a long time for, both in my personal life, my professional career (well, to the extent that I can have one pre-graduation), and in the field of spaceflight. The pictures of Dragon berthing and the videos of Grasshopper...they give me chills, even on the tenth viewing. And next year...there's a bunch more where all that came from. But me rambling about my life isn't why you came to this thread, is it? Well, you're in luck, then, because it's that time again. When we last left the exploration of the Outer Planets, the four Voyager probes had completed their Grand Tour, flying by every major body in the outer solar system. However, a fly-by is only the beginning. To really learn in-depth, you have to get into orbit, and with that in mind we turn the focus of Eyes this week to the King of Planets, Jupiter.

    Also, to briefly turn back to my ramblings before the post proper, a production update: work is now proceeding on both Part III and the couple of posts left to be written for Part II, to the extent that it's a bit of a minefield to navigate the Google Drive we use--I keep pulling up the documents for Part III when I want their Part II equivalents. That's just anecdotal, but things are coming along, and we should have a pretty smooth schedule through the end of this part, and we're hoping for a relatively short haitus. That last part will depend a lot, though, on how much we can power through over the rest of break. Anyway, without further digression...1076 replies, 132871 views

    Eyes Turned Skyward, Part II: Post #19

    The exploration of the Jovian system was in no way completed by the Voyager missions. Even before the first Voyager climbed off the pad--indeed, before the first Mariner had been launched--the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Ames Research Center had been studying the logical next step to the flyby missions of the Pioneers and Voyagers; an orbiter designed to survive for years in close proximity to Jupiter, touring the moons and dropping a probe into its atmosphere to directly explore it. Over time, the designs developed by these two centers merged into a single probe, built by both Ames and JPL, which was finally approved in 1976, just after the successful touchdown of Viking 1 on Mars and the consequent (though short-lived) burst of enthusiasm for planetary exploration. Along with the Hubble Space Telescope and the Kirchhoff comet probe, it would be a "cornerstone" mission of the 1980s, and would not coincidentally define the design of a new upper stage being developed by the Lewis Research Center to allow NASA to retire its Titan IIIE fleet from service. It had always been intended that the Titan IIIE be an interim vehicle, with a new version of the venerable Centaur being developed by the Lewis Research Center, responsible for the original Centaur design, to allow the Saturn IC to serve as both the primary crew and probe launch vehicle for the 1980s and beyond. However, through most of the 1970s advocates of the "Big Centaur" and "Little Centaur" had been carrying out a constant battle over which concept would better serve NASA's needs, with "Big Centaur" supporters pointing to improved performance and "Little Centaur" promoters favoring simpler development. The needs of Kirchhoff and Galileo were such that the "Little Centaur" could not possibly provide them, finally providing the momentum needed for "Big Centaur," or Centaur E (as it became known) to win out and begin development. With an increased hydrogen tank diameter, Centaur E would be capable of directly inserting Kirchhoff into a heliocentric orbit, and sending Galileo directly to Jupiter. In a historical irony, Centaur had nearly been cancelled due to Saturn; now, it would bring to its zenith Saturn's capability for launching interplanetary missions.

    With launch vehicle defined and program approval, the Galileo team buckled down to work. A joint project of Ames and JPL, Galileo would be managed by the latter, although the former would be responsible for the particle and fields instruments and the planetary probe, due to their great experience with both in the Pioneer program. Galileo would take full advantage of the technology developed for the Pioneer 10/11 and Voyager missions, particularly in the realm of hardened electronics, necessary for survival in the Jovian environment, but also in more mundane areas such as the CCD imagers developed for Voyager-Uranus, significantly modified for greater radiation resilience and higher quality images for use aboard Galileo. The greatest technical difficulty encountered during development was the probe, which would have to survive an incredibly hostile entry environment, sometimes compared to entering the Earth's atmosphere directly through a nuclear fireball, although the orbiter's complex spin-despin bus design, together with its large instrument suite and the exceedingly hostile near-Jovian environment added their own difficulties. Despite this, the main problems faced by Galileo were all financial, as the Reagan administration attempted to cut planetary science budgets and forced a delay in launch, already behind due to development difficulties, from 1983 to 1984. Despite being "all-American" and therefore without significant international components unlike its main competitors for research dollars, its advanced state of development and the defense implications present in any spacecraft which could survive nuclear fireballs or Jupiter's intense radiation fields protected it against further budget cuts, and it was able to proceed to its new launch date on schedule. The first launch of the Saturn-Centaur in early March sent Galileo speeding out towards Jupiter, with no difficulties experienced in deploying the high-gain antenna and performing initial post launch activities. For the next three years, Galileo explored nothing but interplanetary space, doing little other than collecting particles and fields data in a little-explored region of the Solar System and conducting occasional engineering tests as it slowly climbed towards the king of the planets. At last, in mid-1987 events began to speed up as Galileo close in on Jupiter, releasing its probe some five months before encounter, then performing a maneuver to ensure it did not follow the probe into Jupiter's atmosphere. As it got closer and closer, it detected modulation of the solar wind by the increasingly nearby Jovian magnetosphere, then the planet's influence itself. At the same time, the level of detail its cameras could resolve on Jupiter reached and then exceeded the best images possible from ground-based or Earth-orbiting telescopes. Finally, it was Arrival Day.

    Streaking in at 60 km/s, the probe impacted Jupiter south of its equator, slamming into the planet like a subcompact hitting a speeding semitrailer. At that, however, it was lucky, as the winds at its entry point were blowing away from it, reducing by nearly a fifth its effective entry velocity. Nevertheless, as it entered the atmosphere over half of the heat shield burned away and acceleration peaked at over 250g, enough to quickly kill anyone on board. As a robot, however, the probe stoically endured its sentence, ejecting its heat shield and deploying its parachute just under three minutes after first encountering the atmosphere. As its instruments began collecting data, they immediately noted the presence of a thick ammonia cloud deck. Although only a few minutes passed before the probe had passed through and out into clearer skies, soon afterwards it entered another thick cloud deck, this time composed of ammonium hydrosulfide. As it continued to descend, it collected data on the density, pressure, and temperature of the Jovian atmosphere, along with recording multiple powerful lightning strikes in the surrounding clouds, suggesting intense and highly active storms. Fortunately, the probe itself was not struck by lightning during the descent! Over twenty minutes after entering the atmosphere for the first time, the probe encountered the expected water cloud layer, the thickest and most active of all. In fact, the clouds through which the probe passed were so thick and active that initially many scientists seriously questioned standard models of Jovian formation, suggesting that the planet might have a massive, icy core from which the evidently high volatile content of the planet’s atmosphere might have been liberated by the planet's extreme heat. Imaging by Galileo and Earth-based telescopes of the probe's entry site, however, revealed that the probe had passed through a powerful storm, a "white spot" near a zone-belt boundary. Like dropping a probe into an Earthly hurricane or cyclone and then trying to extrapolate to the rest of the Earth's atmosphere, this would give a highly distorted picture of typical conditions and compositions in Jupiter's atmosphere, with the unusual Galileo probe results being nothing more than that, unusual. While the probe itself was descending, however, all this was far in the future, and it cleared the water cloud layer several minutes later. Through the now-clear skies it continued to fall for nearly half an hour more, before finally the rising temperature caused the radio transmitter on board to fail. Eventually, the probe melted, then vaporized from the increasingly high temperature of the interior, becoming one with the planet.

    While all this was going on, the orbiter waited, patiently retransmitting everything the probe beamed back to Earth while its own tape recorder carried data from the moon flybys it had performed before the probe's entry into Jupiter. At last, once the probe ceased transmitting, the orbiter began preparations for its Jupiter orbital insertion burn, located near the bottom of Jupiter's gravity well and therefore perfectly positioned for using the Oberth effect to maximum effect. While diminutive compared to the F-1A that had driven it aloft, the engine propelling Galileo could and would burn for nearly an hour to complete its mission, slowing Galileo enough for Jupiter to capture it, allowing Galileo to finally begin its primary mission. Galileo would sling around the Jovian system, repeatedly visiting the outer three Galilean moons even while observing the planet itself and the environment around it. During these flybys, Galileo confirmed the impression of Voyager researchers that Europa might have a subsurface ocean, providing strong evidence that not only was that the case, but some mechanism coupling the ocean and surface existed to resmooth the surface, eliminating hints of impact craters and making Europa look nearly as resurfaced as Earth or Io. Besides this, Galileo made the surprising discovery that both Ganymede and Callisto, the outermost and seemingly least active of the Galilean bodies, also possessed subsurface oceans, although located far deeper within their crusts than Europa's. In addition, the interaction of Ganymede with the powerful Jovian magnetic field showed that it had a core of metal, similar to the Earth, capable of creating a magnetic field in its own right. As with the earlier Voyager missions, Galileo was showing that the icy moons of the outer solar system were far more active and dynamic bodies than had previously been suspected. The same was true of Jupiter, as high-resolution imagery and videos made by the orbiter showed a welter of fine atmospheric details impossible to make out in Voyager or Pioneer imagery. Especially in combination with Voyager results, Galileo was able to show that, like Earth's atmosphere, the visible layers of Jupiter undergo significant long-term and seasonal changes, with major variation in cloudtop wind speeds, temperature distribution, and the fine structure of even long-lived storms and weather features.

    The second phase of Galileo's mission was the extended mission. Free of the constraints imposed by the primary phase, and with a bevy of preliminary results to guide them, scientists could choose the most interesting available targets for study. While many proposals were made during the primary mission and even the transit phase, in the end, there was only one choice: Fire and Ice (as NASA promoted it). Or rather, a series of flybys of Europa from a variety of angles and altitudes, designed to probe the many intriguing aspects of the moon's icy crust, followed by close flybys of volcanic Io to further characterize not only the moon itself but also the surrounding space. A series of radiation-induced faults prevented data return from several passes, and limited the operation of several instruments on others, but the spacecraft was able to work through them with the aid of its handlers back on Earth and return a great deal of information about Europa, including a considerable amount of data supporting the ocean hypothesis, data that seemed to constrain the thickness of the crust, and data about the deep interior of the moon, below the ocean. Additionally, the probe collected data about Jupiter's atmosphere, which when compared to Voyager data and earlier Galileo data allowed the first analyses of Jupiter's seasonal cycle, and observations of the other Galilean moons. Later in the first extended mission period, just prior to the planned Io flyby, it also dipped increasingly deep into the Jovian magnetic field, exploring regions closer and closer to the planet that had previously just been browsed while also making relatively close flybys of Callisto and Ganymede to assist in lowering its orbit so that it could pass by Io. Finally, during the two close flybys of Io, Galileo returned the first ultra-high resolution imagery of the moon's surface, confirming the existence of silicate lavas on Io and providing information on Io's magnetic field during the second, polar pass. Unfortunately, radiation damage caused further issues with Galileo's systems and it was unable to return all the planned data from this series of flybys either. Meanwhile, Galileo's instruments had been collecting vast amounts of data about the electromagnetic and particle environment around Jupiter, recording how the planet responded to variations in solar behavior, and thereby providing a unique and impossible to duplicate perspective on the Sun.

    The most exciting and unfortunately the last phase of Galileo's mission came about by chance during early 1992. During routine engineering test imagery of the space around Jupiter, the probe detected an object showing a distinct coma in one of its starfields. Interested, the imaging team scheduled further imagery of roughly the same area of space, hoping to catch the comet again and begin orbital calculations. These observations duly confirmed the discovery, and the comet was recorded by the International Astronomical Union's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams as Comet 1992d, then Comet Galileo. It was quickly realized that Comet Galileo was no ordinary comet. In particular, it seemed to be orbiting Jupiter, not the Sun, something which had been predicted but never before seen, and by itself enough to inspire curiosity about the object. Furthermore, it was calculated that in July the comet would make a very close pass to Jupiter, possibly within the planet's Roche limit. If this occurred, the comet might break up from the stresses, something never before observed. While certainly interested, the Galileo science team made only a secondary effort to observe the flyby, as it was much too late to significantly change the probe's orbital behavior to ensure optimal coverage. Nevertheless, the probe was able to image the comet's close pass to Jupiter and its subsequent fragmentation, along with the Hubble Space Telescope and a number of other Earth-based observatories. This, however, was just the beginning, for after the comet broke up during the close pass revised orbital calculations showed that it would not merely make a close flyby in 1994, but instead the remains of the body would plunge into Jupiter itself. This sent the scientific value from "unprecedented" to "incalculable," as Comet Galileo was so large that it might be centuries or millennia before another such event occurred. Besides that, the 1980s had seen a great deal of speculation on the importance of cometary and asteroid impacts on the history of the Solar System, most prominently the theory that a large body had hit the Earth 65 million years earlier and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Actually observing such an impact could help constrain such theories by providing data about what really happened during such impacts. Furthermore, it was possible that the comet fragments might punch holes in the upper atmosphere large enough for Galileo to collect data about lower atmospheric levels, previously only explored briefly by the Galileo probe. Altogether, whatever plans for the extended mission had existed prior to 1992 no longer mattered, with the utmost importance instead being that Galileo would be in position to watch the fragments as they impacted, something which would not be possible from any other platform in the solar system. When the time came in 1994, Galileo was ready, and provided a spectacular front-row seat not just to scientists, but to the entire world, which had become fascinated by the impending plunge into Jupiter. While some of the more extreme suggested outcomes did not occur, the observation of gigantic fireballs and huge, dusty scars easily visible from Earth and persisting for months in the Jovian atmosphere lent an ominous plausibility to tales of impactors devastating Earth and causing the collapse of global civilization. After completing the return of its impact data to Earth, Galileo's orbit was reshaped to intersect Jupiter itself on its next perijove, to avoid possibly contaminating Europa's global ocean with Terran organisms. In a fiery plunge into the atmosphere, it--very briefly--continued the scientific mission its own probe had carried out some eight years earlier, reporting on the conditions of Jupiter's upper atmosphere, near-Jovian magnetic and electric fields, and the charged particle environment very close to Jupiter until it finally failed in the heat and stresses of Jovian entry.
    Part II: Post 20: Spacelab 28 Investigation and Spacelab End-Of-Mission
  • Well, it's that time again! (Okay, fine, it's a little past that time again--I overslept.) Last week, we covered the Galileo probe. This week, we're returning our attention to human spaceflight. You may recall that when we last left, the Russians were preparing to launch their Mir station, while the Americans had just suffered a serious failure of the Spacelab 28 mission. So, without further ado, I give you...1085 replies, 134,816 views

    Eyes Turned Skyward, Part II: Post 20

    Even as recovery efforts for the aborted Spacelab 28 launch were still underway, with the capsule being lifted aboard the recovery boat Liberty Star, preparation was already underway for the inevitable investigation. In accordance with NASA standard practice, the doors of the Mission Control Center in Houston were locked while all data pertaining to the flight could be properly archived for the impending investigation. Similar efforts were begun by the end of the day at Kennedy Space Center and manufacturing centers at Marshall and Michoud, and the Administrator officially filed a memo by the end of the day appointing what would come to be known as the Spacelab 28 Review Board [1]. September 19th, 1986 was a Friday, and much of the agency had been looking forward to the weekend. Instead, agency and contractor employees worked through the weekend to collate manufacturing records, processing paperwork, photographs, video, inspection reports, and launch telemetry for the board to use in reconstructing the entire history of the flight. As the investigation began to get organized and with little to tell the press in the meantime, NASA public affairs did its best to deflect attention to the success of the crew escape system, and avoid too much public fallout.

    While the scope of the investigation was being defined, the implications for operations were already being explored. Spacelab 27 had been due to return to Earth near the end of September, both to allow the traditional “hand-over” period for the Spacelab 28 crew, and for recovery flotilla assets to be transferred from positions used to support the launch to those used for a nominal landing. Even if a second booster and crew could be made ready, the concerns of the investigation cast doubt on the safety of another crew launching before the causes of Spacelab 28’s failure were entirely understood. Instead, the crew of Spacelab 27 began the process of making the station suitable for a potentially extended period between missions. Experiments that required active intervention or excessive power were shut down, while others were setup for remote monitoring. Station systems were configured for ground control, non-essential systems were shutdown to prevent faults and minimize power use, transfer hatches were closed between modules to prevent any damage to the station from compromising the entire pressure volume, and medical supplies and rations that required careful preservation to prevent decay or spoilage were transferred to the station’s Aardvark for pre-emptive disposal. The Spacelab 27 crew’s time on station was extended by two weeks to allow the time required to prepare the station, but finally on October 6th, the crew departed the station, breaking a streak of continuous manned operations for the station lasting since the arrival of Spacelab 4 in November 1978.

    By the end of October, the shape of the Spacelab 28 failure had become clear, or at least the portion taking place after the 2:35 PM ignition of the main engine and the subsequent launch. The booster’s inertial guidance system had been matched against ground radar, and verified to have been functioning correctly. Moreover, the commands sent to the engine’s gimbal assemblies from the booster’s computers had also been confirmed—it was simply that the gimbal had not answered them. Pressure to actuate the engine’s thrust vector system was provided from high-pressure kerosene tapped from the engine’s turbo pump, routed via a single valve controller to actuators for pitch and yaw. Due to either a mechanical or electronic failure of the valve controller midflight, the pressure in the lines to the actuators had fallen below levels required for operation, freezing the gimbal off-axis and leading to the loss of the vehicle. Similar valves were pulled from other stockpiled boosters for examination and testing, and inspection reports for the suspect valve assembly were reviewed from its initial manufacture through component testing, integration into the engine, testing of the stage. All efforts were aimed at tracing reasons the assembly might have failed, and why the failure was not caught before flight. It was discovered that the assembly had passed all inspections. When the assemblies from the stockpiled boosters were tested, all passed initial inspections and several function checks, but one failed the tests when repeated. Disassembly revealed that particulates had managed to infiltrate the assembly, and frozen the valve. Disassembly of all the units revealed that another had the same infiltration, but not enough to freeze the valve. The infiltration had been undetectable except by disassembly, and the freezing was apparently only caused by either extended operations, or agitation of the valve—which the shaking of the rocket on ascent had more than provided. The particulates were discovered to have entered the valves through ports which had been inadequately sealed. However, as the seal was up to procedural standards, the checklist for removing the stages from storage had been met. Additionally, since the valve could function before finally freezing, the initial function tests at Kennedy’s incoming inspection had been met. The initial stockpiled stages, which had been given more thorough inspections, had also not shown the particulates, which turned out to be related to construction work at Michoud begun after those initial stages were shipped to the Cape, and which had managed to make their way from the production floor areas which were undergoing conversion to the overflow storage areas that had been used for the stockpile.

    After the detective work of establishing the cause was completed in early November, the resolution was simple: the seals would be reviewed, as well as storage of the stockpile at Michoud. The suspect valve assemblies could be replaced outright from new-build units intended originally for Multibody--while some changes had been made to the guidance systems, they did not extend to the level of the actual actuators. Thus, the “go” was given to continue processing on the Spacelab 29 mission, which had been on hold pending the results of the investigation. Thanks to work done to continue training the crew, including the required re-start procedures for the station and the dedication of the ground handling staff at Kennedy, they were able to resume processing, aimed at the same January launch window they would have been targeting without the failure.

    With the stand-down of Saturn IC, the ongoing investigation, and the de-manning of Spacelab, the American program was particularly challenged to respond to ongoing Soviet advances. Spacelab’s (temporary) shutdown left Salyut 7 the only operational station in orbit, while the end of October saw the maiden launch of a multicore rocket, as the tri-core Vulkan-Herakles lofted a massive demonstration payload to orbit. In actuality, the payload was intended to be a demonstrator for exactly the kind of massive orbital weapons platform that the American SDI was aimed to match and counter, but an error in the coding of the station’s powerup routines unintentionally sent a signal, intended for safing on the ground, which “locked out” the entire attitude control system during startup instead of activating it. The lockout was not merely electronic but physical, and irreversible without manual intervention. With the vehicle uncontrollable and in a lower than intended orbit which would decay long before any mission could be staged to intervene, the Soviets found it convenient to pass it off as a ballasted demonstration payload, with limited instrumentation to monitor orbital position and thus the success of the rocket.This (apparent) success of Vulkan contrasted sharply against the continuing doldrums of the American program, as exemplified in the public eye by the “retreat from orbit” in the wake of Spacelab 28. Congressional hearings were convened on the state of the Freedom program, potential availability of Multibody, and the investigation into the Spacelab 28 launch accident, but it was clear that the Soviets would not simply wait for the Americans to catch up to their feats. In February, a second Vulkan-Herakles carried the first MOK module of Mir into orbit. Half of the on-orbit Salyut 7 crew transferred to the station by TKS, while the other three remained to see to deactivating the older station, and preparing it for its fiery retirement. Once MOK 1’s successful activation was confirmed, the last crew of Salyut 7 departed, and the the station’s control thrusters were used one last time to send it into an unstable orbit and eventually to a breakup over the waters of the Indian Ocean. The “interim” station had served for 5 years, almost double the life intended when Glushko conceived it, but it had taught the Soviets many lessons which would hopefully streamline Mir’s construction and operation.

    Meanwhile, in the United States, the preparations for Multibody were finally bearing fruit. The first Multibody core was acceptance-tested in March, on-schedule for a maiden flight later in the year. Production of the Apollo Block IV’s augmented Mission Module and the enhanced Block II Aardvark was also moving ahead at Rockwell’s facilities. On orbit, though, things were less rosy. When Spacelab 29 arrived at the station February 15, 1987, they discovered that the three months of quiescence had exacerbated several previously noted issues. Some were minor, such as failed sensors in old experiment racks or minor wiring issues. Others were more serious, as with the fans that circulated air from the main OWS into the lab annex (the adapted LOX tank). These fans had been balky for years, and the period of inactivity lead to a total breakdown of one of the two redundant blowers. There was no immediate risk as long as the second was still functional, but it too had already been experiencing minor but persistent problems, creating significant concerns about air in the lab annex stagnating and becoming over-saturated with carbon dioxide. In the end, with the assistance and ingenuity of engineers of the ground, the crew of Spacelab 29 was able to retrofit a replacement intended for the ERM’s links to the main environmental control/life-support system (ECLSS) to bypass and replace the failed unit. However, the station was definitely beginning to show the near-decade since its launch in 1978. More and more crew time on Spacelab 29, 30, and 31 was spent on ensuring the operational capabilities of the station were sufficient, with correspondingly less time available for the station’s scientific facilities. Moreover, with the station’s end-of-mission approaching rapidly (Spacelab 32 was to be the last to fly to the station, with de-orbit to follow around January of 1988), the number of new experiments began to fall off dramatically, as most investigators were more interested in fighting for space aboard Freedom than in spending effort on experiments with such a short potential life. Instead, the focus was on concluding the experiments already onboard and conducting tests to prepare for Freedom, including tests of new space suits. Johnson and Ames had continued parallel work on new suit designs, with Ames creating the AX-4 hardsuit, and Johnson developing the A9, a “semi-rigid” suit derived from the existing Apollo-heritage A7L. Prototypes of both suits had been tested on the ground, on “Vomit Comet” flights, and in vacuum chambers, but for final testing functional models of both suits were flown to Spacelab and put to use in EVA trials in November 1987. For both suits, the principal design goals were to achieve a higher operating pressure, allowing a reduction in the pre-breathe time needed before each EVA, and to allow a “one-size fits (nearly) all” capability, rather than the customized tailoring needed for each A7L. By using a generic design, most components could easily be swapped between suits, with only smaller components like the gloves needing to be fit for any specific user. Thus, the main components of the chosen suit could be left on-station, instead of requiring change-out every flight. Two astronauts acted as test subjects, selected to put the versatility of the suits’ fit to the test: rookie pilot Chris Valente (a member of Astronaut Group 10, the class of 1983) and veteran spacewalker Peggy Barnes. As part of the several days of EVAs carried out during trials, Barnes set new records for lifetime total spacewalk time. The two noted that the A9 put in a solid performance, and matched the mobility of the existing A7L for both astronauts. While the mobility of the AX-4 was a notable improvement over the A7L and the A9, the suits’ constant-volume design proved less adaptable for the two users over extended periods in microgravity and vacuum. Despite padding inside the suit, Barnes would note that the mobility increases were more than countered by what was referred to in the final report as “intolerable chafing,” a considerably less colorful evaluation than Barnes’ original comments. Some of the issues had been noted in ground testing, but the extended duration in microgravity exacerbated problems that had been less apparent during ground trials. Thus, the A9 became the suit of choice for Space Station Freedom.

    However, the most significant preparation for Freedom operations conducted with Spacelab came in November 1987, and would be the last contribution of Spacelab to the birth of its successor. After months of work, the first VAB cell and mobile launch platform adaptations for Multibody had been completed in July, and the cell was “stood up” to support the inaugural launch of the Saturn M02. Bearing AARDV-14, the last of the Block I Aardvark supply craft, it launched from from the Cape November 18th. Thanks in part to the procedural revisions resulting from the Spacelab 28 Accident Review Board, the launch was flawless. Additionally, the launch preparation flow incorporated many suggestions from years of experience with Saturn IC that would hopefully reduce the time and effort required to prepare Multibody family launchers. This not only promised reduced costs in “touch labor” during preparation, but a faster processing cycle that would hopefully ease pressures that the Freedom assembly schedule might otherwise cause. Spacelab 32’s reduced three-man crew eagerly awaited the launch, and greeted the craft on-orbit. The mission commander was Don Hunt, whose arm had finally healed from his injuries sustained during Spacelab 29 and who had received the honor of being the last commander of the station. After the crew made the final preparations, including using racks installed in place of the outboard two seats to remove some of the original 1978-vintage experimental equipment and station control systems for analysis of the effects of a decade in space, the crew stood by for a decommissioning ceremony to see off the station, removing the U.S. pennant which had been flown during the Spacelab 2 mission, along with flags of several other nations who had flown to the station. The crew then retired to their Apollo, with Hunt being the last to board, and departed. After their recovery, AARDV-14’s thrusters were fired (using excess fuel that the M02’s mass margin had allowed) to send the station to a fiery death over the Indian ocean. With the requirements of Spacelab support removed, the final modifications to Kennedy Space Center followed in short order. The remaining VAB cells and MLP were stood up, and preparations began in January 1988 for the maiden launch of the Saturn Heavy later that year.

    [1] This is standard NASA practice. Challenger was an exception IOTL with its Presidential Commission, largely due to the public nature of the failure and the deaths of the crew. With Spacelab 28’s crew safely on the ground, like Apollo 13 before it, Spacelab 28 receives an in-agency investigation.
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    Part II: Post 21: The Hubble Space Telescope
  • Well, it's that time once again. Last week, we covered launch operations up to the retirement of Spacelab and Salyut 7. This week, though, we're jumping back a tiny bit to one of the most important single payloads of the 80s: the Hubble Space Telescope. The eagle-eyed among you might note that this post is going up a bit early, but that's both good and bad news. I've been having a serious computer issue that's been preventing me from being able to make progress on pulling images of my models for the assembly posts about Mir and Freedom. That's supposed to be next week's post, but if I can't get it ready, we may have to slip. I've been proud of not having to until now, and we're doing our best to avoid it, but we may be forced to. Anyway, I wanted to note that possibility. 1121 comments, 137649 views

    Eyes Turned Skyward, Part II: Post 21

    By the early 1970s, after a round of preliminary studies examining the space telescope concept, Goddard and Marshall had emerged as the principal competitors to lead the Large Space Telescope program. While the interest of Goddard, which was managing the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory program and had a substantial staff astronomer population, in the next generation of space telescopes was obvious, Marshall’s interest was perhaps more surprising in light of its traditional role as developer of rockets and rocket engines. The essential problem that led Marshall leadership to become interested in the telescope was that of Marshall’s future. Since the glory days of the mid-1960s, Marshall’s budget and staff had collapsed, falling dramatically over the past several years, while rumors circulated that the center might even be closed if more aggressive budget cutters within the Administration or Congress had their way. Despite the beginning of the Spacelab and Saturn IC programs, which promised to provide Marshall with jobs for many years to come, the center’s management, together with Headquarters leadership, therefore felt that the center was still vulnerable, and needed additional projects to justify its continued existence. By contrast, Goddard was busy with the Orbiting Astronomical and Orbiting Geophysical Observatories, together with a bevy of other more minor programs, and was perhaps even oversubscribed, leading its management to be complacent and inactive in “selling” Goddard as the program’s lead center. Nevertheless, there were strong counterarguments against Marshall becoming the lead center. Unlike Goddard, Marshall had little experience with space observatories, surely a disadvantage considering the limited budgets on the horizon for the remainder of the 1970s, and had a well-known reputation for gold-plating and going over budget. Furthermore, while at the moment Marshall was suffering badly from falling budgets and limited staffing, by the late 1970s, when most of the actual work for the telescope would be taking place, the situations at Goddard and Marshall would be reversed; the former, its main programs of the moment having ended, would be casting about for work while the latter would be increasingly occupied with Spacelab and Saturn IC operations and construction. Therefore, in late 1972 Goddard Space Flight Center was selected to manage the overall Large Space Telescope program, mainly in order to centralize the program in anticipation of the beginning of Phase B planning that year and an overall program start in three to four years.[1]

    The selection of Goddard as lead center proved to be program-defining, as the center had developed a conception of the Large Space Telescope as an evolutionary development from prior space telescope programs, especially the OAOs.[2] Nowhere was this demonstrated more clearly than in the draft telescope program the center developed shortly after its selection as lead center, where the Large Space Telescope would be gradually developed via a series of intermediate steps taking full advantage of technologies and designs developed for the OAOs. Although a quick casualty of NASA’s budget pressures, the draft program was nevertheless indicative of Goddard’s attitude towards the project, an attitude which would go on to shape its future management in deep ways. In the short-term, an evolutionary program offered obvious ways of cutting costs, increasingly the top priority in the minds of Headquarters management concerned with fitting NASA into the tight box dictated by Congress and the President. Rather than develop entirely new systems and technologies, or even in some cases new parts, those developed for prior programs could be reused and repurposed, taking advantage of already funded development and testing to avoid otherwise inevitable expenses. This extended even to the notion that the telescope could dispense with many of the usual prototypes, given the proven nature of much of the equipment and technology used. Instead, the telescope itself would be the prototype, subject to the necessary tests to determine its overall functionality.[3] The entire concept of protoflight, as this idea of “use the flight telescope as the prototype” was known, depended critically on the design already having been proven. Hence, when it came time to select the lead contractor, Grumman’s experience on the OAOs, being used as the conceptual basis of the space telescope design, gave them a significant leg up on the competition. Although Lockheed and Boeing both put forth strong efforts themselves, the combination of Grumman’s experience in the field and Goddard’s own, mostly positive experiences with Grumman ensured their selection as spacecraft contractor.[4]

    Even as the telescope gradually became more and more defined, though, difficulties were arising with its support among astronomers. The problem was one of clashing cultures between Goddard and the astronomical community. Optical astronomers had long been accustomed to working alone or in small groups, with almost total control over telescopic observations, even to the point of designing and assembling their telescopes themselves. Although the growth of apertures since the early part of the 20th century meant that astronomers no longer directly built new telescopes, they still maintained a habit of fierce control over “their” instruments and substantial freedom to create “their” observation programs. By contrast, Goddard was used to a more engineering-focused, “Big Science” approach where scientists might design and build instruments for a spacecraft, but engineers, technicians, and other experts would, of necessity, be in charge of the detailed design and construction, along with operations once in orbit. While scientists certainly had input into the operations program, their concerns were often subordinated to technical requirements or limitations that they might not even have been aware of prior to learning that their planned observations would not take place. Moreover, unlike traditional astronomical observatories where anyone was free to try to arrange time on the telescope whenever they liked (success, of course, was not guaranteed), scientific spacecraft were usually operated only by the center in charge and the scientists responsible for the instruments, even if outsiders might have had better ideas about how to use the instruments or novel ideas for observations. Conflict between the two approaches was inevitable, and had cropped up as early as the 1960s during the OAO program. The Large Space Telescope, however, and the high stakes it represented made the problem much worse. The expense and likely longevity of Hubble, together with its precedent-setting nature, made astronomers acutely aware that they needed to act immediately and ensure that the managerial approaches adopted were to their liking.

    So at the same time that the drama of who would become the lead center was playing out, astronomers were beginning their offensive to ensure that science operations responsibility for Hubble would be held by what they termed a “center,” rather than by Goddard directly.[5] The center was modeled after the successful National Optical Astronomy Observatory, or NOAO, an organization managed by a consortium of universities, AURA (for Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy), on behalf of the National Science Foundation that ran (and continues to run) several telescopes at Kitt Peak, in Arizona, and Cerro Tololo, in Chile, as well as several other similar institutions in astronomy and physics. Significantly, NOAO functions largely autonomously, with the National Science Foundation mostly responsible for funding its activities, and allows astronomers worldwide open but competitive access to its telescopes, completely the opposite of the traditional approach to satellite operations. The center, or institute, would be responsible, like NOAO, for the day-to-day operations of Hubble, especially allocating valuable telescope time, while Goddard would be relegated to a mainly technical support role. Goddard, naturally, did not favor this approach, instead suggesting that all operations could be centered in Greenbelt, or, in an attempted sop to astronomical opinion, might take advantage of a number of (essentially powerless) regional science centers spread around the United States. While the former suggestion naturally garnered little support from astronomers outside of Goddard, the latter’s failure to gain traction indicated that almost the entire American astronomical community had closed ranks around the idea of an institute, as it completely failed to entice away astronomers from institutions not traditionally in the center of astronomical research with the prospect of significant involvement in what would undoubtedly be one of the major astronomical projects of the 1980s. Despite spirited opposition on the part of Goddard management, by the formal beginning of Hubble as a NASA project they were forced to bow under pressure and allow the formation of an independent center to retain the support of the astronomical community.

    With the decision to build an independent space telescope center made, the next problem was deciding where to build it and who to manage it. The obvious choice for locating a center was Princeton, the academic home of Lyman Spitzer, the program’s most long-running and forceful advocate. Besides having a strong astronomical program in its own right, Princeton was and is located near many other major academic centers for astronomy, and had an advantageous position near, but not too near, Goddard, useful for facilitating operations while making it easier to avoid undue interference.[6] Princeton, in fact, was so obvious as a choice that even before the center had been formally approved, some astronomers attempted to forestall any selection process and simply present a unanimous front of astronomers in favor of locating the center at Princeton. While this proved unsuccessful due to the more urgent priority of ensuring there would be a telescope to operate at all, it was nevertheless indicative of the feeling within large parts of the astronomical community. When Congress formally approved the telescope, several of the organizations that decided to compete for the center’s management selected Princeton as the location of the center’s physical facilities if they succeeded in the bid. Its selection seemed preordained, a matter of course, barely worth disputing.

    A few of the competitors, however, did not default to Princeton. Instead, they decided to competitively seek out a candidate institution, much as NASA was, expecting this to both secure a superior application and ease their own workloads, as the candidate institution would have to do much of the work for the overall proposal simply in attaining that status. Princeton did not make a vigorous effort to secure the crown, perhaps sure that its obvious natural advantages would ensure that it won regardless of what effort it put forth. This proved to be a severe mistake, as the faculty of the University of Chicago’s department of astronomy, led by the director of the Yerkes Observatory C. Robert O’Dell[7], had become very interested in the prospect of increasing the University’s participation in space astronomy. O’Dell had been involved with NASA during the late 1960s, as part of its “Astronomy Missions Board,” and had become highly interested in the possibility of a large space telescope. Since then, he had become one of the principal advocates for the project within the astronomical community, bolstered by his deep connection to traditional ground-based astronomy, and had managed to deeply involve himself with planning the scientific aspects of the telescope. Next to Lyman Spitzer himself, he was perhaps the most influential outside scientist involved with the project. Even before the center had been officially approved, O’Dell had begun to persuade the other members of Chicago’s faculty that space astronomy was the wave of the future, and that they had an actual shot at getting the institution. Slowly, he built what might be called a marketing machine, capable of selling the notion of a Chicago center to the rest of the astronomical community. By the time the various interested consortia began searching for a site to host the center, Chicago had firmly established itself as at least the number two choice in the astronomical community. Despite its distance from Goddard, considered a disadvantage by the consortia, the technically prepared and knowledgeable Chicago team was able to persuade of its ability, willingness, and readiness to host the center, thus winning the approbation itself a place in the center competition. Their preparation stood them in good stead, as when NASA reviewed the various center proposals there was little real choice; in every aspect, Chicago's effort had put them far ahead of Princeton’s presumption.[8]

    At the same time that the newly dubbed “National Institute for Space Astronomy”[9] was gaining a home and the major contractors were being chosen, the instruments that would be carried by the telescope were gaining form. Originally, the telescope had been intended to carry a large number of instruments, perhaps seven or eight, spanning both the wavelength and capability regions available to the instrument. Besides cameras of both wide and narrow field, intended for visible and ultraviolet observations, Hubble would carry infrared instruments, photometers, spectrometers, and more, allowing it to be the world’s most capable telescope, in addition to having the highest altitude. However, repeated budget cutbacks and pressure had led to the number of instruments being cut back significantly. Besides the cost of designing and building the instruments themselves, such a large number of instruments would need a large, expensive support structure, and large, expensive accommodations for power, temperature regulation, data handling, and so on, driving up the cost of the telescope significantly. After several fluctuations, by the time work on the telescope itself started the number of instruments had stabilized at five, plus the Fine Guidance Sensors used to accurately aim the telescope, which could be used for precision astrometry.[10] One of these, the Long Wavelength/Planetary Camera[11], would be provided by the European Space Agency as part of their contribution to the telescope, utilizing the advances they were making in infrared telescopy as part of the InfraRed Astronomy Satellite to allow the telescope to access infrared wavelengths. Built more for performance in the shorter infrared wavelengths, since the telescope’s own thermal radiation would obscure dim objects in lower frequencies, the LW/PC would use newly developed charge-coupled devices to achieve very high performance. As the name indicates, it was also designed to be useful for planetary observations, where its higher performance in the “red” area of the spectrum and relatively lower performance in the “blue” area would not be a significant disadvantage. Although planetary scientists had previously been aloof from the telescope project, the slow pace of planetary mission approval in the late 1970s combined with a desire on the part of Goddard to include the maximum possible user community (to protect Hubble against cuts, if nothing else) led to the LW/PC having planetary observation capability being built in. The other four instruments would be selected through a competitive process led by Goddard. Besides the core Wide Field Camera and Faint Object Spectrograph instruments, which had been identified in several scientific reports as the most important instruments for the telescope, the other two eventual winners were the High Resolution Spectrograph and Faint Object Camera[12], complementing the Wide Field Camera and Faint Object Spectrograph, respectively, to allow spectrographic and imaging observations of bright and faint objects. Like the LW/PC, the Wide Field Camera would use charge-coupled devices for its core imaging sensor, drastically improving overall performance compared to the previously planned video tubes, while the High Resolution and Faint Object Spectrographs would use a different type of electronic sensor.

    Even as the instruments were beginning their development and fabrication, however, the telescope itself was beginning to struggle. Many of the technical barriers that had been identified during the early development of the telescope had proved to be more formidable than anticipated, with the solutions that had been fingered being harder to implement, and therefore costlier than predicted. Moreover, more significant modifications were needed to heritage OAO components than had been planned, meaning not only that more would need to be be spent developing the necessary changes, but also additional costly testing would be needed to ensure that the modified parts worked properly both by themselves and in conjunction with other parts of the telescope. While optical contractors Eastman Kodak and Itek were having few problems with their part of the spacecraft, vehicle contractor Grumman, which had seen a refocus on military contracts such as the F-14 Tomcat and civilian non-aerospace contracts like the Grumman LLV postal truck since its selection by Goddard, was struggling to maintain cost and schedule goals.[13] Repeated interventions by Goddard management teams often brought Grumman back up to snuff, but only briefly before another round of issues sent it falling behind once again. Continuing pressures on the telescope’s budget, magnified by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, led to a crisis shortly after the new president’s inauguration. With the OMB preparing to submit the President’s first budget, NASA was being squeezed for possible efficiencies and savings. While planetary science was hardest hit, the over budget and behind schedule space telescope seemed just as ripe for possible savings, or even possibly cancellation. In a bid to head off this threat, Goddard managers proposed a round of hair-raising cuts to the telescope, proposing everything from deleting several of the scientific instruments to removing the sun-shielding door that would protect the interior of the telescope from damaging exposure to direct sunlight.[14] These changes naturally gained virtually no support among astronomers, but they may never have been serious proposals in the first place; many would save little money while significantly compromising the telescope’s capabilities (for example, deleting the door would save only a few hundred thousand dollars on a project costing hundreds of millions, while significantly increasing the risk that the telescope would suffer a fatal accident on-orbit). Instead, the goal may have been to demonstrate to Headquarters and the OMB that tough action was being considered to keep the telescope within schedule and budget limits, but that such action would have significant negative consequences. If this was the case, it certainly worked; by the end of the year, the budget had been increased to a higher level and the launch date had been slipped from late 1983 to mid 1985, buying valuable time for Grumman to finish developing and testing the spacecraft. While Hubble would continue to suffer issues through the next three and a half years leading up to launch, never again would it face such an acute crisis, as Grumman and Goddard reformed their management of the program and began to get back on schedule and cost targets.

    As the telescope itself finally began to approach completion, work was also intensifying at the campus of the National Institute for Space Astronomy. Rather than the crowded city campus of the University of Chicago itself or the remote environs of Yerkes, NISA’s permanent ground facilities would be located at the also Chicago-run campus of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, located in the relatively wide-open spaces of the Chicago suburbs. However, as Fermilab’s existing buildings were largely in use running the eponymous particle accelerator and managing its upgrade to the much higher energy Tevatron, extensive construction was required to provide additional buildings for NISA’s staff and equipment, construction which needed to be done quickly to allow NISA to be ready before the telescope itself was. While this was ongoing, the management protocols and software systems needed to run the telescope, schedule observations, process received data, and manage the distribution of said data to collaborators also needed to be developed, even though there was no permanent location to house the necessary staff. The complex and difficult job of turning NISA from a piece of paper into a functioning organization fell, again, to Robert O’Dell, who resigned from the directorship of Yerkes to become director of NISA shortly after Chicago won the contract.[15] At first, the rapid growth in employment needed to begin work and have a reasonable chance of finishing it before the telescope’s launch caused friction with NASA management, concerned over apparent rapid cost growth, and the wider astronomical community, concerned that NISA would end up absorbing a disproportionate part of America’s astronomers. While the Vulkan Panic of 1982 and NASA’s subsequent rapid budget growth largely alleviated the concerns of the former, the latter were not so easily placated; eventually, O’Dell agreed to a fixed cap on the number of permanent staff employed at the institute, allowing a total focus of attention on preparing for Hubble’s impending launch.

    By mid-1985, all the pieces were finally falling together for the Hubble Space Telescope. With Eastman Kodak and Itek having delivered the primary optical systems to Grumman’s final assembly facility in Bethpage in late 1983, Grumman itself had completed and tested Hubble before turning it over to NASA in early 1985, whereupon it was transported to a clean room at Kennedy for preparations prior to launch. The need to maintain smooth Spacelab operations and Kirchhoff’s critical July launch date caused Hubble to wait for months before, at last, a Saturn IC was able to rise into space carrying the telescope into its low Earth orbit. Over a period of several months, each instrument was powered on, calibrated against a dark background, and finally allowed first light on a series of pre-selected, well-characterized targets. Despite the heartache and difficulties that had plagued the program, what these tests revealed was perhaps the finest optical instrument ever constructed up to that point, with all five instruments functioning very well and the main telescope systems functioning as well as could possibly have been expected. The spacecraft, by contrast, suffered a number of minor problems, although fortunately all of these were quickly corrected or compensated for by the ground, preventing them from impeding the telescope’s observations. Even more so than the spacecraft, the ground software showed a number of faults, symptomatic of the fact that its complex structure had been put together on a tight deadline and with a tight budget. While ferreting out and correcting the bugs present in the control software was a long, slow process, fortunately no serious failures that jeopardized the mission occurred.

    Discounting calibration and test targets, observations began soon after the telescope’s launch, even before the telescope was fully commissioned. As might have been expected from an instrument designed to excel in stellar and, especially, galactic astronomy, these were all of extrasolar objects, but Hubble was soon allowed a chance to exercise its potential for intra-solar observations, as it was turned on Uranus prior to the arrival of Voyager 3 at that planet early the next year. While of less scientific value than the observations of the two Voyager-Uranus probes, these early observations by Hubble proved useful for planning their paths through the Uranian system, and provided the first direct observations of the planet’s rings, as well as heralding a continuing campaign of observations of Uranus and Neptune that allowed continuous, if lower-quality, data, particularly about their atmospheric behavior, to supplement the detailed observations of Voyager.[16] Soon after completing its Uranus observation campaign, Hubble was directed on another Solar System target, Halley’s Comet, by this point well past perihelion and coming around for its exit from the inner Solar System. Hubble confirmed previous observations of large halos, luminescent in ultraviolet, about some active comets, and contributed further to the extensive observations of Halley then being undertaken. With Halley’s departure from the inner solar system, Hubble returned to its regular observation program, exploring the universe of galaxies, stars, nebulae, and other extra-solar objects. Besides the often hauntingly beautiful images seen by the public, such as the famous Pillars of Creation, Hubble’s observations produced an enormous number of scientific papers over the next decade, fueling multiple significant advances in astronomy.

    By late 1994, Hubble was badly ailing. While it had been designed with considerable redundancies, often by a factor of 50 to 100% more than anticipated minimum requirements, nine years of operation within the harsh space environment, exposed to significant radiation fluxes, serious temperature variations, and micrometeoroids and space debris had taken their toll on the telescope. Only three of the original six gyroscopes remained active, just enough to allow continued operation of the observatory, and the solar panels were producing electricity at well below their launch rates. Loss of another gyroscope would render the telescope only barely controllable, making it much harder to orchestrate a graceful end for the big satellite. Moreover, telescopes on the ground were beginning to approach it in some respects, as the barrier that had prevented ground-based telescopes of much more than about five meters aperture[17] was broken and computer-controlled adaptive optics partially corrected for atmospheric distortion. Although space telescopes, and in particular Hubble, still offered a number of advantages over ground-based telescopes[18], for Hubble those advantages were becoming increasingly narrow, and as they had thirty years earlier, astronomers were beginning to think about large optical space telescopes, only this time with the benefit of experience. In any case, while a difficult decision to make, it was nevertheless clear at NISA and Goddard that Hubble needed to be deorbited to avoid possibly damaging property or even injuring someone during an uncontrolled reentry. Early in January 1995, nine and a half years after launch, Hubble entered Earth’s atmosphere high above the South Pacific, briefly becoming a brilliant meteor before breaking up and raining down into the deep, empty waters of that vast stretch of ocean.

    [1]: This paragraph is largely describing the OTL situation, as the divergences are not (yet) large between ETS and OTL; however, Goddard ends up winning after all since they're doing just a bit worse while Marshall is doing just a bit better than OTL.

    [2]: Most of this work was either before or just after the (NASA) PoD, so it’s not very surprising that this is largely as IOTL.

    [3]: This approach was also adopted OTL, but of course Hubble was a new design (KH-11 heritage rumors aside...)

    [4]: IOTL, Grumman attempted to win the Hubble Space Telescope contract, but was not successful in doing so (they seem to have dropped out by 1976, when the project advanced to the actual construction stage). If you’re keeping track, this means all major Hubble decisions to date have gone differently than IOTL; Kodak/Itek are the optical contractors, Grumman the spacecraft contractor, and Goddard the lead center.

    [5]: Much of this was pre-PoD, so naturally it happens in Eyes Turned Skywards as well. Of course, the details are different, but the outline is the same.

    [6]: This is all exactly as OTL; there is absolutely no reason to think that a long-established center like Princeton would suddenly become weaker because of our PoD.

    [7]: This change is particularly important since Dr. O’Dell left Yerkes in 1972 IOTL to become Hubble project scientist at Marshall, due to their lack of astronomical expertise (he was nominated by Lyman Spitzer and chosen by Ernst Stuhlinger, incidentally). ITTL, since Goddard has "in-house" talent, they appoint a project scientist from amongst themselves and he remains at Yerkes. However, his interest in Hubble predated the PoD, so it's reasonable to assume he would continue to be involved.

    [8]: This is similar to OTL, in that Johns Hopkins essentially won in this fashion (interestingly, IOTL Fermilab was a nominated site for STScI, but was ranked fourth for its consortium’s internal bidding and didn’t make it to the “finals”). Princeton spread its effort over three bids both IOTL and ITTL and (I plausibly assume from my reading) suffered from the mentioned presumption, whereas IOTL Johns Hopkins only had to deal with one bid, and knew that they would need to put forth a lot of effort to get it. Something similar is the case with Chicago here, plus they have the advantage of being a major, long-standing astronomical center.

    [9]: ie., STScI, just with a different name. There are grander plans afoot by some...

    [10]: The science of measuring the positions and velocities of stars. Given the famous radial velocity method for discovering planets, it is surprising that astrometrical observations have never been used to detect a planet, although several have been claimed (most particularly the relatively well-known claims for Barnard’s Star).

    [11]: OTL, there were no infrared instruments included in the initial set of instruments for the HST; astronomers correctly anticipated that instrument replacements would allow them to add infrared instruments later. ITTL, Hubble's instruments are not replaceable, so including an infrared instrument from the beginning is more important. The loser is the High Speed Photometer, which was a low priority instrument in any case (the designer only hoped to piggyback on another instrument).

    [12]: This also has European involvement, in the form of the University College, London (which, both OTL and ITTL, had the greatest expertise in the detector being used), but is not being managed or directed by ESA (unlike OTL, where it was one of the major European contributions).

    [13]: Virtually the opposite of OTL; Perkin-Elmer had a great deal of trouble at this point while Lockheed was proceeding relatively smoothly.

    [14]: This also occurred IOTL.

    [15]: OTL, the first director of STSI was Ricardo Giacconi. We will be hearing more about him anon...

    [16]: This is OTL, actually, although the reasons and timing are slightly altered.

    [17]: Until the completion of Keck 1 in 1991, the largest telescope in the world was BTA-6, of about 6 meters aperture. However, for a number of reasons this was not a very good telescope, and the Hale 200 inch (roughly five meters) retained a preeminent position in astronomical research until Keck 1.

    [18]: Such as a much larger field of view and no lower limit to brightness. Space telescopes are natively diffraction-limited, whereas ground-based telescopes need clever tricks to get equivalent performance. Those tricks don't work under all conditions, so they can’t be used for every object. However, they’re a lot cheaper than space telescopes, so they’re still very useful.
    Part II: Post 22: Beyond Halley: Kirchhoff probe's second mission to Comet Tempel 2
  • Well, once again it's that time. This week, we're checking in on the Kirchoff comet probe, last seen in Part II, Post 12 chugging away on ion thrust after its encounter with Halley's Comet in 1986. Today, we're rejoining it as it continues its mission by heading for the "comet rendezvous" part of it's "comet rendezvous/comet flyby" mission, headed for its encounter with Comet Tempel 2. 1153 replies, 140478 views

    Eyes Turned Skyward, Part II: Post #22

    With the Halley encounter behind it by December 1985, Kirchoff was now bound for Tempel 2, a far less assuming comet than Halley. Discovered in 1873 by the German astronomer Wilhelm Tempel, like most comets it had attracted little attention outside of astronomy. Nevertheless, the very characteristics of relatively low activity, low inclination (for a comet) orbit (12 degrees), and large perihelion (1.4 AU) that gave it a low public profile recommended it to NASA as a possible target for exploration as early as the 1970s. Although far less flashy than Halley, it was far easier to reach, and after the elimination of the Halley rendezvous mission had become one of two leading targets for a comet rendezvous mission, along with Encke. In the end, the greater technical simplicity of the Tempel 2 mission, combined with feeling that the Helios-Encke mission might strip an Encke mission of much of its scientific rationale, led to the selection of Tempel 2 as a target. Compared to reaching Halley, however, reaching Tempel 2 would be a marathon, with nearly three years of thrusting needed before it would finally reach the comet. During those three years, Kirchhoff largely idled, serving as little more than a solar weather station while it slowly built up speed and trimmed its orbit to more and more closely match Tempel 2's. After a series of unexpected outbursts just weeks before the probe passed over the dim boundary between "astronomical stalker" and "orbital probe," Kirchoff flew past Tempel 2 at a conservative altitude of 500 kilometers in mid-July 1988 before settling into a trajectory maintaining a distance of several thousand kilometers from the nucleus.

    At this point, both parts of the probe's mission--comet rendezvous and comet flyby--had, technically, been fulfilled. Of course, the probe's masters at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory would not let it end so quickly as that. Although pre-flight planning had assumed that Kirchhoff would take at least one close look at the nucleus before the comet reached its perihelion activity peak, they had not counted on the 1988 encounter being unusually active even before the comet reached the Sun, and Kirchhoff maintained a wary distance, avoiding any damage from cometary outbursts. Nevertheless, Kirchhoff was still able to quickly begin gathering a wealth of information about only the third comet to be visited by human spacecraft, in particular revealing many of the subtle details of the comet's evolution as it approached the Sun. For over a month, until late September 1988, the probe remained in this distant overwatch, observing but not directly exploring, until it became time to begin perhaps the most ambitious portion of the entire rendezvous, an excursion down the comet's tail.

    By this point, Tempel 2 had reached its peak activity, as usual a few days after its nearest approach to the Sun. If not exactly a world-awing sight like Hale-Bopp later in the decade, Tempel 2's tail had reached a respectable size and level of activity. In a carefully chosen compromise between scientific return, excursion duration, and propellant reserves, just a week after perihelion Kirchhoff's ion thrusters again lit, beginning a three-week trip that would carry the probe up to 30,000 kilometers from the comet's nucleus. With the lack of a tail probe at Halley, this would be the first chance to directly explore a particular comet's tail and compare the composition and behavior of the gas and dust making it up to that making up the comet itself. Naturally, scientists had seized this chance, and Kirchhoff did not disappoint them. During the voyage, the probe returned evidence showing that the grains of dust making up Tempel 2's tail varied over more than an order of magnitude in size, while ground-based observations that suggested the presence of organic compounds in the dust were also confirmed. The dust grains also did not seem to exactly match the composition of the cometary surface, further evidence in favor of the "icy dirtball" theory of cometary composition; lighter and more volatile material would be driven off by the Sun's heat, leaving behind a kind of slag or tar that would not so easily be rocketed into space.

    At the end of this excursion, in October 1988, Kirchhoff returned to where it had began, thousands of kilometers away from Tempel 2's surface. However, by now the circumstances were entirely different. With the comet's activity slowly diminishing at last, the spacecraft was finally able to close in for the closer looks that had previously eluded it. As the probe's orbit shrank in proportion to the comet's vigor, it continued exploring the dust environment around Tempel 2, all the while sharpening the resolution and power of its other instruments. Some five months after it returned from the tail, in late March 1989, Kirchhoff had reached an orbit only a few dozen kilometers above the surface, bringing to bear the full power of its bank of scientific instrumentation. Besides radio sounding to explore the interior structure of the comet, a bank of spectrometers spanning the electromagnetic spectrum, and instruments to count, collect, and analyze dust, above all else the probe carried a relatively massive and highly capable imaging system. Although data storage and communications limitations prevented imaging the entire surface at the maximum resolution possible, just a hair over ten centimeters, enough of the comet was that it was--and remains--the most well mapped body in the Solar System, even above Earth, Mars, or the Moon.

    The natural endpoint of a constantly decreasing orbit, of course, is simply a landing, a possibility that had been recognized since the original proposal. Indeed, it had been mooted as the best option for the probe's end of life and disposal, as even the vast bulk of solar cells needed to support the spacecraft could not produce enough power for Kirchhoff to survive following Tempel 2 all the way around the Sun. As the probe approached the September 1989, the end of its nominal mission, the question of whether or not to proceed with the landing pressed itself ever closer. With the only real alternative being to simply use Kirchhoff until it finally died from the dim, cool environment of the outer solar system, the choice was never particularly difficult. Actually landing on a comet would provide a wealth of additional information on the structural and material properties of cometary surfaces, bolstering the case for the follow-on landing or sample return mission to a different comet that had been crystallizing as a possibility in the minds of those who study comets. Therefore, beginning in July 1989, engineers at JPL began taking the final steps needed to prepare Kirchhoff to land. Modified software was uploaded to the probe and a series of manuevers lowered it from its previous orbit fifty kilometers above the surface to less than ten. At last, in early August, everything was ready for the attempt. As the probe settled towards the comet, the mood within JPL's control center was at once tense, relaxed, and eager. Tense, for the survival or failure of the probe (which many within had worked on for the past decade) could depend on the outcome of the next few minutes; relaxed, for Kirchhoff had been through so much already, and even a failure at this last step would be only a footnote in a grander success; and eager to see the outcome, good or ill. This spectrum of emotions, however, collapsed into just one when, a few minutes before touchdown, Kirchhoff's communications suddenly and unexpectedly cut out. After several hours of tense and fearful waiting, controllers were elated to receive a weak, undirected, and wholly uninformative message from the probe, the computer equivalent of a cry for help. With the knowledge that the spacecraft survived, JPL was able to reestablish communications with Kirchhoff--which had put itself into safe mode--and slowly coaxed it back to an operational state over the next several days. By this point, it was quite obvious that the probe had not, for some reason, managed to successfully land, but the exact cause of this failure was not determined for several more days.

    The final touchdown was so gentle that Kirchhoff had not initially realized that it had landed. As a result, instead of its engines being shut down to allow the probe to come to rest, thrusting had continued, giving the probe a slight velocity across Tempel 2's surface. After forces on the probe from its journey across the comet built up to a level sufficient to cause engine shutdown, it had then apparently bumped a rock or protrusion on the comet's surface, sending it flying back into space. The RCS system had then joined in, assuming that the probe had gone out of control at the last minute, and so conducted a series of burns to stabilize the probe and put it into a safe but low orbit. In the end, nothing had changed from the beginning of the touchdown period other than the probe's status, with a significant amount of the remaining propellant consumed in the landing attempt and damage to the spacecraft's solar panels that reduced their power output sharply. With the comet continuing to climb farther and farther out into the Solar System, power output from the panels had already significantly declined from peak levels before the crash. With the new damage, it was possible that only one opportunity remained to land, after which power output would not be enough to drive the ion engines and all necessary systems during the touchdown phase. Even worse, if more damage was suffered in a second touchdown attempt, the probe itself might no longer be able to function properly, incapable of generating sufficient onboard power to drive the instrument suite even if further attempts at landing were abandoned. Controllers at JPL seriously considered abandoning efforts to land the probe at this point, but after careful deliberations chose to press on with one more attempt, aware that it would be a significant first and might allow some interesting science before Kirchhoff shut down. Unlike the first attempt, the second was nearly flawless. Thanks to a modified program that switched responsibility for thrust from the ion engines to the RCS at the last minute, contact with Tempel 2 was hard enough that shutdown was immediately and properly commanded, leaving the probe to come to rest in the comet's gentle gravity. It had become the first spacecraft to make a soft landing on a comet, while Tempel 2 became only the fifth body in the Solar System (after the Moon, Venus, Mars, and Phobos) to see a spacecraft landing on it. Kirchhoff continued operating in this position for nearly a week, returning extremely high-resolution images of the area visible to its scan platform and highly detailed spectroscopic readings of the same before some factor--whether low temperatures, periods of darkness outside of its design, or cometary debris--caused it to permanently shut down in early September 1989.
    Part II: Post 23: Mission to the Asteroids: NASA NEAP, ESA Piazzi and Soviet “Grand Tour” program
  • Hello everyone! I'm posting this week from my re-vivified laptop, with all programs now re-installed and performing nominally! With that done, we'll be returning to the ongoing construction of Mir and Freedom here in a couple weeks. However, this week, we're following up on last week's post about probes to comets (including the second half of the Kirchoff mission) by looking at the other primitive bodies of the solar system: asteroids. 1161 replies, 142335 views

    Eyes Turned Skyward, Part II: Post #23:

    Comets were not the only type of primitive body attracting new scrutiny from astronomers and planetary scientists during the 1980s. Even as early as the 1960s, NASA had drawn up plans for a "Main Belt Tour" where a spacecraft would traverse the entire main asteroid belt, from inner to outer edge, using a Pioneer-type spacecraft. Due to limited funding and the absence of any particular asteroid flybys on the mission schedule, the mission failed to gain approval, but the idea of exploring the asteroids did not die with it. Again, though, NASA would not be the first to dispatch a mission to the asteroid belt, and again that honor would instead fall to the Europeans. In the early 1980s, ESA approved two new major robotic missions for development and launch in the next decade; first, the International Infrared Observatory, or IIO, in collaboration with Japan, and second the Piazzi mission, named after the Italian astronomer responsible for discovering the first asteroid, Ceres, in 1801. Like NASA's Main Belt Tour, this would visit the main asteroid belt, lying between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. However, rather than simply be thrown into a belt-crossing orbit by its launch vehicle, Piazzi would use ion thrusters to constantly modify its orbit, allowing it to visit and orbit several asteroids during its tour of the belt, all of different types.[1] While Ceres would unfortunately not be among them, Piazzi would still be able to thoroughly investigate several different asteroids of varying spectral types while also flying by several other bodies in between these longer encounters. Encountering "C" and "S" spectral type asteroids was a particularly high scientific priority, as bodies of the former type appeared to be more primitive, and therefore more similar to "original" Solar System material than other asteroids, while objects of the latter type seemed similar to a large number of meteorites found on Earth.[2] Also of interest were the "M"-type asteroids, which appeared to be more metallic than others and might therefore be the remnants of protoplanetary cores, and the unique "V"-type Vesta, which seemed to have undergone differentiation and volcanic activity much like Earth or Mars. Since there were an abundance of possible targets, dependent on launch date, multiple possible tour options were drawn up, addressing possible launch dates, from scheduled to optimistic to contingency.

    At the same time, the Soviets were beginning what they were calling the "Grand Tour" program. Like the American Grand Tour of the 1970s, this would use a series of gravitational assists to visit a wide range of targets which otherwise would have been far more difficult and time-consuming to reach. Unlike the American program, which planned to visit the giant planets and Pluto, "Grand Tour" planned to visit the near-Earth asteroids, with help from Venus and Earth. After launch, it would fly by Venus, whose gravity would redirect it to fly by one of the Aten asteroids, a class of asteroids that pass only just outside Earth's orbit at their greatest distance from the Sun, then dive into the hotter realms below. After this encounter, the probe would ascend back towards Earth orbit, where it could either flyby Earth--increasing its energy and allowing another asteroid flyby--or conduct a deep-space maneuver for the same purpose. This pattern of gravity assists allowing asteroid encounters could continue for several orbits around the Sun, allowing the probe to conduct a detailed survey of at least the Aten asteroids, and possibly some of the also Earth-orbit crossing Apollo asteroids, clarifying many of their bulk properties and providing "ground truth" for radar and spectroscopic studies. This would not be a solely Soviet endeavor, either, as they reached out to the French and German space agencies to participate in the mission. This early international involvement would prove to be prescient, as "Grand Tour" was buffered to some extent against the political and budgetary issues that gradually grew to consume the Soviet space program over the next half-decade. With the French and Germans already heavily involved and unwilling to simply abandon their investment, the Russians could count on outside financial support for the ambitious mission even as their own ability to fund it withered away.[3]

    In response to these actions from the Europeans and Soviets, the United States began its own Near Earth Asteroid Pioneer program in 1987. Unlike Piazzi and Grand Tour, NEAP would rendezvous with a near-Earth body, then intensively investigate it from a nearby vantage point. Besides complementing their observations, especially Grand Tour, which would give brief glimpses of a wide range of objects, NEAP would show that NASA and the United States were just as capable as anyone else of dispatching missions to asteroids. Managed by Ames Research Center and based on their ongoing Lunar Reconnaissance and Mars Reconnaissance Pioneers, the development of NEAP played second fiddle to those already established spacecraft. Nevertheless, the identification and solution of problems in both the LRP and MRP spacecraft greatly assisted the design of NEAP, despite the modifications needed not only to adapt it for a different target than either but also to a different launch vehicle. In a major victory, Lockheed had won some of the first competitively awarded US government launch contracts, including that for the Near Earth Asteroid Pioneer. Fortunately, the degree of modification needed for the probe due to the very different environments of its target to that of Mars or the Moon meant that modifications for the differing launch environment were relatively simple to accommodate within the overall program. In late May 1992, NEAP left Earth for its final destination, an Amor-type asteroid with a diameter of 2.3 kilometers called 1943 Anteros.[4] While small, it was hoped this target would be relatively representative of other near-Earth bodies, and frequent launch windows raised hopes that future missions might be dispatched to the same asteroid, perhaps to return samples of Anteros to Earth.

    After a voyage of over a year, NEAP finally reached Anteros in late August 1993, where it executed a burn providing nearly a kilometer per second of delta-V to put itself in orbit around the asteroid. From there, it quickly set out to thoroughly investigate Anteros, mapping it in high resolution, determining its surface composition, and producing a global shape profile via a laser rangefinder/altimeter. Careful tracking of NEAP’s signals on Earth provided estimates of Aneteros’ gravitational field, as well, although not to the precision necessary to probe its internal structure. For nearly two years, during the entire period of the asteroid’s orbit around the Sun, NEAP observed the asteroid, creating the first complete record of the seasonal changes to such an airless body in such an elliptical orbit, greatly exceeding its design mission in the process. Finally, in April 1995, with NEAP having completed its full extended mission, controllers decided to attempt a final experiment: repeating the successes of Kirchhoff and Mars 12, and landing NEAP on Anteros. Over a period of about a month, NEAP slowly lowered its orbit until it was passing within a few hundred meters of Anteros’ surface, before finally putting itself on a trajectory that would intersect the asteroid’s surface. To the delight of controllers, who had thought that NEAP’s low propellant reserves might cause the probe to be destroyed during the landing, NEAP soon checked in from its landing point, apparently a stretch of rocky ground near the rim of the crater Big Dip (so-named by the imaging team as one of the largest craters on Anteros). NEAP had, nevertheless, suffered significant damage during the landing, and the hostile thermal environment of Anteros’ surface ended the probe only a few days after touchdown, though not before it was able to take extremely close range spectroscopic data from the surface.

    Even as NEAP marched easily towards launch, Piazzi was struggling to get off the ground. Developmental difficulties related to its challenging environment and novel form of propulsion caused repeated delays and budget overruns in the probe, which gradually grew to dominate ESA's science programs as other spacecraft suffered less serious problems. These issues were compounded by related overruns and problems with the series of "minor" missions that ESA had become involved in, ranging from the Newton comet probe to the Mars Surface Elements of the Mars 12/13 mission. To fill the gaps, ESA tended to raid Piazzi's funding, reasoning that the probe was so far over budget and behind schedule that it would matter little. Having already slipped from a planned 1990 launch date into 1991, the final blow came with German reunification and the related collapse of the Soviet Union. With ESA member states, especially Germany, reducing their allocations, all programs of ESA had to suffer. Although plans to convert the Minotaur logistics vehicle to carry humans bore the brunt of the cuts, Piazzi was not spared, slipping to 1992 and then 1993 as a result. The only thing that spared it from outright cancellation was the fact that significant flight hardware had been procured, and it would be more expensive to cancel it and dispose of the otherwise useless remains then to finish and fly the mission after all. When it finally launched in February of 1993, the scientists involved were happy that it had at last gotten off of the ground, almost regardless of which asteroids it would be visiting. Insertion into a heliocentric orbit, followed by startup of the probe's ion engines (a more advanced and capable design than those used on Kirchhoff) proceeded smoothly, and Piazzi began its voyage to the asteroids. A year and a half after launch, Piazzi reached its first target, the 46 kilometer SX-type asteroid 113 Amalthea (not to be confused with the Jovian moon). Although it sped by Amalthea at 3 kilometers per second, Piazzi was nevertheless able to image the asteroid and collect remote-sensing data about its surface, together with determining its mass and rotational period to a greater precision than possible from Earth.

    In June 1995, Piazzi at last reached the first of its rendezvous targets, 4 Vesta, in so doing becoming the first spacecraft to rendezvous with and orbit a main-belt asteroid. The third largest of the asteroids with a diameter of 576 kilometers and the only one sometimes visible to the naked eye from Earth, Vesta was of particular interest due to the processes of differentiation and vulcanism it seemed to have gone through, unlike most other asteroids. Since Vesta is so much smaller than other bodies that have gone through the same evolution, like Earth or the Moon, it therefore offered a unique chance to see such a body frozen in mid-stride, so to speak, before it could really get going. Besides that, comparison with other asteroidal bodies, particularly those of relatively similar composition, might allow a better understanding of what conditions were needed for differentiation, a key step in the formation of planets and other large bodies, to occur. The world that was revealed to Piazzi's instruments met all of those expectations and more, possessing just as much geological diversity as any planet or moon elsewhere in the Solar system. The most prominent feature on Vesta’s battered surface was a massive impact basin occupying much of the southern hemisphere, itself overlying another giant crater, probably the source of much of the material in the asteroid belt observed to originate from Vesta. These impacts seemed to have created a system of massive troughs and cliffs elsewhere on the surface from seismic waves, giving Vesta a rough, textured appearance together with the ubiquitous impact craters. Finally, data returned by the probe showed that the interior of Vesta appeared to be much more similar to that of Earth, Mars, or other terrestrial planets than any previously explored asteroid, with clearly separate core, mantle, and crust regions.[5] Unfortunately, the probe’s exploratory mission had to be ended after only three months probing Vesta[6], as the window for its departure to its second destination, the 90 kilometer wide S-type asteroid 17 Thetis opened in late September 1995.

    After departing Vesta, Piazzi’s ion thrusters smoothly functioned through the voyage to Thetis, marked only by the flyby of the 96 kilometer C-type asteroid 313 Chaldaea in March 1996. As an S-type asteroid, Thetis was spectroscopically similar to the important class of meteorites called the ordinary chondrites, promising possible breakthroughs in the understanding of the origins of these meteorites. Therefore, in October 1996 Piazzi slowly slid into orbit around Thetis, hoping to catch a better look than had been available from Earth. It was richly rewarded, as a world far smaller but with just as much history to explore passed under its cameras. Like Vesta, or for that matter the Moon, Thetis proved to be pockmarked with craters and other evidence of impact at all scales visible to Piazzi's cameras, from the most minute to the very largest. Furthermore, several ordinary chondrites in fact proved to be from Thetis, or at least to be near-perfect spectroscopic matches for regions of Thetis visible to Piazzi[7], effectively making them some of the first samples returned from a known asteroid, only slightly beaten by the vast collection of Howardite-Eucrite-Diogenite meteorites from Vesta. As with every other body ever visited by space probes, from Charon to Mercury, Thetis also proved to have a rich geological history, with evidence, curious in light of the asteroid's evident lack of differentiation and therefore of significant internal heating, of flows of rock through the asteroid and other internal activity. The four months of observation Piazza was allowed by orbital mechanics before departing Thetis for good only opened up more questions on the part of the mission team, but the probe once again had to frustrate any desires for a more in-depth investigation.

    Piazzi's last stop would be the 86 kilometer C-type 449 Hamburga. While the asteroids 313 Chaldaea and 415 Palatia, which it had flown by in March 1996 and June 1997, respectively, had both been C-types, the brief encounters Piazzi had been limited to had only whetted the appetites of asteroid scientists for the more detailed look waiting at the end of the line. If Piazzi would cooperate, at least, for the aging probe was becoming increasingly cranky and difficult for European ground controllers to manage. Several of the ion thrusters had developed problems which, while not mission-ending, nevertheless required careful attention to allow proper operation, while power output had decreased more than anticipated from radiation exposure and panel damage. Nevertheless, in September of 1998 the probe was able to push itself into orbit around Hamburga, finally giving scientists the view they had been waiting for since launch. Once again, Piazzi's imagery revealed a world battered by impacts, a familiar scene throughout
    the solar system by now, and once again evidence of internal activity, perhaps similar to that within the icy moons of the outer system. However, it was in spectroscopic analysis that Hamburga's differences with Vesta and Thetis shone through, with a rich surface chemistry revealed to these probing appendages[8]. A fantastically complex mélange of organic and inorganic chemicals seemed to coat Hamburga's surface, transforming every square centimeter into the equivalent of a chemical factory. Energetic solar radiation, together with whatever internal heat Hamburga had once possessed and perhaps the occasional impact seemed to have catalyzed an amazing range of surface chemistry, despite the lack of water, air, or any other fluid medium for chemical reaction. There was even some evidence that extremely simple chains of amino acids and nucleotides seemed to have formed on Hamburga's surface, something which proved to have a significant effect on later theories of abiogenesis. With no future destinations in mind--in any case, Piazzi had virtually exhausted its ion propellant stocks upon reaching Hamburga--the scientific team could take as long as they liked examining and reexamining Hamburga’s surface, limited only by the probe’s inevitable failure or the ending of operational funding. Finally, in early 2000 Piazzi stopped responding to commands from Earth, ending Europe’s first completely independent and highly successful planetary science mission.

    [1]: This is based on the AGORA mission. You may have noted that ITTL things are a bit friendlier to planetary exploration across the board; this is another expression of that tendency. IOTL, ESA tended to fund more telescopes.

    [2]: This is my understanding, anyways.

    [3]: The fate of this probe will not be revealed. Yet.

    [4]: This was a common target for asteroid missions during the 1980s IOTL, along with 4660 Nereus and 433 Eros, because it is relatively easy to reach and has frequent (roughly once every other year) launch windows.

    [5]: This is all as per Dawn--go Dawn!

    [6]: Alas, time and windows wait for no probe.

    [7]: As far as I know, this is plausible speculation, but the sources of most if not all ordinary chondrites are not actually known.

    [8]: Again, I believe this and the following to be plausible speculation based on carbonaceous chondrites (which correspond to “C”-type asteroids, sort of).
    Part II: Post 24: Telescopes Beyond Hubble
  • Well, it's that time once again, everyone! This week, we're turning our attention back once more to the field of astronomy, and taking a look at the other non Hubble telescopes of the 80s and early 90s. This is another one of truth is life's excellent posts, and I hope everyone will enjoy it as much as I did. :) 1178 replies 144536 views

    Eyes Turned Skyward, Part II: Post #24:

    However impressive Hubble was, it was not and never had been the be-all and end-all of space observatories, nor was the United States the only player in space astronomy. Even as Hubble began the long process of definition in the early 1970s, the newly constituted ESA had selected a pair of British-led astronomical satellites, the UltraViolet Astronomical Satellite and the InfraRed Astronomical Satellite, or UVAS and IRAS, to form its first scientific satellite program. While UVAS was essentially a descoped version of the Large Astronomical Satellite that had long been under consideration at ESRO, and was essentially similar to the Orbiting Astronomical Observatories of NASA, IRAS was something new, taking advantage of the rapid development of infrared astronomy over the previous decade to launch a cryogenically cooled infrared telescope into space, where it would use the lack of atmosphere to allow observations of a potentially much broader range of wavelengths than possible from the ground.[1] Both IRAS and UVAS would have participation from NASA, although in a novel turn of events as a junior partner rather than a senior. The projects would be led and managed by ESA, with NASA providing certain technical elements. Although novel, in many ways the IRAS proposal was a simple extrapolation of existing trends, with infrared telescopes having been flown on airplanes, built on mountains, and lifted by balloons during the 1960s to allow observations through a smaller and smaller air column. As with x-ray or ultraviolet observations before, putting a telescope into space would be a mere logical extension to its absolute limit of this movement. While the development of its sister vehicle, UVAS, proceeded relatively smoothly up to its eventual 1978 launch, IRAS proved to have a more difficult and protracted development program due to the challenges associated with the containment and management of a large amount of cryogenic liquid helium over a relatively long period of time in a microgravity environment. Although it was intended to be launched at about the same time as UVAS, problems with the relatively novel cryogenic systems and infrared detectors, European inexperience in space activities, and the higher priority of UVAS led it to slip significantly behind. Nevertheless, work never stopped on the project, and in 1980 it was lifted from Kourou into a low Earth orbit by a boosted Europa 2, some two years behind its sister satellite.

    Once it was in orbit, however, IRAS lived up to expectations, producing a detailed map of the sky at infrared wavelengths, particularly those inaccessible to ground-based telescopes due to atmospheric absorption. In the course of this effort, it made several significant discoveries, including the debris disks around other stars, warm dust called infrared cirrus pervading interstellar space, and intense infrared emissions from colliding galaxies.[2] In a more minor sidenote, it also discovered several lost or previously unseen comets and asteroids, taking advantage of their greater visibility in infrared relative to visible frequencies. The greatest accomplishment of IRAS, however, was merely in proving that a cryogenically cooled space-based infrared telescope was possible and practical, and with its success European astronomers almost immediately began to look forward to the next logical step, a larger, higher resolution imaging infrared telescope, tentatively termed the Advanced Infrared Space Observatory, or AISO. Meanwhile, senior managers at ESA had long been dissatisfied with the degree of control they actually possessed over the continent’s space program, both from bureaucratic self-interest and perhaps from a degree of latent pan-Europeanism. Of the various ESA programs, only the Europa launch vehicle program and ESA’s human spaceflight program were truly European endeavours; the remainder were largely vehicles for individual national programs to promote their projects and missions at continental expense, with little in the way of a common European program. For example, ESA’s planetary science program was dominated by German involvement in Helios-Encke and the forthcoming Newton comet probe, while the astronomy program had conversely been dominated through the 1970s by the British-led UVAS and IRAS satellites. Moreover, all of the member states routinely cut deals with outside countries, often the superpowers, to partake in other projects, such as the Franco-Soviet Eos Venus balloon probe. To counter these tendencies, ESA management induced the European Science Foundation to consider space science programs in the early 1980s, seeking to have them draw up a list of continent-wide priorities, both for native European projects and for collaboration with other countries, particularly the United States and the Soviet Union but also the rising space program of Japan.[3] As part of this program, the European Science Foundation initiated a series of high-level contacts between its own members and the members of the National Academy of Sciences, the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and the Japan Academy, to communicate about what programs would be of greatest interest to the scientists of each country.

    Japanese astronomers had, at the same time, been nurturing a growing interest in space astronomy, fueled by the successful Hakucho and Hinotori missions and the growing Japanese economy. While the Japanese were naturally aware of European success in not only x-ray but also infrared and ultraviolet space astronomy, they had not been particularly privy to intimate details nor had they entertained much thought of collaboration with their trans-Eurasian counterparts. The meetings spurred by ESA between European and Japanese scientists changed that, as a new conduit opened to allow information to flow between the two programs. Scientists on both sides saw the advances their compatriots had made and the programs they were interested in in more detail, and were able to converse more freely and deeply about their common areas of interest than they otherwise would. Japanese astronomers interested in expanding their program beyond the admittedly highly successful x-ray program quickly latched on to the budding AISO program as an attractive method of broadening their horizons. Japan could usefully make a number of contributions to the program, allowing it to gain experience in the necessary technology and operational techniques for a future Japanese infrared telescope, without the risks or expense associated with beginning their own infrared observatory program. As a result of Japanese interest in the project, the AISO had developed into the International Infrared Observatory, or IIO, by the time the project was approved along with the Piazzi asteroid probe in 1983.

    The International Infrared Observatory would consist of a telescope generally similar to IRAS, of about the same aperture and still using detectors cryogenically cooled with liquid helium, one of which would be built by Japan. Despite these similarities, however, IIO would depart significantly from IRAS in two major ways. First, it would be launched into a heliocentric orbit, rather than Earth orbit.[4] By placing it into solar orbit, a number of advantages could be realized, most obviously that of Earth and the Moon no longer being present to block large parts of the sky at any given time. The heat flux on the telescope would also be drastically reduced, vastly increasing the amount of time a given amount of liquid helium could chill the telescope to its cryogenic operating temperature. The principal disadvantage was that communications would be more difficult than with an Earth-orbiting probe, although the construction of European and Japanese deep-space communications facilities for planned future projects helped mitigate this difficulty substantially. [5] For a telescope intended to provide a vast leap over IRAS in terms of sensitivity and resolution--to take on the task of detailed imaging of the sources IRAS had mapped out--the advantages of the heliocentric orbit more than outweighed the disadvantages. Second, IIO would take full advantage of major advances in detector technology that had taken place since IRAS was designed, particularly the rapidly advancing state-of-the-art in charge-coupled devices (especially sensitive to “red” radiation) to provide greatly improved resolution and sensitivity. Unlike IRAS, which had been designed as a survey telescope, one which mapped out sources from the entire sky, albeit at a relatively low resolution, IIO would be an imaging telescope, one which observed a relatively narrow area of a the sky, but at relatively high resolution and sensitivity. Data from IRAS could be used to “aim” IIO, allowing it to focus on the strangest and most interesting sources in the sky, without having to waste time finding those sources in the first place.

    As with its counterpart Piazzi, development of IIO proceeded more slowly than anticipated, hampered not only by the growing diversity of ESA’s programs, but also by the technical difficulties of the project.[6] While by virtue of their construction of IRAS and Hubble’s Long Wavelength/Planetary Camera Europeans had more experience in infrared space astronomy than any other group in the world, scientists wanted to push the boundaries of technology even further to achieve pointing stability and accuracy, cryogenic lifetime, resolution, and sensitivity much superior to IRAS’ capabilities. By the time construction of the observatory could start, the financial challenges posed by the crumbling Soviet empire of Eastern Europe, especially the costs being borne by the Federal Republic of Germany after its reunification with the German Democratic Republic in 1989, served as a further block to development. As with Piazzi, this led to IIO’s launch being delayed several years, from the initially envisioned late 1992 to early 1995. By the time it launched, the rapidly advancing state of the art in ground-based infrared telescopes and increasing NASA interest in launching a Large Infrared Space Telescope[7] to replace Hubble in the next decade had made IIO seem less groundbreaking than in 1983, but it would still be a worthy and capable telescope by itself, and available considerably earlier than NASA’s larger offering. Its successful launch into an escape trajectory by a Europa 42 was quickly followed by Japanese and European confirmation of proper operation of all the spacecraft’s systems.

    Over the next several years, until the depletion of its liquid helium supply, IIO remained the world’s premier facility for infrared astronomy. In its primary mission, providing high-resolution infrared imaging of a variety of galactic and extragalactic targets, it succeeded magnificently, entirely confirming the hopes of astronomers who wanted to use infrared observations to penetrate veils of interstellar dust. It also extended IRAS’ observations of extrasolar debris disks and performed a large number of spectroscopic observations, taking advantage of the position of spectral lines for many important chemical species in infrared frequencies. Some consideration was even given towards attempting to image newly discovered extrasolar planets with IIO, but the telescope lacked an occultation disk and was otherwise poorly suited for the task, so the idea was dropped. Even after its cryogenic supply ran out in late 2000 and the telescope was shut down, the accumulated archives of data IIO had gathered continued to power scientific research for years.

    European high-energy astronomers were dismayed by ESA’s selection of UVAS and IRAS to be its first astronomical (or, indeed, scientific) satellites. For several years, inspired by the success of x-ray and gamma-ray observations using American satellites, as well as balloons and rockets, they had been pressing ESRO to build a European x-ray or gamma-ray observatory, while in the meantime participating in American observations (particularly Italian astronomers, through the Small Astronomical Satellites program). Although these attempts at gaining a native capability had, for the moment at least, borne no fruit, they had hardly given up. On the one hand, they continued their attempts to persuade the agency to develop such an observatory, even a small and inexpensive one, while on the other they sought out other ways of furthering their scientific interests. French astronomers collaborated with the Soviet Union in a series of programs, including observations via Soyuz and Salyut flights, before joining in the construction of the large Gamma space telescope at the end of the decade, while German and Italian astronomers found partnership in each other. Under Italian leadership, and with mostly Italian funding (due to the expense of developing the mostly German Helios-Encke, among others, at the same time), Germany and Italy began a project to build and launch a small x-ray astronomy satellite, name RoSat, for Röntgen Satellite, after the discoverer of x-rays and first Nobel physics laureate. As with the simultaneous Japanese, Soviet, and Indian[8] programs, few truly fundamental breakthroughs originated from RoSat, but nevertheless the project was an important step forwards for European high-energy astronomy.

    In the United States, meanwhile, despite the overwhelming focus on Hubble among many members of the astronomical community, American astronomers had been working hard on a series of smaller space telescopes exploring a diverse range of wavelengths and targets. Even as Hubble had been approved, American high-energy astronomers had been pushing for a larger and more capable set of follow-on missions to those earlier efforts, the High-Energy Astronomical Observatories, or HEAOs. These would extend the observations of the Orbiting Astronomical Observatories, sounding rocket and balloon flights, and other satellites like Uhuru through a series of similar relatively large satellites carrying a range of instruments in the x-ray, gamma ray, and cosmic ray energy regions. Each HEAO would be specialized to attack one particular problem, rather than carrying a large number of instruments itself, allowing larger experiments, such as a proposed x-ray telescope, to be carried than was possible on earlier observatories. While budget cuts and new programs such as Hubble and the UVAS and IRAS projects forced a reduction in the scale of the program, even in their reduced form the HEAOs would offer a substantial leap forwards from previous generation high-energy observatories.

    While all three HEAOs offered the opportunity for important astronomical research, the most important of the three would be the second, the “Einstein Observatory,” as it would carry the most novel instrument of the series, the x-ray telescope. Previous spacecraft had simply carried their detectors placed around the outside of the spacecraft, an arrangement that had been effective enough but made it difficult to focus on the emissions of a single source, for example to conduct spectroscopy or form images. As with optical and radio astronomy, a telescope was the logical next step, some method of concentrating x-rays emitted from a single source into a small area. Such a device had actually been developed over the past several two decades by the efforts of Riccardo Giacconi and his colleagues at American Science and Engineering. Because of the high energy of x-rays compared to visible or even ultraviolet light, conventional parabolic or hyperbolic mirrors cannot be used to concentrate x-ray radiation; instead, with the photons striking the material of the mirror head-on, they would simply pass through or be absorbed, something which was quickly discovered when AS&E began working on x-ray telescopes in the early 1960s. Additionally, such a mirror would be very poor optically, with significant distortion of the image outside of a very small central region. Fortunately, early in the previous decade the German physicist Hans Wolter had worked out several possible designs for x-ray reflectors which relied instead on the principle of grazing incidence reflection and consisted of nested conic sections.[9] These would allow a much larger field of view and higher quality image than a simple parabolic or hyperbolic mirror, but were also considerably more complex to design and build. However, Giacconi and the engineers and scientists of AS&E were able over the next several years to work out the kinks in the design and launch the first x-ray telescope aboard a sounding rocket in the mid-1960s.

    The logical next step would of course be to place a telescope in orbit, where it could continuously perform observations rather than be limited to a few minutes outside the atmosphere like a sounding rocket-based model. Indeed, Giacconi and other x-ray astronomers had proposed doing just that several times before and after the first successful telescope, laying out a plan that would lead to a major Earth-orbiting x-ray observatory being launched in the 1970s after a precursor mission. However, the higher budgets and greater oversight associated with space programs as opposed to cheap, quick sounding rockets slowed any implementation of this concept. AS&E could not simply go out and develop their own x-ray satellite and arrange for it to be launched; they would have to pursue and maintain the favor of NASA and the astronomical community while developing a much larger and more complex telescope than they had demonstrated in flight previously. At this juncture, the HEAO program came along at just the right time to support such a mission, and Giacconi’s team quickly latched on to the concept as a method of moving their project forwards. Construction of the telescope, while, as with all space projects, not easy, had nevertheless not been marred by the political and technical difficulties experienced by Hubble, and by the assigned launch date of late 1978 what would be dubbed the Einstein Observatory was more than ready for launch. As expected, it had a significant effect on x-ray astronomy. At last, many diffuse sources could be resolved into point components, and other sources imaged in fine detail. X-ray sources in distant galaxies could be resolved, providing some of the first evidence for supermassive black holes at the center of those galaxies (in the form of large, energetic jets of gas being emitted from their nuclei), and spectroscopic measurements of many sources were taken for the first time.[10]

    As the High Energy Astronomical Observatories launched, attention was finally beginning to turn towards what, if any, large scale projects should succeed the Hubble Space Telescope as a priority for the late 1980s and early 1990s, as Hubble would be hitting its stride. Given the success of the High Energy Astronomical Observatories over the last few years, the obvious choice, confirmed by the astronomy decadal survey completed in 1982[11], was a follow-on to that program. As envisioned by the decadal survey, such a follow-on would consist of two “Advanced High Energy Observatories,” one a gamma-ray satellite equipped with a range of instruments and the other a large imaging x-ray telescope, as had been proposed some time ago to succeed HEAO-2. Although NASA had been studying both for several years, under the rubrics of the “Large Gamma-Ray Observatory,” or LGO, and the “Advanced X-Ray Telescope,” or AXT, respectively, the funding requirements of other major programs had prevented more than conceptual work from being completed. Combined with the Vulkan Panic and the recent launch of a large Soviet gamma-ray observatory named, unimaginatively, “Gamma,” the decadal survey’s endorsement provided the impulse necessary to move from paper studies to actual program. As the AXT and LGO would be closer in size and therefore budget to Hubble rather than the smaller HEAOs or even earlier telescopes, it would be infeasible to develop them simultaneously even with the expanded budgets made available in the wake of the Vulkan Panic. The natural choice for prioritization was AXT. Besides the fact that the Einstein Observatory had only just demonstrated the ability to operate an x-ray telescope to begin with, such an observatory would require advanced (and therefore impressive) technology, something fitting in well with the environment of the Panic. While work on the AXT was therefore started almost immediately, with a launch planned for perhaps shortly after Hubble’s slated demise, work on the LGO was put off until after AXT’s launch, meaning that it could not be completed before the late 1990s or early 2000s.

    [1]: These are, of course, similar to the OTL observatories IUE (which was, in fact, essentially a descoped LAS) and IRAS. Note, however, that Europe is taking a lead role in both (largely because Britain, which was heavily involved in both programs OTL, is now a major ESA member), rather than leading from behind, as it were. However, as noted later ESA spending on these two spacecraft precludes their involvement in COROT and x-ray astronomy more generally.

    [2]: This is largely following the OTL discoveries of the spacecraft. I don’t see any particular reason why the results of the first orbital infrared telescope wouldn’t be broadly similar, to the level of detail in the post.

    [3]: IOTL, in the 1982 period there were meetings between scientists from the European Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences to discuss various possibilities for collaboration on planetary science projects, which led by and by to Cassini-Huygens. So far as I am aware, there was no larger goal on the part of the ESF or ESA in those meetings, but I felt the presented idea of a larger series of meetings involving more countries was plausible. You will be hearing more about these and what they led to on the American side in Part III...

    [4]: Conceptually, this is similar to a merger of the Infrared Space Observatory and Spitzer; obviously, it has the orbital characteristics of the latter and the nationality (so to speak) of the former. The Europa 4, unlike the Ariane 4, has more than enough power to lift even a large space observatory into heliocentric orbit, and from my reading it seems that such orbits were preferred beginning in about the 1980s because of the cited advantages.

    [5]: The “planned future projects” being the various planetary missions previously discussed. Effectively, Usuda plus the European facilities can obtain DSN-type coverage without needing to touch NASA.

    [6]: Readers interested in the IIO may find the ISO handbook and ISO scientific publications list interesting.

    [7]: Yes, I’m teasing you ;) You’ll have to wait until Part III for more...

    [8]: IOTL, the first Indian satellite launched was an x-ray astronomy satellite, Aryabhata. This may or may not have been more successful ITTL.

    [9]: More technical details may be found here, at the Goddard web site.

    [10]: As with IRAS, I felt the OTL discoveries would be similar to the ITTL discoveries.

    [11]: IOTL, the corresponding decadal survey recommended four "large" programs, two of which were space-based. First, there was, essentially, Chandra (then called AXAF). Second, there was a large deployable reflector; think a bigger version of the James Webb optimized for optical wavelengths and deployed from Shuttle.

    (Out of interest, the two ground programs were the Very-Long Baseline Array and a large (~15m!) telescope for optical and infrared observations).

    It may be noted that they got 2.5/4 of these large projects, albeit Chandra arrived roughly a half-decade after the other one and a half (the VLBA, completed in 1993, and the Keck, which while only 10m does operate in the optical and near-infrared bands, and was also completed in 1993)
    Part II: Post 25: Beginning assembly of Space Station Freedom and slow death of Soviet space dreams
  • Well, folks, it's that time again. Actually, it's a bit before that time--I've got something to do before my noon class today so I'm getting this all up a bit early. I know some people out there have been waiting for this update for a while, so I trust it being a half hour or so early won't trouble anyone too much. However, before we move into all the juicy update goodness, a couple of production notes. The first is that as of this week, the writing of Part II is substantially completed--this was the last major remaining update. We've got something on TTL's International Solar Polar Mission that might get slotted in if it can be finished, but the key material we wanted to cover in Part II is all now either posted or sitting in our planning docs awaiting its turn. So we're in it to the finish folks, and what a finish it'll be. :) Final word count even without the potential drop-in update on the ISPM is just over 75,000 words, to which you might as well add the ~35,000 of Part I for a total that I personally find pretty staggering. When did we write all this, and why's everyone bothering to read it? :eek:

    Anyway, to sum up: as of this update, our main behind the scenes focus is shifting to Part III, though we've been working on sketching out the main points for months now. Our goal is to write as much of Part III as we can before Part II finishes to minimize any haitus, but we'll see how the semester treats truth is life and I. Anyway, that's about enough of holding you up from the stuff you're really reading this for, or have you already scrolled past to the update itself? Either way, without further ado, the long-awaited station update. 1188 replies, 146671 views

    Eyes Turned Skyward, Part II: Post #25

    For the United States, the dawn of 1988 brought the promise of finally catching back up to the Soviets on the ground ceded in the lean pre-Spacelab years. That station had seen its final crew the year before, and then finally been deorbited under the control of an Aardvark logistics spacecraft, just like its long-passed sibling Skylab. As the Spacelab orbital workshop, originally built as a backup for Spacelab some 15 years prior, burned up and broke apart under the heat and aerodynamic forces of entry above the Indian Ocean, so too did the final pieces of legacy Apollo space hardware. In its wake, the first of the new wave of Apollo-derived hardware were being prepared to meet the promise of further development of space. AARDV-14, the final Block I Aardvark, had also been the first payload launched on a Saturn Multibody-family rocket, and now the wait was for the other members of the family to prove their function--most critically the massive Saturn H03, the American equivalent of the Soviet Vulkan-Herakles which had lofted the first module of Mir almost a year before.

    The spring and summer saw continuations of these preparations, both in the United States and around the world. In clean rooms across the United States, Europe and Japan, the modules that would make up Space Station Freedom were being readied. The massive habitat and service core, with its tank-derived habitat modules grafted to the stump that would someday grow into the station’s massive truss, had been shipped to the Cape and was undergoing checkout as VAB High Bay 3 began to fill with the cores of the first Saturn Heavy. Given how critical the HSM core was to be to the new station, the job of preparing it had to be perfect. The detailed and tedious job of making sure hundreds of flight-critical systems and thousands of parts were all perfect lead many ground crew to in the process the operations crew felt the module earned the name which had been settled on by NASA headquarters, one shared by a past far-flung tool of exploration. The unopposed queen of NASA’s checkout hanger would fly to space bearing the name Challenger.

    However, before it could, the Saturn Heavy would have to prove itself in turn--Challenger was too critical to be trusted to an untested booster. Instead, the first flight of a Saturn H03 would take flight ballasted with 10 cubic meters of steel to simulate the maxium 77 ton payload of the Saturn Multibody. In July, after months of work, the maiden H03 rolled ponderously to the pad. While the tip of the fairing rolled by 40 meters below the top of the doors, only four feet of clearance would separate the triple cores from the outer door edges, designed for the Saturn V’s 10 meter diameter. Careful and slow work allowed the crawler to clear the confines of the bay bearing the thousand tons of launch vehicle (not to mention the weight of the launch platform and access tower) and begin the slow trip to the pad. After another week of checkouts, the mission lifted off the pad in late July. The benefit of building on a proven heritage paid off--the launch was flawless, with the J-2S engine of the S-IVC third stage burning out to place the mass simulator into precisely the right orbit roughly ten minutes later. However, unlike the Soviet “mass simulator” which Vulkan had carried on its maiden flight, this was indeed nothing more than proof of the vehicle’s functionality. The payload’s orbit was deliberately set to deorbit after a week, reportedly creating a fairly impressive fireball right on target over the mid-Pacific.

    The real moment of truth for Freedom would come in October, after months of work preparing the second H03 and Challenger for flight were completed. The massive module was lifted into the transfer aisle and carefully attached to the booster, then shielded within the massive widebody fairing, 10 meters in diameter and almost 32 meters from base to tip. Finally prepared for launch, Challenger rolled to the pad in November. Not since Spacelab had so much depended on a single launch, and many Skylab veterans were holding their breath, just as they had during Spacelab’s launch. However, as with that launch over a decade earlier, in spite of the worries--or perhaps because of them--the launch was picture-perfect. Like the mass simulator that had preceded it, the launch vehicle performed perfectly. Ten minutes after liftoff, clear of the fairing which had eliminated the risk of any Skylab-style failures, the massive core module separated from the expended S-IVC, fired its thrusters to move into a clear orbit and extended the solar arrays and radiators which would power it until the arrival of the first sections of the truss. Two days later, the first crew of the station arrived in their Block IV Apollo. Commander Jack Bailey, like Don Hunt a member of the Twenty Freaking New Guys who had matured into an experienced astronaut, became the first to dock to the station using the aft port. Rookie pilot Gerald Mitchell, riding in the “fifth seat”on his first trip to space, became the first person to open a CADS hatch in space and the first to enter the dark, empty station. After activating the station’s systems, the crew’s time was absorbed with checking and re-checking the station’s systems for anything that might have changed since it had been encapsulated two weeks before. After almost two day’s worth of inspections, the station was pronounced healthy and the crew moved into the quarters that had been prepared in the habitat section.


    Figure 1. Artist's impression of the final docking approach of Freedom 1's Block IV Apollo to the Space Station Freedom HSM Aft Port, the beginning of the station's operational lifespan.

    The remainder of the crew’s six month period on the station would see them prepare the station to receive and attach the first of the station’s nodes to the forward port of the HSM, including retracting the first of the two large “keep-alive” solar panels. The node also brought with it the first of the station’s robotic arms, which was to be critical in the final task facing the crew of Freedom Expedition 1. The third ever Saturn Multibody carried to orbit the inner segment of the port truss. The segment was carried to the station by an AARDV Block II bus and carefully maneuvered to dock with the station. The delicacy of the operation was complicated by the total mass of the components--nearly 175 tons between the truss, the node, the CSM, and the AARDV bus attached to the truss. While the crew waited in their capsule in case of failure, the massive truss segment drifted in slowly. To minimize the error in the approach and the momentum which would have to be absorbed by the docking mechanism’s dampers, the final approach was conducted at a mere 0.1 m/s, turning the 150 m final approach into nearly half an hour of waiting. “It was the longest twenty-five minutes of my life,” Gerald Mitchell said later. “It was just out there in the dark, coming closer, and the weight of it was something that could be felt in the air, and in my gut.” Finally, the station lurched slightly as the massive truss segment came together with the existing station. With the docking verified on the ground, the hatch into the HSM was re-opened, and the crew emerged. Over the last few weeks of the mission, the Expedition 1 crew would conduct EVAs to connect ammonia coolant lines, electrical power systems, and wiring for controls and sensors, then deployed the first of the station’s solar panels. With the station’s power systems operational, Jack Bailey and the Expedition 1 crew turned the station over to its second crew, commanded by another TFNG veteran, Nick Wallace, in April 1989. While the station’s scientific functions were still minimal, still to come in the various labs, 1988 had seen Freedom turn from a collection of hardware in clean rooms into a going concern in orbit.


    Figure 2. Space Station Freedom's extent as of the completion of Freedom 1's expedition to the station. The radically asymmetric appearance leads this author to think of this as the station's "one-winged angel" period.

    On the ground, preparations for the remainder of Freedom’s launch and assembly campaign were still underway. The remaining half of the station’s inboard truss began its checkout as soon as its (mirror-image) twin was launched, while the US and European labs began final checkout for their launches later in the year. However, Kennedy Space Center in Florida was not the only launch site seeing work on Freedom. At Korou in French Guiana, the first Europa 4 was rolled to the pad in May 1989 for its maiden launch. Additionally, cargo transports brought the payload that had justified moving forward Europa 4 development, as the first Minotaur command and service modules arrived from France and Germany, respectively, in June. Though the program had been initially aiming for a late 1989 launch, budget concerns and the sheer technical challenge of designing a capsule had added delays, and the launch date slipped into 1990 as the capsule began checkout, mating to the service module, and then preparations for integration with the launch vehicle. Above in orbit, Freedom would continue to grow under the eyes of the Expedition 2 crew, with the second inner truss and the US and European labs being launched over the course of the crew’s mission. Working alongside Wallace, rookie mission specialist Beverly McDowell and pilot Ryan Little put the capabilities of the new A9 suit to the test as they conducted a cummulative total of nearly 72 hours of EVA over 3 marathon 6-hour sessions to hook up the truss’s power and data fittings, and prepare exposed lab space on both the European lab Columbus and the US truss. Inside the station, work to connect the labs to power, data, and life support was an ongoing process, mainly the responsibility of the other two mission specialists, with American Josh Carter taking point on the American Discovery lab and Italian Amedeo Trevisani taking lead in work on the Italian-built Columbus. With these preparations complete, the station was pronounced to have reached “Initial Operational Capacity” in August and the crew size was increased with the launch of another Apollo bearing the Freedom 3 expedition. There was still work to come in the launch of the second node and the lab and centrifuge module which the Japanese contributions to the station, as well as the outer panels of the station’s massive truss, a launch campaign that was due to continue into 1990, but the station was mostly complete, fully operational, and settling into routine.


    Figure 3. Rendering of Space Station Freedom's extent as of the completion of the Freedom 2 expedition. US Lab Discovery is at Node 1 Port, the European lab Columbus is at Node 1 Starboard. The Apollo craft for Freedom 2 and 3 are located at Node 1 zenith and nadir, respectively.

    Things were less rosy in the Soviet Union, and the results for their space program were dire. Though Mir’s core module had beaten Freedom to orbit by almost a year, the social upheaval of the late ‘80s was turning into outright revolt in many of the outlying nations, and the budgets allocated to the space program suffered in turn. While original plans in the early 80s had called for the station’s assembly to be completed within a year, in fact the station’s first year of operation had seen only one of the four subsidiary modules launch, while checkout work on the second of the massive MOK cores had been delayed in order to focus more resources on the remaining labs and supporting the launches to keep the station and its crew of 6 supplied. Valentin Glushko, the Soviet Chief Designer, spent almost all of 1988 shutting between Moscow and Baikonur, trying to secure the continued operations of the Soviet space program even as the continued existence of the Soviet Union began to be called into question. In the end, what he was able to secure was the promise of funding to launch two more of the subsidiary labs and to sustain the crew size at 6 for the moment, based mostly on the rubles already spent and the loss of face and damage to national pride that would come with entirely abandoning the half-completed station. However, in exchange, a price had to be paid. Work on the second MOK core was suspended entirely at 75% readiness, as was checkout on the fourth DOS lab, which was nearing 50% readiness. While the hardware was not scrapped, the image of the massive second MOK in its checkout cradle at Baikonur was emblematic of the state of the Soviet program--and even the Soviet Union as a whole. The plans to build a second Vulkan launch sites to supplement the launch rate achievable at Baikonur were discarded. Seeing his dreams of the Soviet Union setting foot on the moon crushed in favor of a focus on Earth orbit had been hard enough for Glushko to take in his 17 years as Chief Designer. Seeing his country collapse around him as he fought with every tool in his arsenal to keep any of the program he’d worked so hard to foster alive finally took its toll. Valentin Glushko died in April, 1989, leaving behind an operational Vulkan, a half-completed station, and grand dreams of the moon and beyond.


    Figure 4. Space Station Mir extent as of the start of 1988.


    Figure 5. Space Station Mir extent as of the death of Valentin Glushko (April 1989).


    Figure 6. Space Station Mir, original intended extent as designed by Glushko in late 1970s and early 1980s.

    Glushko’s death would open a chance for one of the last of the great Soviet rocket engineers to have his shot at greatness. Although Ustinov's death several years earlier had allowed Chelomei to win back some of the prominence in space technology that he had lost during the 1960s and 1970s, Glushko's mastery over the program limited his ability to contest for different programs and expand his own personal empire. With Glushko's death, however, Chelomei finally became the undisputed dean of the Soviet space program, able to heavily influence, though not outright dictate, Soviet space policy. Unfortunately for him, however, just as he took over the Soviet system was teetering on the edge of collapse, with the reunification of Germany already a foregone happening and dissent within the other countries of the Soviet bloc beginning to boil over. Although he made efforts to capture space programs from other establishments, the lethargic pace of late Soviet bureaucracy and the preoccupation of most of its members with more urgent affairs made this largely ineffectual, as with his efforts to begin setting the stage for the space policy of the next Five-Year plan, scheduled to start in 1992. Nevertheless, he energetically moved to draw up what he would do with the space program, assured (or so he thought) of finding no significant factor within the space program or the defense ministry to oppose him.

    Perhaps not surprisingly for an engineer who had started in aeronautics and only later moved to spaceflight, Chelomei had always had an interest in spaceplanes. Immediately upon assuring himself that the last political obstacles to his effective leadership over the space program had vanished, he began drawing up plans to replace virtually the whole infrastructure of Soviet space vehicles and launchers with a collection of aerospacecraft produced by OKB-52, using them to drastically lower the cost of launch before completing a series of huge projects in space. First, a small spaceplane nicknamed "Briz," "Breeze" in Russian, carrying five to eight cosmonauts and a few tonnes of supplies would be introduced, launched atop Vulkan to completely replace his earlier TKS in the space-station logistics role. This vehicle would also prove the basic aerodynamic design and thermal protection system materials to be used on the next, larger craft, "Buran," "Snowstorm," which would replace the Cosmos, Soyuz, and a multitude of other relatively small launchers, together with "Briz" itself, with a single craft capable of taking off horizontally and lifting up to ten tonnes and eight cosmonauts into orbit through a combination of turboramjets and tripropellant rocket engines burning kerosene or liquid hydrogen with liquid oxygen to maximize performance in different regions of the atmosphere. Finally, a third vehicle, "Uragan," for "Hurricane," would be introduced to completely replace Vulkan, lifting up to 30 tonnes into space in a single launch. Although Chelomei considered a horizontal takeoff mode for this vehicle as well, he concluded that the sheer size would make it impractical, and therefore specified a vertical takeoff mode, using an expendable external tank to carry the bulky liquid hydrogen demanded by the tripropellant engines (scaled up from the version on Buran). However, like its smaller cousins Uragan would reenter and land like an airplane, though under automatic control, on any of a number of long airstrips, possibly ferrying down satellites in need of repairs or materials that needed to be returned to Earth at the same time.

    By introducing these spaceplanes, Chelomei believed, the price of space launch could be lowered ten-fold--to no more than a few hundred dollars a kilogram based on prevailing Soviet prices for labor and materials. By slashing the cost of spacelaunch to the bone, an expansive space program could begin, one that would feature both the sort of wide-ranging exploration that has captivated aerospace engineers since rocket flight was introduced and more practical, Earth-centered tasks. First a massive low Earth orbit space station, larger even than Mir, would be constructed to serve as the hub of future space activities. While existing space stations were research platforms in orbit, this would be a factory-cum-transit hub, producing and shipping a wide variety of products all over space. Once this was completed, it would enable a wide variety of other tasks to begin. Earth-bound nuclear waste could be packaged and launched into space, repackaged at the station, and shipped to the Moon or another destination where it would be permanently removed from and harmless to the population of Earth. Gigantic solar power platforms and mirrors could be built and launched, the one providing enormous amounts of clean, cheap electrical power to the world (evidently, Chelomei had been reading O'Neill lately), the other illuminating vast stretches of the Earth during the night, erasing the difference between arctic and tropical (at least in terms of lighting) and greatly extending the productive period of the day. A variety of otherwise impossible to make products could be manufactured in zero-g conditions, providing not only a potentially huge source of foreign currency, but also a significant possibility for improving the average person's quality of life. In parallel to these more practical ambitions, the Soviet Union would begin a massive exploration program. A lunar expedition far larger and more capable than Apollo could be assembled at the platform and dispatched, featuring a dozen or more cosmonauts spending months on and around the Moon for exploring multiple sites in-depth. The first human Mars expedition could be put together, perhaps launching by the centennial of the October Revolution and returning before the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11. Even expeditions further abroad, flying by Venus, perhaps, or venturing as far out as the asteroids or Jupiter, could be contemplated with the capabilities of his family of vehicles.

    The creativity, boldness, and sheer broad-ranging imagination of Chelomei's vision is a credit to Soviet rocket engineers and scientists, being in its way the ultimate expression of their long-held dreams. However, as creative and inspiring as the plan might be, it was dead on arrival, a complete fantasy under the conditions the Soviet Union was struggling under in the late 1980s. Budgets for developing approved space probes and operating existing spacecraft were collapsing as society seemed to be rending itself apart, leaving little room for such fantastic ideas in the national discourse. While the space program was and remains a point of pride to Russia, one of the areas where it can honestly claim to have been ahead of the United States in many areas at many times, it only needed to survive, not to thrive, to maintain that pride, and in any event pride is less fulfilling than full bellies. As such, Chelomei's fantasy remained his fantasy, as he found himself completely unable to gain any political support for the plan whatsoever. Even after the final collapse of the Soviet Union, as he suddenly found himself in the unaccustomed position of having to operate a business rather than a design bureau and started shipping the concept around to various foreign firms and nations to drum up business, little attention was granted to his far-flung ideas. In the end, even development of "Briz" never started, and Chelomei was forced to retire from NPO Mashinostroyenia in 1995, too old and entrenched in Soviet-era thinking to effectively operate the corporation any longer, at least in the opinion of the board of directors. After retiring to his home in Moscow, he played host to a stream of journalists and historians fascinated by the last of the "Chief Designers," all the while working on his memoirs of a lifetime in aerospace engineering.

    However, for the moment in 1989, the Soviet program was severely destabilized by loss of its guiding hand, its fiscal support, and the increasingly shaky foundations of the entire Soviet government. It began to become apparent that, Chelomei’s visions aside, even keeping Mir operational in its reduced state might pose serious issues. This stood in stark contrast to the state of Freedom operations: though both stations were only half-complete, for Freedom this was only a temporary fate and the ongoing assembly of the massive orbital outpost was resparking public interest in the space program following years of apparent drifting since the days of Vulkan panic. Thus, in the United States, in Europe, in Japan, and in the Soviet Union, the same question was being addressed, though with very different tone behind the slowly shattering Iron Curtain. That question was, simply, “What’s next?”


    Figure 7. Space Station Freedom on-orbit as of reaching initial operational capacity (IOC).


    Figure 8. Space Station Mir, the uncompleted "Great Station," on orbit as of the same point.


    Figure 9. Despite their radically different orbital inclinations (51.6 degrees for Mir and 28.5 for Freedom), the two stations would occasionally be visible in the night sky from the ground at the same time. One such rare occasion occurred November 9, 1989 with the moon as a backdrop. An amateur astronomer using a 10" telescope managed to snap this image, which came to be known as the "Triple Moon" image. The red arrows indicate the velocity vectors of the two stations--the results of their differing inclinations can be clearly seen.
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    Part II: Post 26: Which way to go? The struggle for a US space program under NASA, the Lunar Society and the National Space Organization
  • Sorry for the delay this week, homework's been a bit of a pain lately. Anyway, this week, we're returning to the public case for space with another look at the field of space advocacy and the organizations involved. 1209 replies, 149574 views.

    Eyes Turned Skyward, Part II: Post #26

    Unfortunately for enthusiasts of spaceflight in the late 1970s, the outlook for space had gotten no more friendly since the early part of the decade. Nixon, at least, had been a huge fan of the astronauts, and Agnew was as much infatuated with spaceflight as any member of the Lunar Society or the National Space Organization; Carter, on the other hand, was a Georgia peanut farmer, having as little interest in space as anyone else meeting that description might be expected to, while Mondale was actively hostile towards NASA. Congress was no more interested in massive space programs than it had been earlier in the decade, and while Lunar Society advocates, many of them decidedly...odd...enthusiastically promoted the plan, politicians fixated on the probable price tag of hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars. No matter that it would be spent mostly in the future, with less valuable dollars than were being spent today; there was little tangible return (would not nuclear or renewable energy provide perfectly abundant power at no more cost?), plenty of risks both technical and otherwise, and a general hostility towards "nutty," "science fiction" space projects among the senior leadership. NASA began to feel the same pressure, and the studies of space colonization which had briefly blossomed quickly died, their funding cut or redirected towards more modest goals under the direction of management eager to avoid hostile political attention generated by something which was clearly infeasible in the near term.

    Together, these responses brought into the open a growing strand of opinion among members of the Lunar Society that government was not the way to turn in developing space. Inspired by the description by O'Neill of his colonies as being free, open lands, the growth of libertarianism in the United States, and an influx of right-wing, generally libertarian science-fiction writers like Robert Heinlein and Jerry Pournelle into the Society, many began to believe that instead private industry could be relied upon to forge the path ahead. Oh, not all at once, of course, but many of the key steps, particularly developing cheap lift, seemed amenable to private solutions. And in the heady air of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the satellite market was experiencing its first major boom, private solutions seemed to be behind every bush. Government might have been moribund, trapped behind walls of political skepticism, but private industry was exploding with concepts. Everything between Gary Hudson's single-stage to orbit "airplanes" (seemingly modeled after Phil Bono's 1960s concepts for the ROMBUS mega-booster, although greatly scaled down) to Kaysar's OTRAG ultra-simple parallel-staged pressure-fed booster was proposed, and while almost all of them got nowhere it seemed a fertile ground for space enthusiasts interested in private ventures.

    Thus, while the National Space Organization continued to promote government-funded and developed space access methods and space programs, the Lunar Society had become skeptical of the ability of government to promote space exploration. Their call was for NASA, and to a lesser extent the Air Force, to step out of the way of private industry. No longer would any business looking to launch a satellite need to get permission from NASA and arrange launches through NASA, eventually launching aboard a NASA-owned and operated rocket; instead, they would merely contract with a private firm which would handle everything itself, in a similar fashion to the way in which a company needing to ship products overseas can simply contract with a myriad of private shipping firms, rather than needing to go through the Navy. While most members conceded that there might be a role for NASA in conducting non-profitable activities like astronomy or space exploration, and that government might be effectively employed in subsidizing or regulating space activities, the more hardline members denied even these relatively modest sentiments, insisting on private space development and private space exploration.

    Even the emergence of Vulkan onto the scene in 1982 did little to change these sentiments, at least in public, instead merely hardening them. The Lunar Society and National Space Organization sharply differed on what the proper response by the American government, and society more generally, ought to be. The Lunar Society proposed a radical deregulation of the space environment, the withdrawal of NASA and the Air Force from the space launch business, and a focus on “making space safe for business” more generally, all with the long-term goal of colonizing the Moon and circum-Earth space as Dr. O’Neill had proposed. More radical members even argued that if such measures had been in place before the “crisis,” it could have been avoided altogether, indeed perhaps the Soviets would be envying American space technology rather than the reverse. By contrast, the National Space Organization put forth a rather tepid call for increased funding to NASA, leading to (unspecified) space exploration missions. Although expected from the NSO, given its origins, this statement actually masked the beginnings of an intense political battle within the organization that would end with Sagan effectively being removed from the NSO’s leadership.

    The basic issue was that, as far away from each other as the Lunar Society and National Space Organization might have been on paper, in practice many members of one were also members of the other. After all, one might believe both in the idealistic long-term colonization dreams of O’Neill and the more practical, short-term vision of a vigorous NASA put forth by the NSO. On a local level, many enthusiasts were content to interact with anyone else who was interested in space, happy to have found anyone else to carry on a niche hobby with, and created locals that effectively served both organizations simultaneously. As such, there was actually substantial cross-pollination of thought between the two organizations. Many members of the Lunar Society, while they might have favored increased privatization of space, were not necessarily opposed to NASA, or to increased NASA budgets per se. Contrariwise, many of the members of the National Space Organization were in tune with the somewhat defensive and libertarian mindset of the Lunar Society, and might have thought that there were areas where private organizations would work better than NASA.

    This came to a head as the NSO struggled to craft a response to the sudden increase in attention prompted by Vulkan. Sagan, and the clique that had formed around him, favored increased funding to robotic exploration and a joint mission with the Soviet Union, probably to Mars, as the centerpieces of any new NASA program, while many of the rank-and-file, together with a few elements of the leadership on the outs with Sagan, favored a more aggressive and competitive response that would see NASA going it alone, or with token involvement from ESA, and with a focus mainly on expanded human spaceflight. Thus, Vulkan’s launch had sparked a conflict between two factions which, while perhaps differing in views, could otherwise have gotten along with each other indefinitely. The result was a no-holds barred, stand-up fight between Sagan, the Great Communicator of space, and less charismatic but more in-tune members. Sagan’s life, however, did not revolve entirely around the NSO, as he was becoming more interested in scientific education, skepticism, and other non-NSO activities. Perhaps he was also becoming somewhat tired of an organization he had led for the past half-decade as well, as his fight to remain in the top spot seemed to be less vigorous and energetic than might have been expected from someone so intimately tied with space exploration, not just in his leadership of the NSO but in his previous career. After a year of warfare in the boardrooms and the backrooms of the organization, a compromise was reached: Sagan would be “promoted” to Executive Director, effectively removing him from the leadership but allowing the organization to retain his image for fundraising and publicity campaigns. Sagan would be free to undertake other activities, with only nominal responsibilities to the NSO, while his opponents would be largely free to run the organization as they saw fit.

    With Sagan’s effective removal from the NSO, the organization promptly adopted a “strategic plan” outlining where it wanted the United States to go in spaceflight over the next several decades. Unsurprisingly, given the views of the faction that had won the internal battle, it congratulated the Freedom effort, called for a commitment to a humans-to-Mars mission by 2001, and argued for a greatly increased NASA budget and range of activities. Present, but relegated to a secondary priority were commercial activities, where the NSO commended efforts to construct a private launch market and the beginnings of a private satellite market. It also called for NASA to increase R&D funding on technologies that might be beneficial to private operators, such as reusable launch vehicles, but otherwise remained largely silent on interactions between government and commercial space operations. To accompany this strategic plan were a series of NSO-funded studies of various space exploration possibilities, mostly geared towards advocating a Mars mission.

    This was the most visible expression to date of a rebirth of interest in Mars exploration among space enthusiasts. Mars, while always the ultimate relatively “near-term” destination for those interested in space exploration, equally always has gone through peaks and troughs of interest. In the wake of the Viking missions, interest had plunged from a peak generated by Mariner 9 to a severe trough, as their inability to find life cooled interest in the Red Planet for the time being. By the early 1980s, though, the initial disappointment had bounced back, as advocates consoled themselves with the thought that the landers simply hadn’t looked in the right places to find life. Combined with the arrival of the Soviet Mars 9 and American Pioneer Mars orbiters, the rebirth of interest in Mars expeditions was perhaps inevitable. Communicating through word-of-mouth and other “underground” methods, a tightly bound network of Mars enthusiasts, often members of the wider aerospace or space advocacy community, slowly grew up in the early part of the decade, assisted by a series of conferences on the topic of human exploration of Mars organized by some of the most enterprising members. Interest only increased, both among those already predisposed towards space exploration and the general public as the Vulkan Panic burst onto the scene; of particular concern was the large size of the Vulkan, with many concluding that this was intended to allow the Soviets to conduct a Mars mission relatively soon. This directly spurred the resumption of planning for humans-to-Mars missions at NASA, which was asked by Congress and the Reagan Administration to prepare a response in the event that the Reds did indeed want to reach the Red Planet, as well as more general beyond-Earth-orbit planning for the post-Freedom period.

    Many of the formerly-underground Mars boosters would play a role in these studies, or would prepare similar studies of their own in response to NASA's. As time passed, one in particular began to stand out from the crowd, one Robert Zubrin. Zubrin was passionate, charismatic, blunt, and outspoken about what spaceflight needed. An active member of the Boulder chapters of both the Lunar Society and the National Space Organization, he organized several small-scale meetings about Mars mission planning involving interested members of those chapters while working on a masters in aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder. A number of the recommendations from these meetings flowed up to the analysis being performed for the National Space Organization’s overall planning Immediately after graduating, he was hired as an engineer at Lockheed’s nearby Titan production facility, a role to which he took well, earning a series of promotions. In the meantime, he continued his activities in space advocacy, in which he took a gradually more hardline position advocating Mars and denigrating large, bureaucratic national programs, a stance doubtlessly fueled by his position at the largest and most successful commercial space company in the country. His views were widely propagated in the official publications of both the National Space Organization and the Lunar Society, creating a growing nucleus of people who saw not the Moon and not exploration for its own sake but Mars as the next logical destination for human spaceflight.

    As the decade grew to a close, then, three strands of opinion were emerging in the space advocacy community. First, there were those who wished for humanity to spread into and colonize space--not just sometime in the future, but now. The limitless opportunities--business opportunities--of space needed to be exploited, and not by the government. Second, there were those who were less concerned with immediately colonizing space but who still desired a program more active than circling the Earth in a station, never venturing beyond. Finally, within the organizations representing both camps there was a bubbling camp of discontents who agreed, in part, with both positions, but whose real passion was the Red Planet. Perhaps this situation would have continued to some new equilibrium if it were not for the fact that NASA’s activity, largely neglected through all of this, would shortly toss a bombshell into future planning...
    Part II: Post 27: Beginnings of the Chinese Space Program
  • Good afternoon! As the end of Part II gets ever-closer, we're starting to set the stage for some of the threads we'll be following up on in Part III. This week, we turn our attention to a player in the space field whose impact during the timeline so far has been limited, but who will be coming into their own in Part III: China. 1232 replies, 152115 views

    Eyes Turned Skyward, Part II: Post #27

    The history of China's spaceflight program is a long and sordid tale, soaked with political intrigue to at least as great a degree as the Soviet Union's. In many ways, it is also a tale that recapitulates China's modern history in miniature; first, dependence on the West, in this case the Soviet Union, to make up for technological deficiencies that have accumulated over a long period of time; then, after a conflict, development of native Chinese capabilities; then, a demonstration of those capabilities that surprises the world, accustomed to China's backwardness. By the mid-1950s, it was obvious to China's political leadership that development of ballistic missiles would be necessary and important for China's security, principally against the United States but also (as Sino-Soviet relations waned) against their traditional enemy Russia, in conjunction with a nuclear weapons development program. The withdrawal of Soviet support in 1960, prior to having received most of the planned examples of Soviet ballistic missile technology, severely affected the Chinese program, forcing them to nearly start from scratch. Nevertheless, by the late 1960s it was clear to the engineers and scientists responsible for China's missiles that China would shortly have a proper ICBM, had already developed several effective types of SRBM and IRBM, and (after detonating its first nuclear weapon in 1964) would therefore possess an adequate deterrent soon. While work still remained to be done, of course, the immediate pressure was no longer so large, and it was possible to begin thinking about doing something other than pell-mell pushing for China to be sufficiently secured against attack.

    As with aerospace engineers everywhere, those involved with the program were dreamers, and thoughts soon turned towards using the newly-developed missiles in a space program. One was already underway, of course, spurred by the demonstrated capabilities of Soviet and American satellites over the past decade and the strategic value of satellite capabilities for China, but the dream went much further, involving an expansive project of Chinese expansion into space, starting with a modest human spaceflight program: Shuguang, "Dawn" in Mandarin Chinese. Modeled closely after the US Gemini program, Shuguang was supposed to be able to fly a pair of astronauts into space by the mid-1970s, serving as a base upon which China could expand and construct a program to rival that of the United States or the Soviet Union. Unfortunately for those involved, the Cultural Revolution began shortly after Shuguang itself, greatly upsetting the program's progress as promising young students abandoned their studies, prominent scientists were arrested and imprisoned, and, to top it all off, Lin Biao, a top Party official who had been a close political ally of senior space program figures, fell from grace after an alleged attempt to carry out a coup d'etat against Mao's government. Combined with an understandable feeling on the part of most of China's political leadership that economic growth and national security were more important concerns than space stunts, Shuguang had ignominiously perished by 1972, long before any hardware was built. Nevertheless, the seeds of a later program were planted by Shuguang, and the related development of the FSW spy satellites provided experience in recovering ballistic capsules that would prove invaluable to the task of recovering crewed capsules.

    By 1982, a decade after the failure of their last attempt, the Chinese astronautical community was again ready to push for a human spaceflight program, while after the stabilization which followed the death of Mao and a decade of economic growth, Chinese political leadership was finally ready to listen[1]. In the view of many senior political leaders, China needed to make a quantum leap from merely having a fantastic heavy industrial base and solid agricultural capabilities to being a world leader in advanced scientific research and technology development. Putting a Chinese cosmonaut into space with Chinese technology before the next century would help spur many of those developments, and more importantly would be a very visible demonstration to the world that the Chinese had, indeed, caught up with the West in terms of high technology. Like the Soviet and American programs, the Chinese chose to design a capsule for their first outing, although like those earlier programs there were a wide variety of more exotic proposals considered, including several spaceplane designs and fully reusable launch vehicles. Based on an upscaled version of the capsule design developed for their FSW spy satellite program, Project 827 would accommodate up to three cosmonauts during their ride to orbit. As with the Soviet and American capsule designs, once in space their cosmonauts could use a larger orbital module. Due to weight constraints forced by the relatively small boosters available to the Chinese program, however, Project 827 was designed significantly differently than Apollo or TKS, hearkening back to the economical design of the Soyuz. Consideration was given to both nautical and terrestrial modes of recovery, but in the end cost concerns, the presence of large uninhabited areas in the People’s Republic and the usual authoritarian desire for information control led them to select a land-landing mode for the capsule. When the basic capability of China to orbit cosmonauts was demonstrated, a space station would be constructed, which Project 827 and derivatives could easily service in orbit for perhaps a several year mission. In all respects, it was a deeply conventional program which tackled the Soviet and American space challenges head-on, attempting to show that China could match them on their own turf.

    Human space flight was not the only aspect of the ambitious new space program that Chinese planners were developing, either. While China had abandoned the Shuguang program in 1972, that hardly meant that they were abandoning spaceflight. The skills and techniques developed in the unmanned program over the past decade could be leveraged for a wide range of goals, not only enhancing Chinese national security but also economic development and scientific research. Earth observation satellites similar to Landsat or GOES, communications networks including the possibility of directly broadcasting Chinese television to the entire country similar to the Soviet Orbita or American NBC Satellite systems, even (perhaps) a navigation satellite system similar to the American NAVSTAR-GPS or Soviet GLONASS could be built over the next decade or two. Besides these systems, of great practical but only moderate scientific value, China could launch a program of astronomical satellites, including a series of solar observatories, backed up by geophysical probes designed to explore Earth’s surrounding space. In the farther future, it might be possible to launch Chinese probes to the Moon, near-Earth asteroids and comets, Mars, Venus, even Mercury or asteroids in the main belt. At the very least, the coming program would allow the development of many of the key technologies and capabilities needed to engage in such missions.

    Finally, such a new space program deserved new boosters and rockets to launch the satellites, probes, and capsules it would involve. Like most other spacefaring nations, China’s first space launch vehicles had been based on ballistic missiles, meaning they used less efficient and extremely toxic but easily storable propellants. While of obvious benefits to ballistic missiles, which needed to be ready at a moment’s notice to deliver their deadly payloads, this design decision was problematic for space launch vehicles, making every failure a potential catastrophe and greatly complicating pad operations, besides decreasing performance compared to other propellant options. The third and final element of their space development program would involve the design and introduction of a second-generation space launch system, using the same cheap and powerful liquid oxygen and kerosene that the United States, the Soviet Union, the European Space Agency, and Japan used for their space launch vehicles, assisted by solids derived from planned developments in ballistic missiles. Initial research into the capable but challenging pair of hydrogen and oxygen would also commence, with an eye towards possible future use in high-orbit or beyond Earth orbit spacecraft. Altogether, in the view of Chinese aerospace experts during the early 1980s, China had a golden opportunity to move from being on the fringes of space exploration and space activity to being right at the center, with technologies and capabilities on par with any other country in the world.

    However, although spaceflight was a highly visible marker of China's technical prowess to the world, advances in civil, computational, defense, and other technology areas had far more immediate practical value, as well as the possibility for impressive advances that could be trumpeted as evidence of China's technological capabilities. Given this reality, senior Chinese leaders were reluctant to give full-scale support to aerospace engineers and planners in their ambitions, and chose instead to pursue a more modest program. Development of a manned spacecraft would begin, but under a relaxed schedule where the first human flights would not take place until after 1995, over a decade after program start. Once operational and tested by a series of orbital flights, a series of small test space stations would be built, followed by a larger modular complex conceptually similar to but smaller than the American Freedom or Soviet MOK, showing that China was just as capable as other countries in space. The robotic program would be scaled back to focus on immediate needs, such as land-use imagery, meteorology, and communications, with no emphasis placed on scientific or planetary exploration probes until much later. Finally, development of new boosters would focus on basic R&D such as the development of small scale kerosene-oxygen or hydrogen-oxygen engines on the one hand, and incremental improvements to existing boosters on the other. Any development of an advanced, high-capacity booster would be delayed until the 21st century. Although less ambitious than the original proposals, the final strategic plan for the Chinese space program adopted in 1985 still contained enough advancements to make any Chinese space enthusiast happy, promising a future of Chinese space accomplishments.

    [1]: This is the big change; I’m operating under the assumption that IOTL there really was a 1978 spaceflight program which was cancelled and later replaced by the present Chinese human spaceflight program. That did not occur ITTL, and instead something like Project 921 rolled around a few years earlier. With shuttles less...well, “topical,” finalizing the design on something like Shenzhou did not take as long. Of course, China still isn’t in a particular hurry, but there may be opportunities opening up shortly...
    Part II: Post 28: Birth of Project Constellation
  • Greetings all! Last week, we caught up on what China (the final major space power we'll be examining in Part III) was up to, with their Project 827 capsule and space station plans. However, this week, we're looking at something I know a lot of you are even more excited for--the plans of the United States for the 1990s. This will be a three-part series, but the first one arrives...now! Enjoy. :) 1246 replies, 154249 views

    Eyes Turned Skyward, Part II: Post #28

    "...In 1961 it took a crisis--the space race--to speed things up. Today we don't have a crisis; we have an opportunity. To seize this opportunity, I'm not proposing a 10-year plan like Apollo; I'm proposing a long-range, continuing commitment. First, for the coming decade, for the 1990s: Space Station Freedom, our critical next step in all our space endeavors. And next, for the new century: Back to the Moon; back to the future. And this time, back to stay. And then a journey into tomorrow, a journey to another planet: a manned mission to Mars...."

    --George H.W. Bush, Remarks on the 20th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing

    From the very beginning of his presidential term, Bush had sought to remake NASA. As Reagan's Vice President, he had been heavily involved in the space policy making of that administration, and had become, if not really a true believer then at least willing to support relatively ambitious space programs. With Freedom construction well underway and scheduled to be wrapped up close to the end of his first term in office, Bush believed that he not only had a signal opportunity to give NASA a new direction for a new era, but also a responsibility to do so. After all, the last time NASA had been left to drift without direction from the White House the Soviets had developed Vulkan and Mir, overtaking the United States in space. Freedom would merely bring NASA back up to the Soviet's level, but would not again prove American space superiority. A new, more ambitious program was needed to do that, one which would also ensure that the United States never again fell behind in space exploration. This would mean a longer, slower program, rather than an Apollo-style crash program, which not incidentally would also mean a relatively cheap program, at least in terms of year-to-year budgets. No great investments, no huge infusion of political capital would be needed for Bush's imagined future; instead, a slow but steady progression, ensuring America was always abreast of the state of the art. Already during Reagan's presidency, several steps had been taken in this direction under the then Vice President Bush's influence. Throughout the 80s, pathfinder technology development programs had studied the advanced artificial intelligence, aerobraking capabilities, reusable vehicle technologies, cryogenic storage and transfer abilities, space-based nuclear reactors, and other key advancements that NASA had determined would be needed for future space activities, whether by humans or robots, while several studies had begun to outline the possibilities inherent in the Saturn Multibody configuration for operations beyond merely building and operating Space Station Freedom. Now, however, Bush had a far greater scope for reinterpreting the space program towards his vision of the future, even if that vision was as yet largely inchoate and unformed.

    Bush's point man in figuring out what form this program would take would be his Vice President, Dan Quayle. While often mocked in the press due to his propensity for gaffes, he quickly became even more enthusiastic about the possibility of reshaping the space program than Bush ever was. As Chair of the National Space Council, he decided to carry out a series of one-on-one meetings with leading scientists, engineers, astronauts, aerospace executives, and other key space program figures to get a sense of what the possibilities were, what could NASA do. One of those meetings was with Harrison Schmitt, the only geologist to have ever walked on the Moon, Senator from New Mexico between 1976 and 1982, and a strong proponent of space exploration and development. Although most associated with the Moon, Schmitt had become a strong advocate for Mars, arguing that the attitude that the United States had "done" the Moon meant that any further lunar exploration would attract little support from Congress or the public, and therefore be vulnerable to neglect and future budget cuts. Although aware and supportive of the possibility of lunar resources, including lava tube colonies, helium-3 extraction, the production of lunar oxygen to use in life support and propellant roles throughout cislunar and Earth orbital space, and even the more advanced concepts of O'Neill, Schmitt believed that under current conditions these were impractical and uneconomical schemes, requiring more technological development. Quayle, increasingly interested in space for its own sake, was entranced by Schmitt's description of the value of a Mars expedition to the United States, and invited the astronaut back several times for further discussion. For his part, Schmitt was surprised and pleased with the attention Quayle was giving him, happy to have found someone in the upper echelons of the government who was willing to listen and learn about his views on what was needed for the space program. When the time came for Bush to select his NASA administrator, Quayle argued forcefully for Schmitt's appointment, securing his new friend the position easily.

    Prompted by the suggestion by several former administrators and NASA managers that the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing--July 20th 1989--might be a good time to announce a new space initiative, the National Space Council, including Vice President Quayle and Administrator Schmitt, met several times over the preceding months to try to define a practical and achievable set of goals that Bush could announce. Interactions between the Council, NASA's newly-formed Exploration Working Group, and selected members of Congress played a key role in shaping what "practical" and "achievable" meant, as political leaders informed the engineers and mission planners of the budget and political constraints they would likely face, while the engineers in turn informed the politicians of the technical limits any plan would run up against. While truly detailed planning was not possible given the limited time available, the preliminary studies indicated that ambitious exploration was available at an affordable price by reusing existing systems, such as Freedom-derived habitation modules, Saturn launch vehicles, and the new Advanced Crew Vehicle for an Apollo-type crew transport role. For a return to the Moon, only one new major system, the lander, needed to be developed from scratch, although funding would also be needed to design and build the surface hardware that would make any missions scientifically productive. Flights to Mars would require more work, but would still fundamentally depend on existing systems for much of the required hardware, drastically reducing development costs relative to analyses from the 1960s. With the groundwork having been laid already, a series of presentations made to industrial, scientific, and Congressional leaders over the week leading up to the 20th went exceptionally well. While few were startled by the content, equally few had seen the integrated, if sketchy, plans that NASA had internally developed, and most were surprised by how sensitive NASA had been to outside concerns. Rather than simply presenting a single extremely ambitious approach, perhaps with some minor variations for a pretense at "economy," the Working Group had developed five highly distinctive mission scenarios. Three involved ventures to only Mars or the Moon, while the other two combined aspects of both into more ambitious plans. This meant that rather than having to say yes or no to a single plan, Congress and the Administration could pick and choose from several, selecting the one that seemed to have the best balance between ambition and cost.

    The resulting positive response from scientists to Congressional aides provided the final impetus necessary for an official announcement on the 20th. After a brief ceremony honoring the Apollo 11 astronauts, Bush unveiled the plan with a great deal of rhetorical flourish. Beginning with a paean to the possibilities of space, including a reference to a future of "constellations of human activity--American activity--in space," he quickly asserted that, with the imminent completion of Space Station Freedom, the time to seize those possibilities and begin work on the future was now. And how to do so? A return to the Moon, followed by a voyage to Mars early in the next century would provide achievable yet impressive goals for the American space program, again cementing the leadership of the United States in space exploration. Although he avoided describing specific details, leaving it up to NASA and the National Space Council to come up with actual plans, budgets, and timelines for the new project, he certainly tried as hard as possible to make a new space initiative sound attractive and important to the nation, whatever form it might take. With the end of his speech came the near-simultaneous start of Administrator Schmitt's press conference. By dynamically addressing questions about the expected costs, schedules, foreign partners, and more, Schmitt managed to somewhat weaken the skepticism of the press corps towards the size and expense of the new venture. More importantly, in the course of the press conference he improvised a proper name for the new program, which had previously been known generically as "the space initiative" or "the space exploration initiative". Seizing on the line referring to "constellations of human activity," Schmitt called the new program "Project Constellation," deliberately calling back to Project Apollo.

    Now with an official Presidential mandate backing them up, the Exploration Working Group was reworked into the Office of Exploration and charged with turning the preliminary reports of the Working Group into a detailed set of possible alternatives for politicians to decide on, while also considering the possibilities of advanced Pathfinder technologies or management changes in reducing costs or accelerating schedules. As they pored through NASA studies dating back to the 1960s, a flood of private analyses began pour in from all over the country, with sources ranging from space cadets with too much time on their hands to major organizations such as the National Space Organization, all hoping to influence the direction of America's space program. Everything from ignoring Bush's directions altogether for ventures to the asteroids or other locations to ambitious colonization proposals involving the construction of vast amounts of infrastructure in circumearth and cislunar space to support flotillas of vessels carrying scientists, engineers, technicians, even farmers and janitors to Mars hit NASA's mailboxes, forcing them to take special measures just to handle the influx. The last time NASA had had anything like a Presidential mandate, private space policy groups and space advocacy organizations simply didn't exist, leaving the government and contractors to do all of the work, but this time over a decade of work by private organizations had primed them to regard such a mandate as an opportunity to make their voice heard by NASA. While some of these reports, particularly from industry contractors, space advocacy organizations, and other groups with the technical and historical background to make reasonable and developed plans were seriously considered, most were rejected without being read, if for no other reason than a lack of time on the part of the Office of Exploration's staff to read them all. Over the next six months, the Office's staff considered new options, fleshed out old plans, and developed the definitive NASA response to Project Constellation.
    Part II: Post 29: The Exploration Report, the Roadmap for NASA's future
  • Blech, sorry about the delay but I've been caught in the dread forces of engineering homeworksplosion. But now I am here, and thus, now it is once again that time. Last week, we left off with President Bush's proposal of what Administrator Harrison Schmitt dubbed, "Project Constellation." This week, let's talk about Constellation in a little bit more detail, shall we? 1263 replies, 156559 views

    Eyes Turned Skyward, Part 2: Post #29

    During the course of their analysis, the Office of Exploration concluded that all existing human exploration plans, including previous NASA plans, could be sorted into five basic categories: Lunar Sorties, Lunar Bases, Mars Sorties, Lunar Sorties and Mars Sorties, and Lunar Bases and Mars Sorties. While many plans also included additional development steps, such as the construction of Lunar colonies or Martian bases, these steps were generally envisioned either as follow-ons to a core program that fit into one of the previous categories, or as support mechanisms to a categorizable program. To determine which of the five possible approaches was best, they stringently analyzed all of them under conditions passed down from the Administration and from the NASA Administrator, particularly an assumption of (inflation-adjusted) flat budgets for the foreseeable future, constructing reference and alternative scenarios for each one based on both the best previous NASA studies and the multitude of private studies that had flooded their mailbox. The resulting Report of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Office of Exploration on the President's Space Initiative, a title quickly condensed to "Exploration Report", weighed in at over 500 pages of detailed technical and financial analysis of a wide range of mission options, even if the resulting recommendations were surprisingly simple and conventional.

    During its analysis, the Office of Exploration was forced to discard the three options involving Mars flights as non-viable. While exploring Mars was highly exciting and a truly pioneering possible goal for NASA, even aggressive deployment of the best new technologies suggested to the Office of Exploration could not get humans there fast enough, safely enough, nor cheaply enough for Mars exploration to be viable. Spending a decade or more with the only NASA program being Freedom could lead to severe technical and workforce difficulties, especially if the new technologies, mostly in an early stage of development as of 1989, proved less useful than believed or even impossible to implement. Even at that, the assumed funding profile of NASA in future years could not support Mars exploration, Freedom, a diverse and capable robotic exploration program, and NASA's other research areas at the same time. Something would have to give, and the Office believed it would most likely be the ambitious, expensive, and as yet unproven Mars exploration program. Thus, while the next century might indeed see a journey into tomorrow, it would of necessity have to be tomorrow's journey. At most, an R&D program might be created to investigate advanced technologies which could either lower costs or accelerate the timeframe of piloted Mars missions, something recommended by the Office in all of its reference approaches. Those options involving lunar exploration before Mars exploration were even worse from the standpoint of budgets and schedules. Under the budgetary and technological assumptions of the report, a Mars mission might not be possible before the 2020s or even the 2030s, a time horizon so far ahead that any planning, even the vaguest and most general, was an absurdity, almost certain to be overtaken by unforeseen events.

    Unlike Mars missions, however, lunar missions were tagged by the report as entirely possible, even under the stringent budget conditions imposed by the Administration. Much of NASA's hardware was, after all, derived from the equipment used for the first lunar missions, and the Moon posed far smaller technical challenges for just surviving to reach it than Mars did. The only question remaining was whether a program of lunar sorties alone or lunar sorties followed by a lunar base was the better choice. Limited to briefly and superficially analyzing a few sites scattered across a vast amount of land, sorties seemed to offer little promise of in-depth scientific exploration of the Moon, and no hope of developing the tools and technologies needed to exploit lunar resources for future missions. By leaving little infrastructure in place, later missions would be no cheaper or better supported than early ones, increasing the risk of the entire program ending like Apollo, with an expensive and capable system designed and implemented only to be dismantled almost immediately as it started to demonstrate itself. All in all, sorties alone could only offer cost advantages, and that only if a strictly limited number were planned. Therefore, the report recommended that the Administration and Congress adopt Option B, Lunar Bases, together with a relatively small advanced technology program intended to "pave the way" for Mars and a number of other more minor research and development or support programs to extend the capabilities of future lunar or Mars missions beyond the state of the art. To complement this recommendation, the Office of Exploration condensed what it considered some of the best proposals that had been developed, either by NASA or by other organizations, into a single reference architecture for the entire Constellation program. While several alternatives, including Office-constructed reference architectures for the other four mission options, were presented, the final report made it clear that Option B, in the design presented by the Office of Exploration, was their preferred architecture choice.

    In the reference implementation of Option B, Project Constellation would start with the completion of Freedom in 1992, leading to a diversion of Freedom development and construction funds towards the existing Advanced Crew Vehicle program, a new lunar lander, upgrades to the Saturn Multibody (primarily involving the use of weight-saving materials such as new aluminum-lithium alloys in vehicle construction), and a series of lunar precursor missions, possibly involving international partners. Before the ACV and lander finished development, orbiters, landers, and possibly even sample return probes would venture to the Moon to fill in the gaps left by the Lunar Reconnaissance Pioneer, narrowing down the list of sites to visit and providing an initial view of the Moon. Once the ACV and lander were completed and tested, estimated to be by 1998 or 1999, the first lunar mission would be launched. Using multiple Saturn Heavy launches, an ACV/lander/Earth Departure Stage stack would be assembled in low Earth orbit, then depart for the Moon. Once near the Moon, all four crew members would enter the lander and depart for the lunar surface, where they would spend up to two weeks (if a second cargo lander had been dispatched on a previous launch) exploring the lunar surface.

    After a series of these sorties, perhaps five or six in total, the ideal location for a permanent base would have been determined. Before any further human crews ventured there, a series of cargo landers would transport essential equipment, such as habitat modules, power generation systems, and other key elements of any base to the chosen location, where teleoperated construction equipment also transported by the cargo craft would begin assembling and checking out the base. The first human crew would continue these assembly and checkout activities, focusing on those areas where a human presence, not merely a human operator, were needed for effective operation. This crew would stay at the base for 180 days, like their colleagues on Freedom, transforming the base from a jumble of modules and landers into a tiny "home away from home" on the harsh lunar surface. After the astronauts returned from their lunar mission, another crew might arrive and continue the work of exploring the area around the base and demonstrating key technologies and capabilities needed for future lunar bases and Mars exploration, or the base equipment might be teleoperated for some time between crews. With the lunar base constructed and beginning to operate, if only in a human-tended mode, many options presented themselves. An infrastructure of fuel depots, reusable space tugs (both electric and chemical, using aerobraking to ease the return from cislunar space), reusable landers, perhaps even that chimeric dream of a reusable launch vehicle might be used to reduce operational costs and allow more frequent ventures to the base, or the base's expansion. If initial experiments in in-situ resource utilization, in extracting oxygen from lunar rocks for example, had panned out, the base could be enlarged to house even more people, supporting a growing production of lunar resources. Alternately, the base could be only intermittently crewed as part of Mars simulations, focusing on making the jump to the next possible destination beyond Earth. Any of these options, or more, could be selected by a future Congress and President, since visionary leadership on the part of the current Congress and President would have enabled them to make that decision. However, they were not part of the core program, and not needed for the United States to reestablish its leadership in space exploration.

    The entire recommended program was estimated by the Office of Exploration to cost approximately $50 billion; $12 billion for development of all the spacecraft needed for the lunar landings, plus another $8 billion for the recommended six mission sortie sequence, plus $10 billion for Mars-related R&D and a suite of precursor missions to Mars, leading up to the Mars Sample Return widely agreed to be necessary before any human missions to the Red Planet, and finally $20 billion for construction and several years of operation of the planned lunar base[1]. These $50 billion in expenditures would be spread across twenty years of development and operations, leading to an average annual cost of $2.5 billion, only about 25% larger than the projected ongoing cost of maintaining and operating Freedom. Of course, the peak funding requirements would be higher, but given the administration’s official budget estimates these would be easily manageable, little worse than having to support Freedom’s development while Spacelab remained operational.

    Not unjustly, the Lunar Society saw the recommendations of the Exploration Report as a significant victory for its vision of space. For more than a decade, it had been vigorously supporting a return to the Moon and the construction of a lunar base as the best next steps for NASA beyond Earth orbit. While it had turned towards supporting private industry as the spearhead of further development and private efforts to lower the cost of launch during the 1980s, enough of its members still held the agency that had landed fourteen men on the Moon in sufficiently high regard that they were willing to go along with a plan that seemed to herald a new age for lunar exploration and development. Similarly, the National Space Organization was, if not as enthusiastic about the report, then at least willing to go along with it, happy that NASA, and apparently the administration, were focusing again on space exploration. If Carl Sagan had still been at the helm, he might have pushed for greater integration of robotic exploration and international collaboration, but he had stepped down from the leadership years earlier to pursue his interests in science advocacy and skepticism outside of the NSO.

    In the halls of Congress, meanwhile the Exploration Report was meeting a more ambivalent treatment. Although the time was simply ripe for beginning a major new space initiative designed to reinvigorate NASA from the relative torpor it had languished in for the past two decades, even with the growing deficit, or perhaps because of it, the $50 billion price tag (even spread out over twenty years) seemed overly high, and committing future Congresses to take specific action such as setting up lunar bases a step too far. The lower cost Option A, lunar sorties together with studies of lunar bases and Mars missions, and a Mars precursor program, was more attractive to a Congress and Administration looking to tackle budget deficits, offering most of the political advantages of a reinvigorated space program at considerably less cost. It would still allow a variety of new contracts to flow into aerospace companies hurting from the end of the Cold War, and still allow Congress members to point and say, “Yes, the United States can Do Great Things,” but without breaking the bank. This revised proposal was able to easily pass through the House and Senate, allowing Constellation to pass from proposal to policy by late 1990.

    [1]: This is similar generally to the expected costs of a number of proposed lunar return and base construction studies IOTL during the 1980s and 1990s. Obviously in Eyes Turned Skywards they benefit particularly from not needing to develop a new heavy-lift launch vehicle, something which was often one of the major costs IOTL.
    Part II: Post 30: Settling for the Moon and Zubrin Strike's Back
  • Hello everyone! It's that time once again, for the last time in Eyes Turned Skyward Part II. Last week, we looked at some of the details of the implementation of the exploration initiative proposed by President Bush (Sr), and some of the reactions of the Lunar Society and the National Space Organization. However, there's one other major force involved in the reactions to Project Constellation, and that's the topic of this week's post.

    As another note, I'd like to say how great it's been working on this, and how much I'm enjoying the work we're doing getting Part III ready. After this week, we'll be going on haitus again while we do this, but I think the benefits are clear: we haven't missed a single update in the last 31 weeks. (Well, except when homework catches me in its evil grasp and I'm a bit late getting things posted, like today. :eek: ) Anyway, what this also means is that if there's something in particular you'd like to see expanded on in Part III, now is the time to ask, please feel free to make requests below--truth is life and I are always interested in how we can make this worth your time. After all, it's your comments and views that have made this one of the top 30 thread of all time by comments and the #31 thread by views on the entirety of Post 1900. Anyway, without further rambling by me, I'm proud to present the final installment of Eyes Turned Skyward, Part II. 1286 replies, 159301 views.

    Eyes Turned Skyward, Part II: Post #30

    The first really significant opposition to the Exploration Report came, therefore, from outside the established space community. Instead, it began with a volatile mixture of the growing insurgent movement regarding Mars along as a worthy destination for future space exploration and engineers, scientists, and technicians working for the growing community of private space companies, who were disgruntled or unhappy with the present space program, dominated by so-called “legacy” aerospace companies such as Boeing and McDonnell Douglas. Among the first to publicly speak out against the plan was Robert Zubrin, an engineer at Lockheed Astronautics’ Titan production plant in Colorado and a prominent member of local chapters of both the National Space Organization and the Lunar Society. For some time, Zubrin had been involved in “strawman” Mars mission planning for both organizations as part of their continual attempts to attract further funding to space development, and had been partly responsible for the popularization of making the next American beyond Earth orbit exploration mission a Mars mission within both communities. His ideas had been further refined in a series of Lockheed internal studies designed to attract NASA attention to the company in light of the proposed new exploration program, and had even been part of the Lockheed proposal submitted to the Office of Exploration and analyzed by their Exploration Report, although they had been rejected for budgetary and technical risk. Now Zubrin began speaking directly to the public, arguing that the official NASA plan was badly planned and poorly designed, reaching the wrong destinations in the wrong ways for the wrong reasons. Rather than returning to the (in his words) dry, dead, barren, been-there, done-that Moon, the United States should be looking directly towards Mars--a destination which according to his plans could be reached for little more than NASA was proposing to spend on just returning to the Moon.

    Two major elements would enable America to quickly and cheaply travel to Mars. First, a derivative of the Saturn Multibody, which Zubrin dubbed the Saturn Superheavy, would be developed, capable of lifting well over 100 tons into orbit through the use of four strap-on Saturn Common Boosters (rather than two in the Saturn Heavy) and a new wide-diameter 10 meter second stage, which Zubrin named the S-IIB, being virtually identical to that stage of the Saturn V. Using the powerful S-IVC as a third departure stage, this would be capable of launching the Mars surface payloads directly to the Red Planet, without any intermediate stops needed in low Earth orbit for assembly as in the mission plans NASA had considered. This booster would be similar to the Vulkan-Atlas designed by the Soviet Union, a point Zubrin mentioned to justify its viability. While he dismissed the notion of using Vulkan-Atlas as the main launch vehicle due to concerns about costly delays and redesigns that might be necessary to fit American spacecraft to a Russian launch vehicle, he conceded that if a more international program, like that suggested by Carl Sagan, was sought, then alternatively the Russian booster could be used. Although the assembly of Mir, Freedom, Salyut 7, and Spacelab had shown that orbital assembly was a reasonably mature technology, Zubrin argued that without the capabilities provided by Vulkan, Saturn Multibody, and Saturn V, the necessary assembly stages would have been much more complex and riskier, requiring far more effort and leading to a much greater risk of things going wrong. As such, he wanted to minimize the amount of activity in low Earth orbit.

    Second, technology would be developed to manufacture propellant out of the Martian atmosphere. As Zubrin explained it, this would use extremely mature chemical processes with little technical risk to produce methane out of a relatively small store of hydrogen brought along. By doing so, the amount of propellant--the greatest part of the mass in any exploration mission--needed to be brought from Earth would be drastically reduced. This technique of using local resources to provide for important needs such as fuel, food, or water actually dated back all the way to Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and the idea had cropped up periodically in NASA studies since the 1960s, but it had always been considered to be part of the infrastructure of a relatively mature and developed base on extraterrestrial bodies, not as part of an initial mission. While including it on the first mission would cause risk from the possibility of the system failing, by launching the propellant plan ahead of the first crew, checking it out prior to the crew launch, and providing a series of backups, Zubrin argued the risk was fairly minimal. Besides, he added, conventional plans needed to store cryogenic propellant in space or on the surface for months or years--also an undemonstrated technology, and one with a far less mature technology base on Earth behind it than mere chemistry.

    Under Zubrin’s plan, for the next decade, NASA would focus on developing the technologies and equipment needed to explore Mars, starting with the Saturn Superheavy and ISRU plant, but going on to develop a Mars rover, spacesuits suitable for use on Mars (the current design were intended for use aboard Freedom, and were too bulky, rigid, and high-pressure for use in surface exploration), the aerobrake and heat shield systems needed for landing the elements of the mission on Mars' surface, and the vast array of scientific equipment needed to make any expedition scientifically productive. By 2001, NASA would finally be ready to inaugurate its Mars program with a Saturn Superheavy that would lift the Earth Return Vehicle, carrying the ISRU plant together with an S-IVC stage into space, whereupon the S-IVC stage would throw the ERV to Mars. Upon landing on Mars, the ERV would deploy a nuclear reactor to provide a large, constant source of power, then begin working with a small supply of "seed hydrogen" brought from Earth to produce liquid methane and liquid oxygen. These would be stored in the ERV to wait for the arrival of the human crew while a set of small vehicles carried with the ERV conducted limited exploration and preparation of the area around the ERV landing site, implanting radio beacons and other navigational aids, collecting samples, and performing an initial site analysis.

    At the next opportunity, in 2003, two of the same Saturn Superheavies would lift two more Mars vehicles. One would be an ERV like the one launched in 2001, but the other would be a habitat transporting a crew of four to Mars. Between Earth and Mars, a tether system would be used to provide artificial gravity, using the expended S-IVC stage as a counterweight for the human habitat, greatly simplifying its design and reducing the well-documented risks of microgravity exposure to the crew. Upon reaching Mars, their habitat would cut loose and divert itself to plunge into the Martian atmosphere, landing next to the Earth Return Vehicle launched in 2001. Utilizing the methane, oxygen, and water it had stored up from the Martian atmosphere, they would explore the area around their base camp for the next 500 days, engaging in several long-distance expeditions using a methane-oxygen rover landed with the habitat. During this exploration, Zubrin explained, they could do far more exploration than either the Viking landers or the upcoming Mars Traverse Rovers possibly could, being able to move longer distances faster and perform more in-depth analysis than either of the robotic probes due to the enormously greater flexibility and intelligence of a human being. After spending nearly a year and a half on the surface, collecting perhaps a ton of samples from sites up to several hundred kilometers from the ERV basecamp, and performing a wide range of scientific experiments, the first crew to reach Mars would depart using the propellants stored in the ERV, spending the next six months in space before returning directly to Earth's surface. Even as they touched down, however, a second crew and a third ERV would already be arriving on Mars for another mission at another base, opening an era of Mars exploration.

    While none of the individual aspects of Zubrin's plan were truly novel, the way he combined them and, more importantly, sold them to the public and to other Mars planners was particularly time-worn, hearkening back to the 1950s and von Braun's early, pre-Sputnik efforts at popularizing space and distributing his views to a wide audience. For all that he criticized the old von Braun, Zubrin was in many ways no different, discovering a messianic zeal for promoting a plan which--he believed--would allow him to see humans on Mars in his lifetime, indeed not too far in the future if it was wholeheartedly adopted by NASA. His ideas quickly infected the Mars mission planning community, such as it was, completely changing the tenor of the discussions found there. Although most were not as aggressive in timelines and masses as Zubrin, the fundamental basis of using ISRU, particularly methane production, for supporting the first mission quickly took hold in the planning community. The idea of large orbital bases supporting large spacecraft transporting large expeditions to explore Mars for a short period of time--while never dominant in the pre-Zubrin days--completely collapsed in his wake, at least for a while.

    Nevertheless, despite the best efforts of Zubrin, NASA remained firmly committed to the Moon-first strategy. The alternatives usually relied on optimistic estimates of less developed technology for their cost, schedule, and capability estimates, making them unusually risky if, say, it proved much harder than expected to modify the Saturn into a Superheavy configuration, or similar unexpected occurrences happened during the development program. The fact that none of the alternatives had been developed or sanctified by NASA also played a role in their lack of acceptance. Despite strides towards better inclusion of non-NASA ideas and designs, NASA still saw itself as the store of US knowledge on space exploration, and was naturally reluctant to accept ideas from outside the agency, especially if they hadn't been analyzed and adopted by other parts of itself. The most important reason for NASA's rejection of the alternatives, however, was probably that the Moon program had only just been approved by Congress, and was the result of some fairly close negotiations by the Bush Administration. Totally abandoning that approach less than a year after it was approved would be highly unlikely to garner Congressional approval, and would moreover invite questions about the competence of the Agency from members of Congress. In such a climate, no matter how well-intentioned that cancellation had been, it would be most unlikely to be followed by approving an even more ambitious and risky space exploration mission, and therefore posed an unacceptable risk to any future exploration.

    Frustrated by NASA for the time being, Zubrin turned back to his old base in the space advocacy community for support, hoping to build up a movement which could eventually force a redirection of NASA’s efforts. What he found there, at least officially, was indifference or hostility. Both the National Space Organization and the Lunar Society found NASA’s new direction much to their liking, the latter for obvious reasons and the former because it signified the resumption of American space exploration (via humans, Sagan quietly added in the background), and were disinclined to threaten it with their lobbying machinery. At the same time, a significant fraction of the members of both organizations disagreed with their leadership about this issue, preferring Zubrin’s future to O’Neill’s or a hybrid of von Braun and Sagan. Although many kept quiet or only spoke up to their local organizations, many others were inspired to write to Zubrin himself, forcing the postal service to take special measures to handle his mail and himself to hire a secretary to help manage it. This outpouring of support convinced Zubrin that a third organization--one dedicated neither to NASA nor to its opponents, but a sort of space politics “third way”--would not go amiss in the present climate. After a series of meetings with several of the most energetic supporters of his proposals, during which they hashed out organizational details, in 1993 he announced that he was founding a new organization, On To Mars, with the sole goal of promoting a Mars mission as the next logical step for the American space program. This announcement not only elicited an immediate wave of support from members of both main space organizations, but also from the general public, in whose minds the idea of space exploration had been slowly gaining a foothold over the past several years. On To Mars quickly grew to hundreds, then thousands of members. Although smaller than the National Space Organization or the Lunar Society, it was clearly outstripping any of the other minor space organizations which had appeared from people dissatisfied with the major groups. Even if Mars still loomed distant in the nation’s future, it was becoming plausible as an alternative to NASA’s main goal of a return to the Moon. The question was not if, clearly, but when humans would finally turn their eyes beyond cislunar space.
    Part III, Post 1: The post-Cold War space program.
  • Well, folks, here we are once more. I'll admit, I'm nervous. Both Workable goblin and I, with the help and support of our various collaborators, have put a lot of time, though, and effort over the haitus into coming up with what you're going to start seeing today and in the coming weeks, and today's when you're waiting and our work (hopefully) starts to pay off. Today, we're starting off Part III of eyes Turned Skywards with a single orbit, once around the world to check in on everybody. Note that some of this coverage is sort of sketched--every program mentioned in here will be covered in more depth in later updates, this is just to get everybody back grounded.

    Before we get started, I'd like to take this chance to once again thank Workable Goblin for being one of the best co-writers I could have imagined working with, and to thank all our collaborators: the Brainbin, who's bringing not one but two culture updates to the table this time around, as well as Nixonshead and Michel Van for their assistance with art to bring this timeline to life. Nixonshead has been working with us to make sure that most updates from part III will be paired with a couple images reflecting events in them that may be key but cannot get full attention in the text--"spotlights" as it were. The first set of those will be going up on Monday. If you'd prefer to have these at the time of the post, let us know, but I'm experimenting with it to see if we can't keep discussion flowing a bit better between updates.

    Finally, I'd like to point out one last time the link to the wiki pages in my sig--feel free to make use of the resources, and of course any assistance with maintaining things like the date list would be appreciated--the markup language is pretty simple, but there's more there than I have time to handle reformatting given my schoolwork and time spent on writing and editing.

    Anyway, that's enough thanking the Academy, let's kick this off before I start thanking my elementary school teachers and they go for the hook. So! Picking up at T-10....9....8...7...6...5..4..3..2..1... 1854 comments, 236929 views

    Eyes Turned Skyward, Part III: Post #1

    Since the start of the Space Race, the Soviet space program had always been a point of pride for the nation. From the days of Sputnik and Gagarin, it had been a way of demonstrating the power of Soviet technology and answering the challenge of the Western capitalists. However, as the 1980s came to an end, the future of that space program in the 1990s—along with the future of the entire Soviet Union—was becoming far less assured. The economic foundations of the Soviet Union were crumbling, and the Glasnost and Perestroika policies of Mikhail Gorbachev were, in stark contrast to his hopes, not stabilizing the country but instead critically weakening the grasp of the central government on its many satellite states. By the time of Valentin Glushko’s death in April of 1989, the continued survival of the Soviet Union as a unified power was very much in doubt. By June, with Chelomei (Glushko’s replacement as Chief Designer) still working to lay out a grand vision of how he might shape the future of the Soviet space program, the people living in the Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe and the Baltic were demanding a similar hand on their own political futures. Bowing to the inevitable, Gorbachev announced in July that at least the Warsaw Pact nations would be free to decide their own futures--despite similar conditions in the Baltic, Gorbechev still dreamed of retaining some kind of abbreviated Union . While Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany made clear they wanted no further place behind the Iron Curtain, with the dramatic public destruction of the Berlin Wall perhaps the most vivid demonstration of this desire, the economic situation back in Russia proper was becoming ever worse. Luxuries like Chelomei’s dreams of advanced combination space-planes, massive new stations, and missions to the moon and Mars were no longer affordable, if had been to begin with. Indeed, even the abbreviated Mir station that Glushko had managed to see launched before his passing was passing beyond the reduced Union’s ability to support.

    Admittedly, even incomplete the station could provide enough crew space and electrical power to function; in fact, with quarters for nine crew and a central MOK module providing up to 140 kilowatts of electrical power it was better equipped than any previous Soviet space station. However, the issue was not power or volume, but the crew time needed to support meaningful operations and the logistics requirements of keeping the station running smoothly. The TKS crew rotation and logistics flights required to support the station were expensive, even with the reduced costs of Vulkan, and worse, the only spaceport capable of handling Vulkan was Baikonur. Originally selected for its remoteness from the prying eyes of the West, the location of Baikonur in the Kazakh SSR now seemed distressingly far from Moscow as other nations began straining the bounds that tied the Soviet Union together. In light of this, remaining military satellite launches on the Soyuz rocket were transferred to the more secure Plesetsk launch site in northern Russia, but the cash-strapped program couldn’t afford the additional construction that would be required to develop another site for Vulkan support, and the even higher inclination of Plestsk would make launching crew and cargo to Mir very challenging. Indeed, far from supporting new development, it was becoming increasingly doubtful that the Soviet Union could even support the existing site at Baikonur. To save on costs, flights to Mir were curtailed in early 1990. Now, instead of the already problematic six-month, six-crew occupation of the station, a skeleton crew of three cosmonauts would occupy Mir alone for up to eight months at a stretch. This combination of duration stretch and crew reduction would allow minimization of support flights, as the existing 6-month consumables stores on the station laid in for 9 crew could be stretched for more than a year with just minimal support from the ground. However, it would cripple the ability to operate the station for any significant scientific capability—indeed, the reduced crews of cosmonauts had trouble keeping up with the maintenance required by the station. Just keeping the lights on was overwhelming, much less doing anything dramatic to match the revived exploratory direction of the United States.

    By the middle of 1991, if the maintenance situation on-orbit was a challenge, it had become downright dangerous on the ground. Workers had begun to desert the site, returning to Russia amidst concerns about the stability of the Soviet Union and the exposure of Baikonur’s location in the Kazakh SSR. Funding to pay the ones who remained was becoming scarce, much less to conduct upkeep on the sites. While the hangars and launch sites in-use were at least kept from degrading below functionality, less active facilities like the hangar holding the remaining MOK and DOS modules originally intended for Mir were largely treated with neglect, and unused launch sites and infrastructure were abandoned completely to the elements. With Gorbachev and the newly-elected Prime Minister Yeltsin now working in strained conditions from offices within the Kremlin and hardliner reactions to the state of the nation becoming ever more shrill, the remote sites were almost forgotten, ancient history next to the day-to-day survival of the Union. Finally, the situation came to a head at Site 1, the abandoned R-7 turned Soyuz pad which had seen the beginning of the Soviet space program with the launches of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin. It had been almost three years since regular monthly maintenance had been carried out at the historic site, with personnel focusing instead on the active Vulkan pads. However, at the same time, the possibility and dream that the site might someday be returned to active status led to program leaders making the decision to not fully disable the site, but instead simply abandon its equipment and structure in place. It was an unstable situation, and the harsh Kazakh weather had proved too much to bear. In the late evening of July 20th, 1991, a failed electrical substation on the pad had begun to spark uncontrollably well beyond the notice of the small number of Baikonur’s remaining staff who were present on a Saturday night. Soon afterwards, it ignited leaking, improperly drained lines from the site’s kerosene supply.

    The results were almost pre-ordained. Gagarin’s Start, perhaps the most important single launch site in the world, the starting point of many of the Soviet Union’s most important space missions, caught fire. Initially starting as a kerosene fire, it shortly ignited pad insulation, untended plant life that had begun to grow near the pad, and anything else it could reach. If properly maintained, the heat of such a simple fire should have been nothing to a site designed to handle rocket launches, certainly not before the automatic fire suppression systems activated. However, the suppression systems had failed months prior and critical upkeep to the pad structures had been neglected from budget pressures and personnel shortages. On a weekend evening with little other activity at the site, Baikonur’s overstretched fire-fighting teams were ill-equipped in either time or equipment to react to such a fire, and it took almost an hour and a half to marshal a response. By this point and with the gear they had on hand, it was more a question of containing the fire and letting it burn itself out than of putting it out. While they were successful in this effort, at least, the effects were devastating—welds in the launch support tower had failed under the heat, and the structure which had seen the birth of the Space Age collapsed into the remaining flames just after midnight. When the fires were finally damped in the morning, the site had been almost totally destroyed, leaving behind a pile of scrap metal good only for salvage where once there had been one of the Soviet Union’s most prized technological treasures. It was an ominous harbinger for the future of the Soviet program, and the Soviet Union itself.

    Meanwhile in the United States, NASA’s fate seemed almost diametrically opposed to that of their traditional rivals, blessed not only with expansive budgets, but also with current ongoing successes and a mandate for the future. In his “Constellations of Exploration” address on the anniversary of the Apollo landings, George Bush had invoked the spirit of John F. Kennedy to direct that NASA seize the opportunity he saw to secure American leadership in spaceflight through three major directives. First, he called for completion of the remaining assembly of Space Station Freedom and the full utilization of it as a platform for exploration and research into humanity and the environment of space. Second, he had directed NASA to begin ongoing technical development aimed at a future mission to Mars, including precursor probes to better define landing sites and priorities for manned exploration. However, to many, the most exciting element of Bush’s Project Constellation was not its full use of the existing assets, nor its intention to continue to develop technologies critical to blazing a path to Mars to be potentially followed in future decades, but the third element: Bush’s direction that NASA make a priority of the development of a plan to once again return to the Moon. While some, including Robert Zubrin’s “On to Mars!” group, disagreed with the ordering of these priorities, in general the plans were greeted within NASA as practical but challenging enough to inspire the agency’s effort and success, and sparked a degree of interest from the US public. Perhaps most critically, Congress agreed, selecting “Option A” from the so-called Exploration Report in late 1990, and authorizing NASA to officially begin Project Constellation with the immediate goal of developing the hardware to conduct sorties to the moon, with technical development and precursor missions for lunar outposts or Mars exploration flights to be conducted as sidelines. In line with this authorization, two new Program Offices were established at NASA to spearhead each of these objectives, joining the existing Freedom Program Office. The first was the Artemis Program Office, charged with the development of architecture, hardware, and specific mission plans to begin sortie flights with all appropriate haste, as well as to conduct additional development aimed at enabling future more permanent outposts on the lunar surface or in lunar orbit. The second was the Ares Program Office, which was assigned the less tangible task of reviewing existing and developing technologies with an eye towards Mars exploration, developing design reference missions as to how these technologies in various forms could be used to send men to and return from Mars, as well as coordinating with NASA’s planetary research divisions to co-develop appropriate unmanned probes to learn more about the planet and survey for optimal landing sites to ensure maximum scientific return potential if and when a full Mars exploration campaign was approved. While these two offices worked to begin the first tasks of organizing themselves around the core study teams originally convened for the Exploration Report and started digging into their new directives, the third and final NASA Manned Spaceflight Office, the Freedom Program Office, moved forward along much the same path it had already been following.

    Compared to the competitor whose development had in a way enabled it, Space Station Freedom was a bit of a late bloomer. Mir had beaten Freedom to orbit, and if completed as planned would have still outclassed it in several areas. However, as the Wall fell and the Soviet government’s stability began, incredibly, to seem shaky and fragile, Freedom had reached initial operational capacity and was still progressing with development. Experiments in the laboratory spaces on the station involving crystal growth, advanced fluid behavior, and biology continued in the footsteps of Spacelab and Skylab even as the last few modules continued to flow uphill to join the station. The next major element to arrive was the second of the two station’s nodes, joining the station in March 1990 to provide a base for further expansion. In addition to providing four more CADS ports for berthing visiting spacecraft and the remaining two lab modules, the ESA-built Node 2 (“Harmony”) also contained boosters for the station’s life support systems, air and water supplies, and hygiene facilities. Beyond the practical, the module carried one final key facility—at one of the side ports on the node, it contained the Canadian Space Agency’s final major contribution to the station, the Cupola. Originally, the Cupola had been scheduled to launch with Node 1, where it was intended to take up final residence. However, de Havilland Canada, the subcontractor MDA had selected to lead the module’s development, had experienced delays with what was after all its first manned space project, and the module’s launch had slipped. Now, though, the module had finally made its way to Kennedy, been joined to its European companion, and flown to the station with the timely aid of an AARDV tug.

    The Cupola was designed for two main purposes that mandated its unique structure. Though a small module in terms of overall dimensions, the Cupola was fitted with no fewer than seven windows, six trapezoidal windows on the sides of a truncated prism, terminating in a single circular main window—the largest ever flown into space. Once moved to the nadir (Earth-facing) port on Node One, these windows would provide a critical point for supervising the operation of astronauts on EVA, the docking of spacecraft with the station, and the station’s dual robotic arms while servicing the station’s myriad external science pallets. In May, this role was put to the test with the first arrival of a Minotaur cargo vehicle, which the cupola passed with flying colors, and again in August with oversight of the delivery of the third of the station’s four solar power segments. This was a tricky operation—to minimize stress on the larger inboard truss segments, the panels were first docked to one of the Node’s CADS ports, and then translated by the station’s robotic arms to their final position at the outboard end of the starboard truss. This entirely-Canadian-dependent operation was overseen by none other than Canada’s own Doug MacKay, a Canadian Space Agency astronaut whose mechanical engineering background had lead him to be assigned as a liaison to MDA and de Havilland on the development of the Cupola and the arms. Compared to the time spent in meetings and simulators to make sure the hardware would work under all kinds of contingencies, MacKay found the smooth operation of the real articles on-orbit a relief. Beyond its purely practical operational uses, the cupola’s windows also served as a “window on the world,” granting an expansive and immersive location where astronauts could photograph surface features for experimental or recreational purposes, or merely enjoy off-duty time enjoying the serene beauty of the Earth turning beneath them. Thanks to a combination of pride in the work and his keen photography habit, Doug’s presence in the cupola was such a constant during off-hours that his expedition mates posted a paper sign on the hatch lintel temporarily designating it the “CSA augmented crew berthing location”. However, the shutterbug MacKay wasn’t the only one to feel the attraction of the Cupola; the module’s concentration of data feeds and recording equipment combined with its one-of-a-kind backdrop quickly made it one of the common settings for the semi-regular press events NASA conducted with the station’s crew, and a common location for spending the off hours.

    While the Node was more practical and the Cupola was more focused on Earth, the next major module of the station to be launched was more in line with the goals of Freedom in Bush’s new Project Constellation—using the station as a proving ground for human exploration technologies. The examination of human, plant, and animal reactions to partial gravity had been a major question in the history of spaceflight, just as microgravity had been a mystery before the flights of Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the long-duration explorations of Skylab and Spacelab. By the 1990 launch of the Centrifuge Gravity Lab, the negative side effects of extended microgravity were well-quantified. The decrease in function of the cardiovascular system, the potential for muscle atrophy, and the permanent degradation of bone density were all troubling to people in advocacy groups who dreamed of long-term off-world occupancy or even permanent colonization. With the use of centrifuges for generating simulated gravity well known even by the middle of the 20th century, the launch of a unit to test the effects of simulated gravity, from near-microgravity all the way to full-Earth had been a dream in many plans for space stations. However, it had never been critical enough to survive the omnipresent budget cuts and down-scoping until Freedom. Freedom’s Centrifuge Gravity Lab, or CGL, was designed to finally begin investigations into this key area—after all, mission planners and engineers developing future lunar bases or Mars missions would need data for properly quantifying and responding to whatever risks might be posed by prolonged exposure to partial gravity in their designs.

    The Japanese-built CGL was heavily focused on providing this kind of information at long last. The massive rotor that functioned as the justification and heart of the module was an engineering masterpiece, though with the result of costing nearly as much to design as the pair of European-built nodes put together. It featured several compartments for housing plant or animals which could be moved closer or further away from the hub, up to the maximum 5.5m diameter of the rotor. To compensate for load shifts, a series of similarly mobile weights served to counterbalance the chambers. This meant that the rotor would be capable of supporting the two major areas of inquiry—animal and plant growth--simultaneously, at multiple gravity levels for each. The first samples for testing in the lab had already been flow to the station—the first Minotaur had carried passengers in the form of lab rats, spiders, and a variety of seeds. Upon the arrival of the CGL in November, the samples were moved from their temporary home in Node 2 into the CGL, where they became the main project of US biologist Nancy MacDonald. However, the workload was heavy, and ESA astronaut Pierre Martin (who had something of a green thumb, and a fondness for animals) became a common assistant in the domain of what became, inevitably, “MacDonald’s Farm.” It would take almost two years to complete the initial rounds of experiments at lunar and Martian gravity, but the answers to the questions were being eagerly awaited back on Earth.

    MacDonald and Martin were part of an auspicious mission--the 7th manned mission to Freedom, making them part of Freedom Expedition 7. As a Public Affairs Office effort to tie in excitement generated by Constellation and nostalgia for the Space Race of the 60s with the work going on in orbit at Freedom, Alan Shepard--America’s first astronaut, and not coincidentally commander of the first Freedom 7 mission--was invited to sit in on the launch at Houston in July. After injection and transposition, Shepard was allowed to take a seat at the CAPCOM station and directly speak with the crew, a rare privilege. Mission commander Chris Valente, a Spacelab veteran, revealed himself to have regarded Shepard as a boyhood hero and said that he had always hoped to follow in Shepard’s footsteps to the moon. Shepard, in turn, said he was honored to be able to speak to the astronauts of today, and to see the work he had been part of continued and built on. A salute to the past and a taste of the future while drawing attention to the present work--the event was everything the PAO could have hoped for. Besides coverage in trade journals and other specialty presses, it even received 30 seconds of coverage on national news the next day.

    However well Freedom assembly was going, the situation was not as rosy for all the Freedom partners as it was for the United States. The European Space Agency (ESA) had already been reaching close to the end of their budgetary tether to support their lab and node contributions to Freedom (one reason the Columbus lab only roughly matched the size and capability of the Spacelab ERM as opposed to making use of the expanded payload range of NASA’s Saturn Multibody to launch a larger lab—the increased development could not be afforded, not the increased barter associated with a heavier module’s launch), and the development of just the cargo version of Minotaur, not to mention their own extensive unmanned probe program, including Mars landers (with the Soviets), the Kirchhoff/Newton comet probe (with the United States), and the International Infrared Observatory (with Japan). While accomplishing this on a budget less than a third the size of the United States’ NASA was impressive, the large continuing costs of Freedom and other missions meant that ESA future planned developments like the crew-capable Minotaur and continued unmanned exploration were critically dependent on a roughly constant budget—something ESA’s member nations had committed to throughout the late 80s.

    However, this projection took a turn with the addition of an unanticipated outside factor: the abrupt destabilization and dissolution of the Soviet Union. East Germany had been one of the Warsaw Pact nations leading the push for independence, and with the success of that drive, the desire for reunification of Germany was strong. However, the state of East German infrastructure and industry meant that any such reunification would come with a huge financial burden to West Germany for bringing the East up to modern economic, technological, environmental, and social standards. Based on this more down-to-Earth need, Germany had to revise its planned contributions to ESA downward. Thankfully, the presence of the United Kingdom and France to anchor the coalition meant that the blow was not severe enough to compromise the agency’s ongoing activities, but it did mean that new development and missions would have to be scaled back, starting with the manned Minotaur. While having an independent crew-launch capability had been a long-term goal of the European consortium since its foundation, a goal tempered and strengthened in the fiery memos and conferences of the Seat Wars, it was a luxury they could not afford at the moment. Minotaur would continue to serve as a cargo launch vehicle, but Europe’s manned space program would have to continue with the status quo of hitching rides with the United States.

    The ESA budget crisis created with the scaling back of Germany’s contributions had one other major effect. With Germany reduced in standing, France and Britain began to increasingly exercise the power granted by their domination of the contributions to the budget, and they had a complaint they wanted addressed. ESA had succeeded ELDO with the goal of making Europa and its various derivatives not just operational launchers for Europe’s space science programs, but also successful on the commercial market. While the common Europa 4/2HE family was more capable and less costly than the original Europa rockets, the US domination of the commercial launch market through Lockheed, McDonnell-Douglas, and new firms like ALS continued into the late 80s, largely due to lower costs and higher agility granted by their independence from a central authority like ESA’s. The result was that ESA’s attempts to commercialize Europa had so far been met with little success outside of Europe, whose governments often pressured local firms into launching aboard a European rocket, and those few countries outside of Europe which wished to launch satellites and could not or would not work out an agreement with one of the superpowers to do so, India being one of the larger customers during most of the 1980s for satellites beyond the capability of its own domestic launch program. As the 1990s began in earnest, French and British interest in a leaner, more responsive, and more commercial structure for the Europa began to increasingly dominate the question of European launch solutions.

    Although ESA’s goals and plans had to be scaled down due to Germany’s reunification expenses and resulting decreased free cash flow, the financial trouble Europe was experiencing was nothing compared to the reality check suffered by the Japanese economy at the turn of the decade. Complex economic conditions during the 60s and 70s had laid the stage for an asset price bubble, since it had become incredibly easy to make money via investment in capital assets like industrial facilities and property, and Japan’s emphasis on personal savings since the end of the Second World War had left banks with large amounts of money to invest in these seemingly-perfect high-return investments—Japanese capital investments made Japanese firms more efficient than others, and thus able to increase market share and outcompete such other firms, creating profits and return on the investments, which could then be rolled into further capital investments which would see even greater returns. However, when the BOJ attempted to step in and finally intervene to slow the rampant, potentially unsustainable growth in 1989, the market collapsed—risky loans that had been taken on as calculated risks during the height of the bubble could not be paid back, investor confidence collapsed, and the market tumbled. Contrary to 80s speculation by economists and writers that Japanese growth would naturally make them the dominant economic power by the end of the millennium, the country’s finances by 1990 were in a tailspin.

    The dire economic straits had natural effects on the availability of funding for the country’s space program. The lofty ambitions of the country had been echoed in the scale of their space plans: 1986 had seen the flight of the first H-I, a Delta 4000-derived vehicle with an entirely Japanese-developed Centaur replacement upper stage using their natively-developed LE-5 engine. It had also seen the initial phases of development on a new Japanese-developed hydrogen-fueled core and Japanese solid rocket boosters, which together would leave Japan incapable only of filling the very heavy lift role of the Saturn Heavy and Vulkan-Herakles domestically. Japan’s selection of a hydrogen first stage was almost unheard of in the existing spaceflight community, as the less efficient but far denser kerosene was the fuel of choice for nearly every other first stage then flying, with the exception of legacy hypergolic or all-solid stages. However, Japan had spent a great deal of effort developing their own expertise with hydrogen, and believed that it would be more efficient to leverage that investment into their new first stage development rather than also begin an entire engine development program from scratch. Characteristic of Japan in the late ‘80s, the investment necessary to begin research into large first-stage hydrogen engines had been easy to secure with the promise of a much more capable vehicle, and the LE-7 engine had been under development since 1984. By 1987, this program was beginning to bear fruit, and the completion of H-I development had apparently left the door open to begin development of the large hydrogen first stage in earnest, resulting in program approval in early 1988. However, the economic implosion a year later left this ambition high and dry—while development was not totally discontinued, the intended breakneck pace instead slowed to a crawl, going from an intended entry into service of 1992 to 1996.

    Japanese technology development plans had been equally ambitious. Eager to gain their own cargo and manned spaceflight capability, Japan had been intending to spend the 1990s pursuing a small-scale reusable spaceplane development program, with the goal of a spacecraft equivalent in capability to Minotaur or Apollo but with substantially lower operational costs—a classic example of the type of efficiency-improving investments popular in Japan at the height of the bubble. The program was to begin with drop-tests of a small-scale model, which could then fly to orbit as a light logistics craft for Freedom while it developed flight heritage for the full-scale vehicle, notionally to reach service by the evocative date of 2001 which, combined with the all-hydrogen launch vehicle would create a manned launch capability to match that of any nation in the world—but substantially more efficient and lower-cost. However, just as it was even more unorthodox and ambitious than their launcher development plans, so too the Japanese spaceplane program was even more vulnerable when the asset bubble popped. The plans for a full-scale manned spacecraft were tabled indefinitely, and developing an orbital vehicle was postponed. Even the drop testing and suborbital development was slowed, with focus shifted more to lab-scale testing and computational simulations than the intended X-plane-style test flights. Funds would no longer be assured to materialize should the initial design underperform in testing, so the time would have to be spent instead to ensure that whatever testing could be afforded was on a vehicle designed right.

    About the only element of the Japanese program not affected by the economic crisis was their participation in Space Station Freedom. After all, the work to develop and build the Centrifuge Gravity Lab and the Kibo complex was complete, and both modules were being prepared for shipment across the Pacific to the United States for final checkout, assembly with their AARDV tugs, and launch by the time the asset bubble popped. Moreover, crew slots on station—one slot per full-station crew of 10, using a seat on every other Apollo crew launch—had already been paid off in the exorbitant development expenses of the CGL, meaning that the cost of continuing to support their Freedom program consisted of essentially just ground support expenses for Kibo’s labs and training for their astronaut corps. With the spaceplanes tabled and the development schedule of the H-II that was to have launched them stretching enormously, it was seen as critical to save face with their international collaborators by continuing full-speed with their contributions to projects like Freedom. Kibo was launched on a NASA Saturn in June 1991, and served by a constant rotation of Japanese crewmembers flying to the station on American Apollo capsules. It was the final module of the station, completing assembly and moving the focus to supporting the station’s scientific utilization.

    Not every changing space program at the turn of the decade was disintegrating under financial stresses or national collapse, however. Several nations saw a chance for seizing opportunity in the collapsing state of the Soviet Union. India had, largely on its own, built a fledgling space program by the latter half of the 1980s. They had developed and launched their own basic satellites on the all-solid Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV), and were working on an augmented launcher that would combine three SLV first stages (two as ground-lit boosters, and the third as an air-lit sustainer core) to boost payloads of up to 150 kg into orbit. However, to go much further, India would need greatly expanded payload capabilities, which would call for liquid rocket engines, preferably hypergolic or kerosene. For the moment at least, India did not have the resources to develop this technical base all entirely on their own. However, India decided that it was better to avoid reinventing the wheel—or the turbopump—and instead began work around 1988 to acquire the necessary technologies from a nation that already possessed them. Unfortunately, they were confronted with a problem: most of the major space powers (including Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States) had established the Missile Technology Control Regime, an association of nations with the goals of reducing missile technology proliferation. Among other provisions, MTCR included voluntary restrictions on the export of technologies related to long-range ballistic missiles…such as the very engine technologies India had hoped to acquire. However, there was more than one way to acquire these technologies, and India instead sought out an old partner: the Soviet Union, with whom India’s first astronaut had flown to the Salyut 7 space station in 1984, and who had been a major arms merchant to the Indian military since the 1960s. Initially, India reached out under the notion of continuing this association with flights to Mir; however, once talks had begun, they requested the addition of a simple transfer of key technologies related to the hypergolic engines of the obsolescent Proton rockets. Thanks to the increased transparency of the Gorbachev regime, India could not help but be aware of the USSR’s increasing fiscal issues, and hoped that by leading with “cash on the table,” the Soviets would find it harder to reject their real interest in the Proton technology. However, the gambit proved a bridge too far, and talks broke down after a few months of negotiations.

    In 1992, with the Soviet remnants fading fast, India was contacted by elements of the ex-Soviet space program—now the Russians wanted to resume talks. In fact, not only were they willing to accede to the Indian’s requests for flights to Mir and engine technology transfer, but they could do one better than simply providing information on now-obsolete Soviet hypergolic engines: they would provide detailed engineering support on the most modern Russian staged-combustion kerosene engines. Moreover, they would not just provide the engines: should the Indians be interested, the Russians were willing to sweeten the deal: they would provide launch vehicle development support, assistance with establishing native production, and support the Indians as they natively developed derivative technologies. All the Indians had to do was cash in. The major concept the Russians were suggesting was one of Glushko’s Vulkan derivatives—a clustered-core vehicle using a single RD-161 engine (a sea-level variant of the single-chamber RD-160 from the Vulkan second stage) on a booster, paired with upper stages derived from the Soyuz/Molniya rockets. The vehicle would be more than capable in a single-stick configuration of meeting the Indian’s needs—in fact, it would also fulfill the Indian’s longer-term goal of a native Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle, not just their current polar-orbit needs. In both single-core and tri-core versions, it could replace the R-7 family with a Vulkan-related booster, therefore continuing to reduce the Russian program’s operations costs—critical, given the ever-lower budgets. The Russians got funding to “co-develop” a booster they badly wanted while also providing critical cash flow for upkeep on their existing production and launch sites—the pall of smoke over Gagarin’s Start hung heavy in many minds. The Indians got almost all of the design support work on their booster done without as much need for immediate native production. It was too good an offer to turn down. The one potential sticking block was the United States and MTCR—while Russia was not a member, there was the potential to use “strong arm” tactics on the new nation to force it to hold to the terms. However, India pointed out that it already had its own missile-related technologies, and could develop a rocket or missile that would fall within MTCR’s 500kg-or-more-to-300km-range payload band without needing outside help—which would make them a potential source for the kinds of technologies MTCR was trying to restrict. On the other hand, India had basically already been voluntarily adhering to the principles that it would only import, never export such technologies—a policy in line with the MTCR’s goals if India was allowed to become a member. While no decision was made, the arguments kicked up enough fuss that, combined with a sense of forging a new world order including both Russia and India as vital partners, the MTCR nations were unwilling to risk the use of strong arm tactics to block the Indo-Russian co-development agreements being signed. As an extra bonus, India would get to pay to see several of its astronauts fly to Mir—though initially in 1988 a ruse to begin negotiations, the Indians were more than happy to accept when it was offered to them at discount rates.

    At the same time, another nation was eyeing the deal the Indians had gotten, and carefully examining what else Russia might have to offer. China’s new 827 capsule, code named Lóngxīng (“Star Dragon”), was very closely based in design on the obsolete Soviet Soyuz capsule, and many of the Chinese plans to build it, then a small space station and build up experience in long-term operations were based in part on finding the Russians’ approach to have been successful and reasonably cheap (while the Chinese could afford a quite expensive program, they were more than content accepting slower progress towards the same goals in exchange for far lower development cost). However, co-operating with Russia—or more correctly, looting the Russian spaceflight program for whatever bits or pieces might be of use for China—offered a chance to avoid some of the most expensive development, build up station flight history immediately, and offer Lóngxīng a destination immediately upon entry into service, reducing the need for some of the intermediate station projects China’s original plans had included. Therefore, in late 1992, agents of the Chinese government approached Roscosmos, the new Russian space agency, and Energia, now a massive conglomerate led by Chelomei, with a proposal. Much as with India, Russian engineers would be paid to offer support for Chinese development of rockets and capsules. In the meantime, while 827 was coming online, Chinese cosmonauts would be flown to Mir on Russian TKS capsules in order to allow the Chinese to gain experience in station operations. To increase this, Russian engineers working closely with their Chinese counterparts would convert the remaining grounded DOS module to China’s needs, then launch them to Mir to be operated semi-autonomously by the Chinese as an interim step to their own stations. Once completed, China would launch its own capsules, initially to dock with Mir while they worked on putting up their own station. Russian reaction to the stark (and extensive!) list of conditions the Chinese placed on the table was mixed—on the one hand, it was a dictation of terms, not a proposal of alliance. Its propositions were demands, with price tags listed for what China would be willing to pay for each service, and a clear intent to gain whatever they could squeeze from the Russians without any long-term commitment. On the other hand….Russia badly needed the money, and could hardly afford to be picky about the attitude of potential clients. Meanwhile, the United States and Europe were growing increasingly displeased by how many developing space powers were treating the remnants of the Soviet Union as a one-stop-shop for circumventing arms proliferation preventions. The 90s promised a whole new world with the fall of the USSR and other changes, and those who could adapt would be the ones to thrive.
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    Part III, Post 2: The Lunar Reconnaissance Pioneer
  • Well, folks, it's that time again. This week, as NASA prepares to launch LADEE to the moon, we turn our attention that direction as well. Back in Part II you may recall an offhand mention of the Lunar Reconnaisance Pioneer, the sister probe to the MRP. Well, today, you find out the rest of the story. ;) This is a bit of "backfilling," in that some events in this post predate the start of Part III, but they then continue into this period and that's where the real action is.

    Eyes Turned Skyward, Part III: Post #2

    Since the dawn of humanity, the Moon has loomed large in the collective imagination of mankind. The only heavenly body other than the Sun to show a disk to the naked eye, its regular cycles, curious patterns of light and dark, and influence over the tides and, at least in the eyes of early humans, other periodic cycles and patterns made it an object of intense curiosity to early humans. Many made it an object of religious devotion, whether by worshiping lunar gods or goddesses, or by marking time through a lunar calendar, as Jews and Muslims do for religious purposes. Others studied it with all the fervor and attention they could devote to the task, tracking its slow libations and wandering movement. Centuries before the birth of Christ, Greek, Indian, and Chinese astronomers had determined that the Moon did not shine on its own, but only by the reflected light of the Sun, that the Moon was a sphere, and had even made remarkably accurate estimates of the size and distance of the Moon from Earth. Even more sophisticated measurements had to wait on the development of the telescope, which showed the Moon to be a rugged, craggy body, pockmarked with craters and lined with mountain ridges. By the 1950s, highly accurate maps had been made of the entire part of the Moon visible from Earth, and lunar science was, by the standards of the time, a booming, successful field of planetary science.

    It was only natural that, even before the successful launch of Soviet and American space probes, some scientists had already started to propose missions to the Moon, as had some military forces. von Braun, of course, described an ambitious crewed lunar expedition in 1952 for Collier’s magazine, and had undoubtedly begun thinking about lunar exploration much earlier, while for their part Soviet thinkers were considering future lunar exploration long before they began their own satellite program. Within months of Sputnik’s launch, the United States Air Force’s Pioneer program was attempting to launch unmanned satellites to the Moon, mainly to prove the feasibility of launching payloads to escape velocity, while the Soviets were beginning their own Luna program. Although the Pioneer program was an abject failure, scoring only a single successful launch out of ten attempts, the Soviets achieved more success, with Luna 3 in particular returning the first images of the far side of the Moon ever seen on Earth. Encouraged, many American scientists began to imagine more complicated and ambitious robotic lunar probes, with names like Ranger, Surveyor, and Prospector. They would do more than just hit the Moon or loop around it; they would return detailed imagery, go into orbit around it, land payloads, rove the surface as remotely-operated vehicles, and, perhaps, return lunar soil to the Earth.

    The beginning of the Apollo program to land men on the Moon was the death knell for these airy fantasies of robotic probes roaming the Moon’s surface, at least in the United States. Programs which did not directly contribute to the overriding goal of putting a man--who anyways was far more intelligent and flexible than any robot--on the Moon were ruthlessly cut. First to go were the advanced Prospectors, but the orbital Surveyors and scientific Rangers quickly followed them to the chopping block. The Surveyor program itself was cut back largely to providing data for the development of the lunar module, and the Lunar Orbiter program, focused on imaging the surface in detail for mission planning, was substituted in place of the scientific orbiters. Although the outstanding success of the Lunar Orbiter program in gathering the crucial site data meant that the final two missions were largely dedicated to more scientific purposes, they simply could not return much of the data lunar scientists wanted. Although the Apollo missions, especially the final four J-class missions, augmented the probe results, they did not and could not provide globally detailed information, leaving scientists unable to answer many questions about the Moon. Therefore, as the Apollo program wound down and NASA began to face a post-Apollo future, many scientists called for a new lunar mission, a Lunar Polar Orbiter, which would carry many of the same instruments that had been flown in the J-class mission’s SIM bays, as well as other experiments to characterize the entire Moon. As NASA struggled with changing responsibilities and falling budgets, their voices went largely unheard, a cry in the wilderness during the difficult 1970s. Nevertheless, they persisted, repeatedly suggesting the mission to the National Academy of Sciences, NASA, and anyone else they thought might help it launch.

    In early 1983, their persistence finally paid off. Although American intelligence assets had revealed Soviet modifications of the N-1 pads at Baikonur, fueling suspicion that the Soviets were in the midst of developing their own large rockets--indeed, this knowledge had been a decisive factor in selecting the Saturn Multibody concept over the Titan V during ELVRP II--they lacked certainty on the purpose of the rockets. Were they merely safer replacements for the Proton, which had caused a number of serious accidents and had a poor record of success? Perhaps they were meant to carry large spacecraft, like orbital battlestations, into high orbits? Or were the Soviets more ambitious still...? The CIA concluded that the size and capability implied by what technical data they had and the size of the pads and flame trenches meant that the Soviets could not be merely thinking of new space stations or even orbital weapons platforms, but had to have greater ambitions. In particular, the CIA believed, they must have resurrected their old lunar landing program from the 1960s and given it a modern spin, aiming to land on the Moon sometime “soon,” perhaps establishing bases and going on to Mars by the mid-1990s. This information was leaked to the press in late 1982, where it caused a minor sensation among a public and Congress which had not entirely gotten over the initial shock of the Vulkan. Some kind of response was demanded, which lunar scientists were quick to provide in the form of their old Lunar Polar Orbiter proposal. Almost as quickly, NASA accepted the proposal for further development, while Congress readily provided the necessary funding. At last, just under a decade after the last mission to the Moon, the United States would be returning--albeit with a robotic probe rather than a human landing.

    Design and ultimately construction responsibility for the probe were given to NASA Ames Research Center, whose other planetary exploration projects had largely sunk into maintenance mode since the launch of Pioneer Mars in 1979, with the only significant ongoing development program being the Galileo probe project. With a reputation for greater economy than its planetary exploration rival to the south, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and less ongoing work, Ames was a natural choice for Headquarters to oversee a program with the profile and importance of what became known as the Lunar Reconnaissance Pioneer, or LRP. Ames set to work with a will immediately, quickly drawing up basic specifications for the spacecraft. In this, they benefited from the work of lunar scientists over the past decade, who had drawn up a firm wishlist of instruments they wanted to see onboard: Spectrometers, like those carried by the J-class missions, to remotely analyze the composition of the lunar surface. A radar altimeter, to map out its height variations. Infrared and visible light imaging to produce more detailed surface maps than available from the old Lunar Orbiters and to provide information about flows of heat to and from the surface. Instruments to explore the magnetic and electric field environments around the Moon. Finally, to make proper use of these instruments, the placement of the vehicle in a polar orbit, to see the Moon’s whole surface. Together, such instruments would perhaps reveal more about the Moon than even the Apollo flights had.

    As LRP would be operating in an environment reasonably similar to Earth orbit, it was decided to adapt a new lightweight three-axis stabilized communications satellite design from RCA for the mission. Although this was in some ways a break from the traditional Ames preference for spin-stabilized satellites, necessitated by the demand for high-resolution imagery, in other ways it maintained an essential continuity with Ames’ tradition of lightweight, inexpensive missions, by tapping into the extensive development funds dedicated by RCA to their spacecraft business. Development was slowed by the need to adapt the design to the Mars Reconnaissance Pioneer and Near-Earth Asteroid Pioneer programs while the LRP itself was still being constructed, but by 1988 the probe was ready and launched to the Moon atop a McDonnell-Douglas Delta 4065. After a brief five-day journey, the LRP ignited its own onboard engines, placing itself in a polar low lunar orbit. Over the next few days, it deployed and tested its instruments before beginning its research mission.

    From its vantage point just a few dozen miles over the lunar regolith, the LRP obtained a grand vista of the Moon. Whenever it passed within the line of sight of the Earth, a new stream of compositional, altitude, photographic, heat-flow, and magnetic data flowed back to its controllers on Earth. Just as had been predicted by the scientists behind the project, it quickly returned more scientific data than all of the J-class missions put together, at least so far as their orbital instruments were concerned. More experiments were improvised on the fly; an obvious one was to track the LRP’s carrier signal carefully, like with VOIR at Venus, to map the lunar gravitational field. Besides probing the Moon’s interior structure, this would aid management of later low lunar orbit spacecraft by allowing more precise and accurate predictions of orbital perturbations from the infamous mascons. Although the system could, for obvious reasons, only map the Moon’s near side, it was still far better than nothing at all, and revealed a great deal of interest to both future mission planners and lunar geologists.

    However, that was not the only unanticipated use that could be made of the probe’s communication system. Since the early 1960s, it had been known that because of the Moon’s rugged topography and small axial tilt, some areas near the poles might be permanently shaded. Even in the lunar equivalent of arctic (or antarctic) high summer, surrounding mountain formations or crater rims might block sunlight from reaching some areas. In turn, this might allow volatile material such as water or carbon dioxide, which would otherwise be vapor under the low pressures and high temperatures of the lunar surface, to gradually collect within the shaded areas. Although budget considerations and the commonly shared belief, stemming from examinations of Apollo lunar samples, that the lunar surface was bone-dry had precluded the inclusion of a dedicated water-sensing device in the LRP’s payload, certain observations by the probe’s spectrometers seemed to indicate that water ice might indeed be present in the shaded regions. To resolve the scientific controversy, an alternate method of detecting water ice was proposed by a team of scientists at the University of Texas several months after the probe reached the Moon. By sending a stream of signals out from its communication antenna towards the Moon, then picking up the resulting signals on Earth, a so-called “bistatic radar” could be improvised. If the polarization characteristics of the probe’s signals were controlled, the radar could, at least in theory, distinguish between a rocky and an icy underlayer to the surface regolith, thereby proving whether or not ice deposits were real or merely the result of overactive imaginations. The resulting observations were duly carried out, and the results were nothing short of astonishing. Rather than the small pools or isolated crystals most scientists thought might be the extent of polar water ice deposits, LRP’s observations seemed, at least at first, to indicate that there might be huge slabs and sheets of ice covering the bottom of many shaded regions, amounting to millions or even billions of tons of water, enough to supply a wealth of critical resources to a lunar base. Although the results were controversial even when published, and only became more so when results from similar Earth-based experiments showing similar data for decidedly non-shaded regions were publicized, in mid 1989 they were the cutting edge of lunar science. Surely they must have contributed to the eventual decision of NASA leaders to focus on a lunar return over a journey to Mars for Project Constellation. After all, not only is water a vital resource for any lunar base, and immensely useful for supporting missions to other worlds, but the simplest and most obvious method of resolving the scientific debate was to send a geologist there to drill cores and take samples in a suspected ice-containing area, then see if he or she actually found any ice.

    The discovery of apparent large deposits of ice also invigorated the Lunar Society, which had after all long promoted the establishment of colonies on the Moon as the next logical step in the settlement of space. Ice, together with the other volatiles likely frozen in the putative sheets, would make those colonies far more viable than mining the lunar regolith alone could. The parallel discovery of multiple so-called “skylights,” places where the surface seemed to have collapsed in on lunar lava tubes like those postulated in the wake of Apollos 15 and 18, gave additional vigor to the Society, which had promoted the use of such tubes as locations for its lunar colonies. The one downside to the combination was that few of the permanently shadowed regions seemed to be anywhere close to the lava tubes, raising questions of how lunar colonists were to transport the ice or water from one to the other. The result was a burst of creative, if not always practical, methods for transporting the volatiles hundreds or thousands of miles on a rocky, hot, and airless surface. While they waited on reality catching up to their proposals, meanwhile, the outlook for lunar colonies seemed brighter than it had since the mid-1970s.

    When its primary mission ended, the LRP found itself in a very different position than it had been when it launched. With Project Constellation coming up to full steam, once again scientific value was playing a back-seat passenger to human spaceflight requirements, and the probe was press-ganged into serving as a precursor mission. Its powerful imaging system would now be used to examine possible landing sites and occasionally other locations in exquisite high resolution, not only allowing problems like excessive surface roughness to be identified long before any humans would be anywhere near them but also allowing a library of maps to be built up for optical navigation systems like those used in cruise missiles that might be employed on future landers. Its radar altimeter could be used to quantify the slope of candidate sites. And although its other instruments were being sidelined, they, too would benefit from the lower orbit needed to operate to maximum effectiveness, detecting smaller and more localized variations in surface composition, picking up subtler changes in magnetic fields.

    Moreover, its low altitude opened up another interesting possibility. Since the United States had landed on the Moon twenty years earlier, a growing strain of thought within the country had claimed that the entire mission had been faked, nothing more than a sham filmed on a Hollywood soundstage. At its new altitude, the LRP would be able to image Apollo’s landing sites in extreme resolution, revealing not just the descent stages and other large markings, as images taken early on in the probe’s career had, but fine detail, like the flags the astronauts had planted around the sites and the tracks of footprints they had made during their EVAs. Although NASA conceded this would not convince the hardcore skeptics, many within the agency still felt the imagery would be worthwhile in persuading the less convinced, and simply as a reminder of the agency’s past achievements. From its lower altitude orbit, the LRP was also able to detect the remains of many of the robotic probes which had been sent to the Moon during the 1960s and 1970s, including the long-lost remains of Lunokhod 1. Besides clearing up a minor mystery of the space age, the first automated rover ever to explore another body’s surface carried a laser retroreflector similar to those carried by its sibling, Lunokhod 2, and by several of the Apollo moon landing missions, actively in use by Earth-based research projects. The new ranging site was quickly pressed into service by those projects, adding another minor scientific accomplishment to the LRP’s total. When the LRP finally depleted its fuel and crashed in late 1993, some five years after launch, it had not only laid the essential foundations of further lunar exploration, but reminded the country of its past on the Moon.
    Part III, Post 3: American Launch Service's new rockets
  • Well! It's that time once again, and in this weekend of anticipation for the maiden launches of several important OTL commercial vehicles (Falcon 9 v1.1 and Cygnus are both headed to the pad within the week!), how about we check in on one of TTL's commercial success stories, American Launch Services, Inc? This post was a lot of fun to work up, and I hope everyone enjoys it as much as I enjoyed writing it. (Fun fact: due to the timing of writing, this is IIRC the first post of Eyes Part III which was completed, though one other was started before it.) 1943 replies, 249229 views.

    Eyes Turned Skyward, Part III: Post #3

    During the 1980s, two major commercial launch providers had emerged in the United States from the scrum of companies that had attempted to make a business of it. Lockheed, with their purchase of the Titan series, was by far the larger, but the other, American Launch Services, was perhaps more interesting for being one of the first aerospace firms specifically founded as a spaceflight company to succeed and grow. With their Caravel launcher, based on surplus Minuteman I missile bodies, ALS by 1988 was consistently launching 6 or more payloads per year from their Matagorda, TX launch site on lofted suborbital paths over the Gulf of Mexico and on orbital tracks aimed through the gap between Florida and Cuba. However, even as their launch rate increased, their launch manifest grew faster. Less than two hours from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, the ALS Matagorda Launch Site became a minor attraction for JSC personnel, giving ALS some valuable back channel connections to NASA. Through these back channels, they became aware of a desire on the part of NASA and the DoD for Explorer-class orbital payloads larger than the 3 ton max of the Caravel family. Caravel had been conceived mostly to serve the sub-orbital sounding rocket role--the market developing for relatively small orbital payloads had been unanticipated, and required more of the larger Caravel variants than ALS’s market projections had estimated. At the same time, NASA was not just looking to make more use of the sub-3-ton class that Caravel already served, but to expand into payloads between the current Caravel range and the lower range of the Delta 4000, cheaper payloads which perhaps couldn’t justify the cost of a full Delta 4000, but needed more than Caravel could currently provide. When combined with the stable cashflow that the success of Caravel offered, such speculations bounced between NASA engineers and ALS’ team during weekend trips to watch launches at Matagorda, leading ALS to believe that there was an unfilled niche in the launch market where they had a chance to do more than just survive, but to evolve and grow into the 90s. Thus, in 1987, ALS moved forward on a new development program aimed to meet this need. As the Caravel had been named for the small Portuguese ships commonly used for exploration, the new booster would be named for the larger ships developed to follow them for trans-Atlantic trade and development: Carrack.

    However, ALS was faced with a dilemma - their successes to date had largely been built around integrating existing designs, not development of new launch vehicles from the ground up. In fact, it was this ability to develop its vehicle more cheaply via integration expertise rather than trying to develop new hardware that had been key to ALS succeeding where others in the late-70s space boom had instead gone bust. Caravel had been built around clustered Minuteman stages, with one set igniting on the ground and lofting the remaining stack to altitude before a second set would fire and lift the vehicle most of the way into orbit. A third stage, such as a Star 48, could be employed on orbital mission for final orbit circularization. None of these stages were ALS products, instead, ALS’ expertise was in integration mechanisms: interfaces, fairings, and systems engineering, not engines and tanks. ALS had learned a lot from Caravel development and operations--first, by employing a single type of booster for the first and second stages (enabled by use of a high-thrust basic core) they could minimize costs. Additionally, the nearly all-solid design resulted in minimal pad infrastructure requirements, as opposed to the traditional fuel bunkers and cryogenic tanks required for other launchers. The all-solid design was not, however, a panacea superior in every respect to more conventional boosters. In order to hit a given apogee target or orbital position with a launcher, precision had to be achieved in stage performance, with the upper stages adjusting to fly the vehicle as close as possible to the destination despite lower-stage aerodynamic buffeting, underperformance, or other variation. This required a coast phase to be built in between the first and second stage ignitions to build in margin. By fine-tuning the coast time and new orientation after coast, the onboard guidance could carefully spend margin to make up for underperforming lower stages. However, this in turn meant that if the mission went nominally, this margin was wasted. This drove ALS to look for a liquid option for their new booster’s final stage, which would be able to make up for any underperformance by dynamic adjustment of throttle as opposed to requiring a longer coast phase. This would by itself result in measurable increases in achievable performance. This experience with Caravel informed ALS as they began to develop its larger cousin.

    Given their success with the clustered-solid Caravel, ALS engineers quickly converged on a similar design for Carrack. However, the Minuteman stage they were using was already one of the largest monolithic solid stages in common use. The Castor 4 in use on Delta 4000 was roughly the same mass, and though even larger composite-wound motors were in development to replace the Castors, the wait would be several years and ALS was unwilling to risk their new launcher on the uncertain position of being a second buyer on a much larger government contract. The larger multi-segment solids used on Titan and Multibody were far too large, and the complexity of multiple segments was undesirable. ALS thus began to consider solids never before used as launch vehicle components. The MX missile, the successor to the Minuteman II and III still in service, had by the 1980s finally evolved from a technology development program to an active program, with the final result, the Peacekeeper missile, beginning to be deployed in 1986. However, even as they were being introduced, the missile’s fate had been sealed: in 1985, when asked to approve the full 100-missile purchase, Congress had instead favored the sub-launched Trident II, which by this time had achieved similar payloads and had none of the worries about counter-force Soviet targeting which had initially inspired the MX program--and which had been brought back as a cause against it when various mobile basing systems had been discarded for cost reasons. Thus, by 1987, the Peacekeeper missile production lines were in full swing, with development and testing complete, but with no future once the first round of missiles were complete. In this situation, ALS saw the solution to its problems. At 53 tons fueled, the SR-118 first stage of the Peacekeeper was almost double the size of the Minuteman stages ALS was already using--perfect as a base for the new Carrack launch system. Sounding out the Department of Defense on the question of availability received an enthusiastic response--if Carrack could directly support Peacekeeper production capability, the Air Force hoped it might in the future be able to eventually convince Congress to resume Peacekeeper production.

    Based on the initial leads with the DoD, ALS reached out to Thiokol, the manufacturers of the Peacekeeper first stages about production of a slightly modified civilian variant. ALS wanted two subvariants--one fitted with a vacuum optimized nozzle and a regressive-burning grain for the second stage, and the other for the first stage designed with variable number of booster attach points. ALS envisioned stacking one of the altitude-compensated civilian SR-118 stages (which received the designation “Castor 120” in civilian use for their loaded weight in thousands of pounds) on top of another Castor 120, this one optimized for sea level and fitted with attach points for up to 4 additional Castor 120 boosters. With a suitable liquid stage, ALS calculated that such a Carrack would be more than capable of replacing the Caravel for the 1 ton and greater range their customers were requesting, and equally capable of expanding their maximum payload from 3 tons to almost 6.

    This left the question of what would make a “suitable liquid stage.” Ideally, ALS hoped to serve payloads headed not just to LEO, but also to GTO and beyond with Carrack, as the 6 tons LEO payload could allow them to single-launch payloads that otherwise would have to fly as secondaries on Delta 4000, Titan, or Europa launches. If their prices could compete, this new market would enable ALS to further expand, perhaps opening a polar-dedicated launch site. Thus, the ALS engineers favored a hypergolic third stage for the Carrack family. In order to ensure suitable T/W off the pad in the single-Castor smallest form, the stage could mass no more than roughly 7.5 tons. Additionally, ALS hoped to once again minimize development. They found the answer to these requirements by once again shopping out of another company’s catalogue of dying programs. The Agena stage, with a history of hundreds of launches stretching back to the dawn of the space program, was still in production by Lockheed Astronautics for their Titans. However, as more of their launches switched to the larger, higher-energy Centaur-D, Agena was slowly fading away. In every respect, it met ALS’s requirements--at 6.8 tons fueled, it met the mass restrictions, it could start many times in orbit for potential GTO or BEO applications, and the 30-year history meant that ALS could be confident in what they were getting. In order to minimize modifications, the Agena would need to be encapsulated within the payload fairing along with the payload, but this was considered a minor tradeoff. With their components selected, ALS’s skilled integration specialists went to work, and Carrack began to be available for reservations in 1989 for 1992 introductory launches. Alongside several commercial firms, the Department of Defense and NASA were eager early customers, as the price [1] was slightly lower than the smaller Delta 4000 vehicles which the Carrack’s maximum range could nearly match. The DoD additionally was pleased at finding a way to discreetly support their missile infrastructure through a commercial civilian firm, and viewed money spend on Carrack payloads something of an indirect subsidy to maintaining Peacekeeper production capabilities for the future.

    Back at ALS, the Carrack program resulted a major change for their corporate structure. An entire new pad had to be built and staffed at Matagorda, with new handling infrastructure for the larger Castor 120 stages, and new storage tanks and plumbing for the hypergolic fuels required for Agena. New staff was hired, drawing in part on ex-Martin Titan engineers and technicians laid off by Lockheed Astronautics as part of the “rightsizing” done to make Titan competitive in the global marketplace. These new employees brought with them a wealth of experience in hypergolics handling that ALS was desperate to learn, as well as with the Agena stage. However, ALS’ core competency still lay in integration, and their major growth also occurred in that field. A new set of facilities for processing payloads for flight was established at Matagorda, primarily to serve Carrack flights at Launch Complex 2, though Caravel flights from LC-1 were also to make use of it. This facility served as a proving ground for taking their experience in launch vehicle integration and applying it to preparing commercial payloads--a service ALS executives hoped to perhaps sell as a subcontract to companies like McDonnell and Lockheed in the future. Finally, in order to launch vehicles as large as Carrack with the regularity it needed to in order to turn regular profits, ALS had to deal with state and federal regulatory agencies. Environmental impacts of Matagorda had to be reconsidered and filed with the EPA, the FAA had to reconsider the effects of Matagorda’s keep-out zones on flights into Houston and other airports, state and local noise regulations had to be considered and addressed. Reports even had to be filed with the county engineer concerning the effects on traffic patterns from the road closings necessary to secure the launch zone and the losses in tourism that might be caused by the closings of beaches and recreational boating areas under the vehicle flight paths. As part of an initiative to grow Texas as a center for high-tech fields, ALS received aid from Governor Ann Richards, who put some weight behind clearing a path (at least at the state level) for speeding Matagorda’s enhanced status as a world-class spaceport.

    Finally, the necessary forms were all filed, and the spaceport was cleared for expanded operations. As the company grew into its new role with new talents, new facilities, and new permits, the first Carrak launch proceeded to the launch pad only slightly behind schedule in early 1993--an astounding achievement in aerospace, where a minor delay is rare, and an on-time introduction nearly impossible. However, the first launch of the vehicle, carrying a demonstration satellite assembled as project by students at the USAF Academy, was not entirely smooth, either literally or metaphorically. Unanticipated thrust oscillations during the second half of the second-stage Castor’s burn caused a minor structural failure in the vehicle’s second/third stage interstage, which had the challenging job of supporting the Agena and payload and the vehicle’s encapsulating fairing. Unfortunately, this buckling was enough to interfere with the Agena’s staging, as a segment of the bracket impacted the nozzle as the stages separated. The resulting damage to the nozzle continued to worsen over the Agena’s burn until the stage became uncontrollable, resulting in a mission failure. However, ALS’s experience in integration paid off, and the interstage was redesigned with increased structural strength (though at the cost of slightly higher weight), and the second stage Castor design was re-examined to minimize the potential for serious thrust oscillation. With these improvements (as well as resolution of other teething issues), Carrack quickly began to earn a reputation as a reliable, capable, and cheap launcher, launching twice in the first year, and four in the next. Larger Caravel launches were shifted to lower-end Carracks of equivalent capacity, and the first of a new mid-sized generation of satellites were flying on the largest Carracks by 1994, posing a challenge to attempts to commercialize the low end of the Delta 4000 range. With shrewd use of existing hardware and minimization of development, ALS had once again proved that dedicated spaceflight firms could exist and even profit in the competitive market--proof to the existing players that they would have to step up their game, and a development eagerly studied by some considering getting into the field.

    Which works out to something like $5,000/kg