Archive for the ‘aerospace’ Category

Forty Years Ago.

Saturday, July 18th, 2009

Almost exactly 40 years ago in 1969 the world watched with excitement and anxiety as the Saturn V rocket of Apollo 11 shot skyward from Kennedy Space Center. The launch of this rocket was the first step in Apollo 11’s mission of putting NASA astronauts on the Moon, the commitment of a nation to deliver on President Kennedy’s call to do so not eight years previously in 1961. Obviously, this endeavor was incredibly risky, and the astronauts knew very well that there was a significant reality that they would never return. The entire world knew this, too. And yet, we sent them, and they went willingly.

I was born in January of that year, and was almost six months old when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong would conduct the first ever moonwalk. Obviously, I cannot remember the event, but this single human achievement has played an enormous role, and been of huge influence, on my entire life. It is exciting to be celebrating the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, and I am amazed at how absolutely relevant this achievement still is. I will spare you the history lesson, as there is an abundance of these seemingly everywhere. I will say, though, that it is interesting how things have developed since this historic moment.

Not Yet Four Days Ago.

In a case of either appropriate or ironic timing, depending on your perspective, NASA launched Space Shuttle mission STS-127 on July 15th after several delays. The Space Shuttle has been an important program for NASA, and for all of us, really, but in the shadow of the achievements reached by the thousands of people who were part of the effort to put humans on the moon you cannot help but feel that, for NASA, time has gone backwards. Regardless, the video below of the launch of STS-127 is incredible, and I am pleased that we are still sending brave people into space to help us learn, dream, and explore, even if they never actually leave Earth’s orbit.

A Step Closer to The Space Elevator

Sunday, January 25th, 2009


Almost exactly a year ago I wrote about the concept of a space elevator, and provided some background and motivation for NASA’s pursuit of this very cost effective access to Earth orbit. Quite realistically, if we truly want to create a substantive human presence beyond the surface of our planet it will take something akin to the space elevator to make it happen. Launching rockets into orbit is expensive, time consuming, dangerous, and wasteful. The space elevator will probably be expensive at first, but once it is built and ostensibly powered by solar energy the cost and danger of accessing Earth orbit are enormously reduced, and with the added benefit of much greater frequency. So, the space elevator is potentially a perfect solution for orbital access. It seems we have taken an important step closer with the development of light, long, and stretchy by scientists at Cambridge University. This is an important development, as the tether for the space elevator would require upwards of 144,000 miles of these nanotubes. At present, the scientists at Cambridge are able to develop about 1 gram of these carbon nanotubes per day, which can be stretched to 18 miles, but it will require work on creating the industrial production of carbon nanotubes to make the 144,000 mile space elevator tether viable.

It is interesting that something that existed essentially only in the realm of science fiction for many decades may now be actualized in the next ten years or so, this being another testament to the power of science fiction in shaping the direction of our technology.

More on long, stretchy carbon nanotubes at

Burt Rutan, Innovation, and Adversity

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

Burt Rutan

A couple weeks ago I came across coverage of the keynote that Burt Rutan gave at the conference via , and am finally getting around to sharing it. Rutan is an inspiring individual and I have been moved to write about him before, my favorite being Failure Leads to Understanding. In his keynote to AU2008, Rutan digs into his perspective on innovation and serves up some memorable insights, including:

“Innovation occurs in periods of adversity. In the 60s we went to the moon, in the 80s we never broke low earth orbit.”

Burt Rutan

That’s a prescient quote given the challenges we now face not just locally and nationally, but globally. Tracking the news, it is interesting how many companies have already disappeared. That’s probably as much about business model relevance as anything. At the same time that we are seeing companies disappear, the American automotive industry surf disaster, and the entire newspaper industry sink into a reactive panic, we are seeing companies expanding their business, diversifying offerings, and improving their position. There has been much talk over the last year regarding taking advantage of the imminent recession to reinvest in your organization and look for opportunities to innovate, reinvent, and diversify. I suspect that those companies that took this advice to heart stand a very good chance of being around this time next year, and positioned to maximize opportunities that arise as we emerge from this crisis, this adversity. Those that do not? Well, it’s going to be an interesting time. To Burt Rutan’s point, adversity can be a launchpad for innovation (pun intended). It can also be a destroyer, and it would seem that the ability to innovate is one quality that can help companies navigate events well.

I have not been able to find video of Rutan’s keynote, but will post as soon as I do.

24 Hours of Global Air Traffic

Saturday, December 13th, 2008

A team at the in Switzerland produced the animation above showing the paths of all of the world’s commercial flights over a 24-hour period. The flight information came from a single website, , which is an excellent resource and very interesting to investigate. Air traffic animations are not that new, as we have seen different versions of these for a while now, but the animation above is especially interesting as you relate air traffic to the march of darkness across the planet.

Also of interest is the animation below depicting 24 hours of Fed Ex air traffic operations. It’s longish, but interesting if only in the logistical model it presents. It is also a convenient way to locate Memphis, Tennessee on the map of the United States.

Industrial Design at NASA

Sunday, November 2nd, 2008

I was pretty excited to read at Core77 earlier this week, space exploration and NASA’s latest moon program being large on my personal interest radar. In this piece, Core77 looks at the addition of an industrial design team to the group developing the prototype for the pressurized lunar rover pictured above, a group that appear to exude that “I’ve landed my dream job, I work for NASA” vibe.  NASA has not previously employed an industrial design focus in its efforts, so this is a recent change that appears to already be benefiting the program in a multitude of ways. At NASA, industrial design has previously been relegated to addressing small ergonomic challenges with NASA not having a formal design group at all, the engineers being considered the “designers.” In fact, this industrial design team falls under a larger human factors group. Whatever works to improve the human/machine interface, performance, and user experience.

Part of the Core77 piece is the interview below with team member Evan Twyford (who graduated from RISD in 2005) where he explains their approach to designing the view area of the lunar rover’s cockpit:

DARPA Turns 50

Friday, August 15th, 2008

Over the last 50 years nothing has driven technology innovation like the military industrial complex. Sure, academic institutions, independent researchers, and private industry have achieved many things, but for sheer volume nothing can touch what the United States military technology research behemoth has accomplished. For researchers, this is where the big money lies and we’re talking about projects in areas beyond armaments and weapons like networking science, trauma medicine, communications, materials sciences, robotics, and transportation. Behind this is , the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is the central force behind the Department of Defense research initiatives that we usually hear about after they are no longer relevant. Their motto is “Bridging The Gap,” which may be a stretch. Regardless, DARPA is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and along with that celebrating 50 years of technology innovation… some of which is not actually used to kill people.

Oddly silly promotional video for DARPA’s 50th:

Found this video via .

Hubble Space Telescope: 18 Years and 100k Orbits Later, Still Ticking

Tuesday, August 12th, 2008

There’s milestones, and then there’s MILESTONES. The seems to have achieved quite a few while making it look somewhat easy, though lately it has again run into some technical difficulties. As Hubble rounds out its 18th year in Earth orbit, its orbital counter has passed the 100,000th mark (100,023 at this writing) which is itself an interesting accomplishment. This translates into 2.72 billion miles traveled, which is altogether impressive. All of this, of course, while it has remained just a few miles above the Earth’s surface, snapping pictures like this:

The Mothership

Sunday, August 3rd, 2008

Lot’s of excitement last week with Virgin Galactic’s unveiling of (WK2), the aircraft that will carry SpaceShipTwo aloft for mid-air launching into orbit, on July 28th. Developed by Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, WK2 is an innovative and visually interesting aircraft distinct for its twin fuselage and kinked wing designed to hold SpaceShipTwo for the ride to 48,000 feet. I just came across this video from Virgin Galactic that shows us great detail of the aircraft’s exterior:

I especially like the end of the video which shows Burt Rutan and Richard Branson walking around the craft and smiling widely. This is a big deal, and these two gentlemen are far along in a pioneering effort to begin to make space accessible to a great many more than those that work for governement space agencies. WK2 is an exciting step in this effort, and flight trials of the aircraft are set to begin this fall. Note the functional benefits of WK2’s twin fuselage design. The aircraft can be flown from either side.

A Journey Through NASA’s 50 Years

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

I posted regarding NASA’s 50th anniversary a few days ago but just came across this through NASA’s 50 years of discovery and exploration. Read more about it .

50 Years of NASA

Tuesday, July 29th, 2008

Today, July 29, 2008, marks the 50th anniversary of the inception of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The year was 1958, the race for space was heating up fast with the Soviet’s successful launch of the first orbiting satellite, Sputnik, in October of 1957. NASA was, in many ways, a reaction to this event. That first team for NASA came out swinging, though, and they set about an intense range of projects motivated by the urgings of a passionate President. The first 25 years saw amazing accomplishments (Mercury, Apollo, putting astronauts on the moon, Viking, Voyager, Mariner, Skylab, the space-shuttle…) relatively swelled budgets, and endless manpower. The next 25 also saw great accomplishments (Hubble, ISS, Cassini, Mars exploration…), but mixed with the challenges of changed national priorities, increased international competition, the limitations of the space-shuttle, the slowed progress of the ISS, and budgetary constraints. Along the way there have been horrible tragedies and incredibly prolific failures, but when you push the technological envelope and seek to expand the boundaries of human experience there are inevitable risks involved. The astronauts that have died knew these risks well, and still came to work. I would like to believe that the tragedies have been more than balanced by the successes, by the amazing discoveries, and by the advancement of science. NASA has inspired generations, myself included, and provided the United States with a vital rallying point for an optimistic belief in the future of our nation, and for humanity. From those that have been inspired by NASA have sprung incredible private space ventures like that of Burt Rutan and Richard Branson, the Lunar X Prize, and the inevitable development of space tourism.

NASA is definitely not without its problems, but what large publicly funded organization isn’t? The fact is that NASA has been with us for 50 years, has achieved a great deal, and has a plan for the future of the United States in space.

Phoenix is Go

Sunday, May 25th, 2008

Martian Weather 5/25/08 via Phoenix Mission Control

We are at just under four hours before Phoenix lands on the surface of Mars. I am checking periodically at the website in anticipation of this event. Martian weather is clear and the landing later today is green for go. I suspect there are a lot of very excited and anxious people at JPL right now.

The above animation is of weather on Mars around its north pole from 5/16 through 5/22. The small cigar shaped outline in the upper left quadrant is the planned landing zone.

12,000mph to Zero in Seven Minutes

Sunday, May 25th, 2008

It’s not just a big day for race fans, its a big day for science and space enthusiasts. In August of last year the left Earth to start its journey to Mars. Its mission is to arrive safely, land on the Martian North Pole, and dig into the soil there begin looking for the building blocks of life. It arrives today at around 4:45PM PDT. Arriving is the hardest part, as now the explorer has to successfully enter the Martian atmosphere (at 12,000mph) using parachutes to slow the rapid descent from 900mph to 250mph, and then fire landing rockets to prevent it from slamming into the Martian surface (see the video above). Its a complex landing, and the mission control team probably hasn’t been sleeping much these last few days, as the last five years of their work culminates today in about seven minutes of anxiety. That’s okay, though, as they have a number of ways they can distract themselves while keeping us updated on the the mission’s progress. For instance, you can follow the and get frequent updates and mission facts. The mission team also that is full of information and that will be used to post what the mission team is thinking and what Phoenix sees and discovers, as well as an information rich .

So, the entire Phoenix mission is going to be captured for us via an array of online tools. This is incredibly exciting, and it serves to connect us to the exploration and science that NASA leads in a way that is not only meaningful, but also basically real time.

Space Travel and Human Survival

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

The Lego Stephen Hawking

Last Monday Stephen Hawking at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of NASA. Hawking has long been a proponent of the value of humans exploring space, and again called for a determined effort by humans to colonize the moon and Mars. He put special emphasis on putting humans into space, and not relying solely on robotic explorers, which is largely driven by the survival of humans, longer term, and is an insurance policy against war, catastrophe, and disaster here on Earth. A great quote from the speech:

“Robotic missions are much cheaper and may provide more scientific information, but they don’t catch the public imagination in the same way, and they don’t spread the human race into space, which I’m arguing should be our long-term strategy. If the human race is to continue for another million years, we will have to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

With regards to life on other planets, Hawking offered three possibilities: that life in the universe, of any type, is rare; that simple forms of life may be common, but intelligent forms of life rare; or that intelligent life typically destroys itself. He went on to say:

“Personally, I favor the second possibility – that primitive life is relatively common, but that intelligent life is very rare. Some would say it has yet to occur on Earth.”

Stephen Hawking

Orbital Debris

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

Objects in LEO via ESA

This is unbelievable given the incredibly short time, only 51 years, that humans have had access to orbit around Earth. Via the (ESA) come high resolution images of all of the human-made objects that litter our previously pristine orbit. The image above only depicts those objects in low Earth orbit (LEO). Here are some staggering space garbage facts:

  • We have put upwards of 6000 satellites into orbit from 4600 orbital launches
  • 400 of these are beyond geostationary orbit or are on interplanetary trajectories
  • Only 800 satellites of the 6000 are considered operational
  • Most of the debris has come from explosion events (200) or collision events (10)

As we contemplate commercial orbital access, and look to things like space tourism to make the experience of space travel viable for many more people, this is a difficult reality to process. First, the amount of space debris is only going to increase, and most probably exponentially as the number of active space programs, both private and government, continues to rapidly increase. Second, there is real concern around protecting space vehicles, space stations, and future satellites from imminent collisions with this debris. That adds tremendous cost, complexity and weight to programs that are already stretched for budget and capacity. This is not impossible to overcome, and engineers have been thinking about this issue for awhile given some of the close calls with the Space Shuttle and the ISS. Still, another complexity added to an already very complex process.

Apollo 6, Forty Years Later

Sunday, April 6th, 2008

Apollo 6 leaving Earth

April 4th marked the 40th anniversary of the launch of , the last of the unmanned Apollo missions and the second time that a rocket was launched. This was also the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, and as such Apollo 6 was minimally covered in the news. The Saturn V would play a significant role in getting astronauts to the moon and this launch, forty years ago, was to be the final test of the Saturn V before qualifying and readying it for the planned manned missions. For the Moon program, this was an incredibly important mission and would complete an important phase of systems testing. Apollo 6 did have serious problems which prevented the mission from reaching the designated orbit. These problems were quickly identified and addressed in the next mission, Apollo 7, and in the end, it was the only Saturn V launch that experienced operational challenges. It was the Apollo 6 mission that proved the integrity of the Saturn V launch vehicle. Since Apollo 6 was a test flight, NASA positioned cameras in places that would not be possible on a Moon mission. One of these took the famous set of images of the Saturn V first stage separation and the jettisoning of the interstage ring, pictured above.

After Apollo 6, all future Apollo missions were manned. After the Apollo program was terminated for lack of funding, indicative of a tumultuous time in American history and a changing domestic agenda. At program termination there were three Saturn V rockets that had been completed in preparation of future Moon missions. Of these, one was ultimately used to , America’s first space station, into orbit on May 14, 1973. The remaining two are on display at various places around the country, including the complete Saturn V at the Johnson Space Center in Houston which is composed entirely of never used flight hardware.

As we near the end of the Space Shuttle’s operational life, and work continues on the replacement Orion/Constellation program, it is interesting that NASA has in some ways gone back to the future and put in place a program that is a direct descendant of the successes of the Apollo and Saturn programs, in some cases using identical systems technologies.

It’s A “Manhunter”

Friday, March 21st, 2008

Northrop Grumman X-47B

It has been a while since I have posted about robots, so via comes news that we are that much closer to bigger, better, and more stealthy flying robots of death. At least the United States Navy is. We’ve had operational drones and remotely piloted craft that could fire on targets, but within the next year the Northrop Grumman X-47B will take flight, and begin aircraft carrier landing testing a year after that. This is a mean machine, and brings an array of capabilities to bear all from a compact, efficient, and radar resistant form factor. It’s not a small craft, but it is much smaller than all other carrier based aircraft. It’s mission profile reads like a Tom Clancy novel:

  • Ballistic missle defense
  • Irregular force attack
  • “Manhunting”
  • Strike-coordinated armed reconnaissance
  • Combat air support
  • Special operations force support
  • Air interdiction
  • Electronic surveillance
  • SEAD/EW (I have no idea what this means…)

The impetus behind creating this robotic aircraft is to provide the Navy and Marines with a platform that can stay in flight for 50-100 hours, carry 4,500 pounds of ordinance, and perform the toughest missions under the most dangerous of circumstances. Clearly criteria that make a pilotless option priority. Additionally, there are plans to make the airframe compatible with carrying directed energy weapons. That would be lasers.

Again, reality maps to science fiction.

The Loss of Arthur C. Clarke

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke

Catching up on my feeds just now I was saddened to see that , physicist, author, innovator, futurist, and ardent believer in the potential of humanity, has died. He was 90, so the man had a very decent run. Perhaps his most recognized work was 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie for which just celebrated its 40th anniversary. He leaves behind an enormous legacy of invention, creativity, art, and inspiration having written over 100 books. Enormous. Few have been so profoundly influential to so many, and managed to do it with such consistent style, usually sporting a satin Nehru jacket and tanned from the beaches of his home in Sri Lanka. For me, Arthur C. Clarke is the Yin to Philip K. Dick’s Yang. A couple great quotes from Clarke in honor of his passing…

Reflecting on his life:

“Sometimes I am asked how I would like to be remembered. I have had a diverse career as a writer, underwater explorer and space promoter. Of all these I would like to be remembered as a writer.”

A terrific quote on the value of the space program, from 1970:

“The inspirational value of the space program is probably of far greater importance to education than any input of dollars… A whole generation is growing up which has been attracted to the hard disciplines of science and engineering by the romance of space.”

Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)

Space Elevator… “Crazy But Possible.”

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

Space Elevator Rendering

One of the researchers investigating the possibilities of building a space elevator said that. It was an incredibly futuristic idea a decade ago. Not so much today. Getting to space with rockets is incredibly dangerous and increasingly expensive. Each Space Shuttle mission costs NASA (and by extension the American taxpayers) about $500 million, and in these constrained budgetary times that is verging on cost prohibitive. This lends credence to the space elevator concept, which is not by any means a new idea ( put forth the idea in his 1978 novel “The Fountains of Paradise” – though he was not the first). Developments in materials technologies, like carbon nanotubes, are giving the space elevator new momentum and urging NASA to perhaps consider it seriously as a future alternative to orbital access.

The concept is exceedingly simple:

  • - Send up a satellite that maintains a geosynchronous orbit
  • - Satellite deploys a ribbon or cable back to Earth
  • - Cable is attached to an offshore station
  • - Elevator rides the cable from the offshore station up to the orbiting satellite

The elevator could be powered by Earth based lasers or by powerful solar reflectors. Panels on the elevator would receive the light energy from the emitters on the ground and produce the electricity that would power the motors on the elevator. It’s sustainable.

Previously, we had been held back by the material realities of trying to build a several thousand mile (as long as 22,000 miles) elevator cable. The advent of carbon nanotube technology, still in its infancy, could be the lightweight but incredibly strong materials breakthrough that makes this possible. If completed, the space elevator would be the largest structure ever built.

More on space elevators in an excellent entry at , at , and a short video from PBS’s .

NASA Begins Looking For a Ride

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

Patiently waiting for a ride to work…

NASA is trying to move quickly to finish the International Space Station before they decommission the Space Shuttle in 2010. This is primarily because the program currently in development to replace the shuttle, the Orion orbital vehicle and Constellation launch system, will most likely not be operational until 2015. This leaves a four to five year period where NASA will not be able to access space without the help of others, whether they be companies or nations. The good news is that at that time there will be several options as , , the , and possibly even will have operational orbital programs, not to mention the private ventures like and (two very cool companies, definitely check them out) that are currently contracted by NASA to develop supplementary ISS transport and support programs. The program from SpaceX, the , is planned to be operational by 2010. I imagine that Sir Richard Branson would be willing to help, if needed.

As recently as last week to talking with the Russian space program regarding negotiating the purchase of use of their Soyuz and Progress orbital programs, in the event that contracting with private space companies does not provide the necessary capacity. Given that it is now 2008, and that the shuttle goes defunct in 2010, it is in NASA’s best interest to have these plans solidified as soon as possible. Otherwise, our astronauts and researchers face a space access bottleneck at exactly the time that the International Space Station becomes fully operational.

The Soviet Ekranoplan and WIG

Saturday, February 9th, 2008

Soviet Ekranoplan

The Cold War was the catalyst for the development of a diversity of interesting vehicles, platforms and technologies, but few have been of more interesting to me than the Soviet “Lun” ekranoplan pictured above and below. The Soviet Union began developing the ground effect technology in the 1930’s, but the craft reached a pinnacle of sorts in the 1980’s with the Lun (one of which can be seen at ), though WIG craft have yet to reach any broad application, whether military or commercial. benefit from WIG in two important ways, the first being the ability to achieve incredibly high speeds and the second that flying at 10 to 50 feet above the surface makes them largely undetectable by radar.

WIG works as a high pressure region develops beneath the wing’s lower surface and above the water surface, which enhances its lift compared to a conventional wing in free air. The close proximity of the water also disrupts the formation of wing-tip vortices, which are a major cause of induced drag on conventional wings in free air. To benefit from WIG, the airfoil must have a relatively flat lower surface in order to increase lift. WIG craft have an advantage over water-bourne craft in that a huge amount of power is needed to overcome the drag of the water. By flying just above the water that power can be used for speed and carrying capacity.

Ekranoplans were developed in a range of sizes and applications, but they could reach enormous proportions and cargo carrying capacity. The Lun, among the largest to be developed, spanned 240 feet long with a wingspan of 144 feet. Its size would be comparable to a . It had a maximum takeoff weight of 882,000 pounds and a range of over 1,800 miles. This behemoth could cruise at 341 mph, leaving traditional naval vessels quickly in its wake.

Several nations, including Russia and the United States, continue to explore the potential of WIG (like the ), and appears to have an active WIG program, but to date none have pushed this technology to the limit as Soviet designers and engineers did towards the end of the Cold War.

Soviet Ekranoplan at rest

A Soviet Lun Ekranoplan transport at rest with crew on the exterior giving an idea of the size of the craft.

Video showing a range of Ekranoplans in action: