Saturday Night Science: The Case for Space

“The Case for Space” by Robert ZubrinFifty years ago, with the successful landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon, it appeared that the road to the expansion of human activity from its cradle on Earth into the immensely larger arena of the solar system was open. The infrastructure built for Project Apollo, including that in the original 1963 development plan for the Merritt Island area could support Saturn V launches every two weeks. Equipped with nuclear-powered upper stages (under active development by Project NERVA, and accommodated in plans for a Nuclear Assembly Building near the Vehicle Assembly Building), the launchers and support facilities were more than adequate to support construction of a large space station in Earth orbit, a permanently-occupied base on the Moon, exploration of near-Earth asteroids, and manned landings on Mars in the 1980s.

But this was not to be. Those envisioning this optimistic future fundamentally misunderstood the motivation for Project Apollo. It was not about, and never was about, opening the space frontier. Instead, it was a battle for prestige in the Cold War and, once won (indeed, well before the Moon landing), the budget necessary to support such an extravagant program (which threw away skyscraper-sized rockets with every launch), began to evaporate. NASA was ready to do the Buck Rogers stuff, but Washington wasn’t about to come up with the bucks to pay for it. In 1965 and 1966, the NASA budget peaked at over 4% of all federal government spending. By calendar year 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, it had already fallen to 2.31% of the federal budget, and with relatively small year to year variations, has settled at around one half of one percent of the federal budget in recent years. Apart from a small band of space enthusiasts, there is no public clamour for increasing NASA’s budget (which is consistently over-estimated by the public as a much larger fraction of federal spending than it actually receives), and there is no prospect for a political consensus emerging to fund an increase.... [Read More]

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Seven Minutes of Terror

NASA Mars InSight landingNASA’s Mars InSight lander is now approaching the Red Planet and will attempt to land later today.  Here is a timeline of events during the entry, descent, and landing (EDL) phase if everything goes as planned (adapted from the NASA/JPL “Landing Milestones” page).  All times are in Universal Time (UTC), which you can see in the title bar at the top of the Ratburger page.

  • 19:40 UTC – Separation from the cruise stage that carried the mission to Mars
  • 19:41 UTC – Turn to orient the spacecraft properly for atmospheric entry
  • 19:47 UTC – Atmospheric entry at about 19,800 kilometres per hour, beginning the entry, descent and landing phase
  • 19:49 a.m.UTC – Peak heating of the protective heat shield reaches about 1,500 °C
  • 15 seconds later – Peak deceleration, with the intense heating causing possible temporary dropouts in radio signals
  • 19:51 UTC – Parachute deployment
  • 15 seconds later – Separation from the heat shield
  • 10 seconds later – Deployment of the lander’s three legs
  • 19:52 UTC- Activation of the radar that will sense the distance to the ground
  • 19:53 UTC – First acquisition of the radar signal
  • 20 seconds later – Separation from the back shell and parachute
  • 0.5 second later – The retrorockets, or descent engines, begin firing
  • 2.5 seconds later – Start of the “gravity turn” to get the lander into the proper orientation for landing
  • 22 seconds later – InSight begins slowing to a constant velocity (from 27 km/h to a constant 8 km/h) for its soft landing
  • 19:54 UTC – Expected touchdown on the surface of Mars
  • 20:01 UTC- “Beep” from InSight’s X-band radio directly back to Earth, indicating InSight is alive and functioning on the surface of Mars
  • No earlier than 20:04 UTC, but possibly the next day – First image from InSight on the surface of Mars

Here is a description of the entry, descent, and landing phase.... [Read More]

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