This Week’s Book Review – Blue Collar Space

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

Everyday jobs turn wondrous in ‘Blue Collar Space’

By MARK LARDAS

July 18, 2018

“Blue Collar Space,” by Martin Shoemaker, Old Town Books, 2018, 244 pages, $11.99

What will it be like when humans are living and working in space? Ordinary folk, like those who live down your street?

“Blue Collar Space,” by Martin Shoemaker offers one vision. It is a collection of short science fiction stories set on the moon and Mars, and Jupiter orbit.

The settings are exotic. The jobs are ordinary. EMTs, sanitation workers, teachers, doctors, factory workers and miners feature in these stories. A few stories fall into the category of space adventure. “Not Close Enough” deals with a first manned mission to Mars — sort of a first manned mission to Mars. The explorers from NASA, ESA, Roscosmos, JAXA, and space agencies from India, Australia and China are not allowed closer to Mars’ surface than Martian orbit. There is a sort of spy adventure in the short story “Black Orbit,” with smugglers and secret agents.

Yet most deal with life and work of an everyday sort; dirty jobs in a space setting. A rescue team is sent to assist crash survivors in “Scramble.” A young girl must find help for her injured father — on the surface of the moon — in “Father-Daughter Outing.” The complexities of running a sanitation system on a lunar city gets explored in “The Night We Flushed the Old Town.” A children’s survival class instructor on Mars has to figure out how to fix things when something goes wrong in “Snack Break.” A moon prospector grapples with the discovery that starring in a moon-based kiddie show really is significant in “A Sense of Wonder.”

It is not dull. Shoemaker shows the adventure in doing things that on Earth are ordinary when they must be done in a hostile environment like space. Being on a spaceship, a space station, or surface of the moon and Mars changes things. He writes with a crisp and engaging style that draws readers into the tale. The result is fascinating reading.

“Blue Collar Space” captures what life will really be like when we finally get off Earth and move into space. It will be commonplace, yet at the same time it will be wonder filled.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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Forty-nine Years Ago Today…

…men from Planet Earth set foot upon another world.

Will you celebrate?

Perhaps, next year, on the 50th anniversary, we should host a global celebration synchronised with the events half a century before.

(I have defined “today” using the conventional date of 1969-07-20 in my local time zone.  The actual landing occurred at 20:18:04 UTC on 1969-07-20 and the first footstep on the Moon was at 02:56:15 UTC on 1969-07-21.)


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TOTD 2018-06-05: First to Fly in Space Twice

Puzzle: Yuri Gagarin was the first person to fly in space.  Who was the first person to fly in space twice?

For the purposes of this puzzle, I adopt the definition of space flight used by the Fédération Aéronautique Interationale (FAI) and NASA: flight above the Kármán line, which is by convention defined as 100 km (330,000 feet or 62 miles) above sea level.  This is the altitude where the Earth’s mean atmosphere becomes sufficiently thin that a winged vehicle would have to be travelling at orbital velocity or greater to develop sufficient lift to support its weight.

Please don’t just type this question into a search engine.  That’s no fun and the odds are many of the results you’ll get will be wrong.

I’ll identify the first correct answer in the comments or, if nobody gets it, post the answer in a spoiler block to-morrow.


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This Week’s Book Review – Ignition!: An Informal History of Liquid Propellants

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Seawriter

Book Review

‘Ignition!’ explores the ‘golden age’ of rocketry

By MARK LARDAS

May 22, 2018

Ignition!: An Informal History of Liquid Propellants,” by John D. Clark, Rutgers University Press Classics, 2018, 302 pages, $24.95

Today, rocket science commonly refers to anything dealing with space. Originally, it meant rocket design, especially fuel development.

“Ignition!: An Informal History of Liquid Propellants,” by John D. Clark, harks back to those day. While informal, it is a comprehensive account of rocket fuel development.

In “Ignition!” Clark reveals what went on behind the scenes in the early days of rocketry. He was the perfect man to do so. A pioneer rocket scientist, an active chemist from the early 1930s, between 1949 and 1970 he was one of the leading developers of liquid rocket fuels. A talented writer (publishing science fiction in 1930) he knew all the players, inside and outside the United States.

Clark shows what made rocket science challenging is not that it is difficult. It is that rocket fuels are very finicky. Do anything wrong and the rocket does not go whoosh. It goes boom.

Clark shows all the ways they go boom. He explains what makes a good rocket fuel, shows readers what works and shows readers what does not work and why. He starts with Tsiolkovsky in the late 1800s, and ending with the Saturn V and the moon missions in the late 1960s.

His focus is on the golden age of rocket fuel development, from 1946 through 1961. Those years saw development of the liquid fuels still used in rockets today, with a lot of dead ends. Clark spends chapters on the dead ends, such as peroxide fuels and monopropellants. Frequently those chapters are books’ most entertaining.

There is chemistry involved, including formidable chemical equations. Readers unfamiliar with chemistry should skip them. They are for the chemistry geeks reading the book. Between the equations are what makes the book entertaining; the technician attacked by bats after a fuel test, the propellant developer who took a year off to develop hula hoops and many similar stories.

“Ignition!,” originally written in 1972, is back in print after a long hiatus. A classic book, it tells a rollicking story of an era when space was the frontier. An informative history, it reads like an adventure story.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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TOTD 2018-03-18: “You Will Not Go to Space Today”

Words by Scott Manley, music and performance by Skye Manley.

You can’t do rocket science (or engineering) without acronyms and jargon, so here’s a list of those used in the video.

There’s one goof: “the day they launched the escape tower” was Mercury-Redstone 1, not Mercury-Atlas 1, which failed for other reasons.


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Falcon Heavy

SpaceX Falcon Heavy

The first launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is currently scheduled for Tuesday, 2018-02-06, with a two and a half hour launch window which opens at 18:30 UTC and closes at 21:00 UTC (since this is a test flight which need not enter a precise orbit, the launch time is not critical).  If the launch is postponed, the same launch window will be used on successive days, subject to availability of the range.  The Sunday weather forecast predicts 80% probability of favourable conditions for launch during the Tuesday window.

Falcon Heavy consists of three first stage cores derived from the existing Falcon 9 first stage.  The centre core is specially strengthened to accommodate the structural loads of the boosters and heavier payload, and to attach the two side boosters, which are slightly modified Falcon 9 first stages (in fact, the two boosters to be used on this flight have previously flown on SpaceX Falcon 9 missions).  The three cores ignite simultaneously on the launch pad, with a total of 27 Merlin 1D engines, nine on each core, providing liftoff thrust of 22,819 kN (5.13 million pounds of thrust).  This compares to the 34,000 kN thrust of the Saturn V moon rocket, and 30,255 for the Space Shuttle (main engines plus solid rocket boosters).

But what matters isn’t thrust, but rather a launcher’s ability to deliver payload to where the customer wants it.  Here, the Falcon Heavy, if it works, will become the heaviest lift launcher in service.  Here, I’ll compare payload to low Earth orbit (LEO), since that’s the fairest comparison of launchers: regardless of the ultimate destination, any rocket must first achieve orbital velocity.  The Saturn V could put 140 tonnes into LEO, while the Space Shuttle had a maximum payload of 24.4 tonnes (the reusable orbiter itself weighed 78 tonnes, but does not count as payload).  Falcon Heavy can launch 63.8 tonnes to LEO, more than twice the payload of its closest competitor, the Delta IV Heavy (28.79 tonnes).  Russia’s Proton M+ has a payload capacity of 23 tonnes, while the European Ariane 5 can deliver 21 tonnes to LEO.

This test flight will not carry a payload for a customer.  Many things which can only be tested in flight, particularly the structural loads and aerodynamics of the three core first stage at max Q and separation of the two side boosters from the core (which runs at reduced thrust from shortly after liftoff until separation, and then throttles up to full thrust for the remainder of its burn), and customers who require this kind of lift capability aren’t likely to risk their payloads on a first flight.  Instead, Falcon Heavy will be carrying a car.

Falcon Heavy payload

This is Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster with its Starman test dummy on board, attached to the Falcon Heavy payload adapter.  It will be enclosed in the payload fairing for launch and, if the mission is successful, injected into an orbit around the Sun which will venture as far from the Sun as the orbit of Mars (but will not approach the planet).  The payload serves only as a mass simulator, but has a lot more style than the usual steel or tungsten dummy payload carried on inaugural flights of other launchers.

The three first stage cores are intended to be recovered.  After separating from the centre core, the two side boosters will return to the landing zone at Cape Canaveral for near-simultaneous landings.  The centre core will fly downrange and land on the drone ship in the Atlantic.

The second stage is identical to that of the Falcon 9.  Once the side boosters separate, a Falcon Heavy mission is essentially identical to that of Falcon 9; the white knuckle part will be from liftoff through booster separation.

You can watch a live webcast of the launch attempt on the SpaceX Web site.  Coverage usually starts  around 20 minutes before the scheduled launch time.


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Rocket Lab: Second Privately-Financed Launch Provider Makes Orbit

Earlier today, Rocket Lab successfully launched an Electron rocket into orbit from their launch site on the Mahia Peninsula of the north island of New Zealand.  Here is video of the final countdown and flight.

The Electron is a “smallsat” launcher with a maximum payload capacity of 225 kg to low Earth orbit, with the ability to place 150 kg in a 500 km Sun-synchronous orbit.  The launcher uses Rocket Lab’s Rutherford engines: nine in the first stage and one with a vacuum nozzle extension in the second stage.  The engines are largely produced by additive manufacturing (“3D printing”) and are designed for high volume and low cost production.  Uniquely among current rocket engines, fuel is pumped into the combustion chamber by an electric pump powered by a lithium polymer battery.  This increases the efficiency of the engine from the 50% typical of gas generator cycle engines to around 95% without the plumber’s nightmare complexity and propensity to explode of staged combustion designs.

On this flight, the Electron carried three small satellites for two customers.  Previously, most small satellites were launched as piggyback or ride-sharing payloads on launches of other satellites, which constrained the small satellite operators to use the same orbits and operate on the schedule of the primary payload.  Rocket Lab hopes to provide responsive launch to whatever orbit the customer requires.  Launch costs are quoted as less than US$ 6 million for a dedicated launch, lower than any other current launch provider.  The initial goal is to support up to fifty launches per year, with the ability to grow to one hundred if demand emerges.  This isn’t quite a rocket a day, but it’s a step in that direction.


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The Zuma Mystery

Zuma (spacecraft) mission patchEarly Monday, January 8th, at 01:00 UTC (20:00 EST on January 7th at the launch site in Florida), SpaceX launched a spacecraft identified only as “Zuma”.  This mission has been a mystery since word of it first became public, and the mystery appears to have just deepened even more.

In October 2017, SpaceX filed paperwork with the Federal Communications Commission requesting permission for a “Mission 1390”.  This was unusual, as no mission for the range of dates requested appeared on the SpaceX mission manifest statement.  A few days later, several sources reported that the flight would launch a payload built by Northrop Grumman for the U.S. government.  A Northrop Grumman spokesman confirmed this, but said nothing further about the payload or its government customer.  This is already unusual: classified payloads launched by the Air Force or the National Reconnaissance Office are usually identified by at least the name of the contracting agency.  All that is known about this payload is that the customer is an unnamed part of the U.S. government.

Further, the intended orbit, which was not disclosed but which can be inferred from the launch site and azimuth which were disclosed as part of the range’s announcement of the exclusion area for ships and aircraft, was odd.  Most spy satellites launch into polar orbit from California, or to geostationary orbit from Florida.  But this satellite was headed to low Earth orbit inclined around 51 degrees to the equator—curious.

The flight was scheduled for November, 2017, and after several delays, on November 17th it was announced the flight was postponed while data on a fairing (the nose cone which encapsulates the payload during ascent through the Earth’s atmosphere) test performed for another customer were reviewed.  Then it was announced that the launch attempt would stand down indefinitely, with no reason given.  Launches for other customers, some of which used a payload fairing, continued nonetheless.

The mission was then announced to be launched in early January from the newly-refurbished Launch Complex 40.  After additional postponements, the mission was launched on the night of January 7/8, 2018.  As is usual for launches of secret payloads, the SpaceX launch webcast ceased coverage of the mission after separation of the second stage, and showed only the landing of the first stage.  Here is the complete webcast; the launch occurs at the 13 minute mark.

Everything appeared to go normally, including a successful landing of the first stage.

Then, yesterday, several sources reported that the mission had failed, some saying that the spacecraft had failed to separate from the second stage, and/or the combined second stage and spacecraft had fallen to Earth (presumably to burn up in the atmosphere).  Well, these things happen.  But then a SpaceX spokesperson said, “We do not comment on missions of this nature; but as of right now reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally.”  If the rocket performed nominally (as planned), then the second stage and satellite would be in orbit, whether they separated or not.

Yet another unusual aspect of this mission is that unlike most SpaceX missions, where SpaceX provides the interface between the satellite and the launcher and is responsible for separation of the satellite when it reaches the intended orbit, in this case it had been disclosed that the payload adapter had been developed and provided by Northrop Grumman.  This raises the possibility that it is the adapter which failed, which would be consistent with the SpaceX statement that the Falcon 9 performed successfully, since if the satellite failed to separate, that would be Northrop Grumman’s responsibility, not theirs.  SpaceX has not announced postponement of other Falcon 9 missions on its manifest, as would be expected after a mission failure due to their hardware.

But again, failure of the satellite to separate would still leave it in orbit.  Did it actually go into orbit, and if so, what happened subsequently?  More enigmas…the National Space Science Data Center (NSSDC), a part of NASA, assigned the satellite the COSPAR designation 2018-001A, but released no orbital elements, which is routine for classified missions.  But NSSDC does not assign designations to objects which failed to achieve orbit.  Does this mean it did make orbit?  Hard to tell: the object is now missing from the NSSDC catalogue.  The US Strategic Command, which operates the Space Surveillance Network, added the object to its catalogue as USA 280, using the numeric designation customary for secret satellites.  That usually means the object completed at least one orbit.  But Strategic Command now says there is “nothing to add to the satellite catalog at this time”.  What does that mean?  Was USA 280 added by error, or is there nothing to add to its entry?  They aren’t saying.

It may be conceivable that, if the satellite failed to separate from the second stage, it used its on-board propulsion to de-orbit the combined satellite and stage.  That would be consistent with the SpaceX statement, the entry into the orbital catalogues, and the report that the object fell to Earth.  Since nothing is known about the satellite and its capabilities, this is pure speculation.

In cases such as these, amateur sky watchers often provide clues as to what is going on, but an object in the expected orbit is presently positioned poorly with respect to the Sun for optical observation.

In summary: a secret satellite from an undisclosed government agency, launched after numerous delays into an unusual orbit, which may or may not have failed, and may or may not be in two separate catalogues of objects in orbit.  Which the launch contractor says their rocket performed nominally and the satellite contractor isn’t talking.

Let the speculation begin!


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