Monday, June 29, 2015

Perseverance: Steadfastness in Doing Something Despite Difficulty or Delay in Achieving Success

Yesterday, I witnessed my first rocket launch from a boat. I also witnessed my first rocket failure, along with the loss of many science payloads that were being shipped to the International Space Station. One of those projects, Meteor, the first project proposal that I reviewed when I started working at CASIS, has now been lost twice – during last October's Orbital rocket incident and again yesterday. Bad luck!

I've taken a day to measure how I feel about what I saw. It would have been different if there had been a naked-eye visible explosion with a giant boom, as there would certainly have been if this were a movie. But the way it happened – the rocket was there and then it disappeared – was so subtle that I missed the event entirely and didn't know that a loss had occurred until several minutes later when I regained internet connection. I had to consult my photos to confirm that I had indeed been looking at the sky around the time of the incident, though I'm not sure what my camera captured was actually the explosion and debris. Better trained eyes than mine can judge.

Rocket debris or cloud? I'm not sure. - June 28, 2015

I've seen video of one of the last rocket launch failures that the Space Coast experienced, a Delta II in 1997 that dramatically exploded and rained debris down on the land, causing brush fires. The last launch failures that this area has seen were in August 1998, a few weeks before I began taking high school physics living outside of Philadelphia. Even Space Shuttle Columbia's landing wasn't an incident for us in Florida to witness, but to miss. Aside from the videos I've seen, I don't know what it means to lose a rocket during launch.

The day was picture-perfect. Friends Ryan and Jen offered to give me a ride on their sailboat to see the launch from Banana River, the lagoon that lies next to Cape Canaveral and flows to the Atlantic Ocean. Not only had I never seen a launch from on the water, I had never even been on the water in that area. We sailed past the larger boats into the no motor area, surrounded by silence and a few dolphins in the distance.

Their dog wanted to watch the launch, too. - June 28, 2015
It was a beautiful launch, initially! - June 28, 2015
The SpaceX Falcon 9 soaring off the pad. - June 28, 2015

I got emotional during every space shuttle launch, especially after the Columbia incident. Each time we light one of those astronaut-carrying rockets, we put human lives at risk. I still say a prayer for uncrewed rockets, but the emotional weight isn't the same for me. If I had a payload that I spent years on strapped to a controlled explosive, I might feel differently. But material goods are replaceable; people are not. I was more upset over last October's Virgin Galactic test failure that lost a pilot than I was about the Orbital Antares CSR-3 failure.

Having worked on International Space Station payloads, I do mourn the loss of Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission supplies and experiments. It's a shame about Meteor, it's a shame about all those student experiments, it's a shame about the new equipment that was lost. As a scientist, I've experienced small experiment losses. I fried a few hundred dollar laser the first time I used it a few years back. Most of the lost equipment are orders of magnitude more expensive and harder to replace. But they are replaceable. They will rebuild. Some of these experiments may even be refined to become better than they were.

SpaceX will bounce back from its Falcon 9 failure, despite political pressures and industry nay-sayers. Rocket failures are inevitable. SpaceX experienced quite a number of them in their early years. In the United States especially, we take for granted that our experienced engineers will get the rockets successfully off the ground every single time. We can't get any mode of transportation to work perfectly 100% of the time, and we can never fully account for human error. This is hard work, and I have a great deal of respect for those who dedicate their lives to it.

Hats off to you, SpaceX, for attempting the ambitious time and time again. You go, scientists, students and professionals alike, who are undeterred by experimental setbacks. Kudos to you, engineers and support staff, for working long hours to launch and working long hours to analyze the launch. Let's keep moving forward!

The Falcon 9 will soar again. - June 28, 2015

Monday, June 22, 2015

The SLF: From Space Shuttles to Space Future

Whenever a journalist wants to use me in their piece, I’m honored. I have no formal journalism training, but I do have a deep fondness and respect for the profession, especially after running my undergrad’s student newspaper for a couple of years. Perhaps that’s why I use avenues such as this blog as an outlet.  It was an honor to have been contacted by News 13 of Orlando to talk about my company Swiss Space System’s plans for the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF).

Today, the SLF will officially be handed over from NASA to Space Florida, from federal government to state government. This has been a long time coming. I’ve had no direct involvement in this process, but I’ve been rooting for it all the way. Opening up the SLF to a wider pool of users is beneficial for all parties.

I’m excited for when my company takes off on that giant runway for our parabolic ZeroG experience flights. I can picture it - our huge Airbus taking off for the first time! But before my company was publically formed, I was looking forward to future players XCOR with its Lynx, Sierra Nevada Corporation with its Dream Chaser, and Stratolaunch with its Stratolauncher. I’m not much of a racecar fan unless I’m in the driver’s seat, but it would be thrilling to see how fast wheels could go on that long, smooth road.

It was a crisp January day when I took this shot. Where does it end?
The SLF is one of the largest runways in the world at 15,000 ft (over 4,500 m) long and 300 ft (90 m) wide. I had the pleasure of being driven quite a ways down the runway at a decently fast speed (not as fast as I would have liked, but had I been driving, I would have been kicked out and banned from returning, so it’s for the best). There are areas where the surface is purposely bumpy to maximize friction. The ground is solid enough for a space shuttle orbiter to land. There are even markings and a plaque where the last shuttle orbiter touched down in 2011.

The ending of an era.
As a side note, did you know that Kennedy Space Center build a lunar test field at the end of the SLF? Our own little version of the Moon, right here in Florida! The lunar planetary scientist in me was giddy when discovering this!

You can take a scientist out of the lab, but put her in even a fake field and she's on top of the world.
It’s a beautiful thing to see a past heritage site repurposed for the future of space travel. I have yet to see the video clip that aired on central Florida televisions yesterday, but the article associated with the TV interview is here: MyNews13. (Note: my boss runs S3 USA; I manage just S3 Florida.) Thank you to Jerry Hume and the News 13 team for the coverage of this important issue in the evolution of Kennedy Space Center!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Vision for Florida's Space Future with Frank DiBello of Space Florida

Space Florida President & CEO Frank DiBello, National Space Club, June 9, 2015
On Tuesday I had the pleasure of hanging out with my space peeps at the National Space Club luncheon. It’s always a pleasure to see familiar faces, meet new ones, and hear a great talk.

This month’s lunch speaker was Frank DiBello giving his annual update on Space Florida. I keep up on the news well enough to know pretty much everything he was going to say, but it’s still interesting to note how he says it. Style, tone, and emphases matter just as much as facts and figures.

Space Florida is a state entity that focused on aerospace economic development. I’ve been working with them in various ways for a couple of years now, most strongly with the Shiloh commercial spaceport initiative, the NASA transfer of the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF), and the annual Florida Space Day. I find it all exciting and a lot of fun!

Frank began with the usual warnings that Florida needs to evolve. This has been an issue for several years now. For so many years, Florida had the space shuttle program to keep us happy and complacent, but when that program ended, the world shifted under many people’s feet.

We need additional and diverse businesses to keep our high-tech sector here, and we need to make ourselves business-friendly to do so. We’ve seen companies choose to set up shop elsewhere because Florida isn’t evolving fast enough, but we’ve also seen companies such as mine choose to locate in Florida. Slowly, Florida is becoming a hub of aerospace industry outside of direct NASA influence. I would like to see it happen faster, but nothing in the space industry happens quickly.

Frank said that the marketplace votes with its investment dollars and its feet. We have aggressive domestic and international competition. To effectively compete, we need to be efficient, low cost, and responsive to the next generation. Florida can't rely on its space heritage. The goal is to become a business location.

Frank described his vision for the future of the Cape Canaveral Spaceport.  He spoke about the numerous infrastructure projects that Space Florida has financed, 20 if I heard correctly.
There is some state political/financial uncertainty at the moment that is holding up the final approval for the SLF handover, but he will ask his board to approve it next week. He spoke about turning the area into a private and commercial spaceport.

Frank touched on the concept of community. We need a community of businesses and capabilities to maintain business here. It is a community challenge that we all have a part in. We are expanding the pool of businesses here who might want to use the future spaceport. He spoke of future private commercial spaceport operations under FAA and OSHA regulations rather than Air Force, and that the Air Force supports moving in this direction (I wish I could be a fly on the wall for those talks!).

Frank spoke about simplifying: creating one regulation authority, one proving structure, and consistency in launch indemnification and insurance. He envisions evolving to a future where business processes are defined less by fences and more by marketplace need. Surprisingly, he noted that change needs to happen not only with federal partners, but also within Space Florida. As much as I love and support them, the common criticisms are valid: they are slow and not always responsive. Frank noted this and remarked that changes are underway.

Space Florida video
I and a couple others had a chance to ask questions after. Of course Shiloh came up. The environmental study on the land is progressing, but of course nothing ever happens as quickly as we’d like. Space Florida gifted us all with Florida state quarters that have the space shuttle on them. “Space Florida, because it’s who we are as Floridians,” says Mike Rowe on the talk's concluding video for the We Are Go campaign.

Some of the conversations that I had after the talk inspired me, and I’m looking forward to taking this inspiration forward. As awesome as my career is, somethings it can seem mundane until someone or something reminds me what we’re all working for.

Tokens from Space Florida - Florida state quarters with the space shuttle!