New Direction for NASA

Posted January 31, 2010 by David Masten
Categories: NASA, Reaching out, Rocketry

If the rumors of Obama’s NASA budget request are true, then Obama is asking Congress for what I and several other aerospace leaders have asked for. Unfortunately, not everyone is as thrilled about the rumored budget. I am firmly convinced that the rumored budget request is the best thing for NASA, human spaceflight, and the nation as a whole. This is the best approach to achieving the objectives of the former President’s Vision for Space Exploration, which outlines the objectives to reach the one goal that really matters for spaceflight – spread humanity beyond Earth.

Here is the heart of the Vision for Space Exploration from the Goal and Objectives:

The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.
• Implement a sustained and affordable human and robotic program to explore the solar system and beyond;
• Extend human presence across the solar system, starting with a human return to the Moon by the year 2020, in preparation for human exploration of Mars and other destinations;
• Develop the innovative technologies, knowledge, and infrastructures both to explore and to support decisions about the destinations for human exploration; and
• Promote international and commercial participation in exploration to further U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests.

How do Constellation and the rumored budget proposal stack up? I will take a little risk here and assume that the new direction is the Flexible Path with commercial crew and ISS 2020 option from the Augustine committee report.

Sustained and Affordable

According to the Augustine committee, for Constellation to have any chance of getting to the Moon, we need to terminate all other HSF activities and significantly increase the budget. Even then, this is no sure thing. Constellation has already gutted critical NASA research in other areas. Jeff Greason pointed out during one of the public hearings that if Santa brought us the fully developed Constellation vehicles right now, we could not afford to fly them.

Not only can we not afford Constellation now, but also what happens in say 2030? Constellation is described as Apollo on steroids, so can we expect Congressional cuts on steroids? This seems very likely. What do we do then? Like Apollo, there will be no space faring infrastructure, and the only next step will be too expensive to consider. Constellation is not sustainable or affordable.

Flexible Path combined with new R&D and commercial LEO capability should give us a leg up. Flexible Path encourages and possibly requires the building of space infrastructure. With new (ahem, restored!) R&D money NASA can investigate the use of propellant depots and other on orbit facilities to base beyond LEO capabilities. The ability to do a number of missions to many places and not just the Moon allow NASA to investigate the concerns of long term living beyond the Earth’s influence. The balance of evidence indicates that sustainable and affordable means it must be done by commercial interests expecting to make a profit. With NASA as an anchor tenant, commercial crew providers can expand their offerings to other people, including non-NASA researchers, industry or just tourists. The commercial crew option closes the business case for commercial providers to open up LEO to people beyond NASA astronauts.

Extend Human Presence, Moon by 2020

Constellation, created as the response to this objective, cannot achieve this goal. The Augustine committee determined that by doing nothing else NASA might get back to the moon in the late 2020s. More likely it would be the 2030’s or even later, if ever. Moreover, Constellation does little or nothing for actually extending our reach through the solar system. It can only go to the Moon. Constellation was nominally designed to lead to a Mars system, but it is not clear to this aerospace professional that it does any such thing.

Flexible Path on the other hand explicitly extends our presence throughout the solar system. While it does not return us to the Moon by 2020, Flexible Path gives us the option to land on the Moon and eventually Mars when we are ready to do more than just leave flags and footprints.

Develop the innovative technologies, knowledge, and infrastructures

Constellation was according to its lead architect Mike Griffin, not going to do this at all. It was a return to Apollo era capabilities. The only knowledge development was for NASA to regain its ability to design a launch system.

This leads to a little rant – How is Ares I considered the gold standard of safety? Ares I is being designed by a group of people who have not designed and built a launch system. Ares I has no demonstrated reliability or safety. SpaceX, ULA, and Orbital are full of people who have designed, built and successfully flown orbital launch vehicles in the very recent past. ULA’s Atlas V has a better-demonstrated record than the shuttle. The cold, hard facts are that a ULA, SpaceX, or Orbital launcher is going to be safer than Ares I.

In order to do more than just leave flags and footprints on other worlds we need a space faring infrastructure. Depots and stations strategically located in various orbits around Earth, Luna, Mars and the Sun are necessary to long term exploration and eventual settlement. The Flexible Path is more likely to provide these. Commercial crew development adds the benefit that the commercial providers can get industrial concerns off the Earth and possibly into in situ resource extraction.

Promote international and commercial participation

Constellation effectively slams the door shut on international cooperation. The ISS is the basis of international cooperation in space, yet in order to do Constellation we must de-orbit the ISS in 2015, 5 years prior to the desires of international collaborators. De-orbiting ISS in 2015 will sour our partners on any new partnerships. Besides, there is little or no room for international collaboration within the Constellation architecture. Under Constellation, there is no commercial participation beyond highly directed cost-plus contracts.

Under Flexible Path with commercial crew to LEO, commercial participation is a given. With the extension of ISS to 2020 and possibly beyond, we can continue to work with our international partners, and encourage them to help out with future projects. The Flexible Path is as its name implies, flexible.  International partners can help out in ways that make the most sense for both them and us.


Constellation not only fails to deliver on every single goal of the VSE, it fails to advance the state of Human Spaceflight. If the rumors of the President’s NASA budget request are true, and the President is willing to fight for it in Congress, then our spaceflight future has a reasonable chance of not only surviving, but also growing and becoming much greater than we can now imagine.

Help! Favorite Charities?

Posted January 1, 2010 by David Masten
Categories: Uncategorized

As 2010 rolls in I find myself with a salary again. Woohoo! That also means I have a chunk of budget for charity giving. I figure this is as good a time as any to find out if there are charities that I am not aware of that should get some dollars from me.

Some baseline rules – I prefer the long term. As an example, for aid to less fortunate people I prefer organizations trying to build positive institutions and/or habits to organizations delivering food or other aid. “Give a person a fish and he eats for a day, teach a person to fish and he eats for life.” That sort of thing.

Another rule is that I do not wish to support any organizations that “encourage” religious beliefs as part of the aid. Likewise, organizations that encourage anti-science or are doing things that are empirically unhelpful are ruled out, such as “abstinence only” AIDS programs.

Here are the categories I want to support:

  • Science (as in doing science – SETI for example)
  • Education/science outreach
  • Disaster relief
  • Third world aid
  • Vaccination/health programs

Obviously, there will be a lot of category crossover, health and education are very important components of third world aid, for example.

So what are your favorites?


Intercepted Report from the War on Christmas

Posted December 14, 2009 by David Masten
Categories: Uncategorized

OMG! O’Reilly is right, there is a war on Xmas! I found a letter to a “General Dawkins”. Some of the letter was unreadable but I have typed in what I could read. I use ellipses to indicate where there is writing that is illegible.

General Dawkins:

I hope this letter finds you in good spirits and good health as this year’s campaign ramps up […] As usual, we are making good progress despite a few setbacks.


Using techniques developed by the USAF at Edwards AFB, we are now able to track hypersonic reindeer and sleighs. Combined with Boeing’s laser weapons research, we are making excellent progress towards creating a laser-based anti-reindeer system. […]

We are having great difficulties with […]We are just not familiar enough with Father Xmas on this side of the pond.[…] Instead of having Col Cox working on that black hole generating doomsday weapon in Switzerland, you should have him work on this instead. He and his group are better acquainted with the tactics of Father Christmas.

Wow.  I am left speechless.

A Legendary Voyage.

Posted July 23, 2009 by David Masten
Categories: NASA, Reaching out

As I write this, it was 40 years ago that Aldrin, Armstrong, and Collins were on the return leg of their legendary voyage to the Moon. I was busy being an infant. The only Apollo related activities I remember were Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz. They are only Apollo related in that they used hardware designed for the Apollo program. And for Skylab I remember its final days much better than any launch.

I say it is a legendary voyage. Legendary in that it seems somehow impossible that humans once walked on the moon. The very same agency that did it says it will take twice as long and many times more money than it did 40 years ago. The facility that got the size of the Saturn V just about right by assuming the spec for the lunar lander and command modules was much smaller than reality would allow now has difficulty designing a vehicle to meet the specifications of the spacecraft that would sit on top. The facility that solved thrust oscillation problems on the Saturn V F1 rocket engines, has difficulty solving vibration issues with their choice of engine.

I cannot blame the teens and twenty-somethings today if they believe the Moon landings were a hoax. Throughout our history books we learn of the great discoverers and travelers being the first to cross some rough terrain, discovering new lands, and opening them up for millions  to soon follow. An unknown Asian going across the Bering Strait, Erikson, Polo, Columbus, Magellan, Lewis and Clark, Lindbergh, Earhart, all made incredible voyages and they were soon followed by many others. And yet, no one walks on the Moon today or even goes beyond low Earth orbit. I would argue that NASA at present cannot go to the moon at all, let alone in a decade.

I still have hope though. In the opening years of the 20th century Shackleton, Amundsen and Scott explored the South Pole region, yet it would be 1956 before another person went to the South Pole. There are a number of similarities, both places are unforgiving. Both involved large numbers of people and difficult logistics. And yet, we now have permanent bases in the Antarctic.

There are a lot of really good people at NASA, and there is a lot of promise. The recent Hubble servicing mission, the Mars rovers, Cassini-Huygens, and many other successful missions show the potential. But NASA needs to change. NASA needs to get away from the big program mentality. They need to learn to do more multi-tasking, and figure out how simple space infrastructure improvements can greatly help all missions.

NASA should be focused on exploring our solar system, both robotically and with people, in a sustainable, inexpensive way. Small investments in a wide variety of infrastructure projects can enable better exploration throughout the Solar System including a human presence on the Moon and Mars.  NASA can use commercial launch vehicles to reach low Earth orbit, do on orbit assembly and refueling, then launch missions from orbit. The devil is in the details, yet I firmly believe NASA can do so much more than they do without increasing their budget.

Here’s hoping that Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins will soon be associated with leading the way to the Moon for many, many people, and not just be legends fading into mythology.

Interstellar Probe How-to Part 2.

Posted June 25, 2009 by David Masten
Categories: Reaching out, Rocketry

In part 1 I described what an interstellar probe might contain, and what technologies we’d need. Here I get more into what the trajectory looks like. The calculations and estimates are all back of the envelope – i.e. they are a very rough order of magnitude estimate.

In designing a multistage trajectory, it is often helpful to start at the destination and work backwards along the trajectory to see what is needed. We’ll assume that the Gliese 581 system is our destination. It is 20.3 light years away and well off the Solar ecliptic plane. At Gliese 581 we’ll want a set of science instruments, about 10,000 kg (22,000 lbs) worth. For comparison, the entire Hubble spacecraft is 11,000 kg. We’ll need really good communications, call it 1000 kg, and a power plant to power both the instruments and radio, several small fission reactors should do well, another 10,000 kg. We’ll need a propulsion system, for that we’ll choose a Bussard Ramjet. The Bussard Ramjet is best thought of as an augmented sail. It is not capable of large velocities relative to the local space medium, but it doesn’t need to carry fuel and we’ll mostly be wandering from orbit to orbit within the star system anyway. We’ll give the engineers 20,000 kg for the ramjet. That gives us a total spacecraft mass of 41,000kg (90,000 lbs).

Working backwards, we need to slow down coming into the Gliese 581 system from our interstellar velocity. Again the Bussard Ramjet is perfect, it is just an augmented sail. Our relative ‘airspeed’ is very high, slowing down with the Bussard Ramjet is straightforward. About one half a light year out from the star, we start up the ramjet collector and by the time we cross into the Gliese 581 solar wind, we’ll be at orbital capture speeds. So we don’t need to add any additional mass or capability for this stage.

Working backwards again, we have a long coast phase. We will need small course corrections, again we already have the necessary equipment. A small (in the noise) amount of stored fusion materials can be run through the Bussard Ramjet’s fusion reactor to make any minor course changes.

Now we come back to the boost phases, and we need to work forward. We’ll start at L4. First phase is earth departure, we need to go from Earth orbit to Solar orbit. Then we need to do  plane change to line us up with Gliese 581, then do our solar departure burn. For these phases I calculate that a four stage booster system using nuclear fission fragment engines will be necessary. The gross mass of the vehicle at L4 where it starts will be 13 kilo-tonnes. For reference, this about the same size as 4 Saturn V rockets. Not small. The first stage thrust is fairly small, providing about 60 micro-g of acceleration. And the first stage will be burning for over 36 years! At staging the spacecraft will be nearly 1/2 a light year away (28,000 au) travelling at 2.5% of the speed of light. The first stage is ditched and the second stage starts its burn. After another 36 years the second stage shuts down. The spacecraft is now going about 5% of the speed of light and is 1.35 light years away. At the end of the 38 year third stage burn, the spacecraft is cruising along at 7.5% light speed and a little over 4 light years away. At the end of the 36 year long fourth stage burn, the spacecraft is moving at 10% light speed and is over 7 light years away. At this point the spacecraft coasts for about 124 years, which brings it to within about 1/2 light year of the Gliese 581 system. At this point we kick on the Bussard Ramjet collectors which slows the spacecraft down with a deceleration of 0.1 g. For ten years the spacecraft slows down and enters an elliptical orbit within the Gliese 581 system. Using the ramjet for both power and orbital maneuvering the spacecraft becomes a permanent part of the Gliese 581 system and can systematically find and observe every chunk of rock, snowball, or ball of gas in the system until it wears out.

All told we are looking at 280 years of transit time. At the end of the transit, a scientist will be getting the data she requested as a grad student when she retires! Most importantly, we will have an entirely new view on the universe.

But why only do one?

Interstellar Probe How-to

Posted June 24, 2009 by David Masten
Categories: Reaching out, Rocketry

I was listening to the April 22 2009 edition of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast a some time ago. They had on Seth Shostak, senior scientist at the SETI Institute, talking about doing an interstellar probe. In addition, Bob Novella did a blog post on the subject. The major point I got from the SGU interview and Bob’s blog post, was that Seth thinks we could do a probe to another solar system. More recently, Matt Springer at Built on Facts had some thoughts on interstellar travel as well. The reason I am only just now blogging about it is because 1. I’ve been busy at work and 2. I wanted to do more than just say I’m very skeptical of the idea. I like the idea, there is nothing physically impossible about it, so why not figure out how to make it happen and see if my feelings of skepticism are merited?

So go read (or reread) Bob’s blog post then come back. I’ll wait. Waiting…Waiting…

Back? Got it? Good.

Now remember, this whole thing is not ready for prime time, it is a crazy idea. But it might just be crazy enough to work.

We want a spacecraft that will be doing one tenth the speed of light, visiting an interesting star system with planets. Turns out there are a few such systems in our stellar neighborhood. We’ll need a really good rocket to get us up to speed.We’ll need lots of support from many people, including scientists and especially certain people in very high places. Read the rest of this post »


Posted June 22, 2009 by David Masten
Categories: Random Intertubes


OOTSSOERAAAP has new badges.

My badges: Read the rest of this post »

Direction for NASA

Posted May 19, 2009 by David Masten
Categories: Uncategorized

Phil Plait, Buzz Aldrin, and Tom Jones have op-eds in the New York Post recently giving their thoughts on NASA’s future and direction. I have some thoughts as well.

The fact that NASA is floundering is now beyond dispute. Why NASA is floundering escapes my reasoning. In 2004 then President Bush articulated a vision for NASA. This vision was well thought out by many of my colleagues and presented to Bush, who then directed NASA to pursue this vision. This vision is the right thing for NASA and should be the guiding light not only for Human Exploration Systems but all of NASA. The vision includes not only sending humans around the Solar System, but also basic and fundamental research necessary for human understanding of the Universe.

NASA unfortunately saw “return to the Moon, then go to Mars and beyond” and missed the meat and potatoes of the vision. One can hardly blame NASA as many media outlets and some space exploration advocacy groups missed the primary points as well. The President’s vision was not so much about going to the Moon and Mars as much as it was about a sustainable effort for humanity to extend our presence beyond Earth. NASA is to lead the way for future pioneers to invest in and settle space. The opening section of “A Renewed Spirit of Discovery: The President’s Vision for U.S. Space Exploration” states this purpose plainly:

Like the explorers of the past and the pioneers of flight in the last century, we cannot today identify all that we will gain from space exploration; we are confident, nonetheless, that the eventual return will be great. Like their efforts, the success of future U.S. space exploration will unfold over generations.

The goal and objectives are plain as to how this will occur. And yet NASA is doing very little to reach the objectives and fails miserably at reaching the goal outlined in the vision. There is a better way, and NASA needs to take the entire vision to heart.

Here is the heart of the vision from the Goal and Objectives:

The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.
• Implement a sustained and affordable human and robotic program to explore the solar system and beyond;
• Extend human presence across the solar system, starting with a human return to the Moon by the year 2020, in preparation for human exploration of Mars and other destinations;
• Develop the innovative technologies, knowledge, and infrastructures both to explore and to support decisions about the destinations for human exploration; and
• Promote international and commercial participation in exploration to further U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests.

I have emphasized several key words in the Goal and Objectives section.

First is a robust space exploration program, in other words the program must succeed given a wide range of conditions. That would include budget reductions due to economic difficulties, launch vehicle failures and stand-downs, and individual project failures as well as budget increases, rapid successes, and new technology developments that make everything easier and less costly. Lots of redundant projects delivering key capabilities, especially if they can complement each other, are far more robust than a single key project that runs into many expensive technical hurdles. Being robust means being able to cancel a project with high cost overruns and schedule slips without hurting the program.

Second is “sustained and affordable”, a clever way to get a neo-conservative to say sustainable. In short it needs to be done with a NASA budget of ~$15 billion a year with the flexibility to use more or less while minimizing the impact to long run costs. Additionally, it should not be a program that negatively impacts other important NASA activities. Bonus points for a program that becomes politically sustainable by having measurable positive impacts to both scientific and economic activity.

Third is infrastructures. Several of my friends and colleagues have presented persuasive arguments that a space faring infrastructure includes on-orbit resupply such as fuel depots, on-orbit assembly and construction, and in-situ resource development and use. This is also an important component of sustainability.

The last term I emphasized is commercial participation. In order to be robust, there must be a certain breadth and depth of providers as infrastructure. The only way to get this is to have many providers both competing and cooperating with each other on lots of different small projects.

Each of the objectives I highlighted come together as part of the goal of a robust space program. There is at least one area in which NASA is on the right track – Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS). In the COTS program, we have already seen that the program is at least somewhat robust in that one provider failed to meet its commitments and was dropped with only minimal impact to getting the service NASA wants. It is sustainable in that the services now awarded under contract are in fact affordable, SpaceX looks to be in position to deliver supplies to ISS at a price marginally better than buying payload space from the Russians. By looking to multiple commercial providers to meet NASA needs, NASA is far more likely to achieve its goals.

Neil Armstrong said (or meant to say) “This is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” The giant leap came from making a small step, the latest of a very long series of very small steps. Any robust, sustainable program of space exploration is going to be a lot of small steps. NASA should manage it that way, not as a giant leap. NASA should be letting a large number of small, fixed-price, tied to performance contracts that gradually builds up a space faring infrastructure and sustainably puts people on the moon while maintaining ISS obligations and other science efforts. Existing launch vehicles could be used to get the first several lunar sorties by 2020, while orbital facilities and other infrastructure is developed. As the infrastructure improves, better robotic and human missions become feasible. Take it slow, make sure each step provides economic and/or scientific value on its own and trumpet each small success. By doing lots of small steps, it will not be long before a huge radio telescope array covers the backside of the moon, probes are landing on Galilean moons, repair missions to space based telescopes in L2 are being conducted, people are vacationing at Shackleton Crater, astronauts are brushing the dust off Spirit and Opportunity on Mars, and an interstellar probe is heading to Gliese 581.

Calm down B.A.

Posted April 28, 2009 by David Masten
Categories: NASA

Calm down Phil. There are a couple possible explanations for Obama not talking about NASA:

1. Politics. Obama (or his speechwriters) may figure that mentioning NASA would de-rail what he wanted to say.

2. NASA. Let’s face it, NASA is in a bit of a crisis. Certain folks in Congress are being difficult about NASA and the appointment of a NASA Administrator, NASA is being the poster child for public choice theory, and there are several factions within Obama’s team and in NASA. Obama may very well just not yet know what to do about NASA.

There were a few other science oriented agencies not mentioned. I doubt it means anything. Personally, I’m watching for the budget authorizations to hit the floor of the House and Senate.


Posted March 1, 2009 by David Masten
Categories: Random Intertubes

Trying to decide if I should join the Order of the Science Scouts of Exemplary Repute and Above Average Physique. Or if they will even have me. In order to join I need to meet a few requirements:

– not opposed to alcohol.

Check, in fact I use a lot more alcohol than most people – it’s one of my favorite rocket propellants and a great cleaner. And every once in a while, if it is the right type and has the right impurities, I’ll put a bit down my throat.

– fond of IPCC reports (especially the pictures).

I’ve read a few. Check.

– mostly in agreement with the “truth.”

Umm, lets go over this in detail a bit later.

– into badges.


– grieving for the slow and miserable death of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Quoting a Monty Python sketch – “I’m not dead YET!” I refuse to grieve while there is yet hope. I’ll grieve when it is re-entering the atmosphere.

– possibly possessed of supernatural powers.

That previous hope will require supernatural powers on my part.

– not in the business of total world domination

How small minded are the people who are in the business of world domination. I’m in this for Solar System domination. 🙂 Check.

– committed to the constant and diligent presentation of science stories, be it to editors, producers, directors, educators, relatives and/or friends of various ilk, in an effort to lessen the gap that is this thing we call public scientific literacy.


OK, now that thruth bit,  here is the “truth“:

1. Cigarettes are bad for you.


2. Men and Women are equal.

No they are not. 1 does not equal i. But I suspect the author means that both should be treated equally in terms of rights and so forth, which I wholeheartedly agree with. Check.

3. Global Warming is real, and (by the way) it’s all our fault.

With minor reservations and nuances, which don’t fit in a short pithy statement. Check.

4. It’s not all relative.

May I introduce you to Messrs. Newton and Einstein? Whose principles of relativity appear to be pretty absolute. OK. Check.

5. Gin is better than Whiskey. Whiskey is better than Gin.

As long as we are all agreed that rum rules, good Russian vodka is awesome, and tequila is a Mexican mispronunciation of the English “To kill you”. Check.

6. Intelligent Design is wrong.

ID is not even wrong. Check.

7. Over consumption is a serious problem.

Ummm, overconsumption of alcohol can be a serious problem, overconsumption of certain other compounds by a person can be a serious problem. But if we are talking economics, there is no such thing as overconsumption in market oriented societies. See Julian Simon’s The Ultimate Resource.

8. The Millennium Development Goals are worthy.
9. Wilco is good, sometimes exceptional, but often inconsequential.
10. Shit happens (ditto for sex and death).
11. Creationism is silly. (also, see 6)

Check, check,check, and check.

12. SUVs are just stupid.

Not necessarily. But most use of SUVs and most models of SUV are. Mostly check.

13. It is always wiser to side with an overwhelming expert consensus than with a celebrity endorsement.
14. On the whole, disorder increases.

Check, check.

15. Science, for better or for worse, is all around.

When is it not for better? Check.

Well, I mostly agree with the “truth” and the one or two exceptions I take with the membership requirements are possibly acceptable. Maybe I should apply.