Is US-Russian space co-operation at risk?

Today I was alerted via Twitter to the news that “all NASA contacts with Russian Government representatives are suspended, unless the activity has been specifically excepted”. This is as a result of the ongoing situation in Ukraine in relation to the sovereignty of the nation. My initial concern was what this would mean for operation of the International Space Station whose major partners are the US and Russia.

A leaked memo clarifies this concern, stating that “Operational International Space Station activities have been excepted”. The memo, apparently send yesterday by Michael F. O’Brien, Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations was leaked to spaceref.com (where you can read the full text).

Dmitry Rogozin, Deputy Prime Minister of Russia turned to Twitter to play down the move, stating that “apart from over the ISS we didn’t cooperate with NASA anyway”.

Tweet from Dmitry Rogozin

So is this something that we need to be concerned about?

Personally I think that the answer is yes. After years of being sworn enemies, the US and Russia found ways to work together in space, first via the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and now with the incredible symbol of international co-operation that is the International Space Station (ISS). NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was quoted as saying that relations with the Russians were “normal” just a few weeks ago during a budget teleconference, adding “I think people lose track of the fact that we have occupied the International Space Station now for 13 consecutive years uninterrupted, and that has been through multiple international crises”.

It seems a shame therefore that this relationship, crucial to the success of the ISS should be put at risk by political forces. Whilst the ISS operations are excepted from the suspension, it hardly sends out a great message of co-operation. If I were an American politician I think I would be wary of rocking that boat at the moment, especially since the US is currently entirely reliant on getting its astronauts safely to and from the space station since the retirement of the shuttle. It is one thing for them to want to appear to be playing “hard ball”, but have they considered the potential repercussions? What if Russia decides it won’t honour future contracts to fly US astronauts to the ISS? It’s unlikely, but there is the potential that the US astronaut onboard the station could find himself with no way of getting back to Earth.

I can’t imagine that the astronauts and cosmonauts in space (nor the ground teams supporting them) would allow earthly politics to affect their life on station too much – after all they rely on one another to stay alive and keep the multi-billion dollar station functioning. But it doesn’t stop this situation from troubling me.

The International Space Station has been hailed as the most complex international engineering project in history. I hope that all the work, money and inspiration doesn’t get muddied by politics while its in its prime.

Update: NASA statement released

Statement regarding suspension of some NASA activities with Russian Government representatives:

“Given Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation.  NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station. NASA is laser focused on a plan to return human spaceflight launches to American soil, and end our reliance on Russia to get into space.  This has been a top priority of the Obama Administration’s for the past five years, and had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches – and the jobs they support – back to the United States next year.  With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we’re now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017.  The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians.  It’s that simple.  The Obama Administration chooses to invest in America – and we are hopeful that Congress will do the same.”

Update: Comments from Charles Bolden

Tweets from Marcia Smith of SpacePolicyOnline.com report the following comments were made by Charles Bolden at a meeting in Washington this morning (though I’m so far unable to locate a transcript of what was said):

 

 

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Three years since STS-133

STS 133

Three years ago today, I saw something magnificent, something awe-inspiring, something powerful, something scary, something that made me shake (in more ways than one), something historical, and something I’d waited 115 days for.

Space Shuttle Discovery launched from pad 39A, Kennedy Space Centre, Cape Canaveral, for the very last time.

It was an emotional experience, not least because it was the first time I’d seen a space shuttle, in all her majesty, lifting gracefully off the planet in a blaze of fire and light. And not just because I knew the husband of one of those astronauts, one of those people, being rocketed through the atmosphere. Not even because I’d put my life on hold and waited, waited, waited, for that moment, but because of a combination of all those things, and the most amazing bunch of people that I could ever have wished to share it with.

You may have seen me refer to myself as the “Space Nomad” and wondered what the heck that is all about. It’s about Diva Discovery, NASA Tweet-up, and an incredible family of friends that were thrown together but then stuck together. I tell the story often, to anyone who’ll listen really… it goes like this:

I was selected to see one of the final shuttle launches, as part of a NASA Tweet-up. We would be able to watch STS-133 launch from the closest place anyone (except the emergency crews and the actual space shuttle crew) could be. 3.1 miles away at the KSC press site.

I packed my bags and off I went. Hotels were too expensive so I’d gathered a few people on an email list and we decided to share a house, and then another house, and another… five shared houses later we were ready to go. I had no idea who these people were, but they liked space, so they must be cool – right?

By the time I stepped of my plane from London, the launch date had already slipped back a day. But that was no problem; it gave us a bit more time to get to know each other before the big day – and to have a Halloween party.

There were further slips, it was going to launch on Friday. Some people already had to leave, but I’d booked to be away for ten days, just in case.

Friday came, our insider contacts sent us pre-dawn text messages confirming Discovery was being fuelled up. Things were good. This group of strangers had become friends, and today we were going to have the experience of our lives, watching a shuttle launch.

My dream team – DJ Flux and Nathan Bergey – jumped in the car. We took it in turns choosing the right dramatic music as we got closer and closer to KSC. Just as we parked up at the press site my phone beeped, I had an immediate sinking feeling as I realised no-one had my US number, except… oh.

“Scrub.”

That one word, unconfirmed to us at the time, took us from nervous elation to a strange, heavy, lost feeling. Uncomprehending, we hugged one another as tears, somewhat unexpectedly welled up.

The next launch window was in two week’s time, but I had to fly home by then and couldn’t afford to fly back again. I had to fly home… didn’t I?

The moment I decided I couldn’t afford not to see the launch, that you only regret what you don’t do, that I’d come this far and made these friends and and.., that was the time I became Space Nomad. I changed my ticket and went to sleep on a friend’s floor in California for a couple of weeks, fully intending to fly back for the launch a fortnight later, but…

..the problem was worse than they thought. It would be another fortnight until they could attempt a launch. I reached out to Twitter, asking what I should do next. Someone suggested Houston, so Houston it was. I stayed with an incredibly wonderful woman called Becca. We’d met a year before, and she worked in Mission Control (yes, actual Mission Control), she took me in and invited me to Thanksgiving dinner. It was an incredible act of kindness that I’ll never forget.

The two weeks were almost up, time to fly back to Florida for Discovery’s launch, or so I thought, but as was beginning to become a habit, “Diva” Discovery wasn’t ready to go yet.

I have the cut the long story short, else I’d be reminiscing over months of travelling, sleeping on floors and in spare rooms, visiting space centres and spacetweeps all round the US and having the most amazing adventure. I got to know Chris Shaffer, Flying Jenny, Tiff and Dave. I watched the first SpaceX launch of a Dragon capsule (and secret cheese payload). I was introduced to “My drunk kitchen” and “Baby monkey”. I flew a shuttle simulator. I baked Christmas cookies in a log cabin. I discovered Portland. I attended (and loved) my first SpaceUP. I giggled with Cariann (and made her miss a flight). I shared a “Katy Perry day” and I visited SpaceX. I saw the Hollywood sign. I made new friends and new family. And then I finally went back to Florida for the launch.

I packed for ten days, I stayed for four-and-a-half months (don’t panic, I had the right visa), but I had to see that shuttle launch. I stood and I watched as the iconic form of the space shuttle raised herself off the pad and on her final space adventure. I clapped and whooped and felt part of something so special because I was surrounded by these great people who all knew just how special it was too.

We quietened down as the low rumble reached us, getting louder and louder and LOUDER and LOUDER. We felt the power of that rocket shake the ground and shake right through us and we never took our eyes of her. Soaring above us we cheered again as the solid rocket boosters separated. We had nothing to do with her success, but we were like proud parents waving her off.

I turned around and Karen James was behind me. She knew Mike Barrett, one of the astronauts on board. I’d never really thought about what it would be like to know someone on top of a shedload of rocket fuel until Paolo Nespoli, an astronaut I’d befriended, launched to the ISS on a Soyuz rocket part the way through my space nomad adventure. It completely changed my perspective. No longer was it all about cool rockets, cool science and smoke and noise and fire and power. No longer were astronauts invincible superheroes who don’t really exist. They were people, friends, and Karen’s friend had be strapped into the thing that just made our camera shutters go wild and our rib cages shake. I’d heard her cheering and shouting throughout the launch, but now the shuttle was out of sight, I knew the focus for all that welled up emotion was also out of reach. I turned and hugged her. It was special. I had only seen Paolo’s launch via a webstream and I was a shivering wreck, I took a guess at how Karen was feeling. I think I guessed right.

We were all there, focussed on that one moment, together. This great group of people, who had once been strangers, are now forever connected by our shared memory of that day. Today, three years on, I’m thinking of you all and remembering it like it was yesterday. I love that people have tagged me in photos and memories, said hello in tweets and kept the 133 spirit alive.

You’re a special bunch, she was a special shuttle, and that was a very special adventure.

SKYLON – the answer to UK space dreams?

It’s like this:

I would LOVE the UK to have a human spaceflight programme. I would LOVE the UK to lead the way in space exploration. I would LOVE for people around the world to look at our country and see that we are investing in science, technology and inspiring a new generation of engineers. So why am I not sold on SKYLON?

SKYLON could be the answer – a space plane that can go from runway to orbit and land back on a runway again. A fully reusable vehicle which promises cheaper launch costs and a more reliable launch system, and it’s being developed here in the UK.  The air-breathing SABRE engines that Reaction Engines are developing are the key to this, and according to Mark Hempsell, who’s worked for Reaction Engines for many years, the feeling inside the project is that it’s “achingly close to being realised”.

Skylon in a hangar - the future?

Image Credit: Reaction Engines

At a recent talk at the British Interplanetary Society, Hempsell, (who is leaving Reaction Engines to work for his own company, Hempsell Aeronautics) said we’re at an “absolutely unique point in astronautical history”. He went on to explain how SKYLON’s 4.8x13m payload bay could take 15 tonnes to Low Earth Orbit (300km) and because it’s reusable it will bring down the cost of reaching space. Cost being the fundamental thing holding back astronautics he explained.

He went through various factors, looking at the short- and long-term hopes for SKYLON. For example, in the short-term, he said that SKYLON will be fully commercial at lower-than-current launch costs (i.e. no tax-payer subsidy required to make up the launch cost). In the long term they are looking at around $10 million per launch.

Hempsell said that SKYLON will be more reliable than current launches, and since it has the option of aborting a mission and returning to Earth if there is a failure, he reckons there would be just a 1 in 20,000 chance of not getting your satellite successfully in orbit, or safely back to Earth in case of a problem. In the long-term they are looking at having reliability levels that match those of aircraft.

Availability is another key selling point. In the short-term, SKYLON could be available in a matter of months, and in the long-term they are hoping for it to be available in hours (if required – not as standard!).

So which market are they aiming for with SKYLON?

In the short-term Hempsell expects it to be a simple replacement for expendable satellite launchers, but the long-term ambitions are much grander. He says it’s a game changer, disruptive technology that could lead to a new age of space exploration – allowing people to realise those old dreams of people living in space.

The optimism continued as Hempsell explained that SKYLON can meet the requirements of the next generation European launcher. He reckons they can capture the market that ESA has. “This is a perfect match for what ESA thinks it will be doing until 2050” he says, adding that although ESA has no human spaceflight requirement at this stage, SKYLON will be sold to people who do, in the 2020s.

SKYLON

Image credit: Reaction Engines

He claims that SKYLON could fly to the ISS with 11.5 tonnes of payload (or 10.5 tonnes if you allow for an attachment interface – which is rather crucial if you think about it!).With a crew/cargo combination you’d be looking at being able to send up an exchange crew of three to four people, plus around two tonnes of cargo.

They are also looking at a “personnel and logistics module” that could sit in the payload bay and take around 7.8 tonnes, including a crew, consumables and around 24 passengers into space. They expect something like that to be available when they’re ready to launch.

Here’s a (somewhat outdated) video explaining the module:

SKYLON Personnel & Logistics Module from Reaction Engines Ltd on Vimeo.

So that’s the satellite launch and space tourism markets covered, what about its potential for furthering exploration? “Project Troy” was a study looking at whether SKYLON (the old version, rather than new D mark) could be useful for a Mars mission. The study “proved” that SKYLON can launch a manned mission to Mars. They looked at building spacecraft in LEO and boosting them to Mars with Hydrogen and Oxygen fuelled stages. It suggests a fleet of three craft, each with six astronauts. Fascinating. Must find out more.

Project Troy was carried out to ensure that SKYLON is future-proofed says Hempsell. Thinking ahead to possible future scenarios is a smart move, though whether I would agree it is possible to “prove” a vehicle that as yet doesn’t exist (and airframe design is not finalised) is capable of a Mars mission, I’m not sure. “SKYLON will not be a block to realising customers’ dreams” say Hempsell. It’s a bold claim.

He talked us through the concept design of the “Fluyt” stage, which was worked on by Simon Feast. This could deliver 15 tonnes to GEO, and around 12 tonnes to lunar orbit apparently.

They also looked at a post-ISS scenario, in which they envision 14 space stations situated from LEO to the lunar surface, with 104 people in space, including a space hotel.

With one operational SKYLON flying twice a week, he told us it would be possible to build a space station in LEO in just 6 weeks, and a GEO/Lunar station in 18 weeks. With two SKYLONs you could build the whole 14 station infrastructure in less than three and a half years!

It’s exciting stuff. Imagine that! – building a space station in just six weeks – with a UK space vehicle! That would certainly put us on the map as a serious space-faring nation.

So why am I not rejoicing? Why am I not leaping about and extolling the virtues of this vehicle? If it can do all of the above it really would be a game changer. What’s my problem? (Apart from the fact I think it looks like an evil whale harpoon.)

SKYLON - the future?

Image credit: Reaction Engines

My problem is that it doesn’t actually exist.

SKYLON, the thing that we keep hearing about, is not the main focus for Reaction Engines. In fact, they are not even going to create the airframe for it, someone else will. The idea for producing SKYLON is to create a customer for the engines that Reaction Engines are making. Their air-breathing engines might well be game-changing, but we’re a long way away from all the things that Hempsell was so excited to talk about.

He himself admits that the devil is in the details. He mentions an issue with docking mechanisms – they don’t want to change the one that is designed for Skylon, but that would mean satellites would have to add a special SKYLON interface mechanism in order to work with the vehicle. This would add an extra 5-10kg to the satellite says Hempsell. It might not sound much, but I’m pretty sure it’s no simple  undertaking.

For crew/cargo delivery to the ISS to be fully effective, you would require a docking system with a hatch big enough to get equipment racks through. Apparently the current ISS hatches can’t do this and you have to go through berthing modules. (Correct me if this is wrong, I’m just reporting what he said).

His solution to all this is to develop a Universal Space Interface Standard (USIS) that could be used for all applications, by all users, all the time. It sounds like a perfectly logical idea, but when you note that the ISS partners spent years developing their own international docking system standard (IDSS) and then the US decided not to include it on Orion, and Russia isn’t going to use it either, you realise that it’s (unsurprisingly) a bit more complicated than just having a good idea.

The IDSS is apparently too heavy, too small, too expensive, so there is lots of potential for something light, cheap and useful to all. This is undoubtedly true, but if major space-faring nations, working together, with a vested interest in making something work (i.e. improving access to ISS and future co-operations) can’t do it, that has to be a bit of a warning flag, no?

As he’s speaking, I note that Hempsell uses “trick”, “little trick” and “nice little trick” a few too many times for me to take all he is saying without a pinch of salt.

The talk was entitled “The Future of SKYLON”, but by the end of it I’m left with more questions than answers. Hempsell has spun a seductive tale of the future of exploration, the Moon, Mars, SKYLON, but the basic questions still hang in the air.

We’ve heard so much about the incredible stuff SKYLON“could” do, but little about the details of getting it to a point where it exists, and this is reflected in the questions at the end.

“How long, realistically, will it be until the first launch or prototype?” asks an audience member. “If money were no object, around 2020” replies Hempsell, but he thinks 2022 is more likely since politics, money and partners will limit things (though not the technology).

What about funding? Well the funding so far is for Reaction Engines, not SKYLON. The money they have for SKYLON is not huge admits Hempsell, they need more. For the SABRE engine they have some kick-off funding from ESA (€8m), £60m from government and the rest is apparently private (but that’s commercially sensitive information so he can’t say more).

There are questions about how the vehicle will be certified for human flight (rules currently being defined by the CAA, in conjunction with international agencies says Hempsell) and my question, about reliability.

It strikes me that making reliability comparisons with companies like SpaceX, is not entirely fair. How can you compare the reliability of a vehicle that exists (and is constantly evolving and improving) with one that doesn’t?

I could tell you that my rocket is going to be 100% reliable. Beat that.

I can say that, and it’s meaningless, because my rocket doesn’t exist and so there is no way of testing the assertion.  How is this any different?

Hempsell assures me they’ve done lots of work to back up their assertions and says that the difference between them and SpaceX is that their vehicle will be fully reusable, thus increasing reliability. I can’t help thinking that since SpaceX are already building and flying rockets, and moving closer to a reusable system themselves, that this still a little unfair.

Remember, even if money were no object they don’t think that they will have a vehicle until 2020, that’s plenty of time for SpaceX to keep improving their systems and reliability. They are not exactly known for hanging around with things after all.

“What about the shuttle?” I ask, “that was meant to be reusable but budget cuts changed the design – couldn’t the same thing happen to SKYLON?”. Hempsell focuses his answer on the fact that the shuttle wasn’t really reusable and had many expendable parts. Those were the bits that failed, the bits that had were new for each flight, rather than having been tested in a flight scenario first. This wouldn’t be the case with Skylon which is going to be fully reusable he asserts.

I’m still doubtful; after all, the greatest of plans can be crushed by politics and budgets. What’s to say that similar compromises won’t have to be made to get SKYLON into existence?  “When you see expendable bits on SKYLON, that’s when you know there’s a problem” says Hempsell.

Indeed.

But I think that there already is a problem, and that’s the unrealistic assumptions being made about everything from the financing, to the ease of persuading existing space powers to adopt new interfaces. The throwaway comment he made about adding another runway to Heathrow shows little appreciation of practicalities.

By assuming, indeed relying, on the best case scenario in many complex situations, I think that they are setting themselves up for disappointment. Much as I’d love to believe that SKYLON is the future of UK space exploration, I think it would be unwise to pin my hopes on it until there is more concrete proof that finances are in place for it to be built, let alone live up to our hopes and dreams.

Perhaps I’m too much of a cynic, but I’m always open to changing my mind. Please add your comments to this post – I’d love to know what you think.

Rosetta’s Awake!

Do you have trouble waking up in the morning when your alarm goes off? Me too, but today I don’t feel so bad about it, as it appears I’m in good company. The Rosetta spacecraft got her own alarm call today and it took a little while before she was ready to let the world know she was indeed awake. But there was rejoicing indeed when the ESA operations team in Darmstadt, Germany, received the signal to say she was alive and well.

In case you’re not familiar with the mission, you should watch this rather wonderful animated video to get yourself up to speed with the story so far:

..and so, it was time for Rosetta to come out of 31 months of hibernation – never have so many people stared so tensely at a green line waiting for news.. they waited… and waited…. Then Rosetta “phoned” home and put the minds of her team, worrying like parents of a teenager who has stayed out too late, to rest.

Rosetta awakens - signal from spacecraft reaches Earth

But what will happen in the next chapters of this exciting space tale? If all goes to plan, the story will just get more and more exciting.

First, Rosetta will chase down a comet called 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Space is big, really big, so even though she’s awake after hibernation, the journey will take until August and will require some rendezvous manoeuvring in May.

When Rosetta gets closer to the comet she’ll buzz around it in orbit, mapping the surface before releasing the precious cargo of Philae, the lander, in November.

Philae will have to complete the tricky task of landing on a comet. It’s never been done before. In fact, no spacecraft has even orbited a comet before, so this is really exciting, new stuff.

There are a couple of problems trying to land on a comet. Firstly, you don’t want to smash into it so hard you damage your instruments, and secondly you don’t want to bounce straight off it. Staying attached is no simple task either, especially when your comet is getting closer to the sun and starting to sublimate. To keep itself in place the Philae lander is going to use two harpoons to anchor itself to the comet and then the science can begin.

It will probe the nucleus of the comet, drilling down into it find out more what it’s made of, doing in-situ analysis of what it finds.

But that’s not all. Rosetta itself will continue orbiting the comet and will collect data on the changes to the comet as it travels around the Sun and back towards the orbit of Jupiter. The mission should last until December 2015.

“Rosetta’s main objective is to help understand the origin and evolution of the Solar System, in particular investigating the role that comets may have played in seeding Earth with water, and perhaps even life” say ESA.

Here’s my friend Dr Mark Bentley talking excitedly about Rosetta with me last year – he’s the Principal Investigator on the Micro-Imaging Dust Analysis System (MIDAS) which is part of the spacecraft. It will study the dust around the comet providing information on particle population, size, volume and shape. His enthusiasm is infectious…

Top Pub Trivia about the Rosetta mission:

  • Rosetta’s launch was delayed by over year due to an issue with the Ariane rocket meaning it is now chasing a different comet from the one originally planned.
  • Rosetta is so named because it aims to unlock the secrets of the universe, in the same way the Rosetta stone was used to unlock the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
  • The lander, Philae, is named after an an island in the Nile where an obelisk was found that had a bilingual inscription, allowing the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta stone to be deciphered.
  • You pronounce Churyumov–Gerasimenko, the target comet’s name, like this: “chu-ree-oom-off / gerr-assy-mienko
  • Rosetta hibernated for 957 days – until today! Hooray!