Friday, July 26, 2013

Humble Daring from NASA in the 2013 NIAC Phase 1 awards

Humility, it is said, is not the ability to know your faults as much as the ability to know your limits.  Success sometimes comes at the expense of humility, especially when success comes early and often. 
Most proud Americans would look at their beloved NASA program and pronounce proudly ‘there is a successful government agency’.  After all, they flew us to the moon with Apollo, they developed a space truck to take huge modules in orbit with the Space Shuttle, and they were instrumental in the erecting of a giant, football length, orbital laboratory with the living space of a 747 in the ISS (International Space Station).  NASA has rovers driving around mars, a satellite doing scientific research and imaging as it orbits Saturn, and two working robotic probes, launched over 40 years ago, (arguably) about to leave the solar system.  Yet, NASA has been humbled, because success did not come early, and it did not come often. 
The first seven astronauts watched in horror as rocket after rocket, exploded on the launch pad while they were training themselves to sit on top of one, six years later, one of those seven will burn to death in Apollo 1.[1]  The shuttle program has retired; four of the multibillion dollar vessels now sit in museums, partially because two of them exploded during mission, killing all on board.  The ISS was originally designed to be larger and completed long before now (2013), yet as of this date, it still awaits its lasts Russian module.  For every probe sent to Mars there is one that has been lost.  As stunning images and new revelations flow from Saturn, the Galileo probe, placed in orbit of Jupiter, could only send a trickle of the data rate it was designed for[2].
Is this criticism from me?  No, we are talking about rocket science, and you don’t have to be an aerospace engineer to realize, that when you push the envelope of knowledge you learn some painful lessons.  Yet, these lessons are no more painful as the ones our forefathers bore, starting half a millennium ago when they explored another world across the ocean; and these lessons are no less important to the history of humanity.
In humility, and the economic shackles that have plagued them these last 10 years, NASA has turned to the talent that lies outside its walls.  It knows its limits.
With the Commercial Crew Development program (CCDev), the robotic challenges,  and their participation in the X-prize contest,[3] NASA has reached out and rewarded the talents of those who kept the dream of spaceflight alive in the private sector.  NASA knows there are bright minds outside its gates that can contribute to the future of spaceflight. Another program it has developed for that outreach is the NASA Innovative Advance Concepts program or NIAC.
In the NIAC, NASA is daring!
 Twelve proposals in Phase 1 were selected and awarded $100,000 each for research that “have been selected based on the potential of their concepts to transform future aerospace missions, enable new capabilities, or significantly alter and improve current approaches.”[4]   Phase 2 would award $500,000 to those proposals after nine-months of initial analysis for concept development.
The twelve recipients are: 

Pulsed Fission-Fusion (PuFF) Propulsion System

Mr. Adams is keeping alive the Orion Project of the 1960’s.  There are two types of engines being deployed in space exploration: Chemical Reactors, and Electric Propulsion. Chemical Reactors (also known as Thermal propulsion) are your traditional rocket engines where the specific impulse (Isp) or the amount of thrust per unit of fuel if very low.  Electric Propulsion spacecraft actually have a higher isp but the amount of energy (and therefore mass) to produce the electric fuel is very high.  The Dawn Probe that is visiting Vesta and Ceres is an example of an Electric Propulsion Vehicle, using solar panels, it generates a very minute amount of thrust that takes it years to get to its mission targets but using very little fuel.  The Pulsed Fission-Fusion Propulsion System that Rob Adams wants to explore would combine the benefits of both of these systems, attempting to get high ISP with high thrust, using a Pulse Plasma Propulsion.    

Adams, Rob
NASA, Marshall Space Flight Center
Marshall Space Flight Center, AL. 35812

Torpor Inducing Transfer Habitat
For Human Stasis To Mars

Suspended Animation has been a prop in science fiction dramas for decades, but the ‘freezing’ of human bodies and reviving them later has proved allusive and dangerous.   Coma inducing drugs such as sodium thiopental[5]  however have been shown to lower the metabolism.  Mr. Bradford believes that inducing astronauts into a stasis torpor can reduce the living space requirements of astronauts by as much as 10 fold, taking a standard 200 m3 estimated cabin space for a Mars mission down to 20 m3.  His proposal is to do a end-to-end Mars mission study comparing a torpor-induced module system with a standard theoretical Mars mission module.

Bradford, John
Spaceworks Engineering, Inc.
Atlanta, GA. 30338-6908

Two-Dimensional Planetary
Surface Landers

Circuit board systems have reach such a thin and flexible state, they can emulate paper, the circuit board inside a standard electronic keyboard is very good example. Hamid imagines dropping leaflets on Mars instead of bouncing ball rovers or sky crane mini-coups to deliver instruments onto the Martian surface.  The advantages are size, quantity and delivery.  An orbiter could fly over the red planet (or any other color) and casually drop hundreds, even thousands of smart leaflets with tiny power supplies, and scatter them over the surface of the planet, collecting comparative data over a wide range of territory – potentially even planet wide.

Hemmati, Hamid
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Pasadena, CA. 91109-8001

Dual-mode Propulsion System
Enabling CubeSat Exploration of
the Solar System

Nathan Jerred’s approach to the benefits of the two propulsion systems, mentioned in Rob Adams proposal is to create a hybrid of the Electronic and Thermal Propulsion systems. His proposal is to take a cubesat and provide it with one of these hybrid systems.  You may have seen a cubesat floating around inside the International Space Station in a news cast.  About one cubic liter, or the size of a soccer ball, these micro-satellites have been taking up empty space in the nooks and corners of larger satellite launches since 2003.[6]  Jerred Nathan proposes to use one of these hybrid cubesats for a exploration of Europa.  It would utilize the Thermal propulsion during earth orbit escape and European orbit insertion, while the Electronic Propulsion part would come into play during interplanetary space travel. The work would be done by a consortium of Universities in response to the budget cuts of interplanetary science missions.

Jerred, Nathan
Universities Space Research Association
Idaho Falls, ID. 3401-6290

Growth Adapted Tensegrity
Structures - A New Calculus for
the Space Economy

Buckminster Fuller, proposed airborne habitats that were giant geodesic spheres, presumably his bucky-tubes would be the primary assembly material.  He points out that as the sphere material gets larger in mass the mass inside the sphere increases 4/3 times.  He envisioned giant floating habitats, that float high in the atmosphere simply by increasing the temperature inside the sphere by a single degree.[7]   Mr. Longman would like to research the possibility of building such a structure in the Earth-moon L2 position, the gravity stable-neutral point that lies beyond the moon, opposite the Earth.  The structure would reach huge proportions, containing air, water for radiation shielding and irrigation, and soil for in-situ recourses.  The long term goal being a structure inhabited by future astro tourists, research base, even a orbiting, economic hub.  He envisions robotic maintenance devices constructing the habitat.

Longman, Anthony
Anthony P. Longman
Camarillo, CA. 93012-5247

Eternal Flight as the Solution for 'X'

Mr. Moore is attempting to reach, ‘unlimited high altitude long endurance flight’. His goal is to create a stationary atmospheric montitor in a concept designed to reduce weight and drag by 50%.  The system incorporates three winged supporting engines, floating the payload over a relatively stationary target. 

Moore, Mark
NASA Langley Research Center
Hampton, VA. 23681-2100

Deep Mapping of Small Solar
System Bodies with Galactic
Cosmic Ray Secondary Particle

Mr. Prettyman has revealed a fascinating monitoring method that is currently employed.  Cosmic rays continually bombard the world, and, of course, beyond.  These cosmic rays ‘crash’ into different materials in different ways.  There are monitoring devices that read these pions and muons when they are released under collision.  The Red figure to the left is a Volcano, effectively x-rayed by these cosmic ray particles.  To the right of the Volcano is a picture of the Mir docked to the ISS, to the right of that is the same picture generated by pions.  This technology is currently also used in archeology and National defense. Mr. Prettyman wants to explore the possibilities of using this same technology to extrinsically probe celestial bodies like comets or asteroids without ever coming in contact with them.

Prettyman, Thomas
Planetary Science Institute
Tucson, AZ. 85719-2394

Biomaterials out of thin air: in
situ, on-demand printing of
advanced biocomposites

Lynn Rothschild wants to bring 3D printing to a whole new level, making it the primary source of building equipment, food, and parts (both inanimate objects and human body parts) for future Mars explorers.  She is searching the limits of what 3D printer arrays can do with finished parts, novel biomaterial and even organic-inorganic composites that make use of in-situ materials, from Martian air to regolith. This proposal is a must in my opinion.  The greatest obstacle to human off-world activity is the amount of mass lift needed to support people in space.  The 3D printing revolution will inevitably lead to the off world destiny of humanity.

Rothschild, Lynn
NASA Ames Research Center
Moffett Field, CA. 94035-1000

Plasmonic Force Propulsion
Nano/PicoSatellite Capability

As Kepler sits idly in solar orbit, we lament its inability to continue its mission of searching for other worlds. The spacecraft has yielded thousands of potential planets and 135 confirmed planets in an area the size of a hand when held up to the sky[8]. It has lost the ability to focus its aperture on to its assigned, precise position due to loosing two of its reaction wheels (torquers).  Joshua Rovey proposes using plasmonic force propulsion to serve as the position control system for nano satelites.  Plasmonic Forces is the engineered focusing of light to expel nanoparticles at tremendous speeds with negligible expenditure of materials.  Sunlight is the primary fuel and the use of this system on cubesats would be another method of developing their use.  The plasmonic Force system well help finely and precisely guide the small satellites that NASA envisions will be used lieu of the more expensive giants that now dominate the space above Earth.  Kempler may soon be replaced by an array of much smaller satellites that perform the same function for the entire sky.

Rovey, Joshua
University of Missouri, Rolla
Rolla, MO 65409-6527

Transformers For Extreme

Adrian Stoica’s team has come up with a design for a multi-functional platform that changes shape as required to focus electro-magnetic radiation (light, heat, and communication signals) into specific areas. He envisions this device sitting on the rim of a lunar polar crater or outside an opening to a lava tube on Mars. Information as well as light can be deflected into a specific location for use by robotic rovers or astronauts.  This device can open up the dark hidden corners of worlds that we have already revealed to the curious souls of Earth.   

Stoica, Adrian
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Pasadena, CA. 91109-8001

10-Meter Sub-Orbital Large
Balloon Reflector

Christopher Walker has developed the concept of a 10 meter balloon reflector encased in an even larger balloon that will bring it up to an altitude that will both serve as a communication relay for those on the ground and a radio telescope for those who have loftier sights.  The devise is a promise for NASA during the budget constraints.

Walker, Christopher
University of Arizona
Tuscon, AZ. 85721-0009

Low-Mass Planar Photonic
Imaging Sensor

BenYo is heading a team at UC Davis that would like to develop a new type of orbital telescope / imaging Sensor.  The device would not have any mirrors or lenses, instead it incorporates an array of light sensitive, interferometer chips.  He maintains that the device would be cheaper, smaller and lighter than its conventional counterparts using the latest photonic engineering advances and interferometry.  Interferometry is the practice of taking two or more different telescopes/sensors and combining their signals to create a virtual telescope sensor equal to one who’s size is equivalent to the distance between the sensors.  For example four telescopes, 10 miles apart can receive signals equivalent to a single telescope with that diameter.  Using the cost effective devices in solar orbit that Mr. Yoo proposes could yield an astounding aspect ratio for telescopics.  The research money would go to radiation ‘hardening’ and environment protection of his device.

Yoo, Ben
University of California, Davis
Dais, Ca. 95616-5270

[1] “The Right Stuff”, Dir. Philip Kaufman, Perf. Fred Ward, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Scott Paulin, Charles Frank, Lance Henrickson, Warner Brothers Pictures, 1983, DVD
[2] “National Space Science Data Center Header Galileo Orbiter”, NSSDC Master Catalog Search, NASA,  16 July 2013, WEB, retrieved 26 July 26, 2013,
[3] “X-prize foundation Government Partners”, X-Prize, X-Prize Foundation, 2013, WEB, retrieved 26 July 2013,
[4] “NASA - NIAC 2013 Phase I Selections” Space Technology Mission Directorate,  NASA, 19 July 2013, WEB, retrieved 20 July 2013,
[5] Sodium Thiopental, Wikipedia, quoting Morgan DJ, G.L. Blackman, J.D. Paul, “Pharmocokinetics and plasma binding of thiopental” , 1981, Anestesiology 54 (6): 4674-480, Wiki Refr.
[6] CubeSat, Wikipedia, quoting Puig-Suari“The cubsat Movement”, 2012, Space News, 08-13: 30, Wiki Refr.
[7] Baldwin, “BuckyWorks: Buckminster Fuller’s ideas for Today”, John Wiley and Sons.  Page 190. Print
[8] Borucki, W.J. “Kepler – A search for habital planets: About the mission”, Ames Research Center, NASA, n.d. WEB retrieved 25 July 25, 2013, http://kepler.nasa.gove/Mission/QuickGuide/
[9] Ibid 4

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Commercial Crew: From Development to Integrated Capability

Sometime, hopefully in the not too distant future, we may be sitting at home as we watch a sleek mini-shuttle approaching the International Space Station (ISS), we will be captivated as it slowly backs itself into the unity module. There, a crew of 3 American astronauts will park their lifting body ship, and disembark to reside on board the orbiting research center for 6 months, maybe even a year.  The name of the spaceship is the Dream Chaser, and it doesn’t belong to the US Government, instead NASA is leasing it from the Sierra Nevada Corporation.  Possibly, at the same moment but in a different part of the sky, a Boeing owned CTS-100 might be docked into a privately funded Bigelow Space Station; while also simultaneously, a Dragon capsule, belonging to Space Explorations Technologies (a.k.a. SpaceX) might be parked in Geo Synchronous Orbit, contracted to carry a repair crew to a large communication satellite.
For many of us space advocates, all these scenes have been the dream we’ve been chasing (at least in spirit) for 50 years. It has taken a while to come to fruition, but it’s finally starting to happen, with the help of NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Programming Office (C3PO), the same office that oversees SpaceX’s and Orbital Science’s cargo delivery to the ISS.

In 2009, under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), NASA was directed by Congress to select one or more private corporations to send astronauts to the International Space Station in 2015. The selected target date would be close to four years after the space shuttle program was scheduled to retire.  NASA complied by setting up the Commercial Crew and Development (CCDev) program “…to provide funding to assist viable commercial entities in the development of system concepts, key technologies, and capabilities that could ultimately be used in commercial crew human space transportation systems”.[i]  The program actually was initiated, but went unfunded, under COTS during the Bush Administration.  President Obama, to the surprise of many, adopted the concept of developing a private space industry to take astronauts into orbit and he pushed funds to help it along.
In July of 2012 the above three companies where given over a billion dollars to develop their spaceships, but only under the condition of demonstrated system advancement.  Boeing received almost a half a billion dollars, SpaceX received a little less, and Sierra Nevada received almost a quarter billion.
I must admit, when these amounts were first announced, I was disappointed that SpaceX didn’t receive the larger amount. 
First, SpaceX is the new kid in town, it was founded in 2002 by PayPal billionaire Elon Musk, and the company now sits on a 300 acre site that formally belonged to Beal Aerospace.  Mr. Beal had closed his company complaining that Boeing, Lockheed and NASA had a lock on rocket launching with their government subsidized ventures.[ii]   Using his PayPal fortune and a savvy staff, Mr. Musk was able to silence those who called him just another ‘thrillionaire’ and became the first privately funded company to supply the ISS with cargo.  Second, the idea of giving money to Boeing over SpaceX for technical development was a little ironic, given Boeing’s historical involvement in the space program. 

Unfortunately the 2015 date is now pushed back to 2017 due to budget cuts. William Gerstenmaier, the Assoiciate Administrator of Human Explorations and Operations at NASA, who administered the Selection, was no longer as concerned with developing private space transportations systems as he was getting astronauts to the ISS.  Boeing was starting to look like the company most likely to get our astronauts up there.  Frankly, SpaceX has some skeptics, Loren Thompson of Forbes echo’s the expressed concerns of the initial selection committee on whether SpaceX is a mature enough company to be given this technical task.[iii]  Space Exploration Technologies is new at space flight and they have no experience in human space travel. When compared to Boeing who was contracted for the Saturn V first stage, the space shuttle, and several components of the ISS, they seem risky.  In addition Boeing had acquired McDonald Douglas who was behind the Mercury Program and numerous satellite systems.[iv]  The other player, Sierra Nevada Corporation has been in business since 1963 and through its acquisitions, it is involved in satellites and rocket propulsion. 

So was the selection fair? A study of the selection process seems to suggest it might have been at least justified.
With Funds in hand from the ARRA the CCDev divided the program into three development phases and a certification period. 

CCDev-1 was the initial phase that announced the Commercial Crew Development program and collected proposals. The Proposals required three sections and an appendix, the Executive Summary Section, the Commercial Crew Capability Maturation Plan, and the Corporate Information Section. Thirty-six companies formally submitted proposals with one company immediately rejected because it did not comply with the proposal instructions.  A Participant Evaluation Panel then reviewed all proposals submitted; seventeen companies were eliminated due to lack of information, or failure to demonstrate their capabilities to provide a commercial crew transport system in the allotted time. The remaining corporations were then color code rated on their Corporate Information section and their Commercial Crew Capability Maturation Plan section. After a face to face interview with the remaining eighteen proposal representatives, the color coded evaluation was amended and submitted to the Selection Authority, Geoffrey Yoder, with recommendations. Under the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, Congress set aside $50 million to be used for the “commercial crew space transportation concepts and enabling capabilities”.  In the ‘Selection Statement for CCDev’ development was defined to “show, within the timeframe of the agreement, significant progress on long lead capabilities, technologies and commercial crew risk mitigation tasks in order to accelerate the development of their commercial crew space transportation concept.”  They had to show they could get the job done.  Mr. Yoder awarded 5 companies the development funds:
·      Blue Origin                                        $3.7 million
·      The Boeing Company                     $18.0 million
·      Paragon Space Development            $1.4 million
·      Sierra Nevada Corporation             $20.0 million
·      United Launch Alliance*                  $6.7 million
*  The United Launch Alliance is actually Boeing and Lockheed-Martin working cooperatively to modify the Atlas rocket for human rating and it is involved in the delivery system only.

            Of the remaining 13 companies, one was no longer allowed to participate due to a red rating for their Commercial Crew Capability Maturation Plan.    
            Interesting to note, that SpaceX did not receive any funds in the initial award, Mr. Yoder explained, and almost apologized within his statement as to why SpaceX did not receive funds.  Mr. Yoder stated that he was impressed with the SpaceX proposals but that they requested a level of financial support that he was not comfortable with.[1]  “Comparing the many early stage developing activities in the SpaceX proposal with the level of support with the acceleration of system concepts, key technologies, and capabilities that are potentially achieved by the proposals from other companies, such as Boeing and Sierra Nevada, I did not see the relative value to the government in applying the limited ARRA funding available to the CCDev effort overall to this proposal.” 
           The question that comes to my mind was why couldn’t funds be granted for at least some of the development costs?  Was it because Mr. Yoder was more interested in getting a getting a crew capsule to the station than developing a private commercial company?  Also, would giving development money to Boeing and not SpaceX more likely bring the crew capsule about. The answer to this question may lie in the history of NASA funding.  Ever since after the moon landings, Congress has been notorious for setting up grand programs for NASA and then never providing the funds to carry out those programs. In fairness to them, NASA and it’s partners, like Boeing, have always plagued programs with schedule and cost overruns. Many Congressmen feel the need to keep NASA on a budgetary diet in order to keep the agency healthy.
As of Late 2011, Due to funding issue, the schedule for a commercial crew delivery had been pushed back to 2017.[2]  Currently, ISS funding extends only to 2020.         

           CCDev-2 followed with preliminary design reviews and development proposals to “further foster activity leading to the development of orbital Crew Transportation Systems (CTS)”. The announcement was released on October 25, 2010 and 22 companies submitted formal proposals. NASA initially intended to award $200 million dollars ‘to enable significant progress on the maturing of design and development of elements of the system…..with the overall objective of accelerating the availability of US CTS capabilites while ensuring crew and passenger safety.” After evaluation, four companies received $280 million for their development proposals.   The process was similar to CCDev-1 with a Technical Approach Section in lieu of Commercial Crew Capability Maturation Plan section.  The major difference in the two programs was in order to receive the funds a series of milestones had to be accomplished toward the stated development proposals.  Like it’s predecessor program, the evaluation first eliminated candidates (12) based on the feasibility and information found in their submissions, a color coded evaluation procedure followed by a review process eliminated other candidates (2) and rated the remaining submissions.  The Selection Authority, this time a Mr. Philip R. McAlister, awarded four companies the funds:

·      Blue Origin                                                      $22.0 million
·      The Boeing Company                                     $92.3 million
·      Sierra Nevada Corporation                             $80.0 million
·      Space Explorations                                         $75.0 million

            Due to the larger sum, Mr. McAlister did a thorough, in depth review of each remaining candidate to justify his awarded contractors choice.[3]

On July 10, 2012 The third round of the Commercial Crew Development process received submission under a new name, Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCICap).  Again three sections of the submission were required: Executive Summary, Technical Approach, and Business Information. The review process by the PEP was similar to the previous CCDev reviews, with 7 submitters and 2 eliminated under the preliminary review.  The proposals required an integrated CTS, risk reduction tests, and the culmination of a crewed orbital demonstration flight.  No company was eliminated in the submission analysis and interview process, and Space X received a BLUE rating (Highest) for both their Technical Approach and their Business Information. William Gerstenmaier served as the Selection Authority and after a descriptive review of each company and their proposed systems, and also looking for diversity of approach, he awarded three companies, and their systems the development funds:

·      The Boeing Company                   CTS-100                      $460.0 million
·      Sierra Nevada Corporation           Dream Chaser              $212.5 million
·      Space Explorations                       Dragon                         $440.0 million

The CCICap funds are provided to help promote final development of the proposed systems for the commercial companies, and risk management systems, enabling them to provide fully functional human-rated spacecraft.[4] 
In conjunction with the CCICap development testing, phase 1 of the certification process begins. Here the final 3 selected corporations start their certification process to send astronauts into orbit. 
After reviewing the development of CCDev and putting in context the diverging economic and technical situations, I am not so sure the NASA investments were fair in the context of the CCDev.  Once you realize that the ‘Development’ aspect of the program gave way to the ‘Integrated Capability’, then begrudgingly Boeing will most likely win the contract.  I will admit that I distrust Boeing, simply because they dominate the aerospace industries in the US, and I hope that SpaceX will get a contract also.  I actually hope all three of the companies get a shot at sending astronauts to the ISS.  Sadly, Mr. Gerstenmaier indicated in a House Science Committee investigation that only one company will most likely get the contract.[5]
The program started so that free markets could liberate the space industry and the US would continue to lead in space exploration.  One company dominating the aerospace industry is hardly a free market, and I believe that if we don’t encourage market innovation to lead us upward, our lead will drop.  Granting a contract to two or all three of the companies would not only be good for SpaceX and Sierra Nevada, it would be good for Boeing and it would be good for America.

[1] Ibid 1
[2] Chow, Denis. “NASA revises plan to buy space taxis”, 15 December 2011, WEB, retrieved 15 July 2013, http::/
[3] “Selection statement of commercial Crew Development Round 2”, SpaceRef. 18 April 2011, PDF, retrieved 13 July 2013,
[4] “Selection statement of commercial crew integrated capabilities”, NASA CCP, NASA. 16 April 2013, PDF, retrieved 12 July 2013,
[5] “NASA's Commercial Crew Acquisition Strategy, House Science Committee, September 14, 2012”, SpaceKSCBlog, np, 14 September 2012, YouTube, retrieved 12 July 2013,

[i] “Selection statement for commercial Crew Development Building the Next Era in spaceflight”, JSC-CCDev-1. NASA. 9 December 2008, PDF, retrieved 12 July 2013,
[ii] “A bold plan to go where men have gone before”,  NYTime business, New York Times, 5 February 2005, WEB, retrieved 12 July 2013,
[iii] Loren Thompson, “The case against SpaceX, part II”, Forbes, LLC, 31 May 2011, WEB, retrieved 15 July 2013,
[iv] “Jets and Moon Rockets”, History of Boeing, Boeing, nd, WEB, retrieved 15 July 2013,