Monthly Archives: June 2014

PSLV: A SpaceX/ULA/Ariane Alternative?

A PSLV launch, but not this article’s PSLV launch. Image from

The Indians continue proving they are in the space business for real.  The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), their success with the Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle (GSLV), and their continued success with their latest launch today of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) from the Satish Dhawan Space Center (formerly known as Sriharikota Launching Range), are all examples of India’s commitment to move forward into space.

Today’s PSLV launch successfully inserted a French SPOT 7 imagery satellite into a sun-synchronous low earth orbit (LEO).  Five small satellites were also boosted into orbit by PSLV:  Canada’s University of Toronto two satellites, numbered 4 and 5, from the Canadian advanced nanospace eXperiment program (CanX); one picosat (PSAT) and nanosat (NSAT) from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University VELOX-I; and a German ship-tracking satellite, Automatic Identification System satellite 1 (AISat 1).  All of these satellite will be in LEO as well.

Such an international satellite payload base should be no surprise when you consider the cost of a PSLV launch:  $75 million.  This is small change compared the to the mounting costs of launching a rocket through the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program run through the United Launch Alliance (ULA–about $450 million per launch–here’s why), but may be a little more that what a SpaceX launch costs ($56-$60 million).  PSLV even gives the Arianespace Ariane5 launches, which currently run at about $192 million per launch, some interesting competition.

While $75 million per launch nearly seems downright reasonable in the weird world of the space launch business, keep in mind that  that number is also nearly the price of what it cost India to run an entire Mars probe program, MOM, in which the probe, Mangalyaan, is expected to orbit the red planet this September.

GSLV, PSLV, and MOM–they are all proof positive to any doubters that the Indians are very serious about moving out into space.  Add in the very inexpensive costs of launch and space project management, and it shouldn’t be very surprising they are rapidly gaining space business from other nations.  IF the Indians, through their Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), can successfully keep the costs down while increasing launch frequency and availability, then this development could be quite a boon for India, economically, technologically, and perhaps socially(?).

I wonder if they have any work for me over there?  Hmmmm…

DIY Space: You Are the Asteroid Hunter

Zooniverse Asteroid hunter

The above picture looks exciting, doesn’t it?  At least it should if you are yearning to join the elite ranks of the “Asteroid Hunters.”  You, too, can be an Asteroid Hunter thanks to Zooniverse.  The website introduced the asteroid hunting project, called “Asteroid Zoo,” earlier this week.

If the organization’s name sounds familiar, it’s because I wrote a post about Zooniverse’s Moon Zoo nearly a month ago.  That project was created for the public to help in identifying craters and such on the Moon’s surface.  But this project is a little more–urgent?

On reason to identify asteroids is so we can send a Bruce Willis-type up in a fancy space shuttle to destroy it.  In other words, the idea is to identify asteroids that might pose a threat to Earth.  The site uses the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor impact as an example of an unexpected visitor from space.  So the hope is there are some people with some spare time who are willing to look at multiple frames of images like the picture above, and identify an asteroid or three.  The two videos below give a little more information about Chelyabinsk’s incident.

The images come from the Catalina Sky Survey (CSS), a project with a mission to identify near-Earth objects (NEOs) or potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs).  PHAs would be the asteroids that pose a risk of impacting with the Earth.  CSS allows for a chance to assess the asteroid threat, and perhaps give opportunities to mitigate it, before it hits the Earth.

According to the Zooniverse explanation for CSS, the project has identified over 100,000 objects so far.  Maybe you can help find a few more?

Oh, and the other reason to look for these asteroids?  Believe it or not, they might be a good resource for humans to use, once we’re a little more out there in space.  There are quite a bit of raw materials in these rogue rocks, such as iron, nickel, and cobalt (at least that’s what the Zooniverse folks are saying).

This all means, then, should you decide to join, you would be an Asteroid Hunter, possible world savior, and future resource gatherer.  Not too bad for someone drinking coffee at their desk on a Sunday afternoon.

Maritime Safety Satellite’s Launch Cancelled to Make Political Point


Well, this must be frustrating.  Imagine that you’re a part of a company that’s getting ready to launch a satellite.  All the company’s engineers and managers working to get the satellite ready to go for its mission.  Of course, everyone in the company is being paid to get the satellite completed.

But then, your government, who contracted with your company to build the satellite, has a problem with the government of the country you were to launch the satellite from.  And of course just to show that other government that your government is serious, you’ve suddenly been forbidden to conduct any kind of business with that other government.  This means you can no longer launch your satellite using the facilities and rocket of the company that so happens to reside in that other country.  This is a problem.

According to an Ottowa Citizen post, this is the problem that’s happening to a Canadian satellite manufacturer, named COM DEV.  COM DEV would like to launch the Maritime Monitoring and Messaging Microsatellite (M3MSAT), but the Canadian government is punishing Russia for conducting its very own “Lebensraum” campaign in the Ukraine.  The punishment consists of not allowing COM DEV to send M3MSAT into space using the Russian rocket they were originally intending to use.

M3MSAT is designed to primarily provide “maritime surveillance” for commercial customers and the Canadian government.  Fancy words for saying there’s a radio receiver and transmitter on board to receive automatic messages on particular radio frequencies from particular ships.  These messages contain the current ship’s position in the form of GPS coordinates (you can see the ship tracking happening real-time, here).  M3MSAT was to be launched into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) sometime in September 2014.

COM DEV won the contract to build the M3MSAT for the Canadian government in 2008.  So now the Canadian government is generously allowing COM DEV to bite the funding bullet and take the hit.  Which COM DEV doesn’t appreciate.  The Ottowa Citizen post notes that COM DEV and the Canadian government are in negotiations on determining a path forward.  Probably one that will compensate COM DEV for its work.  Maybe they’ll also get a case of Elsinore beer for their troubles?  We’ll see.

From German Tunnels to Space, Part 7–Living in America

Taped over

In the last post, I posed the question about whether the US government succeeded in making moral and balanced decisions when a government program, “Operation Paperclip,” was used to shepherd NAZIs into the US.  Before you answer that question, here is some more information to consider.

Flexible Ethics, Questionable Judgement

A very good book, “Operation Paperclip,” written by author Annie Jacobson does a great job of illustrating just how badly certain portions of the government wanted the “bad” NAZIs to work for the US.  But the book tells the tale of more than German rocket scientists.  Chemists, biologists, and medical professionals were also targeted–many with very obvious dark histories.  And it’s disheartening to read about decisions made by people, the very ones entrusted with safeguarding the United States, and the ones who should know better to allow scientists with very questionable morals to work for the US.  This kind of decision-making using a flexible moral scale is called “situational ethics.”  Some politicians use this scale, too.  With such a scale, almost any atrocity can be condoned and excused.  The book shows there are a lot of Americans willing to excuse what the NAZI scientists did.

So somehow, quite a few “undesirables” were allowed to work and succeed in the US.  There have been strong denials from these NAZI scientists and their families about what they did while working for the NAZIs during the war.  Some say they worked for the NAZIs under duress, or that they weren’t aware of prison laborers being used to death to build their V2 rockets.  That might be.  But when these scientists and their works were co-opted by the NAZIs, many of them didn’t just hide their feelings and talents, but thrived, using their talents fully.

Being all that they could be, in Nazi Germany

An example of a person thriving in a NAZI system:  Wernher von Braun.  Wernher von Braun was the German Army’s technical director of the V-weapons development program.  He became the head of the Mittelbau-Dora planning office, which was a part of the NAZI Schutzstaffel (SS), an organization requiring racial purity and unquestioned loyalty to the NAZI party.  His brother, Magnus, was a production supervisor for V2 gyroscopes in Mittelwerk.  They probably talked with each other, as brothers might, of the happenings of the day in Mittelwerk.

Another consideration, not just about von Braun, or even the rest of the NAZI scientists, is the nature of most engineers and scientists generally.  It’s not fair to say that engineers are all evil or even amoral.  But engineers are naturally involved and focused on their projects.  Engineers love to see their designs and dreams assembled.  They enjoy looking at the progress of their technical achievements, seeing just what they can tweak to make their inventions work that much better.  That’s just the basic nature of the engineer.

Were NAZI engineers any less involved in their projects?  Throughout the NAZI rocket programs, the rocket scientists showed a particular tenacity to keep their programs alive.  It’s very likely any engineer involved in the V2 program would be heavily invested.  Particularly an energetic visionary engineer like von Braun, who probably ventured into the tunnels to see his visions and designs made into reality.  It’s unfortunate he appeared to deliberately ignore the plight of the rocket factory slave workers.  For any of those engineers and scientist to plead ignorance of the “unpleasantness” going on around their projects seems to go against the engineering natures they exhibited.

Choices ignored

These NAZI scientists might not have had the genius that Albert Einstein possessed, but they surely were smart enough to understand what would happen to Germany when Hitler came to power.  Einstein decided working in the US was healthier for him and other German scientists and engineers had that option, too.  But the scientists who became NAZIs or collaborators chose to stay in Germany and work, fully committed to the Reich until the day the camps from which they drew their laborers were literally liberated by enemy troops.

These committed people, with “Operation Paperclip’s” help, came over to the US, worked for the US, and thrived in the US.  If the NAZI scientists were amoral, then the “Operation Paperclip” was immoral–especially since it seems everyone involved knew the truth of the NAZI scientists.  While national security seemed to be the banner applied to keeping “Operation Paperclip” a secret, it wouldn’t be beyond question that the real reason to keep the program secret just involved fear of being caught, and great shame.  Ms. Jacobson’s book seems to paint that fear loud and clear.

And they, at least the rocket scientists, accomplished great things for the US.  Von Braun is well-known as one of the visionaries for the US rocket program.  His rocket, produced by his team, was the first successful US rocket to launch a satellite into orbit.  He helped the US get a man on the moon.  He, and the NAZI scientists who came with him, undeniably helped the US stay relevant in the Space Race.  Their ideas still inform the designs of new companies like SpaceX and the exciting things going on with their Falcon 9 Reusable rocket.  Those achievements, as great as they are, will never erase the NAZI rocket scientists’ histories, nor should they be used to justify the scientists recruitment into “Operation Paperclip.”

Space’s true Foundations?

But these achievements, these magnificent achievements done for the US, the tremendous legacy we dared grab from Europe’s ashes, are all built on the piles of bodies–at the very least, 20,000 of them, that were found at Mittelwerk and Dora.  Their ideas were conceived in circumstances to produce fear in the enemy’s civilian population, using slaves to “work out the kinks” and make their ideas real, and enforced a sort of quality control with death in conditions that were likely worse than Hell.

It’s very easy to want to bring these scientists to account for their contributions to Mittelwerk and Dora.  Revenge is a very human reaction to such atrocities.  But another very human trait is our learning–the pattern recognition that allows us to survive.  The reaction, then, should be to acknowledge the tragedy, the sheer evil committed in such places, and learn from them.  It should be to recognize the unnamed and unwilling victims, the slave laborers, and to honor their contributions to humanity’s forays into space, learning from the courage of the survivors about the brutality man can levy on other men.  For on their backs the space age was born, and we are the ones who are now thriving, reaping the rewards the dead should have also received.

I started this series with my memory of living in a beautiful region of Germany, among very kind people.  But it’s a region with a violent and dark history, marked with memorials to all sorts of wars across that beautiful countryside.  It’s very hard to forget about that sort of history when you stumble upon a blown up pillbox in a peaceful forest.  What about a memorial to the first “space war” victims?  Germany’s already done that, somewhat, with the victims of Mittelbau and Dora.  Perhaps it’s time for the rest of the world to remember the dead slave laborers, the true space pioneers who built the path to the space age from Germany’s tunnels.  To remember them, learn from them, and thank them.

One of Mittelwerk’s transverse tunnels now. Image hosted on and taken by Claus Bach.

This was the last post for this particular series. If you are interested in this history, please read the other six posts prior to this one, starting with Part 1 (click here).

Slipping the Surly Bonds in a Space Balloon

Balloon in Space

I’ve written posts in the past regarding World View Enterprises, Inc.’s, plans to get a balloon to “near-space.”  Such plans are decent and less expensive alternatives to riding on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two.  At least until XCOR Aerospace gets its act together.  Most recently, I wrote about World View’s design challenge, which just ended this week.  But on June 18, the company actually flew one of their very small balloon prototypes on a test run.  You can see a video with excerpts from the test below, thanks to Geobeat.

According to this article, the balloon floated 120,000 feet above the Earth’s surface.  Then it floated down to only 50,000 feet above the Earth’s surface when a parafoil brought it down to Earth safely.  It took a few pictures during the flight and the whole test lasted only five hours.  The post notes that equipment tested were things like the ground equipment (probably communications, GPS tracking, and such), the guided landing system, and a backup parafoil.

It’s a simple but neat idea.  Unfortunately, it still won’t garner World View’s passengers any “astronaut wings” because the balloon and gondola won’t be going high enough above the Earth.  I still also must wonder about the very narrow customer segment this is aimed at.  The advertised price to ride in this high-tech space balloon is $75,000.  That’s a very high price, even if it’s less than the cost of Virgin Galactic’s $200,000 per seat.  I would definitely want to earn astronaut wings for $75,000.  But as I’ve noted before, if a person has health problems, such as a heart condition, or just doesn’t like all the noise and acceleration of riding on the front of a rocket–even if its shaped somewhat like an airplane.

At least World View is making more concrete progress with this idea.  And while they didn’t mention to’s writers whether their tests of the equipment were successful, they probably learned a lot with this test flight.  No word on whether there’s a bathroom on board.  It’s gonna be a long flight either way.