Tag Archives: space operations

Another “Space Watch” article…

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“Ride ’em cowboy”–a bit of encouragement Pete Conrad gives to Richard Gordon while straddling the spacecraft. Image from NASA.

While I’ve been lying low content-wise on the site here, I’ve been staying pretty busy at work. One of the many fun things I get to do is to look up historic events leading up to the Apollo moon missions, and then write a little bit about the event for the Space Foundation’s “Space Watch” monthly newsletter.

In this particular “Space Watch” article, titled Gordon’s Orbital Garbage Disposal and Rocket Herding Service,” I try to describe the activities of two brave astronauts during a Gemini mission fifty years ago. What they did gives the category of “space operations” an entirely different meaning, and shows just what kind of interesting and courageous explorers they were.

While many NASA fans seem to attribute the administration’s achievements to the idea of NASA itself, I’ve always felt it was the people within, such as Gordon and Conrad in this story, who really moved the agency forward toward the lunar missions and subsequent successes. This is not to downplay the mission controllers, engineers, and others who all played their part. Indeed, it’s the team, the people, who figure out how to overcome challenges, and then move ahead. But the astronauts in particular put their lives on the line during space missions. Whether it’s NASA, or in the future, one particular company or other that starts regular manned flights to space, the professionals called astronauts will still be the ones trading the ability to “fly” in space with the possibility of real, deathly, consequences.

With these thoughts in mind, I hope you enjoy Gordon’s Orbital Garbage Disposal and Rocket Herding Service.”

SmallSat 2016

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SDL sure knows how to treat their guests. They hosted a social “Luau” dinner on the first night there. I made sure I ran every night, to work off the extra calories…

This last week my company sent me to do some hob-nobbing and research work at Space Dynamics Laboratory’s Small Satellite (SmallSat) conference for 2016. It’s an annual event the company hosts, going on thirty years now.

For those who don’t know what a small satellite is, there are a few different definitions, but let’s just say the satellite probably should be 500 kg (1100 lbs) or less. Some might even say 100 kg (220 lbs) or less. And because we work in a field of engineers and scientists, there are sub-categories of small satellites, such as nano, mini, micro–you get the idea. If you can’t measure it and categorize it, you can’t obsess about it, right? You’ve probably seen a small satellite and not known it if you’ve been following Planet’s or Terra Bella’s activities. Cubesats fall under the smallsat definition.

So small satellites are the focus of SmallSat. Entrepreneurs, government organizations, universities, and various companies from varying backgrounds get together to show what they can do, have done, and will do with the small satellite platforms. Technical sessions are running pretty much from 0800 to 1800, with people presenting, ideally, in 15 minute presentations. So people like me, research analysts, show up, hoovering up whatever data and information we can find about this industry. Blogs and space-centric news organizations show up for their stories. And there’s a lot for everyone to talk about. I won’t get into specifics, as that is what my ‘real-life’ job is for. If you want to find out that information, you’ll have to go to the Space Foundation’s Space Report Online.

I’ve been to this event twice before, both of those times as an employee of SDL. The difference between those times and the conference this year is striking, particularly the level of energy and activities going on in the small satellite community. Both were very high this year. The support industries for small satellites seemed quite excited about field products for small satellites, and seem to think there’s going to be a lot of growth in this field. The small satellite builders, both new and old, seem to be receiving lots of orders and interest for their products. Operations services indicated growth in telemetry and data requirements. The activities, services, and experiments conducted by, and proposed for, small satellites, seems to be limited only by the imagination (and limited launch opportunities–hopefully that’s fixed soon).

To my eyes, there appears to be a lot of opportunity here. There are those that moan we’ve seen this before, and that we’re in a bubble. But the circumstances propelling the interest and growth in small satellites are different–very different. And if it’s a bubble, is that really a bad thing? Even with the collapse of the internet bubble, I think things are better today overall than they were at the height of that bubble. And we’re not in a bubble yet. But it will happen eventually, as “irrational exuberance” takes hold in this industry too.

If I were in my twenties today, and interested in space, I’d be working hard on concepts to get my own start-up going, or working in a start-up to get the needed experience, and eventually move on. None of this going to NASA or the USAF for space operations nonsense. Those organizations have very focused missions, but as I’ve noted before, small satellites seem to bring out the imagination and healthy risk-taking of motivated individuals.

But as it is, I’m having tremendous fun learning from the very energized small satellite sector, chewing on the information, and writing about it. I’m thankful SmallSat exists to bring not just national, but international focus and energy together, to learn more, and for conference participants to strut their stuff. If you’re motivated enough, try to get a paper or two in.

 

Landing the Business of Launch

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The history-making Falcon 9 Upgrade ready to launch at Space Launch Complex 40. Image from SpaceX.

SpaceX was very confident that today’s successful landing would happen. Instead of hedging the outcome as they had in previous launches, statements from people within the company before the launch today indicated that today was the day. And today was their day.

I’m assuming you’ve seen the footage of the Falcon 9’s first stage landing on a barge, and–and this is the most important part–staying upright and intact. If not, you should really watch the video, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lEr9cPpuAx8. To see the rocket land, on a barge, is pretty nifty.

But after today, what will happen? Does the launch industry change? Does it get cheaper? Well, not right away. Some of it depends on whether SpaceX can just get down to the business of launching. According to SpaceFlightNow.com’s launch manifest, SpaceX has at least 11 other launches to clear this year. That’s quite a few, but perhaps not impossible to accomplish. But the company has barely launched slightly over half that number so far in the past few years. There’s also the possible launch of their Falcon Heavy, promised for many years but yet to make it past artist conceptions into reality.

SpaceX also must prove the Falcon 9’s first stage is reusable. Landing it on a barge is awesome, but how quickly can they turn it around and use it again? Blue Origin, another rocket manufacturer and potential launch provider, is kind of setting the standard with their New Shepard suborbital rocket. The company launched the same rocket and engine three times, supposedly with minimal inspections of the whole thing in-between. The average turn-around for their rocket seems to be about a month and a half. In fact, Blue Origin’s third launch of New Shepard occurred just last weekend, on April 2. Of course, they have a pretty cool video to watch as well: https://www.blueorigin.com/news/news/pushing-the-envelope.

Can SpaceX match or exceed Blue Origin’s turnaround time? How often will a reusable stage be reusable? Whatever the answer, there are quite a few companies ready to buy a berth on a reusable rocket. There’re a lot of plans and pressure for launch services. More importantly, there are markets hungry for the services and products coming from space. The price of a space launch needs to come down. SpaceX is one of the cheaper launch providers, and if it, or Blue Origin, or someone else, succeeds in incorporating a reusable space launch vehicle in their business, prices will, after a while, start falling.

But, while SpaceX deservedly got their time in the limelight today, tomorrow they need to do one thing: launch!

And then launch some more…

Spinning Right Round

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The Agena Target Vehicle, viewed from Gemini VIII. Image from JSC Digital Image Collection.

This is my latest article for the Space Foundation’s monthly “Space Watch.” If you didn’t know, I’ve been writing a series of articles, once a month, since I started working for the Space Foundation in 2014. The series highlights all the activities leading up to the first Apollo lunar mission, including some Gemini missions and tests.

In this particular article, NASA’s astronauts not only attempt the second ever rendezvous of spacecraft in Earth’s orbit, they also give a shot at docking (actually physically connecting) two spacecraft in orbit. It was a very ambitious mission, and as is the way of the world, not everything went as planned. Here it is: Rendezvous Re-do Revolution. And don’t forget to read some of the other Foundation articles in “Space Watch.”

The Military Space Operator–After the Military, Part II: The 3 Categories

How can a USAF space operator make his/her military space job relate, using very simple terms, to the civilian space world (or possibly other industries)? One possible answer is to align those duties with categories and terms already used in the space industry.

Some space industry sector categories are useful in accurately describing the kind of jobs people do within space operations. The categories–space mission operations, space mission support, and space infrastructure–better describe professions within the over-applied “space operations” label in the USAF (in some ways, the label is about as descriptive as “leader” or “synergizing weasel”). These categories communicate to potential employers a a job candidate’s area of expertise, instead of unintentionally fogging it up under “space operations.” Again, space operations can mean a lot of different things to different people–including the hiring manager interviewing you.

Why would a military space operator go to commercial space industry when the option of working for a space contractor who works with the government might appear to be simpler, less risky, and maybe more lucrative? Consider that the U.S. government—military and civil—makes up a very minor portion of the amount of money passing hands in the global space industry. Government space operations are dwarfed by the fleets of commercial communications and Earth observation satellites. There’s also the problem that the contractor force has contracted—by about 17%–for almost a decade. This contraction hasn’t seemed to bottom out yet. If you’re a relatively new hire for a government program, how comfortable are you with the real possibility of being the first one to be cut?

How to define oneself for a job in a growing space industry? The challenge of finding work in commercial space industry is made more complex because many military space operators have experience in multiple roles: leader, system engineer, operator. How does a military space operator describe his or her talent so that a genuine civilian understands the capabilities a military space operator can bring to a civilian space organization? My suggestion is to align military space operations experiences, expertise, and talents with the categories previously mentioned.

Space mission operations, space mission support, and space infrastructure, don’t highlight the “most important” job in the space industry. They allow for a better job focus, with the option of drilling down within each category. Some cross over between categories might happen, depending on the job pursued. But perhaps initially starting with one category will help to build up a solid job-seeking story. The suggested categories are supposed to be a helpful and more meaningful way to pin down what space operators do—especially for those looking to leave the military soon.

The next post will be my attempt to define these categories.