Tag Archives: space operations

Nerd Warriors in Space

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 This site contains my opinions and ideas only, not the opinions or ideas of any organization I work for. It’s my idea playground, and I’m inviting you in. Welcome!

When I was very, very young I remember watching a particular movie. In it, the protagonists were misfits, non-athletic, good with computers, had social problems, bad hygiene, a style that might optimistically be called “kindergarten,” were generally pretty smart, and came from varied backgrounds. The bad guys were the establishment, the jocks, the moneyed set, people with good teeth who had all the complexity of a child’s coloring book, and they were very, very white. The setting was a college campus, and the good guys needed to somehow affiliate with a fraternity. The bad guys didn’t want this to happen, and that pretty much sums up the beginning of “Revenge of the Nerds.”

Which is why I felt like I was reading the movie’s premise when I looked at SpaceNews.com this week. This post , quoting comments from ANOTHER Air Force general, was, if not surprising, then disappointing. It’s also concerning and astonishing, because here is someone who obviously hasn’t been in U.S. military space for very long, but certainly wants everyone to know he’s the warrior in charge. Like a jock might. And marking territory is very important to a jock, so why not mark the very people that he is supposed to lead?

Let’s cover the disappointment first. The assumption that space operators in the USAF don’t understand they are war fighters is insulting and wrong. Let’s assume for the moment that someone who is smart enough to work in the military and in a position of not having to worry too much about being shot at while ensuring the right people stay alive and the targets are identified/eliminated, is probably someone who is aware of being part of a warrior culture. And let’s not forget the force multiplication that normally comes with military space operations.

A SBIRS crew, for example, knows how critical it is to get information to the people who need it quickly, and may potentially not just save a comrade’s neck–they could potentially save millions. A GPS crew knows timing is important. Their actions allows other warfighters the luxury of staying out of harm’s way, while sending expensive explosive packages very precisely to those nice people in hardened bunkers. Amazon’s got nuthin’ on them.

Just because they are in front of a screen at a ground station, doesn’t mean they aren’t doing their duty. It certainly doesn’t mean they aren’t under potential attack. Just ask the Missileers in Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming. Maybe it just means they are smarter. Just sayin’… but because I used to be one, I know better…at least on that score.

The concern and astonishment comes because, here is yet another general, who isn’t from any space background, who doesn’t understand space operators do have simulators. I think there’s a rather elaborate SBIRS simulator in Vandenberg for students. And I’m fairly certain the space operators on console have their scripts and sims when working in the real world too. I know SBIRS operators get a lot of real-world training–maybe even more than someone who flies a target through the air.

Each one of the space systems that operators work with has proficiency standards. Each space operations squadron has scripts, instructors, and evaluators. Does that mean things go perfectly? No, but it does mean crews are ready for whatever comes their way. The crews are presented with scenarios which may mix things that have happened in the past with things that are likely to happen.

By the way, the whole “baking in intelligence”–how the hell do you think space ops crews like those for SBIRS operate? Because these systems are considered low density and high demand, good intelligence is not optional. Does anyone really think space ops crews aren’t talking with another type of nerd, the intelligence weenie?

So, enough of this. I’ve seen it before. When I was in, we had bomber/fighter generals leading us too. For the most part, they ignored us and let us do our work. But I fear for of our space operators today. The jocks are in charge, and want to make sure the nerds learn the ways of the jock.

When will our beloved space crews ever get an outstanding leader? Good luck, folks!

 

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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.”