Rocket Scientists Follow Science Fiction’s Lead

Tom Chmielewski : December 29, 2015 6:05 pm : Mars exploration, News, Space news

The first stage of Space X's Falcon 9 rocket successfully lands at Cape Canaveral. (Photo courtesy Space X)

The first stage of Space X’s Falcon 9 rocket successfully lands at Cape Canaveral. (Photo courtesy Space X)

I don’t recall many science fiction stories that had manned spacecraft landing on Earth by parachuting into water.  There might have been a few SF stories based on the Apollo program, but parachutes? No.

So last week’s powered landing of Space X’s Falcon 9 first stage was a step backward in time to when SF writers knew how spaceships should land, even if it’s taking decades for rocket engineers to catch up.

The Dec. 21 landing was only a step. It was, after all, an unmanned booster that landed back at Cape Canaveral. Yet it was not a test flight but an operational launch that sent 11 communication satellites into orbit. By accomplishing its primary mission and returning to its launch site, Space X achieved far more than rival Blue Origin did a couple of weeks before with a powered vertical landing after a test flight. The Falcon 9 booster traveled higher, farther and faster than the Blue Origin test hop, and proved vertical landing was not a public relations lark but a solid proof of concept under operational conditions. In one round-trip flight, the Falcon 9 flight and landing has demonstrated the viability of a truly reusable first stage that will cut the costs of launches for Space X.

Yet we can’t get too excited. It’s going to take more than one powered landing before reusable launch boosters have proven their dependability. The booster used in the Falcon 9 launch and landing will actually never fly again, according to Space X, but will be refueled and test fired as part of a series of tests to see how well it withstood the stress of returning to Earth intact. If the Falcon 9, however, succeeds in proving that dependability, the cost of sending humans and cargo to Earth orbit should drop dramatically. more »

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“That is how a 21st century spaceship should land”

Tom Chmielewski : June 15, 2014 5:47 pm : Mars exploration, News, Space news

SpaceX has been making great strides in proving its launch capabilities and competing for acceptance from NASA to carry astronauts back into space on an American rocket.

But in the neck-and-neck competition to have a private enterprise spacecraft crew rated, it struck me that SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft was lagging behind Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser when it came to the coolness factor. But that changed on May 29 when SpaceX’s CEO unveiled Dragon V2 that would land the way science fiction traditionally portrayed spacecraft landing, on its tail, rockets blazing, for a soft landing.

Illustration of DragonX landing on Mars.

Dragon V2 lands on Mars in still taken from SpaceX animation. (Courtesy SpaceX)

“That is how a 21st century spaceship should land,” SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk told the cheering crowd at the unveiling as an animation showed the Dragon V2 completing its powered landing.

Now I’m guessing NASA isn’t going to decide to support a spacecraft primarily on the craft’s coolness factor. It would seem a good chance that at least two of the three companies will win a NASA seal of approval. And while Space X and Sierra Nevada have made headlines, no one can discount Boeing’s years of experience of launching craft into space as a key reason for it’s capsule design to win approval.

But SpaceX, which since its beginning had been concentrating on simply launching into Earth’s orbit, very quickly showed in early June that Dragon V2 need not be limited to staying close to the home planet. The same landing rockets and design which would allow the spacecraft to land would also allow it to land on Mars.

The game is on. There is still much work that SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and Boeing must do before anyone rides their spacecraft into space, let alone to Mars. Yet it does look that America’s space industry and particularly its capability to send people into space is heading toward a resurgence. SpaceX’s design for launching a multipurpose spacecraft not limited to Earth orbit, much as NASA’s Orion also under development, may open up a new chapter of exploration, finally, in the coming years.

SpaceX Aims for Mars with Reusable Rockets, Spaceships

Private Space Taxis for Astronauts Move Closer to First Test Flights


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ISON dead. Wait, no it’s not!

Tom Chmielewski : November 29, 2013 1:40 pm : News

It was to be the comet of the century, or at least the comet of the century so far.

But as ISON made its much anticipated solar rendezvous on Thanksgiving day, something happened to it on the far side of the Sun. Initially, astronomers said the comet failed to reappear as it circled the Sun, but by Friday morning they reversed themselves and said ISON did survive, but in a greatly diminished state. The comet got beat up pretty bad as it grazed the sun, the heat vaporizing ISON’s ice and gas, and it’s rocky core likely began to boil. more »

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Chinese Worm the Latest Turn in Cyber-War

Tom Chmielewski : October 7, 2013 9:26 pm : News

The plot is chilling. A cyber-mercenary gang known as “Icefog” operating out of China unleashes its insidious worm “Dagger Three” to infiltrate computers of foreign governments and their defense contractors, steal vital secrets, then leaves in an electronic mist before anyone is the wiser.

Sounds like a job for James Bond, though maybe he’s too old school. Perhaps they can resurrect Jason Bourne for this movie, or just find some high school sophomore geek. more »

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One-Way to Mars: Is it the only way?

Tom Chmielewski : August 27, 2013 7:49 am : Mars exploration, News

Artist depiction of habitats to house Mars One colonists. Image courtesy Mars One Foundation

Artist depiction of habitats to house Mars One colonists. Image courtesy Mars One Foundation

No, but maybe sending colonists first is the better way

If you want to go to Mars, you only have a few days left to apply.

But if you want a round trip ticket, you’re going to have to wait a while longer.

The plan of the Mars One Foundation to send would-be colonists to Mars on a one-way trip, four colonists at a time, seems at first glance an audacious if not cruel endeavor. Yes, they will be volunteers, but can anyone truly understand ahead of time what it would be like for four individuals to arrive on a barren planet, a land more inhospitable than any colonist has attempted to settle before, and come to grips with the reality that there is no chance to return to Earth? more »

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