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Pad 110/37 (110L), Baikonur Cosmodrome

English Russia displays a collection of contemporary images from the former launch facility for Russia’s Buran-Energia space shuttle.  The one and only launch from Pad 110L occurred in 1988; it’s been inactive ever since.

RELATED: Pad 110L and the Buran-Energia program in happier days, some 22 years ago.  Many outstanding images and videos at the link.

Category: Ars Gratia Artis, Historica  Tags: ,  Comments off

World-class means world events

Editor’s Note:  The title of this piece was altered, upon reflection, from its original—”For the whiners”

Toronto’s a big city.  Big cities occasionally host big events and big personalities.  New York manages to have UN General Assembly meetings all the time and host world leaders without the city descending into chaos.  This is our first time, but more will come; this is what happens when you reach a certain level of wealth and renown.

If one doesn’t wish to be interrupted by the visit of world leaders, one might consider living in a smaller urban centre; i.e. the suburbs.  To live in large urban metropolis and complain that big-city events happen there is to miss the point on a cosmic scale.

For the wags suggesting web conferencing as way around these physical meetings, let’s think about this for a moment.  The physical meetings permit off-the-record discussions amongst many leaders and their advisors.  Web conferencing by definition will leave a record, and leave it in many places all across the globe in various ISPs and networks.  How many world leaders are going to candidly suggest something if any random sysadmin jackass from a foreign country can excerpt their traffic and dump it in his country’s media?

Most of us have experience with ordinary civil web conferences; which go over the civil internet and have some not-very-elaborate security measures.  Nobody much cares what the marketing department of MiniWidgetCo in Podunkville, YourCountry is up to, after all, which is why hackers never interrupt the tedium of your average office’s web conference.  But an awful lot of people might be willing to get their mitts on the thus far off-the-record remarks of world leaders candidly discussing major issues.  So right away you know that this notional G20 web conferencing is not going to travel over the ordinary (and easily degradable) civil internet.  It will go over a separate secure link, like the videoconferences that US unified combatant commanders have with the White House.  And that traffic, my friends, goes over SATCOM.

So what would a secure SATCOM connection that can provide live audio-video feeds to a multitude of spots on the globe end up costing?  Fortunately we have some idea because the US Dept. of Defense has built just such a system; it’s called Wideband Global SATCOM (formerly Wideband Gapfiller Satellite) and its program cost (including R&D) is estimated to have reached $2 billion for its 3-satellite constellation.  Now we won’t have to re-invent the wheel, so let’s assume we’ll buy three Boeing 702 WGS birds at USD $400 million each; or 1.2 billion just for the hardware.  Keep in mind you’ll have to replace this hardware every few years as it fails or runs out of gas (manoeuvring to avoid debris, solar storms, and so on).

Then we’ll have to get these WGS birds into space somehow—why not use the Delta IV launcher that USAF uses to put its WGS birds on orbit?  Each launcher costs between USD $140-170 million, and we’ll need three—so that’s $420-510 million.

Now you’ll need a place to launch it from.  Oh, your country doesn’t have a launch facility?  Well, it costs USAF $400 million annually to maintain Vandenburg Air Force Base’s Space Launch Complex 6.  You could build one of your own for several times that, or maybe just chip in on the rent.

Now, does your country have a facility to track and monitor orbital assets?  No?  DND’s Joint Space Project (a contributor to the United States Space Surveillance Network) used to have a budget of CDN $1.2 billion to monitor Canadian space assets and preserve our space situational awareness.  That budget has fallen in recent times to $625 million, but it’s still a big chunk of change.

And we have not even begun to examine the program costs of building ground stations to handle this secure SATCOM traffic, plus retrofitting various governmental buildings, facilities and residences with the ability to handle it.  Nor have we introduced the salary and entitlement costs of all the personnel required to work on, maintain and secure these programs, their hardware and their facilities.

When you think about all of that, $1 billion for an event we likely won’t host for another decade is not too big a deal.  And certainly not untoward for a city that constantly likes to assert it is “world-class”.  World-class means world leaders come to visit every once in a while; deal with it.

Category: What Really Grinds My Gears  Tags: , ,  Comments off

Ikaria XB1 (1963)

Icarus XB1

Future Czech cosmonauts survey a derelict spacecraft from (presumably extinct) capitalist nations, launched in 1987.

In one of history’s supreme ironies, these retro-cosmonauts expected black tie attire, cocktails and gambling aboard Western craft—amenities today’s government-funded astronauts are sorely lacking; but then we have decided to do without a manned spaceflight program at all.  With the demise of the shuttle program, our astronauts will ride into orbit aboard Russian or private craft, and other astronauts/space tourists of the future will indeed be the wealthy who can afford such $200,000-per-trip trifles.

We agree not to do the thing we lack all capability to do

9/9/2009 – WASHINGTON (AFNS) — NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Canadian Space Agency President Steve MacLean signed a framework agreement Wednesday for cooperative activities in the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes.  Canadian Ambassador to the United States Michael Wilson hosted the signing at the Canadian Embassy in Washington.

…The framework agreement is an important step in an evolving process toward a coordinated and comprehensive approach to exploration and use of outer space. It sets forth general terms and conditions that will be applied to future cooperative projects and facilitates expanded cooperation between the U.S. and Canada on a range of activities related to human spaceflight, exploration, space science and Earth science.

“U.S. and Canada sign agreement on civil space cooperation.”  Air Force News Service, 09 September 2009.

I don’t get it.  It is not as if we could loft orbital death stars even if we wanted to.

Practically speaking anything Canada does in space has to have the tacit approval of the United States or Europe, because Canada has no heavy lift boosters and no launch sites to loft them from.  Every single Canadian astronaut and all Canadian satellites over 140 kg (308 lbs) have ridden to orbit on an American or European booster.  To be blunt, if they don’t like the payload, it’s not getting to orbit.

Category: Aeronautics, Current Affairs  Tags:  Comments off

AFOSR and NASA develop eco-friendly rocket fuel

ARLINGTON, Va. — The Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) and NASA recently announced the launch of an environmentally-friendly, safe propellant comprised of aluminum powder and water ice (ALICE)…[Dr. Steven F.] Son noted, “The ALICE propellant can be improved with the addition of oxidizers and become a potential solid rocket propellant on Earth. Away from this planet, on the Moon or Mars, ALICE can be manufactured in those locations instead of being transported at a large cost.”

— Callier, Maria.  “AFOSR and NASA Launch First-Ever Test Rocket Fueled by Environmentally-Friendly, Safe Aluminum-Ice Propellant.Air Force Office of Scientific Research, 20 August 2009.

Given the tiny number of rocket/shuttle launches the planet has to endure every year, I am not worried about them causing polar bears to drown, or starve, or get minimum-wage jobs.  But the fact that this propellant’s key components can be found on other worlds, thereby making it possible to manufacture fuel somewhere other than Earth, is kind of exciting.  Certainly it will make space exploration cheaper in the long run, as spacecraft will not always have to tanker every last drop of their required fuel from Earth.

Category: That all men may know His works  Tags:  Comments off

Apollo 11

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

— John F. Kennedy. Address to William Marsh Rice University, Houston, TX.  September 12th, 1962.


Astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin beside solar wind experiment. Mare Tranquillitatis, July 20th, 1969. NASA Archives AS11-40-5873.

Whenever I consider the Apollo missions, it is always with a twinge of sadness and regret.  I laud the enormous technical achievement of hundreds of thousands of people, of course, but philosophically it puts me in a melancholy mood.  The very last men to walk upon the moon came back home three months before I was born, and no human has been back to the moon since.  Sure, we’ve been up to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), but never again have we dared to set foot upon another celestial body.

Imagine if, after a frenzy of activity at the beginning of the 20th century, no human beings ever took flight in a heavier-than-air craft after Capt. John Alcock and Lieut. Arthur Whitten Brown flew their Vickers Vimy bomber non-stop across the Atlantic.  You would wonder why we hadn’t continued on to discover new things and develop better aircraft.  And of course the convenience and frequency of travel and commerce we experience today would be absent.  Entire inventions and industries would not exist.  We would never have known the names of Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Amy Johnson, Charles Kingsford Smith, James Doolittle, Chuck Yeager, Robin Olds, John Boyd, and so on.

apollo11_crewAnd certainly if we have given up so prematurely, we would have little reason to celebrate this day; the now-household names of Neil Armstrong, “Buzz” Aldrin, and Mike Collins would be unknown to millions.  One of the best ways to commemorate this day is to watch the 2006 British documentary In the Shadow of the Moon.  It contains no narration, just the voices and contemporary reminiscences of the Apollo astronauts themselves, along with copious amounts of NASA archival footage.

Watching these eleven men talk about their experiences is bittersweet.  They all seem like bright and funny guys, their youthful enthusiasm shining through the accumulated wrinkles and years.  I cannot help but remember that these men are the last humans alive who remember what it is to walk on an alien world.  The fact that there are no men and women of my generation who have such memories seems shameful.  If NASA is able to stick to schedule and return to the moon in 2019, by that time our very first lunar visitors will be 89 years old, and some fifty years will have elapsed since their visit.

If we fail to go back, there will soon be no one left alive to answer the skeptics and say, simply, “I was there.  This is what it was like.”  The only incontrovertible, physical testament to their voyages being the lower stages of their lunar modules, still standing sentry over undisturbed footprints at each landing site.

Whatever you think about anthropogenic global warming or the odds of humanity wiping itself out, the facts are that the Earth cannot be saved.  It will be annihilated by its own star in a few billion years.  Even if we were to neutralise every earthbound ill—tyranny, war, famine, crime, pollution—our blue-green Eden would still meet its irrevocable end.  In that conflagration, every trace of human existence will be snuffed out.  There will be no grand, decaying structures left as a tombstone to mark humanity’s grave.  There won’t even be a planet; it will be destroyed by the helium fusion and tidal forces of our expanding Sun.  Our moon and Apollo landing sites will likewise be destroyed.  No one will know the human race ever existed.

The only permanent solution is to achieve interstellar colonisation.  After all, every star will eventually run out of fuel, which means every species without interstellar travel has an irrevocable, unalterable best-before date.  The smartest long-term investment this species could ever make is the ability to identify and travel to other solar systems and other habitable planets.  There is no other way we will survive.

Our first tentative steps occurred forty years ago.  Now with the Orion project, we are re-learning and refining the things we first discovered decades ago.  Let us hope that manned space exploration continues to move forward now with greater purpose.

Category: Aeronautics, Historica  Tags:  Comments off

Yogurt? Come on.

Former astronaut Leroy Chiao regales Gizmodo readers with tales of star voyaging.  This is probably my favourite bit:

Today, I was going to write about how to do something else in space. But, I changed my mind. Let’s back up to the beginning of a mission. What’s it like to go through a launch? How does it feel? Are you able to sleep the night before? Do you get scared? What do you eat before?

Steak and eggs. Medium rare and over easy. This is what the first astronauts ate before launch and why not? I remember during one of my launch counts, the ladies were taking our pre-launch breakfast orders, going around the table. I was hearing things like, dry toast. A little yogurt. Cereal. You gotta be kidding me, what kind of pantywaists am I flying with? They got to me and I replied firmly and evenly, “Steak and eggs, medium rare and over easy.” Everyone looked at me funny. I stated the obvious. “Hey, we might go out tomorrow and get blown up. I’m going to have steak and eggs!” Immediately, three guys changed their orders to steak and eggs. I was doing all of us a favor, really. You need a hearty breakfast before launch, you’re going to be really busy. Yogurt? Come on.

— Leroy Chiao.  “Pre-Launch Jitters and Then… Liftoff“, Gizmodo, May 6th, 2009.

No kidding.  And I say that as one who occasionally enjoys yogurt.  But serious times call for serious measures.

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