selenite0: (can't take2)
Bill Whittle celebrated the Apollo XI anniversary by dropping politics for a bit and visiting XCOR Aerospace to look at their rocket-powered aircraft. Part One of the video looks at XCOR's success in converting conventional aircraft to fly under rocket power. Part Two looks at their Lynx suborbital design. I'm a serious fan of XCOR. I'd met Jeff Greason before he started doing professional rocketry and got a chance to present to his crew in Mojave once. They're taking the best approach to developing new technology--incremental steps, getting a working system they can test and operate at each step. The next step is a custom-built vehicle that'll actually exit the atmosphere. I'm looking forward to seeing it fly.
selenite0: (Bujold--book is an event)
10,000 Year Explosion
Some folks have the idea that human evolution ended with civilization. With no predators or starvation we don't have the selection pressure weeding out the weak genes so our genome will be static. That would be true if we bred randomly. Given that people tend to be very selective there's a lot of opportunity for new genes to propagate through the population in a few generations. This book tackles the evidence of recent changes in the human genome and tells their stories.


The Box
Anyone who reads a book about the history of shipping containers must be a compete geek, right? Well, I wasn't keeping it a secret. But there's a lot more to this book than boxes. Shipping your freight in a container that doesn't have to be opened from factory to customer can by a great savings in time and money. IF, and here's the big if, the whole system is set up to handle 40 foot boxes on ships, trucks, and trains. Without that it's just a box so heavy the longshoremen refuse to handle it.

So we have a history of how companies, vehicles, communities, and government agencies had to change for containers to be effective. Except they didn't change. Almost every company doing ocean shipping before containers went under or was forced to merge. Old ships were converted, then replaced by purpose-built containerships. Ports were abandoned, their traffic taken over by new ones built up from the marshland. Felixstowe became Britian's largest port starting from a minor facility so small the union hadn't bothered to organize it. Unions went from dominating their communities to a handful of crane operators. New York City's longshoremen once could tip a mayoral election. Now the piers hold restaurants and the ships go to New Jersey. Whole systems of government regulations and industry cartels collapsed. The Interstate Commerce Commission wound up being abolished. How often does that happen to a government agency? So there's a heck of a lot of drama in there for a story about boxes. I'd strongly recommend it for anyone interested in how technological changes are resisted by social, commercial, and government forces.


Space Doctor
Harry Stein writing near-term science fiction in 1981. This sort of thing usually ages very badly as technology overtakes it. Well, this one holds up well. Stein wrote a description of building a solar power satellite system from the view point of the doctor treating construction accidents and other aliments of the work crews. There's a few dated moments ("Behold, the marvelous invention of CAD software! And new medical databases you can access over the net!") but all the parts in space hold up just fine. That's because we've made effectively zero progress toward actually building large-scale structures in space since Stein wrote the book. Entertaining reading (as long as you weren't expecting much detailed characterization) but got me brooding a bit on the implications.
selenite0: (can't take2)
Not, amazingly, a meme, though maybe I should turn it into a quiz.

[livejournal.com profile] montedavis challenges all space cadets to confess Which X-Treme Spacer Are you?

I clearly fall into "Free-Fall Enterprise" and "Skunk Wonks" except I've done too much math to hold to the former and have too many responsibilities (>0) to be the latter.
selenite0: (can't take2)
My former employer made the news again, this time for a good reason. They've announced a new design of their tourist rocketplane. This is three designs past where it was when I left. I helped produce this concept:



That was the first stage of a cargo launcher. The grey compartment in the middle opened to release a satellite and upper stage before reentering. This was right when Iridium was going bankrupt and the market for LEO commsats went *poof*. So I went back to my old job and the rest of the company converted it into a tourist vehicle. When the new guard took over they announced a new design based on a Learjet fuselage. That's out in the latest one, they're doing a from scratch structure, and I'm not at all surprised. Their design does have a few features that intrigue me.



The first bit that catches my eye is the canards (fins by the nose) and T-tail. The old crew had worked under the assumption that flat pieces smaller than the wings couldn't handle reentry. Looks like all that wind-tunnel testing says differently.

The jet engines are now afterburning and the rocket is ignited at 40,000 feet. They say this increases total thrust-to-weight by 50% so I suspect they increased the ignition altitude so they could use a larger nozzle without flow separation issues. The engine is a modification of an Atlas vernier, which is braver than the old design. We'd worked to the rule that any engine development would go over schedule so we only designed to off-the-shelf parts.

Another big concern for us was making sure the jet engines wouldn't have to endure the heat of reentry. The easiest way to tell the difference between design iterations was to check the location of the engine inlet, which always had a solid door blocking it during reentry. But the new team says they "Don't need to protect inlets during reentry". If the engines can handle the maximum reentry heat and pressure I'm impressed. Though it may be that they've positioned the engines in the lee of the wings so the reentry loads will be reduced to what they can handle.

The article says the trajectory would be "nearly vertical" which surprises me quite a bit. I can't help wondering if the reporter got it wrong. Wings can give you a good boost on the way up by counteracting gravity, but you need to have a relatively shallow trajectory to get the best use of them (it's a complicated optimization problem). I'd gone round on this once with a professor who'd done an analysis of the launch vehicle concepts out there and (in my opinion unfairly) ranked assisted-horizontal-take-off very low. Turned out he was constraining the first stage to be vertical at 2nd stage separation and that hurt performance. The 2nd stage benefited from all the horizontal velocity the rocketplane had as orbital velocity needs to be horizontal anyway. Then again, that's not an issue for tourists. What a vertical trajectory does for tourists is maximize the peak Gs on reentry. That's acceptable if the peak isn't too high.

I'll be watching Rocketplane as they build this design and I wish them the best of luck.
selenite0: (Been what I chose)
I arrived at Fencon early to check into the room and get our stuff set up, while [livejournal.com profile] celticdragonfly picked up the sitter and got her settled with Maggie and Jamie.

That gave me enough time to attend the "To Infinity and Beyond: the Future of Commercial Space Travel" panel. The high point was actually in the hallway waiting for Connie Willis to finish up, when Jarrod Davis adored my Project Orion t-shirt. The panel wasn't really up to talking about commercial space. For most of the panelists (and audience) space equaled NASA. I was polite, but had to say "That's not true" when one of the panelists claimed that there was no regulation of the safety of commercial space companies. I finally got frustrated enough to make my Fedex speech:
responding to a comment that the return to the Moon will be delayed because people think space is unsafe

Do any of you know how reliable Fedex's planes are? Or how many drivers they've lost in traffic accidents? No. And you don't care. You give them money because they provide a useful service. That's what will make space sustainable--producing something worth buying. You can't get there holding out a cup begging people to drop in some tax dollars, that's always going to leave you one election away from going poof.
Don't think I changed anyone's mind but hopefully it planted a seed or two. I'll be making a couple of suggestions about next year's space panels to the concom, once they've had some time to catch up on sleep. Afterwards I went out to dinner with Kip McMurray and his wife Claire. We'd dealt with some of the same NewSpace people and gossiped a bit.

While we were looking for a place to eat we spotted a restaurant named "Firefly - modern asian fusion cuisine". Didn't have time to go there this weekend but I think I may organize an expedition to there next year.

My first game session started with only one player, so we did a free form "pilot on shore leave" game. First time I've had to deal with this kind of player. Then a couple more players joined in and we plunged into a Plot. Since they only wanted to play the junior crew members, I let them be the boarding party for the derelict ship and then take control while the captain continued on with his freight run. Smart move by the captain. This could be a short scenario if the PCs decide to escape once they figure out what's going on, but no. These guys were opening all the trap doors. It's a shame they ran out of time. Visualize a guy fishing off the dock, smoking a cigar while sitting on a case of dynamite, and reeling in the giant squid he's hooked. I would've liked to see how it came out, but they didn't make it to Saturday's game.

Once I was done with the game I found [livejournal.com profile] celticdragonfly and listened to some filk before falling down.

Saturday began with the hotel breakfast buffet (good, if limited selection) and then a serious exploration of the dealers' room. Lots of nifty stuff as usual. I went wild at the filk table. And I snagged a copy of the new Serenity Found collection, because I was sure there weren't enough of them to last to the end of the con.

The Saturday afternoon game started off with three players. Robert had his Jayne hat to set the mood.

A couple more players joined us soon after. I dropped them into my favorite con scenario. Early on the captain asked "We're being paranoid, but are we being paranoid enough?" No, as it turned out. They managed to come up with a different approach to solving the situation than the previous three groups--frontal assault. I think I managed to calibrate the battle perfectly. They won with the four attacking PCs each getting shot once . . . that's about as close as I could possibly hope for. The crew faked their way onto the bad guy's ship by having one play kidnap victim, screaming and hollering until the captain turned off her radio. Player: "I have no voicecomm and I must scream."

Here's the shootout in action.


One player blew his first roll and wound up out of control in freefall, bouncing around the compartment as the bullets whizzed past him. Then he finally got it together and put three bullets into a bad guy with his first chance to shoot. The victors received their laurels, or in this case a generous cash reward. There was much rejoicing once their vacc suits were patched and bleeding stopped.

From left: me, Kate, Adam, Robert, Doc, Becky.

We wrapped up in time for me to see the Tom Smith concert. Great show. I have one of his CDs and picked up two more.

We joined Andy and Jazz for dinner in the hotel restaurant. Not too great. I suspect they don't want the low-end items to be good to get people to order the expensive ones. I left the table early to take a very tired Alanna off for a lie-down. She did nap, but only while I was sitting up. When I laid down for a (very tempting) nap she woke up, and it didn't take her long to get me back to the couch for a vertical cuddle. But not soon enough for me to catch Blake's 7 in the video room (one of the shows I've been curious about for years but never seen). The video room wasn't meant to be for me this year--I wanted to see Star Cops too but the timing was impossible.

We went back downstairs to watch the Fencon Cabaret, but it was just too crowded so we bailed out and went to the House MD room party. That was fun, and even though the folks there were totally caught up on the series they were kind enough to not spoil us (we're still on 2nd season).

Then it was filking time again. I went to the theme filk room--they were doing Firefly filk and it just sucked me right in. [livejournal.com profile] faxpaladin played the "Blue Sun Blues", which was very close to what my day job is like. Scary. [livejournal.com profile] apryl_knight gave a beautiful performance of "Mal's Song" with the whole audience joining in on the choruses. Okay, there was less than a dozen of us, but it beat being shoehorned into the open filk room. [livejournal.com profile] celticdragonfly sang "Alliance Unification" and I think that may have been the first time she did it in public. I have to say [livejournal.com profile] ziactrice had a Very Fine Hat.

As usual I was the first one to collapse.

Sunday I had to get everything packed up before game time, which ate my chance of any more panels. Everyone else was having the same problem, so my noon game didn't actually start until 1:00. Our Firefly GoH, Jarrod Davis, was in the gaming room and got his first look at MWP's Serenity deckplan. He was impressed. It is a gorgeous piece of art.

This time we started with the violence and then got into the social maneuvering. There's not much the crew won't do to avoid having to lay out real money for ship repairs . . . even go drinking and dancing. Unfortunately we lost players at 3:00 as people came by saying things like "four hour drive" and "really, really tired" so we didn't get to finish.

From left: Doc, Ben, Becca, Becky, Chris, me. Shortly after this Becca had to leave and Kate and Adam joined in again.

I tracked the family down in closing ceremonies and took Alanna out for some cuddle time since she was getting noisy. We headed out for a post-con dinner with [livejournal.com profile] kd5mdk and [livejournal.com profile] jazz007. Then home. I hadn't done any singing at the con, but we discovered on the drive that Alanna will stop crying for Daddy's rendition of "Och, Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye." For that [livejournal.com profile] celticdragonfly will put up with ose.

Overall my take on this Fencon is "nice con, wish I'd seen more of it." I wanted to do a bunch of gaming to support the Lone Star Shindig but with all the set-up time I didn't get to do much else. Plus it's irritating to bust my butt preparing games only to see that the gaming schedule isn't in the program book, only on the website. I noticed gaming seemed to be the only track to not be mentioned during closing ceremonies as well. So next year I'm going to pass on gaming at Fencon.
selenite0: (Kill the unfit)
Rocketplane Kistler, the remnant of my onetime employer, made the Wall Street Journal today. Not in a good way. Their financing deal has fallen through, which means they won't be able to assemble the rocket and carry through on their NASA contract or promises to Oklahoma (which gave them a bunch of money).

Have to say I'm not very sympathetic to their troubles. The vehicle the company was working on when I left was completely unsupported by the market. The tourism rocketplane they switched to when they moved to Oklahoma didn't thrill me but could work. But then they decided to merge with Kistler Aerospace. That monstrosity is an attempt to take a conventional expendable booster and redesign it to be reusable. It's already burned more money than most of the other rocket start-ups combined, leaving a bunch of parts awaiting assembly into a ridiculously unreliable RLV. So by hooking up with Kistler they doomed whatever chance they had of making a working rocket.

I have no clue what the hell they were thinking.
selenite0: (deserve life)
Three employees of Scaled Composites killed in rocket engine test.

Rocketry is an unforgiving business. I still remember the shocked look of a classmate when I explained nitroglycerine wasn't energetic enough to be a useful fuel. But giving the human race the ability to escape this one fragile planet is a cause worth sacrificing for.
selenite0: (Firefly logo/ship)


Yep, that's the series in free-fall. The BDM is the edge-on DVD on the left. Click the picture for the story of how they got into space.
selenite0: (Future Worth Fighting For3)
In honor of Pixel-Stained Techno-Peasant Wretch Day, I'm showing some engineering work I did for free. This isn't anything I'd actually get paid for, at least not in this decade (or possibly century) but it does show how an engineer can analyze a practical problem.

Back in July, [livejournal.com profile] pauldrye wrote a Pyramid article about an alternate history setting for GURPS Infinite Worlds. One colorful detail he included was a space elevator anchored at the equatorial island of Batam.

Fanboys being what they are, someone immediately took offense at this skyhook not being precisely on the equator and claimed it would wind up oscillating north and south. I pointed out the flaws in his logic and it got heated. This is when I wound up flaming someone for dissing centrifugal force. Eventually it was clear I'd have to run the numbers to end the back and forth.
Cut for lots of equations and a big diagram )
selenite0: (This is Terrible)
Brian Dunbar pointed out that the current astronaut scandal is very close to the opening of Heinlein's Stranger In a Strange Land. I suppose the disappointing thing is that astronauts weren't on Mars in 2007 . . . probably seemed like a good bet in 1960.
selenite0: (Beware the Engineer)
It's been nearly ten years since the Delta Clipper Experimental vertical take-off and landing rocket was destroyed in a crash. Now Blue Origins has flown a successor to it. Here's hoping they have many more successful flights.
selenite0: (Couple-FenConII-kiss)
I showed up late Friday because [livejournal.com profile] celticdragonfly won the toss and I had to pick up the babysitter and get her to our house. Once Lee Ann was settled I was free to zip off into rush hour traffic. With trains. This was about the same time [livejournal.com profile] celticdragonfly, [livejournal.com profile] abovenyquist, [livejournal.com profile] joyeuse13, [livejournal.com profile] patgund, and [livejournal.com profile] writegrrl were all settling down for a nice dinner. Ah, well.

Did get there in time for filk concerts. Heather Alexander was doing pirate songs by request, as a tie-in to talk like a pirate day. Bedlam Bards were up next. I got to hear them play "On the Drift" from their Firefly CD. Wonderful, wonderful song.

Then it was time for playing "Are You a Werewolf?" [livejournal.com profile] celticdragonfly and [livejournal.com profile] fordprfct had discovered it at Apollocon. I'd played a bunch of times with with the local browncoats, so I organized a game. The gaming coordinator hadn't reserved a spot for us and the gaming area was full of pick-up games. We could grab one table but Werewolf can be noisy enough to not be a good neighbor. But the registration desk had shut down and was just a ring of empty tables . . . a few more chairs and we were set. Only got eight players which is about the absolute minimum. A couple of experienced players showed up and we dragged in Sarah, David, and [livejournal.com profile] patgund. After a few games we switched from two werewolves to one, and then the villagers actually managed to win one. It's a fun game, we kept going for over an hour. Hopefully we'll get a bigger turnout next year.


From left: [livejournal.com profile] patgund, me, [livejournal.com profile] celticdragonfly, and [livejournal.com profile] fordprfct. Also playing: Sarah, David, Laurie, and Ed.

The open filk had a huge turnout. I took a back-row seat and listened until 2am, then it was time to fall down.

Saturday [livejournal.com profile] celticdragonfly and I had breakfast with [livejournal.com profile] patgund. I'm glad we're getting to see him in person, it's been way too long since he's been out this way.

I went to the panel discussion on space elevators. Not the first time I've been more qualified to talk about something at least half the panelists. A good discussion for laymen though. I tossed in a couple of comments, on why off-equator skyhooks are practical and why rotating ones aren't. Great concept, but I figure any technological breakthrough which makes a space elevator affordable will work even better for improving RLVs, so they're going to be a long way off.

Afterwards I had a quick lunch before prepping for the GURPS Firefly game. Between having a bigger crowd than last year, advertising it with some flyers, and importing a ringer from San Antonio, I had a full table. I'm not sure it's the literary SF vs. anime perspectives, or having a higher average age, but this crew was much less violent than the one I had at A-Kon. These guys used a mix of diplomacy, charm, patient hiding, and sneaking to avoid all combat after the opening bar brawl. No dramatic chases, quick draw shoot-outs, or desperate last stands for these guys. They were still cashing in their "I need a miracle" chips, but for maintenance rolls instead of combat actions. Desperate life-or-death maintenance rolls, mind you.


Our crew (clockwise from right) [livejournal.com profile] soldiergrrrl, Cap'n John, Pixie, David, Sarah (hiding behind David), Charles--who'd never played before (and whose name I've spaced out on *shame*), and then me.

The players were an interesting range. The captain had played Traveller from way back. The mechanic had never played an RPG before and wondered what it would be like. Not much GURPS experience, but "See this number? Roll that or less on 3d6." covered everything we needed. I had some turnover during the game--losing players to concerts, sudden emergencies, etc.--but a few more wandered in and there were always at least three.

One of the bits I was setting up worked perfectly. They landed on a moon and were greeted by a panicked deputy sheriff asking "What's your life support capacity?!" Their expressions made it clear they knew this would be very, very bad. Last year I picked up a copy of Zombies!!! as a BGG.con door prize:


I knew a hundred glow in the dark zombies would be useful someday. In this game I declared them stand-ins for a mob of panicked civilians and dropped the whole pile on the deckplan in front of the main hatch. So our merry crew got to handle the question of "just how many refugees can you fit on a Firefly?"

Lots:



And they managed to keep them all alive the whole way to Paquin. Everybody lived tolerably ever after.

We wrapped up in time for me to join the big dinner expedition to Boston Pizza. Lots of tempting stuff on the menu. Too much, actually. I was dithering over various interesting-sounding options and finally said heck with it and had just a pepperoni pizza. It was fun chattering with everyone (too many to list right now).

Then we all went to the Fencon Caberet. Wonderful filkers, amazing costumes, belly dancers, though in the opposite order. [livejournal.com profile] theturbonerd and Mrs. Turbonerd had a lovely purple-themed formal outfit as a circuit judge in the Firefly 'Verse. Geek that I am my instant reaction was "Hmmm, that'd make a good campaign concept." (Great vest) [livejournal.com profile] soldiergrrrl looked ready to walk onto the set of Serenity and her speech convinced me she was ready for officer training. There was an unofficial Firefly theme to the night . . . but [livejournal.com profile] joyeuse13 didn't need to go with the theme. She was the Pro from Dover and proved it. (She also has pictures of everybody)

The filk concert was a duet with Leslie Fish and Heather Alexander. Those names are a guarantee of good music. I did wind up crying once. They played Hope Eyrie. It's a beautiful song. Most of the room knew the chorus. Hearing so many people chime in on this song looking at Apollo as history drove home for me how much time and effort we've wasted since then. I got angry. Hearing "The wave that carried us up the beach" brought back the fear that we might wind up crawling into some virtual reality and never escaping this gravity well before some asteroid comes along.

Anyway.

March of Cambreadth is a good way to cheer up. Heather had us roaring "HOW MANY OF THEM CAN WE MAKE DIE!" loud enough I wondered if the hotel staff was going to start quitting on the spot. Then we went to the open filk. I fell down at 2:30 or so. [livejournal.com profile] celticdragonfly went to 4:45. The circle didn't shut down until 6:45. Filkers.

We packed up and staggered off to brunch first thing in the a.m. Well, noon. The IHOP didn't quite know how to deal with the mob of us so it was 2pm before we got back to the con. First priority was raiding the dealers' room before it was too late (books and filk CDs). Then I got to introduce [livejournal.com profile] soldiergrrrl, her cousin-in-law, and a couple of random adventurous types to my Keep Flying card game. Only had time for one game before Leslie Fish's concert, sigh. Afterwards [livejournal.com profile] celticdragonfly and I took [livejournal.com profile] patgund to dinner. I really hope it won't be 2.5 years before we see him again this time. And then it was time to go home. The Dead Dog was tempting but we were already starting to fade. We're still tired.

The Fencon staff are amazing. It's an extremely well organized con. I've been to cons with over a decade of experience that don't work as well as it. Okay, I'd like the gaming schedule to be in the con program book, but nothing's perfect.

People I saw or heard of and wanted to hang out with but never had the chance: [livejournal.com profile] dartpoly, [livejournal.com profile] macgyvergal, [livejournal.com profile] taerin, [livejournal.com profile] balthrop, [livejournal.com profile] sandy_tyras, [livejournal.com profile] the_blue_fenix, [livejournal.com profile] theturbonerd, and [livejournal.com profile] tmc4242. Sorry, folks.

People we were filking, dining, or otherwise hanging out with that I missed above: [livejournal.com profile] faxpaladin, [livejournal.com profile] kd5mdk, [livejournal.com profile] jazz007, [livejournal.com profile] joyslin, [livejournal.com profile] kattelyn, [livejournal.com profile] meerkat1, and [livejournal.com profile] tygerr.

People I met in real life for the first time: Sarah and David, [livejournal.com profile] soldiergrrrl, [livejournal.com profile] taral, [livejournal.com profile] bonafidelis, [livejournal.com profile] ziactrice, and [livejournal.com profile] the_blue_fenix's baby Elizabeth.

And so to bed.
selenite0: (Looked so good on paper)
Aviation Week came out with a cover story about "Blackstar", a two stage to orbit reusable launch vehicle supposedly being retired by the US government. This would have been built as a "black" program after the Challenger disaster and operated during the '90s. The article didn't offer much evidence, and some of what's in there is probably BS. So even if the thing exists AvWeek hasn't proved it.

I'm more interested in the technical side of the discussion. Various people have disparaged the story on the grounds that the design couldn't work. I think they're full of it. The concept described could be built and flow successfully (whether it'd get a meaningful payload to orbit I'm agnostic on).

The dumbest criticism is that it couldn't work because carrying the orbiter underneath the carrier plane is impossible because the landing gear don't leave enough room between the carrier's belly and the runway. That critic probably spent more time looking at the pretty artist's concept than reading the article. The artist generated his pictures by making a rough orbiter model and combining it with an unmodified XB-70 Valkrie 3-d model. The article describes the carrier with a recess to hold the orbiter, matching the practice of carrier aircraft back to the X-1. The Blackstar carrier supposedly used some XB-70 parts, but it was designed from scratch to match the orbiter. It could have had a huge open bay and landing gear like stork legs if that's what was needed.

Another complaint is that the carrier's top speed of Mach 2 or 3 wasn't good enough to get a payload to orbit. There is a rule of thumb that each part of a multi-stage launcher should contribute an equal increase in velocity, but contrary to those critics it's not a law. The faster the carrier flies the easier life is for the orbiter's designers but they can build it to reach orbit from any starting condition. If the carrier is subsonic the orbiter would be essentially an SSTO, so there'd be a question of whether you're better off not bothering with it. But the Blackstar carrier would be providing 8-12% of the velocity to orbit, which is a bigger contribution than it seems at first glance. Getting the last few percent of performance out of a launcher is always the hardest--it's an exponential function. Now a Mach 12 carrier would be ideal, but not much hardware gets built to ideals.

(As an aside, this is why I don't like The Rocket Company's vertical-trajectory first stage architecture. They're spending a lot of time and money on the first stage and still have to get SSTO-level performance out of the upper stage.)

The orbiter is criticized for having a linear aerospike engine. Superficially they've got a point--the best thing about an aerospike is that it adjust to atmospheric pressure from ground to vacuum, so you don't lose performance. But a rocketship with conventional bell-nozzle engines has a rear end which is shaped like a beer can's. That increases how much space it takes up in the carrier aircraft and requires more weight for aerodynamic shaping. A linear aerospike provides a chisel-shape tail shape (ignore the artist's concept, again), which can be fit flush to the edge of the carrier's belly while taking up less volume.

The fuels for this thing are the most unusual aspect. The main fuel was described as boron-based. Ignition (the best history of rocket propellants out there) is harsh on boron and it doesn't get discussed much these days. The energy released doesn't make up for the toxic byproducts and damage to the engines. It does make sense in context as a way to get a fancy project past reviewers:

"What makes you think you can do better than NASA/DynaSoar/etc?"
"We're using boron fuel."
"Oh, okay, then."

It also makes sense for why the thing would be built, flown just a little, and then retired--most of the problems show up in operations. The AvWeek article included a comment of solid rocket motor pods being added to the orbiter. That makes no sense at all. Between the low Isp and the weight of the casing a solid motor might actually reduce the performance to orbit. Plus a badly cast motor would blow up their fancy RLV. That part of it I have to send to the bit bucket.

So could this have been built? Yes, definitely. Would it work? It would fly. The orbiter would shoot out of the atmosphere. Would it make orbit? Dunno. Depends on how good their design work is, really. Sending the orbiter from Kwajalein in the Pacific to California or vice versa would make for a nice test flight and that wouldn't be much problem. So there could be a few glimpses of it. It certainly didn't do any regular operations, that would have provided lots of chances to get good sightings.

So what's the most this could be? A prototype, one that's too difficult to operate to compete with the other systems deployed or in the pipeline. Most of the missions you need a spaceplane for--on-orbit defense, stealing enemy satellites, flexible ASAT--dropped off the priority list when the USSR went away. The rest of what it can do we have other systems for. If you've got 80's tech hypersonic airframes and boron-fueled engines you'd have to spend a lot of money for each flight, on top of the expense of maintaining the team and infrastructure to operate it. So shutting it down would be the sensible move. Given how many billions of dollars would have gone into such a white elephant I'd expect it to stay a black program until the authorizers have not just retired but died.

Odds are it was just a paper study, or the entire thing is a combination of unrelated programs stitched into a fancy story.

Pity. It would've been nice to have an existence proof of a reasonable RLV when I was working on one. We probably could've underpriced it, too, assuming the gov't charged full price for using Blackstar rather than eating the development costs and only charging for marginal cost.
selenite0: (karl and maggie)
Driving home last night we saw the crescent moon. Maggie announced this from the back seat:

"Daddy, I see the moon!"
"Yes, Maggie, there's the moon."
"Daddy, I want to go to the moon!"
"Someday, Maggie."
selenite0: (Looked so good on paper)
Wired Magazine has a lovely feature called "Found", ending the issue with a picture of some object that doesn't exist yet. I still regret not saving the one with nanotech "seeds" for building houses. The current one is the control panel for a space elevator car, with buttons for the different "floors." That's cool enough I was tempted to cut it out and put it up in my office. Except for one problem. Can you spot it?



The Mars departure point is shown below geostationary altitude. Nope. That would drop you in an orbit around the Earth (eventually colliding with the elevator). If you want to go to Mars--or anywhere beyond the Moon--you have to leave at 47,000 km altitude. Okay, it's a minor technical nitpick, but it would grate on me so much I could never stand to look at it every day.

Pity. It's a lovely picture.
selenite0: (mad science)
Saturday we had our local SF club meeting. As is typical a bunch of us techno-nerd types wound up in the kitchen talking rockets and gadgets and such. We had the delightful experience of introducing one member to the concept of Project Orion and seeing his eyes bug out. Okay, so setting off an atomic bomb under a ship you're in is a little counter-intuitive. But we kept discussing it and finally came up with a perfect T-shirt slogan for it:
10,000 Tons of Launch Weight: $500 million.
2000 Mini-nukes: $1 Billion
Finding a country to let you launch: Priceless

For normal trips to LEO, there are chemical rockets.
For everything else, there's Project Orion.

Our previous slogan for it was "When you absolutely, positively have to be off the planet overnight."
selenite0: (can't take)
Just had a company all-hands meeting. The executive was showing us pretty slides of what other parts of the company are doing. One was about the new NASA Crew Exploration Vehicle. I took one look at it and thought Guys, if you want a Soyuz you know where to find it.
selenite0: (can't take)
My favorite book on the Apollo program, Apollo: The Race To the Moon by Murray and Cox is finally back in print. Anyone who's interested in the moon shot or just the engineering of vast projects in general should pick it up. It takes a "behind the scenes" look at it, going into the detail on the engineering and operations side. It does a great job. It's one of the best illustrations I can think of on how you have to settle the architecture for the system (the "mode decision") before you can do any useful detail work. And the operations section is done very well--I did satellite operations in the Air Force so I appreciate seeing the importance of the ops team discussed properly. Yeah, the astronauts are nice guys but they couldn't do the job by themselves. It's not just nerd-talk either, it gets into the people and their personalities. It took a rare type to handle working on a project that challenging.

Highly recommended.
selenite0: (mad science)
I'm following the SS1 flight in progress. http://www.spaceflightnow.com/ss1/status.html

Apparently it went into a tumble at the end of the rocket burn but recovered as it began reentry. I was afraid this would happen, I'm glad they recovered from it. I think SS1's vertical CG isn't on the centerline, probably because they added extra mass to meet the X-Prize requirements without balancing it. So they had a steadily increasing pitch torque as the propellant burned off and finally couldn't hold it steady.

It's past the danger now. Should be an easy fix. They'll have to balance the payload before launch (which will be a pain to analyze) or have some active ballast (ie, a weight on a ropes and pulleys contraption) so they can adjust the CG in flight.

UPDATE: Okay, I'm now seeing a report that SS1 was rolling. If it was tumbling on the roll axis instead of the pitch axis CG would have nothing to do with it.

FURTHER UPDATE: [livejournal.com profile] jfoxdavis was watching the video and tells me the nose kept pointing up, so CG problems had nothing to do with the roll problem.

Never mind.
selenite0: (mad science)
I was a bit surprised by all the fuss over the SpaceShipOne flight. I'd been tracking it, but I'm a rocket geek. I was eagerly monitoring the DCX flights and hardly anyone in the world cared about that. Same for all of the other entrepreneurial space efforts. So hearing about Rutan's ship on all the news outlets was a little boggling. Other people noticed this?

Hearing it be the lead headline on NPR that evening was really amazing. But what's driving it home for me is the Business World column in today's Wall Street Journal. It's discussing space tourism, not as a gee-whiz-look-what-these-guys-are-up-to interest piece, but as another industry being strangled by government regulations. The bit about SpaceEx having to analyze the noise impact on sea lions really amazes me, if Titan IV launches haven't deafened them nothing will.

Pat Bahn is right--the "giggle factor" among investors has gone away. I think we may make a lot more progress getting into space this decade. And the progress we do make will be sustainable, not just a burst of flags and footprints.
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