I Know Where Guenter Wendt

August 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Space Pioneers 

You may recall a certain scene in the movie Apollo 13 in which Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) notes the disappearance of one of the launch pad workers who’d only moments before been visible through the capsule window. He quips, “I vonder vere Guenter vent” in a distinctive German accent, making a clever play on words with the man’s name. He was talking about Guenter Wendt, a German immigrant to the United States following World War II who had joined the space program in its early days – even before Project Mercury – and had climbed through the ranks to the position of Pad Leader.

Today marks Guenter’s eighty-eighth birthday. Sadly he left us last year, and it’s worth taking the time to remember him and what he gave to his adopted country.

First, he came to the US with so much to offer. Rather than arriving with his hand out and demanding free government assistance, he offered us his tremendous experience in flight and engineering, which he put to good use beginning with McDonnell Aircraft Corporation.

Beyond that, he offered passion and dedication to every job he took, glamorous or otherwise. I was privileged to talk with him in 2004 about the fascinating times in his life in aerospace and was rewarded with a candid dialog I hadn’t expected. Upon arriving in the US, his search for a job was relentless. After 140 applications he came to a concrete mixing company in need of a truck mechanic. The foreman pointed out, “but you don’t have any references.” Not one to be dissuaded by challenges, he countered, “I’ll make you a deal – It was a Wednesday – I’ll get my tools and work for you until Friday. If I cut the mustard, you pay me and hire me. If not, just tell me goodbye, and you don’t owe me a thing.” The guy said, “That’s not a bad deal. Ok. Come on, and bring your tools.” He got the job, and that was that. If only more folks these days had the same attitude towards finding employment. Here was a man who had been a successful flight test engineer on (at that time) new high performance aircraft who was negotiating for the position of truck mechanic. Rather than regarding it as beneath him, he applied his typical dedication to remain gainfully employed until he could find something closer to his passion. That’s what we call character. And it paid off. He did find his way back to a career in flight. First with McDonnell where he applied his knowledge and experience in designing missile systems to defend the US. It was here in 1958 where he was first bitten by the manned space flight bug.

At that point, NASA was still known as NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and Project Mercury – the first manned space program – was yet to be born. Manned space flight at that time rest exclusively with the Air Force’s Dyna-Soar program, and the range that would become Kennedy Space Center was still undeveloped and snake-infested beaches and swamp.

That was not the situation for long. Months later NASA was born and the US entered into a race to space with Project Mercury, the first in a three-tier effort to reach the moon that would be followed by Gemini then Apollo. Guenter was right there in the thick of it. He and four others were the vanguard from McDonnell to go to Cocoa Beach. From Mercury through Gemini, he was helping to pave the way for humans on the grandest adventure of all time. By the time of Apollo, McDonnell had lost the contract to North American. Deke Slayton, who was chosen as one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts and later went on to become NASA’s Chief Astronaut, went to Guenter and asked him to change over to North American.

The company was initially unwilling to allow him what he needed to do the job. He said, ”I talked to them and told them the way I operate. The authority I need. Complete personnel control.”  They couldn’t agree to let me have that.” They said a new hire can’t have that authority. I said, ‘Fine. I can’t help you.’”

And so he stayed with McDonnell. But then came the Apollo 1 fire in which Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee lost their lives while conducting a ground test inside the capsule. An ignition source and flammable materials combined in a cabin pressurized with highly flammable pure oxygen to start the fire. The situation was further exacerbated by a poorly designed hatch and woefully inadequate emergency preparedness that failed even to recognize the operation as hazardous.

Shortly thereafter,” Guenter went on to say, “I got a call from Slayton. He said, ‘We’d like you to run our pad operations.’ I said I can’t do that unless I have the authority I need. He said, ‘I have a guy here who says you can have whatever you need.’”Ok. Put him on the phone.’ The guy introduced himself as Mr. Bergen – I didn’t know who the hell “Bergen” was – He said that Slayton had explained how I do business – on more of a dictatorial basis – and they were pleased to provide whatever I needed. So I said OK. Here is the way I operate. Here is what I need. Here is the way I will do things. If you agree to that, I’ll come over and work for you. They explained again that they had been instructed to hire me.” I said, ‘By the way. Who the hell is that guy, Bergen?’ They said, ‘You see that organizational chart over there? The guy at the top of the pyramid is Bergen, President of North American Aviation.

We’ll never know how things would have gone had Guenter been in charge of pad operations that fateful day, but I’d bet my reputation as an aerospace engineer that the operation would have been seen as hazardous and plans made to emergency egress those astronauts. One of the things that set him apart was to “pre-act” in what he called the “what if” game. It bothered him that people too often simply reacted to problems rather than anticipate and plan for them. He was not willing to leave things to chance. Here again, his character shines through, and we would all do well to head the lessons of his life.

No one ever answered Lovell’s question, but I think I know vere Guenter Wendt. He’s slipped the surly bonds of Earth to join Gus Grissom, Christa McAuliffe and all the other heros who dedicated themselves to space flight. And how lucky we are that he found his way to our shores, fortunate to have had his guidance and how blessed by his friendship.

Happy birthday Guenter. We’ll not forget you.

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Manned Mission To An Asteroid: Eureka Moment Or Dead End?

With the shuttle program behind us and International Space Station construction now complete, we begin a new era in space exploration. The long-sought foothold in space that Station provides has finally been established, and it serves as our jump off point from low Earth orbit to all points beyond. More than that, it stands as the corner stone of a new orbiting infrastructure that will be needed for any course we choose to undertake next.

The choice of our next destination sets in motion the many cogs and wheels that make up the much larger machine of space exploration. It is with great care then that we must consider the direction in which we set off before that machine gains momentum. We’ve already seen the cost of breaking that momentum: the $9 billion that went into the now cancelled Constellation program, for instance; squandered money that could have gone a long way towards moving mankind out into space on a sustainable path. The original Vision for Space Exploration embodied in the Constellation program underwent too many changes, too many course corrections. By the time of its demise, Constellation bore little resemblance to the program initially set in motion under the O’Keefe leadership of the early to mid two thousands. This sad fact underscores the importance of staying the course.

Where should we go next? The answer to that question must address the sustainability of space exploration. Anything less is to repeat the mistakes of the past. Sustainability means infrastructure, which can be thought of in much the same terms as we think of infrastructure here on Earth: roads; bridges; airports; utilities; communications; waste disposal; shipping, emergency services, etc. The list goes on. There is an entire infrastructure that will be needed in space to support a human presence there, long term. The International Space Station – aside from its function as an orbiting laboratory – is the first baby step in that direction. Where we pick to go into space next must foster and support the emergence of infrastructure. The logic is inescapable. Just as inescapable are the economics. That’s why when we speak of building infrastructure, we’re necessarily going to be limited to the area close to home: Earth orbit; cislunar space or the space between the highest Earth orbit and the moon; and the lunar surface itself.

The Obama Administration’s vision for space exploration is to send NASA astronauts to an asteroid, purportedly as the means to save civilization in the event one was discovered to be on a collision course with Earth. Exactly what humans would do once there hasn’t been worked out. Without any means to carry out its objective, the plan is vague and without substance. At the outset, it conspicuously fails to address the important issues we’ve just laid out.

First, a mission to re-route an asteroid does not need humans. Such an endeavor can be effectively carried out with robotic spacecraft. The methods proposed, ranging from firing nuclear bombs to focusing light beams on a menacing asteroid, do not require or use astronauts.

Its secondary mission is to serve as a stepping stone for future missions to Mars, but an asteroid is very different from a planet and thus requires different technologies. Tools such as jetpacks, tethers, bungees, nets and spiderwebs to allow explorers to float just above the surface of an asteroid while attached to a smaller mini-spaceship are all redundant to the ultimate missions the administration claims they support.

When we consider these facts in the light of day, the Obama plan begins to appear frivolous; more a stunt than serious exploration. An asteroid is no more than the cosmic analog to an iceberg. Yet plans are being drafted to send astronauts there on a mission that would not advance a human presence in space in any way, whatsoever, beyond the hand full of individuals making the trip. Can you imagine figures of history having committed the same folly?

Since the dawn of the space age it was the civil space program alone to amalgamate our drive for exploration beyond Earth. But things are changing and evolving. The private sector is stepping in to shoulder some of the loads traditionally carried by the government like building and operating rockets to low Earth orbit. Of course the private sector has partnered with the space agency from the beginning, so what’s different today? Though most commercial entities – the larger ones in particular – still prefer the safety of the more traditional public-private partnership in which the government assumes all the risk, a few bold entrepreneurs have stepped up and taken a seat at the table. They are seeding the development of space systems and vehicles using their own private capital. Founder of Paypal Elon Musk, cofounder of id Software John Carmack who made such computer games as Doom, Sir Richard Branson who founded the Virgin conglomerate, founder of Budget Suites of America Robert Bigelow, founder, president and CEO of Amazon Jeff Bezos, and Microsoft cofounder Paul Alan are among the most notable people to invest hundreds of millions in the aggregate so far.

Those investments were and continue to be anything but a safe bet. The men and women investing their fortunes and reputations in the very risky business of human space flight know that they stand to lose it all, yet they continue despite that risk. Why? Because the dream of exploration, the yearning to set out for parts unknown, is not the sole domain of NASA. All the passion and the scientific and engineering talent for which the space agency has come to be known exists in spades in the private sector.

There is something, however, that sets the private sector apart from the government; something that we take as a tacit to the urge for space travel, yet has never been part of NASA’s charter. That something is the impulse to colonize and see everyone benefit from the limitless resources and opportunities of space.

We often assume that it is the role of NASA to colonize space since so much of what they do can lead to that end, but that assumption is entirely false. The agency’s function is that of research and development of new space technologies. That those technologies either could or should be used for the colonization of space lies completely outside their purview. It may be at some future time that their charter is amended to include colonization, but for now, it is strictly R&D.

Even without a mandate for colonization, the government still has the obligation to set clearly defined goals that advance sustained human access to space. Not only does the Administration’s mission to send NASA astronauts to an asteroid fail to meet this requirement, it fails even to justify the stated reasons for carrying out the plan. Indeed it smacks of not-invented-here: a malady that would seem to afflict Washington with each successive administration.

The market forces that drive business are fortunately very different from those of politics. If a company were to radically change course every 4 years as so often happens inside the Beltway, it would not remain in business for long. The instability and indecision our government has displayed over the past 10 years in matters of space have resulted in its current languor. Without a change of leadership , the government cannot be relied upon to pursue the obvious course that scientific discoveries on the moon have brought to light, so it is likely that private enterprise will have to rise to the occasion.

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A New Dawn Arising

As far back through antiquity as Aristotle it was theorized that the physical world in which we live is made up of atoms. And though the ancients’ mastery of deductive reasoning led them to great leaps of enlightenment, it was not enough to accurately describe reality. “Close, but no cigar,” as they say. Complete atomic theories forged in the fires of rigorous scientific examination would have to wait more than two millennia.

The modern scientific method is, in simplest terms, a three-step process: observe; theorize; and test. It’s proven to be a very successful way of discovering nature’s secrets, but the process is far from finished when theories have passed this stage. They must withstand rigorous scientific debate and challenges, in which peers from throughout the discipline examine every aspect of the experiment from the data to the underlying mathematics and finally to the conclusions. Not until it has survived this intense scrutiny can we embrace a theory and allow it to be taken as a law.

Albert Einstein, whose theories of the macroscopic world have revolutionized our understanding of time and gravity and Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, had some of the most heated debates in scientific history over their theories. Challenges – even angry and passionate – among piers in science form a necessary fixture in its discourse and one that we relax at our own peril.

Today the peer review process serves us well as an absolutely essential part of science. Because our understanding of the universe is built in layers, with one set of laws building upon earlier ones iteratively, imagine the consequences of discovering that something we’ve taken as a fundamental law is flawed, or worse, false. Such an event would be catastrophic, so the importance of remaining diligent with peer review cannot be over stated.

Yet as strong as this process tends to be, there are those rare times when it breaks down. After all, it is a human endeavor, and humans are fallible, so when a breakdown does occur, the wise man pauses to understand why and how. He endeavors to prevent it from ever happening again.

We see just such a break down occurring in recent history following the Apollo lunar flights of the late 1960s and early 1970s when samples of rocks were returned from the moon and examined by scores of scientists. When the lunar dust settled and the papers had all been published, the scientific world proclaimed that the moon was more arid than the driest desert on earth.

That’s the way things stood for four decades: a kind of lunar science dark ages in which notions of returning to the moon, of building upon those gains so hard won at the expense of much national treasure and three astronaut’s lives, would be bluntly dismissed. Aside from the fact that the political goals behind the missions – sadly, their biggest driver – had been achieved, it simply made no scientific sense to return. Mankind was beginning to cast an eye around the solar system for a place where he could explore and perhaps settle. Any serious consideration of where next to go would necessarily have to include the concept of ISRU, or in-situ resource utilization. It’s what early pioneers called living off the land, and the idea behind it is simple. Exploration must be carried out with attention to its costs, which are kept at a minimum when consumables and materiel can be found and used at your destination. Each pound carried with the expedition costs money, so the less you take with you, the smaller the cost and the more exploration can be accomplished and made sustainable. With water being one of the most important and costly resources of any expedition, and with the lunar surface having been found utterly devoid of it, the moon was unceremoniously written off. Our nearest neighbor in space, what many call the eighth content, was now considered a dead end.

Just as the dark ages on Earth were followed by the Renaissance, the lunar dark age has given way to a enlightenment. 2009 saw new, robotic missions sent to the moon. They carried state-of-the-art instruments and beamed down to Earth volumes of new data to be examined by a fresh eyes. Within months, those science teams were sending out an electrifying discoveries that would send shock waves across the world. Water! Water had been discovered trapped in the permanently shadowed craters of the lunar South pole! More analysis revealed that the entire moon is covered in a thin veneer of water deposited by the solar wind, making it a renewable source.

The really big shocker was yet to come. A Brown University freshman! by the name of Thomas Weinreich published a paper in a May, 2011 edition of the journal Science in which he announced the results of a study he had recently conducted on 40-year-old rock samples from the moon. And his findings? Water! It had been there all along.

Only five years before, Alberto Saal, a professor at Brown, and some collaborators had applied to NASA to look for water in Apollo rocks. Colleagues laughed at his obvious naiveté.

How is it that so many brilliant minds could have concluded with such certainty for so long that the moon was utterly arid? Two words: Group Think. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Group Think is “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics.” This is precisely the reason behind our long-lived ignorance of water on the moon. Those early assertions that no water existed in lunar rock samples should have been challenged and would have had it not been for the very the arrogance that Dr. Saal encountered. It was Group Think that effectively shut down the peer-review process for decades.

As a new dawn arises on lunar science and we again look towards the moon as our next home away from Earth and source of natural resources and new opportunities, it’s important that we weigh and consider the aftermath of a certain pitfall in the human psyche. What it cost us was 40 years and an entire generation of would-be astronauts and pioneers left orphaned when Apollo was ended. We cannot allow this to happen again, so it behooves us to scan our horizons – and those hidden places right under our noses – for signs that scientific consent is being manufactured. Can you think of any? Perhaps a theory on how the Earth traps and releases energy? Could there be a theory out there in which it is proclaimed that the time for debate has passed on a science that is “settled”?

Think about it.

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The Price of Duplication

August 8, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Civil Space Flight 

NASA’s proposed next big effort is to build a rocket to replace the space shuttle. And the price tag? Thirty-eight billion dollars or about 10 times what private industry, as exemplified by SpaceX, will charge for the same job. Is this really the best use of taxpayer dollars?

Proponents argue that a government-owned rocket is needed as an alternative in the event that the commercial sector fails to deliver a viable system, but that alone is not sufficient reason for going ahead with the plan. There must be a justifiable cost benefit. If the current debt crisis teaches us anything, it is that the US government is not a bottomless pit of cash.

Over the projected 10 years that it will require to design (and yes I know it will stem from heritage shuttle systems, but it’s hardly plug-and-play), build, test and put into operations this new system, it is expected to fly only twice. That’s a flight rate than doesn’t begin to cover even the paltry rate of the shuttle. First, it was promised that the shuttle would be cheaper to operate than the single-use rockets like the Saturn V it replaced. That did not materialize. The life-averaged cost of operating the shuttle was about $1.3 billion per launch. Much of the reason for that astronomical price tag was low flight rate, which brings us to item two. The shuttle was to have flown every 30 days, but in it’s final 5 years of flight, it averaged about 4 flights per year: just 25% the rate originally sought. In every measurable sense, the space shuttle failed to deliver on the promise of exceeding it’s predecessor’s capabilities. And now, NASA proposes to build another, even more expensive system demanding 19 times the operations cost of the now-retired orbiters. The term used to describe this class of vehicle is “heavy lift,” referring to it’s ability to lift large payloads into space. But perhaps it better describes the force required to lift the tons of cash required to operate it.

R&D is something the space agency does extremely well, yet it continually strays into areas well outside its bailiwick. There is no other reason for this than poor management; one with a chronic lack of focus and understanding of its own charter.

Seasoned space professionals recognize a term used early in this article: operations. The word is the very antithesis of research and development, which is the stated purpose of the space agency. Once a technology moves from the R&D world into regular use – as rockets now have – it becomes operational, at which point it should be tasked to another entity with the manufacturing and fiscal agility to deliver the system at a reasonable cost. This in no way describes NASA.

It’s one thing to deliver criticism and another to follow it with better ideas. To formulate them, we start with a premise and a question.  Our premise is that our sole purpose is in creating something never created before; in other words, research and development. The question is simple: where is research and development in space most needed? Infrastructure. And why is that? The biggest impediment to making space exploration attainable on a permanent basis is cost, and the biggest contributor to cost is a lack of infrastructure to support the venture.

Consider this: every time a spacecraft leaves Earth, it must carry absolutely everything with it that will need during the mission. This one fact adds tremendously to the cost per flight. Remove that restriction, and the cost dramatically drops.

A giant leap forward would be to develop orbiting refueling stations. NASA has begun to fund this type of research but at levels so modest as to amount an afterthought. It has awarded $2.4 million to four companies to begin looking at ways to store cryogenic fuels on orbit. The contention here is not that the agency has failed to identify fuel depots as a need but rather that it grossly underfunds the effort. The priority given the rocket development program should instead go into infrastructure, but the proverbial cart has been placed in front of the horse.

There are still other infrastructure technologies that should be getting the fast track as well such as on-orbit manufacturing processes. If we’re to build interplanetary vehicles and support system in a cost-effective manner, we’ll need to know how to assemble them in space. Building complete systems and launching them from the ground is too expensive, not to mention restrictive. But it all comes down to one thing: focus. NASA has taken its eye off of what’s important and concentrated it on duplication of effort, and it comes at the expense of forward momentum in space exploration.

Perhaps we’ve become so accustomed to thinking in terms of “some day” that we fail to see what’s possible here and now if we simply stay focused and prioritize. Why don’t we try taking a recommendation from Larry The Cable Guy and “git-r-done.” Heck, if for no other reason than to see what happens when you think outside the box.

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Growing Pains

August alone will see a thousand jobs lost as a result of the shuttle’s demise; a scary development to be sure. But it’s hardly the first time the manned space program has faced this kind of hardship and transition.

You may recall a certain scene in the movie Apollo 13 in which Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) notes the disappearance of one of the launch pad workers who’d only moments before been visible through the capsule window. He quips, “I vonder vere Guenter vent” in a distinctive German accent, making a clever play on words with the man’s name. He was talking about Guenter Wendt, a German immigrant to the United States following World War II who had joined the space program in its early days – even before Project Mercury – and had climbed through the ranks to the position of Pad Leader.

In his 2001 autobiography title The Unbroken Chain (available through Apogee Books, which I can enthusiastically recommend) Guenter speaks about the angst he himself – a top ranked and well known space professional – faced as the Apollo program came to a close. Describing launch day for the final Saturn rocket, the so-called Apollo-Soyuz Test Project meant to ease strained relations between the US and the former Soviet Union, he writes:

Later that day, Tom Stafford, Deke Slayton, and Vance Brand became the last three men to launch into space atop a Saturn rocket. I watched the final launch from the fallback area, fully aware that our pioneering days were over. Never again would an Apollo spacecraft enter space. And with the Shuttle program still several years away, many people were observing their final manned launch of any type. As the vehicle arched out over the Atlantic, I watched union shop supervisors hand out termination notices. For many, many dedicated workers, the end of the chain had been reached.

The fact is, just as we endured the pains of transition in those days, so too must we today, though one could make a compelling argument that moving from Apollo to shuttle was a step backward. We find ourselves in the precarious and expensive position now of having to reinvent much of the technology used back then, albeit with upgrades to the underlying computer systems that have made quantum leaps forward since. Even so, the space capsule design demonstrated so successfully by Apollo and its precursors, was invented half a century ago.

Whether you feel the shuttle was a necessary next step following Apollo or a pointless detour on the road to deep space, the time has come to boldly embrace the next era. At some point, Lewis and Clarke had to move from the river bank to the interior in order to realize the goals of their expedition. Low earth orbit, which was by design the limit of shuttle’s capabilities, has been our riverbank. We cannot afford to take our eyes from the real objective: deep space. More than that, we cannot afford to continue a program that proved far, far more expensive than its designers promised. Let’s get off the riverbank on which we’ve been stranded for too long and move onward and upward. Yes, the process of growth is painful, but just as Guenter Wendt did eventually find his next job in space and flourished there for decades until his retirement, we’ll emerge from this temporary slump in a place that will allow us unlimited and continuous growth and perhaps a little something extra: seamless transitions between technological steps. Imagine that.

What is required from us now is courage, vision and determination; qualities we have in spades once we leave our comfort zone. Remember the words of Christopher Columbus who said, “You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”

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First Space Flight Sweepstakes Announced

August 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

Organizers of the 50th anniversary of Seattle’s Space Needle want to celebrate by sending you into space, and they’ve teamed up with Virginia-based Space Adventures and with Armadillo Aerospace to offer the winner of their Space Race 2012 sweepstakes a suborbital flight. If realized, the trip is sure to be the ride of a lifetime.

Space Adventures has already placed 7 people onboard the International Space Station, the last being Cirque Du Soleil creator Guy Laliberte in 2009. And Armadillo of Mesquite, Texas has been designing a vertical-launch vehicle that is presumed will be the carrier. But here’s the catch: though the company has designed piloted vehicles like their Black Armadillo, this one will carry no pilot. The only persons on board will be it’s two passengers. I’m guessing one to light the fuze and one to pray. Curiously, the term “spam in a can” comes to mind.

As much as I would jump at – almost – any chance to board a space flight, I think I would choose to sit this one out. Aside from the obvious regulatory hurtles that any such launch system is sure to face, there is a far safer choice making its way through flight testing now. SpaceShipTwo, the upscaled successor to the X-Prize-winning SpaceShipOne built by entrepreneur and aerospace genius Burt Rutan, has been designed from the beginning to be the safest space launch platform available. It’s pilots (note the plural – it has two per ship) by virtue of a feathered wing, can literally fold their arms and the vehicle will align itself in the correct attitude for what is aptly named the “carefree re-entry.”

But if you’re the truly adventurous type, the Grand Prize might be for you.

If you don’t make the cut from among what is predicted to be entries numbering in the millions, there is a First Prize flight aboard Zero G Corporation’s G-FORCE ONE. You’ll take a ride on a Boeing 727 specially modified to take passengers on parabolic flights. These are where the airplane climbs and descends in a series of arcs, the apex of each will simulate a zero gravity environment like that you would encounter in space. It’s a concept that’s been in operation to train astronauts for decades and has proven quite safe.

Though not a fan of the launch system currently being proposed for the worlds first space flight giveaway (the design of which could change, by the way), I applaud the decision to conduct a sweepstakes offering a flight into space, and I suspect it’s but the first of many to come. When average guys and gals begin returning from space to describe to their friends and family an experience that has left them with a deep and abiding sense of awe, that has completely changed the way they view the world and mankind, heads will begin to turn upward to the sky with new expectations and a realization that before our very eyes the final frontier has transformed itself from the fanciful backdrop of a science fiction story to a real place of real opportunity for real people.

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For more information on Space Race 2012, visit http://SpaceNeedle.com.

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American Industrial Might Still Second To None

July 31, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

When I attended an Ansari X Prize competition flight press conference in 2004, Burt Rutan who had designed and built the SpaceShipOne craft (which now hangs in the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC) presented a sign that an onlooker had made. Everyone chuckled at the clever quip, “SpaceShipOne, government zero.” For the first time in history, a one-hundred-percent privately funded venture had outdone a massive government agency in spaceflight. Not only had Rutan and his Scaled Composites company managed to build and fly a spacecraft far more cheaply and safely than NASA, but they had also overcome technical malfunctions in a tiny fraction of the time it would have taken the space agency and went on to capture the prize.

And this theme, far from being a flash in the pan, continues.

Now a company called Space Exploration Technologies – more commonly known as SpaceX – is poised to become the champion of space transportation to earth orbit. Having successfully test flown their new Falcon 9 rocket (a variant of Falcon I, capable of lifting much heavier loads) and Dragon spacecraft despite the grumblings of many nay sayers, on November 30th they will become the first private company to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. Their ingenuity and agility are remarkable. The company has managed to combine what was to have been two flights, a final test flight and the first cargo delivery flight, into a single mission and thereby accelerate the time table for regular Station delivery flights to begin. And if that were not enough, in a show of true pioneering spirit and American innovation and industrial prowess, the company designed Dragon from the beginning with the intent that it carry astronauts, as well as cargo. As you read this article, they are designing and building the final components that will make Dragon the transportation system so desperately needed to fill the void in US space lift capability left by the end of the space shuttle program.

But their plans still don’t end there. Also in the works is a “heavy” variant to the Falcon 9 (you guessed it; called the Falcon 9 Heavy) which will carry twice the heaviest load as the space shuttle and at one third the price of their nearest competitor, the highly government-subsidized United Launch Alliance. And if you’re still drying the tears over the end of shuttle, consider this: Falcon 9 Heavy will place payloads into orbit for less than one tenth the cost of the now retired orbiters!

For many years, the holy grail of space launch has been to put payloads into orbit at or below $1,000 per pound, but no one has been able to come close. It loomed like some impenetrable barrier. Like… what was it the narrater in The Right Stuff said?

There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, seven hundred and fifty miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass. They called it the sound barrier.

And like the sound barrier, the cost barrier stood firm for decades. That is, until now. Two weeks ago at Vandenberg Air Force Base, SpaceX broke ground on the launch complex from which the new super rocket – the most powerful in the world – will rumble through the clouds into black skies beyond like a space age Hercules.

This is game changing, boys and girls. And why is that? Because at the prices SpaceX will be offering lift into orbit, flight rates can dramatically increase leading to an economy of scale that will open up space to the common man, once and for all. You and I are going to witness the building of the first space hotels.

And remember little SpaceShipOne? Well, it’s big brother SpaceShipTwo is in testing. The next stage is powered flights, and after that the production models will be delivered to Virgin Galactic to begin service as the first spaceline. The debut flights will be expensive, but again, economy of scale will drastically reduce the costs. Remember the first pocket calculators? They were $400 in the early 1970′s when they first hit the US market. Today that would be over $2000! but thanks to economies of scale, we can buy them for a few dollars. Anyone can afford them.

Only through private industry have we been able to realize such forward leaps in space, and only in America do we see the dreams taking form and taking flight. So what’s next? Go outside any time after about 1:00 in the afternoon next weekend, and look up.

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Shuttle Replacement A Duplication of Effort and Years from Reality

July 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

NASA is now estimating that the shuttle replacement will enter flight testing in late 2017. Once the testing program has concluded some 5 years beyond that, we are told to expect the first missions carrying people to begin in 2025 with a flight to an asteroid. And even when manned missions do commence, only a single flight per year is expected.

Of course, any estimates going beyond 4 years or the end of any given administration – which ever comes first – are pure fantasy. If history teaches us anything, it’s that one may safely add an additional 5 years to estimates, which invariably prove to be overly optimistic.

Even the space shuttle with its exorbitant cost of operation flew at a rate of 4 to 5 per year, so if the government is unable to maintain that level, how can it possibly expect to produce a cost-effective space launch system for the American people?

In the business of making space affordable, costs are driven down in large part through economy of scale. That means the highest possible flight rate, and once per year doesn’t even begin to make a dent.

American innovation can and is making all the difference, but it would seem that it’s not coming from the historical source. It’s coming from private industry. With little fanfare in the mainstream media, a company called SpaceX, headed up by a pioneer in the truest sense, has set itself in the position of offering access to space at the lowest prices on earth, bar none. It’s nearest competitor United Launch Alliance or ULA, the highly government subsidized collaboration between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, lags behind in a distant second place.

From the beginning, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has had a clear vision of how to propel the US back into the forefront of space exploration. He and his engineers have designed their Falcon rockets and Dragon capsules with the idea of carrying people, and they’ll have them in production and ready to carry out missions years before the government can field its own system. With Russia, China and India eagerly poised to spring ahead of the US with flights to the moon, Musk and a cadre of other American astronautical trailblazers will undoubtedly frustrate those efforts. China is publicly admitting that they cannot hope to match the prices offered by SpaceX. Still further, Bigelow Aerospace, another American company, is prepared to turn out space stations like hotels and seed humanity in space by the thousands.

In the final analysis, government is attempting a role suited to private industry. It should stick to what it does best: research and development. The space launch system being proposed by NASA, and the huge sums of money it will require, amount to a duplication of effort. Those funds should instead by devoted to designing systems for the purpose of carrying people from earth orbit to deep space.

For the last couple of years our leadership has feverishly stabbed at the question, “With what do we replace the space shuttle?” But it’s the wrong question. Real space visionaries ask instead, “What’s next?” The former presupposes a need for another machine to perform the same job as it predecessor, the latter looks beyond to the next frontier, to deep space. And to be sure, earth orbit is not the frontier.

NASA has forgotten its purpose, and it’s a sad state of affairs we’ll likely endure until a change of leadership.

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To Profit and Beyond

January 26, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

Man’s greatest discoveries have most often led to great commercial gains – some more rapidly than others. Take, for example, the mere decade it took to go from Kitty Hawk and Orville Wright’s maiden twelve seconds in the air, during which time Wright traveled only 120 feet, to the first commercial air flight, piloted by Tony Jannus, which traveled from St. Petersburg to Tampa on January 1st, 1914. We all know how many industries have been developed since that time, that are either directly or indirectly related to air travel. If it were not for entrepreneurship and the private sector, flying might never have been developed to the extent it has for the general public.

Though flight was the foundation for space travel and lunar exploration, leaving Earth’s gravitational pull has been a very different business model. But all that is changing. Back when Neil Armstrong’s left boot hit lunar pay dirt on July 20th 1969, those of us fortunate enough to remember it probably did not know that the Apollo missions were costing the United States seven percent of its national budget. It has been almost forty years that Gene Cernan has held the title “The last man to step foot on the moon,” and that’s in no small part because of stricter government funding. The technology and manpower exist to return man to the moon, but until recently, national space programs were the only routes to get there. However, with the advent of business interests in space and lunar exploration, private funding is increasingly becoming available, which will allow man to truly understand the resources beyond Earth’s atmosphere, as well as to explore and expand possibilities of extended life support in space.

The private sector’s time has come. Lunar exploration has yielded interesting finds about resources for which mankind has a pressing need. With some of Earth’s resources rapidly depleting, both governments and businesses alike have been searching for more methods to recycle dwindling resources like water and petroleum, and to develop new ones such as bio fuels. But recent lunar exploration has proven what was earlier doubted, namely that the Moon has both large quantities of water, which may be made potable and a resource for hydrogen, as well as the Helium 3 ion, a crucial element of fusion power that is almost non-existent on Earth. Fusion power, unlike nuclear power, creates almost no waste, and could become mankind’s primary power source if harvested sufficiently. Still further, lunar platinum could bridge a large gap in the amount of the metal needed to convert all current internal combustion engines over to hydrogen power cell technology. As it stands, all the platinum on earth would not be enough to fill that gap, but the moon may have many times that here at home.

Obviously, with many national space programs lacking adequate funding, the private sector sees a great opportunity in lunar exploration. Lunar exploration can offer not only a significant harvesting ground for vital resources, but can also function as an outpost of the Earth for further space exploration. With only a single second time lag in communications, the Moon is close enough to our planet to allow man to control robots and other machines remotely, and can conveniently serve as a much-needed launching pad for any future private or national deep space telescope and research facilities. And along the way, a space-based infrastructure will be built to support these flights, reducing the cost of repeat flights and making the entire venture profitable and thus sustainable.

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Help NASA Find It’s Wayward Nanosat

I report on opportunities for the public to get involved with space exploration whenever I find them, and here’s the most recent.

If you’re a ham radio operator, you’ll be interested to know that NASA is asking for your help. This past November when the agency launched its Fast Affordable Scientific and Technology Satellite or FASTSAT, the NanoSail-D solar sail microsat stowed inside failed to deploy upon reaching orbit and was thought a loss until yesterday at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time when a “spontaneous” ejection was detected.

Unfortunately, no confirmation has yet been received that NanoSail-D is active, and this is where you come in. NASA reports that the beacon signal can be found at 437.270 MHz. They ask anyone detecting a signal at that frequency to report the findings to the NanoSail-D dashboard at http://nanosaild.engr.scu.edu/dashboard.htm.

Artists rendering of NanoSat-D with its solar sail fully deployed. Courtesy NASA.

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Daring to Dream Big

December 8, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

At 10:43 a.m. EDT today SpaceX launched their Dragon spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 40. Ten minutes later it successfully reached orbit where it separated from the Falcon 9 booster, made two revolutions around the globe, then reentered the atmosphere and splashed down on target in the Pacific Ocean, 500 miles off the coast of southern California. The flight went exactly as planned.

The last time a space capsule splashed down was December 19, 1972 when Apollo 17, the last of 7 (counting the “successful failure” of Apollo 13) human exploration missions to the lunar surface, returned home. And now, nearly 4 decades later, it’s been done again, but this time there’s a critical difference: the entire transportation system, both the Falcon 9 rocket and the space capsule, were built and flown by a private company.

The Dragon was unmanned for this first demonstration flight of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract let by NASA. Under the current agreement with the agency, SpaceX will use this new system for transporting cargo to and from the International Space Station. But the capsule was designed from the beginning to carry people as well as cargo. The only thing standing in the way of Dragon reaching its full potential in replacing the space shuttle is the exercise of option D of the contract, but their’s been resistance.

There are those in government who stubbornly cling to the notion that NASA should not rely on the private sector for transporting astronauts to the Station or other points in earth orbit, citing a lack of experience. They would rather continue a strategy of government-funded space transportation systems, which has repeatedly proven itself to be prohibitively expensive and vulnerable to changing administrations and ever-shrinking budgets. Of course this is absurd. The private sector has decades of experience in building and launching spacecraft of every conceivable type, and they will continue to do so with the same high standards that have kept them in business, because in business, if you fail, you don’t survive.

So if you’re holding on to a bottle of champagne for a special occasion, this is it. Pop the cork and celebrate today’s successful flight and recovery of the Dragon. We’ve taken a huge step forward on the road to affordable transportation to space and not only for a few but for all of us. The day when the average person can look to space for a career, or even a new place of residence, just got a lot closer thanks to a few people who dared to dream big.

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The Difference Between Belief and the Provable

September 12, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Climate 

I was talking with a colleague the other day when he said something so completely unexpected and uncharacteristic of a man of science you could have knocked me over with a feather. As our conversation drifted into atmospheric physics, he said in all seriousness, “I am not a global warming denier.”

As a PhD physicist he should — and until that moment did — stand as a quintessential example of what every person in the field should be: a dispassionate observer of the physical world, a person unfettered by emotional and political attachments, which have proven time and again throughout history to be the bane of every scientist foolhardy enough to give them authority in his work. Einstein made such a glaring mistake when, with a wave of his hand, he dismissed quantum mechanics, punctuating the folly with his now famous line, “God does not play dice with the universe,” in a letter to fellow physicist Max Born. Today, through reproducible experimental results, quantum mechanics stands completely vindicated in its ability to accurately describe the world of the very small, while Einstein’s quote stands as an example of why one should never allow belief to replace rigorous scientific examination. His belief was so strong that it tainted his work for the remainder of his life, sending him down one blind alley after another in his search for a grand unification theory.

Any scientist worth his salt will avoid the pitfall of predicating theories based solely on belief, because that trap leads to an abandonment of physics in favor of religious zeal. So when my colleague repeated a line more fitting the follower of some spiritual sect that one whose profession demands healthy skepticism, I waited several seconds for the “just kidding” that sadly never came.

I pointed to one of many full-page ads published in several large US newspapers, and signed by hundreds of atmospheric physicists, that flatly reject the notion of anthropogenic global warming. But with a wave of his hand, he dismissed them, saying, “They’re not real scientists.” These tactics of indicting the messenger, because you don’t like the message and of suggesting that to deny a scientific theory is tantamount to the denial of the Holocaust, is one I’d expect from an ignorant politician with an agenda, not a scientist. To be sure, these tactics were beneath him. And I? I was flabbergasted.

How could he so completely abandon the scientific principles that have come to define him as a physicist? Like Einstein, my colleague allowed himself to become blinded by an emotional attachment to an ideal: the very antithesis of the scientific method. Regardless of your position on the theory of global warming, the only reasonable course our society can take is one of peer-reviewed scientific research in which theories and the data used to support them are presented and challenged. If the theory holds up under hostile scrutiny, if its predictions are repeatable and verifiable, and if the data have not been contaminated, or worse, altered, the theory will be accepted. And not before. This is the way it must be in science. There is no room for beliefs. There is no room for politics and even less for politicians. In science there is only the provable.

I come away from the incident with a deeper sense of the seriousness of this issue. When even a seasoned physicist will abandon the review process that stands as the very cornerstone of science and resort to smearing those with an opposing viewpoint, how much more difficult is it for laymen to decide where the truth lies? How much more likely is it that those same laymen will fall prey to the trappings of politicized, junk “science”?  which is no science at all.

To be sure, global warming is a theory far from proven. Until such time as those scientists arguing it can present uncontaminated, incontestable data in support of it, it will remain a theory, and as such should rightfully hold no sway whatsoever in the policies of our society.

So the next time someone asks if you believe in global warming, remind them that belief should not enter into the discussion. It can either be proven or it cannot. Let’s leave beliefs where they belong: in church.

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Offer New ISS Real Estate As Hub For Orbiting Space Commerce

September 2, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

Kirk Shireman, NASA’s deputy International Space Station program manager, said this week that a left over piece of hardware not originally planned for flight could easily be made flight worthy. Called the Node Structural Test Article, it could add five new berthing ports for the station. The possibility of all that new real estate raises some intriguing prospects for expansion of the ISS beyond the confines of the mere outpost it is today to being the hub of an orbiting city in space — a nucleus of space commerce.

I propose that a space port authority be formed through which this new real estate would be managed. NASA has been presented with a remarkable opportunity if its managers are keen to recognize it. One of the few things government can do better than any other organization is to foster new industries. They’re doing it through vehicles such as the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract where commercial entities now vie to develop transportation services to low earth orbit. It’s a new era in which private industry retains the rights to the technology they develop and can thus continue to develop it into an increasingly profitable commercial venture. And what is the major benefit to society of this strategy? The cost of access to space falls dramatically, opening up the final frontier to exponentially-increasing numbers of people seeking new opportunities and prosperity. And in that same spirit, the Agency can use this new real estate aboard the International Space Station to foster industry in earth orbit.

It’s not enough to encourage private enterprise in the building of rockets for reaching orbit. The real reward comes from establishing a permanent presence capable of expansion, and the Node Structural Test Article is the key to that growth.

NASA should offer this new real estate to private industry. With the pittance of government investment and effort it would take to put in place this remaining space station hardware, NASA could boost the commercial sector far more than all the contracts it has so far offered for that purpose, combined!

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Citizen Science Projects A New Trend

August 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: General Space Topic 

A new trend has begun to emerged around what is being termed “citizen science” projects in which the general public is invited to participate in serious and ongoing scientific studies within various areas of astronomy. We reported last month (see Lunar Scientists Need You, July 25, 2010 STN) on one such project called Zooniverse. It was started in July, 2007 by the Citizen Science Alliance and now proclaims nearly 313,000 participants. Within the Zooniverse visitors are presented with a suite of projects that allow the average person to track solar storms, help astronomers figure out how galaxies form and evolve by classifying their shape using Hubble images, and in the latest project, Moon Zoo, you can help lunar scientists explore the surface of Earth’s moon by identifying features like craters and lava tubes you find in new images being transmitted from spacecraft now in orbit. But other programs are coming to light that give the science enthusiast an ever widening selection of studies from which to choose.

Two years earlier in 2005, a program called Einstein@Home was launched as a joint effort of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, otherwise known as the Albert Einstein Institute. If you like the idea of participating in serious astrophysics but are less enthusiastic about the hands-on aspect, this program is for you. It works by setting up your personal computer as one in a large series of nodes, which collectively have some serious computing power. It’s called distributed computing, and it makes use of your computer’s idle time to scan through data collected from various astronomical observatories like that from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to search for gravitational waves originally predicted by Albert Einstein, which could indicate the presence of exotic types of stars like pulsars and spinning neutron stars. And the program is turning up discoveries. On August 12, 2010 Science Express reported, “Three citizen scientists – a German and an American couple – have discovered a new radio pulsar hidden in data gathered by the Arecibo Observatory. This is the first deep-space discovery by Einstein@Home, which uses donated time from the home and office computers of 250,000 volunteers from 192 different countries.” The press release goes on to say that, “The citizens credited with the discovery are Chris and Helen Colvin, of Ames, Iowa and Daniel Gebhardt, of Universität Mainz, Musikinformatik, Germany. Their computers, along with 500,000 others from around the world, analyze data for Einstein@Home (on average, donors contribute about two computers each).” A new day has dawned in the fundamental sciences when average folks can play such a pivotal role in new discoveries. And Eistein@Home is by no means the only distributed computing project available. According to VolunteeratHome.com there are also projects in physics, chemistry, biology, medicine and math.

Another tool has become available to the amateur, and it makes possible new discoveries in Earth sciences right from home, but this time it comes from an unlikely source. On July 22, the journal Science reported the discovery of the Kamil crater in Egypt. What makes the discovery so special is that it was made using Google Earth! Hot on the heels of the first came a second discovery on August 10 and  reported by Wired Science that a crater 6 miles wide was found in the Bayuda desert in Sudan. Now a tool freely available to everyone is being used to locate as yet unknown meteorite impact sites on Earth in what’s being called the new age of “armchair crater hunting.”

Zooniverse, Einstein@Home and other programs are tapping into a powerful resource that has previously gone unnoticed: the populace. Regular folks. And why not? We are a renewable source of energy and enthusiasm. What’s more, we can contribute substantially to the greater body of human knowledge when mechanisms are devised through which we can participate in research.

But what’s next? The way I see it, the public may have a role to play in upcoming robotic exploration of the moon. Though NASA flounders for the moment, seeking direction and purpose, the private sector is moving full steam ahead with the fabrication of machines for roving, digging, sampling and exploring the lunar surface. And these machines, because of the moon’s close proximity to earth, can and will be controlled from command centers on Earth. In the next few years, we may well see instances of the public invited to climb into a virtual presence system and drive a lunar rover across the moon in much the same way that remote operators control robotic submarines and unmanned aerial vehicles. And should the call come, you can bet that yours truly will be signing up.

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One More Giant Leap

NASA announced late last week that they are seeking to buy data from commercial providers that, “reduces risks for future human and robotic lander designs by employing these missions as unique demonstration testbeds,” according to their Broad Agency Announcement. Through their Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data (ILDD) program, the agency will award $30.1M to private companies already vying for the Google Lunar X Prize, itself valued at an additional $30M. With this latest incentive, private companies now stand to make over $60M for successfully landing on the moon.

The lunar rover built by Astrobotic Technology is set to launch in late 2010 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 bound for the Apollo 11 landing site. The mission has been dubbed Tranquility Trek.

This is great news for lead contender Astrobotic Technology (see The Undiscovered Country, June 23, 2010 STN), a Carnegie Mellon University spin-off company devoted to robotic exploration of the Moon. They’re already well into the hardware testing phase of their lunar rover, set to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 late in 2012 bound for the Apollo 11 landing site. The mission, dubbed “Tranquility TrekTM,” will place a 160-lb, 5-foot-tall rover on the lunar surface for 10 to 12 days until lunar night fall. When the sun rises two Earth weeks later, the solar-powered robot will re-awaken to resume from its deep freeze hibernation after having experienced temperatures plummeting to -298 degrees Fahrenheit. This will be an important milestone for the technology since their plan is to follow on with additional robots to “prospect for the water ice and other volatiles at the Moon’s poles, which can be transformed into propellant to refuel spacecraft for return flights to Earth, doubling the productivity of human missions,” said Dr. William “Red” Whittaker, Astrobotic founder and director of CMU’s Field Robotics Center. There in the permanently-shadowed craters of the poles, robots must face the most bitter cold yet recorded in the solar system. This first demonstration flight will serve as a practice run for the deep freeze of the poles. And if these robots do well, they can serve as a first generation of a sort of space-based hunting dog to help in those tasks too dangerous for humans.

Design for a commercial lunar base. Could this be the shape of things to come and only just around the corner?: image courtesy Bigelow Aerospace

Still further, in an exclusive statement to SpaceTalkNOW, Dr. Whittaker said that his company also has plans to explore newly-discovered features on the Moon called “skylights,” (see A New Decade and Infinite Possibilities, January 11, 2010 STN; The Undiscovered Country, June 23, 2010 STN; and Lunar Scientists Need You, July 25, 2010 STN). These features are the collapsed ceilings of long-dead lava tubes, and they hold much promise as possible sources of lunar water as well as for natural shelter against the radiation environment.

This new NASA lunar program represents a giant leap forward in fostering lunar-based commerce around which the settlement of our nearest neighbor in space could arise. Like the COTS and CCDev commercial contracts before it, NASA will not use ILDD to take ownership of any flight or ground systems like was done during the Apollo program when the agency took full ownership of the Saturn rocket, Command Module and Lunar Lander and all their supporting technology. When Apollo died, those vehicles — so hard won — died with it. But this time, things are different. It’s a perfect example of NASA playing the role for which it is so well suited: that of macroeconomic enabler. The ILDD program’s money will spur innovation in the complimentary areas of human and robotic space flight, which is then reinvested to advance the state of the art still further. Private enterprise can then follow NASA to the moon and supply much of the agency’s needs for technology, materiel and logistical support. It’s a match made in heaven.

Once set in motion, lunar-based commerce can grow exponentially, making use of the nearly limitless, untapped natural resources to be found there not only for supplying the base there but for providing Earth with minerals such as Platinum (see Moonrush by Dennis Wingo, ISBN-13: 978-1894959100) which, though rare on Earth, is abundant on the Moon and could serve as a highly efficient catalyst for the first generation of hydrogen-powered, fuel cell automobiles.

Once a critical mass in space commerce is reached, it opens the door to the spread of space tourism, first from the short-duration, sub-orbital flights begun by Virgin Galactic to low earth orbit and then to the surface of the moon. The progression could be remarkably fast given the right set of circumstances. Already, Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace has plans for establishing the solar system’s first hotel on another planetary body. This can happen in our lifetime! All that is needed is the wise investment of both public and private funds. Uncle Sam and private industry can make great partners if they work together. Now the question is, do those in charge on either side recognize the potential? The NASA folks at the Constellation office from which ILDD will be funded obviously “get it.” But will Congress and the Administration pull the proverbial rug out from under them?

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