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.


Falcon 9 and Dragon: Preparing for the International Space Station

August 15, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

Over the last several months, SpaceX has been hard at work preparing for our next flight – a mission designed to demonstrate that a privately-developed space transportation system can deliver cargo to and from the International Space Station (ISS). NASA has given us a Nov. 30, 2011 launch date, which should be followed nine days later by Dragon berthing at the ISS.

NASA has agreed in principle to allow SpaceX to combine all of the tests and demonstration activities that we originally proposed as two separate missions (COTS Demo 2 and COTS Demo 3) into a single mission. Furthermore, SpaceX plans to carry additional payloads aboard the Falcon 9’s second stage which will deploy after Dragon separates and is well on its way to the ISS. NASA will grant formal approval for the combined COTS missions pending resolution of any potential risks associated with these secondary payloads. Our team continues to work closely with NASA to resolve all questions and concerns.

This next mission represents a huge milestone not only for SpaceX, but also for NASA and the US space program. When the astronauts stationed on the ISS open the hatch and enter the Dragon spacecraft for the first time, it will mark the beginning of a new era in space travel.

Through continued private-public partnerships like the one that helped develop the Falcon 9 and Dragon system, commercial companies will transform the way we access space. Together, government and the private sector can simultaneously increase the reliability, safety and frequency of space travel, while greatly reducing the costs.

The update below highlights our recent progress towards the combined C2/C3 mission and missions beyond. From the 1,500 team members here at SpaceX, thank you for your continued support, and for joining us in this exciting, vital adventure.


The Week At SpaceX

August 15, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

This week, we successfully completed a wet dress rehearsal (WDR) for the Falcon 9 Flight 3 launch vehicle at Space Launch Complex 40, Cape Canaveral, Florida. The WDR is a significant test during which we load propellant into the vehicle and perform all operations just as we would on launch day right down to T-1 seconds, at which point we abort and detank the propellant.

Photo: Kyle Cothern / SpaceX

Since our last flight, we have made significant upgrades to the launch pad to streamline the countdown. For example, we installed new liquid oxygen (LOX) pumps that reduced our previous loading time from 90 minutes to under 30. Improvements like this are getting us closer to our long term goal of Falcon 9 going from hangar to liftoff in under an hour. This is no easy task for a vehicle with about the same takeoff weight as a fully loaded Boeing 747, but if a 747 can do it reliably day after day, then Falcon 9 can too.

Photo: Roger Gilbertson / SpaceX

In a SpaceX clean room shown above in Hawthorne (Los Angeles) California, technicians prepare the Dragon spacecraft for thermal vacuum chamber testing. The open bays will hold the parachutes. NASA has given us a launch date of Nov 30, 2011 for Falcon 9 Flight 3, which will send a Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.

Photo: SpaceX

Also in Hawthorne, we have conducted separation tests of the Dragon trunk from the Falcon 9 second stage (shown above). Release mechanisms hold the trunk (top, with solar panel covers on left and right sides) to the stage (bottom). When activated, springs on the Falcon 9 push against the Dragon trunk. The trunk separates and the test fixture’s counterbalance system raises the spacecraft up and away.

Photo: SpaceX


In the Hawthorne factory high bay, we tested the Dragon solar array rotary actuator by hanging the full array from the ceiling. The actuator (top center) turns the entire array. In flight, the solar panels will track the sun for maximum energy capture.

Clockwise from upper left: First stage tank, with domes and barrels for the second stage; all nine Merlin engines have been individually tested in Texas and then returned to California for integration into the thrust assembly; the pressure vessel for the CRS-1 Dragon spacecraft has 10 cubic meters (350 cu ft) of interior volume; composite interstage structure that joins the stages. Photos: Roger Gilbertson / SpaceX

We are well into production with all parts (shown above) for the following launch, Falcon 9 Flight 4 and its Dragon CRS-1 spacecraft, which should be the first commercial cargo resupply mission under NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program. Significant additional tooling and automation with be added to the factory, as we build towards the capability of producing a Falcon 9 first stage or Falcon Heavy side booster every week and an upper stage every two weeks. Depending on demand, Dragon production is planned for a rate of one every six to eight weeks.


Photos: Melissa Heilman / SpaceX

Demolition work continues at Space Launch Complex 4 East, our new launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the central coast of California. Recently, the crew dropped the big “hammerhead” overhanging structure from the legacy Titan IV Mobile Service Tower (sequence above). Removing the tower is a major step in upgrading the pad for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches. We are targeting late 2012 to bring Falcon Heavy to Vandenberg for vehicle to pad integration tests and 2013 for liftoff. Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket in the world.

Stay tuned for more updates on the combined COTS-2 and COTS-3 mission to the ISS, slated for launch on Nov 30, 2011.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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


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