The new NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine is talking with international companies this week about the prospect of selling all or part of the International Space Station off to private companies, Jim claims to have heard a lot of interest in managing the station from these companies. While it is wholly possible that this statement is intended more to create demand than state its existence. I for one hope it does exist.
NASA’s financial involvement in the International Space Station is due to end in 2025, it is by then that commercial management must be in place or the expensive station will simply burn to dust in our atmosphere.
Simply put space needs to be profitable.
We have come to the realization that it is possible from a science and engineering standpoint to have things like moon bases, space stations, missions to mars, etc. But in reality, if we expect NASA to do it all on their own, then it will only ever be one mission at a time. NASA needs to act as a nursery for commercial enterprises to spawn such as with SpaceX & Blue Origin. But the demand needs to be there, the money.
SpaceX has done very well financially in their efforts to standardize launches of satellites and ISS support missions into low earth orbit. If the plans for BFR come to fruition and we ever wind up with a true earth to earth suborbital passenger spaceflight industry, then the costs of space missions mean simply paying for the diverting a commercial flight. Parts would be standardized, Maintenance procedures standardized, The availability of trained personnel would increase. This is the facepalm slappingly obvious way of operating in space.
But where would this leave NASA? Would NASA fade away into obscurity? Would they do missions at all? I hope so. In my mind at least there is plenty of room for NASA to exist and even operate their own missions in this world. NASA’s mission has always been of breaking frontiers and pushing science boundaries. Today those boundaries are further off, which means NASA must follow. That would mean more planetary science and less interest in the Earth/Moon system. It would seem that today at least the NASA leadership gets it. What do you think? How what should NASA be focused on and much commercial involvement is a good thing, Tell me in the comments below.
Yesterday an agreement was drafted between the ride-sharing company Uber and National Aeronautics and Space Administration which will hopefully pave the way for a real framework to dictate how flying cars, what NASA is calling Urban Air Mobility, will actually operate safely within the confines of a city environment. They plan on using the research facility at Dallas International Airport to simulate hypothetical flying car routes through a congested city during peak travel times.
The UAM vehicles will have to compensate for helicopters, small aircraft & large aircraft. It will have to avoid unplanned aerial obstacles such as birds and hobbyist quadcopters. All while minimizing the danger to anyone on the ground. You see while everyone thinks it would probably be cool to own a flying car. Most people don’t think it’s very cool to have everyone around them own flying cars.
This is a project that was begun by Uber in 2016 and they have set their goal date for flying car operations to 2023. They claim the flying car option will be selected within the existing app similar to how users select between car and SUV. The partnership with NASA is a good early move to establish regulations in this potentially new industry but these are all regulations set and managed by the FAA. In the end, NASA will make recommendations and the FAA will decide to accept or reject them at will. In an arguably related note, Uber shut down its autonomous car operations after a pedestrian was killed by a driverless car in March in Tempe, Arizona. More on this as it develops.
Note; image used for representative purpose only.
When I first heard of this project I thought it may be the first true nuclear reactor in space. I thought this because the only other use of nuclear power in space comes from RTG’s or Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators. Which are similar in the sense that they use heat from a radioactive process to create electrical energy but the difference is that a reactor implies a fission reaction. Where the molecules split in half into two halves that contain less mass than they did when they were joined. The excess mass is converted to a significant amount of energy via Einstein’s famous equation, and thus nuclear power is made. Basically, the comparison is between a battery and a gas generator. RTG’s are very reliable and have served the space program well. But it turns out that the flying reactor has been done before. The United States tested a nuclear reactor for 43 days in space in 1965. But the Russians, never to hampered by a pesky thing like industrial safety, have sent 40 of their TOPAZ-II reactors into space.
RTG’s are nice but they will never meet the kinds of energy needs that we will require to go further than the measly 238900 miles we have traveled. But this new reactor may do it. It seems to be a much more polished design than the test projects of the 60’s and later. Designed to (hopefully) be a plug and play power source, exactly what newly immigrated Martians would need.
The design is apparently a slug of uranium-232 contained in a reactor core roughly the size of a paper towel tube. The core apparently uses some kind of thermal or mechanical process to move the control rod meaning that the core regulates itself and can control its own process in the event its control system fails. The core generates heat which is routed via heat pipes into several of what they are calling “sterling generators”. Now, what I know sterling engines to be are mechanical piston engines that are good at turning heat into a rotational force. That would obviously work in this scenario but I would think sending devices into deep space that contain as many moving parts as an internal combustion engine would be a terrible idea. But I’m also assuming a lot of things. Perhaps they have developed a sterling design that does not incorporate any moving parts. They certainly haven’t sent me the blueprints for review.
I think this is great news. But it is just some news right now. There are no missions planned that utilize the engine. I’m sure tests will continue and in a few years time, we will know if this is the new miracle space tech or another slashed budget line item.
Let’s take a short hop back in the time machine to December 11, 2017, President Trump passes Space Policy Directive 1. (As if there was never a space policy in place before his arrival.) The policy essentially was an order for NASA to drop what it’s doing and focus on going to the moon again. Fast forward to early last week when the only part of going back to the moon that made any sense was canceled in favor of exploring the mission sometime later, maybe, by using NASA’s commercial subcontractors. SpaceX, ULA, etc.
Resource Prospector was an unmanned lunar landing mission whose purpose was to travel to the yet unexplored polar region to look for ice on the surface of the moon. Water is, of course, a critical resource for human life, but beyond that, it is perfect as an easyish way to get a rocket into space. If this seems baffling at first glance remember what water is made of, hydrogen and oxygen. Now to have a fire you need an oxidizer and the flammable material for it to react with. As you can probably figure out by now oxygen is the perfect oxidizer and hydrogen has a tendency to go all Hindenburg whenever it is ignited. Now the process to split the two is still far from perfectly efficient but we do know that finding water ‘in situ’ (which is a fancy word for ‘there’) is a critical step for establishing a moon base or habitation anywhere for that matter. So in a manner very typical of Trump, we have abandoned the part of the mission that is supposed to accomplish something for the part of it that is a public relations stunt.
Now I’m being hard on Trump here because I think sometimes he is a little too uncompromising for my tastes. But this a problem that happens literally every four years. The makeup of the federal government is such that the objective of NASA is driven by the president. Who then almost immediately changes it upon entering into office, mainly for PR reasons. Thus ordering the agency to abandon half the projects it has been working on to start on this new path, and then later abandoning half of those projects as budget cuts demand. This is a problem that will always exist as long as the agency functions in that specific place of the federal government’s org chart. NASA will always fail if its mission statement gets a drafted by someone who considers it their lowest priority.
Unfortunately, I believe this is the same reason SpaceX is so popular today. I guarantee you that every one of those Space nerds that go crazy over the Falcon launches (all variants) feel the same way about NASA and could list off pages of trivia data about Mercury, Gemini (said with extra ee’s), and Apollo. But they have all come to mistrust NASA. They have all started to react with an attitude of “yea sure” whenever a new mission is announced. And to support this may I please draw your attention to this hardly insignificant Wikipedia list of canceled NASA missions.
I think that if we as a people want NASA to be relevant in the future we need to give it a mission that is guaranteed to be seen through to completion. Whatever we decide that should be. And we should make that decision. Democratically, the way the government is allegedly supposed to work. We could abandon it, or marginalize it. If that is indeed what we as a people chose. But we do need NASA. For the same reason that it was the expedition to find the new world was financed by Queen Isabella of Spain and the Dutch East India Company. Because projects that have little potential for short-term profit simply don’t get done by for-profit organizations. But just look how much money coming to America has made for the European in the long term (exploitation of natives notwithstanding.) We need governments to bankroll these kinds of projects because who else will? We are lucky enough to see SpaceX making some progress on this front but more is always better. If you’ve read this to completion please comment as I would like to hear readers thoughts on these complex issue.