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Cosmic Log: July 9-15, 2005

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog:   What would Burt do? ... Launch pad perceptions ... Has the shuttle peaked? ... Guide to the shuttlesphere... Swiss-knife spacecraft ... and more.

July 15, 2005 | 7:45 p.m. ETWhat would Burt do? As hundreds of engineers work meticulously to find out what went wrong with one little postcard-sized sensor in the shuttle Discovery’s fuel tank — a glitch that held up the launch of what must be a $2 billion spaceship — I can’t help wondering what must be going through the mind of Burt Rutan, who designed the first privately developed, piloted spaceship for around $25 million.

On the day Discovery was to launch, Rutan took NASA (or as he likes to call it, “Nay-say”) to task once again for trying to do the same thing for decades rather than fostering innovation.

Of course, it takes a lot of innovation to replace a manned spaceship capable of putting almost 30,000 pounds of cargo into orbit. I’m betting that Rutan would favor another approach, sending the payload and the people on separate breeds of spacecraft. It turns out that NASA’s new management tends to feel the same way — a big reason why the shuttle fleet’s days are numbered.

Discovery’s mission has drawn new attention to space entrepreneurs as well as the government-funded space effort: For a sampling, check out this Newsday survey of the space race’s field, and this Florida Today report on the need for more bright minds in aerospace engineering (links courtesy of Space Race News).

California-based SpaceDev is also trying to get into the manned space race, but it has taken on some intriguing unmanned projects as well. The latest one, announced today, involves trying to send a probe along the “interplanetary highway” that offers a relatively low-energy way to get to the moon and beyond. SmallTug is slated for launch in 2008 — just about the time NASA is due to start ramping up its own series of back-to-the-moon missions.

July 14, 2005 | Launch pad perceptions: How do you fix a problem that isn't there? Should you vow not to try using something until you can get it to break? That's the strange situation NASA is in as it tries to diagnose a shuttle fuel-tank sensor problem that, as of now, has cleared itself up.

The shuttle Discovery's ghost glitch will be occupying the attention of hundreds of engineers over the next few days. A bad transistor in the sensor system's electronic box was one of the first suspects, but deputy shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said today that "the indications are not consistent with what a transistor failure would indicate."

NASA Watch quotes an agency source as saying the nature of the problem hints at a mechanical rather than an electrical cause. But in that case, how do you duplicate the fault? You can't very well shake a 500,000-gallon tank around and see if anything rattles loose.

I'm no engineer, and I don't have any inside sources. But assuming that engineers don't find a loose wire or a bad transistor, at least three scenarios present themselves:

  • A subtler flaw is found through more detailed analysis, inspection and perhaps partial disassembly of the circuitry outside the fuel tank. In that case, NASA still might be able to launch in July.
  • NASA can't find the flaw, and has to somehow go into the tank. That would probably require rolling Discovery back into the Vehicle Assembly Building, with the possibility of delaying the launch until September.
  • NASA switches out some components, does some tests and finds that the situation is basically unchanged: The system still works. In that case, NASA could conceivably reschedule launch for sometime next week. The glitch remains ghostly — but if the sensors check out during the countdown, Discovery would lift off at last.

Some reporters believe that last scenario could be the likeliest one. When the option of just launching Discovery as is was suggested to Hale, his response came in the form of a question: "Could we talk ourselves into going, after all of this, without doing anything?" The implied answer is no. But could NASA managers talk themselves into going after doing something, but not finding anything? Maybe so.

It'd be a judgment call: Did NASA look hard enough for the problem? The engineers and the mission managers might be satisfied with their search, but the public would have to be satisfied as well — particularly in the wake of the Columbia tragedy, where investigators said NASA didn't look hard enough.

On Wednesday, during a $73,000 visit to Kennedy Space Center, members of Congress signaled that they were ready to back NASA officials in the decision to hold up as well as a future decision to go ahead.

"Success was in identifying the problem, and we're confident that they'll be successful in identifying and implementing the solution," House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., told reporters. He said he looked forward to a successful launch, "probably next week."

Another vote of confidence came today from the Science Committee, in the form of a unanimous endorsement of a NASA authorization bill. The full House could approve the bill next week. Will the glitch — or at least the perception of a glitch — be exorcised by then? Stay tuned.

One other footnote to this week's launch coverage: Earlier this week, weather forecasters had worried that Hurricane Emily might become a troublesome factor for Discovery if the shuttle wasn't launched. Now it seems clear that Emily's track will be wide to the west of Florida. But the Space Coast's changeable July weather could still play a decisive role in determining when Discovery gets off the ground.

On Friday, I'll be the one getting off the ground — if the airline reservation wizards are on my side. I'm taking a chance that there'll be a gap of several days before the next launch attempt and heading back to Seattle for some home cooking. I'll be posting entries again as soon as I'm settled. For still more shuttle bloggery, don't miss Gralnick's Shuttle Diary and Tom Costello's postings on The Daily Nightly.

July 13, 2005 | 8:30 p.m. ETHas the shuttle peaked? Today's shuttle glitches must have come as a disappointment to NASA Administrator Mike Griffin. But they probably didn't come as a surprise. Several of the comments he made in advance of launch day clearly signaled that the shuttle transportation system is an awe-inspiring technological achievement that's turned into a 25-year-old anachronism.

''I was asking myself earlier today, could I find a single electronics box in my house that is 25 years old and still works?'' Griffin told journalists on Tuesday. "The answer is no.''

Later, Griffin compared the shuttle program to NASA's X-15 program of the 1950s and '60s: "We conducted 199 flights with that and had one loss of crew. Nobody ever thought it was anything but a test program. I think we need to adopt that attitude with the shuttle for the remaining years of its useful service."

Griffin's most telling metaphor was to the clipper ships of yore. "Clipper ships were the pinnacle of the sailing art," he said. To the 19th-century mind, the vessels must have seemed as complex and as wonderful as the shuttle does today. But as marvelous as they were (and still are), they survive today mostly as ceremonial curiosities or museum pieces.

"I think there's a lesson to be gained from that," he said.

The implication is that a less elegant, less finicky technology might do the job better.

In that vein, Griffin said there was no thought of extending the shuttle fleet's service beyond 2010. In fact, a report posted today on SpaceRef suggests that the shuttle Discovery — or one of the other two shuttles — might be phased out in just two years. Another possible way to go would be to stay the course until 2010, then have a new generation of shuttle-derived spaceships ready to finish up space station construction if the job isn't finished by that time.

There's yet another view out there: Perhaps the space program is in difficult straits not because it's hanging onto the technology of the 1960s, but because it's straying from the boldness of the 1960s. One space maven here at Kennedy Space Center recalled that Apollo 12 was struck by lightning during a stormy launch, and that Apollo 14 weathered a radar failure without aborting its moon landing. It's hard to imagine those kinds of chances being taken today.

Those examples involved unpredictable events that can't really be compared with today's finely tuned concern over Discovery's fuel-tank sensors. Nevertheless, it'd be interesting to hear what you think: Will technology or psychology be the determining factor for the next generation of explorers? I'll publish a sampling of your e-mail in a future posting.

Guide to the shuttlesphere:
Wherever two or three journalists gather together, there is a social order in their midst. That definitely applies wherever there are two or three thousand journalists, as there were at the O.J. trial, the Michael Jackson trial – and this week’s .

NASA says about 2,600 journalists applied for credentials to cover Discovery’s return to flight after 2½-years of down time.  It doesn’t look as if they’ve all shown up.  Nevertheless, Kennedy Space Center has given rise to a makeshift city of tents, trailers and TV trucks, where all the residents are carpoolers or bus riders.

Because of post-9/11 security concerns and a natural reluctance to let lots of people get near things that could blow up, it takes a bit of trouble to get here.  You either have to ride a bus from a parking site 5 miles away, or gang up with colleagues to fill up a car.  Tuesday I rode in with a New York Times photographer.  Today it was a TV crew from Orlando.

Media cities have their own social strata.  It’s tempting to compare the phenomenon to high school, with grown-up varieties of cheerleaders and jocks, stoners and geeks, student council and band members.  In fact, last month a radio reporter did a of the Jacko trial’s pecking order.

At Cape Canaveral, we’re all geeks or geek wannabes, I’m afraid.  So I think of it using a different paradigm – the wider mediasphere:

NASA Central: The press center here is the media city’s most solid structure.  The main area has a long counter, with NASA public affairs officers, blue-jumpsuited astronauts, industry types and volunteers on one side of the counter, and gaggles of journalists on the other.  About 40 reporters spread out laptops and other stuff across three rows of workspaces parallel to the counter, and mix it up with the folks from the other side of the counter in a central area.  What’s the latest spin on the weather or flight readiness?  Which VIPs are attending?  Where’s the party?

Many of the journalists here cover the space program pretty closely, and know their way around an SRB and an RSS (that’s a rotating service structure, not really simple syndication). They also see a lot of each other on the road, at Pasadena, or Mojave or Houston.  It can be a chummy group, like the White House press corps.  So think of NASA Central as a mini-Washington.

Trailer City: The press center is flanked on each side by a motley collection of blockhouses, trailers and Tinkertoy TV platforms, inhabited by another kind of in-group: These journalists either work for outlets that cover Florida’s Space Coast as a local story, like the Orlando Sentinel or Florida Today, or they’re network/wire types who swoop in and erect trailer-park clusters.

NBC and MSNBC have gone into this in a big way, and more than one reporter has cast an envious eye at the “MSNBC Catering” trailer (if only they knew how unpredictable the food delivery schedule has been).  Many of the journalists here don’t cover space on a regular basis, but move from one big story to another.  You may hear them swapping tales of Hurricane Dennis as they relax after their cable-TV hits.

The mix of local neighborhoods and cosmopolitan energy reminds me of New York.  The foreign-language signs around the trailers used by the Japanese networks and JAXA, the Japanese space agency, add a U.N.-style international flavor.

Gypsy City: One of the more intriguing places is a knot of three gray trailers called the Joint Industry Press Center, or JIPC (pronounced “Gypsy”).  Aerospace companies like Boeing and ATK/Thiokol have set up their headquarters in one of the trailers, but the other two are given over to journalists who don’t have the pull or the prestige to get a reserved spot in the other two sectors of the city.

Each trailer can accommodate about 50 journalists, but so far, the population has been sparse. I have a feeling that’s going to change over the next 24 hours or so as more “Gypsies” show up to claim their 3-by-3-foot deskspace.  Some of the Gypsies are professional journalists from far-flung media outlets, while others are Web site operators or spaceflight fans with a press pass.  It reminds me of the blogosphere: maybe not the “Mainstream Media” for space shots, but among the most dedicated to the space effort.

The city is surrounded by a forest of TV trucks in the parking lot, sprouting satellite dishes – and amid the hustle and bustle, you’ll find a canteen truck and a souvenir stand or two.  All this has been weeks in the making, but I have the odd feeling that it will take just hours or days to break it down.

For more of the flavor from Kennedy Space Center, check out the blog entries from two of NBC News’ most space-savvy producers: Jeff Gralnick at (a.k.a. the Peacock Blog), and at The Daily Nightly.

| Swiss-knife spacecraft: A longtime supplier of modules for the space shuttle is trying to branch out with a line of small, medium and large spacecraft that could take cargo and conceivably even people into orbit.

Houston-based Spacehab used the buildup to this week's scheduled launch of the space shuttle Discovery as a springboard to publicize its Apex series of modular spacecraft, which is designed to be launched using other companies' rockets. Spacehab says the smaller Apex craft could be lofted with something on the order of a SpaceX Falcon 1, while the large-size Apex could bring payload to the international space station atop an Atlas 5 or Delta 4 rocket.

The strategy fits in with NASA's latest plan to give private companies more of a chance to provide cargo services for the station program, said Michael Kearney, Spacehab's president and chief executive officer.

"Given that that actually becomes reality this fall ... then we believe there will be a basis for a commercial investment in this kind of an asset," Kearney told reporters huddled inside an industry trailer at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The smallest Apex spacecraft could put 572 pounds (260 kilograms) into orbit for later recovery on Earth, or send up 836 pounds (380 kilograms) of nonrecoverable payload, according to a Spacehab fact sheet. The biggest Apex could loft roughly 19,000 to 27,000 pounds (8,600 to 12,300 kilograms, recoverable vs. non recoverable), the company said.

For now, though, the Apex craft exist only as computer-generated design specifications. The concept is being shopped around to potential customers, and no hardware has yet been built, said Michael Bain, senior vice president and chief operating officer.

Bain estimated that if a customer gave the go-ahead for Apex development, it would take 18 months to three years to deliver a spacecraft. The cost? Bain was reluctant to give firm figures, but he mentioned a range of $5 million to $25 million for the small end of the scale, and $1.5 billion or up "to build a full manned system" that could serve as a ferry to the space station.

In the past, Spacehab has had experiment-laden modules put into the space shuttle's cargo bay for flights into orbit and back, and Kearney noted that a Spacehab-built cargo carrier is to be installed on the space station during the Discovery mission.

"That marks, in our minds, the opening of the era of space commerce," he said.

Commercial space certainly seems to be on the verge of blossoming, but there are other players in this space race, including SpaceX and t/Space. Will Spacehab get Apex off the drawing boards and into the race? It could take months or years to arrive at an answer.

Meanwhile, there are more immediate matters to watch here at Cape Canaveral. Check out MSNBC's Shuttle Diary for updates on the Discovery preparations — plus historical perspectives — from veteran NBC producer Jeff Gralnick.

| Brain food from the scientific Web:
Nature: Brain scan gives boost to 'Lorenzo's Oil'
Scientific American: Training the brain
Science News: Night of the crusher
BBC: 'Over-friendly' brain clues found

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