T+162 days (May 15, 2015) - EFT-1 heat shield nears end of analysis

Ever since it arrived at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center on March 9, engineers have been cutting up Orion EFT-1′s heat shield to better understand how it withstood 4,000 degrees of searing heat. The 16.5 foot wide, Avcoat heat shield was the first thermal shield designed for deep-space human spaceflight since the 1960′s.

Engineers have been removing the material from the backshell since mid March, laser-mapping the entire heat shield before the process began. A seven-axis milling machine unique to Marshall was used to remove the material.

Over 180 squares have been cut from the single-piece heat shield, which have been sent to research centers across the country to analyze and determine the heatshield’s performance.

Once completed at the end of May, the milling machine will smooth the heat shield to a layer one-tenth of an inch thick. In early June, the backshell will be transported to Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, where it will see new life as a water impact test article.

Why Explore Space? A 1970 Letter to a Nun in Africa

NOTE: Long read ahead. Worth every word and more relevant than ever. When someone asks you “why do we do anything in space” or “spend so much money out there when we have bigger problems down here”…present this letter to them. It’s not a simple answer.

Ernst Stuhlinger wrote this letter on May 6, 1970, to Sister Mary Jucunda, a nun who worked among the starving children of Kabwe, Zambia, in Africa, who questioned the value of space exploration. At the time Dr. Stuhlinger was Associate Director for Science at the Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Alabama. Touched by Sister Mary’s concern and sincerity, his beliefs about the value of space exploration were expressed in his reply to Sister Mary. It remains, more than four decades later, an eloquent statement of the value of the space exploration endeavor. Born in Germany in 1913, Dr. Stuhlinger received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Tuebingen in 1936. He was a member of the German rocket development team at Peenemünde, and came to the United States in 1946 to work for the U.S. Army at Fort Bliss, Texas. He moved to Huntsville in 1950 and continued working for the Army at Redstone Arsenal until the Marshall Space Flight Center was formed in 1960. Dr. Stuhlinger received numerous awards and widespread recognition for his research in propulsion. He received the Exceptional Civilian Service Award for his part in launching of Explorer 1, America’s first Earth satellite.

Dear Sister Mary Jucunda:

Your letter was one of many which are reaching me every day, but it has touched me more deeply than all the others because it came so much from the depths of a searching mind and a compassionate heart. I will try to answer your question as best as I possibly can.

First, however, I would like to express my great admiration for you, and for all your many brave sisters, because you are dedicating your lives to the noblest cause of man: help for his fellowmen who are in need.

You asked in your letter how I could suggest the expenditures of billions of dollars for a voyage to Mars, at a time when many children on this Earth are starving to death. I know that you do not expect an answer such as “Oh, I did not know that there are children dying from hunger, but from now on I will desist from any kind of space research until mankind has solved that problem!” In fact, I have known of famined children long before I knew that a voyage to the planet Mars is technically feasible. However, I believe, like many of my friends, that travelling to the Moon and eventually to Mars and to other planets is a venture which we should undertake now, and I even believe that this project, in the long run, will contribute more to the solution of these grave problems we are facing here on Earth than many other potential projects of help which are debated and discussed year after year, and which are so extremely slow in yielding tangible results.

Before trying to describe in more detail how our space program is contributing to the solution of our Earthly problems, I would like to relate briefly a supposedly true story, which may help support the argument. About 400 years ago, there lived a count in a small town in Germany. He was one of the benign counts, and he gave a large part of his income to the poor in his town. This was much appreciated, because poverty was abundant during medieval times, and there were epidemics of the plague which ravaged the country frequently. One day, the count met a strange man. He had a workbench and little laboratory in his house, and he labored hard during the daytime so that he could afford a few hours every evening to work in his laboratory. He ground small lenses from pieces of glass; he mounted the lenses in tubes, and he used these gadgets to look at very small objects. The count was particularly fascinated by the tiny creatures that could be observed with the strong magnification, and which he had never seen before. He invited the man to move with his laboratory to the castle, to become a member of the count’s household, and to devote henceforth all his time to the development and perfection of his optical gadgets as a special employee of the count.

The townspeople, however, became angry when they realized that the count was wasting his money, as they thought, on a stunt without purpose. “We are suffering from this plague,” they said, “while he is paying that man for a useless hobby!” But the count remained firm. “I give you as much as I can afford,” he said, “but I will also support this man and his work, because I know that someday something will come out of it!”

Indeed, something very good came out of this work, and also out of similar work done by others at other places: the microscope. It is well known that the microscope has contributed more than any other invention to the progress of medicine, and that the elimination of the plague and many other contagious diseases from most parts of the world is largely a result of studies which the microscope made possible.

The count, by retaining some of his spending money for research and discovery, contributed far more to the relief of human suffering than he could have contributed by giving all he could possibly spare to his plague-ridden community.

The situation which we are facing today is similar in many respects. The President of the United States is spending about 200 billion dollars in his yearly budget [more than $2 trillion in 2012]. This money goes to health, education, welfare, urban renewal, highways, transportation, foreign aid, defense, conservation, science, agriculture and many installations inside and outside the country. About 1.6 percent of this national budget was allocated to space exploration this year [less than .5 of one percent in 2012]. The space program includes Project Apollo, and many other smaller projects in space physics, space astronomy, space biology, planetary projects, Earth resources projects, and space engineering. To make this expenditure for the space program possible, the average American taxpayer with 10,000 dollars income per year is paying about 30 tax dollars for space. The rest of his income, 9,970 dollars, remains for his subsistence, his recreation, his savings, his other taxes, and all his other expenditures.

You will probably ask now: “Why don’t you take 5 or 3 or 1 dollar out of the 30 space dollars which the average American taxpayer is paying, and send these dollars to the hungry children?” To answer this question, I have to explain briefly how the economy of this country works. The situation is very similar in other countries. The government consists of a number of departments (Interior, Justice, Health, Education and Welfare, Transportation, Defense, and others) and the bureaus (National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and others). All of them prepare their yearly budgets according to their assigned missions, and each of them must defend its budget against extremely severe screening by congressional committees, and against heavy pressure for economy from the Bureau of the Budget and the President. When the funds are finally appropriated by Congress, they can be spent only for the line items specified and approved in the budget.

The budget of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, naturally, can contain only items directly related to aeronautics and space. If this budget were not approved by Congress, the funds proposed for it would not be available for something else; they would simply not be levied from the taxpayer, unless one of the other budgets had obtained approval for a specific increase which would then absorb the funds not spent for space. You realize from this brief discourse that support for hungry children, or rather a support in addition to what the United States is already contributing to this very worthy cause in the form of foreign aid, can be obtained only if the appropriate department submits a budget line item for this purpose, and if this line item is then approved by Congress.

You may ask now whether I personally would be in favor of such a move by our government. My answer is an emphatic yes. Indeed, I would not mind at all if my annual taxes were increased by a number of dollars for the purpose of feeding hungry children, wherever they may live.

I know that all of my friends feel the same way. However, we could not bring such a program to life merely by desisting from making plans for voyages to Mars. On the contrary, I even believe that by working for the space program I can make some contribution to the relief and eventual solution of such grave problems as poverty and hunger on Earth. Basic to the hunger problem are two functions: the production of food and the distribution of food. Food production by agriculture, cattle ranching, ocean fishing and other large-scale operations is efficient in some parts of the world, but drastically deficient in many others. For example, large areas of land could be utilized far better if efficient methods of watershed control, fertilizer use, weather forecasting, fertility assessment, plantation programming, field selection, planting habits, timing of cultivation, crop survey and harvest planning were applied.

The best tool for the improvement of all these functions, undoubtedly, is the artificial Earth satellite. Circling the globe at a high altitude, it can screen wide areas of land within a short time; it can observe and measure a large variety of factors indicating the status and condition of crops, soil, droughts, rainfall, snow cover, etc., and it can radio this information to ground stations for appropriate use. It has been estimated that even a modest system of Earth satellites equipped with Earth resources, sensors, working within a program for worldwide agricultural improvements, will increase the yearly crops by an equivalent of many billions of dollars.

The distribution of the food to the needy is a completely different problem. The question is not so much one of shipping volume, it is one of international cooperation. The ruler of a small nation may feel very uneasy about the prospect of having large quantities of food shipped into his country by a large nation, simply because he fears that along with the food there may also be an import of influence and foreign power. Efficient relief from hunger, I am afraid, will not come before the boundaries between nations have become less divisive than they are today. I do not believe that space flight will accomplish this miracle over night. However, the space program is certainly among the most promising and powerful agents working in this direction.

Let me only remind you of the recent near-tragedy of Apollo 13. When the time of the crucial reentry of the astronauts approached, the Soviet Union discontinued all Russian radio transmissions in the frequency bands used by the Apollo Project in order to avoid any possible interference, and Russian ships stationed themselves in the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans in case an emergency rescue would become necessary. Had the astronaut capsule touched down near a Russian ship, the Russians would undoubtedly have expended as much care and effort in their rescue as if Russian cosmonauts had returned from a space trip. If Russian space travelers should ever be in a similar emergency situation, Americans would do the same without any doubt.

Higher food production through survey and assessment from orbit, and better food distribution through improved international relations, are only two examples of how profoundly the space program will impact life on Earth. I would like to quote two other examples: stimulation of technological development, and generation of scientific knowledge.

The requirements for high precision and for extreme reliability which must be imposed upon the components of a moon-travelling spacecraft are entirely unprecedented in the history of engineering. The development of systems which meet these severe requirements has provided us a unique opportunity to find new material and methods, to invent better technical systems, to manufacturing procedures, to lengthen the lifetimes of instruments, and even to discover new laws of nature.

All this newly acquired technical knowledge is also available for application to Earth-bound technologies. Every year, about a thousand technical innovations generated in the space program find their ways into our Earthly technology where they lead to better kitchen appliances and farm equipment, better sewing machines and radios, better ships and airplanes, better weather forecasting and storm warning, better communications, better medical instruments, better utensils and tools for everyday life. Presumably, you will ask now why we must develop first a life support system for our moon-travelling astronauts, before we can build a remote-reading sensor system for heart patients. The answer is simple: significant progress in the solutions of technical problems is frequently made not by a direct approach, but by first setting a goal of high challenge which offers a strong motivation for innovative work, which fires the imagination and spurs men to expend their best efforts, and which acts as a catalyst by including chains of other reactions.

Spaceflight without any doubt is playing exactly this role. The voyage to Mars will certainly not be a direct source of food for the hungry. However, it will lead to so many new technologies and capabilities that the spin-offs from this project alone will be worth many times the cost of its implementation.

Besides the need for new technologies, there is a continuing great need for new basic knowledge in the sciences if we wish to improve the conditions of human life on Earth. We need more knowledge in physics and chemistry, in biology and physiology, and very particularly in medicine to cope with all these problems which threaten man’s life: hunger, disease, contamination of food and water, pollution of the environment.

We need more young men and women who choose science as a career and we need better support for those scientists who have the talent and the determination to engage in fruitful research work. Challenging research objectives must be available, and sufficient support for research projects must be provided. Again, the space program with its wonderful opportunities to engage in truly magnificent research studies of moons and planets, of physics and astronomy, of biology and medicine is an almost ideal catalyst which induces the reaction between the motivation for scientific work, opportunities to observe exciting phenomena of nature, and material support needed to carry out the research effort.

Among all the activities which are directed, controlled, and funded by the American government, the space program is certainly the most visible and probably the most debated activity, although it consumes only 1.6 percent of the total national budget, and 3 per mille (less than one-third of 1 percent) of the gross national product. As a stimulant and catalyst for the development of new technologies, and for research in the basic sciences, it is unparalleled by any other activity. In this respect, we may even say that the space program is taking over a function which for three or four thousand years has been the sad prerogative of wars.

How much human suffering can be avoided if nations, instead of competing with their bomb-dropping fleets of airplanes and rockets, compete with their moon-travelling space ships! This competition is full of promise for brilliant victories, but it leaves no room for the bitter fate of the vanquished, which breeds nothing but revenge and new wars.

Although our space program seems to lead us away from our Earth and out toward the moon, the sun, the planets, and the stars, I believe that none of these celestial objects will find as much attention and study by space scientists as our Earth. It will become a better Earth, not only because of all the new technological and scientific knowledge which we will apply to the betterment of life, but also because we are developing a far deeper appreciation of our Earth, of life, and of man.

The photograph which I enclose with this letter shows a view of our Earth as seen from Apollo 8 when it orbited the moon at Christmas, 1968. Of all the many wonderful results of the space program so far, this picture may be the most important one. It opened our eyes to the fact that our Earth is a beautiful and most precious island in an unlimited void, and that there is no other place for us to live but the thin surface layer of our planet, bordered by the bleak nothingness of space. Never before did so many people recognize how limited our Earth really is, and how perilous it would be to tamper with its ecological balance. Ever since this picture was first published, voices have become louder and louder warning of the grave problems that confront man in our times: pollution, hunger, poverty, urban living, food production, water control, overpopulation. It is certainly not by accident that we begin to see the tremendous tasks waiting for us at a time when the young space age has provided us the first good look at our own planet.

Very fortunately though, the space age not only holds out a mirror in which we can see ourselves, it also provides us with the technologies, the challenge, the motivation, and even with the optimism to attack these tasks with confidence. What we learn in our space program, I believe, is fully supporting what Albert Schweitzer had in mind when he said: “I am looking at the future with concern, but with good hope.”

My very best wishes will always be with you, and with your children.

Very sincerely yours,

Ernst Stuhlinger, Associate Director for Science


J-2X engine combustion stability test at NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center.


T+ 137 days (20 April 2015)

Over the course of the last month, technicians at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center have been stripping Orion’s heat shield of its ablative material. Before the avcoat material was removed, however, the heat shield was laser-mapped for analysis. 

Not only will this help scientists see how the heat shield performed withstanding 4,000 degree temperatures, but will also help make future heat shields for EM-1 and beyond lighter and more efficient.

The avcoat material was being stripped from the heat shield structure in order to prepare it for testing at NASA Langley. There, it will be mated to a boilerplate capsule for water impact tests before its retired. The used, charred avcoat was being dispersed to museums across the country.

The aluminum honeycomb structure the ablative material is pumped into can be seen in the photos above. Additionally, the depth of the heat shield is easily visible. Ablative heat shields work by ripping away material at high temperatures, literally rolling the heat away. Therefore, the heat shields are substantially thick. 

The heat shield was separated from the Orion backshell in mid February, and arrived at Marshall at the beginning of March.

Photos taken by USSRCCurator

Shuttle Enterprise arrives at the Marshall Space Flight Center for the Mated Vertical Ground Vibration Test (MVGVT) series in Huntsville, Alabama, 1 March, 1978. The test series began at the Dynamic Test Stand in 1978 with the other components of the Space Transportation System.  Booster configuration tests, involving the orbiter Enterprise and the External Tank, began in May and were completed in July. Here, the orbiter passes MSFC Building 4200 on its way to the test area.

Table swag from Med Students for Choice: Temporary tattoos and condoms! Does your school have a Medical Students for Choice chapter? You can start one! The national group is super helpful.

Reproductive health isn’t necessarily my thing-thing but it is super important to me that women get all the services they need. 

In case you didn’t hear, the Supreme Court just struck down a law in Massachusetts that created a buffer zone between protestors and clinics. And already, the first day they were able, protestors were harassing women who need those clinics for health care.

And that is why I want to make sure our future providers have all the support we can give them.

The Shifting Tides of the New Space Age
credit, Jeffrey Marlow

Jeffrey Marlow: Jeff Marlow is a graduate student in Geological and Planetary Sciences at the California Institute of Technology where he studies exotic microbial metabolisms in an attempt to understand the limits of life on Earth and beyond.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with John Logsdon, Professor Emeritus of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, in advance of his participation in a panel discussing the role of science in the coming age of space exploration. Logsdon is perhaps the world’s foremost expert on space policy, and he shared his thoughts on NASA’s shuttle succession plans, the roles of science and exploration in space-based activities, and what he sees as Planetary Resource‘s real end-game. What follows is the first of two installments.

Wired: So what exactly is space policy?

Logsdon: Space policy is the set of principles and decisions that decides what goes on with our activities in space, most clearly manifested in budget allocations. But it’s not only budget allocations – for example, the congressional prohibition against any cooperation with China is a form of space policy. There’s a congressman from Virginia who chairs NASA’s appropriation subcommittee named Frank Wolf, and he’s written it into the NASA bills. He doesn’t like China’s human rights record, but the leverage he has is NASA. Another example is what the Department of Defense has done in adapting the policy of what it would take to qualify to launch national security payloads. Right now there’s an exclusive deal with the United Launch Alliance, but this change opens the window for SpaceX in particular, and also other companies.

Wired: We’re currently in the middle of a transition from the Space Shuttle to…something else. How does this gap in NASA’s human spaceflight capability compare with other moments in the agency’s past?

Logsdon: After the last lunar flight, in December of 1972, there were only two more human flights until the shuttle started in 1981, so it was a nine-year gap. There was an explicit acceptance of a gap in human spaceflight while we developed a new system, and that’s parallel to now, it’s just that the government is not in total control of developing that new system. NASA recently announced that the commercial crew system, which would use private spacecraft to get people to the space station, might be ready to start testing in 2015, so it will theoretically be a shorter gap than before the Shuttle.

Wired: What’s the current manned spaceflight agenda for NASA?

Logsdon: It’s totally confused, and there are lots of components to that. Between now and at least 2020, the destination for humans is the space station. We’re currently buying seats to the space station from the Russians, and Congress in its final days passed a extension to the policy that allows for that arrangement. There’s a bill called the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Non-Proliferation Act, which forbids the US from dealing with these countries, but there’s an exception written in so that NASA can buy seats from Russia. That exception has been extended until 2020. It’s a hedge against the possibility that none of the commercial crew providers will be successful.

In parallel, NASA is developing a heavy lift rocket called the Space Launch System and a crew capsule called Orion without any real consensus on what is going to be done with it. The official policy says that the first launch without people will happen in 2017 and then the next launch with a crew will go into lunar orbit in 2021. That four-year gap that’s almost totally budget driven, in that there’s just not enough money to do a mission in between.

Going into lunar orbit would be a repetition of what we did in 1968, so there’s not much enthusiasm about that. Cooking in the wings is the idea of instead going to the earth moon L2 point, and connected to that is the idea of going out and grabbing a small asteroid and leaving it there, so there’s something there for another crew to explore.

There’s total uncertainty about the reality of what will happen in human spaceflight, post-space station, and also uncertainty about how long the station will operate.

Wired: It seems like one of the primary challenges in deciding long-term space policy is the different time horizons of space programs and political cycles. Just as one administration’s agenda is gaining momentum, they’re out of office and the next President offers new thoughts – there’s just not time to see proposals through.

Logsdon: That’s right, though on the other hand, the shuttle operated for 30 years without too much upheaval. It’s just that this journey now of deciding how best to replace it makes for a particularly tumultuous period. Now that there’s the opportunity for change, this is the time when all of the conflict would come out into the open.

Wired: Where does science fit into NASA’s goals?

Logsdon: The program that NASA carries out is not an integrated program. The science part of the program is separately managed, has its own centers, has a pretty well organized scientific community as both advocate and client, and has in a sense a life of its own separate form human spaceflight.

Recently, I’ve compared the science program as a whole to a python trying to strangle a big pig, and that pig is the James Webb Space Telescope. Getting that completed and successfully launched and operating if proving to be a big challenge, and I think that has cast a shadow over the whole space science enterprise and any ambitious future planning.

Wired: Private space companies are clearly changing the economics of launching payloads to orbit, but the path is less clear when it comes to true exploration. Do you think private spaceflight will play a key role in our exploration of the universe?

Logsdon: I think they will follow, not lead, and that’s how most exploration has worked throughout history. The government funds the pioneering expeditions, and they find gold or spices or fertile land or whatever, and then commerce follows. There’s not much profit motive in that first manned mission to Mars. I’m not sure there’s any profit motivation in sending humans to Mars, period.

Wired: Companies like SpaceX are all about lowering the cost of launch, and companies like Virgin Galactic are interested in space tourism. Recently, the Planetary Resources company proposed a different type of private involvement in space, and that is resource acquisition. What do you make of that approach?

Logsdon: There is no doubt that asteroids are resource rich bodies. There’s plenty of doubt about whether anybody can do anything about it. Planetary Resources says that’s what they’re after, but it’s a bit of a shell game in my opinion. If you listen to them closely, they say their only goal is being able to extract valuable resources from asteroids, and that’s what everybody hooks onto. But then they say, that’s decades away, and what we’re really doing now is planning to launch, hopefully with government sponsorship, little telescopes to find the asteroids. At this first stage, it’s very shrewd marketing of hardware to government, basically.

Wired: When do you think we will see humans on Mars?

Logsdon: Sometime between 2035-2050, or never.

To be continued…

image: An artist’s conception of NASA’s Space Launch System rising from a launchpad. (NASA/MSFC)


SLS Anti-Geyser Testing at MSFC