Sunday, August 2, 2015

‘Space is hard’ did not cause SpaceShipTwo crash

Whenever a space-related accident happens, people chant “space is hard.”

Not this time. Virgin Galactic’s (VG) SpaceShipTwo (SS2) did not disintegrate and crash on October 31, 2014 near Koehn Dry Lake, California, because space is hard. A July 28, 2015 public meeting at National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) headquarters in Washington, D.C. made that clear.

The NTSB said SS2 broke up over the desert and crashed due to failings in planning, design, training, and certification. They didn’t mention unrealistic expectations from impatient know-nothings, but they could have.

Note that the written report, released as part of the minutes of the meeting under the title, In-Flight breakup during test flight, Scaled Composites SpaceShipTwo, N339SS, near Koehn Dry Lake, California October 31, 2014, doesn’t include the NTSB’s reasons for its findings. The full report is coming soon.


The NTSB said the accident happened because SS2’s co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, unlocked the feathering system too soon.

The feathering system moves the tail assembly of SS2 to a position that increases drag to slow down the ship during re-entry. Although moving the assembly is a separate action from unlocking it, the aerodynamic load at that point in the flight overwhelmed the unlocked assembly, causing it to move prematurely. The resulting drag increased the aerodynamic load to the point where the ship broke up and crashed.

Some people will see “pilot error” and think that’s the main reason for the accident. The co-pilot, although an experienced and competent flyer, made a fatal mistake. The history of aviation is filled with similar stories. Blaming the co-pilot alone, though, is misguided.

Wayne Hale, a former NASA Space Shuttle program manager and Space Shuttle flight director explains in a blog post, Pilot error is never root cause, that pilot error is the end result of systemic failures. Mr. Hale says, “Pilot error is never ever a root cause.”

The NTSB report clearly states that Scaled Composites (SC), the company that built SS2 for Virgin Galactic, should have put in design features to prevent the co-pilot’s mistake. Instead, they ignored human factors entirely in their risk assessment and assumed the pilots would do everything perfectly.


Then there’s the performance, or non-performance, of the the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Doug Messier at Parabolic Arc wrote an excellent article about the FAA’s role in the accident, Experts: FAA review process for SpaceShipTwo flawed, subject to political pressure. It’s a good read about an ugly situation. Expect to hear more about this.

Veteran space writer Alan Boyle writes in an article at GeekWire, SpaceShipTwo findings put more pressure on FAA, that a number of companies besides Virgin Galactic are preparing their vehicles for testing. The FAA seems to be ill-equipped to deal with the situation without significant changes to their procedures.


The report may have convinced a flamboyant billionaire named Richard Branson to stop spin-doctoring facts and making rash promises about things he doesn’t understand. Well, mostly.

Based on his comments in a blog post at VG’s website, The end of NTSB’s investigation and the future of Virgin Galactic, our flamboyant billionaire thinks the NTSB report concludes the design of SS2 is sound. Two NTSB members, Chairman Christopher Hart and board member Robert Sumwalt, say otherwise.

Although the report doesn’t find evidence of structural, system, or engine failures, what our flamboyant billionaire overlooks is that a single point of failure due to human error is a design flaw. Both Mr. Hart and Mr. Sumwalt say so in a CBC News article, Virgin Galactic didn't prepare for human error ahead of SpaceShipTwo crash, NTSB.

It does seem that our flamboyant billionaire has gotten most of the message. In a document called VG & TSC NTSB Investigation Press Release, under Recommendations on page 6 it says the company will “Conduct a comprehensive internal safety review of all SpaceShipTwo systems to identify and eliminate any single-point human performance actions that could result in a catastrophic event.”

Under Status it says, “An initial assessment was completed and modifications to SS2-002 are in progress. Virgin Galactic will continually evaluate and improve System Safety throughout SpaceShipTwo’s lifecycle.”


Going forward, if the recommendations of the NTSB report are acted on industry-wide, experimental commercial space flight should be safer.

For those who still aren’t convinced that “space is hard” didn’t cause the SpaceShipTwo accident, perhaps a quote from NTSB Chairman Hart at the hearing will do the trick. The quote appears in the previously referenced CBC News article.

Many of the safety issues that we will hear about today arose not from the novelty of a space launch test flight, but from human factors that were already known elsewhere in transportation.”

Monday, May 4, 2015

Newfoundland: A communications centre moves into the space age

The history begins over 300 years ago with signal flags. It continues today with radio communications into low Earth orbit.

As noted in a CBC News article, Kenmount Road company assists in SpaceX flight to space station, during that SpaceX launch a man with a distinctive Newfoundland accent said, “Acquisition signal Newfoundland, Canada.”

A tracking station in St. John’s was monitoring the April 14, 2015, SpaceX launch of their Dragon spacecraft heading for the International Space Station.

Newfoundland’s role in communications doesn’t begin with space flight. It goes back to the 1700s.

According to the Signal Hill National Historic Site of Canada page at the web site Canada’s Historic Places, Signal Hill in St. John’s was a site for military communications during the periods 1660-1697, 1697-1870, World War I, and World War II.

The web site notes that Cabot Tower on Signal Hill, built between 1898-1900, was used as a flag signalling tower until 1958. From 1933 to 1949 the Canadian Marconi Company operated a wireless station there. From 1949 to 1960, the Canadian Department of Transport operated the station.

Signal Hill is just one location that has a place in Newfoundland’s communications history. The town of Heart’s Content is another.

The 19th Century Communications and Transportation page at The Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site notes that Heart’s Content was the western terminus of the first transatlantic telegraph cable connecting North America to Europe. The site was active for almost 100 years up until its closing in 1965.

Newfoundland played a crucial role in establishing the next advancement in communications. The Marconi page at The Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site notes that Signal Hill was the site where Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless signal on December 12, 1901, from Poldhu, Cornwall, England.

This wasn’t Marconi’s only achievement in Newfoundland. The wireless station he built at Cape Race in 1904 is known for receiving the distress signal from the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Titanic after it hit an iceberg and sank.

Marconi’s next success occurred in 1920 when he established wireless communications with the S.S. Victorian at a distance of about 1,931 km (1,200 miles) from St. John’s.

Another first for Newfoundland came in telephone communications. The Post-1949 Communications and Transportation page at The Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site outlines the role Newfoundland played in the laying of the first transatlantic submarine telephone cable in 1955.

Besides the previously mentioned connection to space flight, Newfoundland has been a testing ground for space-based communications systems. The NASA Technical Reports Server (NTRS) lists a January 1, 1995 NASA report describing a joint Canadian-American research project testing alternative means of communicating in the far north. The team tested signals between a Canadian ice breaker and a ground station in St. John’s by way of a low-Earth-orbit satellite.

Newfoundland is also a meeting place for communication professionals. The 36th Canadian Symposium on Remote Sensing will take place starting June 8, 2015, in St. John’s. The 9th symposium took place in St. John’s in 1984.

Newfoundland has a long history of firsts in the communications world. From signal flags to spaceship tracking, Newfoundland will continue to play a leading role in Earth-based and low-Earth-orbit communications—and perhaps beyond.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The ugly battle over the David Dunlap Observatory

Sometimes the real story is in what isn’t being said, like the April 15, 2015, press release from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada Toronto Centre (RASC). They announced that Corsica Development was donating the David Dunlap Observatory (DDO) to them. Corsica, a subsidiary of Metrus Development, is the current owner of the land.

What the press release doesn’t mention is the conflict, the mudslinging, the pressure tactics, or the broken relationships over DDO.

The David Dunlap Observatory opened in 1935 in Richmond Hill, Ontario, a town just north of Toronto. David Dunlap, a mining executive, wanted to endow the University of Toronto (U of T) to build a new observatory. After Mr. Dunlap died in 1924 his widow, Jessie, went ahead with the endowment.

The observatory houses a 1.9-metre (74-inch) reflecting telescope, at that time the largest in Canada and second largest in the world.

Astronomers did groundbreaking work at DDO. Helen Sawyer Hogg publishing a major catalogue of variable stars and globular clusters. Sidney van den Bergh expanded the David Dunlap Observatory Catalogue, a database of dwarf galaxies. Tom Bolton was one of first astronomers to find evidence of black holes.

Over time newer facilities surpassed the observatory, and local development closed in around it. The university announced in 2007 that they would close DDO and put the property up for sale.

That’s when the simmering conflict over the future of DDO boiled over.

As outlined in the Globe and Mail, From stargazing to navel-gazing: Astronomers feud over historic observatory, the university sold the 77-hectare (190-acre) property in 2008 to Corsica Development. Corsica wanted an astronomy group to operate the observatory. Two groups wanted it: RASC, and a group of astronomers called the David Dunlap Observatory Defenders (DDOD). Corsica chose RASC.

In response to the decision, the Defenders tried to block the opening. They said the telescope was a precious piece of Canadian heritage and expert astronomers should operate it, not amateurs as they claimed RASC members were.

Their attempt failed and DDO reopen in July 2009 under the care of RASC.

An article from The Varsity, the U of T’s student newspaper, raised questions about the university’s motives for selling the land and if they had the legal right to sell.

As outlined in the story, U of T and the Dunlap Observatory: 'A breach of public trust'?, the U of T said they wanted to sell the property because light pollution made the telescope unusable for research. The Defenders disputed that claim. Both they and a Richmond Hill official said the sale was about maximizing financial return, not science.

The Varsity also said the deal violated the terms of the endowment, which said that the land must be used for research or ownership would revert to the Dunlap heirs.

Two of the heirs agreed to the university’s plan after a few months but the third, Donalda Robarts, held out. She launched a lawsuit. After 4 years of intensive lobbying by the university, Robarts gave in. Her lawsuit was settled and the records were sealed.

The fighting continued over the next several years between the groups—the developer, the astronomers, the town of Richmond Hill, and a group called the Richmond Hill Naturalists.

As outlined in a Globe and Mail story, Fight over David Dunlap Observatory lands ends peacefully, the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) got the groups to negotiate a settlement. (The 24-page decision is here.)

Corsica Development could build 520 housing units on the site; the town of Richmond Hill would get ownership of the observatory and its surrounding land.

The Naturalists were the lone holdout to the deal. The OMB rejected their appeal.

The conciliatory tone of the article suggested that the war was over—prematurely, as it turned out.

In an editorial at the website, Competing observatory groups should work together, said the sniping continued in letters to them from some of the groups members. The editorial ended with a plea to the groups to put aside the bad blood and work together.

As further evidence that all is still not well, that donation from Corsica to RASC is not sitting well with some.

In a later article at, Richmond Hill observatory donation by developer raises concerns, the Defenders claim that because RASC is a registered charity, not a public agency as the agreement stipulated, the donation violates the terms of the settlement. Another lawsuit could be coming.

This is a familiar story: competing visions, elitism and a sense of entitlement, the tempting smell of money, hardening battle lines, and a lengthy, exhausting process with no one coming out looking good.

It’s too bad that in their winner-take-all battle over a reflecting telescope, the combatants didn’t do a bit of reflecting of their own.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The growth of space-based STEM for kids in Canada

Affordable and available. Nothing is widely adopted without meeting those two requirements.

Affordability and availability also matter in promoting space-based science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.

STEM programs have been around for decades; astronomy, rocketry, and other space-related activities have been part of it. Getting a student project into space, though, wasn’t easy due to the expense and the limited number of launches.

With the introduction of inexpensive microsatellites, a growing commercial launch market, interest in space-based STEM from tech companies, and crowdfunding campaigns, even elementary school students can get their projects into low Earth orbit.

Space-based STEM Stories in the News

As space-based STEM projects for Canadian elementary schools become more common, so do media reports about them.

B.C. students’ space project set for liftoff once more is a story about 4 boys from McGowan Park Elementary School in Kamloops, B.C., who won a NASA-supported contest to have their experiment flown to the International Space Station (ISS). The experiment was to see how a zero-gravity environment affected the growth of crystals.

The boys ran into some trouble along the way. The Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket that carried their experiment exploded during its launch from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia, on October 28, 2014.

The boys got another chance to launch, this time successfully, on a SpaceX flight to the ISS on January 10, 2015.

The Interlake School division, located about 25 km north of Winnipeg, won a competition to fly an experiment to the ISS. As noted in the story, From Interlake to space for winning science project, an astronaut did the experiment and reported the results to the 450 Grade 5 and 6 Interlake students.

As noted on their website, the University of Toronto Schools (UTS) from Toronto, Ontario, was the third Canadian school and the first Ontario school to be accepted into the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP). As described on the SSEP website, the program is “...a model U.S. national STEM education initiative for Grades 5-16 to inspire the next generation of America’s scientists and engineers.” The Grade 9 students from UTS will have a microgravity experiment flown to the ISS.

What makes this story different is the students had to raise $11,500 on their own. They ran a Kickstarter campaign and raised the entire amount, guaranteeing their participation in the project.

The Halton Catholic District School Board website features a story about St. Matthew Catholic Elementary students from Burlington, Ontario, participating in a project called the Tomatosphere Club.

The club is a research project involving about 17,000 Canadian and US students from Grades 2 to 10. The students planted and studied 2 groups of tomato seeds—a control group and a group that spent 22 months on the ISS—to see if the space seeds grew differently.

Bloomfield Elementary School teacher inspires successful Space Academy program is a story about 87 students at Bloomfield Elementary School in Prince Edward Island. The students, from Kindergarten to Grade 8, built and launched their own rockets.

They used NASA’s BEST (Beginning Engineering, Science, and Technology) Program to guide their project. The BEST program teaches kids about rocketry, robotics, computer programming, and the engineering design process.

Here are two points worth noting—more companies are supporting student space-based STEM projects, and some projects are international.

A posting at Canadensys Aerospace’s website called Canadian school joins world’s first elementary school space mission talks about Canadensys Aerospace of Bolton, Ontario, teaming up with St. John Paul II Catholic School, also in Bolton, for an international space project.

The school will provide a Remote Mission Operations Center (RMOC) for a satellite built by an elementary school in the United States. The entire student body at the Bolton, Ontario, school will participate in the project.

The Problems Facing STEM Education in Canada

As inspiring as these stories might be, there are too few of them. According to a story from called Weird science: STEM fields face image problem in K-to-12 schools, STEM education in general is lagging in Canada.

Data from a 2011 National Household Survey at the Statistics Canada website shows that STEM graduates make up only 18.6% of post-secondary graduates.

The Conference Board of Canada’s website shows that Canada ranks 12th out of 16th in a 2011 study of peer countries that produce STEM graduates in science, math, computer science, and engineering.

Canada also needs to do more to achieve gender balance in STEM. A publication at the Statistics Canada website from December 18, 2013, called Gender differences in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science (STEM) programs at university concludes that more work is needed to achieve a better gender balance in STEM careers.
“Over the past few decades, women have made significant advances in university participation, including program areas that had previously been more populated by men. One area, however, remains male-dominated: science, technology, engineering and mathematical (STEM) degrees. And among women who choose to pursue a degree in STEM, most do so in biology or science programs, resulting in even fewer women in engineering, computer science and mathematics programs. These choices have consequences, as fields of study such as engineering and computer science lead, on average, to better outcomes in the labour market in terms of employment, job match and earnings.
For some, aptitude for a particular subject is a factor in university program choice. Although mathematical ability plays a role, it does not explain gender differences in STEM choices. Young women with a high level of mathematical ability are significantly less likely to enter STEM fields than young men, even young men with a lower level of mathematical ability. This suggests that the gender gap in STEM-related programs is due to other factors. Other possible explanations might include differences in labour market expectations including family and work balance, differences in motivation and interest, and other influences.”
As space resources become more affordable and available, the number of children who benefit from space-based STEM projects will likely multiply.

But as the statistics show for STEM in general, Canada still has a way to go before we can confidently say that the next generation will be ready to meet the challenges of the future.

Public and Private STEM Resources

This is a sampling of national organizations and government resources in Canada aimed at STEM education for younger children.


Actua’s beginnings go back to 1988 with a student-run science and engineering camp at Queen’s University. The idea spread to other universities, and Actua was formed in 1993 with funding from Industry Canada. Funding now comes from public and private organizations.

Actua specializes in programs at day camps, workshops, clubs, and community outreach programs for aboriginal children, girls, and underprivileged children.

They do this by one of 2 ways: through a membership of 32 Canadian universities and colleges, and with their own team of outreach instructors who travel to different parts of Canada, including remote areas.

According to the statistics on their website, they connect with 225,000 kids from ages 6 to 16 in 450 to 500 communities across Canada each year.

Let’s Talk Science

Founded in 1993 by Dr. Bonnie Schmidt, Let’s Talk Science is a national, charitable organization headquartered in London, Ontario. They focus on training volunteers to teach science to kids in an entertaining, effective way.

According to the programs page on their website, Let’s Talk Science offers “...a full suite of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs for Kindergarten to Grade 12 educators, including hands-on STEM classroom outreach, online chat forums, program planning resources, action projects and professional learning opportunities.

Let’s Talk Science partners with 41 colleges and universities across Canada. The colleges and universities act as the contact points for the organization’s main program, Let’s Talk Science Outreach. They help train and place volunteers, as well as set up the program for elementary schools, high schools, libraries, and community organizations.

The organization has also done 20 research studies on science education.

Funding comes from public and private organizations, and through individual donations.

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)

NSERC has 2 programs:
  • The PromoScience Program grants up to $2.75 million in funding each year to organizations that provide a hands-on learning experience for kids in STEM education.
The 5 Chairs represent regions in the Atlantic provinces, Quebec, Ontario, the Prairie provinces, and British Columbia/Yukon.

Resources at

The government of Canada has links to STEM resources for kindergarten and elementary schools on their web page. These resources come from other government agencies like Environment Canada, the Canadian Space Agency, the Canada Science and Technology Museum, the Canada Agriculture Museum, and more.

Canadian Space Agency

The Canadian Space Agency has an educators resource page featuring astronomy and space-based information and projects for elementary and secondary students.