Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Russia’s space plans more fantasy than fact

When is a space announcement not worth a plugged kopek? When it’s about Russia’s space plans.

Roscosmos is assessing its future programs, an article from the Commercial Space Blog, outlined some of Russia’s ambitious space plans: A low-orbit space station, a high-orbit space station, a super heavy-lift Moon rocket, nuclear space tugs, and a Moon base.

Ah yes, the Moon base, Russia’s pet fixation. Back in 2012 Russia wanted to team up with the United States and Europe to build a research colony on the Moon. Earlier this year the Russians wanted to buddy up with the Chinese on the Moon base idea.

It seems that the only country Russia hasn’t yet considered as a Moon base partner is the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.

Russia released its newest space plan for 2016-2025 last April 23. As reported by SpaceFlight Insider, Russia’s new space program: Search for extraterrestrial life amid budget cuts, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, wants to search for extraterrestrial life and send satellites to the Moon and Mars. Those Moon landing plans are still in there, too.

Roscosmos has one small problem—their budget has been cut by 35%, which will affect some of those projects including that Moon rocket.

All of the grand plans announced over the past few years are more fantasy than fact. A song from a 1972 movie musical called “Cabaret” sums up why. The song is called “Money.”
Money makes the world go around
The world go around
The world go around
Money makes the world go around
It makes the world go ‘round.
Money also makes space programs go ‘round. That’s why you can disregard these announcements. Russia doesn’t have the money.

What’s causing Russia’s monetary grief? For one thing, sticky fingers.

Some comrades have taken the words of the song to heart...just not in a state-approved way. A Moscow Times story, $126 million stolen from Russian Vostochny Cosmodrome project - Prosecutor General, says contractors at the site of the new spaceport in Russia’s Far East have skimmed 7.5 billion rubles (US$126 million) despite warnings from Russian President Vladimir Putin that they were being watched.

One of those enterprising nouveau capitalists, accused of swiping 4 million rubles (US$75,000), was highlighted in The Siberian Times story Got him! Director accused of fraud at new spaceport is detained in Belarus. He was arrested while driving his diamond-encrusted Mercedes. (Is driving around in a bejewelled Mercedes chic, gauche, or just “hey, investigate me” dumb?)

Even without the embezzling, the Vostochny facility has problems. A Sputnik International article, First manned launch from Russia's Vostochny Cosmodrome delayed until 2025, quotes a Roscosmos offical as saying the first crewed launch at the Cosmodrome has been pushed back from 2018 to 2025. They’ve decided to wait for the new Angara rocket rather than using the site for the older Soyuz.

It’s the same Angara rocket that’s been under development since the early 1990s and has been delayed because guessed it—money, money, money.

But it took more than creative skimming to put Russia in this mess.

According to an article in The Telegraph, Oil and gas crunch pushes Russia closer to fiscal crisis, the big problem is the resource-based Russian economy.

Revenues from oil and gas are dropping due to reduced demand from Europe. Foreign partners have pulled back from development projects because of the political sanctions over Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.

Russia made a big bet on the oil and gas industry. They let their manufacturing base erode and failed to develop a high tech industry. They have nothing to pick up the slack due to falling oil prices.

Some analysts say there is some good news. The Moscow Times reports in Is the worst of Russia's economic crisis over? that the economic decline may have bottomed out.

Don’t break out the vodka just yet, though. The prognosis is “cloudy” because the measures taken—the government devalued the ruble and increased spending to prop up the economy—were used twice before during recessions. The benefits in each case were short-lived.

The story goes on to say that this strategy has prevented the Russian economy from diversifying, which maintains the status quo and leads to a new financial crisis.

Russia’s economic problems are starving their exploration and commercial space programs of the money they need, putting Russia further behind other space nations.

Money makes the world, and space programs, go ‘round. It could be that the only spinning the Russian space program will be doing is spinning its wheels.

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.”