Impressions from AIAA Space 2018, Part 2

This continues my summary impressions from the AIAA Space 2018 Forum in Orlando this year. Day one can be found here. If you’re not a space person, feel free to read other things in my blog until I’m done, or head over to my tech writing blog. I won’t mind! 🙂

Tuesday, September 18

Plenary: International Collaboration – Opportunities and Challenges

Day two of the conference began with a plenary session with representatives from four of the United States’ most prominent space partners: CNES (France), DLR (Germany), ISRO (India), and JAXA (Japan). Interestingly, the largest partner on the International Space Station, Russia, was not represented.

Moderated by Lt. General Larry James, Deputy Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), each of the individuals on stage, starting with James, gave a presentation on what their individual organizations were doing internationally.

JPL has worked with international partners for decades. Its current collaborations include Mars InSight, GRACE Follow-on (GRACE-FO) Mission, Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT), and a joint mission with ISRO called the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) satellite. James also noted that seven national governments besides the U.S. spent more than $1 billion on space hardware. The U.S. share of government spending was 57% and its share of deployed spacecraft is 65%.

DLR, the German aerospace agency, allocates 25% of its budget to the European Space Agency (ESA), with the rest going to multiple science missions, including an instrument on Mars InSight, an instrument on the BepiColombo mission, an instrument for the ExoMars Rover, a methane sensor for the MERLIN mission, and a portion of the MASCOT asteroid lander on the JAXA Hayabusa-2 mission.

ISRO, the Indian space agency, has been quite active, developing their own launch vehicles, satellites, and planetary missions. They are also now working on their first human spaceflight mission, which they hope to launch into orbit by 2022, with a “sustainable” crewed program proceeding after that. Primarily, ISRO has developed its capabilities in support of sustainable development goals, a term favored by the United Nations to describe efforts to address issues such as economic security, disaster risk reduction, and environmental degradation. ISRO’s planetary missions include lunar and mars orbiters, with another lunar orbiter and lander in the works.

CNES, the national space agency of France, has been a prominent partner in space-based science missions, including Earth observation, planetary, solar, and space science missions. They also continue to launch the Ariane 5 launch vehicle, which just commemorated its 100th launch. Their representative noted that CNES has the second-highest civil space budget in the world (€2.5 billion/$2.9 billion). CNES is contributing to the Hayabusa-2 mission (MASCOT, mentioned above), NASA’s IRIS solar mission, ESA Earth observation missions, and defense satellites for France’s national needs. CNES recently signed a new agreement that extends its ongoing cooperation in space with NASA.

JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, likewise has been busy. They launch cargo to the International Space Station (and send their astronauts); develop Earth observation satellites; and contribute to space and planetary science missions. They are looking at contributing to a possible human lander for the Moon, which would be based out of the Lunar Gateway.

The questions to the international guests concentrated on how they saw cooperation going in the future. For example, they were asked about a return to the Moon with human explorers, developing in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) technologies, and partnering with China and Russia. On the whole, the reps looked forward to future science ventures on the Moon, foresaw potential political challenges cooperating with China and Russia, and saw the ISRU activities as something driven primarily by the private sector.

The day before, SpaceX’s founder Elon Musk had announced the company’s first passenger, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, to fly on its “Big Falcon Rocket” (BFR) on a mission around the Moon. Someone in the audience asked what JAXA’s reaction to that was. The Japanese representative dodged the question, but suggested, “Let’s have a drink later” if someone wanted her personal opinion on the matter. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to ask that question.

On the subject of loosening International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), the representatives had not detected any major change in the industry or the competitive landscape. At present, the “Big Aerospace” companies still dominate the U.S. position overseas.

The biggest challenges the representatives identified regarding international cooperation identified were ensuring long-term financial and political commitments to missions. On the whole, aside from India’s early efforts at human exploration, the other participants seemed content to see the U.S. spend the money on human exploration.

Morning Sessions

  • Human Mars Entry, Descent, and Landing Architecture Study (EDLAS) Phase 2 Summary. This appeared to be an internal NASA study on potential EDL technologies, which range from solid aeroshells for reentry to inflatable shells to a mix of those shells plus powered final descent. Their mission baseline was for four astronauts to go on a 300-day mission. The architecture would rely on a couple launches of the Space Launch System (SLS) Block 2B, which would include a 10-meter (33-foot) payload fairing. The cargo missions would go to Mars first, serving as “end-to-end” testing runs for the human missions. Vehicles approaching Mars for a landing would use a combination of aerocapture and powered descent to land–parachutes are not seen as primary drag mechanisms. The Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) and landing vehicles would use similar engines for commonality and cost-saving purposes. Some landing vehicles used a Soyuz-type capsule shape, others used a horizontally oriented vehicle akin to something I’ve seen Masten developing, but much larger–the landing payloads are expected to be in the neighborhood of 20 metric tons (22 U.S. tons) each. The primary figures of merit for the EDL study included vehicle mass, their ability to connect with the interplanetary spacecraft, and the number of launches necessary to get everything into space (SLS is currently set up to fly, at most, two times per year).I sat next to Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin during this session. The entire breakout room and I could hear him muttering disapproval occasionally during the presentation. When the Q&A started, he stated flatly, “I don’t like it.” The speaker graciously welcomed his inputs after the session.
  • NASA’s Space Launch System: Progress Toward Unmatched Exploration Capability. This was another opportunity to keep up on what’s happening with my former customers (two jobs ago). The SLS vehicle is moving closer to flight, so the configuration itself hasn’t changed too much: core stage, powering four RS-25E engines (formerly Space Shuttle Main Engines); two five-segment solid rocket boosters; and adapters forward to attach the Orion spacecraft as well as up to 17 CubeSat-class secondary payloads. The big holdup in the schedule appears to have been the Boeing-built core stage; other parts of the vehicle are under construction, complete, or in testing. Since there are only 16 full RS-25 engine sets for SLS, Aerojet Rocketdyne will be restarting the production line, incorporating 21st century technologies to reduce the per-engine costs as much as 35%. All of the individual engines for Exploration Mission One (EM-1) have been tested; they will be tested as a four-engine cluster next summer. EM-1–an uncrewed redux of Apollo 8–is still scheduled for 2020. Other missions for the big rocket include the Europa Clipper; EM-2 (the first crewed mission), scheduled for 2023; and the first flight elements of the Lunar Gateway.
  • Human Mars EDLAS: Rigid Structures. I returned to the room with the Mars Entry, Descent, and Landing Architecture Study to get some more details about potential Mars hardware…because I’m a geek that way. The horizontally oriented lander could weigh 58,000-64,000 kg (127,868-141,095 pounds) and would descend on eight methane-liquid oxygen (CH4-LOX) engines, each producing around 100 kilonewtons (22,480 pounds) of force with a specific impulse (ISP) of 360 seconds. There was some talk of having this variation of the Mars lander launch directly atop SLS without a fairing on top. A 49% scale model could just barely fit beneath the Delta IV Heavy fairing, so this thing is BIG.
  • Human Mars EDLAS: Descent Systems. This talk finished up the EDLAS discussion, dealing with the hardware that would get cargo and astronauts onto the surface. Using four separate landers, these vehicles would land, in order: the logistics and power units, the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), surface systems (robots, rovers, etc.), and then the surface habitat for the crew. The MAV will need to be landed around 700 meters (2,296 feet) away from the other units, as that is how far rocket engines have been known to throw debris. The MAV will use methane as a fuel because carbon dioxide can be extracted from the atmosphere using ISRU. Many of the lander systems will have reusable computer components, especially the command and data-handling systems, should there be a need to cannibalize surface systems.
  • A Cellular Backshell Concept for a Planetary Entry Vehicle. This presentation was the last session in the Mars EDL session. It was a student design study that investigated the possibility of using 3D-printed honeycomb structures to reduce weight and improve heat deflection on the sides of a Mars reentry capsule. Most of the research to date has focused on the aeroshell on the bottom of capsules, which face the brunt of reentry heat. Once the student started speaking numbers and equations, he lost me, but it’s nice to see that there are younger folks interested in the problems of human spaceflight.

Afternoon Sessions

I missed the luncheon speaker because apparently I had a choice between an evening hypersonics reception, which I attended Monday, or the Tuesday lunch. I walked over to The Pub at Pointe Orlando because everything is better with beer. Then it was back to the fun and games.

The afternoon started with a plenary on NASA’s Commercial Crew program titled “Commercial Crew – The Newest Ride to LEO.” The session was opened by Kathy Lueders, NASA’s Commercial Crew (CC) Program Manager. She explained the dual purpose of CC: to support development of commercial launch services in the U.S. and to fly crews safely to the International Space Station (ISS). Some of the support for commercial companies came in the form of simplifying the number of forms, regulations, agencies, and processes they had to deal with to launch something legally. There was also work to be done on radio frequency spectrum usage and liability and insurance. As Wernher von Braun once said, “We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming.” On its side, NASA has made a variety of facilities available to Boeing and SpaceX and has selected the first astronauts to fly on the first commercial flights, and those astronauts are now training with the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft.

John Mulholland, Boeing’s Starliner Vice President and Program Manager, stated that the company is focusing on building and integrated testing. They’ve written their flight rules and are integrating the astronauts into the testing as much as possible. Starliner is nominally set to carry four astronauts, but could carry up to seven in the event of an emergency. They’ve built a structural test article, an orbital flight test vehicle and are in the process of putting the crewed flight test vehicle through environmental testing. Parachute drop testing is schedule for October and December. The Starliner will launch initially on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V. One thing that surprised me was that Starliner is slated to land on solid ground, using a combination of parachutes and airbags for a (relatively) soft landing at one of five possible sites in the U.S.

Benjamin (Benji) Reed, a Director at SpaceX, gave the update on Dragon. He started by talking about the upcoming flights on the manifest, including the uncrewed Demo 1 flight to ISS, an in-flight abort test, and then the crewed Demo 2 flight to ISS. Dragon will launch aboard Falcon 9, which to date has successfully landed its reusable first stages 29 times and has reused first stages 15 times. The original Dragon spacecraft is now in reflight mode, meaning that any Dragons used for cargo to ISS have flown previously. On the infrastructure side, SpaceX has attached a crew access arm to Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center and had its crew members assigned, and the company is engaged in ongoing simulations of crew, mission control, and NASA flight operations. They also brought astronauts out to their Hawthorne, CA, factory for Q&A with SpaceX employees…and to remind them that their rocket will be flying people.

Topics during the Q&A with the AIAA audience ranged from risk management to loss of crew probabilities, the potential for non-NASA customers for the crewed spacecraft, key drivers for refurbishment, status of flight software, and the choice of ground landings for Starliner.

There was a good-sized audience for this talk, and a lot of interest in the progress of the program. I went back over my notes and did not find anything about actual launch dates for crews to ISS. However, I heard and read elsewhere that the first CC flights with actual astronauts were likely next year, not this year.

I spent the rest of my afternoon as a participant in the “Speed Mentoring” activity, which you can read about here. I found it worth doing, if only to talk to younger people who were interested in advancing the space enterprise.

I’ll get to my Day 3 thoughts as soon as the mood strikes me. Thanks for reading!


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