Book Review: Space Architecture for Engineers and Architects

space-architecture-coverThis is the second review I’ve written of a book by the author, Sandra Häuplik-Meusburger (hereafter SHM), and the third review I’ve written on this topic because it interests me. Space Architecture for Engineers and Architects: Designing and Planning Beyond Earth is similar to SHM’s last book, Architecture for Astronauts, in that it covers the still-in-its-infancy discipline of space architecture. And like her previous output, this book is a worthwhile addition to the aerospace’s collective knowledge. Continue reading “Book Review: Space Architecture for Engineers and Architects”

Mars in 2015–Books, Movies, and Reality

In the last month I’ve been indulging in a bit of Mars mania. I read Andy Weir’s book The Martian, followed by the movie starring Matt Damon, which was based upon the book. On the heels of this double helping of The Martian I read Rescue Mode, a new science fiction novel by Ben Bova and a NASA friend of mine, Les Johnson.


Both books go to superb lengths to achieve engineering realism in depicting hardware for getting to and living on Mars. The Martian focuses on one man who is stranded on the red planet while Rescue Mode concentrates on the efforts of a crew of eight astronauts whose vehicle is severely damaged on the way to Mars. Different problems, but same stakes: survival beyond the Earth.

The Martian 

The Martian is written entirely in the first person and the protagonist–portrayed well in the movie by Matt Damon–concentrates more on the lone astronaut’s Robinson Crusoe-type challenges with nature using the tools at hand. The movie gives more life to the characters “off screen” in the book. I found the book hilarious, probably because it was easy to identify with a sarcastic white guy who’s a Chicago Cubs fan and has an occasionally profane manner of expressing himself.

The movie version of astronaut Mark Watney is a bit more subdued, perhaps not quite as juvenile, but an admirable character nonetheless. In fact I’d go so far as to say that Matt Damon’s acting is excellent while the movie overall is simply good. The movie has some long stretches of just watching a rover move across the lonely Martian landscape. Or, as someone pointed out about The Lord of the Rings, just a lot of walking. The novel of The Martian needs to keep the reader engaged–in my case, I devoured the book in a couple of days–and so has a few more problems to solve. And there’s just more opportunity for smart remarks by the narrator.

Another thing Weir (and director Ridley Scott, to his credit) handles well is giving all the technology a real-world feel, complete with acronym-heavy jargon, rules and regulations, and a good feel not just for what things are designed to do but what they can be made to do in case of emergencies. Even duct tape makes a good showing.

Perhaps the biggest downside to being faithful to the book is that Weir’s (Watney’s) profanity does not make the movie exactly kid-friendly. S-bombs, F-bombs, cussing galore. Depending on how old your kids are and how much profanity they’re used to, they can probably start watching this film at around age 10-12 (the film is PG-13, though I’m surprised it didn’t make R). It’s not that I’m a huge prude when it comes to cussing, but that does mean limit the age range for kids to watch the story and get inspired by its can-do spirit. Regardless, the book and the movie are great fun and manage to capture an Apollo 13 level of what author David Brin calls “competence porn” set in space as Watney moves from bare survival to problem solving to transcending his situation. I might need to go back to the theaters for another shot at viewing it on the big screen. Worth it.

Rescue Mode

Rescue Mode, which to my knowledge isn’t being made into a movie yet, is a different project. It still features peril on a Mars mission and requires a lot of technological competence to put things right. However, instead of concentrating on one character’s efforts or point of view, Bova and Johnson write about a crew of eight: four men, four women, with a mix of nationalities and races, plus a variety of NASA people and politicians back on Earth. In this way, Rescue Mode is a more mature (in the literary sense), complex, and ambitious work.

The crew includes some rivalries, sexual tension, and personality clashes that add a bit of humanity to the astronauts. The Martian, by contrast, isn’t quite as diverse or nuanced–the primary motivation for most of the off-stage players is dedication to duty. On the whole, the character interactions are handled well, including some eye rolling by the other characters when one of them says something that might be taken as stereotypical in some fashion.

The book is a little slow to start as we’re introduced to the crew and the political players, but once the crew get into space, the pace picks up quickly. You might wonder what sort of political drama is included in a book ostensibly about space exploration. In this case, the authors chose to depict a battle in Washington, DC, over the continued funding of human space exploration, with the president for it and an ambitious senator trying to shut down the Mars program as “too dangerous” and “wasteful.”

One thing I found interesting in comparing The Martian and Rescue Mode is that both books seem to have used the same (or similar) NASA reports in designing their spacecraft and other hardware. Not surprising, I suppose–if NASA manages to get to Mars in the near future, realism demands that you use the hardware they say they’re going to use. Which brings me to a few concluding thoughts about Mars exploration in the real world of 2015.

Meanwhile, back in the real world…

Both of these books assume something that right now is not foreseeable, or maybe even realistic: the political will to spend the money and time to build all that NASA wants to build to get humans to Mars. The Martian just assumes that it happened without questioning the how or why. Rescue Mode takes a shot at explaining how it might be done with solid support from a U.S. President. Bova and Johnson note that their mission takes place late in the supporting president’s term and that the program would be vulnerable to the next president to come along–even if that president came from the same party. I don’t fault Andy Weir for this–he’s telling an rollicking good adventure story. Bova and Johnson wrote an adventure story but had larger fish to fry, as they try to make a larger political case for human spaceflight. Realistically, any actual future that includes a massive human mission to Mars or even back to the Moon will need to address the politics of it.

Another political point Rescue Mode makes is that the people most likely to benefit from closing or cutting back on NASA-led human space exploration would be commercial entities like SpaceX. Indeed, Elon Musk has stated that he wants to send people to Mars. The book includes a spaceport in New Mexico and makes reference to other commercial enterprises in Texas, Florida, and on the Moon. The real political battle over human spaceflight is not really between people who want it and those who want to close it down but between differing visions of how it should be carried out–and by whom: should the future glory go to NASA or a dedicated billionaire? The Martian doesn’t depict this battle per se, but it clearly stands behind NASA getting the job; Rescue Mode shows NASA having the job but facing pressure from others who would prefer that they don’t.

If it seems strange to be pro-space exploration but anti-NASA, it probably is–just as it’s strange that a Democrat administration is more supportive of commercial space while Republicans are favoring a large government program. However, if you spend some time observing the space business in the 21st century, you will see that we live in strange times. Welcome to the future.

Conference Report: 43rd Space Congress, Part 5

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Last posting on the Space Congress…

Panel: Return of Human Spaceflight to Florida

You can talk about rockets all day long, but what the space business comes down to for a lot of people is launching astronauts into space. The good news is that KSC will be launching people on a variety of vehicles in the near future. The bad news is that the “near future” in the space business is still two years away. That being said, activity is coming, and KSC is busy. For this panel, representatives from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) Program, SpaceX, and Boeing were on hand to tell everyone what’s next.

Kathy Lueders, Project Manager for the Commercial Crew Program, started out by sharing the current NASA plans, which include commercial access to the International Space Station as well as the agency’s progression of “Earth-reliant,” “Proving Ground,” and “Earth-independent” exploration missions. As part of this work, Boeing is developing an international docking adapter and SpaceX will deliver it to ISS in June, where NASA astronauts will be responsible for installing it on the station.

Chris Ferguson, commander of the last Shuttle mission and now Boeing’s Director of Crew & Mission  Systems, talked about his new employer’s CST-100 crew vehicle. He joked that he’s learned a lot about social media in the last year, especially after he posted a picture of the empty Launch Complex 39A on Twitter with the comment, “One year later, the silence is deafening.” Fortunately, progress is being made, but a lot of it is behind closed doors, specifically in OPF-3, where their vehicle is being assembled and the Boeing Mission Control Center is being set up. While OPF-3 is situated next to the Vehicle Assembly Building on the NASA side of the Cape, CST-100 will actually launch aboard an Atlas rocket from LC 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Boeing is in the process of adding a rotating service arm to LC 41. During regular operations, the rocket will be rolled out to the pad, and then the crew will take the elevator up to the service arm to enter the capsule. The pad also will include a crew escape system similar to the wire baskets used for Shuttle, with an armored vehicle on standby to carry them away from the rocket after that.

The work in OPF-3 has included removing all of the Shuttle servicing platforms, making for a much cleaner look to the interior. In addition to vehicle assembly, OPF-3 will also support loading of hypergolic propellants, which will present some additional hazards, but none the VAB hasn’t seen before.

The vehicle itself has undergone water drop tests, but the primary landing method for CST-100 will be onto land, using parachutes and airbags. (I asked, and no, the plan is not to have the vehicle bounce around after landing, like some of the Mars rovers that used airbags after landing. The plan is to stick the landing in one place.) Boeing is negotiating with five different sites to be possible landing locations.

The spacesuits astronauts will wear on CST-100 will be made by the David Clark Company, which supported military pressure suits as well as Felix Baumgartner’s high-altitude jump for Red Bull.

Boeing sees NASA as its primary customer, but is also talking with Bigelow Aerospace about launching astronauts to one of their commercial space stations in the future. Boeing hopes to have a CST-100 launch by late 2017.

Garrett Reisman, another former astronaut, is Director of Crew Operations for SpaceX. His opening line was pretty funny: “Did you see us almost land on a boat? That was awesome!” That said, SpaceX has made remarkable progress on their launch operations, having now successfully launched 18 of 18 payloads, with 7 of those being to ISS.

SpaceX was planning a pad abort test for the following week, one of two they need to complete–the other one being an abort at the “max Q” or maximum dynamic pressure level.

At LC 39A, SpaceX will be leaving the Fixed Service Structure and Rotating Service Structure from the Shuttle era in place. The launch pad is being modified to support the Falcon 9 Heavy, which will generate 4.5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.

Shawn Quinn, Exploration Systems Manager for GSDO, also had a great way to open his talk: “The Mars rovers are designed to find life on other planets. Our job is to put life on other planets.” Quinn provided more detail on the “proving ground” and “Earth-independent” missions NASA plans to do.

All of the hardware for those missions comes together at KSC. In 2018, NASA plans to launch Exploration Mission One (EM1-), which will use the Space Launch System to send the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle on a ten-day, uncrewed mission around the Moon. SRBs will arrive from Utah, and the core stage will travel by barge from the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans to Stennis Space Center in Mississippi for engine testing before arriving at the KSC Turn Basin. Orion is being built at KSC, the first time a human-rated spacecraft has been built there.

Quinn also mentioned other work that’s going on, including preparations on the flame trench at LC 39B, the NASA Industrial Area, the Multipurpose Processing Facility, the Crawler-Transporter, the Firing Room 1 in the Launch Control Center. Perhaps because he (and a lot of other NASA people) are tired of hearing that “NASA isn’t doing anything,” he made the point of adding, “It’s real, it’s happening.” Quinn stated that they were about “halfway to EM-1” and that “eventually these facilities are going to support missions to Mars.”

All in all, KSC looks to be very busy in the 2017/2018 time frame…everyone just needs to be patient.

Panel: Space Coast Logistics Challenges & Solutions – A Real Estate and Logistics Approach

Perhaps due to a quirk in scheduling, the last session of the Congress was on logistics. Logistics? Really? That stuff UPS likes to talk about on their commercials? Yep, logistics. That stuff one speaker called the “movement of goods from one location to another via various modes of transportation including the planning, pricing, tracking, and execution of timely and effective methods.” Okay, yeah, that’s one definition. Another–my own–would be “The process of getting all the stuff you need from one place to another so it’s there when you need it.”

And yes, it’s important: “Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.” – Gen. Robert H. Barrow, USMC (Commandant of the Marine Corps) noted in 1980.

However you define logistics, while it might not be a sexy topic in the space world, it is very much a real one. And it’s not just a matter of getting rocket parts and astronauts to Cape Canaveral to make a launch happen–space missions themselves are now part of our planet’s logistical tail (military parlance there: the “teeth” of the armed forces are the folks on the front line; the “tail” is what follows behind). In the case of SpaceX, their launches provide food, water, clothing, equipment, and other items that make their mission (human beings living and working in space) possible.

This session, however, focused primarily on the efforts required to get people, materials, and hardware into Brevard County. The first person to speak was John Walsh, Director of Cape Canaveral Port Authority, which handles the cruise terminals, bulk cargo terminals, oil terminals, warehouses, recreational areas (including beaches, campgrounds, and the Exploration Tower, which can be seen off 528). The shipping part of Port Canaveral has been working to upgrade its services to support increasing traffic from overseas, both in terms of volume and sizes of ships. They’re looking to dredge the channel to the port from 48 to 55 feet deep, to support some of the larger container ships coming to Florida. The container port is scheduled to open in May or June.

In addition to these Port improvements, the Port Authority is working to get a ten-mile railroad extension approved, which would connect Canaveral to the Florida East Coast Railway and thus the rest of the nation’s transportation infrastructure. The railway is producing a bit of controversy, however, as it passes through some wetlands and has some other issues that concern local residents. “We can get to space, but we can’t build a ten-mile railroad.” Walsh saw the blocking of the railroad as a serious problem, as most of the other Florida ports–including Miami and Tampa–are about maxed out and cannot support deeper channels.

Walsh also discussed other projects the Port Authority is taking on to improve Brevard County’s access to the rest of the national economy, including building larger warehouses (30-40 foot tall ceilings instead of 10-12 feet); building a business and logistics center at the intersection of Interstate 95 and Florida Route 524; building a logistics center in Titusville, which includes a liquid natural gas plant; acquiring two cranes to handle loading/offloading container ships; and other efforts to diversify the economy in the region. The other two statistics he pointed to were that 85% of all consumer products come in by sea, and many containers coming into Florida ports can face a 60-day delay–all good reasons, according to Walsh, to improve the state of Port Canaveral’s facilities.

Brevard County Commissioner Robin Fisher represents Northern Brevard County, which was designed as the North Brevard Economic Development Zone in 2011, essentially making it an economically depressed area. Under this arrangement, money spent on improvements to commercial properties can be reinvested. The NBEDZ also supports diversification initiatives for the area, including building (or subsidizing) cargo, commercial space, liquified natural gas production and distribution, advanced manufacturing, and logistics centers. They are also moving up the widening of I-95 from four to six lanes from Titusville to New Smyrna Beach, to support anticipated future traffic. Progress is being made, but I sense that the outrage over the rail line is holding up some of this effort.

I won’t share all of the efforts NBEDZ is making (one can find a pretty decent summary of their work on their website). I suppose it surprised me how much the area has suffered since the ending of Shuttle–they’re struggling with issues ranging from workforce depletion to urban blight, which makes (in my mind) the railroad a necessary tool for economic development. “Some people don’t like change,” as Mr. Fisher pointed out. On the other hand, Brevard County’s situation reflects one small piece of a much larger national discussion we’re having about balancing the need for economic development and environmental protection.

Robert Richter represented Flagler Global Logistics, a corporate descendent of the railroads, hotels, and land acquired by Henry Flagler in the 19th and 20th centuries. FGL has been building infrastructure projects on the land Flagler acquired, including logistics ports, warehouses, LNG plants, and the Titusville Logistics Center.

Focusing on warehouses, Richter pointed out that most logistics companies (such as Amazon.com) want to lease, not own, their warehouse space, and they want to be able to move their products as efficiently as possible. That means more “Class A” warehouse space (higher ceilings, climate controlled, easy access to roads/rails).

During the Q&A session, a couple of panel members responded to one resident’s environmental concerns, explaining that many of the building projects have environmental scientists on site to handle issues like relocating gopher tortoises or monitoring how many trees are cut down so that the organization knows how many trees to plant on protected areas later. Environmental concerns also include marine life near ports, such as manatees, dolphins, and sea turtles. Another argument the panelists put forward in support of the rail line was that one rail car equals four tractor-trailers on the road. As John Walsh put it, “I don’t want to turn us into L.A.”

Returning to the economic development theme, someone made the comparison between the Port of Savannah, GA, and Jacksonville, FL. In 2005, both ports had ~800,000 twenty-foot-equivalent units (TEU) of container space. Savannah spent money on building more warehouse space, to the point where their Port warehouse space is now ~3 million TEU, and 67,000 new jobs were created. By contrast, Jacksonville increased its capacity to only 1M TEU and has not seen the same job growth.

In addition to freight railroads and shipping, Brevard County also hopes to eventually be connected to a high-speed passenger rail line, which is supposed to connect Orlando and Miami, but which could include a spur from Orlando International Airport out to Port Canaveral. That sort of link would facilitate faster movement of people from the rest of the country into Brevard County without adding more rental cars to the roads.

Again, logistics is not exactly an exciting topic for a space conference, but it’s a necessary one. More to the point, as human activity spreads beyond Earth orbit, the “logistics tail” is only going to get longer and more complicated. The better a spaceport on Earth can facilitate traffic from Earth to space, the better and less expensive it will be to execute logistics for people living out in space. The discussions (and arguments) that one sees in Brevard County, Florida, will occur no matter where we decide to launch.

I’m looking forward to next year’s Space Congress, now that I understand how all the various parts fit together. There’s a lot going on in Brevard County and in the space business in general–it’ll be great to help it get off the ground.