Sunday, August 26, 2007

2007 Blackburn Academic Symposium (Part 1)

So, here I was thinking that I'd be the only space blogger within a hundred miles of Tuscaloosa, AL that could get to Burt Rutan's talk at the Inaugural Gloria and John L. Blackburn Academic Symposium at the University of Alabama. Upon arriving however, I find none other than Jeff Foust sitting two rows in front of me. Oh well, so much for the scoop.

Ostensibly, the Blackburn Academic symposium was created as a forum to bring together academic, industrial, and political leaders to discuss issues facing the state of Alabama and the nation. The focus of this inaugural symposium was "Responsibility for the Future Exploration and Development of Space", and the list of invited guests reflected this theme. During the morning, there were two keynote speakers: Burt Rutan, and Dr. David King, director of NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. The afternoon was taken up by two panels. The first discussed the roles of industry, government, and academia in the future of space exploration. The second featured three astronauts: Col. Jim "Vegas" Kelly, Dr. Jan Davis, and Col. Jim Voss; all of whom are alumni of Alabama universities. The event was free and open to the public.

Certainly, the highlight of the day, for me at least, was the talk by Burt Rutan. The topics brought up in his keynote address seemed to reverberate throughout the rest of the day. Mr. Rutan spoke of the interplay between inspiration and innovation in the field of aerospace, though his comments could certainly have broader application to just about any field of human achievement. The key thesis of his presentation was that nearly everyone who strives to do something difficult and meaningful in their adult lives were inspired by some seminal event or events at a crucial time in their childhood between the ages of 3 and 14. This observation was borne out again and again throughout the day as almost every other speaker at the symposium related their own personal story of childhood inspiration which lead to their desire to work in the area of spaceflight.

Mr. Rutan's own experience was playing with a model airplane in his back yard when a formation of B-52 bombers flew directly overhead. From that point on, he knew that he would work in the world of aviation. Even when he went to college in the mid-60's, during the height of the space race, he steered away from space-related engineering disciplines and focused on general aviation. From there his professional experience lead him down a path which would allow him to be both creative in aircraft design as well as attempt a number of significant aeronautical and aerospace milestones. Among these accomplishments were the Voyager aircraft which circled the globe non-stop back in the 80's, and of course, Space Ship One. He said, "It is important for an entrepreneur to attempt these milestone challenges if it is at all possible."

There was one other significant point brought up by Mr. Rutan, that would reemerge briefly later in the day. One of the main reasons why innovation in aerospace has been stagnating recently is not so much due to a deficiency in our educational system, but because no one has asked for any thing truly remarkable in recent memory. No one has dared to ask for the impossible since President Kennedy challenged America to send a man to the moon. The very best among us are compelled to seek out the most difficult challenges, and they will almost always rise to the occasion when presented with a daunting task. For the past 20 years, most of the innovators have been drawn to the challenges in computing, the internet, and more recently, in biotechnology. There simply have been no compelling challenges put forth in aerospace since the days of the development of the Concorde and the Space Shuttle. I was left to wonder if this deficiency came from a lack of vision or a sudden rise in risk aversion on the part of our nation's leaders.

Dr. David King gave his keynote address immediately following Burt Rutan, but the difference in presentation of the two speakers was striking. While Dr. King spoke of the Vision for Space Exploration and of the need to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, there was really nothing in his talk which reached in and grabbed me. I felt no emotional attachment to the kind of inspiration he was describing. In contrast, Burt Rutan made the connection almost personal. Rutan spoke to some basic truths in the human spirit and in the imagination which made one feel compelled to do something to fulfill those childhood dreams. Dr. King's talk felt more like taking a pill. Something external to me, which I may or may not be directly responsible for bringing about, is going to somehow make everything better.

The difference in these presentation underscores, at least for me, the perceived difference in approaches to space exploration being undertaken by NASA and the new space industry. NASA seems to be indicating that they will lead by example, and merely by the act of doing these wonderful things, they will inspire young people to become future leaders in science and technology. While this may be true in some sense, I think that the new space approach feels much more personal. The main distinction is of course in the underlying sense that NASA is going to be doing these great things, and oh, the rest of us might get to watch, while many in the new space community seem to be interested in opening up the space frontier for everyone to participate.

Those are my initial impressions of the morning session. I think I have at least one more post in me wherein I will describe the afternoon session and then try to go into more detail about what I perceived to be the recurring themes of the day.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Next up... Sundancer

This is another article that's been sitting in my edit queue for months. I'm trying to push a few of these ancient articles out of the queue, so I apologize if they are no longer as relevant as when I started working on them. Anyway, I'll leave the original dates on the posts for the record.

Robert Bigelow has recently announced that he and his team at Bigelow Aerospace have decided to skip the launching of the Galaxy class testbed module in favor of expediting the development and deployment of the Sundancer class module. Many reports have expressed surprise at this sudden change in plans; however, Mr. Bigelow had previously given some hints that they would be willing to forgo the launch of the Galaxy/Guardian class module. From an interview with Alan Boyle in September of last year:
For now, Bigelow has back-burnered the idea of sending up an intermediate-sized test vehicle that would not be human-rated - the type of inflatable known as the Galaxy or Guardian class.

Of course, this was contingent upon the successful launch, deployment, and operation of Genesis II, which has come to pass. From that same article:
If everything goes smoothly, "we have decided to try to cut some of the time" from the initially planned development cycle and go directly from Genesis 2 to a "human-occupiable" module, he said.

The most recent announcement cites rising launch costs as an additional factor in their decision. In the end, the expense of preparing and launching the Galaxy module would be far greater than the return they could expect from the vehicle, especially when considering that many of the Galaxy's systems could be validated just as well on the ground. It seems then, that the primary drawback to not orbiting the Galaxy module is that they will not gain any experience operating its more complex systems from the ground under actual on-orbit conditions. But with two modules already operating successfully on-orbit, perhaps they thought at least some of this experience could be gained from their existing assets.

So, there does not seem to be so much new in the recent announcement. Even the expected launch date for the Sundancer module has not changed substantially. From last September's article:
Bigelow told me that the latest timetable calls for the Sundancer to go into orbit in late 2009 or early 2010.

This launch was slated to be aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. There is no word yet as to whether or not these plans have been changed. I think it's probably safe to say, for the moment that the Sundancer will probably be one of the first payloads to fly on the Falcon 9 when it becomes available.