India’s ‘monster rocket,’ the GSLV Mark III, successfully put the GSAT-19E satellite in orbit this week.
BBC News called some coverage of ISRO’s launch “euphoric.”
That’s understandable. India is like America in the late 20th century, where spaceflight is involved: and is rapidly catching up. I’m not euphoric, quite, but I see what’s happening as very good news for everyone.
Rocket Lab’s Electron test launch wasn’t entirely successful. But the company thinks they can get the system working, and plan to start commercial launches later this year.
Rockets in Space: “Absurd?”
It’s true: someone actually opined that rockets won’t work in a vacuum.
An op-ed in The New York Times said that Robert H. Goddard “…does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react….”
That was in 1920. On July 17, 1969, one day after the Apollo 11 mission set out for Earth’s moon, The Times published a clarification:
“JULY 17, 1969: On Jan. 13, 1920, Topics of The Times, an editorial-page feature of The New York Times, dismissed the notion that a rocket could function in a vacuum and commented on the ideas of Robert H. Goddard, the rocket pioneer, as follows: ‘That Professor Goddard, with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react — to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.’
“Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.”
(“150th Anniversary: 1851-2001; The Facts That Got Away,” Tom Kuntz, The New York Times (November 14, 2001) (And see The New York Times/Robert Goddard, Wikisource.)
The Times had cause for concern in 1920, sort of.
Working under a grant from the Smithsonian Institution’s Hodgkins Fund, Goddard had been developing a “multiple-charge rocket for exploring the unknown upper layers of the earth’s atmosphere.” We call them multistage rockets these days.
America’s national government runs the Smithsonian Institution, including the Hodgkins Fund. Since the Hodgkins Fund’s principle may not cover its administrative costs, The Times may have thought Goddard’s research was wasting tax dollars.
Thomas George Hodgkins
The Hodgkins Fund and Medal go back to 1893. By the time he died, Thomas George Hodgkins had given away his fortune: about a half-million dollars.
He was born in London, England, in 1803. His father was a gentleman “in reduced circumstances.” Trouble with a stepmother ended when he was 15.
That’s when he signed on as a crewman on a ship headed for Calcutta. Shipwreck, illness, and determination, left him alive but barefoot-poor in India.
Decades later, he was very far from poor; at least financially.
He had no family, no close relatives, and a vast fortune that he wouldn’t be needing when his life was over. Figuring he’d do a better job than some executor, he began giving his money to pubic institutions, including the Smithsonian.
By the time he died in 1892, he’d given away everything.
The Smithsonian got part of his fortune. The institution started awarding the Hodgkins medal, and part of the money, to encourage “important contributions to knowledge of the physical environment bearing upon the welfare of man.”
I don’t know if the fund is still active.1
Folks like Mr. Hodgkins and JacquesCosteau are among the reasons why I have no problem accepting what the Church says about private property. (January 22, 2017)
Knowledge and Rocket Engines
Back in 1920, someone knew enough physics to wonder how Newton’s third law of motion applied to rocket engines.
That’s good. Informed advice and speculation make sense.
Not realizing that a rocket’s exhaust has mass, not so much.
Or maybe “the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools” didn’t include facts about air density and pressure.
Generations taught by folks with that sort of education might help explain more recent articles like this:
In my youth, Goddard was mostly known for his groundbreaking development of liquid-fueled rocket engines.
That was and is very important technology, and probably easier to explain than his work with ‘multiple-charge rockets.’
A rocket’s efficiency matters, a lot, since lifting even a small payload into orbit takes a great deal of reaction mass: the stuff the rocket ‘pushes against.’
For most rockets today, the fuel is also the reaction mass. Burning fuel produces hot gas at high pressure.
The rocket engine ‘pushes against’ the hot gas it’s shooting out its nozzle. The faster the gas gets pushed out, the higher a rocket’s efficiency. The hotter the ‘fire,’ the more energy gets transferred to the gas, also boosting efficiency.
The Dawn spacecraft’s gridded ion thruster is much more efficient than chemical rocket engines. But that sort of engine’s thrust is very low, so they’re useful only after a payload’s lifted off a planet or moon.
Multistage rockets are more efficient, in terms of physics, since they drop parts of the vehicle that have used up their fuel, leaving the rest with a lighter load.
Economically, they’re far from ideal.
After the Shuttle missions ended, and before SpaceX started building reusable boost stages, getting something into orbit meant throwing vehicles away after one use.
Commercial air service wouldn’t work, if a company had to throw away each airplane after one flight.
We still don’t have practical single-stage-to-orbit, or STO, vehicles. As I recall, funding issues stopped development of the McDonnell Douglas DC-X.
Reaction Engine’s Skylon spaceplane is still in the research and development process, though. Even if they don’t succeed, I’m quite sure that others will.
Physics, Rockets, and Faith
The first interstellar probes may use rocket engines for propulsion: or not. There are some intriguing — and testable — ideas on the table. And that’s another topic.
All this talk about physics and rocket engines may seem odd in a ‘religious’ blog. Or maybe not, if you’ve read my stuff before.
As I’ve said before, and most likely will again, I’m a Catholic, so ignoring truth is not an option. Not if I’m going to take what I believe seriously.
Faith, the Catholic version, is a willing and conscious “assent to the whole truth that God has revealed.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 142–150)
That’s the whole truth: including what we learn by paying attention to this universe. (Catechism, 32, 41, 74, 283, 341, 2500)
Even if I felt like it, deciding that I don’t like truth we’ve found since some arbitrary date doesn’t seem prudent. Or humble, in the Catholic sense. (May 7, 2017; March 10, 2017; February 3, 2017)
If we’re doing both right, faith and science work together. Using the brains God gave us, studying this wonder-filled universe and using that knowledge, is part of being human. (Catechism, 39, 159, 282–289, 341, 2293–2295)
What’s changed recently is how much we know about this universe: including the moon and stars mentioned in Psalms.
I see that as an opportunity for greater admiration of God’s work, not a threat to faith. (Catechism, 283, 341)
Space Flight and Psalms
(From NASA/Tracy Caldwell Dyson, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Self portrait: Tracy Caldwell Dyson in the ISS Cupola module, Expedition 24.)
“Manned space flight . . . has opened for us thus far only a tiny door for viewing the awesome reaches of space. Our outlook through this peephole at the vast mysteries of the universe only confirms our belief in its creator.”
(Wernher von Braun, cited in Awake! magazine (June 22, 1999), via Wikiquote)
“O LORD, our Lord, how awesome is your name through all the earth! You have set your majesty above the heavens!
“When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place –
“What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?
“Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honor.”
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky proclaims its builder’s craft.”
“4 Indeed, before you the whole universe is as a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.
“But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook the sins of men that they may repent.
“For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.”
1. India’s ‘Monster Rocket:’ Expanding Transportation Services
(From AFP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle-Mark III is the heaviest rocket ever made by India”
“India launches ‘monster’ rocket”
(June 5, 2017)
“India’s space agency has successfully launched its heaviest rocket.
“The 640-tonne rocket blasted off from a launching site off the Bay of Bengal in Sriharikota.
“As one website put it, ‘it’s been a big day for India’. The rocket will reduce the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (Isro) reliance on European vehicles to launch heavy satellites.
“The coverage of the launch has been euphoric, and often colourful, with websites comparing the rocket to the weight of 200 elephants, or five jumbo jets.…”
India’s first भूस्थिर उपग्रह प्रक्षेपण यान, geostationary satellite launch vehicle, the GSLV, combined components from the ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle and a Glavcosmos third stage.
The vehicle’s first working mission launched ISRO’s GSAT-2 in 2003. Since then it’s been a workhorse vehicle, launching from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on Sriharikota. Most payloads have been communications satellites.
The GSLV Mk II’s schedule runs at least through 2020.
That’s when, if all goes well, India’s second Mars mission, Mangalyaan 2 and the ISRO/NASA NISAR (satellite) synthetic aperture radar Earth observer will launch.
Not at the same time. Those are two separate missions.
As an American, part of me is glad that the Saturn V is still the tallest and heaviest launch vehicle; and the most powerful, in terms of total impulse.
The last Saturn V launched in 1973. It’s not as much bigger than the rest as it was during the Apollo missions and Skylab, but it’s still a huge rocket.
I’d be astounded if it’s the biggest vehicle we ever build for Earth-to-space transport. We’re still in the very early days of spaceflight, and off-Earth exploration and development is no longer a governments-only game.
About America, India, and the Saturn V, like I said: I’m an American.
But I’m also human, so I’m glad that folks around the world are developing aerospace transportation systems and infrastructure we’ll use in coming centuries.
Aside from thinking that competition can keep folks from getting sloppy, having backups arguably makes sense.2
Besides, folks in my country engage in trade. More and wealthier potential trade partners and customers aren’t a threat. They’re opportunities. Particularly if my country’s national government doesn’t meddle with business deals, and that’s yet another topic.
A Snapshot From Space
(From AFP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Isro has been popular for sharing onboard footage from its missions”
BBC News did a follow-up article, “‘Monster’ rocket ‘selfie’ delights India,” with examples of how folks in India have been reacting to their country’s GSLV Mark III.
They like it. A lot: “The triumph of ‘Baahubali’: Amazing ‘selfies’ from @ISRO rocket” and “Delightful @isro India’s Baahubali rocket….”
I can see why folks call India’s launch vehicle a Bahubali. He’s a legendary figure for Jains. His name means “One With Strong Arms” in my language: or Armstrong, given our habit of compressing phrases.
The experimental LVM-3/CARE Mission in 2014 carried India’s Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment.
Both the GSLV Mark III and experimental crew module both worked fine. The module went through its test of yaw, pitch, and roll, attitude control; handled reentry pretty much as expected; deployed its parachutes; and was picked up by India’s coast guard.
Judging from what ISRO is doing with hypersonic aircraft tests, my guess is that one of their objectives is developing a spaceplane along the lines of Reaction Engines’ Skylon.
Folks in India have a great deal to be excited about. So, I think, do the rest of us.
2. Rocket Lab’s Electron, and Spaceports
(From Reuters, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The two-stage rocket did not quite make it to orbit, but the team was very happy with the test flight”
“New Zealand space launch is first from a private site”
(May 25, 2017)
“An American company has launched a rocket into space from New Zealand, the first from a private launch facility.
“Rocket Lab’s 17m-long (56ft) Electron lifted off from the Mahia Peninsula, in the North Island, the firm said.
“The test flight was the first launch from New Zealand and is a major first step in an emerging market: launching cheap disposable rockets to carry small satellites and other payloads.
“The company plans to start frequent commercial launches later this year….”
The launch was good news, and not-so-good news. The Rocket Lab’s Electron lifted off with no problems, first stage separation worked fine, but the simulated payload didn’t make it all the way to its intended orbit. That’s not at all bad for a first test flight.
This flight also showed that ground facilities at Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s North Island Mahia Peninsula are ready for use. It’s one of several privately-owned spaceports either in use, under construction, or proposed.
Today’s spaceports aren’t all, by my standards, ports. Not yet. Many are strictly launch facilities, since only SpaceX currently buuilds partly-reusable launch systems. As far as I know, anyway.
But I think it’s just a matter of time before we have freighters and passenger craft coming back for their next flight.
The Mahaia Peninsula is a good location for a spaceport these days, since we still have a far less than perfect record for flawless launches.
There’s pretty much nothing but ocean downrange, and air traffic over that part of the world isn’t as heavy as it is over existing port facilities like the Kennedy Space Center.
(From Virgin Galactic, used w/o permission.)
(Spaceport America, in southern New Mexico.)
Safety issues aside, my guess is that spaceports will require lots of elbow room; at least in the near future. Launch vehicles are noisy, for one thing.
That, and the physics involved, may lead to some of Earth’s major port cities not being where land and water meet. Wide open spaces, particularly those near the equator and not far from existing transportation networks, may become prime real estate.
The Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority seems to have realized the advantages in being away from existing population concentrations.
I don’t envy folks who will design and maintain aerospace traffic control systems when cities like New York, Singapore, and Mumbai, want their own spaceports.
Even then, I think there’ll be a market for smallish launch systems like the Electron, and sites like the Mahaia Peninsula.
CubeSats and Cautious Optimism
Size isn’t everything. More precisely, sometimes being small is a good thing; particularly for satellites and long range probes. (March 3, 2017)
CubeSats are a case in point. Each is a standardized 10 by 10 by 10 centimeters, maximum 1.33 kilograms.
CubeSat modules cost around $100,000 USD per module these days. That price has been coming down since the first ones launched in 2003, and is still dropping.
Most CubeSats were made by academic research outfits until 2013. Word got around, costs were dropping, and most CubeSats since then have been non-academic projects.
Rocket Lab’s Electron will, if and when its commercial flights start, lift 150 to 225 kilograms, 330 to 495 pounds, of payload into sun-synchronous orbit.3
That’d be a lot of CubeSats. It’s also a good size and orbit for weather and spy satellites. About the latter, I’ll skip the usual hand-wringing about human nature and today’s world.
I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re only a few millennia away from cobbling together a competent international authority.
Centuries, if enough of us decide it’s important. As I keep saying, we’re in this for the long haul, and slow progress is still progress. (June 4, 2017; May 28, 2017; October 30, 2016)
Meanwhile, Back in America
Elon Musk’s SpaceX says their Interplanetary Transport System, ITS, could be ready for their first Earth-Mars cargo run as early as 2020. I’ll be surprised if they’re ready that early.
The ITS isn’t just huge. Like the now-cancelled VentureStar, it’s significantly different from what we’ve done so far.
That includes extensive use of carbon fiber. Carbon fiber polymers are good for aerospace applications inside Earth’s atmosphere. The stuff looks good on paper for deep space missions.
But if I signed on for one of the planned settlement runs, I’d want assurance that the carbon fiber structures had been flight-tested for long missions.
The SpaceX timetable for Mars seems reasonable, if optimistic. The first Earth-Mars cargo run is penciled in for 2022 at the earliest, followed by a passenger run about two years later: one synodic period for Earth and Mars.
“Synodic period” is geek-speak for the time it takes for Earth and Mars, or any other two objects circling another one, to be in the same position relative to each other.
Even if the first colony ship was ready today, I wouldn’t be going. I’m rather old for that sort of thing, for starters.
But I’m certain that many folks would. I don’t see a problem with that, provided that we’ve developed the tech needed to make Martian settlements self-sustaining.
A few years ago, responding to what I’d written about living on Mars, someone expressed the opinion that folks should not be sent to die on Mars. I agree, in the sense that I think forcing someone to go would be a bad idea.
But since I’m no more than a few generations removed from folks who decided to “die in” North America, objecting to others making a similar decision doesn’t make sense. Not to me. And that’s yet again another topic, for another day.
Spaceships and Cities on Mars
Interplanetary spaceships and cities on Mars were ‘science fiction’ in my youth.
Depending on who’s talking, ‘science fiction’ means quite a few things.
Science fiction can be carefully-calculated tales of folks dealing with events and techonolgy that’s not here yet.
Others saw it as escapist fantasy suitable only for preteen boys whose parents didn’t care about their children’s education and reading habits.
I figure it can be all of the above, plus a bit: and minus, for me, the view of folks who enjoy films like “The Teminator.”
And Now for Something Completely Different — Science Fiction’s Silly Side
Some, make that most, movies are made for two reasons: to entertain folks, and make money. Successful ones do both.
Some, like “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” are appreciated by some and put in ‘world’s worst’ lists made by not-so-positively-impressed viewers.
My guess, looking at science fiction films of the last few decades, is that cautious optimism isn’t ‘box office.’
Or maybe studio executives figure there’s no point in trying to top William Cameron Menzies’s 1933 “Things to Come.”
With that in mind, and since I’m feeling slightly snarky, I’ll present a scenario that may be too weird even for the movies.
But who knows? Someone might take this seriously. Now, without further ado, fresh from the murky depths of my mind4 —
Tidal waves and earthquakes and volcanic eruptions caused by global warming and the Antarctic ice cap’s collapse kill everyone in New York, Los Angeles, and places with good ‘disaster’ stock footage.
Survivors keep the angst going. Then they (what else?) die, helpless and hopeless, after lots of preachy dialog and screaming.
Except for a lone survivor, endlessly battling giant flying man-eating zombie cyborg piranha created when unregulated GMO corn pollutes — — — you get the idea. I lost track of how many Alien films featured assorted survivors and cloned victims.
Think Frankenfish and The Terminator meet Splice and Sharktopus in Zombieland. Actual movie titles. I’ve enjoyed The Terminator, haven’t seen the others: and don’t feel particularly compelled to do so.
Happily for studio executives, many folks aren’t like me. “Sharktopus” led to “Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda” and “Sharktopus vs. Whalewolf.”
Like I said, I enjoyed “The Terminator.” I never lost a taste for improbable but exciting tales, developed while watching weekday after-school movies on television.
I’d probably enjoy the films more, if it wasn’t for the uneasy suspicion that they may have encouraged less-than-reasonable attitudes. On the other hand, folks had daft ideas long before the Lumière brothers made “La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon.”5
Enough about movies, cringe-worthy and otherwise. Maybe too much.
A Will-be That Hasn’t Been: Yet
About what’s coming in aerospace transportation and humanity’s new horizons, I am quite sure that we’ve taken no more than the first short steps.
I’m also pretty sure our future isn’t nearly as nifty as some hope, or nasty as others fear. Also that we can count on surprises, pleasant and otherwise.
The SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System may go the way of the DC-X and Lockheed Martin VentureStar.
But someone will eventually want to lift something bigger and heavier than the largest existing vehicle will carry. Then, if dividing the cargo into pieces isn’t practical, it’ll be time to build a bigger launch vehicle.
I’ve seen thoughtless optimism about “the future” turn to equally-unconsidered pessimism, and think both make little sense. (October 30, 2016)
Some of today’s plans will almost certainly go the way of other promising developments that fell short of their goals.
Good Ideas, Innovative and Unused: So Far
The VentureStar wouldn’t have been the tallest vehicle, but would have been impressive for its innovations: which included a linear aerospike engine. I think the basic idea shows very great promise.
Lockheed Martin couldn’t get the tech to work, not well enough for flight. So VentureStar development was canceled.
The inelegant but test-flown DC-X is another good, but abandoned, idea. The McDonnell Douglas DC-X was a one-third working scale model of their planned Delta Clipper cargo ship.
I still think the Delta Clipper made more sense for commercial development than the VentureStar. The DC-X used existing tech, and was designed for minimal maintenance and ground support.
I suspect that successful test flights of the DC-X model didn’t endear it to NASA brass who preferred the VentureStar. That’s speculation, and still another topic.
It didn’t help that the last test flight of the DC-X ended in a crash that destroyed the vehicle. There were definitely some bugs that needed work before commercial production. A debatable degree of cross-range maneuverability was another unresolved issue.
I strongly suspect that we’ll see cargo and passenger runs using vehicles like the Delta Clipper, VentureStar, Skylon — and designs we haven’t thought of yet. How soon that happens depends in large part on how badly folks want the service.
One more quote, and I’m done.
“A Planet is the Cradle….”
“Планета есть колыбель разума, но нельзя вечно жить в колыбели”
“A planet is the cradle of mind, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.”
(Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky, from a letter written in 1911, via Wikiquote)
More, embracing truth and looking ahead with hope:
1 Hodgkins Fund background:
2 India’s space program:
3 Launch systems, CubeSats, and commercial spaceflight:
4 A tip of the hat to Ortrud, whose sensible response to conventional hopelessness started me thinking:
5 Some of my take on silliness, science, and the movies: