The WeMartians Blog

Other items of interest from the fourth planet

This week, we’re celebrating National Engineers Week. Engineers are a massive part of space exploration. Without them, we would never have achieved our successes at Mars and beyond. On the WeMartians Podcast, we’ve had the privilege of interviewing some pretty amazing Engineers. So, we’d like to showcase a few of them here! Enjoy this curated selection of episodes featuring Martian engineers.

Episode 9: Riding Ions (feat. Joe Cassady)

Joe Cassady is the executive director for space at Aerojet Rocketdyne and a lifelong Engineer. He joined Jake in the summer of 2016 to talk about Solar Electric Propulsion and how the cutting edge technology could enable more efficient transportation of cargo to Mars.

Episode 25: Building a Rover (feat. Abbie Hutty)

Abbie Hutty is the Lead Spacecraft Structures Engineer at Airbus working on the European ExoMars rover. She joined Jake last summer to talk about building and testing a rover chassis for Mars and why engineering spacecraft is so important!

Episode 31: The Interplanetary Business Case (feat. Chantelle Dubois)

Chantelle Dubois is an engineer from the University of Manitoba and a member of the Space Generation Advisory Council. Chantelle joined Jake in the Fall to discuss SpaceX’s update to the BFR concept and the plan to phase out Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.

Episode 33: Mars Base Camp (feat. Steve Jolly and Danielle Richey)

Steve Jolly and Danielle Richey are engineers at Lockheed Martin working on the Mars Base Camp concept. The two joined Jake in November to discuss the human orbital station at Mars and some of the design philosophy behind the architecture.

Episode 36: Systems Engineering InSight (feat. Farah Alibay)

Farah Alibay is a Payload System Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, working on integrating instruments on to the InSight spacecraft ahead of its launch in May. Farah joined Jake in January to discuss the challenges of spacecraft integration as well as a cool cubesat concept flying alongside InSight called MarCO.

It’s been a couple of months since we launched the WeMartians Shop and the response has been great. Thanks to everyone who purchased a shirt so far! Not only do you look great, but you’re supporting an independent podcaster so that’s gotta feel good, right?

Today we’d like to introduce two new products to the shop!

Opportunity’s So Extra

On Friday the 15th of February, 2018, NASA’s Opportunity rover completed its 5,000th sol on the Red Planet. That’s intense. The little lawnmower-sized robot has been exploring Mars for over 14 years! The original nominal mission was planned to be 90 sols, which means it has exceeded it 55 times over. It’s an incredible milestone that deserves a ton of credit. Last year we spoke with Mike Seibert from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who gave us a thorough walk-through of everything it takes to operate Opportunity. It’s a big job and the rover drivers in Pasadena do a bang-up job. If you’d like to learn more, you should listen to the episode!

To celebrate this achievement, we’ve created a special edition T-Shirt with Opportunity’s face. It represents just how far outside the concept of nominal that this rover is now operating in. We hope you like it. It’s available in different colours and sizes for men and women in the WeMartians Shop today.

Opportunity: Extra Nominal (Womens)

Opportunity: Extra Nominal (Mens)

 

Pick up your own EXTRA NOMINAL T-Shirt today!

TwentySeven Now a Sweater

Surrounding the inaugural flight of the Falcon Heavy on February 6th, our TWENTYSEVEN T-Shirt has been all the rage. Featuring the business end of the SpaceX Rocket, it shows all twenty seven Merlin engines ready to take flight in to deep space. I wore the shirt to the launch when WeMartians covered it from Kennedy Space Centre, which you can see in our super cool reaction video.

The trip to Florida was a huge success, and when we returned we produced Episode 37 which tells the whole story of the Falcon Heavy Rocket from its origins to its future. You should listen in!

 

While at the site, I received a lot of questions about the shirt. Since the design has been such a hit we thought we’d make it available in some new formats. You can now get TWENTYSEVEN in a hooded pullover sweater format, available in three colours.

TWENTYSEVEN Inigo Blue (Unisex)

TWENTYSEVEN: Navy (Unisex)

 

Pick up your TWENTYSEVEN T-Shirt or Pullover Today!

Keep the Feedback Coming!

We’re always looking for new ideas and feedback on our products and services! If you’ve got an idea, feel free to send an email to us, or hit us up on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram! Ad ares!

This is the second in a series of blog posts to showcase our Patreon program. Last month, we went in to detail about the Orbiter Level of $1/month. I’ve set some ambitious goals for funding. I’d like to travel annually to cover events for listeners, like the Falcon Heavy launch last week. Perhaps more importantly, I’m committed to launching the WeMartians Travel Grant. If I’m serious about hitting these goals this year I need to ensure that the benefits of becoming a patron are clear. It occurs to me that I’ve only ever gone over the rewards at a cursory level. So, with this blog series I hope to change that.

Today I’d like to go over one of the highest value support levels: Lander. You’re a Lander-level patron if you contribute at least $3/month through Patreon. This reward level centers around a private, weekly podcast called Red Planet Review.

Why the Need for another Podcast?

I love the format of WeMartians and I think it furthers the podcast’s goals and fits within my schedule. Going deep in to interviews with guests is a great outlet for education and makes it easy to break down humanize complicated topics. But setting up and editing interviews takes a lot of work, which is why I only produce one episode every two to three weeks.

Three weeks is a long time to not be communicating with listeners! Two years in to the show, I find myself having to go over a lot of housekeeping and to catch up on news before each interview. I couldn’t very well just skip in to the next interview without talking about the most recent SpaceX accomplishment or the release of a perspective-changing science announcement. This began stretching my podcasts and cluttering them up. I needed a new way to be topical and communicate more frequently with listeners. Thus was born the Red Planet Review.

So what kinds of things do we cover in Red Planet Review?

The show focuses on Mars science, engineering developments, human spaceflight studies, important launches and spacecraft updates, rover mission progress and much much more. Here are some examples of what we cover!

Mars Science Papers

New papers on Mars science are being released all the time. From seismology to geomorphology, climate science and more, Mars is a place of constant discovery. Early in the show we broke down a discovery from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory discussing how meteorites from Mars could tell us the abundance of water in its past. We discussed the exciting announcement from USGS of abundant sheets of pure water ice located on the slopes of Martian craters, sitting just below the surface. And we covered a study from Canada testing new life detection instruments that might one day fly on a Martian spacecraft.

In all cases we try to break down these stories into simple terms to help make them understandable, and to give you the context that makes them important and noteworthy.We think Mars science is really cool and deserves to be celebrated. Our show notes link back to articles and the papers themselves if you feel like learning more.

Mars Ice Sheets revealed. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA/USGS

Engineering Developments

New technology will be essential to get to Mars. From propulsion to power, navigation and communication, we need continued investment into cutting edge tech to push further into space. On some of our past shows, we’ve explored a new technology from Michigan Tech that can extract water from gypsum. We broke down the introduction of NASA’s Kilopower project, a nuclear power source for the surface of the Moon or Mars. And we covered the contract signing by Sierra Nevada to develop a habitat prototype for the Deep Space Gateway.

Like we do with science, we’ll break down the importance of these developments and how they fit in to the overall goal of continuing to explore Mars. You’ll learn the challenges and obstacles and next steps for the technology.

Pledge on Patreon to get access to Red Planet Review

Human Spaceflight Studies

Robotic exploration of Mars is awesome, but we look forward to the day when people can travel there, too. We’ve got a long way to go, but it doesn’t mean we aren’t trying to figure it out now. We’ve talked about a study analyzing astronaut’s core body temperatures during long spaceflights. We also cover human spaceflight analogues, like the recent AMADEE-18 analogue going on right now in Oman.

An AMADEE-18 Astronaut performs an EVA. Credit: Austrian Space Forum

Rocket Launches and Spacecraft Updates

Mars launches and new spacecraft don’t happen often, but when they do we’re there to chronicle it. Whether it’s the static fire or launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket (which could have serious impact to Mars exploration), the delivery of Mars2020’s SuperCam, or the completion of the Mastcam-Z qualification model, we’ll keep you up to date.

Best of all, each week we summarize what the rovers Curiosity and Opportunity have been up to on the surface of Mars. We’ll talk about the rock targets the explore, the drives they make, and other updates to their instruments and strategy.

How can I listen?

Red Planet Review is released on Patreon, for supporters pledging $3+/month. The audio is accessed to your private RSS feed, so it will show up, along with any other WeMartians Bonus content you’re entitled to, in a second feed in your podcast player. It’s just like another podcast in your app! You can also listen directly on Patreon.com or through the Patreon app.

Wish you could hear one to try it out? No worries! We released the first episode in early January for free in the regular WeMartians feed. Listen on WeMartians.com or through your podcast app.

Pledge on Patreon to get access to Red Planet Review

Summary

The Red Planet Review is a high value benefit for our patrons. For roughly 75 cents an episode, you’ll stay up to date on everything happening with Mars exploration. Plus, your money goes to a greater cause as we gear up to launch the WeMartians Travel Grant which will help a student travel to a conference and share their work to explore Mars. We think that’s pretty cool. Thanks for your support!

Almost seven years ago, Elon Musk revealed the Falcon Heavy rocket at a small press conference in Washington, DC. It was a rocket whose idea sprung from a customer request seven years before that. And tomorrow, it may finally launch. Yes, it’s been a long time coming for what will become the most capable rocket flying today. But patience is a virtue, and for those of us following along, the reward will surely be sweet.

The WeMartians Podcast has been following Falcon Heavy since its first episode. Back then, the line between the Heavy and Mars was more clear; SpaceX planned to launch many Red Dragon spacecraft to Mars’ surface during the next few launch windows. But while the Red Dragon mission was cancelled last year, this is still a very important rocket for we Martians.  And thanks to the generous support of our Patrons on Patreon, we’ll be there to watch it fly for the first time, first hand.

What does Falcon Heavy have to do with Mars?

Falcon Heavy has just a handful of customers on the manifest today. Following the demo flight tomorrow, it will launch the Space Test Program-2 flight for the Department of Defense sometime this year. STP-2 will feature a cornucopia of payloads and will be a true test of the rockets capabilities. But after this, there is only Arabsat 6A and a potential Inmarsat-6 satellite, whose launch dates have not been announced yet. Following the demo flight, we may see more customers sign on, but for now this is it.

The Falcon Heavy rocket completes its static fire testing at Cape Canaveral.

The Falcon Heavy rocket completes its static fire testing at Cape Canaveral.

But to this show, the Falcon Heavy represents something bigger. Falcon 9 has done a tremendous job shaking up the market by offering high launch cadence, low cost access to space. But its payload capacity limits it to low earth orbit and geosynchronous satellites. It has only ever launched one payload beyond GEO, the DSCOVR satellite for NASA in 2015, a small 570kg payload to L1, about 1.5M kilometres from Earth.

Falcon Heavy promises to bring a whole new payload class into its reusable, low-cost world. It positions SpaceX to be able to compete for larger classified payloads, larger GEO satellites, lunar missions for Deep Space Gateway, and even smaller payloads to Mars. It’s hard to understate how valuable it is to lower the cost of access to space. It’s also hard to predict the cascade of benefits that will come from it. Suffice it to say, Falcon Heavy could continue to disrupt the market in ways that will be positive for everyone trying to put things in space, Mars or not.

So what can you expect from WeMartians?

I flew down to Florida yesterday and am spending today getting affairs in order. As a Canadian, I have some extra steps to take care of in getting my media credentials and didn’t want to slow my companions down, so the extra day is helpful. After arriving yesterday, I wasted no time getting indoctrinated in American Life by watching the Super Bowl with fellow space podcaster Brendan Byrne, host of Are We There Yet?

This morning I’ll be meeting up with Anthony Colangelo, host of the Main Engine Cut Off Podcast and co-host with me on our joint project, Off-Nominal. We’ve got hotels to check-in to, press credentials to pick up, and (hopefully) some photos to take at LC-39A. I’ll be sharing what I can on Twitter (@we_martians), so follow along if you aren’t already! I expect to get some bonus content for Patrons done as well.

The launch pad of LC-39A with the SpaceX hangar in the foreground.

Launch Complex 39A, currently leased to SpaceX by NASA, where Falcon Heavy will lift off from. Credit: NASA

Tomorrow is the big event. There is a three hour launch window opening at 1:30PM EST (10:30AM PST). A backup opportunity exists the next day. We have plans for streaming, tweeting, and recording all the audio we possibly can.

Following the launch, we hope to record a session of Off-Nominal in person before flying home. WeMartians will come out the following Tuesday, giving me enough time to process the week, assemble the audio, and create an episode worth listening to.

What if I want to get primed?

If you haven’t already, you should check out Episode 35 with Brendan Byrne and Emilee Speck. In addition to talking about all the fun Mars stuff to expect this year, we go in to Falcon Heavy pretty deeply. It’s a great way to get excited and get ready for the launch! Otherwise, follow us on social media as we head down to the Cape. And hey – if you’re a listener and are heading down yourself, send us an email or a tweet to let us know! We’d love to meet up and chat!

We could not be more excited for this trip! Go Falcon Heavy!

Wear Falcon Heavy and support the trip!

Trips like this aren’t free, unfortunately. And while our patrons do a lot to help us get there, it won’t cover all the travel expenses. If you’re as excited about Falcon Heavy as we are, why not help us out by picking up one of our great TWENTYSEVEN T-shirts? They’re available on our shop for reasonable prices and ship everywhere in the world. Wear a rocket, support a podcast. It’s win-win.

Men’s TWENTYSEVEN T-Shirt

Women’s TWENTYSEVEN T-Shirt

Well, it’s been one full month of pledges since we announced a huge overhaul to our Patreon goals and rewards for 2018 and I’m so proud of everything we’ve accomplished.

Thanks to all the Patrons who’ve pledged support already. We’re 92% of the way to our goal of $300/month to fund one annual trip to cover live events. This is so close! I think we can reach it this month. Here’s a look at everything Patrons have enjoyed over the last month!

Click here to support WeMartians on Patreon

Highlights

  • Introducing the Red Planet Review (4 episodes) – We kicked off our new series this month, a short weekly podcast covering Mars news headlines from around the world. It’s a great way to stay on top of current events while waiting for new interviews in the regular show. It’s for our Lander-level patrons ($3+/month), but the first episode was published for free if you’d like to try it out!
  • Interview Questions – Some of our Patrons used their Rover-level ($5+) privileges to submit questions for interviews ahead of time. Listener Lars got his question read on Episode 35 and listener Kris got his read on Episode 36!
  • Bonus Content: Episode 35 (Brendan Byrne & Emilee Speck) – Brendan and Emilee share some of their thoughts on Commercial Crew, Blue Origin’s new Rocket facility in Florida, and the OSIRIS-REx mission.
  • Bonus Content: Episode 36 (Farah Alibay) – Farah told us the story of her past internships at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, what she learned from the experience, and some of her work studying Mars Sample Return architectures.
  • Discord Highlights – Over on the Off-Nominal Discord, our Rover-level ($5+) patrons continued to share in all kinds of great discussions. Of course, there was a lot about Falcon Heavy as we approach the launch. But also about in-situ resource utilization, deep space communication, and some more frivolous things, too. Some of our listeners built a Launch Alert bot that feeds live rocket launch information right in to the chat! It’s a seriously cool place that I definitely recommend you check out.

Don’t miss out on these perks! Become a patron today!

 

 

On Sunday, January 21st, a small company called Rocket Lab launched a brand new rocket and successfully placed their first payload into orbit. It was a picture-perfect launch that deployed small cubesat satellites from two private companies into space. Dubbed #StillTesting, the rocket also tried out a new upper kick stage motor, and deployed a bold experiment called the Humanity Star.

The Humanity Star

The Humanity Star is a 1-metre geodesic sphere designed to reflect light from the sun down to observers on Earth. It’s a bright object that people can track from the ground as it passes from North to South and back in its polar orbit. It’s meant to inspire us. From Eric Berger’s article in Ars Technica:

“The whole point of the program is to get everybody looking up at the star, but also past the star into the Universe, and reflect about the fact that we’re one species, on one planet,” Beck told Ars in an interview before the launch. “This is not necessarily part of the Rocket Lab program; it’s more of a personal program. It’s certainly consistent with our goal of trying to democratize space.”

RocketLab CEO Peter Beck standing next to the Humanity Star, a 1-metre geodesic sphere, on the coast.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck with the Humanity Star before its launch. Credit: Rocket Lab

Opposition and Support

Soon after the company announced that the payload had been deployed in to orbit, something began happening on Twitter. Astronomers began denouncing the “star”. They complained that it was adding to an already difficult problem with light pollution, and had the potential to ruin valuable observations from telescopes down on Earth. Meg Schwamb is a respected astronomer and also part of the Planet Four citizen science project, which we talked about extensively with Michael Aye back in episode 4.


Mike Brown is another well-known astronomer. He famously discovered the dwarf planet Eris, which eventually led to Pluto’s declassification as a planet. He also put forward the hypothesis (along with Konstantin Batygin) that there is another, actual planet nine hidden out in the farthest reaches of our solar system.


Miriam Kramer over at Mashable did a great job summarizing some of the reactions. Meanwhile, Rocket Lab defended the project. From the Otago Daily Times in New Zealand:

“The whole point is to get people talking as a planet and I think we’ve achieved that. If you’re going to do something big some people will love it and some people won’t love it and it’s all about sparking the conversation.”

Rocket Lab had been monitoring how people reacted to the launch of the Humanity Star. Beck said positive messages had exceeded negativity at a ratio of about nine to one.

“Although there are a few people that it doesn’t sparkle with them the vast majority of people are inspired. It’s just incredible to see how many people have been thinking and pondering about it.”

It seems that, on Twitter at least, you either love it or you hate it.

Polarizing Space

I’ve spoken before about topics revolving around the theme of polarizing space. In Episode 34, Laura Forczyk helped us sort through the pivot from Mars to the Moon, a perennial debate favourite among space geeks. I covered the same topic in an Off the Cuff episode (premium content for Patreon supporters paying $1/month or more) exactly 1 year ago today. SLS vs. Commercial Rockets is another great example (and another topic I covered in Off the Cuff), as is human vs robotic exploration, planetary protection (for or against), and of course, “New Space” vs. “Old Space”.

Hear all the “Off the Cuff” content and more by subscribing on Patreon for just $1/month

A lot of these arguments can be broken down to a really basic “change” vs. “don’t change”. Really, if you’re a pessimist, almost every argument in history is essentially that. But in the case of the Humanity Star, and a lot of the tribal space arguments, we’re really looking at a shift in who drives the conversation. Are the skies the domain of scientists, funded by governments and absent of profit motivations? Or are they the playground of the world’s elite? This tweet from Richard Easther, an astrophysicist from the University of Auckland, belies the undertone of the argument perfectly.

Rise of the Billionaires

Since the dawn of the space age, space exploration has been driven by governments. In the earliest years of geopolitical motivations driving the space race, it was governments going toe to toe. Since then, it’s been mostly the same. National agencies drive the agenda, remain the largest customers, and regulate the industry. But in the past couple decades, this has begun to change.

In 2004, Anousheh Ansari and her brother Amir made a multi-million dollar contribution to the X-PRIZE foundation, which held a competition for non-government agencies to put a spacecraft above the karman line twice in two weeks. The competition went to SpaceShipOne, a spaceplane which became the first private spacecraft to reach space. It’s pilot, Mike Melville, became the first private astronaut. Today, the heritage of the vehicle lives on through Virgin Galactic, another private organization headed by a wealthy man with cosmic ambitions, Richard Branson. Anousheh later went on to fly herself to the International Space Station as one of the first privately-funded astronauts.

The SpaceShipOne team and the X-PRIZE team stand in front of SpaceShipOne on the runway after landing.

Amir and Anousheh Ansari, Paul Allen, Peter Diamandis, Burt Rutan, and Richard Branson celebrate the SpaceShipOne flight. Credit: Jim Sugar

Of course, more such privately funded figures are today becoming not just spaceflight players, but household names. Elon Musk’s SpaceX put the first private liquid-fueled rocket, the Falcon 1, in to orbit in 2008. Since then they’ve pushed many boundaries. They were the first private company to launch, recover, and launch a spacecraft again (Dragon 1). They were the first to complete a propulsive landing of an orbital-class rocket (and then launch it again). They’ve become the highest volume launch organization in the world, putting 18 successful payloads in to orbit last year. That beat any other country, and accounts for roughly two thirds of all American launches that year.

Elon Musk isn’t the only one, either. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, is silently and steadily building a rocket empire called Blue Origin to send tourists to space and later enter the commercial satellite market. He’s also following a reusable rocket strategy, one that promises to continue to drive down costs and democratize space access. Bob Richards of Moon Express seeks to put a lander on the moon. Peter Diamandis, Chris Lewicki and Eric Andersen want to mine asteroids with their company Planetary Resources. And of course, there’s Peter Beck, who just wants the world to look up at his Humanity Star and wonder.

Is this Good?

The “Billionaires of Space” have done a lot of good, to be sure. Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard rocket has provided opportunities for many small payloads to reach space, including projects from schools and universities. SpaceX has lowered the cost of access to space tremendously, charging NASA a third of what it would have to use the Shuttle to send cargo to space, returning all of its original investment, and driving economic activity in the United States instead of abroad. That’s of tremendous benefit to American taxpayers. Given how fast everything has been changing, we are probably only scratching the surface of what’s possible as these new players continue to disrupt an industry that has been stagnant for a long time.

But there are concerns as well. In a recent Planetary Radio episode, Mat Kaplan hosted a panel with Planetary Society staff Jason Davis, and our past guests Emily Lakdawalla and Casey Dreier. Casey brought up a wonderful point. Private investment in industry to the scale we’re seeing tends to happen in times of tremendous economic inequality. By definition, there needs to be a huge wealth gap between the richest and poorest among us to facilitate this kind of unencumbered spending by private individuals in to a specific pursuit. And if you think that isn’t true, I invite you to check out what SpaceX is launching next. I’m not here to discuss the nature of economic inequality or its solutions, but it is something that should be considered by anyone pondering which side to take in this.

A red Tesla roadster on a payload adapter surrounded by the Falcon Heavy fairings.

Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster being prepared for launch on the Falcon Heavy Rocket. Credit: SpaceX

Interestingly, this is not the first time this has happened in space exploration, either. Casey also interviewed Alex MacDonald on the Space Policy edition of Planetary Radio back in December. Dr. MacDonald wrote a book called “The Long Space Age” which tells the story of the surge of investment in private observatories in the United States in the 19th century. I recommend you listen in to hear the parallels between then and now.

Final Thoughts

We’re obviously in a time of change. The old guard of space is under pressure from a newer, younger perspective that wants to change things and make them their own. One only has to watch a United Launch Alliance webcast and a SpaceX one to see the difference. The days of control rooms filled with weathered Caucasian men in suits and military uniforms are fading. Those of control rooms filled with young, diverse engineers in jeans and t-shirts are swelling. They’re different. They cheer at stage separations, they share on Twitter, and they put weird space disco balls in to orbit. But that doesn’t mean one is right and one is wrong.

As the Humanity Star coverage filled the airwaves this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about polarizing positions. Tribalism is a curious part of human nature, one that simultaneously offends me but that I also can’t help but sometimes get sucked in to. I come back to reminding myself, over and over, that space, like many debates in our time, is a complicated issue, and not one that can properly be dissected in a tweet (whether you have 140 or 280 characters).

It’s OK to be excited about the SLS rocket’s capabilities, while also being critical of its program management. It’s OK to cheer the landing of a SpaceX rocket, while also being concerned about the cult of personality around it’s founder. It’s OK to want to protect other planets from microbial life but also send people to explore them. And it’s OK to be delighted about a human-made artificial star, while also sympathizing with astronomers, whose valuable telescope time might be polluted by more light.

Space is for everyone. But for most of us watching from the sidelines, we’ll need to be happy being armchair administrators. That’s all fine, as long as we recognize that there are different perspectives, it isn’t black and white, and our diversity makes us stronger. If we’re going to Mars, I’d like it to be built on a stronger coalition than 50% +1.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Commercial Crew program this weekend. At a Wednesday hearing by the House space subcommittee on the program, the US Government Accountability Office provided a report that called the published schedule in to question. The GAO provides oversight on big programs like Commercial Crew.

The report specifically calls into question the certification date of the two spacecraft being developed under the program. From the SpaceNews article by Jeff Foust:

Christina Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the GAO, said in her testimony that despite current schedules, which call for certifying both Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon in the first quarter of 2019 after the completion of planned uncrewed and crewed test flights late this year, NASA’s own estimates project that certification to be significantly delayed.

“We found that the program’s own analysis indicates that certification is likely to slip into December 2019 for SpaceX and February 2020 for Boeing,” she said. Those certifications are required before the vehicles can begin regular crew rotation flights to and from the International Space Station

A year’s delay is pretty significant. I asked myself how the companies could be so out of sync with the GAO. Chaplain helps me out:

Chaplain said the companies assumed aggressive schedules, in part to motivate their teams working on the vehicles, assumptions NASA does not necessarily accept. “According to NASA, both contractors assumed an efficiency factor in getting to the crewed flight test that the program office does not assume in its schedule,” she said.

This kind of made me chuckle. I work in business and this strategy is all too familiar to me. Pick an aggressive schedule, speak of it like it’s law, and kick everyone into gear to meet it. Even if it’s not realistic and you overshoot by a bit, the fabricated urgency can still move your timelines to the left. It’s the same as when you tell that one friend who never shows up on time to arrive to the party 30 minutes before everyone else, just to get them there along with everyone else.

FYI – I covered Commercial Crew’s GAO report, along with the rest of the Mars headlines for the week, on the most recent edition of the Red Planet Review, a weekly podcast. It’s available to our Patreon supporters and I think you’d like it.

Become a Lander-level ($3+) Patron to hear me discuss Commercial Crew on Red Planet Review

Soyuz Manifest

The Soyuz MS-01 spacecraft launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome July 7, 2016 Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Delays happen in spaceflight. But the tough part for NASA here is that if Commercial Crew doesn’t come online in late 2019, they won’t have access to space. NASA currently has seats booked on Russian Soyuz spacecraft until 2019. Here’s the best I could determine for upcoming crew manifests, to help you understand it.

  • Soyuz MS-08 – March 9th 2018
    • 1 Russian, 2 Americans
  • Soyuz MS-09 – April 25th 2018
    • 1 Russian, 1 American, 1 European
  • Soyuz MS-10 – September 30th 2018
    • 2 Russians, 1 American
  • Soyuz MS-11 – November 30th 2018
    • 1 Russian, 1 American, 1 Canadian
  • Soyuz MS-12 – March 30th 2019
    • 2 Russians, 1 American
  • Soyuz MS-13 – September 13th, 2019
    • 1 Russian, 1 American, 1 European

One thing I couldn’t determine was which of these flights were part of the option NASA exercised to acquire three more Soyuz seats from Boeing as part of the Energia settlement last year. The best I can determine is that they were in 2019. With just two Americans on the manifest in 2019, that could mean there is one more seat unaccounted for. It could also be accounted for by the European seat on MS-13, though. Since government agencies can’t pay each other for services, the collaboration of the International Space Station sometimes results in a lot of weird “swaps” to track member contributions. I believe ESA’s contributions of the service module to NASA’s Orion spacecraft is part of their contributions, so NASA might have to give that seat to them in exchange. If you know for sure, please let me know.

Nonetheless, NASA’s in a tough spot. Soyuz spacecraft have a three year lead time from order to flight, so additional ones cannot be procured for 2019 or 2020.  At the hearing, NASA said it was exploring “additional options” to get people to the station. One possibility is to procure the existing Soyuz seats already ordered for this time period. Russia reduced their crew complement on the station from 3 to 2, but as far as I can tell never actually reduced the planned Soyuz flights. By sticking to four flights per year, they could monetize the flights by reviving a tourist program they once flew in the first decade of this century. Maybe NASA could purchase them? We’ll need to wait to find out.

ISS Future

One more thought on this, though. Plans to operate the ISS only go til 2024. If the Commercial Crew flights aren’t certified until 2020, that leaves just 4 years for NASA to get return on the investment it made into these companies. Each additional delay reduces that window further. Given the delays with SLS, NASA’s missing Administrator, and the recent pivot to a human lunar program that will certainly cascade delays as any major change would, it is increasingly likely that NASA will seek to continue operation of the station until 2028.

I’m a big fan of the ISS. It’s done a tremendous job engaging people, forging international relationships, delivering great science, and serving as a platform to kickstart a spaceflight economy. We wouldn’t have Bigelow Aerospace testing their Expandable Module without it. But the idea of operating it for another 10 years at the expense of deep space exploration is a tough pill to swallow for a Martian like me. As I said, delays happen in spaceflight, but just because it’s common doesn’t make it any more enjoyable.

Patreon LogoAs we head in to the 3rd year of the Podcast & second of its Patreon campaign, I’ve set some ambitious goals for funding. I’d like to travel annually to cover events for listeners. Perhaps more importantly, I’m committed to launching the WeMartians Travel Grant. If I’m serious about hitting these goals this year I need to ensure that the benefits of becoming a patron are clear. It occurs to me that I’ve only ever gone over the rewards at a cursory level. So, with this blog series I hope to change that.

Today I’d like to go in to detail about the most accessible support level: Orbiter. You’re an Orbiter-level patron if you contribute $1 a month to the show through Patreon. Orbiter-level rewards centre around bonus audio content. We produced nearly six hours of content in 2017.

Extended Interview Content

Most of our shows are interviews with scientists, engineers and communicators in the space industry. While I do prepare questions for guests ahead of time to give them time to prepare, these conversations can sometimes organically go to new places I didn’t expect. This of course can create situations where there is just too much audio to fit into an episode! While this means some stuff gets cut from the main feed, for Orbiter-level patrons this becomes additional content. In other situations, I will sometimes prepare questions specifically for Patrons with the intention of never putting in the main feed.

I really like these bonus pieces because they are opportunities to explore ideas that are slightly outside the main stream of the podcast. For example, for Episode 19: Dome Sweet Dome, I was able to spend another 10 minutes asking Jeffrey and Kelsey what it was like as architects to work at NASA for a short period. It was really fun to hear the perspectives from people not normally connected with space.

For episode 23 I was able to ask Frances Butcher about her work helping select a landing site for the ExoMars rover. In episode 24, Leonard David told us the story of the Mars Underground, giving us a fascinating look into the precursors to today’s Mars Society. Lori Fenton gave us insights into dunes on other worlds besides Mars after our interview for episode 32.

For episode 26, we have three pieces of bonus content. Since this was more of an interwoven story about the Pathfinder Mission, I cut most of the audio from our interviews. Full conversations from Brian Muirhead, Donna Shirley and Matt Golombek were provided to Patrons!

Finally, for episode 33 (which covered Lockheed Martin’s Mars Base Camp), I tried something different. Instead of bonus interview content, I went through Lockheed’s White Paper on the architecture and provided some of my own insights into its design.

Support the WeMartians Podcast at the Orbiter Level ($1)

“Off the Cuff” Series

NASA's SLS Rocket ascending to spaceAnother form of bonus content you’ll get as a Orbiter-level patron is my haphazard Off the Cuff series. Off the Cuff is irregular in its release because they are spontaneous monologues that I have based on news that happens or thoughts I fall in to. These pieces are generally around 20-40 minutes, which means they’re podcasts in their own right. I don’t script these (but I do prepare notes) which means it’s a little more raw and visceral than the polished episodes you’re used to hearing in the main feed.

NASA's Mars 2020 Rover RenderingWe published seven Off the Cuff episodes in 2017. I discussed NASA exploring putting crew on EM1 and the announced Deep Space Gateway plan. We talked about the future of the robotic Mars Exploration Program and the new Sample Return Architecture. I discussed the cancellation of SpaceX’s Red Dragon and why it wasn’t such bad news. At right at the end of the year, we tackled the tough question of whether or not SLS should be cancelled.

Event Audio

Jake with past guest and fellow Martian Tanya Harrison at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. They are showing off their respective space T-Shirts. Jake has a United Federation of Planets shirt while Tanya is wearing a Caturday shirt.In March of last year, I travelled to Houston to attend the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. I produced episode 21 with the audio I acquired there, but there was more where that came from. Orbiter-level patrons got three 10-15 minute audio updates through the event and one video update as well where I covered the history of LPSC. This gave me an opportunity to share at a more granular level what was happening at the conference. It was a lot of fun.

Many ways to listen

All of the bonus audio produced for Patrons is accessible in many different ways. You can listen in your browser by logging in to the Patreon site and navigating to the individual posts. Set your email preferences to be notified when new content is posted, too.

Alternatively, download the Patreon App to view the posts and listen right on your phone. Enable push notifications to be notified of new posts.

The best way to listen is perhaps through your own private RSS Feed. Manually add the feed to your podcast player along with the main WeMartians Podcast feed. This way, you can get the content in the same place. The feed is customized to your reward level so you’ll get the content you pay for.

Summary

The Orbiter-level is a great, accessible way to support the show and also get a lot of great content. For the price of a movie ticket once a year, you get six hours of space content. Plus, your money helps send me to events and eventually support a student! Hopefully a student who will work to discover Mars’ secrets or send people to deep space. That’s pretty cool.

Support the WeMartians Podcast at the Orbiter Level ($1)

Well, it’s been a heavy weekend of reading to catch up on the Mars Rovers Opportunity & Curiosity. The two rovers are active as ever exploring the Red Planet. Two detailed posts from the Planetary Society have kept me busy understanding what these two robots are up to!

Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity

On January 5th, A.J.S. Rayl posted a 2017 review of the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. And, it was a doozy! I recommend the read if you want to get in to the details of the rover’s operations. But set aside 45 minutes to really get in to it. Opportunity had a pretty cool year and is now taking a daring trip down to the floor of Endeavour Crater.

Every year Opportunity has been exploring Mars has been one of challenges and rewards and 2017 was no exception, except perhaps it was more intense than most. The veteran robot field geologist was scaling the steep, sometimes slippery-with-gravel slopes of Cape Tribulation on her way to the valley when the year began. Now, as 2017 comes to an end, the robot field geologist is deep inside Perseverance and deep into the mission’s research, the centerpiece of the team’s tenth extended mission, looking to go farther back in Martian geologic time and uncover buried scientific treasure.

The post contains some info on Opportunity’s wheel problem, too.

June brought a ‘gloom’ that cast a pall on the mission team. While Opportunity making a basic arc back maneuver to turn, the steering actuator for her left front wheel stalled and she stopped, with that wheel stuck, toed-out 33 degrees.

We talked a little bit about the wheel problem when Mike Seibert came on the show to talk about Opportunity for Episode 29.

If anything, make sure you check out some of the stunning images from the little rover that could. For example, this artistic view processed by Stuart Atkinson really enchants me. Stu is a great follow on Twitter as well, if you want to get stuff like this in your feed regularly.

NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell / ASU / S. Atkinson

Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity

Just when I was feeling good about myself for having diligently read through the Opportunity update, Emily Lakdawalla posted a 4 month update on Curiosity the very next day. I found this update really helpful in better understanding Curiosity’s current location, Vera Rubin Ridge. On the first episode of Red Planet Review I mentioned that the MSL rover had returned to an interesting place that had blueish rocks. Emily’s update helped me really get that. This image shows the ridge stretch across the map, with three distinct terraces. The southernmost (highest altitude) terrace has the bluish tinges. Keep in mind that this is false colour, taken in a way to help really spot different rock types.

NASA / JPL / UA / JHUAPL / Emily Lakdawalla

Emily provided some good updates on the drill, which is something she also talked to us about when she joined us to celebrate Curiosity’s 5th birthday on Mars back in Episode 27.

The rover could drill as early as February, potentially, but there are a lot of variables involved (including finding appropriate targets and avoiding Martian gremlins). It’ll happen when it happens, but there appears to be confidence that a return to drilling will happen, so that’s very good news.

I also learned a new geology word: Laminations (or something laminated). It refers to very fine layers in a sedimentary rock. Check out these laminations. Did someone 3D print these rocks?

NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

All in, these were great updates to kick off 2018. I’m really excited for what these rovers will tell us this year. And I’m particularly excited for whatever updates might be announced at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference this year. Yes, I’ll be attending again! So stay tuned, Martians!

 

Get your Curiosity SOON T-Shirt at the WeMartians Shop!

Happy New Year! We’ve arrived at 2018 and I couldn’t be more excited about where we’re headed this year with the podcast and what we’ve been able to do for our Patreon supporters. In case you missed it, we announced a huge overhaul to our goals and rewards for 2018 and I can’t wait to get going.

Thanks to all the Patrons who’ve pledged support already. We’re 76% of the way to our goal of $300/month to fund one annual trip to cover live events. Click here to join the growing number of Martians who help support the exploration of Mars. Here’s a look at everything Patrons have enjoyed over the last month!

Highlights

  • Bonus Content: Episode 34 (Laura Forczyk) – Laura shared some of her thoughts on the current state of the Space Tourism industry, what challenges it faces in the future, and how it might get off the ground (literally).
  • New Patreon Goal – As part of the changes announced on Dec 20th, we created a new goal of $450/month. If we reach it, we’ll create the WeMartians Travel Grant, a competitive award for students travelling to conferences to share their work on Mars. It’s a way for us to give back to the Mars community & lend support to its exploration.
  • New Patreon Rewards – We overhauled our rewards. We amped up the $3 and $5 levels with some new perks. We also introduced three new premier levels at $10, $15, and $25 that not only get you handwritten postcards from me with WeMartians stickers, but also permanent discounts in our new store!
  • The Off-Nominal Discord – Rover-level and higher patrons enjoyed our new shared Discord Channel, Off-Nominal. Partnering with the Main Engine Cut Off Podcast, we’ve bridged two fan-bases together. It’s a community where space lovers can connect, share ideas, and discuss current events. So what have we been discussing so far?
    • Lots of Falcon Heavy hype
    • A rousing debate on the pros and cons of the SLS rocket
    • Space T-Shirt Fridays, where we share some of our coolest space T-Shirts
  • Bonus Content: Off the Cuff – “Should SLS be Cancelled?” – In our longest Off the Cuff yet, I explore some of the arguments for and against cancelling the SLS rocket, and why I think the argument is more complex than simply a cost issue.

Don’t miss out on these perks! Become a patron today!