Space Sunday: a launch, a budget, a station & an astronaut

Cosmic Girl being readied to participate in the first space launch to commence from the United Kingdom

Virgin Orbit is – weather and systems permitting – due to make history on January 9th, 2023, with the first attempt to deliver a payload to orbit from UK soil (and Western Europe as a whole).

Clues that the launch – delayed from late 2022 due to final bureaucratic issues in the delay in a launch permit being issued by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) –  first appeared on Wednesday, January 4th, 2023, when maritime navigation warnings were issue by the UK and the Republic of Ireland identifying a region of open sea close to both denoted as “hazardous operations area for rocket launching”, and keen-eye observers noted it was consistent with the airspace identified as the drop zone for Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket.

The formal announcement of the launch attempt, which confirmed the warnings had been issued in relation to it, was made on Friday, January 6th, 2023. This indicates that the mission – called Start Me Up – is due to get underway at 22:16 UTC, when Virgin Orbit’s 747 carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl will take off from Spaceport Cornwall (aka Newquay Airport), the LauncherOne rocket mounted under the port wing, inboard of both engines.

The aircraft will then climb to an altitude of 11,000 metres, turning out over the sea to reach the launch zone where LauncherOne will be released and Cosmic Girl will enter a climbing turn, allowing the rocket to ignite its motor and accelerate into a near-vertical ascent to orbit. On board the rocket will be a total of nine smallsats with a total combined mass of roughly 100 kg or one-third of the launchers payload capability when launching into a Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO – also referred to as polar orbit), or one-fifth its payload capacity when delivering payloads to low Earth orbit (LEO).

Highlights of a 2021 Virgin Orbit launch

As well as being the first payload-to-orbit and rocket launch originating out of the UK / Western Europe, the mission marks the first joint launch mission by the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the British Ministry of Defence (MOD), managed under the guidance of the UK’s Space Operations Centre. Their intent is to place two cubesats, Prometheus 2A and 2B, into orbit to test the ability of such shoebox-sized satellites to perform a range of tasks including communications, GPS navigation data relay, and image gathering.

Following the launch, Cosmic Girl will return to Spaceport Cornwall and, later in the month, make a return flight to Virgin Orbit’s main operations centre at the Mojave Air and Spaceport, California, where it will remain for the rest of 2023 carrying out at least seven further LauncherOne flights. It is currently unclear when the next such flight will take place from UK soil.

NASA 2023 Budget Causes Tensions (As Usual)

The NASA budget for fiscal year 2023 has been set at US 25.4 billion in the Congressional Omnibus Spending Bill signed-off during the final session of the 2022 Congress. On the surface, the Bill represents an apparent 5.6% increase in the agency’s spending over 2022, but comes in at less that the US $26 billion requested by the Biden Administration and initially matched by the US Senate. As such, it is a compromise between the proposed Senate budget and the somewhat lower House budget proposes for the agency.

In terms of the human Exploration programme, the budget sees a US $88 million decrease in spending on both for the Space Launch System and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), which is in line with NASA’s proposed spending on both vehicles.

This is more than offset by an increase of US $300 million in spending on the Human Landing System (HLS) required to transport crews between lunar orbit and the surface of the Moon. However, and of potential interest is the fact that none of this money is to be directed towards the use of the SpaceX HLS despite NASA indicating it was looking to exercise “Option B” on that programme for a second lunar landing beyond Artemis 3, the money instead being solely directed towards additional funding for a n additional (i.e. replacement, in the long term) HLS vehicle.

An artist’s rendering of the ascent vehicle of a sustainable lunar Human Landing System lifting-off from its descent stage base, carrying a departing crew back to the orbital Gateway station. Credit: NASA

No budget is (again)is directly provided for the Lunar Gateway station; however, the budget report specifies NASA shall, before the end of the first quarter 2023, provide a breakdown on how it proposes to spend the US $2.63 billion of funding defined as the Artemis Development Programme,  which may offer a breakdown of proposes spending on the Gateway. In addition, part of this $2.63 billion may be used in the development if a “habitation systems programme office” to provide recommendations on the capabilities and technologies required to develop sustainable lunar surface habitats.

In terms of space sciences, the budget initially appears to offer an increase in spending over 2022. However, this again hides some harder realities. The total budget allowance for science missions is US $3.2 billion – some US $80 million more than 2022. However, the majority of this increase  – as per the 5.6% total increase in NASA’s budget – will be absorbed in costs incurred as a result of the COVID pandemic (which also impacted the 2022 budget), coupled with cost increases linked to inflation.

This means that in practical terms, NASA’s science operations are under enormous pressure. While some relief has been gained through missions such as the Mars Sample Return mission being pushed back by two years (2026 to 2028), allowing their costs to be spread more, NASA is also having to juggle other missions.

The Psyche mission to rendezvous and examine the battered 16 Psyche asteroid – the heaviest known M-type asteroid and thought to the exposed iron core of a protoplanet, has received funding in the 2023 NAS budget after being delayed by the COVID pandemic, but at the expense of the VERITAS Venus mission, which will now not launch until at least 2032. Credit: NASA

As a result, the agency has already announced the VERITAS mission to Venus will now launch “no earlier” that 2032 rather than the planned 2029, to allow the Psyche asteroid mission to achieve its planned October 2023 launch date. Elsewhere, the triple Earth Observation Science missions of Terra, Aqua and Aura, thought to have their funding secured through what is effectively their 21st year of operations, have been asked to submit justifications for their continued funding through 2023 and beyond, despite the fact that, while  all three satellites are running low in station-keeping propellants and are thus drifting slightly in their orbits, they continue to return excellent data on the global environment.

Some of the pressure on science budgets has caused both the Senate and the White House to try to intervene. In a joint letter to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), they have requested an additional $150 million be provided each to NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) in order to support ground and space-based telescopes. If awarded. the NSF’s extra $150 million would go directly to continued funding of the prestigious Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), the massive 25.5 metre diameter primary mirror optical telescope currently under construction at the  Las Campanas Observatory facility, Chile.

An artist’s impression of the Giant Magellan Telescope (GTO), for which the White House and US Senate are seeking an additional US $150 million. Credit: GMTO Corporation

Overall, the 2023 budget is being championed as the 10th successive increase in NASA’s budget, lifting it from US 17.7 billion in 2014 to US $25.4 billion – an apparent increase of almost US $8 billion. However, when inflation alone is accounted for, this amounts to just a US $2.54 billion increase in the same period, the majority of which has been taken up by increases in labour, materials, and other costs.

Nor is this money devoted to just highly-visible projects and space missions; the NASA budget covers a broad range of science, aerospace and R&D programmes, as well as STEM activities, materials development, small business funding and grants (aerospace and science related), university research grants, and more. All of which mean that, in real terms and accounting for inflation, NASA – despite the greater demand being placed on it to develop ever more complex human space capabilities – continues to be a highly cost-effective government organisation.

Gateway Will Be “A Squeeze”

The fact that the Lunar Gateway programme does not have a dedicated appropriation line in NASA’s budget does not mean it is without funding. As noted above, programmes such as the Artemis Development Programme have been used to (thus far) provide some US $400 million to fund the design of the US elements of the station, with a further $1.3 billion to be spent over the next several years on their development and construction. In addition, elements of the station are and will be provided and funded by international partners such as the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the Canadian space agency. So work is progressing on the small-scale station designed to orbit the Moon.

But just how small is “small”? Well, according to René Waclavicek, one of the engineers working on the design of I-HAB, the pressurised habitation and research module being developed jointly by ESA and JAXA, and one of the two Gateway living / working modules the other being the US HALO module, the answer is “very”.

Together with the US-led HALO, I-HAB will provide  125m³  (4,400 cu ft) of pressurised space to visiting crews of around 4 people at a time. This might sound a lot – until you consider most of it will be taken up by equipment and systems.
When you do that, I-HAB will have a habitable space of about 8 cubic metres; that’s a room roughly 2 x 2 x 2 metres, with HALO having about the same. And you’ll have to share all of that space with three other people for between 30 and 9- days. It’s going to be a squeeze.

– René Waclavicek, LIQUIFER Space Systems

An ESA illustration of the the Gateway station. I-HAB and HALO form the main habitat spaces. Note the Orion crew vehicle (to scale) and the sustainable Human Landing System lunar lander. Credit: ESA (Sept. 2022)

And even the idea of a cube-like room 2 metres on a side is misleading in terms of the space available. Both the HALO and I-HAB modules are cylinders 6 metres in length with a total diameter of 3 metres – which must include the outer skin, all cladding / insulation, air, water and power circulation ducts and pipes, all the required life support and science equipment bays, etc. Thus the living volume largely comprises to central “corridors”, one per module, with a cross-section of just 1.2 m by 1.2 m (4 ft x 4 ft). That’s just over half the width / height of similar spaces on the International Space Station (ISS).

If that weren’t enough; individual personal space for crew aboard Gateway will be limited to just 1.5m³ each – and that includes a sleeping cubby, a seat at the meal table and use of the hygiene facilities. By comparison, crew aboard the ISS have a luxurious 25 m³ of personal space they can use, which includes the sleeping space, use of the the exercise machines,  time in Earth observation cupola, etc.

It might look roomy, but the core corridor in this image of the HALO module design model is just 1.2 metres across and 1.2 metres high. It, and a similar amount of space on the Gateway I-Hab module, is designed to be the living and working space for a crew of four astronauts for up to 90 days at a time. A total volume of just 16 m³ across both modules. Credit: Northrop Grumman

The reason for this small size is that the selected launch vehicle for the Gateway modules is the Falcon Heavy. Whilst offering a potentially lower launch cost than SLS, the SpaceX rocket limits the overall size of the modules to the 6 x 3 metre configuration, whilst a Block 1B SLS rocket supports payloads up to 4.5 metres in diameter – equivalent to an ISS module.

Walter Cunningham

On Tuesday, January 3rd, 2023, NASA announced the passing of Apollo astronaut Ronnie Walter Cunningham, known simply as “Walt”. While he did not set foot on the Moon – or even fly to Lunar orbit – Cunningham played a key role in the Apollo programme.

Born in Creston, Iowa, on March 16, 1932, he graduated from Venice High School in Los Angeles, California, in 1950 before briefly attending Santa Monica College prior to being called-up for active duty. He initially served with the US Navy as a trainee pilot prior to transferring to the US Marine Corps, where he served as a front-line night-fighter pilot in Korea from 1953 through 1956.

Following the completion of his service obligation, Cunningham registered in the Marine Corps reserve and returned to full-time education, obtaining both a BA (hons.) and a MA (with distinction) in Physics from the University of California, Los Angeles. He then worked at the RAND Corporation for just under three years prior to applying to NASA, being accepted into the Group 3 astronaut intake in October 1963.

R. Walter Cunningham (March 16, 1932 – January 3, 2023), photographed by one of his fellow crew aboard Apollo 7, October 1968

In 1968 Cunningham was selected alongside of fellow Group 3 astronaut Don Eisele and Mercury 7 veteran Walter “Wally” Schirra as the Prime crew for the Apollo 2 flight. However, seeing this mission as little more that a repeat of the upcoming Apollo 1 flight, all three men signed a list of “demands” to have their flight substantially (and impractically) altered. When they refused to back down, Director of Flight Crew Operations Donald “Deke” Slayton and Chief Astronaut Alan Shepard relegated them to the role of Apollo 1 back-up crew.

However, following the Apollo 1 fire tragedy of January 27th, 1967 and the suspension of all then-planned Apollo flights whilst the Command Module systems were overhauled and improved, Schirra Cunningham and Eisele were the obvious choice for carrying out the first mission of the resumed programme – Apollo 7 – launch on October 11rh, 1968.

An extended mission in Earth orbit (and destined to be the longest duration Apollo mission through until Apollo 15 in 1971), Apollo 7 was intended to both ensure the updated Command Module was both fit for purpose and could carry out the delicate manoeuvres required when operating in proximity with a Lunar Module (the Saturn S-IVB upper stage fulfilling the role of lunar module). In this, the crew demonstrated the vehicle was a perfect space vehicle, exceeding all expectations and giving NASA the confidence to push ahead with a rapid series of trans-lunar and Earth orbital test flights (Apollos 8 through 10) that would pave the way for Apollo 11 in July 1969.

However, whilst highly successful in terms of the Apollo Command and Service Module pairing, the mission was fair from successful in the pairing of crew and mission managers. The entire flight, from launch through until Splashdown was marked by frequent clashes between the astronauts – notably Eisele and Schirra – and mission control. Both sides were to blame for this, although Eisele would later admit he and Schirra were “insolent, high-handed, and Machiavellian at times”.

As a result of these tensions, and despite from the public feting that followed the success of their mission (and which included an Emmy for their nightly television broadcasts over 7 days of the flight), all three were marked as troublesome. This was of no consequence to Schirra, who had already announced he’d be retiring from NASA in early 1969, but for Eisele it meant that while he was initially selected for the back-up crew of Apollo 10 (assuring him of the prime seat in a lunar surface mission), he was removed from flight status when he attitude appeared to slide towards that shown during Apollo 7, ending his hopes of any further flights; he resigned from NASA in 1972.

For his part, Cunningham was moved to manage the Skylab branch of the Flight Crew Directorate. Personally believing he would be given the command slot for Skylab 2, the first crewed mission to the orbital laboratory, he resigned from NASA in 1971 after it was announced Charles “Pete” Conrad would command that mission. He then moved into the private sector as a businessman and investor in a number of private ventures before retiring in the early 2000s.

Despite being retired, Cunningham remained active in space advocacy (although also a noted climate change sceptic), through the remaining years of his life, including becoming a consultant to the Back to Space organisation 2018, working to inspire the next generation to go to Mars, a role he still occupied at the time of his death, the result of complications arising from a fall 2 months shy of his 91st birthday. He is survived by his second wife, Dot, and his two children from his first marriage.