Neil Armstrong – 1930-2012

Neil Armstrong with X-15

By now, the passing of Neil Armstrong is well known.  He died on Saturday, August 25, 2012, at age 82 from complications following heart surgery three weeks earlier.

I was sad and upset at the same time, and both for the same reason.  The first man to walk on the Moon did not live to see a new generation of humans return there.  It should not have been this way.

My great fascination while growing up was not Apollo, but the X-15 – a hypersonic research aircraft which Armstrong flew.   Thus, I was able to follow as he switched from being an NACA/NASA research pilot to an astronaut on the Gemini and Apollo missions.  (He also flew in the Korean War.  As a research pilot , he flew of variations of the X-1 along with a whole host of other aircraft.)

He largely stayed out of the public limelight, and did not cash in on his fame.  Thankfully, he was not as reclusive as Howard Hughes, but continued to educate young engineers and was involved in certain NASA review panels.  Only in recent years, did he become more visible, largely driven by the chaos that ensued following the cancellation of the Constellation program by the Obama administration.

Some of us were fortunate enough to hear Neil speak at the Next Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference, in Palo Alto early this year. He was there because he was one of the first suborbital researchers, flying the X-15. It was great to hear him talk about the X-15 research program, its goals, and what it achieved. … And then he was like one of us, trying to learn more about how to move suborbital research forward.

A couple of months before his passing, I had publicly (i.e., on Facebook) regressed to using a pocket protector).  I had too many pens.  (Why?  I just do; no good reason.)  I was thus taken by surprise to read this comment by Neil Armstrong to the National Press Club in 2000:

“I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer, born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace and propelled by compressible flow.”

It was stunning how many of my friends identified with that statement, although to my knowledge, I’m the only one with the pocket protector.

As I said, I was sad and upset at the same time.  I summed up my reaction to his passing as follows:

“Naval aviator. X-15 research pilot. First man on the Moon. Can we please go back now?”

NASA wants feedback about Nano Satellite Launch (NSL) Challenge

I am sporadically following the NASA Nano Satellite Launch (NSL) Challenge.  It is one of the NASA Centennial Challenges that is run out of the Office of the Chief Technologist.  (About Centennial Challenges.)  The latest twist is a questionnaire that indicate that NASA is re-thinking the challenge.

The questionnaire

NASA has put out a two-part questionnaire regarding the NSL Challenge. The parts are directed at separate audiences: (1) nano-satellite users/builders and (2) potential launch service providers. The purpose seems to be to ascertain the desires of users/builders in terms of their mission needs, and figure out what sort of contest will help drive launch innovation toward fulfilling those needs.

Announcement of the questionnaire is found on the Federal Business Opportunities site as Solicitation # NNH12ZUA001L.  Title: Request for Information – Centennial Challenges Nano Satellite Launch (NSL) Challenge. This, in turn, takes you to the questionnaire on the NASA site.  Responses need to be returned to Dr. Larry Cooper at NASA HQ. The deadline is September 10. His e-mail address is on the questionnaire.

I think anyone who has a nanosatellite/CubeSat design on the drawing board should respond. I wonder just how many nanosat projects are actually in planning.

As for my personal views on nanosat launchers…

The business case for nanosat launchers

I favor having on-demand nanosat launch service for 1U thru 3U payloads, where “on-demand” means something on the order of a couple of weeks. We cannot do this today.

We also put major constraints on nanosat designers. As it stands now, I see basically two ways to get nanosatellites into orbit. (1) Be a secondary payload, where the primary makes the rules and can bump you off, and you go only when the primary is ready to launch. (2) Go to the ISS on one of the supply missions (e.g., NanoRacks) and get pushed off the station; you will have to show that your payload will not endanger the ISS or its occupants if anything goes wrong. In either case, you have to show that you are not going to put an investment of 10s or 100s of millions of dollars at risk; the primary has every right to grill you and make you jump through hoops.

The way out of that is make the nanosatellite the primary payload, or at least ride with a few other payloads of equal perceived value. That is, you need a nanosatellite launcher. I think this is a critical enabler to get non-space commercial businesses to take advantage of space.

For a commercial company to do research work in LEO (I’m thinking materials or biotech) you need a short development feedback cycle. A company should be able to design an experiment, get it launched, obtain data, redesign the experiment, and go again in 2 or 3 months. With anything longer, the team needs to find alternatives to get or supplement results, or get reassigned to other work until an experiment has flown. At that point, it gets very difficult to make a business case for going to space on a regular basis.


Thanks to Charles Pooley at Microlaunchers for pointing out this new development in the NSL Challenge.

With very minor variation, this post by me was also submitted as a comment to Thespaceshow’s Blog for the date of August 21.  David Livingston, the host of The Space Show, ran an Open Lines call-in program.  Charles was the second caller on that program.

Addendum – Dec. 31, 2012

For those who followed the NSL Challenge this now old news.  NASA cancelled the challenge in late November.  The challenge had a complex fitful history in getting started.  While it was happened, it was perhaps overtaken by other programs, chiefly the Army SWORDS program and the DARPA ALASA program.  However, Percy Luney of Space Florida, which was managing the challenge on NASA’s behalf, noted “Without the prize funds provided by NASA, Space Florida is unable go forward with the NanoSat Launch Challenge at this time. We are considering other options.”  So as a NASA Centennial Challenge, it is over.  But that may not be the end of the story.

Additional info:

Hello world!

Yep.  RocketSciRick is here.  This is a new site and domain.  Content will be added soon (where “soon” == hours to many days).

If you’ve followed me on Facebook, then you probably have an idea of what to expect.  There are other thoughts/observations I’ve posted on other sites, most notably Orkut.  I’ll try to collect some of my thoughts from those sites, select the still relevant pieces, and present them here.