Frontier Status Report

Frontier Status Report #66

Frontier Status Report #66

October 10, 1997

Dale M. Gray

Activity on the frontier has quieted with only two launches. However, with the Cassini launch only days away, space has never been more controversial. Highlights for the week include:

  • Atlantis in Florida a day late
  • Soyuz U launches Progress M-36 from Baikonur
  • Progress M-36 docks with Mir.
  • Atlas 2 launches EchoStar-3 Oct 5
  • Contact reestablished with Mars Pathfinder
  • Lunar Prospector completed
  • Cassini ready for launch
  • INSAT-2D lost


Arriving in Florida a day late, the Shuttle Atlantis touched down at 5:55 pm EDT, Monday, Oct 6. The landing had been postponed due to heavy clouds on the first two landing opportunities on Sunday. Mike Foale's return from Mir marks the conclusion of 145 day stay in space (Flatoday; NASA).

Columbia, the oldest Orbiter in the Shuttle fleet, has long been considered to be too heavy to deliver materials to the International Space Station. As a result, it has not been outfitted with mating umbilicals to dock. However, it is now being studied for possible use delivering crew and supplies to the station. Costs and schedules are now being examined to determine feasibility (SN).


On Monday, in preparation for the arrival of the Progress M- 36 cargo vessel, the crew of Mir attempted to jettison the Progress M-35 vessel. However, one of the sixteen latches holding the former supply vessel to the station was not properly released. On Tuesday afternoon, the old Progress was successfully released and sent on a fiery reentry course with a load of station trash. The remains of ship splashed into the Pacific Ocean on Oct 7.

A Soyuz U booster carrying Progress M-36 (Progress 7K-TGM No. 237) blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome on Sunday Oct 5. The launch was viewed by the crew of the Shuttle Atlantis from orbit. M-36 carried over two tons of supplies for the station including: a back-up computer for the station, 1,320 pounds of fuel and 78 gallons of drinking water. Also included was a new device designed by the ESA to fly around Mir and examine its exterior. Progress M-36 docked successfully with Mir Wednesday at 1:13 EDT. Despite using a new energy-saving automatic docking system, the docking used up a lot of the station's energy and officials decided to wait a day before opening the hatch to let Mir's batteries recharge (Flatoday; LS; JSR).


Last week's meeting in Houston to determine the assembly sequence of the ISS for the first time included Node 3 which is currently under contract to Italy. Nodes 2 and 3 will be built in exchange for rides on the Shuttle and other considerations. The Node will make it possible to attach a prototype Mars habitat to the station (SN).


A Lockheed Martin Atlas 2AS was launched from Cape Canaveral Launch Complex 36B at the opening of the launch window at 5:01 pm EDT Oct 5. The 8,100 pound EchoStar 3 payload separated from the rocket 28 minutes after launch at an altitude of 264 km. The satellite will now be maneuvered into its final position in geostationary orbit (Flatoday; LS).


A Titan 4A with no upper stage carrying a classified mission was scrubbed two days in a row (Oct 9 and 10) due to weather concerns. The rocket carrying mission A-18 for the National Reconnaissance Office is on SLC-4 East at Vandenberg AFB (Flatoday).


Mitsubishi is preparing to begin test firing a repaired version of the LE-7E main rocket engine on October 23. The rocket engine suffered heavy damage during a test in May. The redesigned rocket engine is essential for the National Space Development Agency's plans to begin pre-flight test next summer. The tests will be conducted at Tanegashima, Kyushu, in southern Japan (SN).


As of Friday, Oct 3, Mars Global Surveyor had completed thirteen orbits and was passing through the atmosphere every 39 hours. The high point of the orbit has dropped from 54,025 km to 48,770 km with an ultimate goal of 450 km. The craft has already produced several close-up photos of the surface, discovered magnetic anomalies below the surface of Mars, measured surface and atmosphere temperatures and recorded topographic information on rifts deeper than the Grand Canyon (JPL; Flatoday).

In an unexpected bonus, the dynamic pressure from the eleventh aerobraking pass pushed the partially-deployed solar panel nearly four degrees toward its deployed position. The following pass pushed the solar panel another thirteen degrees. It is now estimated by electrical power output and the Sun sensor to be within two degrees of its fully-deployed position, but is not yet locked into place. Project officials expect the subsequent passes to move the panel further. If the panel reaches full deployment, it will automatically lock (AW&ST).


The Titan 4B launch of the Cassini mission to Saturn is on track for launch on Oct 13 from Florida. The launch is both the most ambitious scientific/exploration effort to date and also one of the most controversial. The use of plutonium nodules to power the craft has triggered organized protest against the mission. The Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center, which tracks all orbiting objects, has notified its world-wide tracking network that the launch and flight of the Cassini mission will be its number one tracking priority. The $3.2 billion mission is the last of the big-budget planetary missions (LS; NASA; Flatoday).


Lockheed Martin has announced the completion of the Lunar Prospector which will be launched Nov 23 on the Lockheed Martin Launch Vehicle-2. The spacecraft was created by a team of twenty-six Silicon Valley companies lead by LockMart.

The future lunar satellite was built and tested in eighteen months. From its lunar-polar orbit, the Prospector will spend a year searching the Moon's surface for water and other resources and gather information on its gravity, magnetic fields and investigate any gas release events. The 660 pound (fully-fueled) craft was built for $63 million (Lockheed Martin).


After nine days of silence from the main transmitter and only intermittent contact with the auxiliary transmitter, the Mars Pathfinder Lander is once again in contact with its controllers. When contact was reestablished on Oct 7 by a 34 meter antenna in Madrid, it was found that orders to take the dead battery off-line had apparently been carried out and that the Rover was correctly executing a contingency return and circle program. The battery was taken out of the lander circuit so that it would no longer act as a drain on electrical resources. Controllers will now work to have instruments active during peak solar hours (Flatoday; NASA).


A test firing of a prototype laser at the MSTI-3 satellite from White Sands Missile Range on Sunday, Oct 5 was postponed due to a software problem. A second attempt the following day was scrubbed because of cloud cover. The test is designed to learn how to protect US satellites against laser strikes. The military has until Oct 23 to conduct the test. After that date, the satellite will go into eclipse and its batteries will go dead--ending its ability to collect information from the test. The tests will include a series of illuminations of less than one second followed by a ten-second illumination. The Army test was approved by Defense Secretary William Cohen, but has been criticized for its potential to start a race to develop anti-satellite technologies (Flatoday; AW&ST).


EchoStar: The third EchoStar built by Lockheed Martin for the EchoStar Corportion was launched from Florida Oct 5 on an Atlas 2 rocket. It will join two other satellites in orbit to expand the television services of EchoStar's DISH Network satellite system. It was the first satellite to be completed in the new LockMart satellite manufacturing facility in Sunnyvale, CA. It is also the first of the new A2100AX series of communication satellite. It is a larger version of the A2100 satellite used for GE-1 and GE-2. The satellite is equipped with 21 transponders operating at about 120 watts. Each transponder is capable of transmitting multiple channels of video, audio and data. It will be positioned at 61.5 degrees West longitude to provide direct-to-home TV to North America (Flatoday; LS).

INSAT-2D: After a second loss of earth lock on Oct 5, Indian controllers gave up their recovery attempts for India's most advanced satellite, Insat-2D. The satellite, launched June 3, experienced a major power failure Oct 1 when it first lost earth lock. Controllers managed to reactivate three of the satellite's twenty-four transponders on Oct 3. The news inspired hope that the Indian National Stock Exchange, which was a prime user of the satellite, would be able to be back on line by Oct. 6. Unfortunately, the activity was only temporary. The satellite has since been shut down indefinitely. Older satellites are expected to maintain communications for the Indian National Satellite System (LS).

Iridium: With half of its constellation of sixty six satellites in orbit, Iridium has successfully tested the system's intersatellite links. The tests show the system's ability to transfer calls from satellite to satellite in different orbital planes (SN).

PAS-5: The Hughes Space and Communications-built PanAmSat-5 launched from Khazakstan on Aug 27 successfully began operating its revolutionary "XIPS" propulsion system. The system, utilizing Xenon, the heaviest of the inert non-reactive gases, ejects electrically charged particles (ions) at 30 kilometers per second. The system is ten times more efficient than any bipropellant systems currently in use in commercial satellites. As a result, propellant mass for twelve to fifteen years of operation can be reduced by ninety percent or the lifespan of the craft can be significantly enhanced. Of the eighteen satellites on backorder with Hughes, fifteen will utilize the XIPS system (Flatoday).


Orbital Sciences: On October 7, the USAF Military Space Plane Technology Program Office awarded an $11 million contract to Orbital. Under the Upper Stage Flight Experiment (USFE) program Orbital will be responsible for the design, development and qualification of a new low-cost, liquid-fueled upper stage rocket engine. The engine will then be integrated with a new launch vehicle being developed by Orbital under a separate contract with the USAF. The new rocket, capable of suborbital and orbital space missions, will utilize existing Minuteman boosters supplied by the Air Force. First flight is scheduled for late 1999 from Kodiak Island, Alaska (Flatoday)

SES: The Societe Europeenne des Satellites (SES) has narrowed the field of prospective companies to build their Astra 1K to Aerospatiale and Hughes Space and Communications. At over 4,000 kg, the satellite is larger than any that the two companies have previously built. The winner of the competition is expected to be announced in December (SN).

Inmarsat: A lack of laptop-sized miniphones has manufacturers scrambling to fill expected demand for the Inmarsat Mini-M satellite phones. To date 10,000 of the phones have been sold with an estimated 25,000 more by the end of the year (SN).

Raytheon: On Oct 2, the Justice Department approved a merger of Hughes Electronics with Raytheon. In the $9.5 billion deal Raytheon will obtain Hughes' defense business from General Motors, including a electro-optic unit which builds satellite sensors. As a result, Raytheon must in turn divest itself of its own electro- optical operation which it recently acquired from Texas Instruments Raytheon must also establish "firewalls" between Raytheon and Hughes teams bidding for an Army anti-armor missile contract (SN; AW&ST).

Orion: Orion Network Systems announced Oct 7 that it will merge with Loral Space & Communications. Orion currently has one satellite in orbit and two more under construction. The video communication system serves two-hundred-sixty businesses and Internet providers in forty-seven countries in Europe and North America (LS).


With the Cassini launch drawing near, the anti-nuclear protests have reached a fever pitch. They are protesting because the mission to Saturn and Titan will be carrying 72 pounds of plutonium. The plutonium is in three radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) that will produce 885 watts of power. The radioactive power source is necessary because the mission will be too far from the sun for solar panels to be effective.

Earlier this week 27 protesters were arrested in Florida for trespass. Nine of those arrested were from the Grandmothers for Peace International movement, who were allowed access to the launch site so they would not be hurt while being arrested. The remainder improvised their own entrance and were then arrested.

Normally I would lump those protesting the launch with the crack- pots that protest irradiated foods as a health hazard, but the issue from the perspective of the frontier is not so simply dismissed. The protest has ramifications for the status of expendable rockets in the advancing frontier. The protests are one more sign that rocket launching is becoming more the business of civilization and less that of frontier.

Two years ago when I began tracking frontier developments in space, two launches a month was considered a good rate. Now the same number of launches in a week is considered to be relatively slow. Access to space is literally becoming a daily event even as we watch. The pace of the frontier is accelerating and one can only wonder if civilization cannot be far behind.

We are now in the midst of a great frontier expansion into space. However, frontier activity is not all sweetness and light. One of the major hallmarks of frontier activity is "death and destruction from seemingly trivial causes." China has already illustrated this point when a rocket blew up last year and killed a number of people on the ground. Many of the bad things that happen are the result of the risk-taking necessary for frontier activity. However, civilization does not always willingly expose itself to such risks.

So what has this to do with Cassini? Protesters fear that the 216 plutonium nodules in the craft may poison the Earth, either from an accident at launch or from an accidental reentry. While NASA and others have explained that such an occurrence is unlikely in the extreme, examples of both have occurred in the last year. One of the reliable Delta 2 rockets was destroyed soon after launch last winter. By comparison, the Titan 4B has never had a failure, but then it has only had one previous launch. Accidental reentries are not to be excluded either. Only last week the Lewis spacecraft accidentally reentered and last fall Russia's Mars96, carrying plutonium nodules, also reentered. Of course, these were due to an improper launch, and are not necessarily applicable to a planetary flyby, all past instances of which have a perfect safety record.

NASA assures us that the plutonium nodules would survive any explosion or reentry intact. Exhaustive tests have shown that the nodules are almost certainly likely to survive a chemical explosion many times more powerful than the Titan 4B could produce. Reentry forces have likewise been tested. When Apollo 13 returned from the aborted mission to the moon, the jettisoned lander contained plutonium nodules. The nodules apparently survived the reentry and are now on the bottom of the South Pacific. The nodules from the Mars96 mission also survived, but have yet to be located because they have left so little trace of their landing. Two RTGs fell into the Pacific on a failed weather satellite mission in 1968. They were recovered from 300 feet of water intact and later successfully reflown.

In rebuttal, protesters point to a Soviet satellite that landed in an isolated site in Canada, spilling plutonium out onto the tundra from its reactor core--resulting in an extensive and dangerous clean-up of the area. The potential disaster was mitigated only by the isolation of the site. However, in this case, it was a nuclear reactor, not an RTG, and the plutonium was not protected in the nodules, as it would in an RTG.

In any event, as NASA openly admits, there is a risk here, almost incalculably small, but real. In effect, the protesters are asking our society if the mission is worth the risk. It is unfortunate that the perceived risk in the minds of the protesters is far greater than the reality.

A similar question could have been asked of Columbus. Had he our sophisticated risk assessment programs, he might have been forewarned of the possibility of bringing back new strains of disease from his exploration. Indeed, in addition to a wealth of beneficial new plant and animal species, his men also brought back a new venereal disease. No one protested his trip because they did not know the risk. They were at the leading edge of the frontier where there is little knowledge as to what dangers lie ahead, a position where risks must be accepted if there is to be any progress.

Forty years ago we were in a similar situation with expendable rockets. We desperately needed the technology to keep pace with the Soviets in the Cold War. There was no one protesting our launches. With all of the early launch failures, the country was only too happy when the launch systems began to succeed.

Time has passed and now we appear to be entering into the last stage of the expendable launch frontier. As with other frontiers, the risks of death and disaster become less and less desirable with the advent of civilization. A similar process occurred in California following the gold rush. There came a time when protests over the silting of rivers and bays caused by hydraulic mining brought about legislation that prohibited the mining practice. Civil protest over the perceived risks of the Cassini launch is perhaps an early sign that civilization is encroaching on what were once undeniably frontier activities.

Having looked at both sides with as much of an unbiased view as I can muster, I remain convinced that the nodules can survive a pretty hellish treatment, and that the chances of such mistreatment are unlikely in the extreme. I think the Titan will successfully launch Cassini out of orbit. And there is little possibility that there will be an accident during the slingshot pass two years from now. Whatever minimal risk I may perceive is overwhelmed by my thirst for the information awaiting to be discovered at Saturn and Titan. For me, the balance easily falls on the side of launching-- to take a small risk for the sake of discovery. However, having looked at the situation square-on, I can understand why others with different perceptions might choose to protest the risk - as is their right as citizens of our country.

Because the Cassini protest comes from radical fringe groups and not main-stream society, the advent of civilization may be approaching but is not yet at hand for expendable rockets. As civilization moves into the frontier, who knows, maybe someday I will join the ranks of the protesters to try to stop unnecessary risks in the civilization of space. But in the meantime, I will look at the Cassini protesters in a little different light. The arrests of the Grandmothers for Peace is one omen that civilization will soon will move out into space to take the place of frontier.

And that, my friends, is a very good thing.


(Courtesy J. Ray, and R. Baalke)

  • Oct 11 - Titan 4A, K-18, (no upper stage), Vandenberg AFB
  • Oct 11 - Eugene Shoemaker Memorial Service, Flagstaff, Arizona
  • Oct 13 - Titan 4B, Cassini Mission to Saturn, Cape Canaveral Air Station
  • Mid Oct - Long March 3B, Apstar 2R, Xichang Satellite Launch Center, China
  • Oct 18 - Pegasus XL, USAF STEP-4, Wallops Flight Facility, VA
  • Oct 20 - Spektr internal spacewalk, Mir
  • Oct 22 - Start-1, EarlyBird remote sensing, Svobodny, Russia
  • Oct 24 - Atlas IIA, Flight AC-131, DSCS-3, Cape Canaveral Air Station
  • Oct 28 - Ariane 5, Mission 502, second qualifying flight, Kourou, French Guiana
  • Nov 1 - Titan 4A, Mission A-17, Classified NRO mission, Complex 41, Cape Canaveral
  • Nov 6 - GPS Navstar Delta 2 Launch, Cape Canaveral Air Station
  • Nov 7 - Ariane 44L, Flight 102, Sirus-2 and Cakrawarta-1 (Indostar-1), ELA-2 at Kourou, French Guiana
  • Nov 8 - Delta 2, Iridium Mission 5 (five comsats), SLC-2, Vandenberg AFB
  • Nov 23, LMLV-2, Lunar Prospector, Cape Canaveral Air Station.


With the landing of the Shuttle Atlantis, the space population has dropped to the baseline of three. There are two Russians and one American on Mir. This marks the completion of 2954 day of continuous human presence in space beginning with the reoccupation of Mir on September 8, 1989.

Index for Frontier Status Report 1997

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