Frontier Status Report

Frontier Status Report #69

Frontier Status Report #69

October 31, 1997

Dale M. Gray

Normally, a one-launch week would be a quiet week on the frontier, but the one launch was the first successful flight of the Ariane 5 system. Progress has also been made in the X-33 program and with Mars Global Surveyor. Highlights reported for the week include:

  • Ariane 5 first successful launch
  • Brazil prepares to launch its first orbital rocket
  • Democracy moves to space
  • Mars Global Surveyor will resume aerobraking
  • Linear Aerospike engine flys on an SR-71
  • X-38 program delayed by parafoil problem


Having been joined to the external tank and solid rockets, Columbia was rolled out to pad 39B on Thursday. The roll-out came after repairs to the Rotating Service Structure were completed. The gears at the base of the RSS had been of concern. However, after repairs, a complete rotation test was conducted. Pad 39B has been undergoing servicing and modification through much of 1997. After the arrival of the Shuttle, the RSS was extended. The payload bay doors have been opened with payload installation to begin on Sat, Nov 1. Flight Readiness review and crew arrival are slated for Nov 3. Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test will be conducted Nov 4 & 5. Columbia is slated to be launched for the 24th time on Nov 19 on the US Microgravity Payload -4 mission (Flatoday; NASA).


The crew of Mir is once again preparing for spacewalks. Next week a pair of walks will be conducted by Anatoly Solovyov and Pavel Vinogradov outside the space station to remove and then replace a worn out solar panel. The replacement panel is now folded and stored on the side of Mir. During the walk, the pair of cosmonauts will put into space a replica of Sputnik, which was launched 40 years ago in October (Flatoday).

Democracy has now arrived in space. A new software program developed by NASA and approved by Texas will allow David Wolf to vote absentee from the Mir space station. Wolf has until Nov 4 to e-mail his ballot to Tony J. Sirvello, the elections chief of the astronaut's home county. Sirvello will then hand punch a ballot with Wolf's choices. Similar software will be used on the International Space Station (Flatoday).


After months of delay, the second Ariane 5 rocket was successfully launched into space carrying a 4600-kg payload. Flight 502 left the pad on Thursday Oct 30 at 8:45 am EST, after a short delay due to problems with telemetry. The monitoring satellites were successfully separated from the rocket at T+ 28 minutes and T+29 (Flatoday; ESA; LS).

Two of the three satellites carried into orbit, Maqsat H (2300 kg) and Maqsat B (1400 kg) were built by Kayser-Threde of Germany. The satellites will measure the actual conditions that will be experienced by a satellite launched on the system. The Maqsat H also carries the 350 kg Teamsat which carries five experiments being conducted by European Universities. The 550 kg Amsat P3D could not be readied in time for the launch and so was replaced by the equivalent in ballast (ESA; Flatoday).

The solid rocket boosters from the flight were dropped by parachute into the ocean. There they were recovered and towed by a specially- equipped boat back to the Port of Kourou. They will then be transported to the Guiana Space Center where they will be dismantled. Some parts, such as the nozzles, will be shipped to Europe to be examined (Flatoday).


Brazil is preparing for the first launch of their Satellite Launch Vehicle (VLS) rocket from their Alcantara, Maranhao launch facility only 150 miles from the equator. The launch was originally slated for Oct 26, but was scrubbed due to a problem with a radar system on the ground. The rocket, 15 years in development, will be launched sometime prior to Nov 10. The 63-foot, 50-ton, 4-stage rocket will carry the 114-Kg Data Gathering Satellite-2A into a 465-mile orbit. Four additional launchers are under construction. The launch will make Brazil the nineth space-faring nation (Flatoday).


Controllers are rapidly running out of options to recontact the Pathfinder Lander. With a dead battery and extremely cold internal conditions altering broadcast frequencies, there is little hope in continuing the extended mission. If contact has not been made by Nov 4, the mission will be considered to have come to a successful conclusion--far outstripping the wildest expectations. Intermittent attempts will continue to be made on a weekly or monthly basis (NASA).


Aerobraking of the Mars Global surveyor is set to resume on November 7. After extensive modeling and testing, engineers have determined that additional aerobraking could occur, but at a slower rate. This will allow the craft to complete its science mission objectives. Analysis indicates that there has been secondary damage to the yoke which connects the panel to the spacecraft. The damage was caused by the failure of the damper arm that jammed the panel's hinge not long after launch. The yoke is probably cracked on one surface. To reduce pressure on the yoke, aerobraking will be extended by 8 to 12 months. The on- board science instruments continue to operate nominally while the craft circles Mars every 35 hours in a 172-km orbit (JPL).


The Critical Design Review (CDR) of the X-33 technology demonstration program has been successfully completed. Hailed by some as the Shuttle's successor, Lockheed Martin's X-33 program is to produce a scaled-down prototype as a test-bed for new technologies and proof of concept. The CDR, conducted at Edwards AFB, examined 51 subsystems and components. This clears the way for the fabrication and assembly of the sub-orbital launch vehicle (NASA).

A critical component of the X-33, the Linear Aerospike Engine, has been successfully flown on an SR-71 as part of a $20 million testing program. The 1/10th scale engine, with eight thrust cells, was mounted in a 41-ft-long, 14,300-pound pod mounted piggy-back on the former spy plane. On Oct 31, the plane took off, was refueled in the air and then conducted a test firing of the aerospike. The 2-3 second test firing, producing around 7,000 pounds of thrust, occurred around Mach 1.2. It was the first of a series of test flights scheduled to gather data on the aerospike's exhaust plume at speeds ranging from sub-sonic to Mach 3. The data will be used to determine the efficiency of the rocket engine. The aerospike engine is produced by Rocketdyne, a subsidiary of Boeing (NASA).


Problems with the parafoil utilized by the prototype X-38 crew return vehicle have caused a delay in drop testing. During a recent test using a dummy payload the chute split. This caused the payload to touch down faster than planned. Additionally, controlling the parafoil by winching the control lines has proved problematic. Testing will resume in the spring (R. Kolker, HCI).


STEP -4M: Tumbling out of control, with its solar panels still furled, the STEP-4M satellite, launched Oct 22 by a Pegasus rocket from Wallops Flight Facility, appears to be in trouble. The craft did not respond to contact attempts scheduled an hour after launch. Controllers managed to detect a signal on Oct 23 which may indicate the craft is getting some power from the stowed solar panels. However, upon subsequent contacts the craft appears to be trying to activate all of its systems at once without the necessary power supply and re-enters a safe mode. Since the orbit is stable, the Air Force will have time to work out a solution to the computer problem (Flatoday).

Intelsat: Intelsat 605 which has been experiencing problems with its ability to monitor its orbital attitude since September 11, is now being returned to full function. Otherwise the craft was in good health with its spin-stabilized configuration keeping the sun on the solar array. The spacecraft was still able to receive and implement commands. Utilizing an innovative technique of monitoring the RF signal at ground stations at beam edge, the spacecraft's orbital attitude can now be determined on the ground and appropriate attitude-control commands beamed up to the satellite (Flatoday).


Loral: Loral Space & Communications has been selected as the winner of the recent auction for 75% interest in Satellites Mexicanos (SatMex) with a bid of $688 million. SatMex has an infrastructure of three satellites along with control and communication networks. The bid was part of a joint venture of Loral and Telefonica Autrey. In exchange, the partnership will receive concessions to use three orbital slots for 20 years with automatic renewals for an additional 20 years (Flatoday).

Globalstar: Globalstar LP has completed the financing of its $2.6 billion satellite system. The first four Globalstar communications satellites built by Aerospatiale are in Florida awaiting launch. The recent $325 loan has cleared the way for activities leading to the start of commercial operations in Dec 1998 (SN).


While space and frontier are linked in the minds of many, frontiers are merely the riparian zones that link the promise of wilderness to fulfillment of civilization. Toward that end, any movement toward the stability of civilization is a positive sign. Many watch the ignition of frontier into a new arena with great interest. However, of equal import is the passage of the trailing edge of the frontier -- the arrival of civilization. Only a civilization can fully utilize the resources discovered in a wilderness and first developed in a frontier.

While the ignition of frontier is rarely as spectacular as the shout of "GOLD!" from Sutter's mill, it is obvious in comparison to the slow and nearly invisible encroachments of civilization.

There are more new signs that civilization is sending its webs into space.


NASA is currently pushing congress for the funding to develop technology for space-based solar power-generation stations. One proposed design, called the SunTower, would put such a facility in a 12,000 Km orbit in 10-20 years at a cost of between $5 and $7 billion. It would produce power at about $10 per watt assuming $125 per pound to orbit. In return, it would produce 400 Mw of power to be beamed-down --enough for a moderate-sized city (SN; NSS).

On the other hand, the same power generation facility could be built on the ground for only a couple hundred million dollars. A few good electrical engineers from a local utility company would spend a few months on the design and it could go on-line in less than a year. Solar panels would hauled from the factory to the site by commercial carriers. There it would be assembled by 20 year-old high school graduates who would drive themselves onto the site in their own pick-ups. When rabbits chew through the power cables or solar panels degrade, workers in T-shirts and denim will drive out and make the repairs with tools bought at Sears.

NASA wants to put solar panels in space for some obvious reasons. On-orbit solar panels are more efficient than their air blanketed counterparts--even with losses from transporting the energy to the ground from orbit. They also provide a potentially limitless and clean source of power. Since they are based in space, there are only minimal environmental impact statements to contend with--a problem that has side-lined many potential sources of power in the 1980s and 1990s. These points are not lost on politicians. However, on the down side, assembly and maintenance come at an enormous cost. The assumed $125 per pound to orbit is a long way from happening. In addition, solar panel degradation, micrometeor hits, and any of a million unforeseen circumstances will require incredibly expensive maintenance.

It is my own opinion that large-scale space based power has a long way to go before it can compete with Earth-based energy resources. Delivery to orbit and maintenance trips alone make the project unrealistic, even with dramatically cheaper access to space. No proto-types have been orbited, no generations of on-orbit development have occurred, and there are no markets crying out for an environmentally clean but very costly energy. It is just too soon to be talking megawatts of power beamed down from orbit. If a giant $5 billion solar generation plant is actually placed into orbit as a source of power for the Earth, it might fly but would be every bit as successful as the Spruce Goose.

That is not to say the idea of orbital solar power generation is without merit.

If there is one element that can make or break any Frontier endeavor, it is the lack of adequate power supplies. Indeed, there is some thought that frontiers are where pure energy is converted to cold cash by applying it to raw resources. Unfortunately, frontiers are chronically short of usable power because they lack the infrastructure to harness the energy. Wyoming homesteaders froze in tar paper shacks while only a hundred feet below lay vast reserves of coal, oil and gas. Hard-rock miners in the northern Rockies were forced to pay high prices for fire wood for their boilers while mountain streams roared down the nearby hills. Today in space, satellites in the midst of limitless sunshine have almost comically meager power supplies because the rockets that carried them into space limited the size and mass of their solar panels.

So I have to ask, why is NASA talking about beaming power down to the ground? There is available a local frontier market where power is sipped in incredibly small quantities and paid for at rates thousands of times higher per Kw than the worst Con Edison billing. Currently, on the high frontier 15 Kw of power comes at a price tag of around a million dollars per Kw/year. It would seem to me that a fleet of modest first-generation orbiting power satellites, each rated on the order of 40 to 100 Kw, could make a fortune for some enterprising company. Private solarsats could create profits by beaming power to other orbiting facilities--currently communication and other satellites, but soon enough space stations and free-floating factories. While 40 Kw would be worthless as a beamed product to Earth, it is an attainable goal for the first generation of privately-funded power satellites.

Under a frontier bootstrapping plan for orbital power generation, new satellites would be equipped with much lighter microwave receivers instead of the massive solar panels now employed. Missions to distant planets would benefit as well. Powered by laser light from an orbiting power plant--no more plutonium would be needed. With abundant power available, tether transportation systems might become the standard. If a satellite breaks down or completes its mission, only one modular component of the system would be lost. The solar power could be diverted to other paying customers. With today's self-sufficient satellites, the solar panels are lost with the satellite no matter what the cause. In tomorrow's space power grid, satellites could plug in and out as needed, but the infrastructure would remain in place. As the space power needs grow, larger and larger power generation satellites/facilities could be constructed, each drawing on the lessons and technology of the previous generation of powersats. Each generation paying for the next. If you doubt the value of multi-generation technology evolution, look at the rapid progress of personal computers in the last decade.

There are historical precedents. This is how power networks were actually developed in the Northern Rockies. Self-sufficient steam- power plants used at hard-rock mines were limited to available trees. Similarly, solar powered comsats are limited by the size and mass of their solar panels. Steam power plants were replaced by small Pelton-wheel hydropower plants that connected to mine, mill and perhaps a small mining camp via a local power line. Small powersats owned by a communication satellite network could beam power tangentially to their own communication satellites. As local industrial needs grew, larger and larger hydropower facilities were constructed. The upper Missouri River and the Snake River were both first dammed with hydroelectric facilities by mining companies to provide electricity for their industrial complexes. After the mining and milling needs were met, the power became available for other users. Ultimately, the mining power system became the foundation for the existing power grids in both Montana and Idaho. Only when space reaches this stage of development will constructs such as NASA's SunTower become viable.

This stands in stark contrast to the proposed all-or-nothing large- scale governmentally funded power station. Built at a great cost to taxpayers, this power plant wiill have no dirt-side users available to pay its extravagant power rates. How many times in the last 20 years have ground-based power generation facilities been stopped mid-construction when it was determined they couldn't even pay their own construction costs? How many times has Congress axed big-budget science and technology projects? Do the words Apollo and Super-collider ring any bells? Big government space programs are wonderful things when they come to fruition, but they are not stable in the long run.

If we are going to move civilization into space, we had better start thinking about how we are going to be building the infrastructure. Power generation and distribution will have to be addressed. By the time we have evolved the technology to build an orbiting solar power plant such as NASA is proposing, the space frontier will be moving into high gear and desperate for energy. We may well be forced to actually beam energy UP to power the frontier's needs. For a long time space will be the best customer for any orbiting solar power facilities. Should power generation exceed the wild consumption typical of frontiers, then and only then should it be beamed down to Earth.


(Courtesy J. Ray and R. Baalke)

  • Early Nov - Brazil Satellite Launch Vehicle, DGS-2A, Alcantara, Brazil

  • Early Nov - Two external space walks, Mir.

  • Nov 2 - Titan 4A (Centaur upper stage), Mission A-17, Classified NRO mission, Complex 41, Cape Canaveral (delayed)

  • Nov 5 - Delta 2 Launch, NAVSTAR -GPS 2-28, Cape Canaveral Air Station

  • Nov 8 - Delta 2, Iridium Mission 5 (five comsats), SLC-2, Vandenberg AFB

  • Nov 10 - Ariane 44L, Mission 102, Sirus-2 and Cakrawarta-1 (Indostar-1), ELA-2 at Kourou, French Guiana

  • Nov 18 - Pegasus XL, ORBCOMM comsats and Celestis-2, Wallops Flight Facility, VA

  • Nov 18 - H-2, ETS-7 rendezvous-docking system & Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, Tanegashima Space Center, Japan.

  • Nov 19 - Columbia, STS-87, USMP-4 & Spartan 201-4, Pad 39B, Kennedy Space Center

  • Nov 21 - ILS Proton, ASTRA-1G, Baikonur, Kazakstan

  • Dec 18 - Orbital Sciences Taurus, two ORBCOMM comsats , Celestis- 2, SLC-576, Vandenberg AFB

  • Jan 5 - Athena-2, Lunar Prospector, Cape Canaveral Air Station.


The space population remains at the baseline of three. There are two Russians and one American on Mir. This marks the completion of 2975 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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