Frontier Status Report

Frontier Status Report #150

Frontier Status Report #150

May 14, 1999

Dale M. Gray

When it rains, it pours. Having endured the launch failures of April, America's launch systems have now been set-back by the weather. Water damage and hail damage have delayed to important launches from Florida. Meanwhile, China has managed their first launch of the year and the only reported launch for the week.

Highlights of the week of May 14 include:

  • Shuttle launch delayed to repair hail damage
  • Long March lofts two satellites
  • Delta 2 launch delayed due to possible water damage
  • X-33 oxygen tank passes tests
  • Frontier Corner looks at the cause of last month's failures


Hail damage to the External Tank attached to the Shuttle Discovery has caused the mission to the International Space Station to be pushed back from May 20 to May 27 at the earliest. A hail storm passed through the area on May 10, leaving the Orbiter undamaged, but pock-marking the soft insulation of the External Tank. The estimated 150 holes range in size from small nicks to 2 inches wide and two inches deep. Most are less than half an inch in diameter. NASA fears that ice may form in the small holes when the External Tank is filled with cryogenic liquids prior to launch. Falling ice has the potential to damage the Shuttle's cockpit windows during launch. While many of the holes could be repaired while the Shuttle was on the launch pad, 13 are in a critical area that could not be reached while at the pad. The Shuttle has been returned to the Vehicle Assembly Building for the repairs. In 1995, the Shuttle had a similar problem when a pair of woodpeckers drilled hundreds of holes in the external tank. This is the 13th time that a Shuttle has had to be rolled back from the launch pad (Florida Today; NASA).

On Friday, May 7, workers hot-fire tested the auxiliary power unit No. 2 on Discovery and complete APU pressurization. The new drag-chute door has been installed and tested. SpaceHab stowage was completed on May 11 with loading of the Mass Memory Units on May 12. On May 13 Shuttle managers decided to roll-back the Shuttle to made the hail damage repairs. About 35 of the divots were identified as needing repair. These are expected to be completed in about 2 to 3 days. The Shuttle is now expected to be rolled back to the pad no earlier than May 20 and launched no earlier than 6:48 am EDT May 27 (NASA;SpaceViews).


The first Chinese Long March (Chang Zheng) 4B rocket successfully launched two satellites into orbit on May 10 at 9:33 EDT. The three-stage rocket, with a payload capacity of 1,500 kg, is a variant of the CZ-4A. The first stage has four YF-20B engines. The second stage is powered by YF-22B/YF-23B engines and the third stage features two YF-40 engines. The rocket carried the Feng Yun 1C (Wind and Cloud) weather satellite and the Shijian 5 (Practice) research satellite. Both satellites were built by the Shanghai Institute for Satellite Engineering. The first data was sent back from the satellites at 0315 GMT. The Feng Yun satellite was placed into a 849 x 868 km x 98.7 sun-synchronous orbit. The launch of the Shanghai Bureau of Astronautics-built rocket occurred from the Taiyuan Satellite launch Center in the Shanxi Province. This was the first Chinese launch of the year (Xinhua News Agency cited in Florida Today; Xinmin Evening News as cited by Reuters; SpaceViews; Jonathan's Space Page).


A rainstorm on May 8 may have soaked the $40 million Navstar Global Positioning System 2R-3 satellite mounted on a Delta 2 rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Station. The rocket was being prepared for a May 15 launch when the rainstorm hit. When workmen returned to the launch tower clean room after the storm, moisture was noticed on the spacecraft despite its plastic protective shroud. Rather than risk launching a damaged satellite, the US Air Force has delayed the launch for an inspection. If any damage is seen, the spacecraft will be returned to its maker Lockheed Martin for repairs. In such case, the Delta 2 on the pad would be disassembled to clear the pad for the launch of NASA's FUSE satellite. If there is no damage, the earliest the Navstar satellite could be prepared for launch would be May 23 (Florida Today; Reuters; SpaceViews).


Despite problems with Chinese spying on American military and commercial space technology, President Clinton has given the go- ahead for the Chinese launch of two Iridium satellites. Earlier Clinton was criticized for clearing Chinese launches in which sensitive technology was alleged to have occurred. The launch of the back-up satellites for Iridium's global communications system is slated for June 7. In a report to Congress, Clinton stated that the exports were not detrimental to the US space launch industry and that they "will not measurably improve the missile or space launch capabilities of China" (AP).

China has announced plans for a test flight of their "Project 921" capsule for as early as October. The Launch would coincide with the 50th anniversary of the People's Republic. The capsule, is said to be based on the Russian Soyuz. A human flight in the capsule is expected to follow a successful test flight (BBC as cited in SpaceViews).


The oxygen tank for the X-33 has been subject to a series of test at the Marshall Space Flight Center to simulate stresses that will be encountered by the X-33 technology demonstrator during its sub- orbital test flights. The two week test simulated internal pressure and external loads that duplicated those that will be encountered during actual flight. During flights, the three-ton aluminum tanks will be filled with 181,000 pounds of liquid oxygen. The flight article has been installed in the X-33 while its duplicate has been validated at Marshall to save time in the X-33 assembly process. The oxygen tank is the second major component to be declared fit for flight this year. In February, the metallic thermal protection system passed its own test series (NASA Marshall).


Amateur rocket enthusiasts are preparing for another attempt to reach space. JP Aerospace, based out of California, will attempt to reach an altitude of 100 km with a balloon / rocket combination on the weekend of May 22 -23 from a site in the Black Rock Desert in northwest Nevada. The rocket, dubbed "Spirit of Freedom 7" in honor of Alan Shepard, will be carried to an altitude of 30,000 meters by 10 helium weather balloons. The rocket will then separate from the balloons and fire its engines for five seconds. During the brief firing, the rocket will reach speeds of up to Mach 3.7. After the engine quits, the 2.23 meter long 7.7 kg rocket will coast upward into space before gravity pulls it back down to the desert. Previously, an amateur-built "rockoon" launched by the Project HALO reached an altitude of 65 km (J P Aerospace; ROL Newswire).


Deep Space 1

The Deep Space 1 spacecraft was returned to normal cruise configuration on May 7 after a still unknown event on May 6 triggered the craft to enter standby mode. The cause in under investigation. On May 9, controllers conducted calibration tests on the infrared and two visible detectors on the camera/imaging spectrometer (JPL Web Page).


For the first time a commercial spacecraft will be built to visit another planet. AeroAstro announced plans on May 13 to build a microsatellite for Encounter 2001 LLC of Houston, Texas. The spacecraft will contain photos, messages and "symbolic representations"(DNA samples in the form of minute hair segments) from millions of people using the latest data compression technology. To date 45,000 people have signed up to participate in the mission. The spacecraft will also contain scientific and educational payloads. Specific equipment included the Bitsy satellite Core Kernel, a functional satellite building block that weighs only 1 kg and will demonstrate an advanced version of the Small Payload Orbit Transfer (SPORT) system. The spacecraft will launch in late 2001 as a piggyback mission on an Ariane 5 rocket. It will fly-by Jupiter and use its gravity to sling-shot out of the solar system. Information on participation can be found at World of Science (SpaceDaily).



DirecTV announced this past week that it added 142,000 new subscribers to its high-power direct-broadcast satellite service during April. This reflects an 84 percent increase over last year during the same period. The company has a subscriber base of 4.9 million homes for its high power service and 2 million homes for the medium-power service it is acquiring from Primestar. The stock for Hughes Electronics, DirecTV's parent company, hit record highs this past week (DirecTV PR; MCN).


Kistler has received a $8 million infusion of capital from the China Development Industrial Bank of Taiwan. The money will be used in Kistler's K-1 launch development program. An additional "funding stream" has been promised when Kistler reached the $142 million mark in total financing. Testing of the K-1 flight test vehicle has been delayed by more than a year because of financial problem related to the Asian financial crisis. The two-stage reusable launch vehicle will be based out of either Australia and/or the US (SpaceDaily).

Vantage Tracking Solutions

Transport International Pool (TIP) and Vantage Tracking Solutions have signed an agreement whereby TIP will provide its customers a satellite-based untethered trailer tracking system. The Vantage system allows motor carriers to improve the efficiency of their transport systems by allowing them to monitor vital information on trailers leased or rented from TIP. Information for each trailer may include its location derived from GPS, whether it is connected to a tractor, whether it is empty, and whether its doors are closed. This data will be transmitted via the Orbcomm satellite network to the customer's fleet management system. Vantage Tracking Solutions is a business unit of Orbcomm. TIP, with its fleet of 300,000 units is part of GE Capital a wholly owned subsidiary of General Electric (Business Wire; Vantange Tracking).


American Online Inc. is considering investing $1 billion in Hughes Electronics' SpaceWay two way satellite system which was announced in March . The move is part of AOL's on-going plans to provide high-speed interactive programming to home televisions to supplement computer services. AOL has been locked out of cable- based services by deals by AT&T, Microsoft and other. The service would be introduced in 2000. The bottleneck of information transfer speeds has sparked a frontier "rush" to provide high speed connections for personal commuters (Business Week May 24, 1999; Reuters).


Space Imaging

Having suffered a major set back with the loss of the Ikonos satellite during the failed Athena launch on April 27, Space Imaging has announced plans to launch its backup satellite -- a twin to Ikonos -- as soon as July 20. The cause of the April failure is now believed to have been a wire that failed to transmit a signal to trigger explosive bolts on the payload fairing. With the fairing still attached, the assemblage was too massive to achieve orbit (SpaceViews).



Plans for the Earth-observing satellite literally dreamed-up by Vice- President Al Gore have met their first set-back. On May 13, the US House Science Committee voted 21-18 to remove the satellite program from the three year NASA Authorization bill (H.R. 1654). The vote was along party lines. Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., cited the project as "an unbearable misuse of NASA dollars". The project, originally estimated to cost $50 million, has already spent $40 million. The cost estimate did not include cost associated with a shuttle launch to put the 8,000 pound satellite into the L-1 point 900,000 miles from Earth. The project was proposed by Gore last year and endorsed by NASA-head Dan Goldin. The project was to place a satellite into an orbital position where it could constantly monitor Earth and send back photographs of the globe that could be viewed continuously on the Internet. In response to the rejection, Rep. Bart Gordon D-Tenn stated that the President would veto the $13.625 billion (fiscal year 2000) NASA Authorization Bill if Triana was not included. Gordon represents Al Gore's hometown of Carthage, Tennessee. The project has been panned by newspapers, science journals and space lobbying groups such as ProSpace. While the Thursday vote was a set-back for the Triana cause, the Democrats have several other opportunities to inject it back into the Authorization Bill later this summer. The NASA Authorization Bill now moves to the House Appropriations Committee and then to the full House for a vote (Florida today; SpaceDaily; SpaceViews).


The European Space Agency (ESA) approved a multi-year budget that includes space science, development of the Mars Express mission in 2003, a new "Living Earth" program, Ariane 5 improvements and the Galileo GPS system. The 1999-2002 period budget was approved at 2.1 billion euros ($2.25 billion US) (SpaceViews).


Orion 3

The ill-fated Orion 3 satellite placed into the wrong orbit by the May 4 Delta 3 launch has successfully used its thrusters to acquire a more stable orbit. The initial launch placed the craft in an orbit with a dangerously low point of only 98 miles. The $145 million telecommunications satellite is now in a 228 x 711 nautical mile orbit awaiting a decision from managers on its final disposition. The satellite's solar arrays remain stowed on the sides of the craft, but are providing enough power to keep the batteries charged. The satellite was to have provided telecommunications services to the Asia-Pacific region. While a similar satellite was salvaged after a botched Proton launch 17 months ago by swinging it around the Moon, Hughes has not made any decision regarding rescue options. The satellite and launch were insured for $265 million -- which will likely be used to build and launch another satellite (Florida Today; AP).


America appears to be in the middle of a string of launch failures. Three Titans, two Delta 3s and an Athena rocket have failed with three of the failures in April! Sources ranging from local newspapers up to and including press releases from the White House have cried out in anguish over the events. There has been much said about "investigations" and "we must get to the bottom of. . ." A few wiser souls have even stated bluntly that space is an inherently risky place to do business. While there is no way for a historian in Idaho, such as myself, to begin to point at specific causes of these failures, there is something perhaps that can be said about them in a larger sense.

Failure is an integral part of an active frontier -- indeed it is so common on frontiers that it is one of the "hallmarks" by which an emerging frontier may be detected. The reasons for this are fairly simple. Frontiers are primarily economic in nature and frontier development is driven by speculation -- calculated economic risk taking. Pressures within the frontier push participants to do things "Faster " and "Cheaper", but not "Safer" unless there is an economic advantage. In the rush to obtain control of resources, there just isn't time enough to address every potential hazard even if it was possible. Risk takers may not know the cause of their losses, but they do what they can to improve their chances. They take out some insurance and try again or fold their tent and go home.

Frontiers are where society borders on the unknown potentials of a wilderness and where not all of the variables are known -- resulting in chronically flawed speculative calculations. Often the result is a smoking hole in the ground, swirling debris on an ocean or a spectacular light show in the air. A set of investors takes a hit, but others who invested in competing enterprises press-on unscathed --grateful perhaps for a little less competition. The failure of the Orion 3 to make orbit on its Delta 3 booster is already creating increased business for its competitors. It is callous, but that is how economic frontiers propagate.

There is a line that is crossed in every frontier where disaster begins to befall the participants. It is when participants begin to emerge out of the protective envelope of the known -- the tried and tested. That is the point when they leave civilization behind and enter the frontier. It is true of physical frontiers and it is true of technological frontiers. Boiler explosions on the rapidly evolving steamboats killed tens of thousands of travelers on the Mississippi River alone. State of the art wooden ships sailed off in search of spices, but one in six disappeared without a trace. Tens of thousands of '49ers died in California from a variety of ills. Greed presses individuals, companies and nations forward willingly into the meat-grinder of the frontier. The chance for disproportionate profit is a lure few can resist. The worse the times at home, the greater the lure of "opportunity". As the floodgates for frontier are lowered, more race into the frontier with reduced assets, less knowledge and fewer precautions. The result is catastrophe. The gold rush to the Klondike during the depression of the late 1890s is a classic example. While the Canadian government tried to avert total disaster by requiring prospectors to have a full ton of rations before setting off, death was still the constant companion of the companies of men as they pressed over Chilkoot Pass and rafted down the Yukon River to Dawson City.

Often trivial events triggered snow balling catastrophe. A slight rise in temperature on the Chilkoot Pass on Palm Sunday, 1898, killed 70 men in an avalanche. On the edge of the wilderness there are few redundant systems to protect participants -- no "local knowledge" to protect from misadventure. Added to this mix, cut- throat economic policies whittle away at safety margins. Seventeen of those that died in the Chilkoot avalanche were sent up the pass to complete an aerial tramway that had been promised investors by Palm Sunday. They completed the cable connection and were on their way down when disasters struck. Unknown dangers lurking around the corner often overwhelm even well-prepared frontiersmen. It is harder to be killed by known dangers -- steps can be taken and protection built. But frontiers border on the edge of the unknown. Disasters are common, and if a society enters into a frontier, then it had better be prepared to endure disaster. Frontiers are inherently dangerous places where the unknown destroys. In the past, many have paid the price of admission to the frontier with their lives.

But frontiers are no longer as deadly. We do not live in the age of wooden ships filled with fathers, brothers and sons that sail off to an unknown fate. In the economic frontier of space we send instead our robotic servants that represent the same investment, but have no kith and kin. When disaster strikes the economic impact may be the same, but there are no grieving families circled around an unfilled grave. When humanity moves out into the civilization of orbital space, he will be able to do so relatively safely because most of the way was paved by broken machines and not by the bones and flesh of men and women.

There is much we can do to ameliorate the harm that comes with frontier activity. With our advanced communications and telemetry, we can learn from each disaster. We can and do insure our activity -- allowing us to try again. We can practice events in virtual before in real. While there is still an infinite number of triggers for disaster, we do not need to repeat any of our mistakes nor do we need to physically experience every potential pitfall. New techniques allow us to identify most hazards in computer simulations long before the first metal is bent on a rocket. Indeed, we should be amazed that we have come this far in the commercial space frontier before we had a string of disasters. We should not condemn computer simulations for letting us down, rather be thankful that they have taken us this far. Indeed, they have been so successful that we are appalled when they reach their limits and disaster strikes. But it must remember that had computer simulations not been utilized, we would have be pummeled by such disasters and the frontier would have long ago died from the blows.

I suspect that investigators will not find the "common thread" that links the various space launch losses. They are looking too closely. They fail to see that without risk there is no profit and that frontiers are risky places indeed. They fail to see that disasters are the inevitable result when capitalistic systems compete on the frontier stage. They see instead the current "Safer" model of NASA bureaucracy and try to hold private launchers to the same standard. During Apollo a workforce of 100,000 people reported to their jobs each day thinking the unspoken mantra of "No one will die because of what I do this today". Now, a much smaller (but rapidly growing) workforce arrives at work each morning wondering how much money they can make and what advantage can be gained by utilizing space. Because they use the same tools (rockets) and work in the same medium (space), it is assumed that they should produce the same results and be judged by the same standards. It is a flawed assumption. One was a program with finite goals supported by tax revenues generated by a voting public, the other is a self-supporting commercial enterprise that sees no boundaries for its ambition.

Short of scrapping the American capitalist system and giving up on space, there is little that can be done to stop the development of space as a frontier and its attendant disasters. We are now experiencing the space frontier that we have waited for, worked for and wanted for so long. The frontier is self-sustaining and by all indications accelerating. We have left civilization and are embarking into the unknown. Having entered the wilderness prepared as best we can, we need to understand that for many the best of preparations will not be enough. Many have paid and will pay again the awful price for participation in the frontier.

Our prayers for a space frontier have been answered. May God have mercy on us.


Courtesy J. Ray and SpaceViews

  • Delayed - Delta 2 (7925), flight 270, NAVSTAR GPS 2R-3
  • May 17 - Pegasus XL, TERRIERS/MUBLCOM, Vandenberg AFB.
  • May 22 - ILS Proton (Blok DM), Nimiq,-1, Baikonur, Kazakstan.
  • May 27 - Shuttle Discovery, STS-96, 2nd American ISS flight, double SpaceHab module, Kennedy Space Center.
  • May 29 - Discovery docks with the International Space Station.
  • (delayed) - Atlas 2A, AC-137, GOES-L, pad 36A Cape Canaveral Air Station.
  • May 30 - Six hour spacewalk, International Space Station spacecraft, pad 17A Cape Canaveral Air Station.
  • June 2 - Discovery undocks from the International Space Station.
  • May 29 - Titan 2, QuikSCAT, SLC-4 West, Vandenberg AFB.
  • May 30 - Discovery landing at Kennedy Space Center.
  • Delayed (late May) - Arianespace Ariane 44P (flight 118), New Skies K-TV, Kourou, French Guiana.
  • June - Delta 2 (7920), flight 272, FUSE, Pad 17A, Cape Canaveral Air Station.
  • June 15 - Inaugural flight Atlas 3A (AC-201), Telestar 7, Cape Canaveral.


The population of space remains at the baseline of 3 -- all on the Mir Space Station. The station contains one French cosmonaut and two Russians. This marks the completion of 3529 days of continuous human habitation in space since the reoccupation of Mir on September 8, 1989. The first element of the International Space Station has been in orbit for 169 days. Because of uncertainties connected to the docking of the Service Module to the orbiting elements of the station, occupation could occur as early as October/November of 1999, failing that, the occupation of the International Space Station but will probably begin in about 7 to 9 months.

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