NASA’s award of $1 billion in contracts to Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX to build landers to carry astronauts back to the moon is dominating headlines this week — and don’t get me wrong, this is a really big deal. But it pales in comparison to another NASA contract that SpaceX won just a little over a month ago.
$7 billion for SpaceX …
As NASA described the larger contract award back in March, SpaceX will be hired to “deliver critical pressurized and unpressurized cargo, science experiments and supplies to the Gateway.” Once delivered, these supplies would be stored at the space station for resupply to astronauts exploring the lunar surface. By bringing a supply depot closer to the astronauts’ place of work, the Gateway should be able to support longer-duration exploration of the moon, enabling astronauts visiting Earth’s satellite to stay there longer.
SpaceX’s supply runs will include “multiple supply missions” over a term of somewhere between 12 and 15 years. Other companies may receive similar contracts, and according to NASA, the “maximum total value … across all contracts” could add up to $7 billion over the entire performance term. But with SpaceX currently the only contractor named to perform the service, there seems to be a very real chance that SpaceX alone could end up collecting the entire $7 billion.
… or $0 for SpaceX
You see, there’s just one problem with the contract that NASA awarded SpaceX on March 27. It centers on what NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Doug Loverro had said about the moon mission two weeks prior to the contract award.
Specifically, in discussions with NASA Advisory Council’s science committee on March 13, Loverro appeared to be less than enthusiastic about the idea of using a Lunar Gateway. Highlighting the difficulty of meeting Vice President Pence’s mandate to land astronauts on the moon by 2024, Loverro said the best way to make that happen is to “remove all the things that add to program risk along the way.” One such “thing” is the Lunar Gateway itself.
There is a “high possibility,” explained Loverro, that NASA won’t be able to complete construction of the space station in time for astronauts to use it as a base from which to descend to, and ascend from, the moon in 2024. Moreover, “from a physics perspective,” said Loverro, “I can guarantee you we do not need it for this launch.” (He’s also not particularly enamored of NASA’s original plan “to launch a lander in three individual pieces that have to meet up at” an orbiting space station before making their final approach to the moon.)
Simply put, it’s simpler and thus less risky to send astronauts straight from Earth to the moon and back than to have them make pit stops at an orbiting space station en route. Indeed, the Starship spaceship that SpaceX is building in Texas is expressly designed to make such direct flights possible, and intermediate steps such as the Gateway unnecessary.
SpaceX isn’t the only company that could lose out
Perversely, this means that if SpaceX’s Starship is eventually chosen as the spaceship that takes astronauts back to the moon, it could make the Lunar Gateway — and $7 billion worth of “logistics services” contracts to supply the Lunar Gateway — unnecessary. There’s a very real possibility that in building Starship, SpaceX could be working itself out of a $7 billion job!
If that were to happen — if Lunar Gateway gets deemed unnecessary and never built — it wouldn’t just be bad news for SpaceX, either. Other space contractors, including those hired by NASA’s international partners and also America’s own Maxar Technologies and Northrop Grumman, both of which have been awarded contracts to build elements of the Lunar Gateway, could lose out as well.
Arguments for and against
Then again, with many companies in addition to SpaceX having vested interests (and valuable contracts) in the Lunar Gateway, NASA could end up building the thing anyway. Maybe not in time to facilitate the actual first trip by astronauts (back) to the moon, but later on — because even after the astronauts arrive, the arguments in favor of establishing an orbital supply depot might still have merit.
In that regard, Loverro noted that he thinks the Lunar Gateway would help make lunar exploration missions “sustainable,” and so he believes “100% positively it will be” built eventually if this can be done at a reasonable cost. But even so, this leaves open the possibility that a budget-conscious NASA may end up deciding the cost is not reasonable … especially if SpaceX succeeds in building a spaceship that makes space stations irrelevant.
If you ask me, once that first spaceship bypasses a space station to touch down on the moon independently, a lot of folks (in NASA, and certainly in Congress) are going to start wondering whether spending extra billions to build a Lunar Gateway might be an unnecessary extravagance.
At that point, the clock will start ticking on Lunar Gateway — and all the contracts tied to it — going away forever.
Why a rocket launch can’t unite us right now – The Verge
At 9:30AM ET on Tuesday, three American astronauts symbolically rang the Nasdaq opening bell from space — a celebration of SpaceX’s historic launch that sent astronauts into orbit three days prior. The short ceremony played out live on the Nasdaq’s giant screen in Times Square, with various NASA personnel clapping as one astronaut clanged a bell on the International Space Station.
The video glowed over the same streets where, in the days and nights before, thousands of demonstrators had gathered nearby to protest systemic racism and police brutality against black Americans.
This kind of cognitive dissonance has permeated SpaceX’s first passenger flight — the first time that NASA astronauts have launched from the US in nearly a decade. NASA has been waiting for this moment since the last Space Shuttle landed in 2011, and now the agency wants to celebrate. It wants the United States and the world to celebrate, too. But if the space community expects the world to care about the things we do in space, there must be an acknowledgment of how broken things are on the ground and the injustices that still exist in the United States.
That might mean passing up the chance to ring the bell on Wall Street while the economy remains in tatters. It might mean a compassionate statement from the crew addressing the people on the Earth below, instead of answering rote questions from dignitaries and press.
There are eerie echoes between this SpaceX launch and Apollo 8, as others have pointed out. That mission, the first to reach the vicinity of the Moon, launched in 1968, a year that mirrors 2020 in its apocalyptic bleakness. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. had sparked protests throughout the country. Space enthusiasts like to look back on that mission with rose-colored glasses, as something that served as a shining beacon of hope during a tough time for the country.
But as others have pointed out, Apollo 8 didn’t fix the turmoil of the time. Just look at where we stand today. Likewise, SpaceX’s launch did not unite the country or the world, though NASA certainly tried to make that claim. “This was an amazing moment of unity for the nation,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a call with the astronauts after the launch. “It was an amazing moment for the whole world to look out in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and the challenges. We’re able to have very, very special moments where we can all look at the future and say that things are going to be brighter tomorrow than they are today.”
If only it were that simple. The problem that NASA and the space community doesn’t often understand is that spaceflight still isn’t inclusive. These launches may be fun and emotional to watch, but they don’t always feel like they’re for everyone. Space is still an exclusive and expensive domain, and the people who are in charge of this industry are still predominately male and white. The idea that a launch could bring the public together during a time when widespread racism and injustice are at the forefront of people’s minds is naive at best.
To be fair to NASA, Bridenstine acknowledged that an important space launch couldn’t “fix” the world. “Look, I think what NASA does is astonishing. It’s impressive, and it does bring people together,” he said. “If the expectation was that things on the ground were going to change because we launched a rocket, I think maybe the expectation might have been a little high.” He then proceeded to talk about just how many people tuned into NASA and SpaceX’s launch coverage over the weekend.
Those numbers are just not important right now. Yes, the launch must have been a small bright moment for people who turned their attention to a rocket soaring into space for one brief moment this weekend. But if the space community wants to really have a uniting effect on the world, it must be deeply rooted in the happenings of Earth. And the space world seems to exist in a bubble where these things just don’t have an effect.
While NASA acknowledged the problems going on down on the surface throughout the SpaceX launch, the statements didn’t stray much from touting the idea that this launch was a beacon of hope for the world during a difficult time. Meanwhile, the industry has mostly sheltered in its celebratory bubble. While many other major industries have issued a flurry of statements addressing the protests, the giants of the spaceflight industry remained silent.
Instead, compassionate demands for change have been left to individuals in the spaceflight world, including former astronauts.
“It is not this mission that will bring us together but the individual people following it who step forward to lock arms with people we don’t know but must learn to trust,” former astronaut and former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said on Twitter.
“Today demands we take pride not only in reaching the sky, but also sustained heights of decency, truth, compassion and justice for all, now!” former astronaut Mae Jemison said on Twitter.
“America let’s get our crap together,” former astronaut Leland Melvin said during a Facebook video. “This is unsatisfactory. We’ve got to stop this. And it’s going to be the good people that do nothing now that start doing something to stamp this hatred, evil, and racism out.”
Even if the space industry were to come out with a unified statement, from the outside, it feels like it’s more or less business as usual within the space world. NASA and space companies continue to move forward with many of the same things they had planned, such as handing out contracts for major programs, making major announcements, and launching vehicles. But the times are anything but business as usual. If the space community wants to unite people, then it must make people feel like they are part of space, and that means being conscious of where people’s lives are on the ground. It means committing to fix the wrongs in our society while also building vehicles to break the bonds of gravity.
Only then will people feel like they can come together to wonder in our journey toward the stars.
Evaluating SpaceX's Starlink Push – NASASpaceflight.com
Fermenting ferns? Rare dinosaur stomach fossil opens door to ancient world – News Talk 650 CKOM
Fresh ferns, loaded with spores, lightly dusted with leaves and twigs and perfectly seasoned with locally sourced charcoal.
Sound good? It did to an ankylosaur about 110 million years ago, as evidenced by amazingly complete fossils of what was certainly the tank-like dinosaur’s last meal.
“It’s pretty exciting,” said Caleb Brown, a curator at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology and co-author of a paper published Tuesday on what is one of probably only three fossilized dinosaur stomachs discovered.
“We can start recontructing the life histories and ecologies of these animals.”
The dining dinosaur was first unearthed in 2011 in a northern Alberta Suncor oilsands mine, where many excavators have learned to look for fossils as they dig. When this one turned up, a crew from the Tyrrell followed shortly afterward.
It was an amazingly well-preserved ankylosaur from the early Cretaceous period. Low but large — the species could reach eight metres long and weigh eight tonnes — the fossil took two weeks to remove.
It then took 5 1/2 years for technician Mark Mitchell to clean and prepare it, which is why the species now bears the Latin name markmitchelli. The restored specimen, complete with body armour and outer skin, was remarkable enough for a 2017 National Geographic magazine feature.
But for paleontologists, the fun was just starting. They began looking at a fossilized structure that co-author Jim Basinger of the University of Saskatchewan described as looking like a “squashed basketball.”
It was in the right place for a stomach and it held gastroliths, small stones dinosaurs used to help digest their food, much as some birds do today.
“There’s a great mess of them and they’re quite distinctive,” said Basinger.
The scientists eventually compiled 16 pieces of evidence that the squashed basketball was, in fact, a stomach.
“It’s unquestionable,” Basinger said.
There are only two other fossilized stomachs in the world that scientists are this sure about. Neither opens doors to the past the way this one does.
About 80 per cent of this last meal was a particular species of ferns. The fossils are so well preserved their spores identify them.
There are bits of other plants and twigs so immaculate that their growth rings are being used to estimate weather at the time. And there is charcoal from burned woody material.
Brown points out ferns aren’t that nutritious. A beast this size would need digestion capable of getting the most from them.
That means this dinosaur may have fermented its food, much like many animals today.
“All big herbivores today use some form of fermentation,” Brown said. “For this animal, it was almost certainly fermenting those ferns.”
Which raises other interesting questions: How much fermented fern does it take to move an eight-tonne lizard? How much energy might it need? Where might that much fodder be found?
The charcoal provides a clue. It probably came from an ancient forest fire where ferns would have been abundant in the first flush of new growth, much as they are today.
“(The dinosaur) was taking advantage of a charred landscape,” Basinger said. Many modern animals do the same, chowing down on tender, nutritious and low-hanging new growth that follows the flames.
More than just reassembling skeletons, modern paleontology is starting to rebuild ecosystems that haven’t existed for millions and millions of years.
“That’s something we can start playing with,” Brown said.
The fossils tell individual stories, too.
Basinger said, given the undigested contents of its stomach, this ankylosaur died quickly. It was surrounded by marine fossils, and researchers believe it slipped or fell into a large river, where it drowned and was swept out to sea.
“Whatever happened to the poor dinosaur, it would have happened pretty fast after it had eaten.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 2, 2020
— Follow at @row1960 on Twitter
Bob Weber, The Canadian Press
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