Neil deGrasse Tyson interviews Elon Musk

Neil deGrasse Tyson interviewed Elon Musk on Tyson’s podcast, StarTalk.  The interview covers a range of topics, and Tyson includes Bill Nye in a running commentary on the interview.  (Chuck Nice is also there to add his usual laughs.)  I found Nye’s take on many things, such as the problems with the idea of colonizing Mars, to be as interesting as Musk’s.

Somewhat related to the previous post, toward the end, they talk about artificial intelligence, and its putative dangers.  Musk pretty much relays what he’s said many times, essentially fearing what AIs might do to us, but I found Nye’s and Tyson’s discussion in the commentary more interesting.  (Neither of them are particularly worried about AIs.)  If you’re interested in the AI part but don’t have time to listen to the whole thing, it starts around the 46 minute mark.

SpaceX reveals the new crewed Dragon V2

Very cool.  SpaceX has been making a lot of news recently, announcing one breakthrough after another.  Their current unmanned Dragon capsule has made multiple successful supply runs to the ISS.  Now they’ve revealed a version that can transport humans.

The most eye popping aspect of it is the SuperDraco rocket engines on the capsule itself that allows it to decelerate and perform a controlled landing on land.

Spaceflight Now has a detailed write up.  Reusability appears to be incorporated into every component of the design.

SpaceX Successfully Soft-Lands on Earth for First Time. Is Mars Next?

The other day, I noted that there wasn’t much information on what had happened with the SpaceX soft landing.  Now there is a bit more, and it sounds promising.  In addition to maybe saving 70% of launch costs, the technology could have benefits for future Mars landings.

After flying to the edge of space, a spent SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket booster successfully returned to Earth, deployed its landing legs, and hovered for a moment. The ability, known as a soft landing, could allow the company to dramatically reduce the cost of spaceflight and one day land rockets on Mars.

Because it came down at a spot in the Atlantic Ocean, SpaceX’s rocket had nothing solid to land on. It crashed into the ocean and was lost to large waves from a storm before the company could get a boat out to recover it. But in the next few months, SpaceX hopes to reproduce the achievement.

“We expect to get more and more precise with each landing. If all goes well, I am optimistic that we can land a stage back at Cape Canaveral at the end of the year,” said entrepreneur and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, during a press conference Apr. 25 in Washington D.C.

via SpaceX Successfully Soft-Lands on Earth for First Time. Is Mars Next? | Science | WIRED.

Reusable rockets: Up and down and up again

A while back I highlighted SpaceX’s reusable first stage.  Last week, they launched with it with the plan to have it do a controlled descent into the waters off Cape Canaveral.  I haven’t been able to find detailed reports of how well it worked, other than this snippet from their web site.

Data upload from tracking plane shows first stage landing in Atlantic was good! Flight computers continued transmitting for 8 seconds after reaching the water. Stopped when booster went horizontal. Several boats enroute through heavy seas…

While we’re waiting to get more word on this, the Economist has an interesting article on how this might affect the economics of spaceflight.

EVERYTHING about space flight is superlative. Even relatively modest rockets are hundreds of feet high. The biggest (the Saturn V, which launched astronauts to the Moon) remains the most powerful vehicle ever built. But space flight is superlatively expensive, too. One reason is that, for all their technological sophistication, rockets are one-shot wonders. After they have fired their engines for a few minutes they are left to fall back to Earth, usually splashing ignominiously into the ocean.

Rocket scientists have therefore long dreamed of making something able to fly more than once. Such a reusable machine, they hope, would slash the cost of getting into space. The only one built so far, America’s space shuttle, proved a dangerous and costly disappointment, killing two of its crews and never coming close to the cost savings its designers had intended. But hope springs eternal, and several of America’s privately run “New Space” firms are planning to try again.

The furthest advanced is SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, an internet mogul. On April 18th it is due to launch one of its Falcon 9 rockets on a cargo-carrying trip to the International Space Station (ISS), something it has done twice before. This time, though, the main story is not the ISS mission, but the modifications the firm has made to the rocket itself.

via Reusable rockets: Up and down and up again | The Economist.

As the article discusses, some caution is called for in light of the Shuttle’s history.  Still, if they can make flights cheaper, then many missions that aren’t yet economical might become so.

On the article’s comments about Musk’s Mars ambitions, envisioning one way trips is all the rage these days.  Personally, I continue to think this is a terrible idea.  It’s easy to contemplate something like this with idealized visions of living on Mars.  It’s  quite another to live for months and years in a canned environment, unable to return to Earth until (unless?) you’re able to develop enough industry to build a return launch vehicle.  People who change their mind sometime over those years may come to feel like they’re in the most remote and bleak prison in history.

SpaceX prepares to take the biggest step towards affordable space travel: Soft landing the Falcon 9 rocket

Recently, I’ve observed how the multistage rocket system probably isn’t going anywhere and that the best approach might be to embrace it and make it work as effectively as possible.  I’ve noted the appeal of VTOL (vertical take off and landing) rocket.

Well, it turns out SpaceX was way ahead of me on both points.  They have a rocket stage that will return to earth, and is designed to eventually land back at the launch pad!

SpaceX, Elon Musk’s poster child of the commercial space travel revolution, is about to attempt the first ever soft landing of a heavy space launch vehicle. On March 16, SpaceX mission CRS-3 will lift off from Cape Canaveral on a resupply mission to the International Space Station. Usually, the massive primary stage of the rocket would fall into the Atlantic ocean after launch — but in this case, it will sprout some metal legs and use what’s left of its rocket fuel to slowly return to Earth. This is perhaps the single most important step in SpaceX’s stated goal of reducing the cost of space travel by a factor of 10, eventually leading to the human colonization of Mars.

more at SpaceX prepares to take the biggest step towards affordable space travel: Soft landing the Falcon 9 rocket (Updated) | ExtremeTech.

Ask Ethan #20: Is the Mars One crew doomed? – Starts With A Bang

What Mars One is counting on is that they can safely land a heavier payload than ever before, that they can do it more precisely than ever before (as in, within just a few hundred meters of previous successful landings), and they can do it for only 12% of the projected costs, with a total estimated budget of just $6 billion instead of the $50 billion price tag to do it right.

via Ask Ethan #20: Is the Mars One crew doomed? – Starts With A Bang.

Somewhat related to my Mars post yesterday, Ethan Siegel answered a reader’s question, and explains why the Mars One initiative is a terrible idea.

I’m not sure that Mars One isn’t more bite than bark.  But if they actually do reach an implementation phase, I’d have to wonder if they would be doing the Mars cause any real benefit if they simply sent four people to their likely deaths.  Having it happen on reality TV would just make it worse, and might stifle actual exploration for decades to come.

A good deal of their plan seems to depend on using SpaceX technology.  I wonder to what extent they’ve actually discussed this with Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX.  Musk strikes me a far too level headed to have his company name tangled up in something that has a high chance of ending in disaster.