America’s Space Program Primed for New Year of Launch Accomplishments

Propelled by its three 'cores', the Falcon Heavy is expected to make its maiden voyage in April 2016. This behemoth will cement its credentials as the most powerful rocket in current operational status, overtaking the Delta IV Heavy. Image Credit: SpaceX
Propelled by its three ‘cores’, the Falcon Heavy is expected to make its maiden voyage in April 2016. This behemoth will cement its credentials as the most powerful rocket in current operational status, overtaking the Delta IV Heavy. Image Credit: SpaceX

As the world stands on the cusp of another year of space exploration activity, several U.S. launch providers—United Launch Alliance (ULA), SpaceX, and Orbital ATK—are primed to embark on perhaps the most ambitious 12 months to date, with Atlas V, Delta IV, Antares, Falcon 9, and Falcon Heavy rockets destined to deliver missions into low-Earth orbit, Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), and Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO), as well as sending a spacecraft onto a trajectory to encounter Comet Bennu. Four piloted Soyuz missions will transport four Americans, six Russians, and one astronaut apiece from Japan and France to the International Space Station (ISS), allowing the sprawling multi-national outpost to continue unprecedented scientific research and respond to around a dozen unpiloted Dragon, Cygnus, Progress, and H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) visitors.

Significantly, Orbital ATK’s Antares booster will return to flight, after an 18-month hiatus, and SpaceX’s mammoth Falcon Heavy will embark on its maiden voyage, snatching the crown from ULA’s Delta IV Heavy to become the largest and most powerful rocket in active operational service, anywhere in the world.

File photo of a GPS Block 2F satellite. Photo Credit: Boeing
File photo of a GPS Block 2F satellite. Photo Credit: Boeing

For ULA, which flew 12 times in 2015—including its 100th overall mission, a record-tying nine flights within a single calendar year by its workhorse Atlas V booster and its first foray toward the International Space Station (ISS)—the New Year promises to achieve even grander heights for the Centennial, Colo.-based launch services provider. Its Atlas V and Delta IV boosters were originally intended to fly on 16 occasions, which might have marked out 2016 as a record-tying year, equaling ULA’s across-the-board accomplishment from 2009. However, the recent decision to delay the launch of NASA’s Mars-bound InSight lander and its subsequent deletion from the 2016 manifest has left this year with a still-impressive roster of 15 launches, the second-highest ever achieved by ULA.

If accomplished on schedule, 2016 should still see as many as 11 Atlas V missions, the most ever conducted within a single calendar year, easily eclipsing the nine flights achieved by this particular launch vehicle in both 2014 and 2015.

On 3 February, an Atlas V will loft the 12th and final member of the Global Positioning System (GPS) Block IIF constellation into a Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) of about 11,047 nautical miles (20,460 km). Flown out of Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on behalf of the U.S. Air Force, GPS IIF-12 will complete the “interim” Block IIF network of global positioning, velocity, and timing satellite assets, ahead of the introduction of the upgraded GPS Block III, which is expected to come online in 2017. These Block IIF satellites have been delivered to orbit atop a mixture of ULA Atlas V and Delta IV rockets between May 2010 and the launch of GPS IIF-11 last October.

Four classified payloads, flown on behalf of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), are slated to ride aboard a pair of Atlas Vs and a pair of Delta IVs, two of which will launch from the Cape and two others from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. On 10 February, a Delta IV Medium+ (5,2) will deliver the NROL-45 payload into orbit. This will be followed by a Delta IV Heavy, the most powerful member of ULA’s fleet and currently the most powerful booster in active operational service, anywhere in the world, which will launch in May—on its first flight since the Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1 of NASA’s Orion spacecraft, back in December 2014—to insert the NROL-37 payload into orbit.

The usage of these two vehicles is indicative of the size, mass, and possible orbital destination of their satellite cargoes. The Delta IV Medium+ (5,2) carries the potential to boost up to 23,320 pounds (10,580 kg) into low-Earth orbit and up to 11,970 pounds (5,430 kg) into Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO), whilst the Heavy can deliver up to 63,470 pounds (28,790 kg) to low-Earth orbit and 31,350 pounds (14,220 kg) to GTO. It has been suggested that NROL-45 may be a low-Earth-orbiting Topaz radar-imaging satellite—a successor to the Lacrosse/Onyx generation, the first of which flew aboard Shuttle Atlantis on STS-27, way back in December 1988—whilst the heavyweight NROL-37 could possibly represent an “Advanced Orion” Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) sentinel, tasked with the interception of missile telemetry and positioned at a geostationary altitude of about 22,300 miles (35,700 km).

A ULA Delta-IV Heavy launching NASA's Orion crew capsule on its first orbital flight test in late 2014, EFT-1. Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace
A ULA Delta-IV Heavy launching NASA’s Orion crew capsule on its first orbital flight test in late 2014, EFT-1. Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace

Interestingly, the Medium+ (5,2) configuration will be embarking on only its second mission, having undertaken its maiden voyage in April 2012. The second pair of NRO launches for 2016—designated “NROL-61” and “NROL-79”—will both be lofted atop Atlas V boosters, from Cape Canaveral’s SLC-41 in June and from Vandenberg’s SLC-3W in December. Of these, the former will be delivered to orbit by an Atlas V in its “411” variant, equipped with a single strap-on booster and capable of launching up to 26,780 pounds (12,150 kg) into low-Earth orbit and up to 13,100 pounds (5,950 kg) to GTO. It has been speculated that NROL-61 might be an upgraded Satellite Data Systems (SDS), or “Quasar,” communications relay for classified reconnaissance satellites, whilst NROL-79 will fly atop a barebones Atlas V 401 and could be a member of the Naval Ocean Surveillance System (NOSS). In fact, NROL-79 entered the headlines in the fall of 2014, when it was speculated that the contract for its launch might be contested by SpaceX, which had earlier received Air Force certification to carry classified payloads. Ultimately, however, NROL-79 was added to the Air Force’s ongoing $11 billion ULA contract in January 2015.

In addition to these classified missions, five other military flights are on ULA’s books for 2016. The fifth and final member of the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS-5) is scheduled to rise from Cape Canaveral atop an Atlas V in May, heading for geostationary orbit and tasked with providing global communications narrowband (64 kbits/sec and lower) connectivity to U.S. and allied military forces in “disadvantaged” areas, including heavily forested and limited-satellite-access areas. Another Atlas V will boost the third Geosynchronous (GEO-3) element of the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) aloft in July, which will form part of an evolving network of geosynchronous and Highly-Elliptical-Orbiting (HEO) satellites to provide advanced early-warning, missile-defense, and battlespace characterization features. GEO-3 follows on from the earlier GEO-1 launch in May 2011 and GEO-2 in March 2013.

ULA's last launch of 2015, lofting Orbital ATK's Cygnus OA-4 mission to resupply the ISS. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace
ULA’s last launch of 2015, lofting Orbital ATK’s Cygnus OA-4 mission to resupply the ISS. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

Also launching in July will be the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC)-6 mission, laden with a pair of highly maneuverable Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) satellites, dedicated to U.S. Strategic Command surveillance operations and utilizing a battery of electro-optical systems to observe other objects in space. This forms part of the Air Force’s ongoing exploration of the geosynchronous environment at an altitude of 22,300 miles (35,700 km) and enable the development of new collision-avoidance mechanisms. Wrapping up 2016’s military load in September and December will be the latest Wideband Global Satcom (WGS-8) high-capacity communications satellite and the fourth Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF-4) satellite for fast and secure links between civilian leaders and their military assets worldwide.

Numerous other missions will also fly aboard ULA’s vehicles this year, including a rare commercial communications satellite payload—the multi-spot-beam Ka-band EchoStar XIX (also known as “Jupiter-2”)—whose launch contract between Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services (LMCLS) and ULA was announced in August 2015. Targeted for November 2016, this will mark only the fourth such satellite launched by ULA, following ICO-G1 in April 2008, Intelsat-14 in November 2009, and last October’s Morelos-3 and hints at an anticipated resurgence of interest from commercial clients, following the Air Force’s “block buy” of 36 Atlas V and Delta IV “cores,” which has begun to drive costs down. Also destined for ULA launches in 2016 are a second ISS-bound Cygnus cargo ship (OA-6), which will fly in March, the WorldView-4 commercial Earth-imaging satellite in September, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R in October for weather forecasting, storm tracking, space weather monitoring, and meteorological research, as well as the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) to intercept Comet Bennu in September.

The year is also expected to see a run of flight operations for SpaceX, which marked a spectacular Return to Flight (and return to land) of its first Upgraded Falcon 9 booster on 21 December, delivering a personal-best-setting 11 Orbcomm Generation-2 (OG-2) satellites into low-Earth orbit. SpaceX managed to equal its personal best from 2014 in having flown as many as six successful missions in a single calendar year. Although SpaceX’s website provides little detail on exact target dates for its forthcoming launches, it is expected that a “standard” Falcon 9 v1.1—equipped with older-specification Merlin 1D engines—will be employed to deliver the Jason-3 Ocean Surface Topography Mission (OSTM) into low-Earth orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., no sooner than 17 January. Equipped with a radar altimeter, GPS receiver, microwave radiometer, Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA), and the French-built Doppler Orbitography and Radiopositioning Integrated by Satellite (DORIS) hardware, Jason-3 will conduct global ocean-surface measurements, in support of ongoing efforts to understand the climatic implications of a steadily warming Earth.

This will be followed by the long-awaited launch of the SES-9 communications satellite, flying atop an Upgraded Falcon 9, whose voyage to GTO has been cleared following a successful restart of the second-stage Merlin 1D+ engine on the recent RTF mission. Flying on behalf of the Luxembourg-based SES satellite services provider, SES-9 will be positioned at 108.2 degrees East and provide Direct-to-Home (DTH) broadcasting across eastern Asia and Indonesia, together with maritime communications in the Indian Ocean. It remains to be seen if an attempt will be made to land the Upgraded Falcon 9 first-stage hardware from the SES-9 mission back at Cape Canaveral. As outlined in a recent AmericaSpace article, SpaceX plans to fly at least four Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) Dragon cargo missions to the ISS in 2016, carrying the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) aboard CRS-8 in February, the International Docking Adapter (IDA)-2 aboard CRS-9 in March, and multiple payloads devoted to neutron star interior studies, stratospheric aerosol content monitoring, lightning imaging, high-resolution Earth observations, and the testing of a Roll-Out Solar Array (ROSA) aboard CRS-10 and CRS-11 in June and August. It remains possible that the CRS-12 Dragon may also fly before year’s end, tentatively scheduled for a December launch.

SpaceX's first upgraded Falcon 9 first-stage booster to launch payload to space and land back at Cape Canaveral is seen here arriving at the company's Launch Complex 39A, the historic site of many of NASA's Apollo and Space Shuttle missions previously. The booster will now undergo numerous tests at the launch site where SpaceX will soon begin launching their Falcon Heavy and crewed ISS missions. Photo Credit: Shannon Gordon (used with permission)
SpaceX’s first upgraded Falcon 9 first-stage booster to launch payload to space and land back at Cape Canaveral is seen here arriving at the company’s Launch Complex 39A, the historic site of many of NASA’s Apollo and Space Shuttle missions previously. The booster will now undergo numerous tests at the launch site where SpaceX will soon begin launching their Falcon Heavy and crewed ISS missions. Photo Credit: Shannon Gordon (used with permission)

In spite of the absence of a definitive 2016 launch manifest for its other payloads, SpaceX’s plan anticipates the inaugural test flight of its Falcon Heavy booster—capable of transporting up to 117,000 pounds (53,000 kg) into low-Earth orbit and up to 46,700 pounds (21,200 kg) to geostationary altitude—by mid-year, with speculation that it may occur in the April-May timeframe. With a far higher payload-to-orbit capability than the Delta IV Heavy, the Falcon Heavy comprises a trio of Falcon 9 “cores,” each equipped with nine Merlin 1D+ engines. However, its total payload-to-orbit capability will fall short of the long-since-retired Saturn V, which carried the potential to boost 310,000 pounds (140,000 kg) to low-Earth orbit, but which flew its last mission way back in May 1973. On its “Demo Flight,” the Falcon Heavy will launch from the historic Pad 39A site at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.

A subsequent Demo Flight, perhaps as soon as October 2016, will carry the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program (STP)-2 payload in support of the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) certification process for the Falcon Heavy, before operational missions get underway with numerous heavyweight passengers, including its first-contracted commercial customer, Intelsat, as well as the ViaSat-2 satellite, which is expected to beomce the world’s highest-capacity communications satellite when it reaches orbit. No specific dates for either commercial mission have yet been announced.

The payload fairing and core stage for the OA-5 mission, which will mark Antares return to flight and the inaugural voyage of the new "230" variant of the booster. Photo Credit: Elliot Severn/AmericaSpace
The payload fairing and core stage for the OA-5 mission, which will mark Antares return to flight and the inaugural voyage of the new “230” variant of the booster. Photo Credit: Elliot Severn/AmericaSpace

In tandem with this opening salvo of Falcon Heavy missions, SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9—flying in its Upgraded configuration, with an enhanced suite of Merlin 1D+ engines, utilizing full 100-percent-thrust and generating a propulsive yield of 1.5 million pounds (680,000 kg) at liftoff—has a long backlog of payloads to deliver, all of which will fly from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. These include commercial satellites to provide communications services across Latin America (Eutelsat 117 West B), the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia (ABS-2A and Amos-6), as well as Japan, eastern Asia and the Pacific region (JCSat-14). Two missions in August and October are each poised to boost 10 Iridium NEXT second-generation mobile voice and data communications satellites into low-Earth orbit. This forms part of a $492 million contract, agreed back in June 2010, which at the time was “the largest single commercial launch deal ever signed.” Under the terms of the contract, SpaceX will deliver 70 Iridium NEXT satellites aloft, of which 20 will ride aboard the two Upgraded Falcon 9 missions in late 2016.

As well as its commitment to fly as many as five Dragon cargo missions to the ISS, SpaceX also confidently expects to launch its Crew Dragon on a 30-day unpiloted demonstration flight to the station, as soon as December 2016. It will dock at the IDA-2 interface, positioned at the forward end of the Harmony node. Successful passage of this critical Commercial Crew milestone will enable the Hawthorne, Calif.-based launch services provider to stage its 14-day crewed demonstration to the ISS in April 2017. Four NASA shuttle and ISS veterans—Suni Williams, Eric Boe, Doug Hurley, and former Chief Astronaut Bob Behnken—were named in July 2015 to support Commercial Crew operations.

Other U.S. providers aiming for space in 2016 include Orbital ATK, which has already reserved a ULA Atlas V for its OA-6 Cygnus cargo mission in March, but which expects its upgraded Antares booster to be ready for a return to flight from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va. The cryogenic Antares—whose “130” variant, equipped with Aerojet Rocketdyne-furnished AJ-26 first-stage engines, suffered a catastrophic turbopump failure and explosion, seconds after liftoff, in October 2014—has since completed a thorough accident investigation process. Damage to the Pad 0A site has been repaired and already-planned upgrades to the “230” configuration, which utilizes Russian-built RD-181 liquid-fueled engines on its first stage, and a second stage powered by the Castor-30XL solid-rocket motor, are nearing completion. According to Novosti, Orbital ATK is expected to fly two Antares 230-boosted Cygnus missions towards the space station in 2016, with OA-5 scheduled for launch on 31 May and OA-7 on 4 October.


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  1. Thank you Ben Evans for the interesting and educational preview of upcoming missions!

    Yep, 2016 should be a good year for spaceflights!

  2. This promises to be a year with lots of activity in space. Only, I hope the U.S. & other international space agencies start trying to deorbit some of the space debris in Earth orbit. Or maybe legacy aerospace and the U.S. government is waiting for SpaceX to turn it’s attention to this problem…..

    • It is expensive to get mass into orbit.

      A lot of mass is needed for effective shielding from Galactic Cosmic Rays, or GCRs.

      And the damage to an astronaut’s health caused by Galactic Cosmic Rays is one of the current show stoppers for most long duration human space missions, with the two exceptions being the ISS in LEO (that is mostly shielded from GCRs by both the mass of the nearby Earth and its large magnetic field) and the surface of the Moon where ten meters of Lunar H2O, or about six meters of regolith, above a habitat could offer effective GCR shielding.

      Note an extreme GCR example: “At 50 J,[7] the highest-energy ultra-high-energy cosmic rays have energies comparable to the kinetic energy of a 90-kilometre-per-hour (56 mph) baseball.” From ‘Cosmic ray’ in Wikipedia.

      Any “space debris in Earth orbit”, and eventually, any ‘old’ modules from the ISS (that are replaced by newer modules) should be recycled to provide crushed, melted, and compact mass for the needed GCR shielding for a future space station in a geostationary orbit that is 35,786 kilometers, or 22,236 miles, above the Earth and in a richer GCR environment than LEO.

      Note also that ‘printing’ useful space parts and structures in orbit should be eventually doable and will need feed-stock which could partially consist of recycled “space debris”.

      And consider the article, ‘Company Gets $1.9 Million from NASA to Develop Debris Removal Spacecraft’ by Doug Messier on March 12, 2012 wherein it is noted:

      “Small vehicles that can be launched piggyback to larger satellites

      Propellantless, reusable space vehicles with virtually unlimited delta-V using solar power and electrodynamic thrust

      Maneuverable over all of low Earth orbit at any inclination”


      If we are serious about Lunar ISRU, mining asteroids, and efficiently using space resources, we should get some initial practice and valuable experience with remotely controlled robots by cleaning up and recycling the ‘resource debris’ that is available in Earth orbit.

      Yep, maybe “space debris” could end up being considered as simply another phrase for ‘valuable space resource’.

  3. “current show stoppers for most long duration human space missions, with the two exceptions being the ISS in LEO…”
    The hell you say. Based on what? NASA’s Career radiation limit for a 57+ year old male on a conjunction class (~2.5 year) Mars mission is easily met with a reasonable massed solar flare event (SFE) shelter. A SFE shelter has been in every Mars mission design going back to at least 1965.

    “Note an extreme GCR example…” Yeah, so what? These Exa electron volt extreme GCRs are very very rare, detector arrays stare at thousands of cubic miles of atmosphere for years in order see the air shower from just one of these exotic particles.
    Look, micrometeoroids also present a hazard to space explorers, so “Note an extreme example”: a large 2100 mile diameter ball of rock has been spotted orbiting 240,000 miles above the earth. Oh my god, stop the show!

    Scavenging aluminum from old spacecraft for GCR shielding is perhaps not a such great idea, since shielding from electrically charged relativistic cosmic ray ions is not at all the same problem as a shielding from neutrons and gamma rays produced by nuclear reactors and radioactive materials. Aluminum atoms produce dangerous showers of secondary particles from GCRs.

    And why would anyone want to put a manned space station in geostationary orbit? Really, exactly why?

    Cleaning up orbital debris in low earth orbit is a laudable goal for sure, please carry on with that.
    However, small solar powered electrodynamic tethers in LEO run into a classic parametric engineering problem. The drag from the long tether is substantial. Tether drag added to the drag from the solar arrays can make getting more electromotive force out of a “reusable” system lead to a self defeating feedback loop. If your intention is -just- to deorbit one dead s/c that’s not such a problem, but if your electrodynamic tether is disposable, financially your relatively complex electrodynamic s/c must complete with disposable momentum exchange tethers or good old rocket propelled systems. No free lunch.

    I do agree that getting stuff to orbit is expensive.

  4. se jones –

    “A SFE shelter has been in every Mars mission design going back to at least 1965.” “NASA’s Career radiation limit for a 57+ year old male on a conjunction class (~2.5 year) Mars mission is easily met with a reasonable massed solar flare event (SFE) shelter.”.

    Who would or could stay in a very small “SFE” radiation shelter for the “~2.5 year” Mars mission”?

    Tell your political friend Elon he can only take 57+ year old males with him and only if he is willing to be packed in like sardines on a “SFE shelter” for “2.5” years. Oh no! I forgot Elon is going to retire on Mars! I guess he’ll spend his last decades trying hard to avoid GCR induced cancer by mostly being packed in like a sardine in a “SFE shelter” on Mars.

    “These results show a significant increase in the number of “safe” days, with 95% CL to remain below acceptable levels or risk that result from our improved methodology. However, the results still fall well short of those needed for a Mars mission.”
    From: NASA/TP-2005-213164 ‘Managing Lunar and Mars Mission Radiation Risks Part I: Cancer Risks, Uncertainties, and Shielding Effectiveness’ By Francis A. Cucinotta NASA Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center

    And concerning aluminum as a shielding material, in Cucinotta’s article we also find, “We conclude that, because of the modest differences between polyethylene and aluminum as GCR absorbers and the large radiobiological uncertainties in cancer risk projection models, the benefits of polyethylene compared to aluminum shielding for GCR cannot be proven at this time.”

    From: NASA Office of Inspector General Office of Audits Report October 29, 2015 ‘NASA’S EFFORTS TO MANAGE HEALTH AND HUMAN PERFORMANCE RISKS FOR SPACE EXPLORATION’ we can read:
    “Moreover, even as NASA gains additional knowledge about its vehicles and habitats and the effects of radiation and other space conditions on the human body, the Agency may be unable to develop countermeasures that will lower the risk to deep space travelers to a level commensurate with
    NASA standards for low Earth orbit missions.”

    And the Audits Report also notes, “Deep space radiation is significantly different from radiation encountered on Earth, and it is unknown how the human body will respond to prolonged exposure. Earth, and to a lesser extent low Earth orbit, are protected by the Van Allen Belts, regions of trapped radiation held in place by the Earth’s magnetic field that shield the planet and its human inhabitants from space radiation and solar weather. Missions that travel beyond low Earth orbit do not enjoy the protection of the Belts.”

    “It isn’t surprising that the public has become cynical about what is science and what is politics – what is real and what isn’t. ‘Science’ has become a useful political tool and because of that, the credibility of scientific inquiry and the public’s understanding of science and how it works have suffered greatly.” From ‘NASA = Mars = Delusional’ October 2, 2015 by Paul Spudis at:

    You may think “57+ year old male” astronauts should blindly accept Elon’s political noise and your GCR bluster as fact, but the reality is that both of you are nonscientific Mars hucksters. And your obvious ignorance about and disregard of women who want to go into space isn’t going to win your political smoke generating friend Mr. Musk any brownie points with the smarter half of our species.

    If space cadets want to know what Congress wants and is willing to pay for, go read about SLS/Orion enabled ISS emergency backup mission capability and Lunar surface missions that are in the ‘National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2010 (PUBLIC LAW 111-267 OCT. 11, 2010)’.

    Despite our President, his political smoke and mirrors ‘friend’ Elon Musk, se jones, many confused folks, and paid political hacks, Mars is legally a much lower priority than getting NASA astronauts on the Moon. And if the next and subsequent Presidents maintain the nonscientific ‘lost in space’ policy of the current President, we’ll be real lucky if we get to Mars by 2069.

    ‘America’s Space Program Primed for New Year of Launch Accomplishments’ by Ben Evans is about real folks doing real missions that are based on real science, technology, and money.

    Maybe 2016 will also be the year that the nonscientific Mars political hucksters will finally start to get a clue about the real world that we actually live on and its close and useful neighbor, the Moon.

    And sorry, the real world doesn’t include any of us getting the American taxpayers and Congress to pay for his or her extremely costly ‘retirement on Mars’.

    • “Who would or could stay in a very small “SFE” radiation shelter for the “~2.5 year” Mars mission”?”

      Why in h would they? A solar flare event is just that – an “event” of limited duration. The Solar System is a big place, odds are that a Mars expedition would never encounter a major solar flare, but if it did get caught, the “storm” would only last a few hours at most. Most designs double the crew’s sleeping cubicles with a SFE shelter so that the crew gets a marginally lower rad dose while they are resting.

      This Cucinotta et al. paper that you site – did you even read it, let alone understand it? Evidently not.
      No realistic amount of shielding of any kind will stop GCRs in the upper range of the spectrum, but aluminum beyond what is needed for the s/c pressure shell would make things worse because of induced secondaries. Low atomic weight shielding for SFE protection is a different matter, as the paper makes clear.

      In general, you trying to justify spending more decades and 100s of $billions on a manned Lunar base in order to retire the risk of crewed Mars missions is just nonsense on stilts.

      As for the rest of your bizarre, rambling, hateful rant…what can I say? Long before Elon Musk or Obama came along, countless thousands of engineers, scientists and members of the public have worked for decades toward the goal of humans exploring our sister planet Mars. But you’re always compelled to return to your obsessions.

      Aerospace America readers were hoping Gary Church slinked away to leave the conversation to sane people, but I guess not.

  5. Radiation is clearly an unresolved human deep space mission issue.

    “In FY 2014, HRP funded 55 research tasks to help close 38 knowledge gaps associated with space radiation exposure. Although HRP research has focused primarily on understanding cancer risk, the group plans to increase its focus on degenerative tissue diseases, an area with which NASA is less familiar.”

    And, “According to the June 2015 PRR, the space radiation risk remains uncontrolled for a planetary mission past FY 2027 due to limited knowledge about degenerative effects and the need to develop and validate countermeasures for post-mission risks; however, NASA has countermeasures in place for all in-flight radiation risks related to low Earth orbit missions. Quotes from Page 26 NASA Office of Inspector General Office of Audits Report October 29, 2015 ‘NASA’S EFFORTS TO MANAGE HEALTH AND HUMAN PERFORMANCE RISKS FOR SPACE EXPLORATION’

    And from: ‘The Elephant in the Room: Biomedical Challenges for Long Duration Lunar Habitation’ James S. Logan, MD Clinical Services Branch NASA Johnson Space Center Page 19
    “Risk of Exposure Induced Death “REID” is a statistical approach pegged to a single radiation effect: DEATH from cancer directly attributable to the exposure
    In 1989 NASA accepted National Committee on Radiation Protection (NCRP) recommendation of career dose limits corresponding to a lifetime increase of 3% in cancer mortality
    In 2000, NCRP kept that same 3% recommendation but also reduced (almost by half) the dose expected to reach the 3% lifetime risk.
    45 y.o. male astronaut’s 10 year 3% career limit went from 325 rem in 1989 to 150 rem in 2000
    35 y.o. female astronaut’s 10 year 3% career limit went from 175 rem in 1989 to 60 rem in 2000
    This is NOT being more conservative, this is a realization that radiation is more harmful than predicted”

    Even for long duration Lunar surface missions, GCR shielding is going to be a critical ISRU issue.

    Yep, the smart place to test the long-term effectiveness of ISRU regolith/water GCR shielding techniques and the effects of reduced gravity is on the nearby Moon, not the far distant Mars.

    And Lunar water and other resources may also play a useful role in reducing mission risks by supplying both radiation shielding material and propellant for space stations and reusable spaceships in Cislunar Space, and eventually for Mars and Ceres missions.

  6. se jones –

    “For short-stay lunar missions (180 d) or Mars missions, GCR risks may exceed radiation risk limits, with 95% CL’s exceeding 10% fatal risk for males and females on a Mars mission.”

    Note: CL = confidence level

    And, “For reducing GCR cancer risks, shielding materials are marginally effective because of the penetrating nature of GCR and secondary radiation produced in tissue by relativistic particles. At the present time, polyethylene or carbon composite shielding can not be shown to significantly reduce risk compared to aluminum shielding based on a significance test that accounts for radiobiology uncertainties in GCR risk projection.” Quotes from: Page 2 of ‘Evaluating Shielding Effectiveness for Reducing Space Radiation Cancer Risks’ by Francis A. Cucinotta, Myung-Hee Y. Kim, and Lei Ren

    From page 17 of the same article, “Career radiation limits and shielding requirements could also be impacted by new
    knowledge of fatal non-cancer risks from radiation exposure such as heart disease (Preston et al., 2003; Howe et al.,
    2004; Yang et al., 1982) or damage to the central nervous system (CNS).”

    If anyone foolishly goes “on a conjunction class (~2.5 year) Mars mission” or decides to ‘retire on Mars’ without effective GCR shielding, that individual, or group of individuals, will most likely run a high risk of cancer and quite possibly other serious health problems.

    However, “long duration lunar (>180 d)” missions with extensive and effective GCR shielding for the habitat from six or more meters of Lunar regolith/soil, or ten meters of Lunar water, are probably doable on the Moon. Obviously, the proof will be in the actual experience of astronauts going the Moon and working efficiently during long duration missions without exceeding accepted radiation and other health standards.

    And if those long Lunar missions are not doable without exceeding “NASA accepted National Committee on Radiation Protection (NCRP) recommendation of career dose limits corresponding to a lifetime increase of 3% in cancer mortalitys”, then the Earth with its low radiation environment and excellent hospitals are a quick four days journey from the Moon.

    From: ‘Space Colonies & Lunar Bases’ Karen J. Meech, Astronomer Institute for Astronomy
    Requires the most shielding (~1 m Pb)!
    Depends on person category (Child-bearing age, Pregnant, etc.)!”

    Yep, effective GCR radiation protection for a space colony requires about one meter of Pb (one meter of lead shielding) or some other type of equivalent shielding mass.

    “In general, you”, the President, and Elon Musk are quite confused. NASA led human Lunar surface missions are the law of the land and can be found in the ‘National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2010 (PUBLIC LAW 111-267 OCT. 11, 2010)’. The President signed that law but both he and NASA’s leadership have been unwilling to fully implement it.

    A Mars fantasy confused and highly partisan lame duck President and his politicized NASA leaders are ignoring our relevant NASA Moon mission space law and are instead “trying to justify spending more decades and 100s of $billions on a manned” Mars mission with zip evidence that anyone with serious knowledge expects anything from such voyages other than high mission technical risks compounded by cancer and other health risks on those long duration trips in a GCR rich environment to a distant planet that is currently not a priority in either American space law or in the statements of the folks in Congress.

    Those “conjunction class (~2.5 year) Mars” missions without any type of effective GCR shielding should be thought of as an extremely costly form of Russian Roulette and such nonscientific and irrational foolishness is clearly not worthy of any taxpayer money from Congress.

    Risk and science ignoring NASA management decisions are precisely how we have previously managed to get astronauts killed.

    Do you need to review those previous ‘brilliant’ examples of NASA management’s politicized and nonscientific decision making skills? Or do you simply want to extend that foolish tradition by trying to bully anyone who disagrees with your Musk hogwash and GCR ignoring bluster about the radiation safety of long duration “conjunction class (~2.5 year) Mars” missions and ‘retirement on Mars’?

    “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”
    – Richard Feynman

  7. Se Jones and James,
    Won’t the final solution to GCR be some form of EM shielding that is similar to what is being done with prototype Nuclear Fusion reactors? Such a devise would have arms that extend and then create an EM field from an onboard RTG unit to create a protective bubble around the craft. While NASA has a long history of space research…They never really had the directive to go to MARS because we very well could destroy ourselves…and Earth…Musk seems to think it could happen soon, possibly in his lifetime…I have a feeling SpaceX is already working on this…And as we all can see his Hobby Rockets are going places cheaper and cheaper.

    • Powerful magnetic shielding may eventually work in combination with a passive mass based shielding.

      GCR mass shielding made of composites of various types of material might also be useful.

      Using propellant for GCR shielding may be doable.

      Serious research needs to be done, and taxpayer and private money spent around the world, to find effective GCR shielding technological answers.

      We are going to live on the Moon, Mars, Ceres, and many other destinations across our Solar System, but we need to discover and use effective GCR shielding so that women and men in their twenties and thirties and forties and fifties can do those technologically difficult and risky missions and live in those distant colonies without those astronauts and colonists, and their extended families back on Earth, having the additional heavy psychological pressure of wondering if they are playing GCR Russian Roulette.

      Whatever types of effective GCR shielding systems that are eventually developed, they need to be extensively tested in long duration missions in Earth and Lunar orbit and on the Moon prior to trying to use them on voyages to Mars and in building Mars colonies.

      Developing thriving colonies on the Moon, Mars, Ceres, and elsewhere will change how we see ourselves and might even provide the challenges and international cooperation and competition needed to develop the full potential of all of us still living on Earth.

      I know from personal experience that Star Wars, The Martian, Gravity, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avatar, Cowboys & Aliens, Wall-e, Predator, Starship Troopers, Star Trek, and a whole lot more have already entered the world’s cultural base via movie theaters, TVs, computer screens, and cellphones across the planet.

      Most of the world’s young people are interested in technology and peaceful worlds. They are beginning to learn or already understand that our Earth is just one of many worlds that offer us humans rich new opportunities and dreams.

      I’ve worked, traveled, lived, and talked extensively with folks from around the world and they have helped me to understand that we humans can accomplish much more economic, scientific, and technological development than what we have already achieved if we continue to actively and honestly put our hearts and minds towards finding doable solutions to whatever problems, issues, and questions that we face.

    • James: thanks for toning it down.

      Tracy: Active “EM” shielding is the holy grail, but it’s an enormous engineering challenge and won’t happen for a long time. If you go to NASA’s NAIC site and search for “active radiation shield” you’ll find the very excellent JSC Westover et al. paper on their Anular Double Helix Toroid design.
      The graph on the bottom right of page 3 should give you clear picture of why Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCR) are a different problem than Solar Flair radiation.

      The good news is: huge sums of money are being invested in “high temperature” superconducting wires (or ribbons) for the wind turbine industry. Manufacturerable, strong superconducting wire that works at liquid hydrogen or nitrogen temperatures would enable all sorts of wonderful aerospace technologies.

      The not good news: an active radiation shield would take huge amounts of electricity to run. RTGs won’t cut it, an RTG puts out as much power as a motorcycle battery. The Helix Toroid radiation shields would need a lightweight high-power nuclear reactor to make the 40+ Megajoules of electric power needed (that’s a lot).
      The best hope for THAT is a normalized, friendly cooperative project with the Russians over a decade at least.

      In the meantime, there are stunning advances in molecular biology leading to better radiation protective drugs. Companies like Paloma Pharmaceuticals are commercializing their Palomid drugs which block the aberrant up-regulation of the PI3K/Akt/mTOR pathway.

      Everyone (in my world) is excited that Tomas Lindahl et al. received the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of the glycosylase enzyme nucleotide excision DNA repair molecules & pathway.

      The public (I think it’s fair to say) has a mechanistic view of biology, with a mental picture of DNA as a solid machine-like thing that can break like a dropped clock. Lindahl discovered how fragile DNA is; at room temperature DNA will just fall apart without the glycosylase enzymes checking are replacing broken strands.
      Organisms can withstand very high radiation doses over an extended period because of this enzymatic excision & repair pathway. New drugs like the Palomids aid this natural process.

      There are more papers on bio-mechanics and molecular biology at Mars Society conferences than papers on rockets and do-dads.
      Fact is, the US & USSR learned how to build high performance rockets (including nuclear) in the 1960s, now the cutting-edge frontiers inportant to spaceflight are in biology.

      Finally: the radiation challenge for Mars expeditions is 90% about the travel THROUGH space for 6+ months on the trip out and trip back. There is little to no knowledge to be gained by sending some guys to the moon where they will hang out in dirt covered bunkers most of the time. What is needed is crewed vehicle time out in free space in Cislunar orbits. NASA just received >$58 million to start work on a Orion habitat module for just this purpose.

      The earth’s moon is an interesting world, and the polar ice deposits are there for the taking, but the reality is: the moon is so nearby that teleoperated robotic systems for mining and prospecting are far more cost effective and likely to be financed in the real universe than manned bases. That’s just common sense.

    • “There is little to no knowledge to be gained by sending some guys” and women to Mars “where they will hang out in dirt covered bunkers most of the time.”

      The Moon is much closer to the demographic and economic center of humanity, the planet Earth, than is Mars and this basic fact has significant consequences in the real world of business, science, technology, and politics.

      Diverse types of Lunar robots can be efficiently controlled in near real time at a low cost by humans and computers on Earth, whereas it is impossible to efficiently control robots on Mars in real time by humans and computers on Earth because of the very long lag time in speed of light communication between the two planets.

      The business case for frequent human and robotic Lunar ISRU missions in support of developing cislunar space ‘closes’ much sooner than the business case for developing distant Mars with infrequent “conjunction class (~2.5 year)” missions that slowly take robots and humans far from the economic, business, political, and quick communications heartland of humanity.

      Propellant from the Moon improves economic growth options for other Lunar ISRU industries, scientific research communities on the Moon, and frequent missions to everywhere in cislunar space including the entire Lunar surface. These opportunities will become much easier, with far less risk and cost than is the case for the far more distant in time and space Red Planet with its slow time lagged communication and much higher technological risk in doing long “conjunction class (~2.5 year)” missions.

      Technology that reduces the high risks and costs to get folks and supplies to far distant Mars will most likely also decrease the already lower risks and costs to get folks and supplies to the much closer surface of the Moon so the relative difference in the risks and cost opportunities of the two spheres will probably not change very much in the near term.

      The Moon can become the transportation hub of the Solar System. Perhaps Mars, Ceres, and Vesta may eventually become transportation hubs for the asteroid belt and more distant destinations. But developing that capability on Mars, Ceres, and Vesta will take a long time and most likely the innovations and the technical, political, and economic support of many countries.

      Affordable missions to the Moon and the rest of cislunar space is the central focus of the logical geopolitical interests and immediate concerns of Congress.

      Realistically, America and the other space mission capable countries are unlikely to ignore the development of cislunar space, which legally includes the surface of the Moon according to the ‘National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2010 (PUBLIC LAW 111-267 OCT. 11, 2010)’, to instead do limited, high risk, and very costly missions to Mars despite whatever sophistry is employed by a President or his billionaire political friends to justify such a goofy idea.

      A bipartisan Congress, including many members in the Democratic Party, ignored our current President’s vague Mars rhetoric and instead passed the ‘National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2010 (PUBLIC LAW 111-267 OCT. 11, 2010)’.

      Nothing appears to have changed in the Lunar orientated SLS and Orion space policy repeatedly reaffirmed by Congress since 2010, and Congress still doesn’t seem interested in changing things to make it a funding priority to send NASA astronauts on much higher risk and cost missions to Mars instead of the much lower risk and cost missions to the nearby and far more immediately useful Moon.

      China is planning to send another robotic lander to the Moon, this time to the unexplored far side, and yet NASA’s Lunar surface robotic and human mission planning remains paralyzed by the current President’s nonscientific anti-Moon rhetoric.

      “(2) The regions of cis-lunar space are accessible to other national and commercial launch capabilities, and such access raises a host of national security concerns and economic implications that international human space endeavors can help to address.
      (3) The ability to support human missions in regions beyond low-Earth orbit and on the surface of the Moon can also drive
      developments in emerging areas of space infrastructure and technology.
      (4) Developments in space infrastructure and technology can stimulate and enable increased space applications, such as in-space servicing, propellant resupply and transfer, and in situ resource utilization, and open opportunities for additional users of space, whether national, commercial, or international.
      (5) A long term objective for human exploration of space should be the eventual international exploration of Mars.

      From the ‘National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2010 (PUBLIC LAW 111-267 OCT. 11, 2010)’ is available at:

      • Instead of sticking to the subject at hand, radiation mitigation, you zoom off on some tangent with a bunch of rambling blither blather about demographic and economic center of humanity…whatever that”s suppose to mean.
        There’s no explicit economic case for scientific bases on Mars, the Moon or Antarctica, we do it for the same reason we have national parks, symphony orchestras, and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, we have a wealthy civilization and we CAN.

        The fact that China is sending probes to the moon proves my point, it’s close enough for affordable robotic exploration by many nations.

        You can’t resist your childish 5th grade garbage about Obama rhetoric and billionaire friends. What the hell is wrong with you? Are you mentally impaired? Mars has been the focus of human spaceflight for DECADES through a dozen administrations of both parties. Mr. Obama has exactly ZERO interest in spaceflight, he took 45 minutes out of a trip to Barbara Streisand’s house in order to make a speech at KSC. His (evil IMO) Malthusian science adviser Holdren come up with the asteroid redirect for some mysterious reason. 371 days, 3 hours and counting.

        Fortunately, NASA and congress are back on track as yesterday’s ASAP report spells out “The Panel is pleased to see that, over the last 12 months, the situation has improved significantly. There can no longer be any doubt that NASA has selected Mars as its horizon goal. Almost every recent news release, press conference, or presentation by senior NASA managers and administrators makes mention of the “Journey to Mars.”

        Your bizarre interpretation of the Space Authorization Act is just more meaningless blither blather.

        Look nimrod: lots of intelligent, well-meaning people favor crewed return to the Moon as the next goal. Some of them make (somewhat) rational arguments. But you…you’re just an ignorant ass obsessed with imaginary conspiracies between the president and Musk, you’re no better than Richard Hoxland or the moon landing deniers.

        I’m done with you.

    • “There can no longer be any doubt that NASA has selected Mars as its horizon goal.”

      NASA can select Alpha Centauri as its vague 4.37 light years distant “horizon goal” but international SLS launched Orion missions to the Moon is what Congress has put into law and is willing to fund in the near term due to the above space law’s noted “national security concerns and economic implications that international human space endeavors can help to address.”

      And the Moon is seen as a priority by many international space agencies. As per “yesterday’s ASAP” from the NASA AEROSPACE SAFETY ADVISORY PANEL, note the following:

      “‘NASA’s Journey to Mars’ report references the Global Exploration Roadmap, which is a product of 12 space agencies committed to expanding human presence in space. The roadmap includes three different mission themes: exploration of a near-Earth asteroid, extended-duration crew missions, and humans to the lunar surface. It notes that ‘Many agencies consider human missions to the lunar surface as an essential step in preparation for human Mars missions.'”

      And, “It is also unclear how NASA will develop low-gravity surface experience and technology without lunar surface experience.”

      These two quotes are from PDF pages 29 and 30 of the ‘Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel Annual Report for 2015’
      Available at:

      In the November 22, 2015 spacepolicyonline article ‘CFR Panel: NASA, Congress Need to Embrace New Paradigm for Space Leadership’ by Marcia S. Smith we read that Lori Garver, NASA Deputy Administrator during 2009-2013, noted that China’s interest “in going to the Moon will likely inspire us to go back.”

      “With the administration’s largely unsuccessful efforts in space policy over the last five years, Congress has received little from NASA to help it determine a more specific destination. One can hope that the next administration, after watching the fallout of the Obama administration’s space flailing, will work with, not against, Congress to forge a space policy more closely coupled with reality and more likely to lead to a space exploration plan we can all be proud of, such as resuming our trek to the moon and then Mars.” ‘Letter | NASA Administrator Has Short Memory on Changing Space Policy’
      by Jim Hillhouse November 16, 2015 at:

      Note also Eric Berger’s December 15, 2015 article ‘Why we’re going back to the Moon—with or without NASA’, “During the meeting, Garver polled the nearly 50 astronauts about their preferred destination. Who wanted to go to an asteroid, she asked. No hands. Mars? Three hands. The Moon? All the rest.”

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