Tag Archives: 2014

Human Spaceflight in 2014: Where We are and Where We’re Headed

Gene Cernan was the last astronaut to walk on the moon.  It is said that his last act in December of 1972 before climbing back into his lunar module was to carve his daughter’s initials into the lunar dust. Unless commercial space initiatives succeed, it is likely that the next person to see those initials will speak Chinese.

Human space flight efforts can be categorized into government and commercial space programs.  On the government side (by which I mean the US Government), America has spent the last few years in the embarrassing position of having to pay the Russians almost $70 million each to fly our astronauts up to the International Space Station (ISS).  With it’s structure long ago completed, 2014 news on the ISS was mostly limited to resupply, crew transfers and scientific experiments.  In January it was announced that ISS operations would be funded until at least 2024.  House and Senate members from both sides of the political spectrum have protected their constituencies by ensuring the continued financing of the SLS, a huge rocket under development for as yet unidentified missions.

NASA is also continuing development of the Orion spacecraft, completing ocean retrieval missions with the US Navy.  NASA also completed the Vertical Assembly Center (VAC) at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans which will be used to build the core stage of the SLS.  To give some basis for the development of both systems, the Obama Administration cobbled together an asteroid retrieval mission that may be of dubious scientific value but would be exciting and would provide valuable data and experience for commercial asteroid endeavors.  Also, DARPA recently announced first phase contracts awarded to several companies for the development of the XS-1 experimental space plane.  And there are some other interesting government sponsored human spaceflight projects including a commissioned design of a futuristic starship using the “faster-than-light” travel Alcubierre drive. There was also continued work on a fusion propulsion system., and an interesting announcement about a successful test of what is supposed to be an impossible means of propulsion that may turn out to be something revolutionary or may go the way of Cold Fusion.  These are interesting and deserve funding and any other support we can give.  But every government space program seem to have some inherent faults that make them incapable of reaching our goals.

NASA’s concept Starship, the XLS Enterprise

All government space initiatives have two inherent problems.  First, a program implemented by one administration is often not the priority of the next administration.  Often, the Office of President of the United States gets filled by someone from the opposite party of the previous administration and they are all too quick to defund the previous administrations initiatives.  This, by the way, is a serious defect that is not suffered by China or Russia and which could lead to America one day falling seriously behind the competition.

The second defect is more institutional.  It is a sad fact that both NASA and the US Air Force are both so committed to safety and reliability that they establish levels of bureaucracy that ensure  no project is done on time or on budget.  Each example of progress requires so much testing, signing off from one agency to another or other paperwork that the next step is held in limbo for months or even years.  They do not have investors clamoring for ROI so there is no rush for advancement.  There is no competition so there is no drive for completion or incentive for constant improvement of their product.

Clearly, NASA is not capable of leading a sustained course of human spaceflight development.   It requires an organization that does not totally change focus every four to eight years.  It requires a mindset that embraces competition, profit margins, innovative product improvement and the acceptance of a risk level that would not happen in a government agency.  With that said, let’s examine some commercial/non-government human spaceflight programs that are active in 2014.


A very robust commercial launch industry is active in 2014.


SpaceX – SpaceX racked up some serious wins in 2014 both in space and in court.  Among their several successful launches, SpaceX had their first controlled landings of the first stage of their rockets, a key milestone in their efforts to bring down the costs of launches dramatically by reusing the rockets.  In July of 2014, the Air Force confirmed that all three of it’s recent Falcon 9 launches were successful, a strong step towards their ability to win Air Force certification that would allow it to compete with United Launch Alliance for launches of national security payloads.  SpaceX successfully sued the Air Force in 2014 to enable them to compete for those missions.  One of the biggest milestones for SpaceX in 2014 was repeated demonstrations of their ability to perform soft-landings of their first stage of the Falcon 9.  This should cut many more millions off of launch costs and make the Falcon 9 a leader in commercial space.

Boeing – The CST-100 Space Taxi continues development.  Boeing has done reentry and launch abort testing and a lot of PR in 2014.

Virgin Galactic – Richard Branson continues to insist commercial launches are “just around the corner” and has a wait list of 650 people that have already paid the deposit for the flight.   In May of 2014, VG announced they had changed the fuel to enhance engine performance.  In June, the company reached an agreement with NASA  to fly 12 technology experiments on SpaceShipTwo ‘s first commercial research flight.

XCOR Aerospace – This company’s 30ft-long, two-seater Lynx space plane could beat VG’s initial commercial flight and do so at a fraction of the cost.  In July 2014, DARPA selected XCOR (partnered with Masten Space Systems) as one of the teams that will be working on a new experimental space plane.

Sierra Nevada Corporation – The Dreamchaser craft was initially based on a NASA initiative but subsequent years of refinement have made it a very interesting candidate for ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station.  In August of 2014, they revealed the first completed composite airframe, made in conjunction with Lockheed.  They also announced a joint agreement with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to collaborate missions and technologies.

Blue Origin – Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ secretive company has been developing rocket-powered Vertical Takeoff and Vertical Landing (VTVL) vehicles for access to suborbital and potentially orbital space.  It is also actively pursuing the development of a reusable orbital vehicle.  They have teamed up with Boeing as one of the teams working with DARPA on the experimental space plane project.

Bigelow Aerospace – This company’s main focus is the development of expandable space habitats.  The company is currently working on the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which will be added to the ISS in 2015 as a test module.  Bigelow has recently hired former NASA astronauts that will be the be the crew of a private space station that Bigelow plans to launch sometime after 2017.  Rather than developing a launch capability, they plan on using the winner of NASA’s commercial crew program to launch and retrieve their crews.  Their habitats could also be used on the Moon and Bigelow Aerospace made news in July 2014 when it requested the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA-AST) conduct a “payload review” which would give US government recognition of ownership by the company and other U.S. firms of resources they extract from the Moon.

Ad Astra Rocket Company – They continue the development of their VASIMR propulsion system.

Space Adventures – This space tourism company arranged all eight of the orbital space flights completed by private citizens and offers circumlunar and suborbital flights with the hope that one of the above companies will be able to supply the hardware to complete such trips.

The British Skylon space plane uses a HOTOL (Horizontal Take Off and Landing) system similar to a regular plane.

Outside of the US, there is the very interesting Skylon UK space plane project.  And the European Space Agency, convinced the SpaceX is about to make their Ariane rockets no longer commercially viable, is finally getting serious about building a next-generation rocket.  India and Japan are both ramping up their space programs, with stated goals of manned space programs.  In Russia, they recently conducted the maiden launch of the new Angara rocket, the first new Russian rocket since the Soviet era.  Russia announced in July 2014 that they are starting to phase out the old Soyuz rocket in favor of the newer Soyuz-2 rocket.


The US’s formal plan for human moon exploration ended when President Obama ended the Constellation program.

Google’s Moon Prize: Google Lunar X Prize. It’s literally NASCAR on the moon, happening live, transmitting back here to Earth.” Technically, the $20 million grand prize would go to the first rover to roll more than 500 meters (three-tenths of a mile) on the moon and send back HDTV video.  While not directly involving human space flight, the competition has the obvious intent of spurring development on the Moon.  Such steps are needed to get the initial knowledge and experience needed to begin mining the moon.

Golden Spike:  This company plans on using spacecraft developed by the companies listed above to provide Moon trips to paying customers.  These customers could be nations wanting to explore or companies wanting to set up shop to begin using lunar resources.

China’s recent moon rover is just their latest step in their stated goal of putting a manned base on the moon.


While there is basically no movement in the government sector regarding a manned mission to Mars, NASA did have some advances regarding Mars in 2014.  MOXIE, the Mars OXygen In situ resource utilization Experiment is a device developed by NASA to take carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and use it to produce oxygen for breathing and for rocket fuel purposes.  And the continued development of the SLS could be associated with efforts to put humans on Mars if it actually ever gets used.  In the meantime, NASA’s rovers continue to excite and to find items of interest that will no doubt one day be examined by humans.

The distance of Mars limits the current amount of commercial activity but there are a couple of commercial projects dedicated to getting humans to Mars.  Inspiration Mars, founded by First-Space-Tourist Dennis Tito aims to have a flyby mission.  And Mars One hopes to have a permanent colony on Mars by 2025.


This is one human spaceflight subject that does have some government involvement.  President Obama implemented a program for a future rendezvous with an asteroid.  It’s scientific usefulness has been hotly debated and, as mentioned above, no one knows if it’ll ever be more than just an ongoing excuse for continued funding of the SLS rocket system.  Also government related, U.S. Rep. Bill Posey introduced the American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act of 2014, a bill that would establish property rights for future private asteroid miners.

On the commercial space side of things, there are a few interesting organizations working towards manned asteroid missions.  Planetary Resources has built an awesome team and an equally awesome list of investors to get towards their goal of eventually mining asteroids for profit.  Also with an eye on profiting from the incredible resources locked in asteroids is Deep Space Industries, which plans to launch a fleet of small semi-automated probes to track and analyze target asteroids.


So what and where do all of these developments get us in the foreseeable future?  One begins to see a convergence of technologies advancing to the point where they may combine to create a maturing space industry.  A Bigelow module space station that acts as a base for companies using VASIMR engine-powered spacecraft that remove space debris or even crewed vehicles that provide in-orbit servicing on satellites could become a quick reality.  After years of stagnation, it is an exciting time for human space flight.

Ed Ruth


Mars: http://www.theguardian.com/science/across-the-universe/2014/aug/05/mars-space-race-humans-red-planet
Angara Failed Launch: http://thespacereporter.com/2014/06/russias-troubled-space-industry/

The State of Nanotechnology in 2014

They are the tiny machines with unlimited potential.  Read one story and you’ll come away thinking they are the savior technology.  The technology that will cleanse our brains of the plaque of old age; the technology that will build new materials unimaginable today.  But read another story and they are our doom.  They will replicate uncontrollably and destroy humanity.  They are at once seen as the technology with the greatest promise and the greatest peril known to man.  And yet, ask most people what nanotechnology is or where it is going and most will tell you they’ve never heard of it or have only heard of it on a science fiction show or movie.

I don’t know if it will save us or destroy us.  But I do know that some fascinating advances over the past year or so have taken the technology out of the realm of science fiction and presented us with a much clearer picture of what we will have as scientific fact in the very near future.  So rather than write another droll article about whether nanotechnology will save us or destroy us, I thought it better to show exactly where the technology stands in the middle of 2014.

Before I begin, a simple overview of nanotechnology.  The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative defines “nanotechnology” as anything smaller than 100 nanometers with novel properties.  A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, roughly the width of three or four atoms.  The average human hair is about 25,000 nanometers wide so this gives you an idea as to how small we are talking about when we say nanotechnology.  To me, the definition is correct but a bit vague and of little help to those trying to understand its use in the real world.  For the purposes of this article, let’s agree that nanotechnology consists of tiny, even microscopic, technology that presumably has some designed function other than the destruction of humanity.

There is a branch of nanotechnology that deals more with nano particles (gold nanoparticles and quantum dots for example) that do not have much if any function beyond their material properties.  But this article centers more on nano-sized machines, often called “nanoprobes”, with functionality one would expect from machines.  For this technology to have any utilization capability, it has to have a few functional requirements.  These can be broken down as:

a)  They need to be tiny;  And I mean real small.  Small enough that they can cruise through your veins without you even noticing.   As I mentioned above, the word “Nanotechnology” technology refers to technology that is 100 nanometers or smaller.

b) They need to be able to maneuver;  Such technology would have limited use if it just floated around in an uncontrollable manner.  There are some applications that do not necessarily need guided probes so this is a requirement dependent on usage.

c) They need to be able to communicate;  Again the technology would be of limited use if it could not be given commands and preferably also have the capability of communicating with those around it to coordinate actions.  The ultimate goal would be to create probes with built-in wireless telemetry, so they could communicate information to each other and to their human operators.  I include nano-scale data storage in this category.

d) They need to be able to perform a function; The nanoprobe is presumably designed for some function.  That function might be assembly, disassemble, exploration, reproduction or other functions.  The nature of each unit’s functionality would dictate the structure (scaffolds, motors, pincers, delivery capsules, sensors, cameras, etc) of the unit.

e) They need to be powered;  Nanoprobes must have a power source if they are to have movement, communications and functionality.

There are many very interesting nanotechnology systems that have been proposed or are in development.  Examples include:

  • Medical Nanoprobes:  Probes small enough to be steered through the body.  They could find and clear cancer cells, treat or possibly even cure Diabetes and scrub our brains of the plaque responsible for Alzheimer’s Disease.  They could deliver drugs to specific parts of the body at a cellular level.  Therapeutic probes could be used to restore eyesight or hearing by repairing or rerouting nerve paths.  The technology could even be used to enhance sensory capabilities and strengthen bone and muscle mass.  Implanted biosensors could manage glucose levels, monitor vital signs and signal emergencies before you’re even aware you have a problem.  Nanotechnology could even be used for gene therapy, manipulating DNA to fix genetic issues.
  • Electronic Nanotechnology: 3-D Holography with no glasses that looks like something out of Star Wars; Clothing with nanofibers batteries, super-efficient lighting and photovoltaics and many other nano-technology related advances will be seen in the electronics industry.   Semiconductor nano particles known as “quantum dots” are now being used in flat-panel TVs and light bulbs.  Micro-Satellites that are 90 percent smaller than today’s systems will soon be taking advantage of the greatly reduces size of electronics.  They will also have much smaller power requirements meaning that solar arrays, already becoming more efficient, will be able to power capabilities far beyond most of today’s satellites.
  • Military:  Micro-drones that look like insects, Ironman-like armor and superstrong materials able to withstand blasts and even self-heal.
  • Material production:  While the main focus of this article is on nanoprobe technology, it is a fact that nanotechnology machines are enabling the production of new materials that will have a large and varied impact on our lives.  Nanotechnology can allow us to make multiwall carbon nanotube material at what amounts to 100-gigapascal tensile strength, which is 20 times stronger than the strongest carbon fiber made today.  Carbon Nanotubes, Graphene, Carbon sequestering filters, Hyperbolic metamaterials and many other materials that don’t mean much to the average reader in today’s world are going to be real game changers in the future.

There are many technological challenges and discoveries that will have to happen before many if not all of these systems become reality.   Significant advances have been recently made in the nanotechnology field that bring this technology much closer to fruition.

Nanoscale Production:  Producing uniform-sized technology at the molecular level is a necessary feature of producing nano machines but the techniques for doing so did not until recently exist.   Several advances are leading us towards this capability.  North Carolina State University recently revealed how they had developed a new method for making carbon nanofibers of specific sizes.  And the University of New York and the University of Melbourne have created a technique for using DNA strands to create specific 2-D shapes.   Arizona State University and University of Michigan scientists  have developed a similar 3-D artificial enzyme technology.  Georgia Institute of Technology researchers announced in an April 2014 study how they have developed a technique for the development of gear-like molecular-scale machines.  And recent advancements in molecular self-assembly advance our capabilities to produce molecular wires, memory units, etc.   So you can see there are some great strides being made in how to build the structure of nanotechnology machines.

Nanotechnology Controlled Movement: Several different methods have been developed or are in development to allow for controlled maneuvering of nanotechnology.  As with much of nanotechnology, many of the lines of research on how to give controlled movement to nanotechnology rely on copying what nature has designed.  Researchers at the American Institute of Physics (AIP) have designed a sperm-inspired micro-robots that have a sperm-like tail and whose forward movement is controlled with magnetic fields.  Another recently developed technique uses magnets to control the direct of tiny motors that can work within living cells.

Communication:  Nanotechnology needs to be able to receive instructions and, for certain functions, be able to transmit feedback to their human operator.

Maybe nanoprobes will have to use their movement capabilities to ensure they stay very close to each other so they can communicate with each other in a manner similar to neurotransmitters.  For example, a centralized small device the size of a pill could be either inserted or ingested and nanoprobes would then use that as a centralized processor and use their movement capabilities to ensure they stay with communication range of the device.  The micro-technology device would act as a network hub, receiving instructions from the human operator and the device would send that information out to the many nanoprobes.  The nanoprobes would communicate their location and functions to the device which would then be sent to the human operator.  This could also be an effective way of controlling nanotechnology within a body as they would have no functional capability without the hub device.

Nanoprobe Functionality:  The nanoprobes have to be able to provide some sort of useful functionality.   This functionality might include capabilities such as grabbing, cutting, sensing, video and transporting.  There are many recent advancements in this area including a very interesting development of nano-scale tools to include Biomolecular Tweezers, Optical Tweezers, Nanolasers.  Many researchers interested in creating functional nanoprobes have focused on Biomimetics, which takes advantage of the millions of years of refinement nature has put into the design of the functionality of plants and animals to design mechanical functionality that somewhat mimics natural designs.  This could include features such mimicking the gecko’s ability to walk up walls; waterstriders ability to walk on water; actuators and designer materials that mimic muscles; the photo receptive capabilities of algae; insect infrared sensing capabilities and other sensory functions.

Power:  Nanoprobes must have a power source if they are to have movement, communications and functionality.  Will they pull power from their surroundings in some electrochemical process or will they be battery powered.  Recent developments in nanoscale batteries make this a distinct possibility.  One awesome recent advance was announced by Vanderbilt’s Nanomaterials and Energy Devices Laboratory.  They have developed a supercapacitor that stores electricity by assembling electrically charged ions on the surface of a porous material, instead of storing it in chemical reactions the way batteries do.   Their supercapicitors can charge and discharge in minutes, instead of hours, and operate for millions of cycles, instead of thousands of cycles like batteries.  If this can be scaled down to nano-sized storage, then the probes will have their power source.  And if supercharged batteries aren’t the answer, there’s always the advancements being made in wireless recharging of nano-scale batteries.

There have been many other advances that don’t necessarily fall into the above categories but are important advances that take us that much closer to having nanoprobe technology.  And there are some big advances in nanotechnology that don’t relate to nanoprobes that are going to have as big if not bigger influences on our lives.  Advances like nanoscale imaging, that will improve our healthcare, antibacterial surfaces that will help reduce disease and water desalination that will give much of the world safe drinking water and eliminate the need for water wars.  Each are extremely important and will shape many aspects of our future.  As it stands now, nanotechnology seems much more likely to enhance our lives that it does to terminate them.   Let us hope that our ability to control these advances matches our ability to find innovative uses of this technology.

Ed Ruth





Biomimetics: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-06/ws-rul060514.php

Nanotechnology Energy Storage: http://www.myfoxorlando.com/story/25686820/nanotechnology-research-at-ucf-could-change-how-we-send-and-store-electricity

Nanotechnology-enhanced Human Bodies: http://www.policymic.com/articles/89803/here-s-a-surprising-look-at-how-nanotechnology-could-reengineer-our-bodies

Nano Particles: http://insurancenewsnet.com/oarticle/2014/05/21/house-science-space-and-technology-subcommittee-on-research-and-technology-hea-a-507699.html#.U5ODNHaaZQw

DNA Manipulation with Nanotechnology: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/244972.php

Nanotechnology Targets Cancer Cells: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/241875.php
And: https://gust.com/companies/medical_nanotechnologies

Nanotech Gears and Hinges: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140406162247.htm

Molecular Self-Assembly:  http://www.nanowerk.com/nanotechnology-news/newsid=35908.php

Military Nanotechnology: http://www.local8now.com/news/headlines/US-special-forces-advances-Iron-Man-suit-project-260158651.html