A reporter’s first space shuttle mission story

Dave Mosher’s a science reporter has written for Scientific American, Popular Mechanics.  National Geographic News and discovery.com throughout his career he’s watched humans and robots launch into space flown over the North Pole to catch a total solar eclipse and toward a cutting edge nuclear reactor. He joins me now to discuss his first space shuttle mission story.

TRANSCRIPT

Dave Mosher is a science reporter, who has written for 'Scientific American,' 'Popular Mechanics,' 'National Geographic' news, and discovery.com.

Throughout his career, he's watched humans and robots launch into space, flown over the North Pole to catch a total solar eclipse, and toured a cutting-edge nuclear reactor.

He joins me now to discuss his first space-shuttle-mission story.

You've covered a few of them.

Yeah, so, I've covered four space-shuttle missions, and obviously, the space shuttle is retired now...

Right.

...so I have a sort of nostalgia for that.

But it was very scary [Chuckles] because I'd never covered something like that before.

And one of the things I remember, I was at Cape Canaveral.

You don't -- On TV, if you watch a rocket launch, you don't get the feeling in your chest of all those thousands of little explosions that are happening as this thing takes off.

You just -- The TV sound or whatever just sort of says... [Whooshes] -- right? -- and sort of wipes it out.

But it's a powerful event.

Yeah. So, the press mound, when you're in Cape Canaveral is about 3, 4 miles from the launchpad.

And the whole experience of covering one of these launches is it takes it to, like, multiple levels above what you would see on TV, because you meet the astronauts before they go.

Yeah.

So you remember there's people on there.

You get to see it launch and feel that reverberation in your chest, so there's that, too.

And you get to see all the equipment and the mission, like, what they're trying to do and why they're doing this.

So you become part of it, in a way.

And when you see it launch, it just, like -- it's incredible.

I know.

Of course, at the same time, you're also fearing for the lives of the astronauts because space flight is very risky.

It's very hard, and there are a thousand things that can go wrong.

And you know...

Usually, something does, and they have to fix it.

Yeah.

That's right.

So, fast-forward now to basically private companies that are benefiting and profiting from the science at NASA and literally all of the rocket science that's happened.

But you see the launches -- the successful launches and some of the failures of SpaceX that's happened recently.

They've just started to get into the reusable rocket phase.

What's the next step?

When do they get to a point where they are putting astronauts back up?

Yeah, so, this is the long slog here.

Elon Musk, the tech billionaire, has been working for 15 years to get to this moment, which happened in March.

He launched a rocket in April.

He landed it.

Well, it landed itself.

And then they relaunched it.

This is the dream.

This is the holy grail as a space expert.

John Logsdon, who's at George Washington University, told me this is the holy grail of space flight.

If you can do this, reusability, you can drastically lower the cost of access to space.

And they believe, within about 2 years, this is going to be the norm for the industry, because right now, when you launch, the booster and other parts of the rocket just sort of fall back to Earth, and they break up and crash in the ocean and sink to the bottom, and nobody ever sees them again.

So if you can recover that booster or other parts, which they're actively doing, you're saving millions and millions and millions of dollars.

Mm-hmm.

And that's what lowers the cost ultimately.

So, you know, they're due for a launch with NASA in 2018 with people on top, and that is going to be a big moment.

There's been a lot of digging into that.

And you know, is SpaceX operating safely, given the accidents?

It seems like they're doing a very good job with that in their investigation.

And the latest accident, which was on a launchpad, nobody was on top, was very thorough.

So I think there's a lot of confidence, going into this, but, you know, we'll have to wait and see.

We'll have to see what their upcoming launches go like and how NASA deals with those if there's any incidents, you know.

Putting people on top of rockets, that's what we used to do, decades ago, right?

The space shuttle now, in the longer arc of history, is going to look like a little bit of a blip of this thing that glided back down gently to the earth while carrying these people and carrying this kind of payload in this kind of way.

Mm-hmm.

Yeah, so, there's a lot of critique about, you know, the 'reusability' aspect.

And you mentioned SpaceX getting a lot of science out -- leaning on a lot of science that NASA and other companies have done.

Well, their contractors.

And that's true because they're using some of these engineers to help design the next generation.

But the problem with the space shuttle and its reusability was, you had to scrape down the rockets, like, all the way to the bone basically and completely rebuild them, essentially.

It wasn't truly reusable.

It didn't get the funding it needed at the time it needed, and so it wasn't able to achieve that vision.

So we're going into this new era, and it actually looks like we can do this now.

The rockets are liquid-fueled.

They can land themselves.

It looks like there's going to be very short turnaround time -- the turnaround time that the shuttle wanted and then some.

Musk has said he wants to do a launch every 24 hours.

That would be incredible.

I don't know if he can do it, but...

Well, some of this is also just the pace of technology and how much things have improved, right?

I mean, the space shuttle, some people have said that my smartphone has more tech in it than the space shuttle when it first launched.

Yeah, that's true.

You know, once you make a system that works and it doesn't blow up your space fliers, you're going to stick with that system.

So the computers are very old, and they did some minor upgrades to them, but, yeah, we've come a long way.

I mean, just looking at the booster of a SpaceX, that is all driven by artificial intelligence by software.

It's constantly correcting when it's coming down.

It knows exactly where the drone ship is.

It's making minute course adjustments, like...

Hundreds of times a second.

...maybe thousands or even millions of times per second to try to land that booster on the pad, and that's all done with automation.

There's even a robot that's going to slip under the rocket and secure it if the seas are very wavy.

So all these new technologies have really helped enable what SpaceX is trying to do now.

They've done the heavy lifting of figuring out the solutions and what works and what doesn't.

But we're at a point in history where this is actually really possible, and it's not laughable because it's being down right before our very eyes.

What does the landscape of these private companies look like?

I mean, SpaceX gets a lot of the press because you see these rocket launches.

And at Virgin Galactic, kind of this idea that tourists will be able to go just out of reach of gravity, right?

What is Jeff Bezos working on?

Where are they all at?

Yeah, so, Blue Origin, which is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is probably the second farthest along, I would say, but there are other companies out there, too, who, like Bezos and Blue Origin, have been keeping very quiet.

So there may be a big announcement from something, a start-up in Washington, I believe, that Paul Allen is behind, the name of which escapes me right now.

But they're doing something like Virgin Galactic is doing, but they're doing it in an orbital way.

So for now, Blue Origin has focused on suborbital flight, where you just go in a big arc, and so has Virgin Galactic.

Now they're talking about getting stuff into orbit.

So Blue Origin is building a bigger reusable rocket, and now that they've demonstrated the basic technology in their own style, Paul Allen and his start-up are doing what Virgin Galactic did.

They're dropping a giant rocket from two 747s linked together, and that's going to launch into space.

So they'll save some fuel by lifting it part of the way up in the sky.

So there's all these, like, different players, and we haven't really heard too much from a lot of them, because they're very secretive.

They want, you know, to maintain their trade secrets and market edge.

Yeah. All right.

Dave Mosher, thanks so much for joining us.

Yeah, thanks for having me.