News From Space: Cold War Chill Returning to Space

Space_race1[2]It’s no secret that relations between the US and Russia have been strained due to the latter’s recent military activities in Crimea. And now, it appears that Russia is using their space program as leverage in their ongoing fight over sanctions. Back in April, NASA announced that collaboration with Roscosmos – Russia’s Federal Space Agency – had ended for the time being. Since then, an escalating war of words and restrictions have followed.

For instance, in the past months, the U.S. has restricted communication between some American scientists and their Russian colleagues as part of their protest against Crimea. In response, Dmitry Rogozin – Deputy Prime Minister and head of the Russian Military-Industrial Commission – said on his Twitter feed that he is restricting the export to the US of Russia’s RD-180 rocket engines, for uses that do not involve the U.S. military – a move which has temporarily grounded all US military satellites from being deployed into orbit.

NASA_trampolineMr. Rogozin also posted an image of a trampoline with a big NASA logo in the centre, saying that after 2020 it is the technology U.S. astronauts will need to use get to the International Space Station. One week later and in response, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that the cooperation between NASA and Roscosmos on the International Space Station hadn’t changed “one iota” in recent years, and has withstood the increasingly frosty atmosphere between Washington and Moscow over the events in the Crimea and Ukraine.

Still, Bolden indicated that if for one reason or other a country should drop out of the project, the others would seek to continue. But in the meantime, this would means the US would lose its capacity to put its own spy and military satellites into orbit, the future of the International Space Station (ISS) would be uncertain. In addition to the US, Japan, Europe and Canada are also members of the ISS and all currently depend on Russian Soyuz capsules to take astronauts to the space station since NASA retired its shuttle fleet.

International-Space-Station-ISS-580x441All in all, it is a sad state of affairs, and not just because of the repercussions to space exploration and scientific research. As a product of post-Cold War co-operation, the ISS cost $100 billion to create and was arguably the most expensive multinational peacetime undertaking in history. Now, it is being threatened because the two nations that came together to make it a reality are regressing into a state of Cold War detente. And though the Russians currently feel that they have the upper hand, the long-term reality is far different.

Back in the early 1990s, both the U.S. and Russian space programs were floundering. The Russian program was running broke because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the U.S. was operating a space shuttle program that was proving to be more expensive than promised. The Americans were also having difficulty finding support for their Freedom space station project, which had a budget that was also ballooning upwards, and the Russian’s weren’t sure how much longer Mir would remain in operation.

Earth_&_Mir_(STS-71)Both countries agreed the only way to keep their space programs alive and build a large space station was to share the costs and technology, which also allowed other countries from Europe, as well as Japan and Canada, to participate. In the 13 years since it has been occupied, the International Space Station has literally known no borders, as astronauts from dozens of nations have participated in missions that have had wide-ranging benefits.

And in the process, Russia has benefited greatly in financial terms as the US has paid tens of millions of dollars to have American astronauts fly aboard the former space station Mir and ride along on their Soyuz rockets. If this friendly arrangement breaks down, it will cost both countries dearly. Russia will lose all that income from the sale of its space technology, and the U.S. will have to accelerate the development of its own space capsules and rockets to launch people and satellites into space from American soil.

dream_chaserStanding on the sidelines are individuals and private companies like Elon Musk and SpaceX, the Texas company that already builds its own low-cost rockets, along with space capsules that have been delivering supplies to the Space Station. In addition, Sierra Nevada, a private aerospace contractor, is working with NASA to produce the Dream Chaser as part of the agency’s reusable vertical-takeoff, horizontal-landing (VTHL) program.

Between SpaceX already delivering capsules to the ISS, its successful reusable rocket demonstrations, and the multiple proposals NASA has for a new era of space vehicles, the US space program may not be grounded for much longer. And there is something to be said about competition spurring innovation. However, one cannot deny that it is unfortunate that the US and Russia may be once again moving forward as competitors instead of companions, as that is likely to cost all sides far more.

But of course, there is still plenty of time for a diplomatic solution to tensions in the east, and plenty of reasons for all sides to avoid regressive to a Cold War footing. We’ve come too far at this point to turn back. And considering how much of our future depends on space travel and exploration going ahead unimpeded, we can’t afford to either!

Sources: cbc.ca, phys.org

News from Space…X: Reusable Launch Vehicle Good to Go!

spacex-falcon-9-octaweb-640x427After years of research, development and testing, SpaceX (Elon Musk’s poster child of the commercial space travel revolution) is about to attempt something truly revolutionary. In a bid to significantly reduce the costs of sending rockets into space, they will attempt the first ever soft landing of a heavy space launch vehicle. Initially planned for March 16th, the company has since updated the launch date to March 30th in order to give its techs more time to prepare.

On this day, if all goes according to plan, SpaceX mission CRS-3 will lift off from Cape Canaveral on a resupply mission to the International Space Station. In the past, rockets blasting off from Earth would normally ditch the massive primary stage of their assembly into the ocean after launch. But this one it will sprout some metal legs and use what’s left of its rocket fuel to slowly return to Earth.

spacex-falcon-9-rocket-largeThis is perhaps the single most important step in SpaceX’s stated goal of reducing the cost of space travel by a factor of ten or more, which will ensure the acceleration of space travel for the indefinite future. One of the primary reasons that the human exploration of space is moving so slowly is the cost factor. For heavy lift vehicles, which are required to lift large satellites, equipment, and supplies into space, it costs roughly $22,000 to lift a single kilogram ($10,000 per pound) into orbit.

It costs even more to send a rocket beyond Earth’s gravity well and out into space, which is why reducing costs is seen as intrinsic to sending manned missions to Mars. Currently, NASA pays around $70 million per seat aboard the Soyuz space capsule, thanks to the cancellation of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011. But a crewed version of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, DragonRider, is also in development, which will reduce the cost per seat to $20 million.

spacex-dragon-capsule-grabbed-by-iss-canadarm-640x424SpaceX debuted its Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) tech on the suborbital Grasshopper rocket in October of 2013. This came after multiple launches were conducted that saw the rocket reach greater and greater altitudes and which tested its ability to maneuver horizontally. Once this was complete, they began the task of fitting a Falcon 9 with the Merlin rocket engines, which would bring the vehicle back to Earth after the first stage rocket detached.

For this flight, the first stage will still land in the water to minimize the chance of damage if something goes wrong. But once SpaceX is confident that it can do a soft landing with its RLV safely, future launches will see the first stage fly all the way back to to the launchpad. After that, SpaceX will start bringing the second stage back to the launchpad, too. The eventual goal, according to SpaceX, is to create a launch system that is reusable within “single-digit hours.”

grasshopper_lateraldivertBasically, SpaceX would give these rockets a quick once-over, fill them back up with fuel, and send them back to work. If everything goes to plan, the total cost per pound to launch into Earth orbit could drop to $500 or less — one twentieth of what unreusable rockets cost. Suffice it to say, if SpaceX manages to undercut every other space launch company in the world — including the Russian and Chinese governments — it could suddenly find itself in a very powerful and lucrative position.

Not only would it replace Russia and the Ukraine as NASA’s primary contractor, it would also see to the restoration of America’s ability to send people, equipment, satellites and supplies into space from its own soil. Given the current state of tensions in the Crimea, this is sure to put a smile on a lot of people’s faces in DC. The launch is currently scheduled to take place at the end of March and there will be a live NASA feed to cover the rocket’s descent.

And while we’re waiting, here’s a clip of SpaceX first testing out the Grasshopper rocket to take us back:


Sources:
technologyreview.com, extremetech.com

Cyberwars: Russia’s Cyber-Weapons Hit Ukraine

cyber_privacyAccording to Ukraine’s security services, the situation in the Crimea is escalating in ways that have nothing to do with the deployment of military forces or the enacting of sanctions. It seems that members of the country’s parliament, regardless of political affiliation, are being targeted by cyberattacks. While no shots have been fired and no official declarations have been made, this revelation shows that the crisis has entered a new phase – one of cyberwarfare!

The attacks began two days ago, when members of Ukraine’s parliament, regardless of their party affiliation, saw their mobile communications blocked by equipment in Russia-controlled Crimea. According to Ukrainian security officials, the phone access has been blocked thanks to equipment installed “at the entrance to (telecom) Ukrtelecom in Crimea.” Ukraine’s security teams are now working on restoring service to the parliament members, though it’s not clear when the blockade will be removed.

cyberattackSince that time, other cyber weapons have been detected, the latest of which is known as Snake (aka. “Ouroboros” after a serpent drawn from Greek mythology). This virus, which interestingly enough has the characteristics of both a product of the intelligence services and the military – it can both surveil and physically destroy computer networks – has been wrecking havoc on Ukrainian government systems.

By targeting the Ukrainian government with Ouroboros, the Russians are able to effectively engage in an aggressive, kinetic act without actually declaring war. This is due to the fact that in the digital age, cyber attacks fall into the category of being largely accepted as part of how countries exercise power. Much like how in the Cold War – where there were unspoken rules of what powers could do – these acts fall short of what is considered outright aggression.

cold_warHowever, this will not last forever. If certain capabilities of Ouroboros go live, then it will remain to be seen how the Ukraine reacts. And if the Russians deploy cyber weapons with network-destroying capabilities into other countries, there might well be one country that reacts as though the launch of a cyber weapon is no different than the launch of a missile. It all comes down to perception, and whether or not all sides see fit to limit themselves to cyber attacks.

cybergrenadeUltimately, the Cold War remained cold due to the fact that all sides were able to maintain an agreed upon set of rules. As long as no one stood to gain from the outbreak of full-scale war – due to the proliferation of nukes and the prospect of “mutually assured destruction” – everyone could expect to do what was in their own best interests. The absence of such a set of rules and treaties governing cyber weapons has not yet led to open hostilities, but it remains to be seen if they will hold.

One can only hope a modern day Russia, and Ukraine for that matter, can be expected to do what’s in their best interests as well and avoid an open state of war.

Sources: news.cnet.com, huffingtonpost.com

News from Space: Crimean Crisis Highlights US Dependence

crimean_crisis3The crisis in the Crimea continues, with Russia and the Ukraine threatening military action and the US and its western allies threatening sanctions. In addition to anxieties about the likelihood of war and the conflict spilling over into other regions, the crisis has served to highlight other possible global repercussions. And interestingly enough, some of them have to do with the current balance of space exploration and research.

In essence, every aspect of the manned and unmanned US space program – including NASA, other government agencies, private aerospace company’s and crucially important US national security payloads – is highly dependent on Russian & Ukrainian rocketry. Thus, all of the US space exploration and launches are potentially at risk amidst the current crisis.

SoyuzCompared to the possibility of an outbreak of war that could engulf the Eurasian triangle, this hardly seems terribly consequential. But alas, quite a few people stand to suffer from seeing all rockets grounded in the Ukraine and Russia as a result of the current climate. Consider the ISS, which is entirely dependent on Earth-based rockets for resupply and personnel rotation.

As it stands, astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) ride to space and back on regularly scheduled launches, and each new rocket carried fresh supplies of food and equipment. The Atlas V and Antares rockets, plus critical U.S. spy satellites that provide vital, real time intelligence, are just some of the programs that may be in peril if events deteriorate, or worse yet, spin out of control.

ISSThe threat to intelligence gathering operations would be especially critical, since it would hamper efforts to monitor the crisis. In short, the Crimean confrontation and all the threats and counter threats of armed conflicts and economic sanctions shines a spotlight on US vulnerabilities regarding space exploration, private industry and US national security programs, missions, satellites and rockets.

But the consequences of escalating tensions would hardly be felt by only one side. Despite what some may think, the US, Russian and Ukrainian space programs, assets and booster rockets are inextricably intertwined and interdependent, and all would suffer if anything were to shut it down. For instance, some 15 nations maintain participation and funding to keep the ISS and its programs running.

ISS_crewAnd since the forced retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011, America has been dependent on Russia for its human spaceflight capability. ISS missions are most often crewed by American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts. And under the most recent contract, the US pays Russia $70 million per Soyuz seat, and both they and the Ukraine’s space programs are dependent on this ongoing level of investment.

The fastest and most cost effective path to restore America’s human spaceflight capability to low Earth orbit and the ISS is through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) seeking to develop private ‘space taxis’ with Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada. But until such time as long-term funding can be guaranteed, the current arrangement will persist.

maven_launchWhen NASA Administrator Chales Bolden was asked about contingencies at a briefing yesterday, March 4, he responded that everything is OK for now:

Right now, everything is normal in our relationship with the Russians. Missions up and down are on target… People lose track of the fact that we have occupied the International Space Station now for 13 consecutive years uninterrupted, and that has been through multiple international crises… I don’t think it’s an insignificant fact that we are starting to see a number of people with the idea that the International Space Station be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

At the same time, he urged Congress to fully fund CCP and avoid still more delays:

Let me be clear about one thing. The choice here is between fully funding the request to bring space launches back to the US or continuing millions in subsidies to the Russians. It’s that simple. The Obama administration chooses investing in America, and we believe Congress will choose this course as well.

spacex-dragon-capsule-grabbed-by-iss-canadarm-640x424At a US Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing on Defense, which was held yesterday to address national security issues, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk underscored the crucial differences in availability between the Falcon 9 and Atlas V in this excerpt from his testimony:

In light of Russia’s de facto annexation of the Ukraine’s Crimea region and the formal severing of military ties, the Atlas V cannot possibly be described as providing “assured access to space” for our nation when supply of the main engine depends on President Putin’s permission.

So, continuing operations of the ISS and US National Security are potentially held hostage to the whims of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And given that Russia has threatened to retaliate with sanctions of its own against the West, the likelihood that space exploration will suffer is likely.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????The Crimean crisis is without a doubt the most dangerous East-West conflict since the end of the Cold War. Right now no one knows the future outcome of the crisis in Crimea. Diplomats are talking but some limited military assets on both sides are reportedly on the move today.

Video Game Review: The Modern Warfare Series

Morning all, or afternoon or evening as the case may be. Lousy time zones! Today, I thought I’d get back to my promise of reviewing video games by tackling a series I’ve been wanting to get into for some time. Like most geeks, and just about all guys, I am a fan of first person shooters. Not the violence for violence’s sake type that emerged en masse after the release of Doom, mind you, but the kind’s that used the platform creatively and intelligently.

Which is one thing I always liked about Call of Duty and similar franchises. During the early millennium, it was one of many WWII-era FPS games that sought to reenact history’s greatest war by giving players a first-person perspective on the whole thing. Over time, the depictions became more and more realistic, and embraced more theaters and battles that aren’t usually addressed in popular culture.

And after three incarnations of WWII, the makers naturally decided it was time to make a game that dealt with combat in the modern era, that took advantage of the all the recent developments in firearms, aerial drones, night vision, thermal vision, and other assorted high-tech devices. In short, they thought it would be cool to have players running around with the latest toys and shooting things up in an up-to-date simulation.

However, in this case, the designers also were required to come up with a modern storyline that would reflect the attitudes of today’s military planners and the situation we know find ourselves in. Unlike the other games, whatever story they came up with would be fictitious and speculative for the first time ever. And, in my humble opinion, this is where they were just the slightest bit weak. Sure, Modern Warfare 1, 2 and 3 do have some rather kick-ass gameplay and an intense storyline to them, but they aren’t exactly realistic.

To demonstrate why, let me get to the first game in the series…

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare:
Released in 2007, Modern Warfare was one of the critically acclaimed and well received games of all time. Whereas the Campaign Mode of the game (i.e. single player) was lauded for its intensity and immersive quality, it was the Multiplayer that really wowed critics and gamers alike. Unlike previous COD games, the additional features, such as the ability to call in air strikes and helicopters, as well as unlocking new weapons and types of camouflage, was entirely new.

In fact, GamePro magazine even compared the multiplayer aspect favorably to Halo 3, a franchise that was yet to be rivaled by anyone! And personally, I think gamers enjoyed the ability to play a game that features weapons and tactics they know to be current and real, and not lasers, BFG’s or antiquated weapons. But of course, there was far more to this game than just the gameplay, which I shall get into now…

Plot Synopsis:
The story is a familiar one, one which has been told many times over since the end of the Cold War. And for the sake of the game, it comes in two separate strands which invariably come together towards the end. In the first, Russia has fallen into a state of civil war with the rise of an ultra-nationalists front who are led by a former communists named Imran Zakhaev. He who wants to return Russia to its Soviet past,

In the second strand, a militant Salafist regime led by a man named Khaled Al-Asad has seized power in an unnamed Middle Eastern nation and is apparently being backed by the ultra-nationalist Russians who is sending them nukes. This is apparently a move on behalf of Imran Zakhaev to divert attention from his civil war, and its works!

Yes, this too is a familiar tale, the kind of thing that Israeli and US policymakers have nightmares about. But like I said, the identity of this nation is never specified. One minute things are taking place near Mecca, Saudi Arabia; the next, in Basra, Iraq. Yeah, not doing much to dispel the notion that all Arab nations are the same, dude!

And so the two threads unfold, with you playing as both the British SAS (Special Air Services), who are busy trying to stop the exchange of nukes. After a failed attempt to stop the shipment of one, you are sent to Russia to team up with with Loyalist forces and rescue a contact named Nikolai, a recurring figure in the MW series.

Things then switch over to the US perspective, where you are a Marine Lieutenant Vasquez who is part of the US invasion of the unnamed Middle Eastern nation. In the initial invasion, your Marine unit searches for Al-Asad in the capitol’s tv station, but is too late to retrieve him. As operations progress in the capitol, the warning comes in that Al-Asad has a nuke and is preparing to set it off. All units begin to evacuate, but your unit doesn’t make it out before the blast!

Back in Russia, the SAS manage to finally track down Al-Asad who appears to be hiding out in a safehouse in Azerbaijan. After working him over, he recieves a call from Zakhaev, and the SAS team leader, Captain Price, shoots Asad and explains who Zakhaev is. Apparently, he performed a “wetwork” mission against Zakhaev back in the early 90’s, shortly after the fall of Communism when Zakhaev was just another revisionist trying to get his hands on nuclear material in the abandoned town of Pripyat, Ukraine (outside of Chernobyl). In the course of the mission, Price managed to take down Zakhaev, but instead of delivering the fatal bullet, merely cost him an arm.

Now, years later, it is time to finish the job. With Al-Asad dead, Zakhaev and his forces have managed to seize a major Russian missile silo and are threatening to launch the nukes. When his son, whom the SAS try to seize in order to gain some leverage over him, commits suicide to avoid capture, he goes over the edge and orders the launch. At this stage in the game, you are now part of a joint operation between the US Marines and the SAS and your job is to storm the silo and input the countermand codes before the nukes reach the Eastern Seaboard.

Once that is done, you and your team begin to beat a hasty retreat and are pursued by Zakhaev’s men. The mission then ends with a tense final showdown where you are required to take out Zakhaev with a handgun while he and his men have you cornered and try to finish you off. The good ol’ Russian Loyalists then arrive on scene to medevac you and your friends to safety.

Good Points and Bad:
Like I said already, the gaming experience of this installment in the COD series is pretty badass. Picking up where COD: World at War left off, you have the ability to call in air strikes by “painting” targets with a designator, something that wasn’t available in the first three installments. Second, the use of modern weapons, from M4’s, SAW’s, M203s, RPG’s, AK’s, Flashbangs, Claymores, Suppressors, SPAS-12’s – the list goes on! – is quite cool. Not to mention the scene where you are able to take control of an AC-130 gunship, watching a theater of engagement from above through thermal scopes and be able to bombard targets with either a minigun, a bofors cannon, or a 105mm howitzer.

This idea, incorporating the latest in weapon’s technology, is something which every MW installment adds to in it’s own way, combining the speculative with the current and cutting edge. In this installment, they kind of kept it to the current and tried and true, but it was still fun. As a geek and guy, I was familiar with many of these pieces of kit already, thanks to years of reading up on them and watching TV programs about war. Being able to use them in a gaming environment was pretty sweet!

As for the weak stuff, well I’ve mentioned that already… For one, the story is a kind of predictable and tired one, one which the makers clearly knew the audience would buy into. For almost two decades now, fiction writers and amateur analysts have been saying that it’s only a matter of time before some Middle Eastern regime gets its hand on a thermonuclear device and tries to use it on Israel or US forces. And in every version of this scenario, it’s always Russia that gives it to them, mainly because it’s been theorized that the Russians are not in control of their stockpile of nukes or would be willing to sell them for cheap.

I’m bothered by the reiteration of this story for the simple reason that it’s both stupid and terribly cliched. It’s a well known fact that after the fall of the former USSR, Russia took great pains to make sure it got all its nukes back from its former allies and that those nukes are all accounted for and have been under lock and key for the past twenty years. What’s more, Russia is not run by total freaking morons. They know that if they tried to sell any nukes to a Middle Eastern country, or any regime for that matter, that they would be inviting sanctions, embargoes and even open war on themselves. In the wake of the Cold War economic collapse Russia went through and the rise of a privatized, investor-based economy, this is not something they can afford.

Also, with every spy agency in the world – the CIA, MI6, the Massad, and the KGB – and countless bodies like the UN, NATO,  and the Atomic Energy Commission watching them, no Russian general who might have access to the nuclear stockpile would ever be dumb enough to try and negotiate a private sale. No matter how much money was in it for them, they would know that to steal a Russian-made nuke would put them in the cross hairs of every “wetboy” (i.e. assassin-spy) on the planet! There would literally be no place in the world where they would be safe. What’s more, the idea that any Middle Eastern regime would become an instant threat if it got a nuke is also ridiculous.

Since 1992, Israel and the US have maintained the position that if Iran, Syria or any other Middle Eastern nation that has not signed a peace treaty with Israel got a nuke, they would attempt to use it. Just how stupid do they think Arab nations are? Israel maintains a stockpile of over 200 nukes and the US has one that numbers in the thousands. Once said Arab regime used this one nuke and took out a single city, they would be nuked several hundred times over, their country completely obliterated in the process. Does anyone really believe that any nation would be willing to watch all of its citizens die just for the sake of some measured revenge? I certainly hope not! The only reason why this notion is taken seriously at all is the fact that decades of inaccurate portrayals, propaganda and bigotry have led many people to believe that Arabs and Muslims are viscous, crazy, hateful people who’ll stop at nothing to kill Christians, Americans and Jews.

And yet, the fiction of this idea persists, mainly because it’s the only way writer’s like Tom Clancy can keep outputting spy novels in the post-Cold War era. His book Op Center was based on this very idea, of a Russian general who sells a nuke to some Middle Eastern terrorist for a small fortune. The plot of The Peacemaker was also built around this very same concept, and in the movie Broken Arrow it is openly said that anyone wanting nukes could just got to Russia, where they would “give you a half dozen for the price of a BMW”. Bullshit, man! If it’s such a plausible scenario, then why hasn’t it happened already? For the same reason that WWIII has not happened, and that is, once again, that no one is willing to risk total annihilation for the sake of politics or ideology.

But I can understand why they took this approach. Again, in the post-Cold War era, there aren’t really a lot of stories that provide the same interest and intensity as the potential for nuclear war. But it does demonstrate just how tired and unrealistic this plot device has become. And the only reason I labor the point is because it only gets more like this the longer the franchise goes. It capitalizes on the fact that the American public really doesn’t know that much about the world or its people, and are willing to believe various doomsday scenerarios because they’ve been so inundated with them by movies and fiction for so many years.

But how else are you going to create a fun and accessible WWIII scenario?  An in the end, it doesn’t take away from the awesome gaming experience that Modern Warfare truly is. Stay tuned, up next, the sequel!