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Guest: Dr. Jonathan McDowell; Topics: Space tourism, billionaires and space projects, space telescopes, commercial space, China and commercial space, The Space Report, competition, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, ULA, SpaceX and much more.
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Dr. Jonathan McDowell from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics was today's guest. Our first topic was the recently completed suborbital flights by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. Our discussion was involved and detailed covering many twists and turns with the main players, the companies, the vehicles, and the potential market. Multiple topics were addressed including some of the bad press thrown at the billionaires for spending money on space or for "duking" it out against each other in some sort absurd competition. Both our guest along with myself rebutted these descriptives and the articles penned in that fashion but our guest did comment on concerns regarding global wealth accumulation not specific to the space industry. Later in the discussion SpaceX and the Inspiration 4 orbital flight came up. Johnathan had much to say about it in comparison to the two earlier suborbital flights. All of this discussion consumed a large part of the first segment so listen carefully as there was much good information going back and forth along with listener email questions and comments.
Other elements of this discussion focused on the lunar human lander program with NASA having selected SpaceX to build the lander. It seemed as if this was finally sealed when just a few days earlier the GAO rejected the Blue Origin and Dynetics protest by saying NASA did not violate any laws in awarding the lander to Space X. You can read about this in the Space News article here: https://spacenews.com/gao-denies-blue-origin-and-dynetics-protests-of-nasa-lunar-lander-contract. I then moved our conversation forward by asking Jonathan about the commercial trend that he noticed over the past decade or so ago. Jonathan said that commercial space has a wave of taking off around the late 80's. Following that wave, there was a cubesat revolution around 2013, an effort to get mega constellations into LEO and then we are where we are today with SpaceX reusability, startups happening all the time, money seemingly flowing into the industry and exciting happenings and progress regarding NewSpace.
Listener Jim asked our guest for his opinion on the Boeing Starliner (CST 100) as compared to the SpaceX Dragon. Don't miss how our guest characterized this competition. I then took the liberty of asking Jonathan for his thoughts on asteroid mining since he studied asteroids as part of his day job. He thought it was plausible but far off into the future. Don't miss all of what he had to say on this subject. Listener Roger got the attention of our guest by asking for his thoughts on SLS. Marshall called in to talk about the next flagship space telescope mission. Jonathan talked about the JWST which is to launch later this year, then he went into some detail about WFRIST which was also named the Nancy Roman Telescope. Jonathan returned to discussing the JWST, said it was sold with dishonesty plus he listed other issues with it. He did say it would be able to do amazing things. When I asked if the science we will get from it justified the high cost, he hesitated. Listen to how he eventually answered that question. I'm pretty sure you will be surprised by what our guest said. The Decadal Survey entered their discussion when they were talking about new big missions.
At this point in the program I paused for a minute to announce the passing of our friend Dr. Gil Levin. Gill thought his Viking experiments from 1976 did show life signatures on Mars but it was never confirmed. We were fortunate to have Gil as a guest many times on The Space Show. He was a friend and he will be missed by The Space Show audience and by me. Rest well my friend.
Speaking of telescopes, Jonathan was asked about the recent problems with Hubble which he said were resolved. He thought Hubble would be with us for several more years. As we were nearing the close of the program, our guest was asked about ways to mitigate the problems causing astronomers with the large LEO constellations. Our guest was also asked if ground based telescopes were a thing of the past and that we should just focus on space telescopes as was suggested by a very recent guest on the program. Jonathan did not agree with that and said there was much life left in ground based telescopes. Regarding the very large LEO constellations, our guest called out the need for space traffic management now. Don’t miss what he had to say on this subject including orbital debris.
Adrian in San Diego sent in a few emails asking about our need for FOCAL (Fast Outgoing Cyclopean Astronomical Lens) proposed space telescope that would use the Sun as a gravity lens. Jonathan supported it. I then asked our guest to tell us about his famous Space Report which is a chronicle of the space age. Listen to how Jonathan described it and how you can access the ongoing information free of charge. In the waning minutes of the program, Jonathan was asked to comment on the way Bezos tests vs what Musk does about testing. The two pursue different strategies. I tend to think the Musk approach is better but let us know your thought by posting on our blog for this show. Before signing off, our guest talked about Chandra X-ray space telescope and the additional work he does for his day job.
Please post your comments/questions for Dr. McDowell on the blog for this program. You can reach our guest through me or through his Harvard-Smithsonian faculty page.