Ariane 6: Everything old is new again

Call it an early Bastille Day: Ariane 6 took to the skies on 9 July 2024, returning France and Europe to space after a one-year pause.

Ariane 62 takes off from Kourou, 9 Jul 2024 1900 UT (ESA)

Ariane 6’s largely boilerplate payload reached a fairly high 580×594 km orbit inclined at about 64 degrees. As a first launch, it did not have much high-value material aboard, mostly small European research projects. Among them, the most significant were two reentry payloads testing next-generation heatshields. It also carried literal hopes and dreams: a cubesat built by Belgian highschoolers, plus fingerpaintings from Spanish schoolkids.

SRB jettison, Ariane 62 flight, 9 Jul 2024 (ESA)

The mission was going well for about 90 minutes, and deployed most of its cubesats, but as it entered into a cruise phase, the second stage hit a snag: its auxiliary propulsion unit (APU) seized up. This is the key system for stationkeeping and ullage between on-orbit restarts, so the rocket didn’t rise to its final planned altitude. The release of the reentry capsules was cancelled, but the rocket was still responding to commands. With batteries dying and the APU unresponsive, the last commands were to park the stage 593 km up as it sailed past its planned deorbit area in the South Pacific.

The expendable first stage of Ariane 6 drops into the Atlantic Ocean, 9 Jul 2024 (ESA)

It’s unfortunate that there was a small surprise today, as the Ariane 6 program has already endured a great deal of criticism, mainly around its distinct lack of ambition. Its stakeholders were chiefly focused on continuity and cost-cutting from the Ariane 5 program, but within the bounds of maintaining its pan-European supply chain.

The new rocket is hardly a technical marvel; while some inspiration can be seen in a few of its 3D printed parts, and its restartable upper stage has finally joined the 21st century, the Ariane 6 is a surprise to no one. And it is, perhaps, ill-timed. While it may be too early to declare that Ariane 6 is the last expendable commercial rocket, its market value is distinctly lower following the June 2024 Starship-Superheavy orbital test. The difference in scale is enormous: Superheavy can by itself launch an entire fully fuelled Ariane 6 halfway to orbit, and it’s designed to be 100% reusable.

The Vinci engine ignites for the first time in space, 9 Jul 2024 (ESA)

In the face of this, Ariane’s endurance seems to lay within simply being the same thing Europe has needed since 1973: stable, predictable access to space, built with that distinctly continental blend of robust multi-government investment, shared risk, and commercial accessibility.

So now, with the task of proving its new design behind it, and its problems confined to those that could only affect third and fourth passengers, Arianespace still has the greenlight to loft its first paying customer in a few months, and we should be able to look forward to the first launch of the slightly larger Ariane 64 version some time next year.

Ariane 6 second stage aborts to orbit, 9 Jul 2024. (ESA)

SpaceX nearly reaches orbit with Starship-Superheavy

Starship launches from Boca Chica as Superheavy’s exhaust engulfs the pad, 14 Mar 2024. (NSF)

SpaceX launched Integrated Flight Test 3 from Boca Chica on 14 March 2024 1325 UTC in a major test of the Starship-Superheavy launch system. The suborbital flight flew farther than ever before, and technically was within reach of, but did not get to, orbit. Even after a hot fire separation and “orbital insertion burn,” Starship’s trajectory was suborbital. But given the other issues faced in the flight, it was probably the right call to make ditching the craft the default plan.

The issue cropped up later than the last test, but still fairly early. Seven minutes in, Superheavy 10’s engines flamed out during descent and were unable to restart. Though the grid fins were able to straighten the booster as it fell, and a few engines did manage to catch flame, the planned descent profile needed several more engines (nominally, 13) to control speed for a gentle drop into the Gulf of Mexico. With the grid fins keeping it upright and 3 or 4 engines online possibly giving as much as 25% of planned thrust, Superheavy wasn’t quite in free fall, but the booster was still ordered destroyed by the range safety officer as it plunged into the sea at supersonic speed.

The final moments of Superheavy 10 as it raced toward the Gulf of Mexico at 1200 km/h (SpaceX)

The disappointment continued 45 minutes into the flight as Starship 28 took its final dive. While rolling around for reentry over the Indian Ocean, far southwest of Java and well west of Gascoyne, Western Australia, it was sailing through a squall of its own detached thermal tiles, and seemed sluggish in attempts to control yaw and roll. As it reached the atmosphere, its orientation drifted, possibly without command authority, until contact was lost 48 minutes in. Much like on the Space Shuttle, the reentry-rated thermal protection tiles are attached to one particular side of the vehicle. Unlike the Space Shuttle, Starship doesn’t have a flat surface to aim toward the reentering side, complicating kinematic control needs during this phase of flight. Clearly, tile loss is at least as fatal for Starship as it was for the Space Shuttle.

Starship 28 starting to burn up over the southeastern Indian Ocean, 14 Mar 2024. (NSF/SpaceX)

A key concern coming out of today’s flight is Raptor’s restart performance. An operational engine system needs to reignite at least a few times in spaceflight, and SpaceX mission profiles often have several main engine burns. Today’s flight shows a less than 25% success rate for Raptor restart. Though New Glenn will do so later, Starship and Superheavy are the first spacecraft to rely on restartable methalox engines. Also unlike any other engine, fuel and oxidizer flows are independent in the Raptor. The added degree of freedom is not necessarily a benefit if the reactants become mismatched.

Overall, it is still good news for SpaceX today. But that may confuse certain observers: how can a SpaceX rocket failure be good news, while a Boeing plane failure is bad news? The answer lies in the engineering process and operational phase. While Boeing’s 737 Max and 787 aircraft are still fairly new, they have reached the operational phase and have hundreds of examples flying. When a commercial airliner reaches certification, its design risk is supposed to be retired. Instead, the world has been watching its fleet literally fly apart in recent weeks, placing passengers at risk.

SpaceX isn’t flying people on Starship yet, which is still in flight tests. From both technological and economic perspectives, the success demonstrated today only needed to be incremental. Not exploding during ascent or separation, then flying 20 000 km, is indeed better than the November mission, even if there are still some very significant things that the Starship system should be able to do, but cannot. From a regulatory perspective, SpaceX needed to do far less: simply plan a mission where the worst the rocket could do was explode over the ocean. In that, IFT-3 was a complete success.

Moon slips out of reach despite Vulcan success

Blue Origin finally entered the orbital space industry on 8 January 2024, powering the first stage of the ULA Vulcan Centaur rocket with its twin BE-4 engines. The methane-fuelled design is the highest thrust rocket engine now in service, just a hair over the SpaceX Raptor 2.

Vulcan Centaur launching from Cape Canaveral, 8 Jan 2024 (ULA)

The remarkable success of the ULA Vulcan on its first launch was quickly overshadowed by the failure of Peregrine-1 to deploy its solar array. When Astrobotic engineers attempted to recover the lander, they discovered its propulsion system was suffering from an uncontrollable propellant leak, dooming the mission, and delaying a much-anticipated US return to the moon.

On 9 January, NASA announced that the Artemis II circumlunar mission will fly no earlier than September 2025. Even though no landing is planned, there have still been engineering challenges with the Orion crew vehicle.

Gravity-1 launching from Dongfang, 11 Jan 2024 (Weibo)

The Orienspace Gravity-1 also made its maiden voyage this week, lifting the first three Yunyao 1 weather satellites into orbit. Gravity-1 is a two-stage solid rocket capable of 6500 kg to LEO. It launched from a ship in the Dongfang Spaceport, a maritime launch area in the Yellow Sea.

Starship fails better, lost before orbit

Starship-Superheavy explodes over the Gulf of Mexico, 18 Nov 2023, Credit to the independent news website
Explosion over the Gulf of Mexico during Starship Test Flight 2, 18 November 2023 (Source)

It’s back to the drawing board for SpaceX, which suffered another loss-of-payload minutes after its Starship mission stage separated from its Superheavy booster on 18 Nov 2023. The US Federal Aviation Administration had approved a second test flight for SpaceX Starship from its launch site on the south Texas coast, after a disastrous first test pelted the launch area with blasted concrete and beach sand, then ended barely within the control of the range safety officer.

By media accounts, the Texas launchpad was not visibly damaged, and all 33 engines on Superheavy ignited and remained stable. Stage separation with a new “hot staging” method succeeded; this is a key goal that made this test notably more successful than the last. Superheavy did not land as planned, instead exploding in the air soon after stage separation. Starship continued to fly, and may even have crossed the McDowell line, but contact was lost at around 90km altitude when Starship also exploded.

The new SpaceX rocket is the tallest and heaviest rocket ever launched. In a less impressive display of vertical integration, the official SpaceX livestream was exclusively hosted on sister firm Twitter, which no longer provides open access to its video feeds. SpaceX video was not immediately available from other sources. The launch was also monitored by independent photographers.

Starship blasts Texas coast, more abort modes needed

Starship-Superheavy tumbles out of control instead of into orbit on 20 April 2023. (SpaceX)

SpaceX often experiences detonation instead of transportation. It’s one of the company’s main strengths that it has been able to survive despite massive setbacks.

But there’s an obvious issue concerning the abort systems on Starship itself. When Starship carries expensive payloads and people, it will need to be able to escape the stack in a situation like this. There’s a very good chance that if Starship second stage had been able to separate from the stack in a timely manner, at least one of the stages could have landed safely and independently. Instead, the operators blew up the whole stack.

While that does tick off one of the boxes on the pathway to final flight certification – characterizing the rocket’s blast wave and debris pattern in a near-worst case scenario – There’s another matter that highlights one of the weaknesses of the way SpaceX does its launches – with limited abort capacity based on landing zone availability.

Superheavy liftoff at Boca Chica, 20 Apr 2023 1433 UT (SpaceX)

SpaceX has all of 5 or 6 places in the world to land its rockets at any given time these days, the solutions being “next to the origin launchpad” and “on a prepositioned boat”. But if for whatever reason the rocket is in the wrong spot in the landing phase, and can’t reach any landing zone, then the stage is a loss.

Starship is a much bigger deal – the largest rocket ever built, 10 times more powerful than the Falcon 9, with both the Superheavy booster and its Starship upper stage needing vertical landing sites. It would be justifiable to pay 10 times as much attention to landing sites, to allow recovery of at least the payload despite a variety of failure modes. For example, the Space Shuttle had a number of launch phase abort options that were never used, but always planned for.

Superheavy needs a specially built pad, but Starship could probably land at a broader number of pre-existing heliports in a real pinch. At some point, SpaceX will need to start retrofitting or building additional landing zones across the Gulf Coast, just to have a more reasonable number of abort sites.

Now, these options would have made no difference to the mission on the 20th, where the failure was in the interstage process, and Starship never pulled off of the stack. That calls up a separate safety matter entirely: What is Starship’s abort plan for human crew when there’s no main engines and the stack is upside down and twisting?

Orion proves crew can orbit Moon

Earth and the Moon visible from Artemis I shortly before lunar orbit insertion, 21 Nov 2022 (NASA TV)

A spacecraft with breathable air and crew seats is orbiting the Moon for the first time since 1972.

Around 1241 UT 16 Nov 2022, zipping along as low as 130 km over the far side of the Moon, NASA’s Orion capsule burned its AJ10 onboard engine to leave its sun-centred transfer orbit and begin circling the Moon.

For the remainder of its roughly two weeks near the Moon, the capsule will complete its checkouts at a fairly high altitude in a retrograde flight path.

Orion’s last mission was a launch abort test in 2019. It’s one of three space capsules used by NASA, including Crew Dragon and Starliner. Of these, only Orion will be travelling to the Moon for NASA.

The Artemis I mission is intended to prove that all flight hardware is ready to send astronauts looping around the Moon (Artemis II, 2023 or 2024). Afterward, a further mission would land humans to the Moon, (Artemis III, as early as 2025).

Minnesota’s Menon selected for NASA Astronaut Corps

Anil Menon. Photo: Robert Markowitz, NASA

Dr. Anil Menon, M.D. of Minneapolis, Minnesota, has already had a distinguished career in the Air Force, including service as ground Flight Surgeon for the SpaceX Demo-2 mission. Now, he can add Astronaut Candidate to the list.

Among the other announced candidates this year, Dr. Andre Douglas, Ph. D. is also no stranger to the Midwest: In 2012, while serving in the US Coast Guard, he graduated from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor with a master’s degree in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering.

The role of astronaut has changed considerably since the heroic era of the 1960s, when the peak crop of the nation’s test pilot schools were raided for jack-of-all-trades. Though still versatile and trained for everything, in orbit, a particular astronaut will have Command, Pilot, or Mission Specialist duties. Some astronauts never fly into space, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work. The NASA Astronaut Corps, based at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, is a vast talent pool frequently tapped to play important roles as program managers and consultants for NASA and other important engineering efforts. All receive basic pilot training and frequently get loggable hours in a variety of aircraft.

NASA’s selection of just 10 astronauts shows the constraints on the position. With Crew Dragon fully operational, and other options like Starship and Starliner close to coming online, NASA’s agenda is now limited more by budget than rocket hardware for possibly the first time since Skylab.

With the continued bustle of activity in the private space sector, Menon’s participation in SpaceX flights is a reminder that the day may quickly come when NASA can select an astronaut candidate who has already flown to space.

Dramatic week in crewed spaceflight

Long March 2F carries Shenzhou 13 from Jiuquan, 15 Oct 2021 (franceinfo/CGTN)

Shenzhou 13 left Jiuquan aboard a LM2F on 15 October 2021 at 1623 UT, carrying Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping, and Ye Guangfu to the Tiangong space station. Shenzhou 13 is the first mission to Tiangong that will last 6 months, following Shenzhou 12 earlier this year, which lasted 3 months and inaugurated the new station.

Shenzhou 13 may be the last mission to “turn out the lights” and leave Tiangong crewless. Next year, after Shenzhou 14 bolts two new modules onto the Tianhe station core, Tiangong should be ready for continuous use.

Expedition 65 Crew gathered for a feast, 08 Oct 2021. Thomas Pesquet [center, back row] took command the same day. Filmmakers Klim Shipenko [teal shirt] and Yulia Peresild [long hair, back row] were aboard filming Вызов. (NASA JSC)

Filmmakers Klim Shipenko and Yulia Peresild have been aboard the ISS since 5 October filming the space-medical drama Вызов. That mission is planned to end 17 October 2021 with the return of Soyuz MS-18. Their return took a turn for the dramatic as a planned test firing of MS-18’s engines failed to shut off on time, toppling the ISS in a Tony Hawk-style 540 and requiring 30 minutes to correct. In the realm of crew-rated, computer-controlled, liquid-fuelled engines, it is a failure mode that should be unique, except that a similar incident occurred just 3 months ago following the arrival of Nauka, the ISS’s newest segment.

Though far more modest in scale, the nascent space tourism industry officially entered the glitz-and-glamour age as Blue Origin rolled out the red carpet (well actually, the blue steps) for William “Bill” Shatner. Shatner blasted off alongside three others in RSS First Step from Blue Origin’s launch site in Culbertson County, Texas, leaving earth’s atmosphere behind for a few minutes after liftoff on 13 October 2021 1449 UTC.

Shatner, the 90 year old Canadian actor, has done everything from Shakespeare to spoken-word albums, but is most famous for the starring role of Starfleet officer James T. Kirk in 79 TV episodes, 21 animated installments, and 7 feature films in the Star Trek franchise between 1967 and 1994. On 13 Oct 2021, he harvested the space seed his performances planted in the hearts of generations of technologists and set his own toes in the cosmic ocean. Upon landing, he returned the favour by interpreting his experience with the full powers of a master wordsmith.

Blue Origin’s webcast featured both a preflight interview and postflight quips from Shatner, which just had to be transcribed.

The stage for the postflight is set as follows:

Landing in the dusty West Texas desert, the parachute ropes strewn around the capsule were wrangled in by pickup trucks and attendants like an oversize county fair ride. Each passenger lurching out of the capsule’s short hatch had high-fives and hugs awaiting as they stepped down the blue stepstool into a gaggle of well-wishers rushed in through the sagebrush.

The others took quickly to their kin, as it was plain what the film crew was waiting for – the words of William Shatner — whose words began to flow in his traditional stream-of-consciousness with dramatic pause and emphasis. After trading a few words with Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos, Shatner set into his observations.

“Not only is it different from what you thought, it happens so quickly.”

“You know, the impression I had, that I never expected to have, is you’re shooting up — in this blue sky –” Shatner paused as the crowd showered themselves with champagne.

“What you have done — everybody in the world needs to do — this. Everybody in the world needs to see, and think about it.”

“It was unbelievable. Unbelievable, I mean, the little things, the weightlessness — but to see the blue colour go WHIP BY YOU! And now you’re staring into blackness. That’s the thing…” Shatner’s fingers outstretched as his hands grasped upward.

“The covering of blue — this sheet, this blanket, this c– this comforter of blue that we have around us, we think ‘Oh, that’s a blue sky’ and then suddenly you shoot through it all, as though you whip off a sheet when you’re asleep, and you’re looking into blackness, into black ugliness, and you look down, there’s the blue down there, it’s the black up there that’s — it’s just — ” Shatner motioned upward, then downward toward the ground.

“There is Mother Earth, comfort, and there’s …” Shatner motioned upward again. “Is there death? I don’t know! Is that Death? Is that the way Death is?”

Shatner zinged his right hand upward. “WHOOP! And it’s gone… Jesus…”

“It was so moving…” Shatner said, his hands tented over his face in surprised wonder.

“This experience, it’s something unbelievable. You see, yeah, y’know, you’re weightless, my stomach went up, ‘this is so weird’ – but not as weird as the covering of blue, this is what I never expected.”

“Oh, It’s one thing to say, ‘Oh, the sky, and the thing, and the gradual,’ it’s all the truth, but what isn’t truth, what is unknown– until you do it, is– There’s this peril. There’s this soft blue. Look at the beauty of that colour, and it’s so THIN! And you’re through it in an instant!”

“It’s… what of… how thick is it? Is it a mile?” Shatner brought Jeff Bezos into the conversation to ponder the math.

“The atmosphere? Depends on how you measure it, maybe 50 miles,” Bezos replied.

“But you’re going 2000 miles an hour, so you’re through 50 miles, at whatever the mathematics says, you know–” Shatner turned his hands upward again.

“It’s like a beat and a beat and suddenly you’re through the blue! And you’re into black! And you’re into- y’know it’s rough, it’s mysterious, and galaxies — but what you see is BLACK. And what you see down there is light, and that’s the difference. And not to have this?” Shatner motioned to the ground.

Shatner turned to Bezos and clasped his shoulders. “You have done something. I mean, whatever those other guys are doing, what it — that isn’t — they don’t –“

“I don’t know about that. What you have given me, is the most profound experience I can imagine.” Shatner, reaching up again, was overwhelmed to the point of tears. Bezos removed his sunglasses.

“It’s odd, I’m so — filled with emotion about what just happened — I– I– just– It’s extraordinary. Extraordinary.” Shatner hugged Bezos.

“I hope I never recover from this. I hope I can– maintain what I feel now. I– I don’t want to lose it, it’s so…” Shatner sighed. “So much larger than– than me and life… It hasn’t got anything to do with the little green men and the moon and the auras, it has to do with the enormity and the quickness and the suddenness of the life and death, and the — oh my god…” Shatner and Bezos went into a brief exchange about beauty before Shatner retrieved his next thought.

“What I would love to do is communicate as much as possible, the jeopardy! The moment you see how vu– the vulnerability of everything, it’s so small! This air– which is keeping everyone alive– is thinner than your skin! It’s a- It’s a- It’s a sliver, it’s immeasurably small, when you think in terms of the universe. It’s ah, It’s n- It’s negligible, this air. Mars doesn’t have it!” Shatner grasped out for his next topic.

“And when you think of the way carbon dioxide changed to oxygen, what is it, 20% or so, that level that sustains our life- It’s so THIN! To- To- To dirty it– I mean, that’s another whole subject.”

In the early days of space tourism, when companies had only capsules on drawing boards and pockets filled mainly with hope, their marketing teams courted movie stars and musicians to buy tickets for cash and a PR boost. However, Bill Shatner was a notoriously hard ‘get’.

When asked to pay for a ticket on Virgin Galactic, Shatner famously turned it around on them, asking ‘how much will you pay ME?’ — well, by that standard, Blue Origin doing the job for free is an absolute bargain, and one that enriched humanity with the gravitas that Shatner can access as he explains what he felt to the rest of us.

Other people have travelled to space, made music, or written poetry in space. We have dispatched journalists and yes, other film actors were whizzing above his very head in a much classier orbital slot.

But Shatner is something else. In a way, we have all taken the trip with him. Or, at the very least, knowing even the first thing about the man, we will never hear the end of it.

Virgin Galactic ready for revenue service

VSS Unity flew its first non-crew passengers 11 July 2021. Virgin Galactic employee Sirisha Bandla strapped in for the ride alongside business mogul and adventurer Sir Richard Branson and four crew today. Branson’s personal faith in the machine marks a milestone of its own, and signals the imminent launch of Virgin Galactic’s long-promised space tourism service.

Indian astronaut and Virgin Galactic employee Sirisha Bandla was the first non-crew passenger to receive astronaut wings from Virgin Galactic. The wings were presented by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield shortly after VSS Unity landed on 11 Jul 2021. (Virgin Galactic)

Bandla and Branson were joined on the flight by fellow Virgin Galactic crew Beth Moses (astronaut trainer) and Colin Bennett (operations engineer). Also aboard were pilots Dave Mackay and Michael “Sooch” Masucci.

The spaceflight kicked off when mothership WhiteKnightTwo released VSS Unity over Spaceport America in New Mexico. Unity then crossed the McDowell Line and reached an apogee of 86 km around 1528UT, just two minutes into flight. Unity‘s time in free flight was just 14 minutes from airdrop to landing, of which perhaps three minutes were usable zero-G for the passengers.

Today’s flight marks a stepping stone on the long journey that began when aeronautical engineer Burt Rutan first conceived of SpaceShipOne in 1994. Rutan’s team was the only viable competitor for the 10 M$ Ansari XPrize, winning it in 2004. Afterward, Sir Richard Branson stepped in, forming Virgin Galactic, a joint venture to develop the vessel into a viable space tourism platform, but the effort suffered a major setback when two test pilots were killed in VSS Enterprise on Halloween 2014 in a crash traced to the vessel’s wing locking system. The sister ship flown today, which was first named Voyager, did not reach space until late in 2018.

The spectacle around the event also was also marked by Sir Richard’s unique touch as a media mogul. Any crewed spaceflight has a telecast; it’s traditional to get a panel of engineers, astronauts, and press officers calling out flight events and colour commentary. It’s another thing entirely to get Stephen Colbert. There have been musical interludes at spaceflights, but these have often been pompous, operatic, set to the tune of a Sousa march. Few have been as memorable as Khalid serenading the crowd with a new R&B single, “New Normal”.

Khalid performs “New Normal” at Spaceport America, 11 July 2021. (Virgin Galactic)

Khalid, an artist from nearby El Paso, plans to fly on Virgin Galactic on an upcoming flight, and got an early welcome to the astronaut club from Colonel Hadfield on the sunny tarmac while Unity was unloaded and its crew awaited its astronaut wings. Khalid is signed to RCA Records, rather than Virgin EMI, which is no longer affiliated with the Virgin Group.

Teamwork will get us to Mars

American scientists are always keenly interested in space travel, and the 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting rounded out its coverage of the topic with an 11 February panel on group psychology for Mars missions. The roundtable, moderated by Leslie DeChurch, featured Suzanne Bell and Alexandra Whitmire of NASA, plus scientists Jack Stuster, Noshir Contractor, Dorothy Carter, and Nick Kanas, all of whom have worked with NASA on various projects.

The “Understanding and Enabling Human Travel to the Moon and Mars” panel at the 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting (Speakers/AAAS)

One of the assumptions baked into any trip to the International Space Station, or even the Moon, is fast communications with Mission Control. Ground crew is available 24/7 with instant help for anything from tech support to mundane assistance like verbal confirmation of EVA checklists. But it can’t work like that on a trip to Mars. There could be a 45 minute delay to hear back from Earth. For anything urgent, the astronauts aboard can only turn to each other.

That’s why picking the right mix of people for the team is so critically important. Everyone will need to follow at times, lead other times, be prepared for an emergency, and they will need to be willing to do so all while staring at the same faces every day. For a well-adjusted team, it could be the ultimate road trip. But add a few setbacks, and there might be plenty about the voyage that never makes the history books.

As one panelist said, teams will not just need ‘The Right Stuff’, but will need to be ‘The Right Size’. NASA’s most recent plan to get to Mars anticipates a slow three-year round trip with 4 crew, acknowledged to be a bare minimum. With so much to do, a slowdown or lack of cooperation from anyone at any time could jeopardize the whole mission, and the length of the assignment only increases the chances for something to go wrong. A shorter trip (ideally two years or less) with more crew (perhaps 6) would be much more robust against failings in the human element.

Another way to head off the risk of human factors is by using the latest in social science. Researchers continue to collect data in from, dedicated space travel analog missions, isolated workspaces like Antarctic research stations, and careful review of data from past spaceflights, to glean insights on how people work best when stuck with the same small group. Backed up with the latest in social science and information techniques like lexical analysis and social graphing, group psychologists are their refining statistical models, moving from retrospective analysis of past missions, to future predictions of how well a particular social group will hold together over the long-term. Still, mathematical guesses are no substitute for helpful human personality traits, especially Self-Monitoring, the ability to recognize one’s own effectiveness and interact with the group in an appropriate way for the given situation.

All this research about people cooped up for long periods of time has also hit pay dirt as the social isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has set in. If you’re looking for insight into how to ride out quarantine with or away from your team, there’s tons of NASA Technical Reports on these matters accessible online!