The Space Review: Review: NASA Spaceflight: A History of Innovation

Review: NASA Spaceflight: A History of Innovation

by Jeff Foust
Monday, January 8, 2018

NASA Spaceflight: A History of Innovation
by Roger D. Launius and Hoawrd E. McCurdy (eds.)
Palgrave Macmillan, 2018
hardcover, 402 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-3-319-60112-0

It’s hard to escape the buzzword of “innovation” regarding NASA and its programs these days. The agency is being pressured to do more with the same or less funding, and take advantage of the growing capabilities of the private sector in spaceflight. That theme was present as recently as last Friday’s release of the new decadal survey for Earth science and applications from space, which made innovation, in the form of competitively-selected missions with firm cost caps and new technology development, a theme of its report.

Not all of the examples included in the book are successful cases of innovation. One essay examined the failed efforts to commercialize the Landsat program in the 1980s, which ended up driving away users.

Innovation, and partnerships with the private sector, are hardly new to NASA, though. That’s the thesis of NASA Spaceflight: A History of Innovation, a collection of essays edited by Roger Launius and Howard McCurdy on various examples—successful and not—about how NASA worked with companies and other organizations to develop new technologies and capabilities over the years. The book is an insightful, if pricey, look at a wide range of efforts.

The book includes a dozen essays contributed by historians looking at various examples of innovation over the history of the space agency. They range from early cooperation with Britain on the Ariel satellite, setting an example for international cooperation that NASA would follow for decades to come, to NASA’s role in the development of microelectronics in the 1960s, to the more recent examples of partnerships with companies to develop commercial cargo and crew transportation systems.

Not all of the examples included in the book are successful cases of innovation. One essay examined the failed efforts to commercialize the Landsat program in the 1980s, which ended up driving away users and “demonstrates how innovation and commercialization lack linearity and can be a highly political process,” author Brian Jirout argues. Another essay examines the X-33 and X-34 programs of the 1990s, which sought to demonstrate technology for reusable launch vehicles but never flew a single test flight before being cancelled.

In the book’s final chapter, Launius and McCurdy try to use the case studies from the preceding chapters to draw conclusions about innovation. “Although public agencies are not noted for their capacity to innovate,” they conclude, “they are capable of doing so, occasionally alone or more often through arrangements with other bodies.” Innovation is nonlinear and evolutionary, they argue, and difficult to maintain and institutionalize, a lesson they draw from an essay examining the Discovery program of low-cost planetary science missions, which initially adopted a high degree of risk but became more conservative over time.

Innovation is nonlinear and evolutionary, they argue, and difficult to maintain and institutionalize, a lesson they draw from an essay examining the Discovery program of low-cost planetary science missions.

The one drawback of NASA Spaceflight: A History of Innovation is its list price of more than $100 (although it is available, in both hardcover and ebook versions, at significant discounts.) That’s a shame since many of the essays are excellent, even when read outside of the context of a larger book on innovation. Paul Ceruzzi, for example, offers a detailed history of microelectronics development in the 1960s and the role NASA played as what would become known as Silicon Valley took shape during the decade. John Logsdon looks at the origins of what might be considered the first “NewSpace” company, Orbital Sciences Corporation, started by three entrepreneurs in 1982 who pooled $1,500 to create a company now on the verge of being acquired by Northrop Grumman for more than $9 billion.

Perhaps, as NASA looks to innovation to find new ways of carrying out existing and proposed missions, book publishing could use a little innovation as well.

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NASA spaceflight chief: “Amazing time” for building rockets at the agency, Ars Technica

NASA spaceflight chief: “Amazing time” for building rockets at the agency

Development of monster rocket proceeding largely on schedule—so far.

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For most of the last five years, NASA’s space launch system has been largely a PowerPoint rocket, consisting of designs on computers and disparate hardware in various stages of development across the United States. But now the massive SLS rocket is starting to come together, and senior NASA managers are optimistic about its future.

“This is an amazing period of time in US spaceflight,” Bill Gerstenmaier, chief of human spaceflight for NASA, said last week during a meeting of the agency’s advisory council. “I’m starting to see a real shift from just kind of hardware development to almost a flight cadence. The volume of work is just amazing.” He added that with “roughly” two years to go before the first launch of SLS and the Orion spacecraft, the agency is beginning to test flight hardware.

Further Reading

Barring further delays, the maiden launch of SLS will occur between September and November 2018. Until now NASA has been mostly designing and building individual components of the massive rocket, which will have an initial capability to heft 70 metric tons to low-Earth orbit but may eventually grow into a 130-ton rocket. However, now the focus is turning toward testing that hardware and, later next year and in 2018, beginning to integrate it for launch.

Historically during development programs, this is where the most problems and potential delays occur, as systems may not work together exactly as intended. And the SLS rocket has a lot of different parts. For the core stage, which provides the primary thrust, there is the liquid oxygen tank, the intertank, the liquid hydrogen tank, and the engine section. The core stage also houses the vehicle’s avionics. At the side of the core stage are two solid rocket boosters, which provide initial thrust off the pad. Then, atop the core stage, is the upper stage which provides thrust later during the flight. Finally there is the payload itself, the Orion spacecraft and its service module, which are also under schedule pressure to meet the 2018 flight.

Gerstenmaier acknowledged as much during his comments last week. “We’ve got reasonable margin in our schedules,” he said. “It’s foolish to think there won’t be problems ahead of us, that’s the nature of a development program. I guarantee there will be more stuff coming. But we’re in the process of building a robust schedule that can deal with the challenges ahead of us.”


It is costing NASA a lot of money to do all of this work. The agency has committed to spending $23 billion (

£17 billion) from 2011 through 2018 to get SLS and Orion ready for a maiden flight, and that doesn’t include another $9 billion spent before 2011 during the Constellation Program, under which work began on Orion and a precursor rocket to the SLS.

NASA has not said how much it will cost to continue development of these launch systems beyond 2018, nor, critically, has it specified the amount of the ongoing, or fixed costs, once the SLS begins flying once every other year during the mid-2020s. These fixed costs for the space shuttle were about $2.5 billion annually, meaning that much was spent on expenses whether the vehicle flew or not. NASA luminaries such as Chris Kraft have warned that the SLS fixed costs will “eat NASA alive.”

Further Reading

Accordingly, one of the biggest concerns when it comes to the SLS and Orion is that the vehicles will cost so much to build and fly, precious little money will be left behind to develop hardware for meaningful missions, such as lunar orbit stations or flights beyond the Earth-Moon system. “I can understand where one would come to that conclusion,” Bill Hill, the headquarters official who oversees development of SLS and Orion for NASA, told Ars in an interview. “We are in the process of defining flight test objectives, and we believe at least for now we can do a lot of this under the current budget level. We’re trying to pace ourselves.”

“Better than I expected”

But to get to those test objectives in space, NASA must first complete them on the ground. At the Michoud Assembly Facility, Hill said, work is proceeding on “qualification” tanks for both liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. These tanks will be shipped to the Marshall Space Flight Center later this year for testing. Meanwhile work is also proceeding on the actual fuel tanks to be used for the 2018 test flight, Exploration Mission-1. Additionally, four of the 10 segments for the flight test’s solid rocket boosters have been poured, and main engine test firings continue.

Further Reading

After this testing and assembly, a big moment for the SLS program will come during the fall of 2017. At that time, NASA plans a “hot fire test” of the full core stage at Stennis Space Center in southern Mississippi. During this test the core stage will be clamped down while a full thrust test of the launch system is performed. This test will go a long way toward proving that the large, 200-foot-tall core stage is ready for spaceflight.

Despite the concerns about costs and low-flight rate, Hill said NASA views the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft as “foundational” to its efforts to press ahead with deep space exploration. And all things considered, he said NASA is doing well with the budgets the president and Congress have provided. “At the funding levels we have we’re doing a lot better than I expected,” he said.

Protest halts Nasa spaceflight plans – BBC News

Protest halts Nasa spaceflight plans

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Nasa’s plans to work on two new commercial spacecraft face a delay following a formal protest about the contract award process.

The complaint has been filed by an eliminated contender.

Nasa administrator Charles Bolden said the protest had been lodged by Sierra Nevada Corporation in relation to its Dreamchaser spaceplane proposal.

He was speaking in Toronto at the opening of the week-long International Astronautical Congress (IAC).

The issue will keep the agency from moving forward with the next phase of its commercial crew programme until the issue has been resolved.

Nasa has 30 days to respond and the US government accountability office is expected to issue its ruling in early January 2015.

Just two weeks ago, the US space agency awarded a $4.2bn contract to The Boeing Corporation and $2.6bn to Elon Musk’s SpaceX company to pursue its space capsule designs.

Both firms must meet specified technical milestones to qualify for stage payments and have stated their seven-person crew ships could be ready to launch astronauts by late 2017.

The contracts will be used to complete design, build and test phases before flying crews on up to six operational missions to the space station 260 miles (418 km) above Earth.

They are the culmination of a four-year programme to restore US-based human spaceflight capability following the retirement of the last of the three remaining space shuttles in 2011.

Since then, Nasa has been dependent on Russia to fly its nationals to the space station, a service that currently costs the US about $70 million per seat.

Colorado-based Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) issued a formal protest on Friday, saying its proposal would cost $900 million less than Boeing’s.

The company cited “serious questions and inconsistencies in the source selection process” as its reason for filing the legal challenge.

“SNC’s filing seeks a further detailed review and evaluation of the submitted proposals and capabilities,” the company said in a statement .

“SNC takes the nation’s human spaceflight capability and taxpayer’s money very seriously. SNC believes the result of further evaluation of the proposals submitted will be that America ends up with a more capable vehicle, at a much lower cost, with a robust and sustainable future.”

The company described its Dream Chaser design as offering a wider range of capabilities and value, including “preserving the heritage” of the space shuttle programme through its design as a piloted, reusable, lifting-body spacecraft.

Its ship looks more like a mini space shuttle than a conical capsule and – like the space shuttle – would glide back to Earth to land on a runway.

Bolden said the protest precluded him from making any kind of further comment as to why the Dream Chaser proposal was not selected.

Spaceflight Readies 28 Payloads for Inaugural Rideshare Launch on Arianespace’s Vega – Parabolic Arc

Spaceflight Readies 28 Payloads for Inaugural Rideshare Launch on Arianespace’s Vega

First dedicated rideshare mission on Vega to launch spacecraft for Spaceflight customers, including Satellogic, Planet, and Swarm Technologies.

SEATTLE, March 9, 2020 (Spaceflight PR) –Spaceflight today announced it is providing mission management and rideshare integration services for four organizations on Arianespace’s first dedicated rideshare mission on its Vega launch vehicle. The proof of concept rideshare mission, VV16, will launch 53 microsatellites, nanosatellites and cubesats, including 28 payloads from Spaceflight customers Satellogic, Planet, Swarm Technologies, and an undisclosed organization.

Targeted for late March from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, this launch represents Spaceflight’s first mission aboard the Vega.

“This is an important launch for all involved,” said Curt Blake, president and CEO, Spaceflight, Inc. “Not only is this our first launch on the Vega, it’s Arianespace’s first fully dedicated rideshare mission, which is a direct response to the industry’s demand for more rideshare options. Our customers are a combination of long-standing, repeat constellation developers as well as microsat organizations opting to work with us for the first time. Our comprehensive rideshare services range from capacity brokering to full integration and logistics services to help everyone achieve their mission goals on time and budget. We’re equally excited to partner with Arianespace and play an integral role in their first, of hopefully many, rideshare missions.”

This historic rideshare mission to Sun Synchronous low-Earth Orbit of 500km aboard the Vega will transport Spaceflight customer spacecraft including:

  • NewSat-6, a low Earth orbit remote sensing satellite designed and manufactured in South America by Satellogic, a vertically integrated geospatial analytics company that is building the first Earth observation platform with the ability to remap the entire planet at both high-frequency and high-resolution. This is Satellogic’s 11th spacecraft in orbit, equipped with multispectral and hyperspectral imaging capabilities and it will be added to the company’s growing satellite constellation.
  • Planet’s 14 next-generation SuperDove satellites (Flock 4v), which will join its constellation of 150 Earth-imaging spacecraft.
  • Swarm Technologies’ 12 (.25U) satellites which provide affordable global connectivity.
  • An undisclosed microsat.

“We are thankful to Spaceflight for coordinating this launch for us,” said Emiliano Kargieman, CEO and founder of Satellogic. “As we continue to increase our in-orbit capacity, the Vega launch will demonstrate our capability to adapt our satellites to different rockets and deployment systems. This mission will also allow us to test new imaging technology capable of capturing sub-meter resolution. Through the refinement of sub-meter imaging, we plan to further drive down the cost of high-frequency geospatial analytics.”

Arianespace CEO, Stéphane Israël, commented, “We are excited to deliver 28 satellites ranging from 0.33 to 140 kg for Spaceflight and its customers. This inaugural SSMS mission onboard Vega shows how our light vehicle is adapted to tackle the booming smallsat market through our rideshare solution. Today with Vega, tomorrow with Vega C and Ariane 6, Arianespace will offer the best solutions to its customers to deploy their ambitious projects.”

Since its founding, Spaceflight has launched more than 270 satellites via 29 rocket launches, establishing itself as the leading rideshare service provider. Spaceflight plans to execute more than 10 missions in 2020 across many different launch vehicles, including the Falcon 9, Antares, Electron, Vega, SSLV, PSLV, and LauncherOne.

Spaceflight’s parent company, Spaceflight Industries recently announced it has signed an agreement to sell Spaceflight’s rideshare business to Japan’s Mitsui & Co., Ltd. and Yamasa Co., Ltd. Upon regulatory approval, Spaceflight will continue to operate as an independent U.S.-based company, with a 50/50 joint venture ownership stake by Mitsui & Co. and Yamasa.

About Spaceflight

Spaceflight is revolutionizing the business of spaceflight by delivering a new model for accessing space. A comprehensive launch services and mission management provider, the company provides a straightforward and cost-effective suite of products and services, including state-of-the-art satellite infrastructure and rideshare launch offerings that enable commercial and government entities to achieve their mission goals on time and on budget. Based in Seattle, Wash., Spaceflight provides its services through a global network of partners and launch vehicle providers. For more information, visit

About Arianespace

Arianespace uses space to make life better on Earth by providing launch services for all types of satellites into all orbits. It has orbited more than 600 satellites since 1980, using its family of three launchers, Ariane, Soyuz and Vega, from launch sites in French Guiana (South America) and Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Arianespace is headquartered in Evry, near Paris, and has a technical facility at the Guiana Space Center, Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, plus local offices in Washington, D.C., Tokyo and Singapore. Arianespace is a subsidiary of ArianeGroup, which holds 74% of its share capital, with the balance held by 15 other shareholders from the European launcher industry.

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SpaceX to submit Moon lander proposal for latest NASA spaceflight competition

SpaceX to submit Moon lander proposal for latest NASA spaceflight competition

SpaceX reportedly plans to submit its own human-rated Moon lander design for NASA’s latest major request for proposal (RFP), part of the agency’s rough plan to return humans to the Moon no earlier than 2028.

Meant to begin delivering NASA astronauts to the surface of the Moon as early as 2028, the agency hopes to base those lander operations on a thus far unbuilt space station orbiting the Moon with the support of its SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft.

SpaceX will submit a lunar lander design.

Meant to build directly off of SLS/Orion, a NASA-designed rocket and spacecraft beset with at least three years of delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns, it’s unclear where SpaceX might fit into NASA’s latest modernized attempt at an Apollo Program 2.0. Alongside the 2017 cancellation of Crew Dragon’s propulsive landing program due in part to the likely cost of the certification burden NASA would have placed on the technology before allowing it to land astronauts, SpaceX also canceled Red Dragon (and thus Grey Dragon), a proposal to use a minimally modified version of Crew Dragon as an ad-hoc Mars lander and R&D testbed.

Aside from the likely cost of certifying propulsive Crew Dragon to NASA specifications, CEO Elon Musk also explained the program’s cancellation as a consequence of SpaceX’s far greater interest in what he described as “vastly bigger ship[s]” in July 2017. This translated into a presentation at IAC 2017 a few months later, where Musk revealed SpaceX’s updated design for a giant, fully-reusable launch vehicle meant to enable sustainable Mars colonization, known then as BFR. BFR has since been reconceptualized at least two more times, settling (at present) on a radical new approach said to rely heavily on stainless steel as a replacement for advanced carbon composites.

Initially making one 200 metric ton thrust engine common across ship & booster to reach the moon as fast as possible. Next versions will split to vacuum-optimized (380+ sec Isp) & sea-level thrust optimized (

In the second half of 2018 and the first few months of 2019, the SpaceX CEO’s BFR (now Starship/Super Heavy) narrative has noticeably diverged from a largely exclusive focus on Mars to include a new interest (be it genuine or out of convenience) in the Moon. Most notably, Musk stated in January and February 2019 that SpaceX’s single-minded goal for BFR was now “to reach the moon as fast as possible”. In response to a question about SpaceX’s intentions for the first few orbital BFR (Starship) launches, Musk also replied, “Moon first, Mars as soon as the planets align”.

This is likely explicitly connected to Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa’s decision to purchase the first operational Starship (BFR) launch in support of his philanthropic #DearMoon project, meant to send 8-10 artists from across Earth on the first commercial voyage around the Moon as early as 2023. While no specific value was given, the implication of CEO Elon Musk’s emotional response when discussing the financial support pegged the number in the hundreds of millions of dollars, likely on the order of $250M to $500M. However, any astute bureaucrat or aerospace executive would also be (and have been) distinctly aware of a new political undercurrent pushing for the US and NASA to return humans to the Moon, circulating for the last few years before breaking through to the surface in the last six or so months.

About Us

About Us, now in its 14th year of operations, is already a leading online news resource for everyone interested in space flight specific news, supplying our readership with the latest news, around the clock, with editors covering all the leading space-faring nations.

Breaking exclusive space flight related news stories and features, is dedicated to expanding the public’s awareness and respect for the space flight industry, which in turn is reflected in the many space industry visitors to the site, ranging from NASA to the commercial space flight arena, plus the international launch industry.

With a monthly readership of over 500,000 visitors and growing, the site’s expansion has already seen articles being referenced and linked by major news networks such as MSNBC, CBS, The New York Times, Popular Science, but to name a few.

Managing Editor: Chris Bergin.
Assistant Managing Editor/Team Admin: Chris Gebhardt.
NASA Centers Editor: Philip Sloss.
Unmanned Missions Editor: William Graham.
ISS Editor: Pete Harding.
Chinese Missions Editor: Rui C. Barbosa.
Reporters – Michael Baylor. Thomas Burghardt. Ian Atkinson. Tyler Gray. Tobias Corbett. Justin Davenport.

Photojournalists: Brady Kenniston. Nathan Barker. Mike Deep. Jack Beyer. Jay DeShetler.

Founder Directors:
Chris Bergin Robert Price, Bruce Stewart, Mark Gerrits, Gareth Maden.

Mark Gerrits and team. Community

This dual approach, of engaging the public with those that work in the field of space flight makes, via its news site and forum, a unique resource to all. The forum is the most visited Space Flight specific forum in the world, with over 50 million page views in 2017 – and has the largest amount of NASA, and space industry professionals visiting its pages. This figure has continued to increase into 2019. L2

Taking this a level higher – and a major reason for this news media’s site ability to break the news first – is the highly successful L2 sections, which is a first of its kind subscription service that allows previously unheard of access to the public. This subscription revenue is used directly – and solely – to cover the ENTIRE site’s running costs. takes pride in providing its readership with the best possible service, to the point of providing free access to the level of information you’d expect to pay for on other sites and then some. For more information on L2 click here.


“I visit the site frequently, not only to see the exclusive material that shows up there, but even more valuable, the high-quality comments from dozens of very experienced posters on the discussion boards. No vacuum-head pontificating and opinion-venting here like on too many other space-related boards — this is a council of the wise and well-informed who share their insights and their puzzlements with their respected internet associates, and anyone else smart enough to look here first. They find the best assessments of events, trends, policies, and best of all, they find light cast on otherwise-invisible gaps in official silences, half-disclosures and pseudo-explanations. ”

SpaceX Crew Dragon success heralds a new era for NASA spaceflight

SpaceX Crew Dragon success heralds a new era for NASA spaceflight

The Demo-1 mission paves the way for crews to launch from US soil for the first time since 2011.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the first commercial spacecraft built for humans to travel in to the International Space Station, splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean on Friday morning, ending a historic mission and beginning the next phase of human spaceflight.

A huge round of applause and cheers erupted at SpaceX mission control in California as the capsule hit the water. With that — the first water landing in the Atlantic since Apollo 9 in 1969 — SpaceX moved one step closer to sending humans into orbit.

Significant delays hampered the launch of the Crew Dragon , but on March 2 it finally achieved liftoff from storied Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center. It then trailed the ISS for 24 hours before achieving a landmark docking via the station’s Harmony module, and special docking adapter, on March 3.

The Crew Dragon re-entering the atmosphere on March 8.

While docked at the ISS, humans entered the vehicle for the first time in space . It remained docked with the station until Thursday, at which point the hatch was closed and locked and the capsule was readied for its return. At 11:32 p.m. PT, it released a set of hooks from the ISS and slowly drifted away from the space laboratory with two short thruster firings. A dummy, lovingly known as Ripley and dressed in SpaceX’s astronaut gear and a suite of sensors, was its lone crew member.

The Crew Dragon drifts away from the ISS.

“Fifty years after humans landed on the moon for the first time, America has driven a golden spike on the trail to new space exploration feats through the work of our commercial partner SpaceX and all the talented and dedicated flight controllers at NASA and our international partners,” said Anne McClain, NASA flight engineer currently stationed at the ISS, as the capsule drifted away.

Five hours later, when it was safely away from the ISS, Crew Dragon jettisoned its lower trunk section to burn up in space. At 4:52 a.m. PT, the capsule’s thrusters fired once more, starting a 15-minute “deorbit burn,” slowing the craft enough to fall back to Earth.

Its biggest challenge was yet to come: atmospheric re-entry.

The forces exerted on the capsule as it blazed a trail through the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds had SpaceX CEO Elon Musk concerned during the week. Although his team had run hundreds of simulations, the unusual shape of the spacecraft meant it might roll or spin as it dropped from space to sea.

Yet, when the moment arrived, the spacecraft showed no signs of a rickety descent, eventually deploying its quad-parachute system and safely splashing down in the Atlantic some 280 miles ( about 450 kilometers) from its original launching spot at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The capsule’s splashdown was attended by SpaceX’s recovery vessel “Go Searcher,” a ship equipped to pluck it from the roiling ocean waves and carry it back to shore.

Dragon’s drogue parachutes

With the landing, Crew Dragon’s six-day-long mission is complete, but there’s still work to be done. SpaceX was able to demonstrate the capsule’s launch, docking, undocking and re-entry capabilities and the validity of its parachute system, and now it has reams of data to analyze, including from Ripley’s suite of body sensors, to ensure the capsule is ready to ferry humans from Earth to the space station in just a few months’ time.

As part of the validation process, SpaceX and NASA will conduct an in-flight abort test, launching the Crew Dragon on top of a modified Falcon 9 rocket and then terminating the rocket engine as it reaches the point of max q — when pressure on the spacecraft is at its greatest. When it reaches this point, the Crew Dragon would use its own set of rocket boosters to launch away from the Falcon 9 and return to Earth.

That test is scheduled for June. Provided it goes well, the first crewed mission of SpaceX’s capsule will occur in July, featuring astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. Success will also mean that “Earthy,” a plush anthropomorphic doll of our planet, will be coming home from the space station.

— NASA Commercial Crew (@Commercial_Crew) March 8, 2019

While the limelight has been squarely on SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space venture is only one half of NASA’s overall Commercial Crew ambitions. Historic aerospace company Boeing is also readying to fly to the ISS with its own capsule, the Starliner, in the coming months. Launching atop an Atlas V rocket, the Starliner will undergo similar testing in preparation for its own manned missions to space in the coming year.

For now, SpaceX wins the day — and continues to forge a path between the US and the International Space Station.

Analyzing NASA Spaceflight Microgravity Effects on Mouse Antibody Repertoire, OmniSci

Analyzing NASA Spaceflight Microgravity Effects on Mouse Antibody Repertoire

[Special thanks to Jacci Cenci, Senior Solutions Architect at NVIDIA, Dr. Trisha Rettig and Bailey Bye from Kansas State University for the edits on this blog post.]

Over the last 40 years, NASA has completed over 135 spaceflights. That’s more than 198,700 person-hours, which roughly translates to more than 8,280 days of space travel. More than 830 crew members have taken the ride; some have done so multiple times. During their travels, crew members are exposed to 10 times more radiation than on Earth, as well as microbial pathogens such as Salmonella typhimurium, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Candida albicans. In the absence of gravity, improper tailward fluid shifts are also observed in crew members, which can cause swollen heads and ineffective healing, especially in the lower body. Scientists at NASA have been working hard to analyze the causes in order to minimize the negative health impact of deep space missions on astronauts’ health.

Research conducted on the immune responses of mice shows that microgravity causes detrimental effects to the immune system, along with behavioral changes and altered immunized responses. In addition to fluid shift, some possibilities for this change include stress, radiation, and changes in nutritional intake. One important part of the adaptive immune system impacted is B lymphocytes or “B cells”. B cells produce antibodies, which bind to foreign substances in the body. One particularly important region of the antibody is Complementarity-Determining Region 3 (CDR3), which is important for foreign substance binding and is used to measure antibody repertoire diversity. One question scientists are investigating is whether exposure to microgravity alters CDR3 subpopulations. Right now scientists are facing an uphill battle in tracking the CDR3 changes from the origins because they are manually assessing observation from spreadsheets and other data sources.

I partnered with Jacci Cenci, Sr. Solutions Architect, NVIDIA, to introduce scientists at NASA and Kansas State University (KSU) to GOAi (the GPU Open Analytics Initiative) which enables end-to-end analytics, including exploration, extraction, preprocessing, model training, and prediction, by keeping the data in a GPU buffer for maximum efficiency. Our hope was that this framework could help В Dr. Stephen Chapes, Dr. Trisha Rettig, Bailey Bye, Claire Ward, and Savannah Hlavacek characterize mice repertoire from space flights in a fast and repeatable workflow. In the end, scientists were amazed and delighted to see the fast response times. MapD is a founding and active member of GOAi along with Anaconda, Apache Arrow,, and Graphistry, and we are proud we could help the scientific community.

Science takes time, and data has to be carefully analyzed to see variety and variability of results over time. Even simple characterizations, such as identifying important C-xx-W motifs, В take at least a couple of hours, not only because of the vast amount of data but also because it takes time to utilize multiple tools within the currently established workflow. With the help of MapD, which uses the unique parallel processing power of GPUs, we can see the same insights within a framexwork that returns results in a matter of seconds.

Dataset Description and Objectives

The dataset used in the project was obtained from current research on mice subjected to a physiological model of spaceflight, which is unpublished but will eventually be available at NASA Genelab Data Repository. This dataset consists of 8 treatment groups with 4 mice in each group. For each mouse, the frequency of CDR3 amino acid junctions is captured along with treatment group labels. Each symbol of the treatment group labels denotes the presence or absence of suspension, vaccination with Tetanus toxoid, and the use of the adjuvant (immune stimulator) CPG. For example, mice in treatment group “+-+” were suspended via their tails, not immunized with Tetanus Toxoid, and were injected with CPG.

Each B cell’s unique antibody is generated through a process called V(D)J Recombination in which Variable (V), Diversity (D), and Joining (J) gene segments are cut and spliced together to form the antibody structure. The CDR3 amino acid sequence, which consists of part of the V-, the entirety of the D-, and part of the J-gene segments, provides much of the antibody binding specificity.

The top two experimental goals for this dataset were:

  • To distinguish the untreated mice from the ones who are treated, within those 8 treatment groups
  • Using machine learning, find the clusters that have been treated the same way within the clustered nodes (treatment groups)

We utilized the GOAi platform to perform analysis and data extraction from MapD, preprocess it in Pygdf/Pandas, analyze nodes in Graphistry, train the model to make clusters with H2O’s KMeans, and store the results back in MapD Core. This notebook illustrates the code along with the steps mentioned for the dataset in this post, driven by Docker so that you don’t have to install everything from scratch.

Getting Started

Setup MapD Community Edition (which includes both the MapD Core SQL engine and the Immerse front-end visualization system) and then install pygdf, pymapd, pygraphistry, and h204gpu. MapD GPU accelerated container can also be downloaded from NVIDIA GPU Cloud.

conda install -c conda-forge pymapd
conda install -c gpuopenanalytics/label/dev pygdf
pip install graphistry
pip install h2o4gpu-0.2.0-cp36-cp36m-linux_x86_64.whl

Loading Data

The first step is to import the libraries and load data into MapD using the pymapd pandas dataframe as an input variable. Pymapd’s load_table automatically chooses pyarrow or binary columnar format to insert values into the table.

Initial Analysis

After loading the data in MapD, we use MapD Immerse, which by default starts on https://localhost:9092, to analyze the dataset. The capability to display charts from different tables in one dashboard, which I’ve shown here, is limited to MapD Immerse Enterprise edition, but you can use the Community Edition to create separate dashboards for each source.

We see 4,128,122 records with 3 feature columns (amino acid junction, frequency, and mouse ID), and a class variable sequence. The distribution of AA junction frequency across the dataset is Right-Skewed and Unimodal; the mean (0.00733) is greater than the median (0.00227) which makes the tail extend to the right with few positive outliers. Mouse AOS 70 has the highest number of CDR3s: 19644, followed by AOS 77 with 18049. And mouse AOS 3 has the least number of CDR3s: 6282. Mouse AOS 15 has the maximum frequency of junctions across the dataset, with 0.02.

Extract Data

Using pymapd, data is extracted to the pygdf dataframe using a SELECT statement. We also extracted  MapD’s native rowid which contains a virtual id for each row generated. Through rowid we will associate the predicted results with the original data, which is especially helpful when there is no unique identifier for the dataset.

Preprocess Data

The next step is to remove any duplicate instances of AA junctions. We also need to make sure there are not any null values in the dataset. Then we will capture the position of each amino acid’s position in each junction in the CDR3 region, in order to analyze the repertoire changes across treatment groups. A quick reference to single letter codes of each amino acid can be found here. The helper function below accomplishes this task, and loads data back in MapD:

With the location of each amino acid we can distinguish mice from each other. We will use MapD’s cross-filtering functionality to read the behaviors. For example, A (Alanine) has only one instance at the beginning of an AA junction in CDR3, so we can drill down to the mouse and sequence with this unique junction.

We can see that Mouse 74 exhibits a unique repertoire from the other mice (42, 34, and 18) in the treatment group labeled “—” (control group i.e., no suspension, no tetanus shots, and no CPG). We will use graphistry to further investigate the 72 nodes for this group. Just by looking at the top-level data, we can see the different junctions shared by mice. By drilling down into a treatment group or multiple treatment groups we can begin to analyze their different repertoires.

Now we will label encode categorical columns and split data into 80:20 (train|test) for predictive analysis.

Predictive Model Analysis

Our team used H2O’s KMeans to train the model on GPUs with frequency and aa_junction as features to divide observations into clusters. Finding clusters requires iterative tuning of hyperparameters in order to reach the optimal based upon each dataset. The objective was to make 8 clusters (treatment groups) from the dataset and then evaluate the efficiency of the model.

Model Metrics

Centroids of 8 clusters (treatment groups) obtained from the model can further be optimized by techniques such as Gap Statistic or Silhouette method depending on what platform you’re using, but let’s just stick to the centroids we already have.


Assuming we determined the optimal cluster centroids, we can proceed to make clusters on the test set, and based on requirements we can store the results back in MapD.


We did not see any huge changes across treatment groups and the model may need to be further optimized by capturing more continuous variables. But by accelerating В machine learning and deep learning research for NASA and KSU, GOAi provides an open source alternative to reduce significant research clock time and computational cost. Utilizing a GPU accelerated pipeline, scientists can focus on reviewing more data from the research. We believe that combining different datasets together in one analytics platform shifts the focus towards further analysis and deeper insights.

Try It Out

You can download the Docker version of the Jupyter notebook demo here. Let us know what you think, on our community forums, or on GitHub. You can also download a fully featured Community Edition of MapD, which includes the open source MapD Core SQL engine, and our MapD Immerse data exploration UI.

Russian Rocket Engine Ban on US Military Launches Could Affect NASA Spaceflight, Space

Russian Rocket Engine Ban on US Military Launches Could Affect NASA Spaceflight

In a move with wide-ranging implications for NASA’s human spaceflight program and U.S. national security, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin yesterday (May 13) announced that his nation would ban the export of RD-180 rocket engines to the United States and pull out of the International Space Station project in 2020.

“Russia is ready to continue deliveries of RD-180 engines to the US only under the guarantee that they won’t be used in the interests of the Pentagon,” he wrote in a tweet.

The RD-180 engine powers the first stage of United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas 5 rocket, which is used almost exclusively to launch American military satellites and other government payloads. NPO Energomash of Russia builds the engines and sells them to ULA through RD-AMROSS, a joint venture of Energomash and United Technologies Corp.

The politics of space

The moves are in retaliation for sanctions the United States placed on Rogozin and other government officials over Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula and the actions of Moscow-backed paramilitary groups in eastern Ukraine. Rogozin oversees Russia’s military and space sectors.

A ban on RD-180 exports would likely have the U.S. Air Force scrambling to restructure its plans for launching defense satellites, and it could also disrupt NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which aims to develop vehicles capable of taking U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017. American astronauts now ride on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Two of the three commercial crew competitors, Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp., plan to launch their seven-person spacecraft on Atlas V boosters. The third competitor, SpaceX, would launch its Dragon spacecraft aboard its own Falcon 9 rocket, which is domestically produced. [NASA’s Commercial Space Taxi Plan for Astronauts (Video)]

Boeing has designed its CST-100 capsule spacecraft to be compatible with multiple launch vehicles. The company could potentially launch the CST-100 on ULA’s Delta 4 booster or SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. It is not known whether Sierra Nevada has the same options with its Dream Chaser mini-space shuttle.

NASA confident of U.S. space access

In remarks following the dedication ceremony of the Armstrong Flight Research Center in California yesterday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said he hadn’t heard Rogozin’s statement yet.

“We’re really focused right now on the selection of a provider or providers for our ability to take American astronauts from American soil again,” Bolden said. “We’ve got three great bidders. You know, as I understand it, really strong companies. We’ve been working, as you know, with Boeing and Sierra Nevada and SpaceX for a number of years now … My intent is that we’ll be launching Americans from American soil in 2017. [The Rockets and Spaceships of SpaceX (Photos)]

“The way that I understand it from talking with ULA is they have enough engines already in their stockpile to fly out their missions for the next few years,” Bolden added. “It’s like people were concerned about Orbital [Sciences Corp.] because they used what is a Russian rocket engine, it was the old NK-33 but it’s now called the AJ-26, but they own every single one of those assets. So none of this is caught up in it. That’s why I don’t go on rumor and innuendo, you know, I sit down with the team. And the team’s pretty confident we’re going to have some commercial providers to carry humans to orbit.”

United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket is powered by the RD-180 engine, which is built by NPO Energomash in the Moscow region and sold to ULA by RD-Amross, a joint venture between the Russian manufacturer and United Technologies Corp. (Image credit: NASA/Charisse Nahser)

Bolden also stressed that the American plan to extend use of the International Space Station from 2020 to at least 2024 was a proposal to the international partners, which include Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada.

“It is not a unilateral decision on the part of the United States,” he said. “Our recommendation to the partners, and all of the partners have agreed that they’re going to look at extending the life of the station to 2024 … And I would remind everyone, the first two people to sign the proposal to do so were Mr. [Oleg] Ostapenko and me. Mr. Ostapenko [the head of] Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. You’re talking about diplomatic action, and I’m talking about just operational interaction between Roscosmos and NASA. So, until we get word from somebody else, then nothing’s changed for us right now.”

NASA also released a formal statement that focused on cooperation with Russia:

“Space cooperation has been a hallmark of US-Russia relations, including during the height of the Cold War, and most notably, in the past 13 consecutive years of continuous human presence on board the International Space Station. Ongoing operations on the ISS continue on a normal basis with a planned return of crew [Tuesday night] and expected launch of a new crew in the next few weeks. We have not received any official notification from the Government of Russia on any changes in our space cooperation at this point.”

Air Force launches could feel pinch

The impact on the U.S. Air Force would be even more significant than on NASA. In December, the service signed a no-bid deal to purchase 36 Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rocket cores from ULA over the next five years. Seven or eight additional launches would be open to new competitors such as SpaceX.

SpaceX recently filed suit to overturn the award, discussing the sanctions against Rogozin at length in the complaint. A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting ULA from purchasing additional RD-180 engines unless the government provided assurances that the purchases didn’t violate the sanctions against Rogozin.

The judge lifted the injunction after the government provided those assurances. However, Rogozin’s announcement yesterday rendered the decision moot.

ULA issued a statement yesterday saying it was unaware of any restrictions on the export of the engines.

“We are hopeful that our two nations will engage in productive conversations over the coming months that will resolve the matter quickly,” the company wrote in the statement. “ULA and our Department of Defense customers have always prepared contingency plans in the event of a supply disruption. ULA has two launch vehicles that can support all of customers’ needs. We also maintain a two-year inventory of engines to enable a smooth transition to our other rocket, Delta, which has all U.S.-produced rocket engines.”

ULA also blamed SpaceX for pushing the issue over the brink.

“If recent news reports are accurate, it affirms that SpaceX’s irresponsible actions have created unnecessary distractions, threatened U.S. military satellite operations, and undermined our future relationship with the International Space Station.”

ULA’s options for replacing the RD-180 engine are neither cheap nor fast. United Technologies has the right to produce RD-180 engines in the United States under license. However, officials have said such an effort could cost $1 billion and take five years, thus idling the Atlas V rocket for several years.