Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.

Changes in DARPA rocket projects

In its budget request for 2017, DARPA has dropped one of its low-cost reusable launch programs while asking for more money for another.

The XS-1 project, where three teams, (Boeing/Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems/XCOR Aerospace, and Northrup Grumman/Virgin Galactic) are trying to develop a fully reusable launch system, will got a boost from $30 million to $50.5 million. Meanwhile,

DARPA is ending the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) launcher program after budgeting $80 million for it over two fiscal years. ALASA aimed at developing a rocket that could place a 100 lb (45 kg) payload into low Earth orbit for less than $1 million per launch using an unmodified F-15 fighter. Tests indicated that Boeing’s mono-propellant had a tendency to explode.


I must unfortunately ask you for your financial support because I do not depend on ads and rely entirely on the generosity of readers to keep Behind the Black running. You can either make a one time donation for whatever amount you wish, or you sign up for a monthly subscription ranging from $2 to $15 through Paypal or $3 to $50 through Patreon.

Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.

Your support is even more essential to me because I not only keep this site free from advertisements, I do not use the corrupt social media companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook to promote my work. I depend wholly on the direct support of my readers.

You can provide that support to Behind The Black with a contribution via Patreon or PayPal. To use Patreon, go to my website there and pick one of five monthly subscription amounts, or by making a one-time donation. For PayPal click one of the following buttons:


Or with a subscription with regular donations from your Paypal or credit card account:


If Patreon or Paypal don't work for you, you can support Behind The Black directly by sending your donation by check, payable to Robert Zimmerman, to

Behind The Black
c/o Robert Zimmerman
P.O.Box 1262
Cortaro, AZ 85652

Or you can donate by using Zelle through your bank. You will need to give my name and email address (found at the bottom of the "About" page). The best part of this electronic option is that no fees will be deducted! What you donate will be what I receive.


  • Tom Billings

    “Tests indicated that Boeing’s mono-propellant had a tendency to explode.”

    Interesting, …that, …especially since a small company in Mojave, FireStar Technologies, had been working with Nitrous Oxide Fuel Blend monopropellants for the last 10 years, and had licked all the problems with stable combustion. They weren’t Boeing, though, and apparently Boeing didn’t want to spend any money hiring them. What was the difference?

    Well, FireStar, had developed and tested, and patented a number of NOFB mixtures that worked well when fired in a 100 pound thrust engine, and in May of 2012 this had been cleared to be tested on ISS. Then, in November of 2012, they disappeared from the flight manifest, without a word why. Then ALASA was announced, and the announcements included that Boeing would be using a Nitrous Oxide Fuel Blend monopropellant with acetylene alone as the only fuel. Notable in the wikipedia article is the URL for their propellant patent:, in the external links section.

    While the patent mentions 3 different hydrocarbon fuels, ethane, ethylene, and acetylene in several mixtures, it does not mention a mixture with acetylene as the only hydrocarbon fuel. I assume this is because acetylene is usually dissolved in another solvent to stabilize it. Dissolving it in *3* solvents (nitrous itself is a good solvent) apparently did the job for the FireStar patented mixtures. But since a mixture with acetylene alone was not patented, Boeing selected that alone to be mixed with nitrous in *their* monopropellant? Well, …apparently.

    The behavior of the government community (and as a major member of the cost+ contractor club, I consider Boeing D&S a part of that) towards NOFBX switched between May and November of 2012. I realize now I have not heard of FireStar in the since November of 2012, even though their site is still up. Anyone know what’s up?

  • John Whitehead

    The reference cited in Tom Billings’ comment does not lead to a patent, only a patent application. Possibly there have been continued efforts by Firestar to turn the application into a patent. The latter might have been Boeing’s reason to not copy the recipe (assuming there really was no working relationship between Boeing and FireStar).

    I met Greg Mungas (FireStar) back in 2004 when we each were doing projects for NASA’s Mars Technology Program, but have not heard any recent news.

    There seems to be quite a bias in the propulsion research community, to the effect that new propulsion technology is primarily (or only) about seeking new propellants, rather than new ways to make rocket hardware lightweight. My guess is that this bias comes partly from academia, i.e. chemistry and combustion experiments can be done in a university lab, but not actually building rocket vehicles (meaning focusing on making the inert mass very low). People get PhD’s in rocket science for focusing entirely on the minute details of propellant mixing and burning, while that topic is only a single-digit percentage of the effort to create and build and fly launch vehicles.

  • John Whitehead

    Three more thoughts.
    1. Did Boeing buy FireStar company?
    2. When liquid fuel and oxidizer are mixed together in a tank, is there really such a thing as proving that they will never explode under any circumstances?
    3. Nitrous oxide has a high vapor pressure at ambient temperatures (15 times typical launch vehicle tank pressures), so the tank has to be thick and heavy. Alternatively, a nitrous propellant tank could be cryogenic to obtain pressures and tank performance typical of launch vehicles (50-psi tanks weigh only one percent of water-density propellants). It is not easy to make cryogenic rocket stages for small launchers, because the relationship between volume and surface area works against us (more heat leak area for a given mass of propellant). If cryogenic, then there will be ice buildup on the vehicle (more inert mass a launch), and propellant loading with vapor bleed-off needs to be continuous up to nearly the moment of launch, not easy to do if I correctly understand that ALASA was to be launched from an airplane. So, the point is that the physical properties of a propellant can be no less important than chemistry and combustion.

  • PeterF

    Apparently, UCLA Berkeley won’t be participating in the effort to create new propellants…

Readers: the rules for commenting!


No registration is required. I welcome all opinions, even those that strongly criticize my commentary.


However, name-calling and obscenities will not be tolerated. First time offenders who are new to the site will be warned. Second time offenders or first time offenders who have been here awhile will be suspended for a week. After that, I will ban you. Period.


Note also that first time commenters as well as any comment with more than one link will be placed in moderation for my approval. Be patient, I will get to it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *