Sunday, August 30, 2009

STS-128: Discovery in Orbit!

Beautiful Night Launch

Mission STS-128 finally got off the ground with the great nighttime launch of shuttle Discovery Friday night. I was unable to watch NASA TV as I usually do for a launch, as I was busy directing a flight of students in the Magellan Simulator at the Space Center. However, the NASA TV replays got me caught up on events and the flight has proceeded as normal so far.

Yesterday the astronauts performed the first of many inspections of the spacecraft looking for possible problems from the launch related to the eventual atmospheric re-entry at the end of the mission. Today, just before the Discovery docks with ISS, they will perform the RPM (roll Pitch Maneuver) to use the cameras on board ISS to inspect the bottom heat shield tiles. The RPM is absolutely my favorite maneuver of the entire shuttle mission as the shuttle performs a delicate and graceful ballet before closing to the station docking hatch.

With there being so few remaining shuttle missions, I urge you to not miss these great moments of spacecraft flight.

The crew is about to be awakened. They will have some personal time before preparing for the ISS docking procedures.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

50 YA: Discoverer VI Failure & Mercury Program

Little Joe rocket and Mercury capsule

Covering events from the last few days (albeit 50 Years Ago!):

Discoverer VI was launched successfully on August 19, 1959. This was an additional attempt to perfect the program of photographing classified subjects from space and ejecting a film canister pod to Earth. The idea is to "snag" the parachute after re-entry by a special collector-equipped cargo plane. Unfortunately, a retro-fire mistake resulted in an impossible recovery.

On August 21, 1959, NASA prepared a test of the Little Joe rocket. Atop the squat solid-fuel rocket was a test capsule of the Mercury design, and on top of that was the escape launch system. This test was designed to launch the capsule upwards, and then test the ability of the escape tower to pull the capsule off the rocket to safety in case of an imminent booster failure.  Unfortunately, this test was a failure when the escape tower launched 30 minutes prematurely!

Monday, August 17, 2009

50 YA: Discoverer V Failure

Well, blast it, I'm off again... by several days this time. Sorry again... busy weekend.
On August 13, 1959, the military launched another attempt in the Discoverer series, which is the satellite spy series that tested the technology that would eventually be used in the secretive and successful Corona series later on. 

As usual, the Discoverer satellite was launched onboard the Thor-Agena booster system. The launch was successful, but the mission failed due to a power failure in the satellite which prevented the film cannister re-entry capsule from returning successfully. 

Let's remember though, that mission failures always help us to learn what can go wrong and prepare the next mission more carefully. We build successes on our failures. In those early days of space launches, the US did a lot of building...

Saturday, August 8, 2009

50 YA - Explorer VI

Couldn't get to blog yesterday, so I'm off by a day- arrrgggg!
August 7, 1959 - NASA launched a Thor-Able III rocket and placed EXPLORER VI in orbit. Nicknamed "The PaddleWheel Satellite" after it's appearance, the satellite beamed crude pictures of the Earth's surface and cloud cover back to scientists. Fourteen experiments were on the craft.

First crude TV image of Earth from Explorer VI

For me, this was a significant moment in the space program for a couple of reasons. First, of course we have the important first TV image of the Earth from orbit. This was an important milestone in shaping our current understanding of the Earth by taking our "eyes" from the flat horizon to the eventual understanding of the Earth as a small, some say fragile, outpost of life in the great big universe. This view will culminate with the famous Apollo 8 photo of the Earth rising above the moon. That photo became most famous as an iconic image of the Earth and it's environment, and helped shape a global perception in favor of environmentalism.

Secondly, this was a great step in the progress towards weather satellites and the impact it would have on weather forecasting and public safety. Until satellites could image the vast lonely expanses of the oceans, scientists only could rely on eyewitness reports of storms from pilots and ships that encountered the weather heading toward land and our population centers. Think now how many lives have been saved because we have advanced warning of hurricanes and typhoons, thanks to our robotic sentinels in the sky. That alone is worth the price of the space program.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

STS-127 Wraps it up

Lucky 13- Thirteen astronauts and cosmonauts in one picture! Not so improbable on Earth, but this picture is taken while they float around in the interior of the International Space Station just before the departure of shuttle Endeavor. It may seem a small thing, but to space enthusiasts, we revel in these types of advances in the seemingly glacial advance of the colonization of space.

Endeavor made a great touchdown Friday morning at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Mission STS-127 came to a close. There are now only 7 shuttle flights left on the current NASA manifest, all devoted to finishing up the construction of the ISS before the retirement of the shuttle system in 2010.

Realistically, I believe that the shuttle flight schedule will back up into 2011. The last two shuttle missions show perfectly well that glitches in the complex launch system, particularly where fueling and engines are concerned, can significantly delay a flight. The current schedule is very tight and the wait between flights may be unrealistic. We'll see.