Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Soviet Cosmonaut passes away

Hero of the Soviet Union experiments with microgravity

Pavel Popovich passed away today at age 78. He came very close to being selected to be the first man in space, but Yuri Gagarin was selected instead.

Instead, Popovich went up alone in Vostok 4 in August 1962. At the same time, the USSR launched Vostok 3 and Andrian Nikolayev. Their capsules passed within 3 miles, and they spotted each other. Popovich thus became the 6th person to orbit the Earth. His mission ended after three days when the capsule interior temperature failed. After de-orbit burn, he parachuted from the capsule as was custom for that model.

Popovich flew his second mission in Soyuz 14 on July 3, 1974. After docking with the Salyut 3 military space station, he and fellow cosmonaut Yuri Artyukhin spent 16 days performing classified military objectives. For his space adventures and service in the Soviet Air Force as a decorated Major General, he was twice awarded the Order of Hero of the Soviet Union, the USSR's highest honor.

But why focus on this cosmonaut? Well, for one, I've met him.

In October 2005, Salt Lake City was host to the XIX Planetary Congress of the Association of Space Explorers. Our staff and volunteers of the Christa McAuliffe Space Education Center not only attended, but were privileged to perform the International Flag parade during the opening ceremonies. Before and after the event, we were able to meet with many astronauts and cosmonauts from around the world. Did I get a slew of autographs? You betcha! After the morning ceremonies, the space explorers split up to visit Utah schools around the state. We were privileged to be visited by Pavel Popovich and Viktor Savinykh (more on him in another post perhaps).

Cosmonaut Popovich inspects the USS Phoenix simulator. Behind him
is Cosmonaut Viktor Savinykh.

Besides being able to visit our school's students, the cosmonauts also toured the Space Center and were very impressed. In one of the photos I took, you can see Pavel Popovich sitting iin the command chair of the USS Phoenix simulator soon after it had opened. SOOOO, for those of you who manage to rise to the rare command of the Phoenix, you, too, can sit in the same chair as occupied by a great space explorer and Hero of the Soviet Union.

Messenger Speeds Past Mercury

The view as Messenger approaches.

The robot spacecraft Messenger flew past the planet Mercury yesterday, making it 3 times it has flown past the planet and used its gravity to help it slow down and adjust its orbit. At one point the spacecraft was only 142 miles above the cratered surface. The next time Messenger approaches, it will be able to enter a normal orbit and begin its main mission of observation.

ISS Expedition 21 crew Blasts off!

Soyuz TMA-16

Two more member of the ISS crew for Expedition 21 took off from their launch site in Kazakhstan today. Jeff Williams and Maxim Suraev will join up with Nicole Stott, Roman Romanenko, Robert Thirsk, and Frank De Winne. Leaving the station will be Gennady Padalka and Michael Barratt in Soyuz TMA-14, which is already docked at the station. When they leave on October 10th, Expedition 21 becomes activated and European astronaut De Winne will become the commander.

Also along the ride today is Guy Laliberté, a Canadian who created the famous Cirque du Soleil entertainment franchise (you know, the famous acrobats). As a "space participant" (a Russian code phrase for "tourist"), Laliberté paid $35 million for this short trip. He will return with Padalka and Barratt on Oct. 10th.

It can get quite confusing trying to figure out who is up on the station at any time. Whereas we used to just have two astronauts up there at a time, there are now as many as six living on the station. You can always find out who's up there when you go to, click on the Missions link, click on the Current Missions link, scroll down to click the International Space Station link, and look for the box that says, "Who's on the station now?"

Or just click:

Saturday, September 26, 2009

50 YA- Pioneer I Disaster

Atlas-Able 4 launcher

Pioneer P-1 was a space probe intended to be launched into Lunar orbit. There it would study the space environment between the Earth and the Moon, as well as advanced spacecraft control from Earth and also included a newer television camera system.

Unfortunately, during a launcher test at the cape, the Atlas rocket exploded on the pad and caused tremendous damage, but luckily no one was killed or injured. Fortunately, the probe had not yet been placed onto the rocket at the time of the explosion! P-1 was later used for the P-3 mission.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Spotting ISS

Two Russian spacecraft docked at ISS.

While we all go about our business here on the big ol' Earth, the ISS continues its orbital sweeps around the planet. About every 90 minutes is another sunrise followed 45 minutes later by a sunset. Although they may not be making headlines, the station crew continues to perform the daily maintenance of the station equipment, and perform experiments using the station's scientific instruments.

At 8:36 pm MDT tonight I'll be going outside to watch ISS float serenely across the sky in a matter of minutes, reflecting evening sunlight off its modules and solar panels. This time I'm taking my astronomy binoculars with me.

It's 8:47 pm now, and the excitement is all over... except for me, the space nerd! I went outside about 15 minutes early (after calling a couple of friends who would be interested in spotting it). I hung my 10 x 50 binoculars from my neck and went out to the driveway for a relatively unobstructed view of the northern sky. There are several distracting streetlights nearby, but they don't bother me as much as a very bright house light across the street. Still, it's dark enough to do some binocular astronomy. In a 5-minute period I spotted 3 polar-orbiting satellites moving south-north, several nebulas near Sagittarius, and of course, the galaxy Andromeda as it rose above the top of Mt. Timpanogos.

And I spotted Jupiter... Wow. Wow. Very nice and bright in my binocs, with the bonus of spotting three of its moons very easily. The Jupiter system is fascinating to watch, and the disk of Jupiter is just big enough in the binocs that on a very good viewing night with still air I can barely make out some different colored cloud bands. And the Moon - well I can always enjoy looking at the Moon. It's in a waxing crescent phase right now, which makes it fun to watch the terminator (sun-lit edge) as it slowly picks out craters and mountains.

Then, at 8:36, right on the button, a small light started moving from the horizon. As it rose higher in the sky, it quickly grew very bright from the reflected evening sunlight. it cruised steadfastly across the sky, about 50 degrees from the horizon, and then toward the ESE sky- which is of course crowded out by Mt. Timpanogos. But before it reached that point, it reached the Earth's shadow, and... swoosh. It faded out very fast. With the binocs I could follow it until it was just above the mountain shadow. During the flight, I still could only make out a blocky shape, no details, because of the extreme brightness in my view, and the sad fact that the weight of these binoculars causes a bit of shaking. I need to invest in a binocs monopod.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

50 YA- Updates from 1959

Jupiter IRBM rocket with payload modification for science mission.

I have to do a catch-up here to cover some items for the 50 Years Ago category. It's been a busy week for me, and it was a busy week 50 years ago. On September 16, 1959, NASA launched a Jupiter rocket with biological test satellite in the payload. Evidently, after liftoff, the rocket began "fishtailing" which could have ended up with the rocket heading toward a population center. The safety range officer then was instructed to have the rocket self-destruct. If you've ever seen the film footage of one of these test failures, you can understand how many of us are wowed by the explosive potential of all that rocket fuel; but on that day, it had to be quite a let-down for all involved.

Preparing for Above-Ground Minuteman test.

On the same day as the Jupiter launch, there was a successful test launch of a Minuteman ICBM from a silo. The "silo" is the hardened underground launch tube where an ICBM is expected to survive a blast if necessary and then be launched at our enemies. The Minuteman was quite an advance over the Jupiters (short range IRBM) and the Atlas (ICBM long range). If you're interested, make a trip up to the Hill Air Force Base Museum up in Roy, Utah to see an actual Minuteman missile (although a later model).

Assembling the Transit-1A satellite.

A Navy satellite, Transit 1A, was launched from Earth on September 17 on a Thor-Able rocket. The Transit series of satellites were the fore-runners of our modern GPS satellites. The job of the Transit was to send signals to US submarines which had nuclear missiles onboard. The signals would help the submarine accurately plot its position and the course of the nuclear missile in case of nuclear war. This was a vital priority for our defense against nuclear attack from the Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, the payload failed to separate from the third stage, and of course then failed to go into orbit. This seems like a bad week for launches in 1959...

X-15 (No. 2) safe on the runway.

Although the 17th had one failure, it also had a success. The X-15 program was performing well. The second craft for the program had previously successfully dropped from its B-52 mothership and landed on the long runways at Edwards AFB. Now it was time to test the rocket engine in a powered flight.

Scott Crossfield in pressure suit.

The pilot was Scott Crossfield, one of the best test pilots. The No. 2 was released and the rocket engine ignited, and we now had two successful X-15 rocketplanes. Scott was the first man to fly at twice the speed of sound in the Douglas Skyrocket, a successor to the X-1 series of rocketplanes. He had flown 99 missions in the X-1 and the Skyrocket, and helped design the X-15. Interestingly, he did not become a NASA astronaut. Keep in mind though, that X-15 pilots flew so high in their craft that they were awarded special astronaut wings.

The week ended on a very good note, despite the rocket failures.

Vanguard III replica in a museum.

On September 18, Vanguard III lifted off and reached orbit. The last in its series, this satellite had a main mission to study Earth's magnetic field, but it also completed experiments in X-ray radiation. It had sensitive micro-meteorite detectors so it could discover more about potential hazards of Earth-orbiting craft. Vanguard III is still up there, along with its siblings, and although it has long ago quit functioning, it should remain in orbit for about 241 more years - along with Vanguards I and II!
Because they can be detected from Earth, we can still study the effects of atmospheric drag on their cone-and-sphere-shaped bodies, which means we are still actually getting data with their help. Go Vanguards!

Friday, September 18, 2009

HTV captured by ISS

HTV in position for capture.

Yesterday the Japanese HTV supply module finally caught up to the ISS orbit for docking. Using the Canadarm 2 to grapple the module went well. The module can carry up to 6 tons of supplies and equipment. It will eventually be loaded with waste and other disposable stuff, and sent into a decaying orbit to burn up in the atmosphere when it re-enters. This definitely brings Japan closer to making a man-rated capsule, which is one of their space goals.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

50 YA- Luna 2

Soviet Luna 2 spacecraft

On September 12, 1959, The Soviet Union launched the second of its Luna series probes toward the Moon. The rocket used was the R-7, which was basically the same type rocket used to launch Sputnik. On the 13th, the Luna 2 probe separated from the third stage of the rocket, which travelled alongside it on the way to the Moon.

Its predecessor, Luna 1, had discovered evidence for the Solar Wind; Luna 2 confirmed the evidence of this discovery. It also provided information about the Van Allen Radiation belt discovered by the American space Probe Explorer 1. On its way to the Moon, the capsule expelled a cloud of orange sodium particles, which could be seen from Earth and helped scientists track its voyage.

Incidentally, during this time Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was making his historic visit to the United States. Disney fans such as myself might remember that Walt Disney was looking forward to a potential visit of the Premier to Disneyland, when he would be able to proudly boast of his own "submarine fleet" ( the Submarine Ride at Disneyland). That visit did not occur due to security concerns.

On the 13th, Luna-2 became the first object to impact the Moon. Crunch.

Friday, September 11, 2009

STS-128: Touchdown!

Dust from the runway swirls into the wingtip vortices.

STS-128 comes to an end as the shuttle Discovery was directed to land at Edwards AFB in California. There were two additional opportunities to land at Cape Kennedy in Florida, but weather restrictions put an end to that. Next up for the shuttle is a ride atop the ferry 747.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Busy day for Space projects

Solid Rocket Motor ignites!

It was a busy space day. Not too far from the SpaceRubble Command Bunker, ATK and NASA test-fired the solid rocket motor assembly that will be the basis of the first stage for the Ares I rocket for the Constellation program. This rocket vomits out a tremendous amount of power and flame, and it sure looked like a successful test on my side of the monitor. This would have been a great event to attend if I'd been able to.

Ares I-X being assembled in the vast Vehicle Assembly Building

Currently NASA is assembling the first actual test rocket for the program in its VAB facility at the Kennedy Space Center. This test flight keeps getting delayed. To be honest, I am not sure that there will be any test flights after this one, given the gloomy budget analysis by the government's Augustine Commission - but that's another story.

Japan's H2 rocket and HTV payload prior to launch

Meanwhile, congratulations are due to Japan's successful launch today of the HTV cargo carrier into orbit. The HTV is similar in purpose to the European ATV, which is designed to carry supplies and equipment to the ISS in Earth orbit. The HTV is scheduled to rendezvous with the ISS on or about September 17. Japan has worked very hard to get the H2 heavy lift rocket operational, and I am sure there are many celebratory parties still going on across the Pacific. This really helps Japan get in the ISS game. Remember, Japan recently had a successful satellite orbit of the Moon, and earlier this year got their astronaut Koichi Wakata back from a long stay on the ISS. Glad to see their success!

At last word tonight, two attempts at a landing in Florida for mission STS-128 have been scrubbed due to developing storms. There will be two more early evening attempts Friday, and if that is scrubbed, NASA will look at a possible landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Of course, they don't want to do that, due to the incredible high cost of then shuttling the shuttle on the back of the 747 back to Florida.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

STS-128: Shuttle Separation Complete

Beautiful NASA pic of shuttle some distance away. That's the KIBO module in the top of the frame. The shuttle performed a fly-around of the ISS before moving some distance away.

Last night I had a personal verification that the shuttle Discovery had undocked and moved away from the station. I had been attending a meeting of the Salt Lake City chapter of IPMS (International Plastic Modeler Society) in the South Salt Lake city center building. As the meeting ended, I walked out of the east doors to head to the parking garage and suddenly noticed two bright stars above the distant mountain tops. Only... they were moving.

I immediately recognized the two brilliant points of light for what they were, the brightest would be the ISS, and the other was the shuttle as it moved away from the station. It was pure coincidence that I spotted them, as it only takes about 5-7 minutes for them to cross the sky overhead. A couple minutes later, they were gone over the eastern horizon - not even enough time to run inside and tell the other modelers to come watch. Once gone, I continued to my car, knowing that I had seen one of those few moments when one of us normal citizens get to witness a piece of the space program.

You can have a chance to see it, too. Go to and look for the link to its SImple Satellite Tracker, which will help you calculate viewing times for your location. Remember, with each shuttle flight we are getting closer to the point where the shuttle will no longer fly in our sky. Don't miss your few last chances.

Monday, September 7, 2009

STS-128: Preparing to Undock

Quietly flying on the Dark Side of the Earth

As I write this the astronauts are in sleep mode and about an hour from wake up calls from Mission Control in Houston. Yesterday the shuttle team and ISS crew members completed most of the packing of the Leonardo Module and had a half day off of light activities, including broadcasts to journalists, one of which was a teleconference call with representatives of Sweden. The Leonardo, built by Italy for the European Space Agency, is a transportable module for use with the shuttle that allows scientists to transport supplies, equipment, and experiments up to the ISS, and then bring back waste objects, broken equipment, and finished experiments for evaluation.

The crew will detach the Leonardo module today and store it in the Discovery's large bay, then prepare the shuttle for undocking which should occur before midnight tonight.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

STS-128: Update

Discovery docked at ISS. Photo taken during yesterday's EVA.

Yesterday astronauts completed the third spacewalk of mission STS-128. The two spacwalkers replaced a gyroscope assembly, installed a Global Positioning System assembly (there are several on the station) and a payload attachment system, among other things.

Today astronauts will complete loading the Leonardo module with items for return to Earth and take a half day off.

What would you do with a half day of free time in the ISS?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

STS-128: Second Spacewalk successful

ISS viewed from approaching shuttle

Astronauts completed their second spacewalk successfully. I had originally got it wrong evidently when I said the old ammonia tank had been stored in the shuttle cargo bay during the first spacewalk. That task was actually done during the second spacewalk, and the new ammonia tank installed. Engineers and astronauts have activated the new tank and it is performing well. After a few other tasks, the astronauts completed their EVA and returned inside the station.

The third and final spacewalk will be performed by Danny Olivas and Christer Fugelsang Saturday afternoon. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew is loading the empty Leonardo logistics module with items to be returned to Earth from ISS.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

STS-128: Spacewalk in progress

Preparing to lock down the ammonia tank in Discovery's cargo bay.

As I write this the astronauts are removing the ISS Ammonia Tank Assembly from the External Truss for storage in the Discovery's Cargo Bay. Danny Olivas and Nicole Stott (Expedition 20 ISS member) have been out there for a bit over 4 hours now.

They make it look so easy, but it's the result of countless hours of practice and preparation. With the effects of Zero-G, the tank appears to move so effortlessly, yet we have to remember that mass still matters in space. Moving mass has momentum, and unchecked careless maneuvers could result in smashed bodies and torn spacesuits. There is nothing easy in space. But it is all worth it.

Along with the used ammonia tank, the astronauts will recover several exposed experiments and store them in the cargo bay as well.

50 YA - Atlas ICBM becomes Operational

Atlas missile test at Vandenberg AFB, California

Fifty years ago, the Atlas InterContinental Ballistic Missile was designated as operational at Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California. It's purpose was to launch a heavy nuclear warhead across the oceans to reach the Soviet Union, should a nuclear war be declared. Thankfully that never happened. In 1959, 6 of the missiles were placed in service, with that number doubling over the next year.

Atlas Launch

Although there were still to be many test launches (and some spectacular failures as well), the Atlas was definitely more capable than the Redstone. Both of these missiles were being tested for other purposes than warhead delivery. The Redstone (Jupiter-derived) would be used later to launch our first two Mercury manned missions (suborbital), and the Atlas would eventually launch other Mecury orbital missions and satellite projects as well.

STS-128: Docking Trouble Overcome

View of the approach through Discovery's hatch port.

During the docking of shuttle Discovery to the ISS, it seems there was some trouble with one of the maneuvering thrusters on the spacecraft. The astronauts train well to overcome these sorts of problems, so it proved to be no big deal and docking was completed as scheduled.

That's just the sort of thing that makes those flight simulators worthwhile. Remember the movie Apollo 13? Thruster malfunction was the same problem they threw at the Apollo crew in the simulator.

View of ISS docking port through Discovery window. Two Russian capsules are seen in the lower background. At the end of the left module in front are two objects that are the objective of the spacewalk coming up.

The crew has attached the "Leonardo" cargo module and are busy transferring equipment and supplies. Two astronauts will perform the first spacewalk Tuesday at 3:49 pm Mountain Time.