Thursday, April 28, 2011

50 YA: A Volley of Rockets

Argo D-4 Javelin Sounding Rocket.

Fifty years ago, NASAexperienced a very busy week as experiments were launched into the atmosphere, into space, and testing the first American space capsule. On April 27th, 1961, NASA launched a Javelin rocket under direction of the Goddard Space Flight Center. Its scientific payload was used to collect information about the density of electrons in the ionosphere, one of the highest levels of our atmosphere. I haven't been able to identify where the rocket was launched from.

Juno-2 Rocket.

I do know that the Explorer XI space probe was successfully launched from Cape Canaveral on the 28th. Lofted into orbit by the Juno-2 rocket, the probe was the first satellite designed to detect gamma rays coming from the farthest reaches of space.

Little Joe 5-b

Mercury spacecraft 14A was blasted from Wallops Island on the same day. This unmanned test of the Mercury space capsule gave NASA another practice round of launching and recovering the capsule. It seems to have been a perfect test, providing much needed data in preparation for launching our first astronaut into space. The capsule splashed down 9 miles from Wallops Station and was successfully recovered. It is currently displayed at the Virginia Air and Space Center.

Future design studies continued ini preparation for other Air Force and NASA programs. On the 28th, NASA engineers turned in their final report on using the Saturn booster (then under development) to theoretically launch the proposed Dyna-Soar space plane. The Dyna-Soar was under theoretical testing and in the design stage to be used as a reusable space glider for the Air Force.

Artist impression of a Dyna-Soar launch on a Titan booster.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

STS 134 crew arrives at Kennedy for launch

T-38s line up after landing.

The crew of space shuttle mission STS-134 arrived at the Kennedy SPace Center today, flying in their NASA T-38 jet trainers which they use for rapid transit and flight practice.

Commander Mark Kelly disembarks.

The crew got together for press pictures and to make some comments. Commander Kelly's wife, Gabriella Giffords, will be on site Friday to watch the launch. She is recovering from an assassination attempt several months ago, when she and a half-dozen others were shot while she greeted her constituents at a shopping mall in Arizona. Giffords is a member of the US House of Representatives. Her recovery from a bullet in the head is a medical miracle.

Just smile and wave, Boys...

Once the conference was over the astronauts headed to the space center to begin preparations for Friday's launch, scheduled now for 1:47 pm MDT. Commander Kelly and pilot Greg Johnson were scheduled to practice flying the Shuttle Training Aircraft this afternoon, in preparation for landing the shuttle when the mission is over.

Monday, April 25, 2011

50 YA: MA-3 Rocket Launch

MA-3 blast off from Cape Canaveral.

Continuing the test preparations for launching an American into space, NASA conducted an unplanned unmanned test of the launch escape system from a functional Atlas rocket. On April 25, 1961, Mercury-Atlas 3 (MA-3) lifted off from launch complex 14. As a full-up test, a functional Mercury capsule (spacecraft #8) was set atop the Atlas rocket. Instead of an astronaut, a mechanical dummy with sensors onboard was placed in the capsule.

Forty-three seconds after blastoff, something went wrong with the Atlas rocket which lost control of its maneuvering. Safety rules demanded that the range officer activate the self-destruct so that the rocket could not pose a threat to communities along the coast of Florida. The launch escape system was activated just before the rocket blew up. The system saved the capsule, which was happily recovered about 20 minutes after the start of liftoff. It would be re-used on the next MA test flight.

Meanwhile, the astronauts (the Mercury "Seven") and the American public wondered when oh when would America launch its own voyager into space.

Friday, April 22, 2011

50 YA - Rocket tests

Wallops Island, Virginia in 1961.

One of the early rocket test facilities used by NASA in the Space Race was located on an island on the coast of Virginia. NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) built the rocket launch site originally to be used in research for high speed drones and fighters. Once NASA was created in 1958 by President Eisenhower, the facility was incorporated into NASA as Wallops Station. Between 1959 and 1961, Mercury space capsules were tested at this site in preparation for sending the first American into space. The test vehicles used were the Little Joe rockets (which have been covered here on Spacerubble already).

Wallops is also famous for the research done there using sounding rockets. These smaller high-speed launch vehicles are used to test flight characteristics and launch small payloads for science into the upper atmosphere and sometimes into orbit. For example, 50 years ago on April 22, 1961, a Trailblazer 1 seven-stage rocket was launched to measure and analyze the effects of re-entry on objects. This of course in preparation for having a manned spacecraft re-enter the atmosphere.

Juno IRBM NASA launch at night.

On the same day as the Trailblazer launch from Wallops Station, Italian air force crews working at NASA launched a test Juno IRBM (Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile) from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The flight probably took place at either Launch Complex 5 or LC 26. At the time, the Jupiter IRBM, derived from the Juno rocket (pictured above) was being prepared for use as part of NATO's defense against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Italy, as one of our allies in NATO, would eventually establish a Jupiter launch complex in the Mediterranean as part of that defense. Fifty years ago today, they test-launched a Juno IRBM from Cape Canaveral as part of their preparations.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

50 YA: Explorer X and the Solar Wind

Explorer 10 installation before launch.

While The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. raced against each other to put a man in space, science marched on. On April 19, 1961, the Explorer space probe sent back information that helped scientists understand better the interaction of the solar wind with magnetic fields. Ever since the discovery of Earth's Van Allen Radiation belt using our first probe, Explorer 1, NASA scientists had been gaining more and more information about what the space environment was like beyond Earth's orbit.

Thor-Delta on pad 17. (Actually Explorer 14 assembly)

With the placement of Explorer 10 in Earth's orbit on March 25, 1961, we learned that the strong solar wind actually was helping to extend the Sun's magnetic field out beyond Earth's orbit. The probe gathered a lot of information about our own magnetic field and the interaction of the solar wind and the Earth.

Experiment simulating solar wind / magnetic field interaction.

We've eventually learned that the solar wind and particles from the Sun can play havoc with our orbiting satellites. In fact, strong solar winds can even cause some spacecraft to eventually lower their altitude. This was the case with the abandoned Skylab space station, which eventually was lowered so much that it got caught by the atmosphere and burned up earlier than predicted.

Explorer 10 itself burned up on re-entry on June 1, 1968.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

STS 134: Getting ready for Endeavor's Last Flight

Pre-launch dress rehearsal on the launch pad.

Liftoff for shuttle Endeavor on mission STS 134 is scheduled for about 1:47 p.m. MDT on April 29th. The cargo bay closeout has been completed, with the Alpha Spectrometer safely tucked away and ready for it's transfer to the ISS. The crew has been continuing with simulations and rehearsals for the big event.

The mission to ISS is planned to last 14 days, with the possibility of a two-day extension. The shuttle is expected to land at the Kennedy Space Center. However, I would wonder if they should rethink that and land it at Edwards AF base which is much closer to its new home in California. After all, flying the shuttle from Florida generally costs about $2 million per flight!

With the closeout of the STS program this year, NASA has determined that the shuttles and the shuttle training equipment will go to museums around the country. Shuttle Endeavor has been selected to go to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

50 YA- Yuri Gagarin: First in Space

Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

Fifty Years Ago, the people of the world were stunned to hear the announcement that the Soviets had launched the first man into space. Senior Lieutenant Gagarin of the Soviet Air Force rode the Vostok 1 into orbit around the Earth. The flight last 108 minutes. Just as he was completing the first orbit, he re-entered the atmosphere to land on Soviet territory. The first capsule he rode did not allow for the pilot to remain inside as it landed; for safety's sake he jumped from the capsule as it descended and floated down on his own parachute.

Instant Hero of the Soviet Union, and the World.

The news spread quickly around the world. The Soviets used this momentous occasion to belittle the United States space program and aggrandize their own. To be honest, they were ahead of the United States in one way: They had the rocket capable of lifting the heaviest payload into space. In the coming days, I'll examine why the US lost the race to be the first to put a human pilot into space.

Vostok 1 Control Panel.

Gagarin was more of a passenger than a pilot for this flight. The Soviet military had only sent up dogs before this flight, and were not entirely sure that a human would remain coherent during weightlessness. Mission Control on the ground kept control of most of the flight, with Gagarin providing commentary and observations. He was 27 at the time. Sadly, because of his hero status, he was not permitted to fly in space again. Tragically, he died in an aircraft accident in 1968.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Soyuz 26 Docks with ISS

Soyuz 26 on approach to ISS.

At 5:09 p.m. Mountain, on Wednesday Apr 6th, the TMA21 (Soyuz 26 "Gagarin") docked successfully to the Russian Poisk module on the International Space Station. Three hours later, after the craft had been shut down, pressures equalized and all systems readied, the hatch opened and Expedition 27 received its three new members.

They are expected to remain on board the ISS until September. Halfway through their time in space, in May, this group of three will become the new Expedition 28 crew when the first half of their team leaves the station for a landing on Earth.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Soyuz launches from Baikonaur

NASA TV covers launch of Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft.

At about 4:18 Mountain time, the second half of the Expedition 27 crew blasted off from the Russian space center in Kazakhstan. While preparing for the launch, astronaut Ron Garan used his Twitter account to describe the step by step process. His last "tweet": "LIFTOFF!" He expects to keep contact with his twitter fans throughout the stay aboard ISS.

The spacecraft is planned to dock with ISS after 5 p.m. MDT on Wednesday. Like most ISS crewmembers, the crew expects to stay on ISS for approximately six months. Each Expedition of 6 is divided into two sections, which alternate between expeditions so that one half goes home as a new half of the crew comes up to the station. It can get confusing sometimes about which expedition is currently in operation! The first half of the Expedition 27 crew arrived on ISS in December.

The current plans for flights to ISS have been altered. Due to the need to launch a Progress resupply vessel before the next shuttle visit, the flight of STS 134 has been postponed until April 29th. Currently, the ISS crew performs maintenance on station systems, microgravity and space experiments, and preparations for the arrival of the shuttle.

Monday, April 4, 2011

ISS Update - Soyuz to launch today.

Ron Garan, Alexander Samokutyaev, and Andrey Borisenko.

Reinforcements for Expedition 27 are coming. The Soyuz 26 capsule will be launched today from Baikonur to deliver the three new members of Expedition 27. The launch is expected to be around 4:18 p.m. MDT.

The current three members of Expedition 27 are Paulo Nespoli, Cady Coleman, and Commander Dmitry Kondratyev. They have been busy performing maintenance of station equipment and preparing the Quest airlock for upcoming spacewalks.

There was an expected maneuver of the ISS during the sleep portion of the day. Using thrusters from the ATV2 (European robotic cargo capsule), Zvesda (ISS module), and the Progress 41P (Russian supply capsule) the station was moved slightly to avoid a piece of space debris. The danger was a piece of wreckage from the collision of two satellites back in 2009.

ESA's ATV2 (named Johannes Kepler) docked to the ISS. Handy for maneuvers.

Besides the new members of Expedition 27, the ISS will also this month receive a visit from one of the last shuttle missions. STS134 is scheduled to launch on April 19th, bringing with it the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and needed supplies.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

50 YA - X-15 Flight w/Joe Walker

X-15 rocket on wing pylon of the B-52 bomber.

Fifty years ago, on March 30, NASA was still learning everything they could about how to control a craft at high altitude, and effectively, the beginnings of outer space. NASA pilot Joe Walker, a test pilot flew the X-15 to an altitude of 169,000 feet while speeding along at Mach 3.95! It was the highest any man had flown at the time, and included two minutes of weightlessness at the apogee of the climb before heading back down to the ground.

Test Pilot Joe Walker.

When most people interested in X-planes and space history think of the X-15, we usually think of Scott Crossfield and Neil Armstrong, the two more popular pilots among the dozen that flew the rocket. Joe was in fact the first to fly the X-15, although Scott Crossfield became the first regular pilot for the craft. Joe was named second to be a regular X-15 pilot.

Back in the day... Joe Walker with the Bell X-1E, an early rocket test plane.

I don't feel I've given the X-15 pilots their due in this blog, so from time to time I'll try to cover some of their activities. The X-15 program was vital to our preparations for building manned spacecraft and the early flights into space. Kids and adults of all ages who are interested in airplanes know about the X-15, and many model airplane builders have a model X-15 in their collection. Joe would go on to some pretty impressive test flights, which we'll cover as we reach them. Eventually, he would be involved in one of the most controversial test plane incidents of all time. More on that in five years.