Friday, March 23, 2012

50 YA - Kennedy watches an Atlas Test

President Kennedy with Air Force Generals at Vandenberg AFB. Picture from the SAC Elite Guard Association site.

On March 23, 1962 President John F. Kennedy did something no other president had ever done. He watched a test firing of an Atlas D InterContinental Ballistic MIssile (ICBM) from a silo at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Vandenberg AFB was the site for many of the military test missions of ICBM's, and also included launch silos for operational use of in-service ICBMs.

Welcome for Air Force One and the President. Picture from the SAC Elite Guard Association site.

It's important for us to remember today, that way back then in the early 60's our nation was experiencing the Cold War with our enemies, Soviet Russia. ICBMs stood by in each country ready to launch and inflict nuclear warfare on the other nation. So it seems more than appropriate that the American President should have been witness to a launch of our country's most important defensive weapon at the time. At the same time, both of our countries were engaged in a politically-inspired race of technology to conquer space and lead the world in space technology. In 1962, the Soviets seemed to be winning that race, and President Kennedy was gearing up the nation to be the first to land men on the Moon.

Atlas D ICBM at Pad 12 at Cape Canaveral.

The rocket launched that day from California was the Atlas D model ICBM. This type first flew in 1959. The operational rocket witness by the President was launched from a silo buried in the ground to protect it from enemy attack and hide it from surveillance. I was unable to find a picture of the silo and launch, though there is a video on Youtube that shows President Kennedy observing the blast-off:
(Thanks HelmerReenberg and Youtube!) I've included a picture of an Atlas D model at Launch Complex 12 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The Atlas D was used for other NASA purposes as well, including 4 Mercury Program launches.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

50 YA - Astronaut Selection Changes in 1962

The Mercury 7 astronauts with model of Mercury-Atlas.

With the success of Mercury-Atlas 6 and John Glenn orbiting the Earth in his capsule Freedom 7, NASA continued preparations for the next mission. However, there was an unexpected change in mission assignments. DUring the continuous medical examinations of the astronauts, NASA doctors detected an "erratic heart rate" in astronaut Deke Slayton (second from left front in picture above). The Air Force medical board and the assigned civilian cardiologists recommended that he be disqualified for assignment as an astronaut. In his place would go astronaut Scott Carpenter.

Scott Carpenter in the "White Room" inspecting the bulkhead of his capsule, which he nicknamed "Aurora 7."

Scott Carpenter was a Lt. Commander in the U.S. Navy. After WW2 he learned aeronautical engineering, and during the Korean War he flew anti-submarine patrols in Navy patrol planes. He became a test pilot for the Navy, and eventually was selected as an astronaut. He served as backup pilot for John Glenn on the MA-6 mission. Now, he was moved to be the prime pilot for MA-7.

Astronaut Deke Slayton in Mercury spacesuit during tests.

Donald "Deke" Slayton was trained by the US Air Force as a B-25 bomber pilot and flew 56 combat missions in Europe during World War 2. Later he flew the A-26 attack bomber in the Pacific against the Japanese for 7 missions before the war ended. After the war, he studied aeronautical engineering and became a test pilot, eventually flying such famous planes as the F-101, F-102, F-105, and F-106 jet fighters. No doubt he was deeply disappointed by the medical decision to cut him from assignments. In fact, there were many pilots and astronauts who sided with Deke against this decision but could not change NASA management's decision.

With his assignment changed, Deke decided to stay in the program for the time being and continue helping to test and prepare missions for the Mercury Program.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

SpaceX Makes Progress on Manned Capsule

Sure looks like 7 astronauts could fit in there!

SpaceX, creator of the Dragon spacecraft and Falcon rocket systems, continues to engineer a manned version of their Dragon cargo spacecraft. In the photo above, courtesy SpaceX, seven NASA engineers, astronauts, and SpaceX engineers worked out crew space requirements in an engineering model of the future Dragon Capsule. This crew trial is one of two important crew tests in the development of SpaceX's entry in the Commercial Crew Development race. Other companies competing to send astronauts to the ISS include Boeing, ATK, Lockheed (NASA Orion capsule) and several others.

What the Dragon cargo module will look like approaching the ISS. The Dragon crewed vehicle will look very similar.

SpaceX is preparing to launch their first official mission carrying cargo to the ISS in late April. With the hopeful success of that mission, SpaceX will begin contracted work to regularly deliver essential supplies and experiments to the ISS, and return valuable equipment to the Earth (which is not capable of any other current cargo craft).

NASA's own crewed capsule, Orion is currently in testing but is scheduled for a crewed launch in 2021, which seems a long ways from today. Will SpaceX beat NASA in their own game? Let's see how they do with their cargo mission next month, but I'm putting my money on SpaceX.

You can read more about SpaceX's crew testing on their site:

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

ISS: Robotic Refueling Experiments Look Good

Dextre robotic controls (on right) work on the RRM module.

Dextre is a robotic Instrument that works on the outside of the International Space Station. Built by the Canadian Space Agency, Dextre includes manipulator hands and tools that astronauts use to grasp satellites and experiments, move them around, and operate exterior controls. The RRM (Robotic Refueling Mission) is NASA's program to practice combining human and robotic skills to refuel and repair satellites in space.

The RRM module assists the NASA engineers in designing procedure steps and astronaut skills to perform tasks that would normally be done by an astronaut in a spacesuit making a dangerous EVA (spacewalk). The success of these experiments will help ISS astronauts and ground mission controllers to service space vehicles while in orbit of Earth.

The refueling aspect of the mission is very intriguing. NASA is making plans to save launch weight and launch costs by preparing "fuel depots" in orbit. When a space craft reaches orbit, the Refueling robots can then fuel up the space craft''s engines prior to launching outward to other planets or destinations. Refueling would also extend the life of satellites whose station-keeping thrusters have run out of propellant. Extending the serviceable life of satellites will save millions of dollars.

For long-duration flights, it would be possible to send fuel to distant locations and then fuel up a spacecraft for a return home. This new capability opens up new possibilities for exploring the solar system.

During March 7-9, astronauts on the ISS and NASA mission controllers were able to successfully pass many of the tests that will be needed to master before working on real satellites. One test included working Dextre's precision cutting tools to slip under two small wires, and cut them with only a few millimeters of room to spare. This type of precision will be absolutely necessary in making future repairs to spacecraft, such as servicing Hubble.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Solar Storm Attacks Earth!

False Color image of Solar Eruption.

Well, yes, it's a solar storm, and yes, it is hitting the Earth, so I call it an attack just for the effect. But the fact is, this Solar Flare that is hitting the Earth and causing fantastic Polar Lights could just as well cause interference in satellite communications. These disruptions could affect GPS navigation systems, high-flying aircraft travel, power grid transmission lines, and radio signals. Listen to news updates for anything serious though.

This all stems from what's called a CME, or "Coronal Mass Ejection" that occurred on the Sun yesterday and has begun hitting the Earth's magnetic field.

Shields Up!

You can get detailed information on the best site I know for tracking this storm, SpaceWeather, at:

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Delays in Resupply to ISS

Falcon 9 and Dragon under preparation.

It will not launch earlier than late April, but SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon resupply capsule are making progress towards their flight. The soon-to-be-historic flight will accomplish two major milestones for SpaceX. The mission combines its next objective, that of a rendezvous near the station, with its next objective, which is actual docking. By achieving the two goals in one flight, SpaceX will leap forward in their progress and save money as well. If successful, it ill be the first commercial resupply of the ISS (outside of Space Agencies). Last week, the Falcon 9 rocket seen in the picture above made a successful testing on the pad of its fueling and simulated launch.

ATV-2 on approach to ISS.

Meanwhile. on Friday March 2, European Space Agency directors announced a delay in the launching of the next cargo resupply to the ISS. Workers will need to re-enter the cargo area of the craft, designated ATV-3 (Automated Transfer Vehicle 3) to retighten cargo straps and prevent load shifting during the launch. This delay will move the launch to March 23. The ATV-3, officially nicknamed Edualdo Amaldi (after an Italian physics scientist), will carry 7 tons of fuel, water, air, and supplies to keep operations going on the ISS. The ATV is to be launched on top the Arianne 5 rocket from the Guiana Space Center in South America.