Monday, April 23, 2012

50 YA: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

X-15 #1 on the dry lakebed at Edwards AFB, CA.

Fifty years ago this last week, NASA was making advances in aviation and space, while still suffering mishaps on the way to landing a man on the Moon. To help engineers and scientists better understand how to use technology to pilot craft in the fringe regions of the upper atmosphere, NASA continued using the X-15 rocket plane program. On April 19, 1962, NASA pilot Joe Walker flew the X-15 number 3 craft for its 50th successful flight. The X-15 was lifted high by a B-52 "mothership" and released over the Edwards AFB desert lakebed. The mission for this flight was to test an emergency flight control system. Walker reached a speed of Mach 5.84 (that's about 3,920 mph!) and an altitude of 150,000 feet!

Joe Walker posing with the number 2 X-15.

Joe Walker was NASA's first pilot to fly the X-15, even though he was chosen second after Scott Crossfield. On his first flight on the X-15, he hadn't been really ready for the crushing G-Force acceleration, and when he was shoved back into his seat he blurted out, "Oh My God!" A flight controller, hearing the exclamation, jokingly responded, "Yes, you called?"

Not one to sit on its laurels, NASA proceeded with additional flights. The next day, April 20, 1962, NASA pilot Neil Armstrong flew the X-15 #3 on a mission to 207,000 feet high at a speed of Mach 5.33. We'll hear more from Neil Armstrong, of course.

X-15 #3 lands at Edwards AFB, shadowed by an F-104 chase plane.

Neil Armstrong posing with X-15 number 1.

On April 22, 1962, famous woman pilot Jacqueline Cochran flew a Lockheed Jetstar (AF designation: C-140) over the Atlantic ocean to become the first woman to fly a jet over the Atlantic ocean. The flight took off from New Orleans, LA. and landed at Hannover, Germany for a distance of 5,120 miles. The flight as a woman pilot qualified her for 49 world records.

Cochrane in cockpit, with Chuck Yeager (first to break the sound barrier) standing.

NASA Jetstar.

While aviation records were being made, on April 23, NASA tried to send the Ranger IV probe to the Moon. Launched from the Atlantic Missile Range, an Atlas-Agena blasted off with the Ranger IV on board and successfully entered Earth's orbit. NASA then configured the Agena-B booster for a trajectory to the Moon and activated the engine. Evidently, a failure occurred in the timer on board the Ranger IV payload and the vehicle lost both internal and ground control. With the spacecraft off course, NASA engineers calculated the Ranger IV would skim the edge of the Moon and eventually would crash onto the far side of the Moon. No experiments survived and no data was recorded.

Atlas-Agena B liftoff. The Atlas rocket is the same rocket NASA was now using for the Mercury launches.

The crash would occur on April 26th. The Ranger IV spacecraft was very similar to Ranger III, and was designed to take several minutes of pictures before crashing into the surface of the Moon facing the Earth. Because of the faulty trajectory however, the crash onto the backside of the Moon prevented a line-of-sight radio transmission.

Ranger IV in the assembly room.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Progress 47 up and away; Dragon gets ready

Progress 47 on its way to ISS.

The unmanned Progress 47 mission blasted off this morning from its Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan. The cargo spacecraft carries two and a half tons of food, fuel and supplies to the ISS. Docking is scheduled for Sunday.

Meanwhile, SpaceX and NASA prepare for the expected April 30 launch of the Falcon rocket with the Dragon spacecraft. This significant launch will see if SpaceX can maintain its testing schedule, and successfully dock with the ISS as the first non-government spacecraft to do so.

Dragon spacecraft on the Falcon 9 at the pad.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Discovery on its last trip across America

Flying past the VAB in Florida.

Yesterday the shuttle Discovery was carried by its Boeing 747 transporter from Florida to its new home in Washington, D.C. Millions of people across the eastern seaboard of America turned out to watch the giant pair soar low across the cities and towns for one last time together. Discovery's new home will be at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, where it will continue to be seen by millions of future visitors. While their trip in the air started from the 5-mile runway at Cape Canaveral, their adventure started days before in a delicate maneuver to attach the heavy shuttle to the back of the 747.

Discovery and the new Orion at Cape Canaveral.

Before the trip, the shuttle was made safe for viewing and certain parts removed for reuse or storage elsewhere. For example, the three main engines were removed and replaced with perfect replicas. For a short time, Discovery shared the same hangar as the Orion test Capsule, and in the picture above you can see the hand off from the old program to the future program. OK, maybe I'm still reaching.

Once the shuttle was ready, it was moved to the runway where it was hoisted by a giant gantry built just for this purpose. Usually, the shuttle is removed at this location after being flown to Florida from the Edwards AFB in case of a California desert landing. This time, the shuttle was gently hoisted up into the structure.

The hoist is readied for lifting.

Discovery's well-traveled nose.

Windows shuttered and all packaged up, Discovery was lifted up over 5 stories so the 747 would be able to drive underneath. Looking at Discovery's nose, you can still see the effects of the last re-entry through the Earth's atmosphere on its voyage home. I don't know if the Museum will leave it in that condition of restore it to a clean state. Eventually the 747 arrived and moved toward the gantry.

Cometh the Giant.

NASA has two giant 747 aircraft refitted to carry the shuttles. The first one was used in early experiments with USS Enterprise to test the orbiter's flying and landing capabilities. Bit of trivia: One of those Enterprise pilots testing the shuttle landings was astronaut Fred Haise, who survived the incredible Apollo 13 mission with Jim Lovell and Jack Swigert. For this trip, NASA pilots would do all the flying.

Steady... steady...

With the Jumbo Jet in place, the shuttle was gently lowered onto the adapters and secured for the voyage. Yesterday morning the pair lifted off the long runway at Kennedy Space Center. I can envision the highways covered with cars and people applauding and cheering their last view of this great shuttle flying through the air once again.

Last earthly docking of the space ship Discovery.

A more gentle liftoff.
Credit: Justin Ray/SpaceFlight Now
Read more about the shuttle and this trip :

On approach to Dulles International airport at Washington, D.C.
Credit: Clara Moskowitz/
Read her article on

With the shuttle now safely on the ground, it will be towed to its new home at the museum, while we watch re-runs and videos of what once was.

Discovery in orbit with cargo bay doors open and robotic arm extended. Picture from the ISS.

NASA officials, Senator Leahy, and the crew of the 747 SCA
(Shuttle Carrier Aircraft)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

NASA Torn over AGW

GOES-15 satellite in assembly. This satellite, launched in 2010, studies the Earth's weather and climate for NASA.

The struggle over Global Warming takes on a new dimension. Three years ago, President Obama gave NASA a new directive to build new satellites to study the problem of Global Warming, and to use its resources to push the government's agenda of using AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming, meaning "man-caused") to legislate new rules against energy providers and new rules to change how Americans live. This agenda would cause many job losses and cost the American taxpayer hundreds of billions of dollars, in an attempt to "stop" Global Warming. Appointed by President Obama, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden (former shuttle astronaut and BIG fan of Barack Obama) has accepted this mission enthusiastically and directed NASA resources and facilities to cooperate in this endeavor. This effort has been pushed relentlessly by NASA's Goddard Space Center director Jim Hansen, who recently said that Global Warming is morally equivalent to slavery, and earlier said that people denying Global Warming should be prosecuted! Hansen has been politically active beyond his NASA responsibilities, working as an environmental advisor for AL Gore during his run for the Presidency (and well paid for the effort), as well as being arrested several times since 2009 for actively protesting energy issues such as the Keystone pipeline.

Well, things are getting tougher for NASA to follow the President's lead and the failing push for Global Warming belief. Yesterday, 49 NASA astronauts, scientists and employees sent Adminstrator Bolden a letter of complaint, stating that NASA should "refrain from including unproven remarks in public releases and websites." The group is concerned that NASA's Earth studies have not proven yet that Man-made carbon dioxide release is causing Global Warming, and in fact that there is a great unsettled debate about if it is actually happening. This contradicts the politicalized belief in AGW, and its adherents who claim that the science is "settled". You can read more of the letter and its argument here:’s-global-warming-endorsement/469366

In fact, NASA's own studies are now showing that the Global Warming danger does not even exist! Data from NASA satellites, climate stations and new studies are showing that there actually hasn't been warming for the last 15 years. Even Britain's own East Anglia Climatic Rwsearch Unit (which has previously been a HUGE proponent of AGW) now supports the studies which show the SUn itself has largely been a culprit in the cycles of warming and cooling over the centuries. Now, it seems the Sun is entering a period of little sunspot activity, which relates to the 11-year solar cycles. If the Sun continues in this direction, we may even see unusual COOLING in the climates which is reminiscent of several "mini-ice-ages" recorded in the last 500 years. To read more about the new studies, go here:

So what is NASA to do? Well, for one thing, they might consider firing Jim Hansen, who has been very controversial and in fact embarrassing to the agency. He continually takes money from pro-AGW political groups (such as Al Gore) and his recent arrests do nothing for the reputation of NASA. Second, how about actually performing some science? Pay attention to the actual data coming in and stop "spinning" it to match the demands of the White House.

Harrison "Jack" Schmidt, one of the signers of the petition. He was the only scientist among the astronauts to explore the lunar surface on Apollo 17.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Dodging Solar Storms

Coronal Holes (false color). Credit: SDO/AIA. Thanks to

Every morning I like to check the weather reports. Not just local weather, but also the "weather" in space. Not only do we face threats from Near-Earth-orbiting asteroids, rogue asteroids, meteor showers, and cosmic radiation, but we have a giant nuclear fusion generator only 93,000,000 miles away pumping out stellar winds and radioactive storms that could damage life on Earth. It's interesting that the active events in our solar system have been linked to weather descriptions on Earth.

Thanks to Dr. Tony Phillips, you can watch out for our interplanetary space weather, too. He's created the website to bring you the latest news in space storms and potential hazards to Earth. Over the years, as I've visited the site each day, I've really come to understand better the overall picture of our solar system's "weather" cycles and how it all affects us here on planet Earth.

Take sunspots, for example:

Woops! No big Spots!

Every day you can monitor the surface of the Sun that faces the Earth. Sunspots are linked to magnetic solar storms which can emit large blasts of energy towards the Earth. More significantly, recent studies of sunspot populations over time has revealed that the amount of sunspots often has influence on the amount of cosmic radiation hitting the Earth, and even how much cloud cover we have, therefore impacting Global Warming. Forget about the minimal natural effect carbon dioxide has on the climate, the Sun is the real culprit!

And then there's coronal holes. As seen in the top picture, we study x-rays from the sun to monitor these gaping holes in the Sun's plasma, and we've learned how magnetic lines flowing from the holes directs the Solar Wind. That wind also has its affect upon our atmosphere. Thank goodness for our own magnetic fields, which shield us from the Sun's expulsion of solar particles.

Currently, it seems the surface of the Sun is quiet with regard to Sunspots, but coronal holes exist and solar flares could erupt towards Earth at any time. On, you can look at predictions for the Sun's interference with our magnetic fields, and when a large coronal mass ejection occurs, you can read warnings of when the storms will hit Earth and expected damage that could be done. Some storms have been able to knock out power grids, interfere with satellite communications, threaten radiation damage to astronauts, and worse. It was increased solar activity which caused the rapid loss of altitude of the famous Skylab space station in the early 1970's eventually causing it to enter the Earth's atmosphere far earlier than planned.

Of course we also get the magnificent Aurora Borealis, the Northern lights. With the change in seasons, we now approach the time when the rising Sun will be up in the Arctic circle for 6 months, and the night lights (interaction of solar particles with the Earth's magnetic fields) will not be visible again until Winter. The past winter has seen tremendous northern lights activity, even being spotted as far south as Northern Utah on rare occasions.

Make a visit to Check out why there may be little sunspot activity for now, how that may affect us on Earth, and how it relates to the Sun's 11-year cycle.

So don't just think about if there might be some rain this morning or if there's a dangerous storm front approaching. Watch out for spaceweather!

Monday, April 9, 2012

A Plethora of Rocket Launches

Delta IV launch from Vandenberg AFB.

Did I say "Plethora?" Yes, I did. While we go about our busy lives working, going to school, etc., the spacefaring countries continue to launch rocket after rocket. I love it. Just in the last week, the USA, China and Russia each launched a satellite into space, adding to the vast population of robotic servants in orbit of the Earth. I mostly focus on events dealing with human space exploration, but I do enjoy learning about the world's rocket market. Last week, The Airforce had a Delta IV launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, lofting a classified satellite for the NAtional Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Most likely a spy satellite.

Long March 3b. Credit: China Great Wall Industry Corporation. Or if you really want to be precise, Thank you America for the technological advances.

On Saturday March 31, China used a Long March 3b rocket to orbit a commercial communications satellite called Apstar 7. This television and Internet satellite will serve customers in the African and Pacific areas.

Proton-K/DM-2 rocket.

On Friday MArch 30, Russia launched a Proton-K/DM-2 rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome. The payload was a military Early Warning satellite designed to alert Russia if anyone launches military missiles against them. An interesting point about the rocket: It is the last of the Proton-K types to be used. The new version designated Proton-M has been in use since 2001.

Happy to see so many successful rocket launches. Russia had an unfortunate series of rocket failures lately, so it seems all went well in March.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

ATV-3 Resupply Docks with ISS

ATV-3 (left) approaches the docking port of the Zvezda Module (right).

On Friday, March 23, the European Space Agency launched the third in their series of Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV) to resupply the International Space Station. ATV-3 was nicknamed "Edoardo Amaldi" after an Italian scientist. The launch, operated by ArianneSpace, took place at the Agency's Korou, French Guiana space center in Northern South America. The mighty Arianne 5 rocket lifted off for an 8-minute ride to orbit, lifting the 20-ton cargo vessel in a beautiful flight over the Atlantic and past the Azore islands.

ESA launch facilities in French Guiana.

ATV-3 blasts off on an Arianne 5 rocket.

The Edoardo Amaldi is the first of the ATV series of 5 launches to meet the ESA's goal of one flight per year to the ISS. The Agency hopes the remaining two flights in this first resupply program will continue to meet their goal. Soon after reaching orbit, the ATV extended its 4 solar panels and made course corrections to catch up to the orbiting ISS.

ATV-3 is powered by 4 solar panels (2 in the shadows on right). An ISS solar panel, seen edge-on, blocks the front view of the ATV.

ATV-3 finally caught up to the ISS and docked to the aft end of the Russian-built Zvesda Service Module on March 28th. Although the craft itself weighs about 20 tons, its cargo comprised about six and a half tons of propellant, air, water, food, and other supplies needed for operations. It will remain docked to the ISS for 5 months. One of its most important missions will be to use it's own propellant and engines to boost the altitude of the ISS higher above the Earth.