Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Dragon to ISS: So Far, So Good

Dragon docked with Harmony module.

A new World Record: The first  company to dock a commercially-owned and operated spacecraft to the ISS. After spending some orbits maneuvering the Dragon near and around the station, the final moment came and Dragon began inching toward the ISS. On Friday morning, the Dragon came within grappling range of the station.

Dragon on Approach.

Dragon closing in to ISS. Good view of the solar panels, which were used successfully for the first time in space.

Dragon closes towards the CanadArm for grappling.

As Dragon arrived at the grappling point, the spacecraft and station flew into the shadow of the Earth plunging everything into darkness. Happily, there was enough glow from station lights to proceed with the operation.

View from the camera on the end of the robot arm. the small three-point grappling fixture is visible on Dragon on the lower section.

Astronauts spent less time than I expected using the arm to close in on Dragon. Each step proceeded carefully but correctly.

Hurray! Success!

Once the grapple was completed, astronauts used the arm to move the Dragon to its docking berth on the U.S. Harmony module. Two hours after grabbing the module, it was finally hard docked and operations began preparations for the opening. After all pressurizations and electrical checks were completed, and the astronauts had gotten some sleep, the hatch was finally opened on Saturday morning.
Astronauts in the Dragon hatch, with supplies in Dragon visible behind them.

Astronauts began unloading 1000 pounds of cargo from the Dragon. Once empty, they will carefully load it up with equipment and experiments that need to be returned to Earth. This return capability was lost with the end of the Shuttle flights, so it is strategically important for the return portion of the mission to succeed. The Dragon is expected to return to Earth on May 31st.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

50 YA: Aurora 7 in Space!

Mercury-Atlas 7 blasts off!

Fifty years ago, on May 24, 1962, NASA launched mission MA-7 with astronaut Scott Carpenter from Launch Complex LC-14 at Cape Canaveral. The capsule, named "Aurora 7" by the astronaut, entered Earth orbit five and a half minutes later. Like John Glenn's MA-6 flight, the mission lasted for 3 orbits and completed its primary mission objectives.

Mercury Mission Control.

Some of the mission objectives were scientific. One objective was to observe liquid in a weightless environment. Another involved investigating things that John Glenn had reported during his flight, such as the airglow in the atmosphere layer, and identification of the "fireflies" Glenn had reported, which turned out to be frozen ice particles from the spacecraft exterior. Photographs were taken of the Earth and the colors in the atmospheric layer.

Photo taken from Aurora 7.

Most importantly, the spacecraft was checked out for engineering tolerances, and deemed ready for continued missions with longer orbits. Unfortunately, the Automated Control System suffered a malfunction. Astronaut Carpenter was able to manually take control and operate the spacecraft so that no mission objectives were affected, except one.

Carpenter inside the Mercury spacecraft before launch.

After a flight time of 4 hours 30 minutes, Carpenter began re-entry operations. The retro rockets fired, slowing the spacecraft so that it began to lower its altitude. Carpenter lowered and secured the periscopic viewer used for outside observations, and a minute and a half after firing the retros, the retro pack was jettisoned, exposing the heatshield for re-entry. During re-entry and the blazing fire of heated plasma around the craft, Carpenter used the spacecraft controls to orient the spacecraft position. At some point during the process, enough error entered the flightpath to cause it to go slightly off course. The main parachutes were deployed perfectly, and splashdown occurred at mission time T+4 hours, 57 minutes, 10 seconds. The only problem was, there was no one there to fetch him!

Aurora 7 in the water, with Navy frogmen assisting.

The spacecraft had overshot the expected landing area, and Carpenter found himself 402 kilometers away from where they were looking. Eventually though, he was found and Navy divers were dispatched to place a flotation collar around the capsule to prevent it sinking like what happened to Gus Grissom's capsule. Carpenter egressed from the upper hatch and entered one of the liferafts provided. The rescue ship, carrier Intrepid, arrived and the capsule was recovered and Carpenter brought on board for a successful end to the MA-7 mission.

Carpenter on the deck of USS Intrepid.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Dragon Blasts Off to ISS!

Falcon 9 rocket blasts off with Dragon spacecraft from pad LC-40.

In a remarkable first for space exploration, a private corporation has sent a spacecraft carrying supplies to the International Space Station. After the launch abort on May 19th, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) engineers replaced a faulty check valve on engine number 5 (dubbed "Merlin") and prepared for a new countdown. Early this morning at 3:44 am EDT, the engines ignited perfectly and the Falcon 9 rocket made a smooth and flawless flight into space. The Dragon capsule separated without error and entered low Earth orbit. On schedule, the Dragon deployed its twin solar panels, a first for SpaceX and the Dragon design. The next step was to "open the pod bay door"(a reference to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, if you haven't seen it, you're not a space fan...). The navigation bay pod door has to open in order to deploy several experiments and reveal the docking latch, that will be used by the ISS robotic arm to grapple the Dragon prior to docking. Engineers breathed a sigh of relief as the door successfully opened (SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted that it was a better result than that on 2001).

Dragon is on course to pass by the ISS on DAY 4 of its mission, should all orbital tests be completed. After that, the Dragon will approach the station again for a rendezvous with the CanadArm for docking. A lot of hope rides on this mission, and should it be completed successfully, it will end the test phase of the COTS2 program for SpaceX and the company will begin regular supply missions to the ISS, a great leap for commercial space applications.

Monday, May 21, 2012

SpaceX, NASA prepare for Dragon launch

Liftoff! No- Wait- Guess not...

Wonderful thing, that technology. I have this amazing device called an alarm clock that woke me a half hour before SpaceX's expected flight of the Dragon spacecraft in the wee hours of May 19. I switched to NASA TV, and there it was, SpaceX's Falcon rocket with Dragon spacecraft ready to launch. Everything seemed ready to go, until the actual launch. Then as the engine began ignition, the system automatically shut down (as it was designed to do) at T- 0.5 seconds. The cause: higher pressures than allowed in the center engine of the Falcon rocket.

Well, better an abort than a mission failure! There is an awful lot of space business riding on this mission. It will be the first commercial cargo delivery to the ISS and the start of a new way of doing space business for our country. Unfortunately, there are some people in congress who do not want space business out of the hands of the government.  For my part, I'm hoping this mission will be a tremendous success. Within seconds, SpaceX engineers were working to resolve the problem and set the mission back on the timetable. And they have done so. A faulty check valve on the "Merlin" engine - no. 5- on the first stage is the guilty party, and currently engineers are switching out the valve. SpaceX and NASA will try agian on Tuesday, May 22, at 1:44 a.m. MDT. Time to set that alarm again.

Soyuz TMA-04M docked at ISS. Part of ISS blocks the front module of the Soyuz capsule.

Meanwhile, up in space... The second part of the Expedition 31 crew arrived at the ISS on Thursday, May 17 bringing the crew to its full complement of six space explorers.  The Soyuz TMA-04M docked to the Russian Poisk Module. Cosmonauts Gennady Padalka, Sergei Revin, and astronaut Joe Acaba joined Expedition 31 Commander Oleg Kononenko (Russian), Andre Kuipers (From the Eurpean Space Agency) and flight engineer Donald Petite (NASA). 

Astronauts Petite and Kuipers will be operating the CanadArm robotic arm should the Dragon spacecraft reach the ISS. The arm will grapple the spacecraft, and maneuver it to dock at the ISS. The docking will be at the US Harmony module.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Going Back to Space: ATK 's Liberty rocket

ATK's Liberty rocket and capsule program.

With the end of the shuttle and the Space Transportation System (STS), it seemed to some outsiders that ATK would no longer have a market for those large 4-segment Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB's) that propelled the shuttle orbiters into space. Also not boding well for the company was the cancellation of the Constellation program and the Ares rocket system after only one test of the Ares 1-X. But you can't keep a good team down. ATK has bounced back as a major competitor in the CCD race to space.

Comparing the commercial rockets under development or already available. "A" is the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, still under development. "B" is the Liberty rocket.

ATK has joined forces with key companies to put together the Liberty commercial crew transportation system. With ATK providing a 5-segment SRB first stage, the makers of the Arianne rocket, Astrium, providing the liquid-fueled second stage, and now Lockheed Martin providing support for ATK's Liberty capsule, all the components are together.

Computer illustration of Liberty on crawler/tower moving to the pad. The Liberty is almost as tall as a Saturn rocket, but a great deal less expensive!

Because much of the hardware of the rocket is already tested and flown, it remains to ATK to assemble the package and flight test it and attain a human-rated approval. The toughest part of the process will be quickly developing a crew capsule. And ATK has that in hand, as well. Between 2007 and 2010, ATK had built a composite-structure capsule for a NASA program to reduce risk in transporting humans to space. Now ATK will modify the capsule to fully comply with safety and engineering requirements.

Component-ready Liberty. SRB's from the shuttle, liquid-fuel stage from the Arianne. Capsule by ATK with Lockheed support.

ATK also has the most ambitious schedule of the companies racing to provide commercial crew service. According to their plans, the first unmanned mission will launch in 2014, with the first crewed spaceflight in 2015. This would place ATK a year ahead of SpaceX Dragonrider, and several years ahead of NASA's SLS/Orion system.

5-segment SRB first stage testing in Utah.

ATK is finishing testing of the SRB first stage in the Utah test facility. They are also working on the launch abort system that could save the crew capsule in an emergency on the pad or during launch. As you can see from the picture below, progress is moving at a rapid pace on the Liberty capsule.

Engineers preparing the composite-structure spacecraft.

Barring any unforeseen difficulties in testing, my money would be on ATK to be fairly close to its schedule projections. The project is led by former astronaut Kent Rominger and the ATK team is experienced in building space technology systems. Keep an eye out for more news from ATK as their systems get ready for launch.

All images for this blog post are credited to ATK.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Going Back to Space: SpaceX Makes History

The Falcon 9 rocket with Dragon cargo spacecraft.

Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, builds the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon cargo spacecraft. They are the first among the private companies to build and launch an orbiting spacecraft. It could be said that Boeing, Lockheed, and other companies were first to build the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Shuttles but those who totally government operations. On December 9, 2010, SpaceX became the first privately funded company to launch, orbit, and recover their spacecraft.

SpaceX launch facility at Cape Canaveral.

Launched from LC-40 (from which NASA had launched all the Titan-3 and Titan-4 rockets from 1965 to 2005), the Falcon 9 rocket successfully placed the Dragon test spacecraft into an orbit 179 miles high. The Dragon made two successful orbits and then re-entered the atmosphere for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, being recovered within 20 minutes of touchdown.

COTS Demo Flight 1 blasts off.

The flight fulfilled many of the milestones required by the NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract (COTS). Additionally, after the Dragon spacecraft separated, the second stage was reignited and moved to a higher orbit of 6,800 miles, proving the system could reach higher orbits. SpaceX now prepares for further milestones in the contract with NASA.

Dragon perched on the Flacon 9, on pad LC-40 right now.

SpaceX plans to accomplish a major feat this weekend. In the early hours of Saturday morning, another Falcon-9 rocket will lift off with another Dragon capsule. This time, the capsule is full of supplies for the International Space Station. This mission is expected to fulfil the COTS demo fllights 2 and 3 together. The Dragon spacecraft will be guided to make a near pass of the ISS, and on a subsequent orbit, to approach the ISS within reach of the station's robotic arms. Astronauts of Expedition 30 will use the arms to grapple the Dragon and dock it to one of the hatches. 

Computer graphic of Dragon about to be grappled by ISS.

We're all fingers crossed hoping the best for this mission. Should everything go well, SpaceX will be well on its way to providing regular cargo servicing of the ISS. There's an additional bonus for NASA to use the Dragon: It is the only cargo spacecraft capable of returning items from the ISS to the Earth. Both the ATV of Europe and the Progress of Russia routinely burn up in a re-entry.

Falcon-Heavy at the pad. Computer image.

SpaceX is not stopping with cargo delivery. They are well on their way to launching humans to space. Company founder Elon Musk has a vision to take his rockets all the way to Mars, eventually. To get moving on that path, the company's engineers are designing the Falcon-Heavy, which will be capable of lifting much larger payloads into orbit and beyond. More significantly, SpaceX is building a human-rated version of the Dragon capsule.

Inside DragonRider.

The crewed variant of the Dragon capsule will be called the DragonRider. As you can see in the picture above, it can hold up to 7 astronauts or a combination of personnel and cargo. SpaceX is currently building the first test capsules under the CCD program, which we talked about in an earlier blog. The company is also testing a launch abort system, and expects to fly the DragonRider by 2016.

All photos for this blog post are credited to SpaceX.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Going Back to Space: Riding with Russians

Russian Soyuz TMA-04M mission blasts off.

On Monday night the Russian Baikonur Cosmodrome reverberated with the roar of the Soyuz rocket blasting off to the ISS. On board mission TMA-04M was the second part of the Expedition 31 crew: Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin, with NASA astronaut Joe Acaba. The liftoff was performed successfully and the Soyuz capsule is now in orbit on course for docking with the International Space Station on Thursday.

Flying with Joe Acaba is a Smokey the Bear stuffed toy. Credit: U.S. Forest Service.

With the end of the Space Transportation System (STS) or Shuttle program, NASA relies on the Russian space agency to transport our astronauts back and forth from the ISS. With America's further reliance on the venerable Soyuz rocket system, the Russian government and space agency are seeking greater control over the ISS and the activities there. In addition, the Russians did not fail to grasp at a business opportunity: the cost of a seat on the Soyuz for the Americans jumped by at least 40%.

Astronaut Joe Acaba rides the Soyuz to low Earth orbit.

The Soyuz rocket has been a staple of the Russian space program for several decades. With its first unmanned flight in 1966, both the Soyuz spacecraft and the Soyuz rocket have become an icon of the Russian space effort. Like the shuttle, it has not been without its failures. The first cosmonaut on Soyuz 1, and the three-man crew of Soyuz 11, died during re-entry accidents. However, with the vast number of Soyuz flights succeeding, the Soyuz has become the safest space transportation system. It is also one of the most cost-effective. Because it has been built so many times, the cost has been managed to low levels, an achievement admired by many Americans.

Soyuz TMA-06 in orbit.

Russia currently flies a three-person crew on the Soyuz, and astronauts and other nation cosmonauts must train at the Russian space agency and learn the Russian language to participate in flights. An additional Soyuz spacecraft is kept at the ISS as an emergency escape craft. Russia has also built a cargo version of the capsule. The unmanned cargo version is called the Progress, the manned versions are the current TMA designation. This current manned version was revised from the earlier TM version when it was realized that taller astronauts would need extra room on the Soyuz. The TMA version has been flying since 2003.

Progress M-52, unmanned cargo version. Once supplies are emptied from the Progress aboard the ISS, space station garbage and unwanted equipment is stored aboard. When it undocks, ground controllers guide it to a fiery re-entry, burning it up over an ocean.

Over the last couple of years there have been some anxious moments between NASA and Russia as there have been some glitches and landing difficulties with the Soyuz spacecraft and other Russian rockets. While those problems are fixed, many Americans feel the Soyuz system is old. Even the Russians must be feeling the age of the design, as they have proposed a new design called the Prospective Piloted Transport System, which will carry up to six occupants.

Overall though, NASA is resigned to carry on our human space program at present by using whatever ride the Russians can provide. Right now there is no alternative. And perhaps that's what bugs Americans the most. With proper planning, we should have had a replacement by now.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Going Back to Space! Part One

NASA's CCD poster, displaying the various commercial projects underway to support the ISS.

With the cancellation of the space shuttle program, America finds itself once again at the unenviable position of lacking a ride into space. The last time this happened was in the 1970's, as the Apollo-Soyuz project came to an end in 1975, the Skylab space station burned up over Australia, and the Moon landings were terminated by a government trying to get out of the Vietnam War. American astronauts did not return to space until the first flight or orbiter Columbia in 1981.

With the destruction of Columbia on mission STS-107 on February 1, 2003, President GW Bush directed NASA to revise the shuttle program and examine the agency's priorities and direction. Eventually it was decided by President Bush in 2005 to cancel the space shuttle program in 2010 once the ISS finished construction. NASA was then directed to use the savings from the termination of space shuttle missions to design and build a new, less expensive rocket system (The Ares-1 rocket and the Orion capsule) for flights to Earth Orbit, as well as a larger heavy lift vehicle (Ares-V) which would lift large satellites, space stations, and lunar explorers into Earth orbit. A plan was developed to build Lunar landers and a base would be placed on the Moon. This plan was called The Vision For Space Exploration and the rocket development program was named the Constellation Program, reminiscent of the Apollo Program and the Saturn series of rockets.

Ares 1-X launch, pad LC-39B, October 28, 2009.

Program patch for the Ares 1-X mission. Collectors, good luck getting this one. At least I've got the pin.

The Constellation program did not succeed as hoped. There were the inevitable delays in design and testing of hardware, the program began running up costs, and there were many disagreements in NASA management and fights between the government and NASA. Basically, when the government tries to make things, it always costs more than they plan. Furthermore, Congress did not provide extra funding for the Constellation program, which meant that as savings from the  shuttle retirements failed to be realized, and costs went up on developing new rockets, money had to be found by moving it from other projects. Eventually, only one test flight of the early Ares  (Ares 1-X) was performed on October 28, 2009.

President Obama announced the cancellation of the Constellation Program in 2010, but then modified the idea two months later. Gone were any ideas of a program to return to the Moon, plan for Mars, or any part of the Constellation program. Instead, NASA would spend its money on technology development, astronauts would fly to the ISS on Russian rockets, and the ISS would be shut down in 2015. After enormous gasps of shock by the space-supporting public and Congress, the life of the ISS was extended to 2020. A fight in Congress over the change in the program led to...  a new change in the program. The White House and the NASA administration developed a plan to give seed funding to private corporations to develop new rockets and capsules to provide America with access to low Earth orbit and the ISS, while NASA would develop the SLS (Space Launch System) heavy lift vehicle, with the goal of eventually exploring deeper space beyond the Moon and perhaps visiting asteroids. (Actually it would take an entire book to cover the history of how the Congress and White House fought over what direction NASA should take.)

Logo for the Commercial Crew Program initiative.

The Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office, which oversees the seed funding to private companies developing new systems into Earth orbit, is run by NASA and is intended to eventually choose two independent rocket/capsule programs which will support the ISS. This includes cargo delivery as well as an eventual manned crew capability. Since the program began in 2010, there have been some significant developments to the point that there are about seven companies seeking CCD development money. There are actually only a few contenders capable of making the grade in the next little while. This coming weekend, one of the competitors, Space Exploration technologies (SpaceX), will attempt a grand mission to send the first private corporation's cargo craft to dock with ISS and deliver supplies. Also this last week has seen other companies make important announcements about their programs in the new race to put Americans back in space.

While we wait for the SpaceX Dragon launch to the ISS on May 19, I'll cover each of these major CCD programs and give you some links to learn more information. In the meantime, peruse these Wikipedia links on the programs I've mentioned:

Vision for Space Exploration: 

Constellation Program:

National Space Act of 2010:

Commercial Crew Development:

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Giant Sunspot faces Earth

Sunspot complex 1476 is all too apparent.

Although the Sun has been very quiet lately, there currently are some sunspots visible from Earth and one complex is enormous. Big enough to fit a dozen Earths side-by-side in its turbulent gap, sunspot complex AR1476 is now facing Earth as the Sun rotates. The massive energy feeding this magnetic storm emits fantastic radio noise, and you can hear it on Spaceweather.com's site at http://www.spaceweather.com/images2012/09may12/radioburst.mp3

According to Spaceweather.com, the complex has already today hurled a very large M-class solar flare that has missed the Earth, but things can still change. This sunspot is capable of emitting the very dangerous X-class Solar Flare, which can cause disruptions here on Earth. You can learn more about the X-class Flares here:

We'll be keeping a close eye on this beauty of a magnetic storm on the surface of the Sun.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Atlas V launch is 30th flight

Liftoff from LC-41. Credit: ULA.

On Friday, an Atlas V carrying the classified USAF satellite lifted off from Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral space center. The launch is the 30th flight of the Atlas V rocket, and the 60th rocket launch managed by the United Launch Alliance corporation. The satellite will provide secure high-frequency communications for the US military.

The Atlas V is under serious study by NASA as a possible carrier for the Boeing CST-100 capsule, and is also scheduled for testing the NASA Orion capsule in 2017 before the SLS system is ready.

Good view of the Atlas V on the pad.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

50 YA: Launch Delays Again

Mercury-Atlas on the pad with Gantry in place.

It's a familiar story for us now, but it was just becoming familiar to Americans intently watching the television broadcasts of NASA's launch attempts fifty years ago. On May 7, 1962, NASA had the courtesy to tell the public of an up-coming delay to the launch of MA-7. Originally planned for May 15, NASA announced that engineers were having check-out problems with the Atlas booster, and so the blast off would occur several days later.

M. Scott Carpenter, astronaut.

By then, astronaut Scott Carpenter was used to NASA delays, and was probably thankful that the engineers were being extra cautious with his ride into space. In the last flight, he and other NASA personnel were greatly relieved when John Glenn's capsule made it back safely to Earth after a suspected failure of the heat shield. Of course, that problem turned out to be a false signal, but during the flight no one was sure and tense moments passed before Glenn's Friendship 7 capsule safely landed in the ocean for recovery. No one wanted any failures for Carpenter's flight.

Carpenter in Mercury simulator.

During the delay, Carpenter made good use of the extra time. The Mercury astronauts endured extensive and exhausting testing and training, so it was back to the simulators to keep training for the upcoming flight. 

Carpenter climbs aboard F-106B for flight experience.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

ISS Change of Command

Commander Dan Burbank (w/microphone) announcing turnover of command to Cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko.

With the Progress M-15M cargo spacecraft safely docked and supplies stored, Expedition 30 ended with a simple ceremony aboard the ISS. Broadcast on NASA TV, Commander Dan Burbank of Expedition 30 officially turned over command to cosmonaut Oleb Kononenko. The change of command starts the mission of Expedition 31. 

The members of Expedition 30 boarded their Soyuz TMA-22 spacecraft for the return to Earth and undocked on April 27. With Commander Burbank were cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin.

TMA-22 moves away from ISS.

After a retrofire burn and only 3 and a half hours after undocking, the re-entry capsule landed safely in Kazakhstan. 

Remaining on the ISS and starting Expedition 31 are Commander cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, Cosmonaut Flight Engineer Andre Kuipers, and NASA Astronaut Don Pettit. They will be joined by the second half of Expedition 31 in the middle of May by Joe Acaba, Gennady Padalka, and Sergei Revin. The current three occupants went immediately to work maintaining the station, working experiments, and living life in space.

Commander Kononenko in the hatch between the Zarya and Zvesda modules, working on a pressure equalization valve (PEV).