Thursday, July 26, 2012

NASA's SLS Rocket System Passes Concept Step

SLS transportation system concepts.

Today marks an important step in NASA's plan to replace the Space Shuttle as the nation's primary space exploration vehicle. According to NASA reports, the SLS (Space Launch System) program has passed all the necessary milestones to move from the concept phase to the actual design phase. The next major milestone will be a design review later next year. Actually, spacecraft components for the system are already in material assembly and testing, such as the Orion capsule, and the core stage (Boeing) and upper stage engines. ATK in Brigham City, Utah (Yay!) is testing the solid rocket boosters ahead of time. The first test launch is scheduled for 2017.

Keep in mind that the SLS is NOT meant to replace the shuttle's use as a transportation system transferring astronauts back and forth from the International Space Station. NASA (and space exploration fans) are pinning their hopes on privatized commercial transportations systems (such as SpaceX's Dragon or ATK's Liberty) to provide that function. SLS would only be used in that purpose in the case of an emergency. 

The purpose for SLS is to provide a heavier lift system to move astronauts into exploration beyond Earth's orbit. Under the Obama Administration's plans, NASA is exploring possibilities of sending astronauts to explore asteroids and prepare for future Mars exploration. The are also many who would like a return to the Moon for further exploration and development of mining opportunities.

Opinion: Overall, there is much that is similar between this design and the cancelled Constellation program design. One has to wonder at the political maneuverings that took place to cancel the Bush administration's exploration plan (admittedly underfunded and late) and the commencement of a bigger, more expensive Obama-administration design (which will no doubt end up underfunded, and late). Only time will tell. But I am pleased to see actual progress in a system that I think the nation needs for exploring anywhere beyond Low Earth Orbit.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Astronaut Sally Ride passes away

Astronaut Sally Ride in space on Shuttle Challenger.

Sally Ride, America's first woman astronaut in space, passed away yesterday at age 61, from a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer.  Not only an astronaut, but a brilliant scientist also, Sally Ride inspired millions with her journey to space and her continuing work afterwards to interest girls and women in science and space exploration.

Challenger blasts off on June 18, 1983.

Her first, and historic, spaceflight was on space shuttle Challenger on mission STS-7, which launched from Kennedy Space Center on June 18, 1983. On that mission, as a Mission Specialist she helped deploy two satellites into orbit and conducted a series of science experiments. That mission lasted six days.

Her second flight was on mission STS-41G in 1984. During that 8-day flight, the crew deployed the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite, and tested satellite refueling and made Earth observations. Although she was assigned to a third mission, the Challenger explosion occurred. She was assigned to the accident investigation board. After that assignment, she accepted a position to help the NASA administrator with long range planning. After leaving NASA, she was recalled to participate in the AUgustine commission, which investigated NASA's future space flight options in 2009, and resulted in the cancellation of the Constellation program. She was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame and received a long list of awards and honors.

Progress re-docking suffers a glitch

Progress M-15M seen during docking.

On July 22, ground controllers in Russia remotely undocked the Progress M-15m (US designation 47P) cargo spacecraft from the ISS Pirs Module. The idea was to test a new "Kurs" automated rendezvous and docking system. However, something went wrong. It may have something to do with the new antennae used in the system. In any case, the re-docking effort was postponed while new procedures are considered. Another reason for the delay is that the ISS is expecting a visitor, the HTV-3 cargo spacecraft recently launched by Japan, which is expected to dock with the station on Friday. Completing that maneuver, the flight engineers will attempt again to re-dock the Progress spacecraft. 

Progress M-15M has been docked with the ISS for three months now, and having delivered its supplies, it is now used as a giant and expensive trash container. When its usefulness has expired, it will be undocked and re-entered to burn up in the atmosphere.

NASA works on new Re-Entry designs

Inflatable heat shield in test chamber.

On Monday, NASA successfully tested a new design in heat shield technology. Launched from Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia, the IRVE-3 (Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment-3) sounding rocket took off and reached 280 miles over the Atlantic Ocean. The payload then separated and the HIAD (Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator) was inflated with nitrogen gas. 

IRVE-3 launches from Wallops Island, VA.

Screaming back through the Earth's atmosphere at 7,600 mph, the shield inflated to 10 feet in diameter and approached temperatures expected during a typical reentry from space. Parachuting into the ocean, the package was recovered and scientists began studying the data retrieved. The entire flight lasted only about 20 minutes. The science learned from these tests will help NASA make newer, better, and safer reentry shields for future space missions.

Orion parachutes deploying.

In a completely separate test, NASA engineers in Arizona completed another successful test of the parachute recovery system that will be used with the Orion space capsule. An Air Force C-17 cargo plane dropped the capsule from an altitude of 25,000 feet above the desert. This Orion was a capsule mockup, designed to have the shape and size of the eventual capsule and filled with special sensors to monitor everything related to the deceleration and impact landing. The recovery system will be used in an actual test mission from space in 2014.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Japan launches Supply Spacecraft to ISS

H-2B F3 blasts off from Japan. Credit: JAXA.

Japan sent an H-2B rocket into space this morning, lifting the Kounotori-3 cargo space craft into orbit. The cargo vessel is the HTV-3, robotically controlled cargo spacecraft designed by Japan to transfer needed supplies and equipment to the International Space Station. The launch took place at the Tanegashima Space Center located on Tanegashima Island just south of the mainland of Japan.

The weather at the center was a bit for the worse, with rain and a slight wind. The flight seems to have gone well, and the Kounotori-3 is expected to reach the ISS on July 27th. Currently, Japanese astronaut   Akihiko Hoshide (just arrived on Soyuz TMA-05M) is performing duties as a Flight Engineer on board the ISS. The HTV-3 cargo craft is carrying over 4 tons of equipment including several small satellites which will be launched into orbit from the ISS.

Akihiko Hoshide.

Astronaut Hoshide first flew into space on board Space Shuttle Discovery on mission STS-124 in 2008. On that mission, he used the station's robotic arm to move the Japanese station module JEM-PM and attach it to the station. During his 13 days at the station he worked with other astronauts to outfit the module and prepare it for science work at the ISS., Currently, he is part of the second "shift" of the Expedition 32 astronauts living and working on the station.

50 Years Ago: Mission Control Center future announced

MSC under construction in Houston, 1962.

We're all so familiar with the phrase, "Houston, the Eagle Has Landed." And certainly, "Houston, we have a problem!" Forty-three years ago, Neil Armstrong proudly proclaimed that first phrase as the lunar module of Apollo 11 touched down on the surface of the Moon. On this day, July 21st, he and Buzz Aldrin walked on the dusty surface and communicated with the flight controllers back on Earth, at Houston. In 1970 astronaut Jim Lovell uttered the second phrase which made everyone at Houston (and the world) hold their breath as the astronauts tried to fix their critically broken Apollo 13 spacecraft and return to Earth.

On July 20, 1962, NASA Administrator James Webb made a public announcement that future space manned missions would be controlled from the Manned Space Center being built at Houston, Texas.

James Webb, NASA Administrator 1961-1968.

The MSC (not yet named for upcoming President Johnson) would be the flight control for missions in the planned Gemini and Apollo space programs. Still under construction, Webb promised the entire complex of communications, computers, control rooms, simulators, and other facilities would be ready by 1964. For the time being, mission operations were being controlled from control rooms and launch bunkers at the Cape Canaveral US Air Force station.

Also on July 21, NASA selected final designs for the Advanced Saturn launch complex facilities under construction just north of Cape Canaveral launch pads. This area would eventually be dedicated as the Kennedy Space Center, but in 1962 they were just starting to build the complex.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

ISS: The next shift arrives

Soyuz TMA-05M on approach to the station.

At 10:51 p.m. MDT Monday night, a Soyuz spacecraft carrying the second half of the Expedition 32 crew arrived at the International Space Station. The spacecraft launched two days early from Baikonur in Kazakhstan commanded by cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, accompanied by NASA astronaut Suni WIlliams and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide.

Astronaut Hoshide is welcomed by the prime crew of Expedition 32.

The hatches opened on the Russian Rassvet module and the three newcomers joined Cosmonauts Gennady Padalka, Sergei Revin, and astronaut Joe Acaba. Interestingly, the docking took place on the 36th anniversary of the famous first docking of an Apollo spacecraft with a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 1975.

Current locations of several docked spacecraft. reports that there were several maintenance issues with a couple other spacecraft docked with ISS. One of the cabin air fans on the European ATV-3 cargo ship has malfunctioned, requiring replacement. On the Russian cargo ship Progress-15M, there was a temporary failure to transfer fuel from the spacecraft to the Russian Zarya module. The problem seemed to have been a computer problem, which was resolved and the operation completed. Progress-15M is expected to undock on July 30 to make way for the next Progress resupply mission.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

50 Years Ago: X-15 #3 Reaches Space

X-15-A3 in flight.

On July 17, 1962 Major Robert White of the US Air Force accelerated his X-15 craft (number 3) faster than anticipated, with the result that he managed to climb higher than expected. His final recorded altitude on this flight was 58.7 miles, or 314,750 feet. By exceeding 50 miles in altitude, he qualified for astronaut status (and receiving astronaut wings to wear on his uniform). To this point only the four Mercury astronauts (Armstrong, Grissom, Glenn, and Carpenter) had achieved this status. Also on this mission, the X-15 reached its original goal of achieving a 50-mile-high flight. There would be more to come!

Major Robert White, USAF. Photo credits: NASA.

Robert M. White flew fighter missions in World War 2 and the Korean War. He earned degrees in science and engineering, and became a test pilot for the US Air Force flying fighter test planes. Joining the X-15 program in 1960, White reached high altitudes and achieved several records. After the X-15 program, White flew combat missions in Vietnam and later became commander of the USAF Test Flight Center at Edwards Air Force Base. In 2006 he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. He passed away in 2010.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Solar Storm Subsiding

Current solar disk with sunspot 1520. Credit: SDO/HMI &

Well, we've come through a geomagnetic storm and it seems we're still here. The solar flare erupted from sunspot complex 1520 and much of the storm of radiation and particles hit the Earth's magnetic fields starting just after midnight on Saturday morning. Earth's magnetic field saved us and provided magnificent views of the Aurora Borealis as far south as Utah! Sadly, I saw none of that with the bright city lights and increasing clouds and storms in the area.

The CME event (coronal mass ejection) hitting the Earth lasted about 36 hours, and readings are getting lower. Further chance of another storm is lessening as the sunspot group continues to rotate toward the other side of the Sun. Check for photos of the northern lights and further information.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Solar Flare Alert!

Danger? Danger?!?

Do you still have your special eclipse glasses from the June eclipse and Venus transit events? You might be able to see a large sunspot complex on the lower half of the solar disk. Designated AR1520, this large sunspot group erupted a large CME event (Coronal Mass Ejection) on July 12. This large amount of solar matter is expected to impact the Earth orbit on Saturday, July 14 at about 3:17 AM Eastern time (1:17 am Mountain time). The eruption is already bathing the Earth in a pulse of UV rays and radio signals from stations in the arctic circle noticed disruptions. However, no severe incidents to our lives are to be expected, though there may be beautiful Northern Lights. Thank goodness for the magnetic field.

SHIELDS UP! A blast of solar energy is approaching the Earth! Of course most of us will be hunkered down in our beds, as this event will occur in the wee hours after midnight. I will be safely ensconced in the SpaceRubble Command Bunker, but will be tuning in to news on the solar event on the Internet. 

Don't forget to look up information about this event on 

Expedition 32: Second crew prepares for launch

Soyuz Rocket on the pad at Baikonur.

Currently, Expedition 32 on the ISS consists of Commander Cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, cosmonaut Sergei Revin, and astronaut Joe Acaba. Their expedition started when Expedition 31 undocked from the ISS and landed on Earth on July 1st. Tomorrow, on Saturday July 14, the second part of the Expedition 32 crew will board their Soyuz rocket (TMA-05M) and blast off to join their team members on ISS.

TMA-05M crew training for rendezvous and docking.

The reinforcements include Soyuz commander cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Aki Hoshide, and NASA astronaut Suni Williams. They are expected to dock on July 17.

50 Years Ago: Titan-2 Test Launches

Titan-2 ICBM test launch from silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

On July 11 and 12, 1962, the US Air Force made the second and third successful launches of the Titan-2 rocket. This second version of the Titan rocket could carry twice the payload of the Titan-1, and used a storable version of liquid propellants that would enable it to be fueled long before actual launch, making its readiness easier. While the initial version of the rocket carried the largest of the American nuclear warheads, this rocket would become an essential piece of the NASA program of space exploration, launching both satellites and astronauts into space.

50 Years Ago: Deke gets Reassigned

Donald K. "Deke" Slayton. NASA portrait.

Back on July 11, 1962, the Mercury Seven astronaut lineup got a shake-up. Major Deke Slayton (USAF) was re-assigned to take over new operational and planning responsibilities for the astronaut program. He had originally been scheduled to fly the second orbital mission, but Scott Carpenter had flown that mission instead. NASA Doctors had declared Deke was suffering from "Atrial Fibrilation" of the heart. As one astronaut put it, "Don't all our hearts fibrilate?" There was much grief among the astronauts at this decision, but NASA feared such a condition could lead to a medical emergency while in space away from medical help. Deke was a realist, and understood that he could still be of use to NASA. He would eventually resign from the Air Force in 1862, and take up full time administrative work as the head of the astronaut program. He would work extensively with astronaut training programs, detail their schedules and also the flight rotation for missions. And he would never give up on his desire to go into space.

Original Mercury Seven. Slayton is front row, second from left.

Deke was quite a pilot. He had flown B-25 bomber missions over Europe in World War 2, and later flew A-26 missions over the Pacific. His postwar college schooling got him a degree in Aeronautical Engineering, and he became a test pilot for the Air Force, flying the "Century" series of fighter-bombers. His heart condition grounded him from flying.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

50 Years Ago: TELSTAR-1 and the New Age of Communications

NASA art of TELSTAR-1 in space.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of a great leap forward in world communications, the launch of TELSTAR-1 from Cape Canaveral on July 10, 1962. TELSTAR-1 was not the first communications satellite; that was ECHO-1A sent up on May 13, 1960. But ECHO was a reflective-passive device; signals were bounced, or reflected, off the spherical surface and received on Earth beyond the horizon. TELSTAR broke new ground. To begin with, TELSTAR was the first privately sponsored space launch effort. The satellite was built at Bell Telephone Laboratories, and included transponders which relayed television or telephone channels back to the ground, another first. Third, the launch was the 10th successful blast-off of the Thor-Delta rocket system. Other Thor-Delta launches had included ECHO-1, TIROS weather satellites, EXPLORERs 10 and 12, ARIEL-1, and OSO-1.

A TELSTAR satellite under construction.

Weighing about 170 pounds, TELSTAR was powered by small solar panels which generated about 14 watts of energy. It would eventually transmit the first public television and telephone signals (including the first Fax!) and would also transmit the first transAtlantic television signal.

Thor-Delta rocket.

TELSTAR-1 was sent into space from Launch Complex 17, pad B, on a Thor-Delta rocket. Its orbit was elliptical, or egg-shaped, and the satellite circled the Earth every 2 hours and 37 minutes. It continued in operation until February the next year, but TELSTAR-1 still orbits the Earth to this day. The end of TELSTAR-1 was premature, because it was exposed to higher amounts of radiation than it normally would have encountered from the Van Allen radiation belt. The day before its launch, the US Air Force had launched a nuclear weapon into space to test the effects of the blast on potential enemy rockets. Further space nuclear tests, including a Soviet explosion in October 1962, eventually degraded the electronics.

To realize the significance of this launch, you only have to think of how many times each day you call someone cross-country, watch television on your satellite channels, or receive the Internet on your computer. Yes, a lot of towers and cables are involved locally, but the transmission of channels and frequencies to those localities is done through satellite communications. Also consider how much of our nation's defense depends upon secure transmission of coded signals to our troops and installations around the world. And it all started 50 Years Ago. We live in a world our ancestors barely dreamed about.

UPDATE: NASA History Office noted the anniversary today on its Twitter account (@NASAhistory) and provided this link to a wonderful short news film from the day which shows TELSTAR's construction, launch,and the first images transmitted. Wonderful little film, thanks, NASA!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Expedition 31 Returns to Earth

Expedition 31 crew members prepare to close the hatch.

Just after midnight on Sunday July 1st, the three members of the 31st expedition to the International Space Station undocked their Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft and headed for home. Expedition commander Oleg Kononenko, and flight engineers Don Petite and Andre Kuipers had been in space for about 6 months. Later on Sunday, the spacecraft made its final deorbit burn and re-entered the atmosphere. Under parachute, the crew touched down in Kazakhstan on Sunday afternoon.

The Soyuz spacecraft moves away from the ISS.

Great view of the Soyuz from above the Earth.

Russian view of descending crew capsule. Several Mi-8 helicopters circled the capsule as it approached the landing site.

Thrusters fired just before landing to slow the capsule for a softer landing. Touchdown!

With the end of Expedition 31, the remaining crew on the ISS now take over command and begin Expedition 32. Cosmonaut Gennady Pedalka leads the expedition, and marks his 3rd command of the ISS! He is accompanied by Flight engineers Joe Acaba (NASA) and Sergei Revin (Russia). The second half of the crew will arrive on July 17. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Rocket Summer

Up, up and away for the Delta-4. Credit: ULA.

For rocket lovers, we live in a wonderful time for rocket watching. Every summer is a rocket summer. On July 29 rocket fans watched United Launch Alliance and the US Air Force launch a satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Blasting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center), the Delta-4 Heavy lifted a classified NRO satellite (NROL-15) into orbit. 

Liftoff from LC-37. Credit: ULA.

The Delta-4 Heavy is the most powerful variant of the Delta family of rockets (scroll down to the article on the Atlas-5 launch for the graphic display of the Delta family of rockets). It's even more powerful now, with this latest launch featuring new versions of the RL-68 rocket engines, the RL-68A's. These new engines feature an additional 36-39,000 pounds of thrust for a total of 797,000 pounds of thrust. The distinguishing feature of the Delta-4 Heavy is the addition of the two side boosters, which are liquid-fueled instead of the commonly-seen solid rocket boosters. 

With this Delta-4 Heavy launch, it means we've seen recently a launch of the Delta-4, the Atlas-5, the Long March variant for Shenzhou-9, with upcoming launches of the Soyuz and another Atlas-5 in July.

Rocket Motor Two tests in the desert. Credit: Virgin Galactic.

And it's not just rocket flights, either. There's plenty of rocket engine testing going on in the race for commercial rocket development. Virgin Galactic is preparing for the first tourists flights into sub-orbit, and continuing testing of the Rocket Two engine at their facilities in the Mojave desert.

ATK fires up in the Utah desert. Credit: ATK

ATK continues working feverishly to advance the Liberty rocket system. In northern Utah at their facility near Brigham City, ATK fired the GEM-60 solid rocket motor which will power the first stage of Liberty. Liberty is expected to fly in 2014.

Liberty rocket and capsule. Art by ATK.

In fact, it's not just rocket engines that fly the machines, it's computers as well. ATK has recently completed a technical review of its program software with NASA, fulfilling another step in the long checklist of items towards launch. ATK expects to have two unmanned launches in 2014 and 2015, with the first crewed launch in 2015. Other companies will have to press onward quickly to match this schedule, should ATK manage to maintain this pace.