Friday, August 31, 2012

Frustrating Spacewalk

Akihiko Hoshide on end of robotic arm.

Not everything goes right in space.

The first spacewalk for Expedition 32 occurred on August 20, with cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Yuri Malenchenko Their tasks included moving a cargo boom from the Pirs docking module to the Zarya module, installing micrometeorite/debris protection shields on the Zvesda module, and the deployment of a small science satellite. That spacewalk met its objectives.

Computer graphic of spacewalk in mission control.

Yesterday's spacewalk didn't go as well. Astronauts Suni Williams and Akihko Hoshide (from Japan) were supposed to replace a power bus on the station's main truss, prepare power cables for the docking of a Russian Science Module in the future, and replace a camera on one of the robotic arms. However, the Main Bus Switching Unit had bolts that refused to tighten correctly. Running out of time for the walk, they had to simply secure it to the truss temporarily until another spacewalk could be scheduled to repair the bolts. Before the problem, though, they did move the power cables. They had unfortunately run out of time to replace the robotic arm camera.

Nightside picture of spacewalk on August 20.

Akihiko Hoshide. This spacewalk was not only the first for Hoshide, it was the third spacewalk made by a Japanese astronaut.

Suniya (Suni) Williams floating around the ISS with a camera. Yesterday was her fifth spacewalk. She's getting good at it!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Neil Armstrong is Remembered

Neil Armstrong, official NASA photo. Known as a "WSS," or "White Space Suit" image, this type of portrait became the iconic image of the American Astronauts.

It was inevitable, you know. Last Saturday the family of astronaut Neil Armstrong announced that he had passed away due to complications from heart surgery performed a couple of weeks before. Born in 1930, Armstrong was 82 when he died.  All of our Apollo astronauts are getting along in age. Some have passed on already, like Alan Shepard (First American in space, and commander of Apollo 14) and Jack Swigert (command module pilot, Apollo 13). The Apollo astronauts all remain in our hearts as heros of space education.

But Neil Armstrong, and his Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin, have the distinction accorded to few astronauts who have ever flown. Because of their famous and dangerous first landing on the Moon in the Apollo 11 mission, their names are forever enshrined in our memories. Perhaps because school textbooks have only so much space for history, or perhaps because television documentaries mention them more than the others, it seems to me that theirs are the first astronaut names that come to mind of the general public.

I know this, because for years, working at the Christa McAuliffe Space Education Center, I have questioned children and adults alike as they visited us. I've asked "trivia questions" to see what the general public really knows about our space exploration history. And I've come to several generalized conclusions:

1) Ask any kid "which  astronaut" did whatever, and their first response is almost always Neil Armstrong. Asked to name a second astronaut, they often respond Buzz Aldrin (although some kids enjoy saying, "Buzz Lightyear".

2) Older people always know about Apollo 11. Some people remember Jim Lovell in command of Apollo 13 (thank you Tom Hanks and Ron Howard!).

3) Many older people remember Alan Shepard as the first American in space, but have forgotten that he also walked on the Moon (and played golf there!).

4) Many people remember a Russian was first is space, and half of them remember his name was Yuri something.

5) The number of kids and adults who have a good knowledge of the other astronauts in space history is rare.

With the passing of Neil Armstrong, I've enjoyed talking to people about what they remember that incredible day of July 21, 1969. Everyone who witnessed it on TV remembers where they were and what they were doing. It was a world-wide event, and one of those generational moments when the world and nation came together in awe. I won't go into Armstrong's career here, as there are many other tributes being published this week. But I would like to take a moment and let you know that Neil was not alone, he served with a team of heroes that prepared for and/or went to the Moon, and here they are:

Apollo 11: Neil Armstrong (deceased 2012), Buzz Aldrin, Mike Collins
Apollo 1:   Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White II, Roger Chaffee (All perished in the Apollo 1 fire-1967)
Apollo 7:  Wally Schirra (deceased 2007), Don Eiselle (deceased 1987), Walt Cunningham
Apollo 8:  Frank Borman II, Jim Lovell, William Anders
Apollo 9:  James McDivitt, David Scott, Russell (Rusty) Schweickart
Apollo 10: Tom Staffard, John Young, Eugene Cernan
Apollo 12: Pete Conrad, Jr (deceased 1999), Richard Gordon, Alan Bean
Apollo 13: Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert (deceased 1982), Fred Haise
Apollo 14: Alan Shepard Jr (deceased 1998), Stuart Roosa (deceased 1994), Ed Mitchell 
Apollo 15: David Scott, Alfred Worden, James Irwin (deceased 1991)
Apollo 16: John Young, Thomas "Ken" Mattingly II, Charles Duke
Apollo 17: Eugene Cernan, Harrison "Jack" Schmidt, Ronald Evans (deceased 1990)

Please remember them all.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

50 Years Ago: Vostok 3 and 4 Attempt Rendezvous

The R-7 rocket, type used in Vostok missions. Photo by Sergei Arssenei.

Fifty years ago the Soviet Union launched twin missions at the same time. On August 11, 1962 the Vostok 3 spacecraft blasted off on top of a Russian R-7 rocket (technically the Vostok-K) with cosmonaut Andrian Nikolyev on board. A day later, Vostok 4 took off with cosmonaut Pavel Popovich in an attempt to meet up with the first spacecraft.

Andrian Nikolyev.

Cosmonaut Nikolyev was the first space traveller to undo his safety restraints and float freely in his capsule. He spent a record four days in 64 orbits above the Earth.

Pavel Popovich in Vostok 4.

A new record was sent when cosmonaut Pavel Popovich entered orbit a day after Vostok 3. It was the first time two manned spacecraft had been in space at the same time. The Vosotk 4 spacecraft was entered in a trajectory to bring it close to the Vostok 3. The two spacecraft actually did pass four miles from each other. Radio contact was established between the two ships. Popovich stated that he briefly saw the Vostok 3.

Vostok Capsule shell.

Unfortunately, the Vosotk 4 mission ended early. A mission controller evidently misunderstood a statement made by Popovich and thought that he had spoken a code word that told the ground to end the mission early. Remote signals were sent beginning the re-entry process. 

This early mission in Soviet history has a personal meaning for me, as I had the honor of meeting cosmonaut Popovich when he visited the Christa McAuliffe Space Education Center here in Pleasant Grove, Utah. Rest assured I have his autograph!

Pavel Popovich, Hero of the Soviet Union, sitting in the captain's chair of the Phoenix spaceship simulator at the Christa McAuliffe Space Education Center. Seated next to him is cosmonaut Victor Savinykh, who flew several Soyuz missions and was one of the last crewmembers of Salyut 6 space station. The cosmonauts had come to Utah to participate in the Planetary Conference of the Association of Space Explorers in Salt Lake City.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Mars Science Laboratory Lands on Mars

First Picture from the Curiosity Explorer on Mars. One of the rover's wheels appears in the corner. The horizon is curved due to a fish-eye lens on the camera.

"Seven minutes of terror" was a good prediction! As the Mars Science Laboratory hurtled from space into the atmosphere of Mars, ground controllers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and NASA were biting their nails and anxiously awaiting signals from the sensors. Of course, since Mars is so far away, it takes about 15 minutes for the signals to reach Earth, and there is nothing the controllers can do; the landing (or crash!) had already happened! As the signals came in, though, each signal received showed each step in the landing proceeding as expected, and the rover Curiosity made a safe landing on Martian soil.

The JPL control room erupted in cheers.

You would have thought Neil Armstrong had just walked on Mars. But after all, it was just a robot. Then again, this was no ordinary robot! Unlike the tiny Sojourner, or the medium sized Spirit and Opportunity rovers, Curiosity is a big auto-sized robotic rover that will explore a good chunk of Martian territory over the next two or more years. Instead of using the inflatable bounce-landing balloon approach, NASA opted for a new risky landing due to the rover's size. When the re-entry shield dropped off, a large hypersonic parachute deployed to slow the craft's descent to the surface. Just before reaching the surface, the protective structure (Mars Science Laboratory) housing and protecting the rover (Curiosity) fired thrusters to hover above the surface. The rover was then lowered by cables below the MSL's structure. With the rover ready, the thrusters reduced power and the entire system moved down until Curiosity landed, and sensors on the cables indicated to the MSL that there was no weight on them anymore. With that signal, the cables released the rover and the MSL rocketed away from the rover site.

Curiosity experiment diagram.

The landing actually occurred at about 11:15 p.m. MDT, with the signals reaching us on Earth at about 11:32 p.m. MDT. Within minutes, as the cheering continued at JPL, the first pictures arrived as "thumbnails" (small in signal size) showing the shadow of the rover and the horizon of Mars. Over the next couple of days, color pictures and images with higher HD resolution will be plastered all over the Internet and television screens as Curiosity begins its exploration. The mission: a 2-year investigation of Gale Crater, 96 miles in diameter and what NASA thinks is the best chance so far to examine the geology of Mars searching for signs of past or present life.

The current Mars Scoreboard.

Lest anyone get the idea that this landing was easy, NASA published a "Scoreboard" showing our human success rate at sending probes to Mars. So far, only the USA and Russia have been sending probes at the red planet, and to show you how hard that really is, take a look at the score: 15 successful missions and 24 failures! Unfortunately for Russia, they have experienced nothing but failures. Rather than look at their efforts as cursed, however, it's valuable to realize how HARD it is to send a probe through 350 million + miles of radiation-filled space and land it or orbit it exactly where you want.

It's just that NASA is REALLY good, and they make it look easy.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Comings and Goings at the ISS

Now arriving: HTV-3 from Japan.

The astronauts make it all seem so easy... but they've had a very busy schedule lately. The Japanese automated cargo spacecraft HTV-3 which blasted off on July 21, arrived at the station on July 27 and carefully approached its docking port. Using the robotic arm, astronauts Aki Hoshide and Joe Acaba captured the craft and guided it in to a perfect docking. The HTV-3, nicknamed "White Stork", carries about 4 tons of supplies for the station and crew of Expedition 32. Included in the equipment were a number of small "cubesats" which will be released from the station to perform experiments in orbit.

Using the robotic arm to grab the spacecraft.

Woops! Suddenly night time, but the cameras can still image the docking.

After securing HTV-3, there was another docking to complete. You may remember that the Russian Progress TMA-05M cargo spacecraft had undocked from the station to perform some docking tests, only to be postponed due to some glitch. Well, it turns out that there had been an overheating problem in some of the docking and rendezvous computers and the ground controllers (no one on board the robotic spacecraft) decided it was better to wait for the finish of HTV-3 docking before resuming the tests.

Russian Progress camera view during the undocking.

On Saturday July28, ground controllers successfully re-docked the Progress with the station on the PIRS module. Everything seems to have gone well on this second try. The new Kurs NA docking antenna was used for this procedure. The new system combines all the work previously done with the Kurs A system, so that transmissions using 5 different antennas are combined into the new, one antenna. There was no rick to the cargo on the Progress, as its cargo had already been unloaded during the last three months, and the craft was now filled with garbage. 

With the docking tests completed, on Monday the Progress was once again undocked, this time never to return. Ground controllers and engineers will conduct several engineering tests with the Progress in orbit, before it is finally given commands to re-enter the atmosphere and burn up over the ocean.

But wait... Here comes another one!

A previous Progress on final approach.

Russian space engineers scored a new success in the Progress Program. On Wednesday, the Progress 48 spacecraft blasted off from Baikonur on a test of a new trajectory approach to the ISS. Although NASA had been doing same-day rendezvous and dockings since the Gemini program, the Progress and Soyuz rockets had used a traditional 2-day orbital chase to the station. As you've seen the inside of a Soyuz capsule, there isn't much room for the passengers, and they no doubt suffer some amount of stress during the 2-day flight to the station. However, new equipment advances and a new all-digital rocket control system has allowed a better opportunity to use the new fast-rendezvous profile.

Progress 48.

The new fast-rendezvous profile launch allows the spacecraft to make additional braking rocket burns to match orbits with the ISS. The ISS itself is boosted into a more docking-useful orbit which allows a fast-rendezvous launch every three days. With this new launch profile, the spacecraft can reach the ISS in about 4 orbits or six hours. This Progress launch was a test of the new procedures. After further tests are completed, it is expected that the new launch profile will be used for Soyuz flights as well. This will be great for passengers, as any astronauts having trouble adapting to weightlessness (space adaptation syndrome) will have an easier time getting to the station earlier and entering the vast interior of the station.

The new Progress brings up almost 3 tons of supplies and is docked at the PIRS module.