Monday, October 29, 2012

The Space Center is Closed...

Not the Houston Space Center, not the Kennedy Space Center... sorry, don't panic completely! Here I'm referring to the Christa McAuliffe Space Education Center, formerly of the Alpine School District in Utah. An education center teaching space exploration and astronomy for more than 22 years. The following paragraphs are from an entry I made on my Facebook page this morning. There will be more information to come:

"The Space Center has been closed. For my followers who are supporters of the Space Center, this is not news, but for my family and friends, this seems odd. This post is really for them, as I don’t post often and they need an update. Most of them know I’ve been volunteering and working part time for the Christa McaAuliffe Space Education Center (CMSEC of just the Space Center) for about 22 years now. At the beginning of August The Center was closed by the District Maintenance office for an evaluation and upgrade of the electronics in the simulators, so that they could meet the vast myriad of federal and state government regulations. This occurred at the same time that the department made a sweeping inspection of schools and classrooms through the district, looking for violations of code.

"At the Space Center we were informed that the center was determined now to be unsafe to students (even though we had previously been passed by Fire Marshall inspectors), telling us that there are vast electrical problems and design problems with the Center (these folks had been in the center several times before, why were the designs a problem now?). The district leadership told us that we would not be opened until the problems were fixed, and that outside companies would then bid on the repairs.

"That never happened. Instead, a week ago the District declared the center was permanently closed (no companies had inspected or bid on the repairs).  They told us they would plan for a science and math exploration center to be built in some undetermined future and the space center would be there. Then word got out that the simulators (the heart of what we do in the center) would not be included in that redesign. The center evidently no longer supported the district’s curriculum emphasis on science and math.

"The staff and supporters are, of course, outraged. We all know how we have touched the lives of students throughout the Alpine School District, the state of Utah, and across the country. Volunteers have now gotten together and formed a “Save the Space Center” committee. We are receiving support from the local school community and friends from across the country. Bad timing for the District: they did this right before election time, and many of the Board are up for elections! The District is getting swamped by angry and confused supporters, and the local community is joining with us as we seek to establish a wide network of friends and supporters online. On Saturday our first Save the Space Center Honk and Wave took place in Pleasant Grove.

"How can you help? Visit our Facebook page, “Save the Space Center” at and receive updates and news on how the network of supporters will put the heat on the district and ensure the survival of the Center and our innovative teaching methods. You can also visit the “Troubador”, the blog of former center director Victor Williamson who keeps the memories of the space center alive and well:

"We are planning events and keeping everyone informed through the facebook page and getting more and more organized each passing day. We appreciate all the help that has been offered by our loyal fans! Keep tuned for more details…"

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Soyuz TMA-06M launches to ISS

Blast-off in Baikonur.

This morning a Soyuz rocket took off from the Russian space center in Baikonur, carrying the second half of the Expedition 33 crew to the ISS. On board were astronaut Kevin Ford, and cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Evgeny Tarelkin. They will join Expedition 33 commander Suni Williams, astronaut Aki Hoshide and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko who have been on the station since July 17.

Nice ascent to orbit.

As usual, the second part of the current expedition 33 will become the next expedition's primary crew once the current commander and crew depart. When Commander Williams and her crew leave in November, then Kevin Ford will become the Expedition 34 commander and his crew will await their second half in December.

The Soyuz is expected to dock with ISS at 8:35 a.m. Thursday.

Expedition 33 prime crew. L-R: Tarelkin, Novitskiy, Ford.  Evgeny Novitskiy commands the Soyuz to the ISS. Picture taken in front of the Soyuz TMA-06M capsule before it was integrated with its launcher. They are expected to remain on ISS for five months.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Recent Satellite Launches from Around the World

Technician works on the Orbcomm satellite. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.

The big focus for space enthusiasts lately has been the remarkable mission of SpaceX's Dragon capsule to the ISS. While the station resupply effort went well, the secondary payload on the Falcon 9 rocket ended in failure.  Due to a malfunctioning engine, other engines on the Falcon rocket overcompensated and burned longer than planned, resulting in the wrong orbital placement of the OrbComm satellite. Built by the Sierra Nevada Corporation, Orbcomm was an engineering test vehicle to help establish a new network of communication satellites. This example was a prototype, designed to test how the system would react in its orbital environment. There are 18 small satellites planned for the system, all due to be launched on Falcon 9 rockets. Unfortunately, the wrong orbit placement caused the Orbcomm to fail its mission and it de-orbited. NASA and SpaceX engineers are investigating the failure while company executives plan a way to continue this mission.

Meanwhile, there have been other launches around the world.

Delta 4 launch from pad 37 at Cape Canaveral, October 4. On board was the GPS 2F-3 satellite. This was a replacement satellite for an older one in the GPS system we all rely on.  The satellite reached its intended orbit just fine. Credit: Pat Corkery/ULA.

A Russian Soyuz rocket lifted off from the European Space Agency's French Guiana launch site on October 12. It carried a pair of satellites for the Galileo navigation system, which affects many drivers, airplanes, and ships around the world. Successful placement of satellites. Credit: ESA.

On Sunday October 14, China launched a Long March 2C rocket from the Taiyuan space facility. It carried two Shijuan-9 engineering test satellites into space to study new satellite test equipment. This photo is of a previous Long March launch. Credit from Chinese News Agency.

A Russian Proton blasted off from the Baikonur site in Kazakhstan on Sunday October 14. It carried an Intelsat telecommunications satellite into orbit. Credit: Krunichev.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Man Breaks Sound Barrier - In Freefall!

Moments after leaving the balloon's capsule, Felis begins the descent. Picture from the open door. All photos credit Red Bull Stratos.

Three world records were broken Sunday when Felix Baumgartner of Austria ascended to a record 128,100 feet (highest manned balloon ascent), and then jumped in a free fall descent to land by parachute in Roswell, New Mexico. Yes, THAT Roswell.

Felix leaves the capsule.

The attempt was hit by trouble. Once he had left the capsule, a heating problem with the visor caused fogging, and he immediately began a dangerous spin. Later he reported that he was concerned he could pass out from the spin forces. However, as he encountered thicker atmosphere, he managed to controlled his spin and continue the fall as planned.

On the way down, he broke another record when his speed reached an incredible mach 1.24, becoming the first person to exceed the sound barrier without a jet or rocket. Upon reaching the determined altitude, his chute opened to slow him, and then his parasail was deployed so he could maneuver to the designated landing zone.

Plenty of advertising space on the chute!

When he had safely reached the ground he fell to his knees and triumphantly raised his arms in victory. He was soon joined by his mentor, Col. Joe Kittinger (ret.) who was the previous record holder. Felix had now become the man with the highest parachute jump.

The record making jump occurred exactly 65 years from the day that another man, American Chuck Yeager, made his world record becoming the first to break the sound barrier in the Bell X-1, on October 14, 1947.

65 years ago, Chuck Yeager standing beside the Bell X-1.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Here comes another one!

It's Duck and Cover time!

While most of us were sleeping, a chunk of rock about 20 meters across zipped by Earth on its way around the Solar System. The asteroid, designated 2012 TC4 was estimated to pass by our planet rather close, at about 1/4 the distance from the Earth to the Moon, or about 96,000 kilometers (about 59,000 miles).

Time-elapsed picture of 2012 TC4. Picture by Remanzacco Observatory.

For more comet and asteroid updates, check the blog of the Associazionie Friulana di Astronomia e Meteorologia:

Notes from the Command Bunker: This NEO, or Near Earth Object, demonstrates the need we have for continued research of Earth-orbit-crossing-asteroids. It was only discovered on October 7! What if we had also discovered that it was on a collision course with a major city? Write to your member of the House of Representatives and urge them to demand that Congress and NASA allocate more funding for discovery and analysis of NEO's. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Dragon goes to work!

Dragon's location on the ISS, along with the Soyuz crew spacecraft and a Progress resupply ship. NASA TV graphic.

SpaceX has successfully completed part one of its record-making first official contracted delivery to the ISS. Just after 7 a.m. MDT, the Dragon resupply spacecraft was docked to the Harmony module by Expedition 33 astronauts. Inside the capsule are supplies and scientific experiments to be used on the station, and a refrigeration unit. This "glacier freezer" was previously used on the space shuttles to store valuable samples from station experiments for return to Earth. Part 2 of this mission will be to return valuable equipment and science experiments and samples to the ground. With the advent of Dragon, America now leaps forward beyond the Europeans, Russians, and Japanese in cargo transfer to the ISS. None of the other agencies can return items to the Earth, as they burn up their vehicles upon re-entry. 

Falcon 9 on Pad 40.

SpaceX becomes the first commercially-run transportation system to resupply the ISS. Granted, they have received development funding from NASA, as well as cooperative launch monitoring, but the operation is basically that of SpaceX. NASA's efforts to date have paved the way in experimentation and discovery, and now private American enterprises begin the next transformation of space travel.

Blast off of the Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft.

SpaceX launched the Falcon 9 rocket on October 7. There seems to have been a slight engine feed problem which resulted in the destruction of one of the engine nozzle fairings, but the rocket kept on course. However, the launch was marred slightly in that the engine shutoff was late. The main payload, the Dragon spacecraft, was successfully placed in orbit to intercept the ISS, but a secondary payload, which was a test spacecraft for global positioning, was stranded in a lower-than needed orbit. Engineers are now looking to see if they can use the satellite's systems to boost the orbit slightly and still accomplish mission objectives.

Dragon docked with Harmony module.

This morning the crew of Expedition 33 used the CanadArm robotic arm to grapple the Dragon on its close approach, then maneuver it to the docking port on the US-built Harmony module. Crewmembers will check out the docking, the spacecraft systems, and adapt the spacecraft's environment. Then they will spend about 18 days to unload the capsule and fill the empty space and "glacier freezer" with equipment and samples to be returned to Earth. Undocking and landing is expected to occur on October 28.

Monday, October 8, 2012

50 Years Ago: Sigma 7 in Space!

Walter M. Schirra, "Wally" with model of Mercury spacecraft.

It was the morning of October 3, 1962, and Astronaut Wally Schirra awoke early. He had a large breakfast, which actually included a bluefish he had speared the day before while diving off the coast of Florida! After a pre-flight physical exam, and after suiting up, he was driven out to the launchpad at LC-14. Still before daylight, Schirra was lifted up to the special room on the gantry where he could board the spacecraft.

Schirra is helped into the cramped cockpit of the Mercury capsule. The Sigma 7 logo is seen to his left just below the window.

Schirra had nicknamed his capsule "Sigma 7." The greek letter sigma was used to represent "Engineering" and the 7 referred to the Mercury 7 astronauts. After the missed landing point and other flight difficulties encountered during the previous Mercury mission, Wally has determined to fly as perfect a mission as he could. He had to endure many changes to the planned flight, resulting in difficulties in training. There was a lot of pressure on NASA to extend the flight length of the mission, in order to start catching up to the Soviet space records. The Sigma 7 name therefor reflected the focus on flight operations and capsule testing rather than space exploration.

Liftoff of Mercury-Atlas 8 from Pad LC-14.

In the early morning hours at the Cape, blast-off occurred as normal but then the craft began to roll unexpectedly. Some flight controllers pondered an abort to the mission, but the small thrusters on the Atlas missile performed correctly and stopped the roll. The capsule was lifted into an orbit slightly higher than expected due to a 10-second delay in cutting off the engines. Mission Control confirmed the flight was "Go" for at least six orbits, maybe seven.

View of the western North Atlantic.

Schirra performed the expected flight operations, testing the controls of the spacecraft which included attempting recovery from spacecraft drift. It also turned out that someone had left a steak sandwich in the capsule. Schirra also performed a few scientific objectives that included spotting bright illuminations on the Earth, and photographs of cloud reflectivity which would help engineers perfect weather satellite cameras. During the flight, Schirra had some difficulties with overheating in his suit, and condensation on his visor. By carefully adjusting the controls he was able to slowly regulate the temperature. At one point he tried some exercises in zero-G, using a bungee cord to flex his arm muscles. After eight hours and six orbits, Schirra began preparations for returning to the Earth.

USS Kearsarge, recovery ship for MA-8. The Kearsarge was a modified aircraft carrier, designed for anit-submarine duties and carrying a complement of helicopters.

Re-entry went fine, but there had been some concerns about the close proximity of two typhoons near recovery areas in the Pacific. The radar of the prime recovery ship, USS Kearsarge, detected the spacecraft while it was still 200 miles away from its landing site. Schirra had brought the craft to a near perfect landing, only 4 and a half miles away from the aiming point, and just a half mile away from the carrier!

Snapshot from the deck of the Kearsarge as Sigma 7 heads toward a water landing.

Helicopters were immediately on the site, and Navy frogmen jumped in the water to attach flotation devices to the spacecraft and ensure the safety of the astronaut. Instead of climbing out of the capsule, Schirra decided to stay aboard the capsule until he was brought onto the deck of the ship.

Navy frogmen attach flotation "collars" to the Mercury capsule to keep it oriented while awaiting towing.

Schirra is helped from the capsule after landing on the deck of the USS Kearsarge.

The capsule was quickly towed over to the carrier, and was hoisted to the deck. With the all-clear given, Schirra activated the mechanism to blow off the escape hatch door, and he was helped out onto the deck.

With the success of the mission, plans were adjusted to make the next flight the longest American mission to date. Valuable data had been gathered by Schirra and the instruments on Sigma 7 to make that next mission a success.

Of course, upon return to Houston, Wally was given a ticker-tape welcome home parade and began tours around the country to be adored by the public. The Sigma 7 capsule itself eventually wound up at the Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville, Florida, just outside the Kennedy Space Center.

An obviously Happy Wally.

Sigma 7 on display at the Astronaut Hall of Fame.I've been able to visit this capsule several times. The capsule is tilted over so that you can look directly into the cockpit and get a good view of the cramped conditions and the 60's era control panel.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

ISS Docking Ports Clear

ESA's ATV Edoardo Amaldi undocks from ISS.

On September 28, the Automated Transfer Vehicle Edoardo AmaldiI undocked from the International Space Station. The craft had docked with the ISS in March this year, bringing fuel, air, supplies, and scientific equipment for the Expedition 32 crew. Having filled the empty interior with station waste and garbage, the Expedition 33 crew undocked the ship and ESA ground controllers maneuvered it into a de-orbit path. It's de-orbit burn will take place today, causing the spacecraft to break up and burn as it re-enters the atmosphere over the South Pacific Ocean.

With the de-orbit burn up of Japan's HTV-3 supply ship on September 14, and the successful landing of the Expedition 32 crew on September 17, the space ports around the ISS are looking a bit empty. Not to Worry! Additional flights are headed that way.

Falcon 9 rocket at Launch Complex 40.

SpaceX has scheduled a repeat of their record-breaking commercial supply launch for take-off on October 7th at 6:35 pm MDT. The Falcon 9 rocket will lift the Dragon capsule into an intercepting orbit and deliver additional supplies to the Expedition 33 crew.

Kevin Ford, Oleg Novitskiy, Evgeny Tarelkin at simulator.

Reinforcements will soon be on the way to the ISS. The next flight of crewmembers for Expedition 33 includes astronaut Kevin Ford (who will command Expedition 34), and cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Evgeny Tarelkin. They are scheduled for liftoff from Baikonur on October 23 in Soyuz TMA-06M.