Tuesday, October 29, 2013

ATV-4 undocks from ISS

ISS docking port view of the ATV-4 slowly backing away from the station. Credit: NASA TV.

The European Space Agency ATV-4 "Albert Einstein" has completed its mission to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. Early Monday morning astronauts of the Expedition 37 team were on standby as mission controllers from the ground operated the spacecraft undocking.  The craft had arrived on June 15 bringing a total of 7 tons' worth of food, fuel, and life support supplies to the ISS. Now filled with garbage, it will be slowly moved away from the station until Saturday. Then, mission controllers in Europe will fire the engine and direct the craft to a fiery re-entry over the Pacific Ocean.

For Expedition 37, this is a busy time of spacecraft shuffle. The Cygnus cargo ship was undocked last week, the ATV-4 removed this week, and next the astronauts will move the Soyuz TMA-09M spacecraft to a new port on the Zvesda module on Friday. This will clear the way for the arrival of Soyuz TMA-11M with three new crewmen on November 7. Following that arrival, crewmembers Yurchikhin, Nyberg and Parmitano will depart on Soyuz TMA-09M on November 10, ending Expedition 37.

Usually NASA posts high-resolution pictures of the comings-and-goings of spacecraft, but I haven't seen them post the pics from the ATV-4 undocking yet. I'll keep an eye out for that.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Cygnus Cargo Spacecraft departs ISS

Astronauts on ISS release the Cygnus spacecraft from the robotic arm, before ground engineers check out systems to move it away from the station. 

The first Orbital Sciences Cygnus mission nears its end as the Cygnus cargo spacecraft was removed from its docking port on the International Space Station. According to schedule, Cygnus will activate its engine Wednesday afternoon for a de-orbital burn that will direct the craft to burn up in the atmosphere somewhere far above the Pacific Ocean. Astronauts Parmitano and Nyberg were at the controls of the CanadArm2 robotic manipulator for the undocking.

Cygnus had been docked at the Harmony module since September 29, bringing 1,300 pounds of cargo and supplies to the ISS. After unloading the supplies, astronauts from Expedition 37 filled the empty space with trash and expendables which are no longer needed aboard the station. The Cygnus is not designed for re-entry, unlike the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft which remains the only way to bring cargo safely back to Earth.

This first demonstration mission has been a success, with engineers able to correct a computer glitch prior to docking in September. The next, operational, mission for a Cygnus cargo spacecraft is expected to take place in December as Orbital Sciences begins regular delivery service to the ISS. This mission has definitely helped propel the commercial side of space operations closer to NASA's goal of letting non-government operators handle the delivery of supplies, and eventually astronauts, to the outposts in space.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Farewell, Scott Carpenter

Astronaut Carpenter after recovery from splashdown on mission MA-7.

Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter died this week at age 88. He had recently suffered a stroke and although it was thought he would recover, his health worsened. He is most famously remembered for his Mercury space flight on May 24, 1962 in the Space capsule Aurora 7 (MA-7). The second American to orbit the Earth, he flew for just under 5 hours testing the spacecraft and helping to identify the mysterious "fireflies" reported by John Glenn on mission MA-6 (for which Carpenter was the backup pilot).

Test pilot Carpenter with the F-106B.

Carpenter became a Navy pilot after WW2, eventually flying Navy surveillance aircraft during the Korean War. After the war, he became a Navy test pilot until his appointment as one of the "Mercury Seven" original astronaut selection. 

Liftoff of the MA-7 Mercury-Atlas rocket from Launch Complex LC-14, Cape Canaveral, Florida.

There was a bit of controversy from Carpenter's Mercury mission. DUe to a problem with the Pitch Horizon Scanner, maneuvering the capsule required extra work and Carpenter had to cope with a manual re-entry situation. Because of the PHS problem and fuel waste, Carpenter's spacecraft overshot the selected landing point by 250 miles. Mission Control Director Chris Kraft blamed Carpenter for the problem although NASA later identified it. Carpenter was kept off flight assignments though. He took a leave of absence for a short assignment with the SEALAB underwater base station project, and before he came back to a NASA assignment he was involved in a Motorbike accident. The injury to his arm was never properly corrected and he was grounded from flying. He continued to work with NASA though, training astronauts using the underwater training simulators. He continued to be a vocal proponent of the space program until even very recently. He later founded Sea Sciences Inc., developing programs for using our oceanic resources and protecting the ocean environment.

Official NASA Portrait. 

I'm very fortunate to have Scott Carpenter's autograph. I'm proud of his commitment to human spaceflight and his willingness to be vocal when things have not gone right with our government's handling of the space program. With his passing, John Glenn now becomes the last survivor of the Mercury Space Program, more than 50 years after its completion.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

NASA Shutdown, Space Still Open

Government shutdown? Well, kind of.

Political maneuverings in our nation's capital have resulted in a "government shutdown." The mainstream media is awash in dire threats of layoffs, harm to the economy, senior citizens in danger, and essential services taken off line. NASA, as a government agency, is part of the shutdown. So what does that mean for space operations? According to NASA's information releases, "During a shutdown, most NASA operations would cease and most employees would be furloughed, with the exception of operations and personnel needed to protect life and property." Like the FAA and TSA, mission control in Houston will continue to function and assist the Expedition 37 crew aboard the ISS, and essential satellites and communications systems will continue to operate. According to Jeff Faust of SpacePolitics, several hundred employees remain on duty, though there is some worry that should the shutdown be prolonged, launch dates could be affected. He notes that the Kennedy Visitor Center in FLorida will remain open, as it is run by a private industry, although the parts of the tour that enter NASA facilities will be closed.

And that brings up an important point. It may have started small, but there is a growing effort to bring space operations out of government administration and placed into the hands of private enterprise. With that note, we can look at a couple of important milestones this week.

Falcon Improved lifts off from Vandenberg. Credit: SpaceX.

Private space ventures like SpaceX continue to operate. Just last Sunday, SpaceX launched the Falcon 9.1 rocket from the Vandenberg AFB in California. The new rocket features engines that are less expensive to manufacture and greater performance. This launch was used to place a Canadian technology test satellite into orbit. As the US military will not be affected by the government shutdown (except for private contractors), military launch facilities remain open and military space assets continue to operate. SpaceX is working on other launch facilities. They are creating a new launch pad in Texas, and are in negotiations with NASA to lease the older Pad 39 B site which was used for Apollo and Shuttle operations but is no longer needed.

Proton launch from Baikonur. Credit: RIA Novosti.

And don't forget, America is just one player in the space game. International space operations continue as normal. On Monday, Russia launched a new Proton-M rocket for the first time since July's failure. The troubled system has some worried that difficulties could endanger the launch of the new Russian module to the ISS. The July Proton failure resulted in the loss of three Glonass GPS satellites, and was quickly followed by news of a scandal in the program. It was also determined that the crash was due to the faulty upside-down placement of three sensors in the rocket. This Monday's launch placed a communications satellite.

It's not likely that the NASA shutdown will last very long, as both political parties in Washington will be searching for a way out of the mess. Let's hope all goes well and no disasters occur during the "slowdown."