Sunday, November 30, 2014

First 3D Object Printed in Space

Expedition 42 Commander Barry Wilmore of NASA holds up the first object printed aboard the ISs by the new 3D printing machine.

"Butch" Wilmore, commander of the current Expedition 42 aboard the ISS, installed the 3D printer a couple of weeks ago on November 17th. In coordination with ground engineer teams, calibration tests were made on November 20. Finally ready on November 24, the controllers sent a command to the printer to create a copy of the faceplate of the casing of the printer. This act proves that the machine can, in fact, make some replacement parts for itself. Then the next day, Commander Wilmore removed the part and inspected it. It was discovered that the adhesion of the printed object to its production tray was very strong, more than anticipated. There is some speculation that the material's bonding may be slightly different due to the Zero-G situation. After each printed object is made, analysis will help the engineers fine-tune the device to prepare it for full operational status.

Picture of the 3D printer before launch and some of the objects that are planned to be printed in space.

The 3D printer on the ISS was designed and built by Made In Space, Inc. based in Moffat Field, California. All of the parts that will be printed will eventually be flown back to Earth for greater study. With the cancellation of the Space Shuttle, that would have been difficult due to the limitations on what can be carried down from orbit on the Soyuz return capsules. However, with the success of the SpaceX Dragon cargo spaceship, experiments and equipment can be safely returned to Earth for further studies.

Expedition 42 begins on ISS

Launch of Soyuz rocket carrying Soyuz spacecraft TMA-15M to rendezvous with the ISS. All credits NASA/NASA TV unless otherwise credited.

There was a time when the International Space Station would be manned only by a crew of three. On this Thanksgiving then, we can be thankful that despite the tensions between the NATO countries and Russia, our joint space activities still remain and we can all benefit by the use of the venerable Soyuz rocket system. On November 23, another Russian Soyuz boosted its spacecraft into a quick-rendezvous orbit designed to deliver the Expedition 42 secondary crew to the ISS. Six hours after launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the TMA-15M spacecraft caught up with the ISS and was docked to the Russian Rassvet module.

Expedition 42 Crew Picture: Back, L-R is Russian Roscosmos cosmonaut Elena Serova, Exp. 42 Commander Barry Wilmore (NASA), and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Samokutyaev. Newly arrived crew in front, L-R: Soyuz TMA-15M commander Anton Shkaplerov (Russian Space Agency - Roscosmos), ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti (Italy), and NASA astronaut Terry Virts.

Terry Virts has previously visited the ISS before, as the pilot of the Space Shuttle Endeavor on mission STS-130, when NASA delivered and installed the Tranquility (Node 3) module and Cupola.

Beautiful shot of the Russian Soyuz rocket on the launch pad, having just been raised to vertical position. The other arms (laying down at each side) will next be raised to support position.

After the welcome aboard ceremony the crew settled into their new quarters and joined the daily routines of maintenance, operation of science experiments, and station operations. On Thursday, however, there was a special occasion: A Thanksgiving meal.  Astronauts were able to eat smoked turkey, candied yams, green beans and mushrooms. Of course all products had been irradiated, freeze-dried, or thermostabilized! Be grateful that down here on Earth we could have gravy...

With the full crew now on board, the team will concentrate on more than 150 experiments, and preparing for spacewalks that will get the station ready for upcoming dockings with new spacecraft being built by commercial companies.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Expedition 41 Ends, Lands Safely on Earth

Change of Command ceremony: Expedition 41 (left 3) turns over station to Expedition 42 (right 3). 

After a mission of 6 months, the Expedition team of Maksiim Surayev (RSA), Reid Wiseman(NASA), and Alexander Gerst(ESA) turned over command of the ISS to Expedition 42 on November 9. On the 10th, they boarded the Soyuz TMA-13M spacecraft and undocked from the station. A few hours later, they activated their rockets to de-orbit and re-enter the atmosphere for a safe parachute landing back on Earth.

Station view of the Soyuz spacecraft, in the distant center of picture.

Expedition 41 inside the Soyuz, with Alexander Samokutyayev of Expedition 42 at the station hatch.

The Soyuz capsule touches down in the steppes of Kazakhstan.

Recovery team, flown by helicopter to the landing site, listens to Maksim Surayev talk to reporters. Pretty cold out there, and the team has to recover to get used to Earth's gravity again. The return capsule can be seen just behind the group in the center.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

50 Years Ago: First Astronaut Fatality

Theodore C. Freeman (Captain, USAF) - official NASA portrait. 

It was an ironic surprise this weekend, when I was searching out some more events to mark the 50 anniversary of events in the space program, to learn a bit about Theodore Freeman. His passing on October 31, 1964, was the first American astronaut to die in a space related incident (flight training). He was killed when a large bird collided with his engine intake on his T-38 jet trainer, which was used by NASA for flight proficiency and quick travel for astronauts. While trying to land his disabled jet, his engine quit and his plane plunged into the ground while he attempted to avoid hitting buildings at Ellington AF Base near Houston.

Third selection of astronauts. Freeman is standing near the middle.

Freeman was born in 1930, and became a test pilot in the US Air Force. After becoming a test pilot, he applied for astronaut training and was selected in the third group in October 1963.

Freeman (foreground) and other astronauts training to eat food packs in microgravity aboard a NASA "Vomit Comet" training aircraft. Beside him is (far left) Charlie Bassett, who was killed two years later in another T-38 accident before his first space flight. Between them is Buzz Aldrin, who would later be the second man to set foot on the Moon.

Aldrin (left) and Freeman (right) training in Gemini spacesuits.

NASA T-38 training jets.

Over this last week, 50 years to the day, another test pilot was killed preparing for space flight when co-pilot Michael Alsbury died in the crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip Two. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

SpaceShip Two Crash Probably Pilot Error

Long range camera view of Spaceship Two with twin tail booms rotating up. Credit: Center Observatory/Virgin Galactic.

It's a fact: right after the motor ignited, SpaceShipTwo's twin-boom tails began rotating into the position used for descending into the atmosphere from space, causing the craft to become unstable and break apart. While the possibility exists that the cause was pilot error, the chief of the National Transportation Safety Board does not want anyone jumping to conclusions. The investigations will continue for some time, and engineers and scientists will be poring over the data from the flight recorders and cameras. However, this development helps move the concern away from the motor itself.

It seems that the lever used to release the booms was activated by the co-pilot, who died in last week's crash. The pilot was able to free himself as the craft came apart, and safely parachuted to the ground. He suffered injuries from the accident and is recovering in the hospital.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Atlas V makes 50th Launch!

Atlas V rocket on the pad at Launch Complex SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral. Credit ULA/

During this week of tragic space news, there have been many successful space events. Earlier this week we have a successful return of the Dragon cargo spacecraft and the launch of a Russian Soyuz Progress spacecraft to the ISS. On Wednesday, there was a very successful launch and milestone for the Atlas V rocket series: the 50th successful launch!

Launched by United Launch Alliance, the Atlas V took off from SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and lifted the GPS-2F satellite into orbit. You can read a very good review of the past 50 launches from NASA at:

SpaceShip Two Crashes

Some of the remains of SpaceShip Two on the Mojave Desert floor. The wreckage area is about five miles long. 

Commercial Space efforts took another hit this week after the Antares rocket explosion, when Virgin Galactic's Spaceship Two crashes in the Mojave Desert, California during a test flight. Co-pilot Michael Alsbery, a test pilot was killed. Pilot Peter Siebold, who is also Director of Flight Operations for the company, survived but was in serious medical condition in the hospital.

Sequence of disaster. Clockwise, L-R: Spaceship Two separates from White Knight mothership(center of photo); Engine malfunction; Spaceship Two breaks up. Credit: Kenneth Brown/Spaceflight Now.

Investigations have begun by the National Transportation Safety Board, but early speculation is that the problem started after the rocketplane separated from its carrier aircraft (named White Knight, a twin-fuselaged and twin-cockpit jet plane) and ignited its experimental rocket motor. The spaceship appeared to break up and the wreckage spread over a large area of the desert. There is not a lot of information being released for now, as the investigations get under way, but there were many cameras and instruments recording the flight so there is a good chance the the problem will be identified and corrected. For now, it seems that some witnessed reported seeing a parachute, and the pilot is alive and conscious at the hospital.

On the runway earlier that day: White Knight mothership, with Spaceship Two hung between the twin fuselages in the center. This flight would be a test of the new rocket motor variation.

While the crash and fatality have shocked the space community, most people seem resolute to continue testing and flying to begin easy trips into space. Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, promises to continue flight testing although the second spacecraft currently in production won't be ready for flight testing until next year.