Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Departures and Arrivals at the ISS

ATV-5 firing thrusters for maneuvering. 

The International Space Station has seen a flurry of cargo spaceships coming and going in the last week. On February 14th, the Georges LemaƮtre (ATV-5) undocked from the ISS and prepared for a fiery re-entry through the Earth's atmosphere on Sunday. This had been the 5th robotic European cargo spaceship to service the station, arriving in August 2014. Delivering over 2,600 kg of cargo, supplies, and propellant to the station, it had also been the heaviest spacecraft to fly into orbit with the Ariane rocket. DUring its stay at the station, it had activated its motors in November to push the ISS out of the way of a dangerous piece of debris (possibly from a Chinese space experiment). With its supplies removed, the spacious cargo area was filled with trash, broken items, and waste for burn up with the craft on Sunday.

Progress spacecraft head-on view. Solar panels extend to the sides, and communications and ranging equipment sticks out from the hull.

Progress 58, designated by the Russians as M-26M, blasted off on a SOyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Tuesday the 18th. Following a six-hour rapid ascent trajectory, the spacecraft rendezvoused with the station and docked at the Zvesda module a short time later. Docking took place at the same port just recently vacated by the ATV-5. Progress brings up about 2,300 kg of supplies, including water essential for the life support and running of the station. Expedition 42 crew members will begin unloading the spacecraft once atmosphere pressures and spacecraft systems have been checked out and normalized.

View of ISS from Progress spacecraft.

Progress 58 spotted from the ISS as it approached the station from below.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

5th Dragon Cargo Ship Returns to Earth

Released from the Robotic Arm on the ISS, Dragon floats free to a safe point where it can fire thrusters. 

The fifth Dragon resupply mission to the International SPace Station (ISS) has come to a successful conclusion. In all, the Dragon space ships have made six stops at the ISS, but the first was a test mission. Of all the various cargo ships that service the station and its crew, Dragon is the only one that returns large quantities of used equipment and experiments back to the Earth for study. All the other robotic supply ships burn up during re-entry, and are usually loaded with trash or non-useable equipment.

SpaceX's Mission Control in California.

Early Tuesday afternoon, astronauts supervised the undocking of the craft from the Node 2 hatch. Using the robotic arm, they gently moved the craft away from the docking port and away from station modules and panels. The craft continued floating away as the arm gently released its grip at 2:09 p.m. Eastern time. Once the Dragon had floated to a designated safe distance from the station, ground flight controllers fired thrusters for three de-orbit burns that guided the spacecraft to a landing site in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California, splashdown occurring at about 7:44 p.m. Eastern. Awaiting them was SpaceX's recovery ship, where the craft was pulled from the water and is being taken back to Los Angeles followed by a trip to the Texas processing facility.

Dragon floats down to a watery landing.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Kennedy Space Center is Evolving!

Down it goes! The Shuttle Mate/De-mate structure is being disassembled the violent way.

As our space program moves from the Shuttle Era towards the era of SLS and Commercial Space, some structures must go in order to raise new, modern structures to support future launches. One such example is the Shuttle Mate/De-mate structure, located alongside the shuttle landing runway just across from the Apollo visitors center. With the end of the shuttle program, the device is not needed and will make room for new projects. During the shuttle program days, whenever the shuttle landed at the dry lakebed in the mojave at Edwards flight test center, it would be mated to the back of a specially-adapted 747 and then flown to the runway at Kennedy to be prepared for another mission.

The good old days. A space shuttle is lifted from the support struts on the shuttle carrier 747, having arrived from a shuttle landing at Edwards AFB in California.

Another part of the Shuttle Program was the USS Pegasus, a special barge large enough to haul the Shuttle External Tank by water from its factory in New Orleans, Louisiana to the Kennedy space Center in Florida. The Pegasus was the last barge from the fleet of barges used to move Saturn stages and shuttle external tanks down the Gulf Coast and around the Florida Keys to the Kennedy center docking port.

Barge unloading facility at Kennedy Space Center. Picture taken during Apollo Program days.

Pegasus with an external tank on the way to KSC.

Pegasus will now receive an extension to its hull and hangar to accommodate the new core stages of the SLS rocket. The core stage is almost 60 feet longer and 250 tons heavier than the shuttle external tanks. The stages will be built at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Louisiana, and transported to the KSC in several trips. You can read a lot more about the construction at

Pegasus undergoing a growth spurt.

Launch Complexes are also going through modifications. Pad 39A, from which most of the manned Apollo missions lifted off to the Moon or Earth orbit, is now under contract to SpaceX. The pad is being modified with a new gantry and tower system that will launch the Falcon 9 (and Dragon cargo spacecraft) and Falcon Heavy rockets. Future manned Falcon flights with the Dragon 2 capsule will also launch from Pad39A.

View of Launch Complex 39. Pad39A is in foreground, Pad39B in the back. Taken during the shuttle era. Both tower systems have been torn down and new construction is taking place.

Pad39B is being prepared for the new SLS heavy rocket system. Currently, the pad is being torn down to the concrete trench and a new flame exhaust trench will be put in place.

Deconstruction of the current flame exhaust trench at Pad39B. The blast from the SLS engines will be much more powerful than the shuttle's engines and boosters.

Monday, February 2, 2015

50 Years Ago: Gemini GT-2 Test Flight

Mission GT-2 lifts off from Pad LC-19, on January 19, 1965.

Recently, on December 5, 2014 we watched the successful test of the Orion space capsule which will be part of NASA's heavy lift SLS rocket system. Fifty years ago, on January 19, 1964, NASA tested the Gemini capsule in a similar mission profile using the unmanned GT-2 test capsule on a Titan rocket. The sub-orbital flight was designed to fling the capsule into space and test the heat shield as it made a fiery re-entry through the atmosphere. That's exactly what the recent Orion flight was designed to do.

Remote- controlled picture of superheated plasma trailing the capsule as it re-enters the atmosphere.

The flight was a total success. The equipment aboard the capsule included an automatic sequencer designed to send signals at precise moments to fire the second stage, separate the capsule, jettison the storage section behind the capsule, orient the capsule for re-entry, and activate the parachutes. The capsule flew through an arc over the Atlantic Ocean, landing 2127 miles downrange, and splashdown occurred about 52 miles from the recovery aircraft carrier, the USS Lake Champlain.

GT-2 capsule arrives in Cape Canaveral. It has been placed on the equipment storage section (The white cone segments under the capsule).

The capsule was never intended to be manned. Instead, it was packed with early forms of computerized sequencers and test measuring devices to study the effects that re-entry physics would play on the structure of the craft and the simulated astronauts. This capsule eventually would become the first spacecraft to fly in space twice! For the Air Force's Manned-Orbital-Laboratory program (MOL), a hatch would be placed through the heat shield so that an astronaut could leave the cockpit and enter a spy-instrument control section that would be placed behind the capsule.

GT-2 on display at the Air Force Space and Missile Museum at Cape Canaveral. I took this picture on my last visit to Cape Canaveral. The capsule wears the US Air Force insignia that was painted on it for its mission in 1966. It was jam-packed with equipment, no room for even a little astronaut in there!

Another view of the capsule. The entire craft is covered with a protective plastic shield to preserve it. 

Not my picture. Another view that shows the hatch placed after mission GT-2.

NASA print of the launch of the mission. The gantry portion of the tower is lying down in the foreground.

Just before the flight. The gantry portion of the tower is lowered down before blast-off.