Monday, June 15, 2015

Expedition 43 Returns to Earth

Soyuz spaceship backs away from the International Space Station.
Crew changes at the ISS have been delayed due to the unexpected flaws in the Russian Soyuz 2 rocket program. After the failure of a Soyuz 2 rocket which caused the loss of a Progress resupply ship in May, the Soyuz spaceship launches were delayed a month giving investigators time to discover the problem. It was found that the disaster was likely caused by a failure to mate the progress ship to the Soyuz rocket correctly. Russia completed a successful Soyuz 2 rocket launch on June 5, paving the way to restart crew trips to and from the station.

Crew change ceremony. Expedition 43 commander Terry Virts,in red and holding microphone, passes command to Expedition 44 commander in blue, cosmonaut Gennady Padalka. Also returning home (in red shirts) were ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov.

Once the Change of Command Ceremony was completed, the 43 crew finished preparations for leaving the station and boarded their Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft and began undocking procedures. The crew carefully moved away from the station to avoid firing thrusters in the direction of any of the sensitive station solar panels and antennas, when ground controllers noticed that some of the smaller thrusters had accidentally fired 48 times more than they were supposed to , causing the spacecraft  to roll more than needed. According the, former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield told Twitter users that it was not unknown for that to happen, as the spacecraft has been sitting there for six months and it was possible to make a small mistake on the thrusters.

The crew floated in free-fall for a couple of hours before igniting the engines and slowing the spacecraft. The Soyuz headed for its fiery re-entry, and the crew separated the science and propulsion modules before hitting the atmosphere. Parachuting to the ground in the crew module, they touched down in Kazakhstan on Wednesday at 13:44 GMT.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

50 Years Ago: FIrst American Spacewalk

Astronaut Ed White makes NASA's first EVA.

On June 3, 1965 astronauts Ed White and Jim McDivitt  launched to space aboard the Gemini 4 capsule. Lifted by the Titan II rocket, the capsule began a 66 orbit mission that would be America's first multi-day mission.
Crew and support personnel head toward the gantry elevator.

The Soviets had the multi-day record set so far by keeping Vostok 5 in space for 5 days back in 1963. This mission would come close to, but not exceed the record. Future Gemini missions would last longer in space, proving the concept of being able to live in space for the duration of a Moon mission.

Securing the astronauts into the cramped two-man capsule.

Besides long duration, two other objectives were set for the mission. A spacewalk event was planned, to catch up to the Soviet accomplishment which had just occurred in March 1965 when Alexei Leonov spacewalked from Voskhod 2. Mission planners had scheduled the EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) for the second orbit. Another objective would be an attempt to make a close fly-by rendezvous with the second stage of the Titan rocket.

Launch from LC-19 at Cape Canaveral, FL at 10:15 am.

This mission was the first to transfer mission control duties to the new Mission Control facility in Houston, TX. Once the Titan rocket had cleared the tower, communications and vehicle monitoring was switched to the three-shift operation. The historic nature of the mission brought a great deal of attention to the flight. For the first time, 12 countries would receive TV broadcasts of the flight and over 1,100 press representatives  were in attendance at rented facilities.

Inside the capsule.

The attempt to reach the second stage did not go well. The stage was releasing extra fuel and moving unexpectedly, and did not have enough lights on it to help the astronaut spot it. This Gemini capsule did not have a radar installed yet, which meant astronauts had to visually estimate distances. After wasting an unplanned amount of thruster fuel, the attempt was called off.
Ed White moves away from the capsule.

After the failed rendezvous, the EVA was postponed until the third orbit. There was a stuck hatch spring at first, but the astronauts had learned how to take care of that potential problem during training. There were comunications problems between the capsule and mission control during the event, so that Mission Control was not able to be heard but the astronauts could hear each other. It was later determined that there was a problem with McDivitt's voice only (or VOX) connection.

White used a Hand-Held Maneuvering Unit to propel himself and direct his movement.

Because NASA did not want to continue the spacewalk in darkness, the spacewalk came to an end before the capsule flew into the dark side of the planet orbit. The spacewalk lasted 20 minutes. White wanted to keep taking more pictures, but with darkness approaching he was convinced by NASA flight Controllers to return to the cabin. They entered darkness before the hatch was closing. There was a glitch with the latches again, but the astronauts managed to fix it again.

View from Gemini 4.

The mission would continue for a couple more days. As this was the first multi-day mission, the astronauts tried conserving thruster fuel by powering down some items in the craft and sleeping alternate 4 hour shifts. Frequent capsule communications with Houston made that difficult. Re-entry and splashdown occurred on June 7 in the Atlantic Ocean, where the crew and craft were recovered by the USS Wasp.

The capsule is lifted from the water to the flight elevator on the carrier Wasp.