Monday, February 29, 2016

50 Years Ago: The Flight of AS-201

The Saturn 1b clears the tower.
On February 26, 1966, NASA launched the first test of a Saturn 1b rocket carrying the unmanned Block 1 Apollo command and service modules. Block 1 modules were not designed with the forward hatch necessary for docking with the newly-designed Lunar Excursion Module, so they would be relegated to Earth-orbit-only missions. The purpose of this mission was to test the Saturn 1b vehicle integrity, the connections to the CM and SM, rocket guidance and propulsion, and to test the CM on re-entry. This would also include a test of the vehicle recovery plans and ships.
Recovery divers ensure the safe retrieval of the command module.
On the 26th, there was an abort command at four seconds before launch when the fuel tanks in the S-IVb stage fell below expected levels. Quick checking by the engineers and a launch simulation showed that the flight could proceed with the lower pressures, so the countdown resumed and the rocket lifted off from Launch Complex LC-34 at Cape Kennedy. The launch went well, with the Command and Service module separation at 425 miles from the Earth. The SM then fired its engine twice to propel the modules back to the Earth. This proved that the Service module engines could be restarted in space. There were only a few problems with the engine and the control of the CM, mostly dealing with wiring problems and an unexpected leak of helium into the SM fuel.  The command module re-entered the atmosphere and safely made a water landing 37 minutes after launch. The recovery ship USS Boxer found the CM about 70 km from where it was supposed to be. Today the CM is on display to the public at the Strategic Air and Space Museum in Ashland, Nebraska.
USS Boxer (CV-21). USN photo.
Mission patch for flight AS-201.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

4th Cygnus Cargo Ship Undocks, Burns Up

Farewell to the "Deke Slayton II." Credit NASA TV.
On Friday Feb. 19, Orbital ATK's 4th Cygnus resupply mission ended when the "Deke Slayton II" undocked from the ISS and maneuvered away from the station. It had arrived in December 2015 with supplies and experiments for the station, blasting off using an Atlas V rocket. Orbital ATK's own rocket, the Antares, is being redesigned following a catastrophic explosion the year before. 
Fiery re-entry of a Cygnus spacecraft.
Once the spacecraft had been carefully maneuvered away from the station, engineers sent commands that propelled the craft into a de-orbit burn high over the Pacific Ocean. Since the craft is not designed for re-use, it broke apart and burned up safely away from habitable areas.

50 Years Ago: Preparing for AS-201

Apollo AS-201 on the pad at Cape Kennedy.

Fifty years ago, in 1966, NASA was ready to begin an intensive testing program of the Saturn rocket with the Apollo spacecraft components. The first unmanned launch would be mission AS-201 scheduled for February 26. The launch vehicle was the Saturn 1, designed for getting Apollo into Earth orbit and testing command, service, and lunar module components before sending them to the Moon. There had been ten Saturn 1 test launches since 1961, using boiler-plate mock-up equipment in place of actual command and service module elements. In the latter half of 1965, the Saturn 1 rocket segments were brought to Cape Kennedy and stacked on the pad at Launch Complex 34.
Components of the Saturn 1 first stage.

Chrysler was the manufacturer of the first stage. Yes, the same company that manufactures cars. On this model, the stage featured eight J-2 engines that could produce thrust of 1,600,000 pounds of force. It arrived at the Cape in August 1965. It was set up directly on the pad.
Components of the Saturn 1 second stage.

 The second stage of the rocket is actually the Saturn IVb stage, built by Douglas Aircraft Company (now part of Boeing). It also worked as the third stage of the Saturn V rocket. It used one J-2 engine for propulsion. It was mated to the rocket, on the pad, in October 1965.

Command and Service modules being mated.
The Block 1 Command and Service modules joined the rocket in December 1965. They were built by North American Aviation. The Block 1 design was intended for all Earth-orbit testing and manned missions, before the Lunar Orbit rendezvous scheme was adopted by NASA, and the capsule did not include a docking hatch in its nose. Once the plan for landing in the LEM was included, the Block II was developed, and manned mission planning with Block I was shortened to only two missions. 
Finishing the Stack.
Testing of the rocket continued both night and day. In late 1965, the automation testing computer developed malfunctions which slowed down the rate of testing, but it was of course repaired and plans continued for the February 26 launch.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

50 Years Ago: Luna 9 on the Moon

Soviet Luna IX Lunar Probe.

This February marks the 50th anniversary of a great achievement for Soviet Russia's moon program. Back on February 3, 1966, the Russians successfully directed the Luna IX Moon Probe towards the lunar surface. The Molniya-M rocket carrying the probe left Earth on January 31. Using nitrogen-powered thrusters, the spacecraft commenced spinning for thermal control, and the fourth stage propelled the craft into a lunar interception orbit.
Lander segment process art.

At 16 miles from the surface, the craft began retro-rocket firings to slow its descent. When the probe reached 16 feet above the surface the lander capsule was ejected, and when on the surface it deployed its landing petals for orientation and began taking pictures.
One of the first images from the surface of the Moon.

The lander began sending the images back to Earth about 7 hours later. Interestingly, the Soviets delayed releasing the images, but meanwhile in England, scientists at the Jodrell Observatory where able to print the images and get them to the papers. There is some speculation that the inclusion of standard press-type Radiofax imagers on the probe may have been intended to help the Observatory prepare the images for release anyway.

Friday, February 5, 2016

2016: A Good Year for Rocketeers

Launch of Atlas V carrying the 12th GPS satellite for the US Air Force's Network of navigation satellites. Credit: United Launch Alliance.

This morning the weather looked clear as ULA launched another Atlas V rocket from Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral, Florida. The GPS-IIF-12 satellite was successfully placed into orbit,  completing the constellation of navigation satellites planned by the USAF.  This was the first ULA Atlas V launch of the year, with a plan of 15 ULA launches throughout 2016. When you add these flights to the other commercial launches, and all the international launches scheduled this year, it looks to be an exciting time for fans of rocketry and satellite launches!

On my SpaceRubble blog, I don't usually cover every rocket launch, instead focusing on missions that support manned space projects or important exploration probes to the planets. But a rocket fan can easily keep up with all the blasting off, thanks to websites such as: 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

ISS EVA-42 Completed

Cosmonauts Yuri Malenchenko (L) and Sergey Volkov (R) suited up and ready to begin the spacewalk. Picture taken by Commander Scott Kelly on the ISS.
Early on Wednesday morning, two Russian cosmonauts of Expedition 46 exited the airlock and moved outside the International Space Station. Yuri Malenchenko was making his sixth EVA, and Sergey Volkov making his fourth. There have now been 193 EVA missions since the beginning of the ISS program, mostly dealing with the construction of the station module by module. In this EVA, the two spacewalkers placed some more grab holds on the modules for future spacewalks, and retrieved experiments and materials to be brought back inside the station. 
One of the tasks of the EVA was to release a canister containing a flash drive into space orbit. It contained messages and videos from Russians commemorating the 70th anniversary of Russia's Victory Day (the end of WW2).
 The canister is released.
I'll admit, this act might not have been thought out very well. I understand the benefit of involving the public in leaving their messages and words (albeit in electronic format - who will ever be able to read them?) in space, as it focuses the people on space exploration. After all, no bucks, no Buck Rogers. It's been a popular thing for NASA and other space projects to do. But normally the items are attached to a spacecraft or lander. This one was thrown into orbit behind the station. Now it was jettisoned in a way that it poses no risk to hitting the station in subsequent orbits. However, considering the vast problem that exists in Earth orbit with tens of thousands of pieces of space debris, was it wise to add yet another? Certainly no mission of the future will be trying to retrieve this canister - only people on Earth will have access to a backup of the project. And very few people will probably do that. And, if it eventually is pushed by solar radiation down to the Earth's upper atmosphere, it will burn up - so why put it up there to begin with?