Saturday, March 19, 2016

ISS Crew Arrives

Nighttime launch of Soyuz TMA-20M from Baikonur.

ISS crew rotations continued yesterday with the launch of Soyuz 46 (TMA-20M) during a night launch from Kazakhstan. On board were Soyuz commander Alexey Ovchinin, cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka, and astronaut Jeffrey Williams. They are forming the second half of Expedition 47 which is currently in command of the International Space Station. That half of the crew consists of Expedition commander Timothy Kopra (NASA) and flight engineers Timothy Peak (UK) and Yuri Malenchenko (Roscosmos). 

The Soyuz had a fourth honorary crewmember, a fluffy owl. View of Ochinin and Shkripochka in the cramped Soyuz capsule.

Opposite view. Jeffrey Williams monitors the flight plan while the owl hangs by a string from the console, indicating the craft is still under acceleration.

Once the Soyuz spacecraft separated from the third stage and shut down acceleration, the microgravity of zero-G kicked in and the little owl floated out of view. The fluffy doll was given to its task by Ovchinin's daughter. During flight, the couches are far enough from the console that a telescopic rod is used to reach and press buttons and switches.

Russian mission control outside of Moscow monitors the orbital progress of the Soyuz.
 After a six-hour chase of the orbiting ISS 251 miles above the Earth, the Soyuz spacecraft slowed down and began maneuvering to dock with the station. The two spacecraft docked a short time later, and the hatch was opened once the atmosphere pressure check was completed.
Soyuz on docking approach.
Welcoming ceremony. In back, L-R: Malenchenko, Kopra, Peake. in front L-R: Williams, Ovchinin, Skripochka.


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

50 Years Ago: Close Call for Gemini 8

Prime crew for Gemini 8 (L-R): Dave Scott, Neil Armstrong (mission command pilot).
Fifty years ago, mission Gemini 8 was planned to achieve a major goal in preparation for sending astronauts to the Moon: Rendezvous and Docking. Previously, an attempt to dock with an Agena target vehicle failed when the Atlas rocket carrying the Agena was destroyed. The crew of Gemini 6 was re-tasked to make a rendezvous with the long-duration crew of Gemini 7. They successfully met up with the other capsule, even getting so close as to be about a foot away from each other and practicing flying in formation. This time, NASA would try again to fly a Gemini capsule to the Agena target vehicle and actually dock. Following docking, Dave Scott would perform a two hour EVA to retrieve a small experiment from the nose cone of the capsule and activate an experiment on the Agena. This would have been the second spacewalk for NASA.

Atlas rocket launches with the Agena stage from LC-14.
On March 16, 1966, the Atlas rocket carrying the Agena target vehicle left launch pad LC-14 and successfully placed the payload into a 300-mile orbit of the Earth. About 100 minutes later, Gemini 8 blasted off from LC-19, placing the capsule into a 272-mile orbit. Both launches operated well and proceeded according to plan. 
Gemini 8 lifts off from LC-19 on 3/16/66.
The astronauts used four thruster corrections to gain altitude and maneuver towards the target. The radar on the capsule located the Agena when it was 179 miles away, and the astronauts spotted the vehicle when it was 79 miles away. After 4 hours of flight, they successfully met up with the Agena and smoothly docked the two craft together.
View of the Agena Target Vehicle from the Gemini capsule window.
View of Agena from above.
Shortly after docking, a command was given to the Agena to turn the combined vehicle. However, the craft began to do a roll. Dave Scott used the thrusters to stop the roll, but it then started again. The two spacecraft began to spin. Armstrong noticed that their thruster fuel was lower than it should have been, and so the problem could be a problem with their own thruster. As the spin increased, they were both worried that either of the spacecraft could be damaged or break apart, so they released the docking and thrusted back from the Agena. During this time, the craft had been in a blackout zone where communications with ground was not possible.
Artist rendering of the spinning capsule. Credit: Glenn Johnson.
With the release of the Agena, the capsule began spinning even faster. As they re-entered communications range, they were spinning about once every second, and their vision began to be blurred and they could have lost consciousness. Armstrong then shut down the main thrusters and activated the re-entry thruster system (they later determined that thruster 8 was malfunctioning). Using his excellent piloting skills, Armstrong stopped the spinning and brought the craft under control. Mission Control confirmed that according to flight rules, once the re-entry system had been activated, the mission would end and Gemini 8 prepared for an emergency re-entry.
Gemini 8 with recovery divers in the Pacific.
Since the craft would be unable to land in the primary recovery zone, the secondary site was chosen about 100 km south of Yokosuka, Japan. The craft landed safely and divers were able to reach them quickly. It took about 3 hours for the recovery ship USS Leonard F. Mason to arrive. Although the mission ended in a near-disaster, the crew had already completed the important Rendezvous and Docking portion so it was considered a successful flight. Dave Scott and Neil Armstrong had also proven their valuable resourcefulness and flying skills.

USS Leonard F. Mason.
Hooking the capsule to a hoist.
Carefully lifting the capsule onto the deck.
Armstrong and Scott leave the ship after docking at Okinawa. This picture is interesting because i believe that's astronaut Wally Schirra following them on the gangway. He was probably assigned to the crew support role in the secondary landing area, and would have flown out to the ship via helicopter, or, perhaps came aboard to check on them once the ship docked.

Gemini 8 mission patch.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Astronaut Scott Kelly Returns to Earth

Soyuz TMA-18M backs away from the ISS. NASA TV.

Astronaut Scott Kelly has spent the last 340 days in space. He now becomes the highest-space-time American in NASA (Russians still hold the record). On Tuesday evening, the Expedition 46 crew separated from the International Space Station, and then performed braking maneuvers to prepare for re-entry. About six hours later, they were safely landed in Kazakhstan.

Helicopter sighting of the Soyuz slowly descending into the cloud bank over Kazakhstan.

 Kelly and his Roscosmonaut partner Mikhail Kornienko have been part of a joint NASA-Roscosmos project to study weightlessness in space, preparing for long journeys to Mars. Scott Kelly was in the fortunate position in that his twin brother, Mark Kelly (now retired from NASA) agreed to also participate in the study so that doctors could compare the two brothers to see how the changes of space affected Scott. One effect was obvious already, Scott's spine has straightened over the last year so that he is now two inches taller than his identical brother.

Thumbs-up from Kelly as he is helped out of the Soyuz capsule.

With the return of Expedition 46 to the Earth, the current ISS Expedition 47 crew (NASA astronaut commander Tim Kopra, ESA astronaut im PEake, and Roscosmos cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko) await the arrival of the second half of the crew. They will launch from Russia on March 18, with Jeff Williams, Oleg Skripochka, and Alexey Ovchinin.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

ISS: Change of Command Expeditions 46/47

Ceremony Complete: Expedition 47 in green, 46 in black t-shirts. NASA-TV.
It's that time again, when crew rotations take place on board Earth's outpost in orbit. On the International Space Station, Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly gave a short speech thanking all the team members (both on ground and in space) who have helped make a fantastic year for him and for Mikhail Kornienko. He then pronounced the command turn over to Tim Kopra of NASA, who will be the commander of Expedition 47. The actual expedition changeover occurs when the Exp. 46 Soyuz undocks from the station.
Expedition 46 prepares to board the Soyuz TMA-18M. In light and dark blue shirts, from L-R: Kornienko, Sergey Volkov, and Scott Kelly. In green shirts are (L-R): Yuri Malenchenko, Tim Kopra, and Tim Peake (from UK). The Russian module is much more crowded than the one where the change of command ceremony took place.
At the far end of the module, you can see the Expedition 46 members in the Soyuz capsule science section.
Closing the hatches.