Saturday, June 18, 2016

Space Station Departures and Change of Command

Change of Command Ceremony: Front (L-R): Malenchenko, Kopra, and Peake. Back Row (L-R): Williams, Ovchinin, and Skripochka. Credit NASA TV.

The last two weeks have seen a couple of farewells. Most recently, on Friday morning June 17, Commander Tim Kopra of Expedition 47 turned over command of the International Space Station to astronaut Jeff Williams. Then the Expedition 47 crew prepared to board and undock from the station.

Soyuz TMA-19M docked at the Russian Rassvet module.

In the returning Soyuz spacecraft TMA-19M, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko assumed spacecraft command with astronauts Peake and Kopra acting as flight engineers. The three crew have been on the ISS for 186 days. For astronaut Tim Peake, it marks the end of a significant mission as he has been the first British Astronaut with the European Space Agency to stay aboard the station.

The Soyuz undocks from the Rassvet module.

The hatch was closed at 10:34 p.m. Eastern , and undocking took place about 3 hours later.

The Soyuz slowly backs away from the station to avoid contaminating the station with exhaust particles during the de-orbit burn.

At about 4:20 a.m. Eastern, the crew fired the engines for the de-orbit burn and the spacecraft descended through the atmosphere. After separating the scientific and service modules, the crew capsule entered the atmosphere and landed a little after 4 am Eastern in Kazakhstan.

Back on Earth after 186 days.

Yuri Malenchenko now becomes the spacefarer with the second most time in space, at 828 days (first is Genady Pedalka). This was Kopra's second flight, bringing him to 244 days, and the completion of Peake's first mission for 186.
There was a another departure from the station a little while ago. This one was done by remote control.  

View of Cygnus from the ISS. The deployed solar panels are nicely symmetric.

On Tuesday June 14, astronauts used the robotic arm to undock and separate the Cygnus cargo spacecraft from the station. It arrived back in March of this year, and once all equipment and supplies were unloaded, the astronauts began filling it with waste, garbage, and unwanted equipment. The Cygnus, nicknamed Rick Husband after a NASA Astronaut, will de-orbit and burn up over the Pacific on June 22. Before that, though, The Rick Husband had a couple of assignments. First, on Tuesday, a special fire experiment was conducted in the craft by remote control from the ground. The purpose was to study how flames work in zero-gravity. This experiment was much larger than the ones performed on the ISS, and were safely done on the craft, separated from the ISS by the vacuum of space. Much more safe! The second item was to release 5 small Cube-Sat satellites into orbit on June 15. 

Sunday, June 5, 2016

50 Years Ago: The Missing Crew of Gemini 9

Prime and Backup crews for Gemini 9. Front (L to R): Elliot See, Charles Basset. Back (L to R): Tom Stafford, Gene Cernan.
There's a very good reason why NASA assigns a backup crew to every spaceflight mission.
The Gemini 9 mission was planned as the 7th manned Gemini flight and the 13th manned American flight since the first flight of Alan Shephard.  The crew assigned to this mission was to be command pilot Elliot See and pilot Charlie Basset. Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan were assigned as backup crew. The backup crew did the same training as the prime crew, and knew the mission parameters inside and out.

Elliot See during backup training for Gemini V.
Commander Elliot See, Jr. was a Navy pilot who was selected to be an astronaut in the second group of astronauts, nicknamed the "New Nine". He had an Engineering degree, and had worked in the Navy as a test pilot being well versed in engine performance and testing. He was backup for the Gemini V mission, and was placed in command of the Gemini IX mission.
Charles Bassett learning to perform in micro gravity in a "Vomit Comet" flight.
Charles Bassett II was a captain in the US Air Force where he did graduate work in Electrical Engineering before being assigned as a test pilot. He performed over 3,600 hours of flight time and worked at Edwards AFB testing many aircraft. He joined NASA's third astronaut group, and was assigned to the Gemini IX flight because of his strength in zero-G training. For both See and Bassett it would be their first flights.
Tom Stafford (L) with Wally Schirra (seated) during training for Gemini 6.
Tom Stafford originally graduated from the Naval Academy but became an officer and trained to fly with the US Air Force. He graduated from the USAF test pilot school in 1959 and became an instructor at the flight testing school. He also was selected as one of the New Nine astronauts. He was not unfamiliar with learning backup crew roles, as he was scheduled to fly the first Gemini mission with Alan Shepard. When Shepard was flight disqualified for medical reasons, he was moved to backup crew and their prime positions were taken by Gus Grissom and John Young. He eventually flew as pilot in Gemini VI with Wally Schirra and then positioned to backup crew for Gemini IX.
Gene Cernan in the Gemini style spacesuit.
Gene Cernan started his degree in Electrical Engineering at Perdue University and ended up with a Masters from the US Naval Postgraduate School. He flew attack jets such as the A-4 Skyhawk, and joined NASA along with Bassett in the third group of recruits. Gemini IX would be his first flight.
NASA T-38 training aircraft.
Astronauts were assigned by NASA to flight T-38s for a couple of reasons. First, the astronauts were all pilots at the time, and they needed to keep their flight proficiency and skill honed to a fine degree. Second, astronauts were sent all over the country, sometimes for public appearances, sometimes for training, sometimes for assignments they had in working with the corporations building the equipment they would fly in space. Having their own aircraft saved countless hours off their busy schedule over flying with commercial flights.  On February 28th, 1966, both prime and backup crews for Gemini IX flew T-38s from Houston TX to the McDonnell Aircraft manufacturing center in ST. Louis, MO. See and Bassett flew in one plane, and Stafford and Cernan flew in another.
Crashed remains of the T-38 in the parking lot.
The weather was poor with rain and low clouds. During landing procedures, both planes' pilots discovered they had overshot the runway. Pilot Stafford chose to pull up for another try. Pilot See evidently tried to circle and land on a parallel runway, but the plane was too low and See activated the afterburner to gain altitude. Unfortunately the plane clipped the Building 101 roof, losing the right wing and landing gear. the plane tumbled into the parking lot beyond, where both See and Bassett died from their injuries. Curiously, they died within 500 feet of the Gemini capsule they were to fly in the mission.
With the death of the prime crew, NASA faced a public relations disaster as well as an upset in scheduling. However, thanks to careful planning, the backup crew of Stafford and Cernan were able to move to the prime crew position and eventually fly the Gemini IX mission, 50 years ago today.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

50 Years Ago: Gemini 9 and the Angry Alligator

Mission patch for Gemini IX.
Fifty years ago on June 3, astronauts Gene Cernan (pilot) and Tom Stafford (Command pilot) blasted off from Launch Complex 19 at Cape Kennedy in Florida. Officially the mission was known as Gemini 9A, because elements of the planned flight had changed from the original mission. Designed as a mission to dock with the Agena Target Vehicle (ATV) and perform a spacewalk, details changed when the ATV failed to reach orbit on May 17 and the follow up Gemini mission was postponed. 
Stafford and Cernan prepare to enter the Gemini capsule (Spacecraft SC9).
Preparing to close out the capsule. Backup astronauts have left a humorous note for the main crew.
 A backup target craft, the Augmented Target Docking Adapter (ATDP) was rushed to completion and launched on June 1st. Although it achieved orbit, sensors indicated that the payload fairing had not ejected properly. NASA decided to go ahead with Gemini 9A to at least complete the rendezvous and EVA portions of the mission. 

Liftoff from LC-19.
 Liftoff from Pad POV.
Gemini IX A reached an orbit of 148 miles. The primary mission of rendezvous began. A second goal was for Gene Cernan to leave the capsule, move to the rear of the service module, and put on a Astronaut Maneuvering Unit designed by the Air Force. In addition, the astronauts would complete seven experiments from inside the craft.
With the shroud ajar, docking would be impossible.
After 3 hours and 20 minutes of flight, the astronauts spotted the ADTP in the distance and nudged the spacecraft closer. When they arrived at the rendezvous, Stafford described it as looking like an angry alligator. It was determined that the explosive bolts holding the shroud had fired correctly, but two lanyard straps were holding the fairings in position. Eventually the fault would be traced to ground engineers from McDonald had prepared the ADTP mating to the thruster stage without consulting with the Douglas engineers who had prepared the ADTP to work with the original Centaur booster, which was not used.
Stafford in the command pilot's seat.
Backup astronaut Buzz Aldrin suggested that during the EVA, Cernan might use certain tools available in the craft to cut away the straps so the shroud would finish deploying. Ground engineers denied the attempt for fear of the sharp edges around the ADTP shroud and thruster stage. With docking cancelled, the crew rested during the second day, and Cernan prepared for the EVA on the third day. 
Astronaut Gene Cernan on EVA, attached by life support umbilical cords.
Cernan ran into difficulties during the spacewalk. The inflation of the suit caused quite a bit of inflexibility and stiffness, more than the astronauts had prepared for in ground training. Cernan had difficulty moving around and the twisting umbilical caused orientation problems. He eventually tried to move to the back of the service module for work with the AMU. Lack of handholds and the stiff suit made even simply moving a couple of feet very painful and difficult. While working to make connections from the AMU to his suit, his visor fogged up and he had to try using his nose to clear a spot for seeing. His heart beat rose to 180 a minute, and he was sweated profusely. Once the connected, Cernan asked for permission to proceed. Knowing that Cernan would have to disconnect from the capsule while exhausted and in pain, Stafford decided to call a stop to the procedure and get Cernan back inside. Reversing the steps, Cernan finally got back to the hatch but Stafford had to make quite an effort to help him re-enter the hatch feet first and get back into the cramped cabin. The total time of the EVA was 128 minutes.
Splashdown on June 6th, 1966.
The astronauts completed the rest of the experiments and on the 45th orbit began re-entry procedures. They landed a record 700 meters from their planned touchdown, and were quickly picked up by the carrier USS Wasp. 
USS Wasp alongside the recovered capsule.
The astronauts posed on the capsule for press photos.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

50 Years Ago: Surveyor 1 Lands Safely on Moon

Lunar view from Surveyor 1 from the Oceanus Procellarum. NASA.
NASA finally did it, fifty years ago. On June 2, 1966, the Surveyor 1 lunar probe fired its retrorockets and descended down to the lunar surface after a 63.5 hour flight time from Earth. For this mission, science instruments were left off and focus was given to the important photographic and television equipment. 
Liftoff on May 30, 1966.
The flight began on May 30th from the LC-36A platform at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Propulsion was of course the venerable Atlas rocket with a Centaur second stage to take Surveyor to the Moon. This was a straight flight, there was no plan to orbit first and then land. The retrorockets slowed the vehicle down to a low altitude of about 11 feet above the surface and it dropped down onto the lunar soil. It was a little over 4 months since the Soviets had safely landed Luna 9, and this was the first success for NASA to land anywhere off the Earth.
Transmitted image of one of Surveyor's landing pads in the lunar soil.
Television transmitted images continued through July 14. Over 11,000 pictures were taken and sent back to Earth. Although no science experiments were aboard, engineering sensors relayed information about the condition of the probe and condition of the lunar surface.
In 2009, NASA's Lunar Orbiter space probe managed to locate and photograph the Surveyor 1 spacecraft still sitting on the surface of the Moon. The shadow can easily be picked out.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

50 YA: Gemini IX Premission Glitch

Atlas-ATDS mission lifts off from pad LC-14, June 1, 1966.

Fifty years ago, NASA tried a second time to start the Gemini IX mission. Earlier in May 17, 1966, the mission was scrubbed when the Atlas-Agena target vehicle mission failed by a malfunction in the Atlas rocket and the inability of the ATV to reach orbit. Astronauts Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan were supposed to launch hours later, but the mission was postponed.
Cernan (L) and Stafford (R) discuss the postponement of their mission on May 17, 1966.

 Now on June 1st, a backup Atlas rocket lifted off from Launch Complex 14 at Cape Canaveral. It's payload was the Augmented Target Docking Adapter (ATDP), a variation of the ATV. The Agena rocket section was replaced with the re-entry control section of a Gemini Capsule, so it was a bit shorter than the typical Agena Target Vehicle. Flight planners determined that the ATDP would function just fine for the objectives of the mission, and after launch, the ATDP was determined to have successfully entered a 161-mile high orbit.  Unfortunately, sensors indicated that the aerodynamic shroud over the ATDP had not jettisoned properly.

It was decided to proceed with the Gemini IX launch, and that during the expected EVA Cernan would try to release the shroud. Preparations then continued with preparing the Gemini Titan for launch on the 3rd.