Sunday, November 20, 2016

Expedition 50/51 Ascends to ISS

Dramatic night time launch of Soyuz MS-03.
Reinforcements arrived for the current Expedition 50 on the ISS. On Thursday, Soyuz MS-03 blasted off from the Russian space complex in Baikonur. On board the spacecraft was truly multi-national crew, each person from a different space agency. Commanding the Soyuz spacecraft was Oleg Novitskiy from Roscosmos (Russia), making his second flight. Also aboard was Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency (France), making his first flight. And finally, there was also Dr. Peggy Whitson, NASA astronaut (USA) who holds the record as the woman with the most hours in space. She is scheduled to be the first woman to command the ISS for a second time, when she takes command for Expedition 51.
ISS Television camera picks up the approach of Soyuz MS-03.
Rather than take the shorter direct-to-rendezvous approach, the craft took two days to reach the ISS. Although the new MS series of Soyuz capsules has no problems using the 4-orbit rendezvous approach method, Russian engineers are still running tests and observing results during the two-day approach.  The crew docked with the ISS on the 19th.
All of Expedition 50 together now. Front row: Peggy Whitson (L), Oleg Novitskiy (center), Thomas Pesquet (R). Back row: ISS Commander Shane Kimbrough (L), Sergey Rizhikov (Center), and Andrey Borisenko (R).

50 Years Ago: Gemini 12 Ends Program with Success

Gemini 12 lifts off on the Titan rocket.
This last week marks the 50th anniversary of the successful conclusion of the Gemini space program. On November 11, 1966, the last two astronauts to fly in the Gemini space craft began a mission to resolve some of the troubles encountered during EVAs. 

Aldrin (L) and Lovell (R) standing in a Gemini training capsule.
The commander of Gemini 12 was Jim Lovell, veteran Navy pilot, who had last flown on the Gemini 7 with Frank Borman. That flight was notable for it's 14-day endurance mission (estimated to be the time astronauts would live in space going to the Moon and returning home). Gemini 7 was also part of the first actual rendezvous in space, with Gemini 6A. Making his first trip into space, was rookie Gemini pilot Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin. Aldrin had been a combat pilot in the Korean War. He then attended MIT where he obtained a Doctorate in Science in Astronautics, starting his work on advanced space rendezvous calculations. Eventually he would earn the nickname, "Dr. Rendezvous."

Launch of Gemini 12's partner, the Agena target vehicle on board an Atlas rocket.

The mission started with the launch of an Altas rocket from pad 14 at Cape Canaveral. The plan on this mission was for the Gemini 12 to follow behind, catch up to the Agena, then dock with it. It was planned for Aldrin to perform several EVAs including a spacewalk out to the Agena. They would use the Agena's engines to boost the pair into a higher orbit, and then perform a separation followed by a tethered spacecraft experiment as had been done on previous Gemini missions. During the insertion into orbit, however, there was a slight malfunction in the motor, and it was decided after docking that the boost to higher orbit would not be attempted. After the mission, an attempt was made to control the engine from the ground, and it did not activate in any case.

View from close to the pad of the successful launch.
Th launch of the Titan carrying Gemini 12 took place about 90 minutes later, to enable the crew to approach the Agena from about an orbit behind. Liftoff took place from Pad LC-19. During the moment of staging as the rocket first stage was jettisoned, engineers noticed a rupture in the first stage oxidizer tank. Gemini 12 reached orbit and proceeded with catching up to the Agena and docking with it the next day, November 12. There was a failure in the rendezvous radar, and the docking was then performed manually.
Picture by Aldrin of the nose of the Gemini docked with the Agena Target Vehicle.
View of Aldrin outside the Gemini spacecraft.
Aldrin then exited the Gemini for his tethered spacewalk. This Gemini mission differed from previous missions in that extra handholds had been placed on the spacecraft and Agena, which would give Aldrin an advantage in moving and maneuvering between the craft. Also, before the mission, Aldrin had made much use of training preparations using a swimming pool to practice techniques he would use for this mission. These techniques would become standard practice for astronauts from now on.
Photo by Lovell of Aldrin performing a stand-up experiment during the second EVA.
During the first EVA of over 2 hours, Aldrin proved that the extra practice and handholds made a huge difference in relieving a spacewalker from extra duress and exhaustion. He retrieved a micro-meteorite shield from the Agena, and performed other experiments while moving about, including a trip to the rear of the Gemini service module. In his second EVA, he stayed in the Gemini hatch and performed further experiments there, including additional photography and extended tool techniques. After the second EVA, the spacecraft undocked for the tethered ship activity. 
View of the tethered Agena target vehicle and tether.
The Gemini 12 backed off a bit from the Agena and began maneuvering into a slow spin around the Agena. Similar to previous attempts, most of the time the tether did not stay tight but the experiment was considered a success. The tether was then released and the Gemini backed off to a safer distance.
Aldrin took this picture of the Gemini's nose during the third EVA.


Aldrin made a third, stand-up EVA the next day on the 14th. He took more pictures and performed a few more experiments. While the previous EVAs had each been over 2 hours, this was a shorter one for 55 minutes. When he closed the hatch, it was the last time a Gemini space suit would be used in an EVA, From here on out, EVAs would use Apollo - era designs.

Helicopter Point-of-view of Lovell being hoisted up from the recovered Gemini. This is a good view of the flotation "collar" that Navy frogmen would place around the capsule to stabilize it during recovery.
Gemini 12 performed perfect re-entry procedures and came back home on November 15. They splashed down only 5 kilometers off-target, and were televised from the recovery ship USS Wasp. The astronauts were taken up to a helicopter and flew back to the carrier.  Upon their safe return, Gemini Space Program space activities had ended. It was time for Apollo.
Aldrin and Lovell receive a happy welcome back on board USS Wasp. Both men would fly into space again, with Lovell making two more Apollo missions.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Updates to the ISS Status

Blast-off of Soyuz MS-02 from Baikonur.

Since the last post in September, there have been more comings and goings to and from the ISS. As usual. We last had seen the departure of Expedition 48 on Soyuz TMA-20M, leaving Expedition 49 in charge. Commanding the expedition, and the ISS, was Anatoly Ivanishin of Roscosmos, supported by Flight Engineers Kate Rubins (NASA) and Takuya Onishi (JAXA).

Posing in front of the Soyuz MS-02 capsule are Shane Kimbrough (NASA), Soyuz Commander Sergey Ryzhikov (Roscosmos) and Andrei Norisenko (Roscosmos).

The next to arrive at the station were the crew of Soyuz MS-02 on October 21. They brought the crew total back to six. Astronaut Kimbrough was making his second spaceflight, having flown before on the Space Shuttle Endeavor. Borisenko is also on his second trip to the ISS, having served before in 2011 on expedition 27/28 and as commander of the ISS for three months. Ryzhikov is making his first flight.

View through the station cupola. Cygnus can be seen docking to the station in the upper left.
On October 23, the Orbital AK supply ship Cygnus made a visit to the station, bringing supplies and experiments. Cygnus lifted up from the Virginia Wallops-Island launch site on the newly-redesigned Antares rocket.
Cygnus parked near the station awaiting grappling by the robotic arm.
This Cygnus vessel was named SS Alan Poindexter, after the NASA astronaut of Shuttle Atlantis STS-122 mission that brought the Columbia module to the station. The Cygnus was docked to the Node-1 hatch. It will stay at the station until November 18.
Astronaut Kate Rubin inside the Soyuz MS-01 capsule during a routine spacesuit checkout procedure. This picture shows well the cramped nature of the capsule interior.
 On October 29 it was time for the next crew transfer to begin. Expedition 49 ended when MS-01 undocked from the station, and returned astronaut Kate Rubins, cosmonaut Ivanishin, and astronaut Takuya to Kazakhstan. With their departure, Expedition 50 began with Astronaut Shane Kimbrough assuming command duties.

Retrorockets fire to safely land MS-01 on the flat steppes of Kazakhstan.
Now ISS awaits the next crew of Expedition 50/51, scheduled to launch on November 17. Below, you can see their ship, the Soyuz MS-03 awaiting them on the launch pad in Baikonur. Behind the ship is a telephoto-effect view of the recent Supermoon lunar event.