Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Keeping up with the ISS

Current spacecraft docked at ISS. Seems kind of empty now that some spaceships have departed. NASA.

I've had a little gap in my space reporting since early March, but that included an excellent trip to the Kennedy Space Center. So let's see how mankind's orbiting outpost has been doing. Currently, there is only one robotic cargo vessel (Progress 66) and one crew vehicle (Soyuz MS-03) docked. Wait - isn't it more usual to have two crewed vehicles there?

Touchdown! Expedition 50 makes it back to Kazakhstan in a Soyuz capsule (MS-02).
Expedition 50 came to a close on April 10 when Commander Shane Kimbrough and cosmonauts Sergey Rizhikov and Andrey Borisenko left the ISS in Soyuz MS-02 and landed safely in the open steppes of Kazakhstan. That left Expedition 51 in charge of the station, with NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson n command supported by flight engineers Oleg Novitskiy (Roscosmos) and Thomas Pesquet (ESA). 
Peggy Whitson and Thomas Pesquet pose inside the BEAM inflatable module currently being tested by NASA, attached to the station.
Change of Command ceremony. L-R: Shane Kimbrough, Sergey Rizhikov, Andrey Borisenko, Thomas Pesquet, Oleg Novitskiy, Peggy Whitson.

Unmanned cargo spacecraft have also been on the move. The Dragon 10 spaceship was loaded with items for return to Earth and undocked on March 19. It re-entered the atmosphere and safely deployed a parachute, landing it in the Pacific Ocean for a quick recovery and return to SpaceX for evaluation. 

SpaceX artist rendering of the Dragon plunging through the atmosphere.

Before the conclusion of Expedition 50, there was another important spacewalk to continue preparations for the station to begin receiving Non-NASA manned spacecraft from Boeing and SpaceX next year. On March 30, Peggy Whitson and Shane Kimbrough completed a six-and-a-half hour EVA, connecting a computer relay box as well as connecting cables and wires on the Pressurized Mating Adapter -3 (PMA-3). During the EVA, Peggy broke a spacewalking record, making an eighth EVA by a woman astronaut.

Next week will see more cargo spacecraft and new cremembers arriving at the ISS.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

50 Years ago: FIrst steps towards the shuttle designs

SV-5D Lifting Body on display at the USAF Museum in Dayton, OH.
Fifty years ago, on March 5, 1967, the US Air Force made a second flight attempt in a series of experiments to test how a lifting body shape would control re-entry into the atmosphere. The first launch had been made in December of 1966, resulting in a crash of the test vehicle into the sea. On this second attempt, a lifting body (also known as the X-23 made by Martin Marietta) was launched atop an Atlas missile and the craft separated and simulated a re-entry. At Mach 2 a special designed parachute deployed to recover the vehicle, which was supposed to be picked up by a flying cargo aircraft which would grab the parachute.

X-23 atop an Atlas Missile before launch.
In the second flight, the parachute deployed but as the recovery aircraft flew by for inspection it noticed the proper parachute opening had not occurred, and so it would be dangerous to attempt an in-flight recovery. It was determined to allow the craft to descend to the sea for ship pick-up. Unfortunately the craft and parachute sank before the ship could arrive.
The third attempt on April 19 was a complete success. The parachute deployed properly, and the recovery cargo plane was able to snag the chute and bring the craft home. Although the craft was declared ready to be flown again, no further test flights with this design were made.
A view of the recovery cargo plane just before parachute capture.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

ISS: Busy Traffic Week

 Current Spacecraft positions on the ISS. Credit: NASA.

It was a very busy week for the crew of Expedition 50 on the International Space Station. In between station maintenance, science experiments, and preparations for future work, the crew needed to be on their toes dealing with all the intracacies of arriving robotic spacecraft.

Launch Pad 39B with the SpaceX Falcon rocket. Launch Control and the Vehicle Assembly Building seen in the background. SpaceX.

Events started with a roar on Sunday. From the historic LC-39B pad, SpaceX launched Dragon 10, their unmanned cargo spacecraft, on a mission to take supplies to the ISS. The launch went very well, and Dragon began its 2 day voyage to rendezvous with the station. 

First launch from Pad 39B since the retirement of the shuttle in 2011.

In a historic first, the Dragon 10 lifted off from its pad on the Falcon rocket as the first commercial rocket to launch from the famous pad 39, where decades earlier the astronauts flew the mighty Saturn Vs to the Moon in project Apollo, and then later when the space shuttles began their routine missions into low Earth orbit. This pad site has been modified from the shuttle operations to accept more commercially-operated designs. It is currently leased to SpaceX, which previously had been using the Pad 40 on the Cape Canaveral Air Force station. That pad was damaged in a Falcon Explosion in September of 2016. It is expected that future manned SpaceX flights will also take place from 39B.
Separation of Dragon-10 from the second stage. SpaceX.
In a further demonstration of their rocket prowess, the controllers of SpaceX carefully guided the first stage of the Falcon back through the atmosphere to a safe, upright landing at the landing pad on Cape Canaveral. The first stage will be examined, refurbished, and re-used on a future flight to help save funding. 
Dragon-10 approaches the pickup point.
Docking with the ISS proved to have some difficulties. As the spacecraft made its first approach to the ISS, a fault in the GPS tracking triggered an orbit of docking approach and the spacecraft was backed away from the station while engineers investigated the problem. A work-around was configured, and a second attempt the next day was successful. Astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Thomas Pesquet used the robotic arm to grapple and then dock the Dragon temporarily at the Node-2 docking port. They used cameras to record the outer condition of the Dragon for engineers to study later. Then the craft was moved to the Common Berthing Module.
Meanwhile, back in Russia...
In a nice daytime blastoff, the Russian space agency launched a Progress resupply spacecraft into orbit from the Baikonur facility. Known both as MS-05 and as Progress 66, the Soyuz-U rocket used a different third stage motor design than was used on the previous Progress MS-04 mission. That motor suffered a catastrophic failure in the oxidizer turbopump, which shredded the engine and lost the spacecraft in flight.
 Picture-perfect liftoff of the Soyuz-U rocket with Progress 66 aboard. Spaceflight Now.
After an 8-minute flight and stage separations, the Progress 66 ship was on its way to the station. The flight plan for this mission again called for a 2-day orbit path, giving engineers plenty of time to test and verify all functions carefully. The S-band uplink navigation system was able to complete its flight-certification, the last step in preparations to begin using the latest Progress design in the preferred single day orbital approach flight plan.
Progress 66 approaching the ISS, with its solar panels making a symmetrical wing-like appearance.
On Friday, the Progress 66 spacecraft reached its rendezvous point with the station and engineers carefully guided the vehicle into its docking position. The spacecraft completed its flight at the Pirs module docking port. This makes the 68th successful Progress mission to the ISS, delivering supplies and experiments to the station.
The next supply mission expected is the Cygnus mission on March 19.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

50 Years ago: Lunar Orbiters Scout for Landing Sites

Lunar Orbiter Engineering Mockup.
Fifty years ago, in February 1967, NASA pressed on with the preparations for the Apollo missions despite the recent deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts. The purpose of the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft was to photograph potential landing sites for the Apollo missions expected to occur within the next few years. This particular spacecraft, Lunar Orbiter 3, blasted off from pad LC-19 at Cape Kennedy (Canaveral) on February 5, 1967. 
Lunar Orbiter 3's ride: Atlas-Agena D.
The Atlas rocket was basically the same as those which powered America's first orbital manned missions. The Agena second stage was a fueled and powered-up version of the Agena target vehicles used during the Gemini program. The orbiter itself was built at the Langley facility in Virginia, recently featured in the movie, "Hidden Figures."
Liftoff from Pad LC-19.
Blast off took place before dawn and the rocket lifted the Agena into position where its motors pushed the spacecraft fast enough to defeat Earth's gravity. The Orbiter reached the Moon on February 8. The camera recorded lunar images from February 15 to 23. Over 500 images were taken.
Image from Lunar Orbiter 3.
Image quality was very good, so much so that one image managed to pinpoint the landing spot for Surveyor 1. The spacecraft stayed in orbit in a gradually decaying orbit when it struck the lunar surface in October 1967.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

50 Years Ago: Apollo 1 Fire

Astronauts Gus Grissom (L), Ed White (C), and Roger Chaffee (R). Picture taken at Launch Complex 34, with the gantry tower in the background.

Hard to believe it was fifty years ago. On January 27, 1967, we lost three astronauts during a test of the newly-designed Apollo command module  at the eventual launch site. It's a famous event, most of us remember reading about it. Mostly I remember having seen something on TV and having adults tell me what happened. Over the years I learned more and more of the mistakes that were made leading up to the moment of terror when an electrical arc from an exposed wire ignited the 100% oxygen in the test environment. The fire was quick and the intensity so hot and at such incredible pressure that it cracked the hull of the capsule and prevented immediate attempts to rescue the crew. But it was too late - the crew died firstly from the toxic fumes. Today I don't want to remember the scenes of the aftermath, there are plenty of sites on the Internet and a plethora of books describing it all. I like to picture them as they were before the fire, as shown above.

Above is an aerial view of LC-34. It was taken in 1963 during preparations for SA-4, a test launch of Saturn 1. You can see the twin gantry towers, which is the red tower complex seen in the first photo. A test Saturn rocket sits on the concrete pad base attached to the launch tower. The circular building is the launchpad protective firing room. It's obvious how close the pad was to the shoreline. Today it is all gone, except for the roads, concrete pads, the rocket launch base, and the firing room bunker. 

The photo above is from my last trip to the Cape. This is the approach road to the complex on the western side. The concrete pads are out of sight to the right, while in the distance you can see launch towers from LC-37 ( still active launch site) on the left. You can visit the site if you take the Cape Canaveral AFB tour from the Kennedy Space Center visitors Center. This tour is only available during days when no rocket launches are planned, and I think only one tour a day is allowed. 

The tour bus lets you off within walking distance of the launch pad base. The tower itself was scrapped years later, as were most of the facilities on old launch pads. It's actually quite a wide concrete base. There is a great feeling of quiet there except for the wind that blows towards the Atlantic just a short distance away.

This picture gives a greater sense of the size of the base related to human height. As you can see, weather and age are having its toll on the structure. There is some talk of tearing it down, but I would rather see some funds put into an effort to restore it. I would love to see NASA build a small building here to protect it from the elements and display in miniature how the pad looked and operated. To me, the pads are just as important as the rockets.

Next you can see the gigantic opening made for the flame exhaust from the mighty Saturn 1 engines. I believe the tubular ring is part of the fire suppression system to lesson the ground shock of the engine power. There is something symbolic in being able to look upwards towards space through this open portal. 

These are the blast deflectors which would be placed under the rocket to deflect the fire and exhaust to a horizontal direction, avoiding a wave of pressure and flame from rebounding off the ground and damaging the engine section. These were not scrapped yet when I visited, and are stored at the edge of the giant pad. In the old picture of the pad, click it to enlarge it, and look behind the left side of the towers about midway up, and you can see on of these deflectors. That's where they still are.

 From the launch tower base, you can look somewhat south and see the firing room bunker. In case of danger, the crew would be evacuated from the rocket, and taken up a long protected tunnel to the blast-resistant bunker. You can find it in the old complex photo very easily.

This is a view of the Firing room bunker as we drove past it in the bus. There was no stopping here, the bunker is off-limits to the tour. Our guide did not know if anything has been preserved inside the bunker. It was planned that the Saturn 1b rockets would launch from this pad complex, and the launch control room would have been in here. As it was, four Saturn 1 test launches were from here, and there were two Saturn 1B test launches from this pad before the Apollo 1 fire. Afterwards, the return of astronauts to space took place in the next manned launch, Apollo 7, from this complex. Operations then moved to the LC-39 complex.

When you walk under the launch base, you can feel history there. You sense the reverence and awe in the fellow visitors, and everyone whispers even though we are out in the open. This is part of our great space race past, and it is a place that deserves to be preserved and visited.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

SpaceX Falcon Returns to Flight

Falcon 9 rocket on the pad at Vandenberg AFB. Credit: SpaceX.
Last September in 2016, a Falcon rocket exploded during a pad engine test, prompting a cancellation of SpaceX flights until the cause could be determined. Engineers eventually discovered the fault was in a construction error in the second stage liquid oxygen tank. With the corrections having been completed, a new rocket was prepared for the launch of a series of communications satellites.
Blast off from California. Perfect launch.
Credit: SpaceX.
Shortly before 10 am (Pacific time), SpaceX launched the Falcon 9 rocket carrying 10 Iridium satellites from its pad at the Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast. The first stage separated on time and the second stage carried the swarm of satellites into their planned orbits.

Touchdown! Falcon first stage lands on a barge in the Pacific. Credit: SpaceX.
As usual, SpaceX continues its mission to perfect landings of the rocket first stage, so it can be used again later. This time the rocket stage landed in the Pacific Ocean, on the landing barge named "Just Read The Instructions." This was the first successful landing in the Pacific. Four have landed in the Atlantic on board the landing barge "Of Course I Love You." Another successful landing took place in Texas on land.
You can read more details about this mission at at

ISS Spacewalkers Replace Batteries, Part 2

Astronaut Shane Kimbrough exits the station through the Quest airlock. His suit had the red stripe, allowing flight controllers to easily identify which astronaut was visible on camera.

On Friday January 13, American EVA 38 took place to complete the battery change-out that was the focus of last week's spacewalk. Expedition 50 commander Shane Kimbrough led the EVA, making his fourth spacewalk, while he was joined by ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet, who was making his first spacewalk. 

Kimbrough takes a great selfie, focusing on his reflective helmet which shows the Earth in the background. It's also a great view of the helmet assembly, with its extra lighting, cameras for astronaut POV, and solar protection covering on visor.
 The mission of this EVA was to complete the switchout of the older Nickel-Hydrogen truss batteries with the newer Lithium-Iron batteries. This power changeout has been underway for a long time, as astronauts have used several spacewalks and several robotic arm procedures to replace cables, switch power routings, and finally relocate old batteries to storage and install new batteries on the Truss.

Just hanging out, over 180 miles above the Earth. Easy Peasy. Picture from Thomas Pesquet's camera.
The station's Truss battery sections are in 4 parts, due to how the truss components were launched and assembled. The oldest Truss is designated P6. It's oldest batteries were changed out to newer lithium-hydrogen batteries (new then) by shuttle astronauts back in 2009 and 2010. But now the batteries will need to be replaced so that the station can continue its work-life towards 2024, so new batteries are required, and the new lithium-ion batteries are the new technology. It's planned to take up to 4 years to replace all the Ni-H2 batteries. These spacewalks replaced the oldest Ni-H2 batteries on Truss S-4.

Inside part of the S-4 Truss segment.
The battery change-out was completed a couple of hours ahead of schedule, so the astronauts used the rest of the EVA time to accomplish some tasks which would have been done on the next scheduled spacewalk. The total time of the spacewalk was just under six hours.
Back inside. Peggy Whitson assisted the astronauts in removing themselves from the EVA suits.
You can read all the details of this complex mission at

Sunday, January 8, 2017

ISS: Spacewalkers Replace Batteries, Part 1

Astronauts Peggy Whitson (L) and Shane Kimbrough (R) prepare to leave the airlock. There have been 196 spacewalks in support of the International Space Station so far.

On Friday, January 6th, astronauts from Expedition 50 of the ISS exited the Quest Airlock for a six and a half hour EVA to begin the four-year process of changing out the station's main batteries, which are reaching their serviceability lifespan. The new Li-Ion batteries were brought to the station on the Japanese HTV-6 cargo spacecraft on the external pallet. Using the stations remote-control arm, the batteries were removed from the craft and placed in the are of the exchange, which for this mission was the S4 segment of the main truss. There was a lot of work to do in preparation for this part of the battery exchange, both inside and out of the station. Relays and cables to affected station segments were checked, secured, and switched to other areas for the duration of the exchange.

Shane Kimbrough looks quite pleased to be performing his 3rd career spacewalk. Station solar panels in the background.

During the last week, ground controllers used one of the access arms to begin a series of shuffling old batteries from their home on the truss and replacing them with the new batteries stored in temporary positions on the truss. The purpose of this EVA was to finish certain installation tasks that could not be done with the robotic arms. It proves again how the human presence can never be completely removed from space activities for maximum efficiency. 
Astronaut Shane apparently enjoys selfies. Up there, who wouldn't?
Peggy Whitson during suit preparation. This was her 7th career EVA.
The EVA concluded with successful connections of three of the six replaced batteries. Part two of this EVA is scheduled for Friday January 13th, when Kimbrough goes outside again, this time with ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet, to complete the hookups for the remaining three batteries. The new lithium-ion batteries are a great improvement over the older nickel-hydrogen batteries. The old batteries will be moved by the robotic arm onto the storage pallet on the HTV-6. They will burn up when the HTV-6 is plunged into the atmosphere over the Pacific for disposal.

For a very detailed description of the EVA, go to: