Thursday, September 21, 2017

Last of the Summer ISS Traffic

Space Voyagers prepare to bard their spacecraft. Top to bottom: Alexander Misurkin, Joe Acaba, Mark Vande Hei.
As we approach the time for summer to transition to fall, one spacecraft arrived at ISS while another took its leave. Soyuz MS-06 lifted off from Baikonur on Tuesday, carrying the second half of the Expedition 53 crew. The Soyuz was piloted by Soyuz commander Alexander Misurkin (Roscosmos), and flight engineers Joe Acaba and Mark Vende Hei both of NASA. Both Misurkin and Acaba are veterans of previous space missions. Vande Hei is making his first trip into space. The crew will stay aboard the International Space Station for five and a half months, eventually becoming the lead half of Expedition 54.

Soyuz rocket departs at night from Baikonur.

The crew joins Expedition 53 Commander Randy Bresnik and flight engineers Sergey Ryazanskiy (Roscosmos) and Paolo Nespoli (ESA). As well as working on over 200 experiments in the next half year, the team is preparing for three spacewalks during October. 
After undocking, the Dragon gently moves away from the ISS before commencing re-entry procedures.
On the 17th, the SpaceX Dragon unmanned cargo ship undocked and was moved awy from its berth by the robotic arm, under the control of astronaut Bresnik. Once at a safe distance, ground engineers fired the descent thrusters and slowed the craft for re-entry. Splashdown in the Pacific off of California took place at 10:14 a.m.  This had been the 12th resupply mission with Dragon for SpaceX.

Space Station parking before the Dragon left the station.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

X-37b Launches before Kennedy Gets Hit by Irma

Falcon 9 rocket with X-37b aboard launches from Kennedy Space Center. (SpaceX)

SpaceX Made a beautiful launch Thursday of their Falcon 9 rocket, this time without their Dragon resupply space capsule. In another first for the company, the US Air Force had chosen SpaceX to lift the secretive X-37b re-usable winged spacecraft into orbit. Normally the Atlas V has been the rocket of choice, but now the military is looking to lower costs and prove the concept of using different boosters. 

An X-37b spacecraft on the runway after landing. Service crew gives a good indication of size. (NASA)

This was the fifth launch of an X-37b. While the Air Force does not announce which of the two spacecraft was in use, NASA reports that the Air Force alternates between the two craft, which would mean this is the third mission for the first spacecraft to fly. The Air Force also does not comment on the expected length or purpose of the mission. Fans of the X-37b will be diligently following any reports by satellite spotters of changes in orbit. 

Damage to the Vehicle Assembly Building after hurricane Matthew in 2016. (NASA)

Shortly after the launch, and then the recovery of the Falcon 9 first stage, the Kennedy Space Center, SpaceX, the Air Force, and other companies located at Cape Canaveral began shutdown and safety procedures in advance of this weekend's hit by hurricane Irma. The hurricane is very wide and although it is set to travel up the length of the Florida west coast, the storm will reach to the other side of the state and could cause damage to structures and equipment. 

For more information on the threat levels used by NASA and the story of how the Space Center prepares for a hurricane, check out the detailed article at NASA

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Expedition 52 Returns to Earth

Great picture of Soyuz MS-04 landing.

Alas, it was time for her to come home. Peggy Whitson left the International Space Station after 288 days, some of which was unplanned but welcome. That means she now holds the American record of 665 days in space throughout all her missions. The World record is held by Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, who has currently 879 days in his name. He will have more, as he is scheduled to return to the ISS in September next year.
Preparing to close the hatch to Soyuz MS-04. L-R: Peggy Whitson, Fyodor Yurchikhin, and Jack Fischer. They undocked from ISS at 5:58 pm on Friday. Landing occurred at 11:22 pn Eastern time.

Originally, MS-04 was supposed to land with only two occupants. It had arrived at the ISS four and a half months ago, with just Yurchikhin and Fischer on board. The Russian agency Roscosmos was temporarily reducing crew members while a new space station module is under construction, due to be installed on the ISS next year. This allowed NASA to keep Peggy Whitson on board for extra time and increase the availability of slots for NASA personnel. 

Crew of ISS with flags from participating nations.

Officially, once the Soyuz undocked, Expedition 53 began under the command of NASA astronaut Commander Randy Bresnik, and crewed also by flight engineers Sergey Ryazanskiy (Roscosmos) and Paulo Nespoli (ESA). They will be on their own until more crew arrives in mid-September.

You can read more about Peggy Whitson's career in space at NASA

Sunday, August 20, 2017

ISS: Dragon Arrives and Russians Take a Walk

SpaceX Dragon resupply cargo vessel orbiting Earth and about to dock with the ISS. NASA pic.

SpaceX made another great launch last Monday, August 14th. The Falcon 9 rocket lifted the Dragon cargo spacecraft into orbit, and then flew back to Earth for a soft landing back at Cape Canaveral. The Dragon carried thousands of pounds of supplies and experiments for the crew on Expedition 52 in the International Space Station. 

NASA graphic of the current spacecraft locations on the ISS.

After a two day "chase" the Dragon spacecraft caught up to the ISS and maneuvered into a capture position. Astronauts Jack Fischer and Paulo Nespoli used the robotic arm to grab the capture point and guide the craft to its docking adapter. Eventually the spacecraft was secured at the new Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM) on the US Harmony module. Dragon will remain at the station for unloading, and then reloading of items to return to Earth in September.

Cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchkhin (L) and Sergey Ryazanskiy (R) preparing to exit.

On Thursday, August 17, Russian cosmonauts conducted an EVA to launch satellites and bring samples back inside. Expedition 53 commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and flight engineer Sergey Ryazanskiy left the Russian Pirs module for a seven hour spacewalk. They launched five nanosatellites that had been stored outside the station from a previous supply mission. One of the satellites was to test 3-D printed materials, while several others were commemorative or experimented with communications.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

ISS: The View from the Cupola.

Astronaut Peggy Whitson doing what any one of us would do in space: Look back at Earth. (NASA)

When members of the International Space Station aren't doing experiments, maintaining the station, eating, or doing hours of exercise, they share a common interest: looking at home. In the photo above, posted by astronaut Peggy Whitson, she comments that even after 638 days in space, she finds the view incredible. She is pictured above during some personal time in the cupola, the station's best viewport of the planet Earth. Click to enlarge. There is a Russian spacecraft visible in the upper left, and a solar panel just off to the center left.

What would you most want to view from space?

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Three New Crew for Expedition 52 Arrive at ISS

Contact! Soyuz crewed spaceship MS-05 reaches the docking port on the International Space Station. (NASA TV)

 ISS Expedition 52 received three new crewmembers with the arrival on Friday of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Using the six-hour ascent interception plan, the Soyuz reached the station safely and docked at 5:54 Eastern Daylight time. On board the spacecraft were Soyuz commander Sergei Ryazanskiy (Roscosmos), astronaut Randy Bresnick (NASA) and astronaut Paulo Naspoli (ESA). The crew now stands at six, including Expedition 52 commander Fyodor Yurchikhin (Roscosmos), Peggy Whitson (NASA), and Jack Fischer (NASA). 

Soyuz training photo. L-R: Paulo Nespoli, Sergei Ryazanskiy, Randy Bresnick.

The new crew is expected to remain on the ISS for four months. During that time, the station expects arrivals from Dragon, Progress, and Cygnus cargo spacecraft. Much of the science work for this mission will involve medical studies including an interesting look at how Parkinson's disease is started. They will also study how small satellites can be used in critical situations such as natural disasters or severe weather monitoring. The original Exp. 52 crew of Yurchikhin, Whitson and Fischer are expected to leave the station in September.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

SpaceX Scores! Re-Used Dragon Docks with ISS

View from ISS: Robotic arm guides the captured Dragon cargo ship to its docking port. (NASA TV)

It has been a dream of the folks at SpaceX to begin launching re-used spacecraft, with the goal to reduce costs of space transportation. Well they can check off a major milestone now, because on June 3rd, they launched the first refitted Dragon cargo space capsule on board a Falcon 9 rocket. Days later, the Dragon caught up to the ISS and astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer used the SSRMS (Space Station Remote Manipulator System) robotic arm to grapple the craft and move it to dock at the U.S. Harmony module.

Current locations of docked spacecraft at the International Space Station. (NASA)
The Dragon spacecraft used on this mission (CRS-11) was previously used on mission CRS-4. After returning safely to Earth, it was unloaded, inspected, cleaned, and repaired with some new parts to keep it in operable condition. The only spacecraft to have done this sort of thing before, was the Space Shuttle, last docked at the ISS in 2011. This is the second time SpaceX has reached a re-usability objective - the first was in March when a refurbished Falcon 9 first stage successfully delivered a satellite to orbit and then landed again. Although the Falcon 9 used in this mission has not flown before, it did land safely at LC-13 at Cape Canaveral, and will now be refurbished for a future flight.
Falcon-9 rocket safely standing after an upright landing on pad LC-13. (SpaceX)

The ISS crew will take their time removing science equipment and space parts from the Dragon. It will stay docked until July 2nd. This week will keep them quite busy, as the schedule sees two spacecraft events: the undocking of Russian Progress 66 from the station, and the arrival of a new Russian ship, the Progress 67.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

ISS: Cargo and Crew Transfers Underway

Soyuz MS-03 undocks from the International Space Station. A Progress Supply ship is docked in the background. (Credit: NASA)

On June 2, Soyuz ship MS-03 departed for a return trip to Earth. Rather than the usual three crewmembers, this trip only included two: Oleg Novitskiy (Roscosmos) and Thomas Pesquet (ESA). 
Before the departure, a Change of Command ceremony took place.
Peggy Whitson turns over command of the station to Fyodor Yurchikhin. (Credit: NASA TV)

On June 1st, Expedition 51 officially ended when astronaut Peggy Whitson gave command to cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin. With the ceremony completed, the Expedition 52 period did not officially begin until Novitskiy and Pesquet departed for Earth. The two had 196 days in space before leaving on Friday. Crew reinforcements for Expedition 52 will arrive in July.
From L-R: Novistkiy, Whitson, Pesquet. (NASA)
Computer simulation of Soyuz module separations during re-entry process. The crew is located in the center module, which has the heat shield. The service module and crew docking module burn up during re-entry.
Touchdown! Soyuz MS-03 safely lands after firing landing thrusters activate during the final few moments of descent. Landing took place in Kazakhstan.

Meanwhile, there is a resupply mission ending and another one beginning. SpaceX was due to launch a special resupply mission on Friday, but had to postpone for a day because of lightning concerns at the launch site. This mission (CRS-11) would feature the first use of a reusable Dragon cargo ship. Ship number C-106 was last used on mission CRS-4 in September of 2014.

Falcon-9 rocket lifts off from LC-39A at Kennedy Space Center, FL. (Credit: SpaceX)

Actual launch of mission CRS-11 took place Saturday June 3. The Falcon 9 rocket took off flawlessly and after ten minutes separated from the Dragon spacecraft, which continued its flight into orbit. The rocket itself however, descended by parachute and engine power to land vertically back at Kennedy on pad LC-13. With a safe landing, the rocket can be refurbished and prepared to be reused on another future flight.

Cygnus resupply spacecraft. (NASA)
While Dragon makes its way to the ISS, another ship is leaving. Early Sunday morning, astronauts Jack Fischer and Peggy Whitson used the station's CanadArm robotic arm to pull the undocked Cygnus spacecraft OA-7 (Named John H. Glenn) from its berth and release it. This move comes a month earlier than scheduled, in an effort to reduce the future workload for the crew. The Cygnus will now move away from the station, and spend a week doing experiments under control from ground flight engineers. The John H. Glenn will deploy several small satellites on Thursday, and after experiments are completed, the craft will de-orbit and burn up over the Pacific Ocean on June 11.


Sunday, May 28, 2017

Equipment Failure on ISS Triggers Unplanned EVA

Astronaut Peggy Whitson making repairs to the EXT-1.
It doesn't happen often on the ISS, but when a critical electrical command component breaks down, it's great to know there's a backup system in place. In this case, on May 20 the EXT-1 MDM electrical command controller went down. It controlled external US segment systems, which includes things like the Mobile Transporter (MT),  Secondary Electrical Power System (SEPS), Passive Thermal Control System (PTCS), and a couple of Truss rotary joints. When the system failed, the EXT-2 took over right away so there was no degradation of systems. However, if THAT item were to fail, NASA would have lost control over the facing direction of the solar radiators and several other critical station systems along the Truss.
Astronaut Jack Fischer moves along the outside of a module.
Immediately the decision was made to go outside and replace the broken equipment. Using components stored aboard the station for such a situation, a new EXT-1 was assembled and tested. Then on May 23, astronauts Peggy Whitson (Commander of Expedition 51) and Jack Fischer made a short spacewalk of over two hours. The mission event was a success, and systems are back to normal.
Record holders for EVAs.
This EVA brings Peggy Whitson into the top three record holders for time spent on spacewalks. Currently, the Russians hold the lead.
You can read more details of the operation at NASA

Sunday, May 14, 2017

200th EVA for ISS

US Astronaut Jack Fisher prepares to enter the airlock and go for a walk.
Although designated US-42, the spacewalk on Friday by two US astronauts was also the 200th spacewalk for the construction and maintenance of the International Space Station. Astronauts Peggy Whitson (NASA, Commander of Expedition 51) and Jack FIsher (NASA, Exp. 51 flight engineer, on his first mission in space) conducted a four hour spacewalk that was shortened due to problems with battery power in one of the suits.

During their EVA, they accomplished quite a bit of work. They replaced an avionics box supplying electricity to some experiments, a data connector to the Alpha Imaging Spectrometer, insulation on the Japanese robotic arm, and a shield cover on Pressurized Mating Adapter 3. In total, there have been almost 1248 hours of spacewalks since the first one in 1998.

For more information on station activities, go to: .

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Surprise! Military shuttle X-37B lands at KSC

Front view of the X-37B on the shuttle runway at the Kennedy Space Center. Engineers wear protective suits so they will avoid contamination by any volatile chemicals. (US Air Force photo from

The fourth X-37B mission has finally come to an end. Currently the US Air Force has two X-37 spacecraft (that we know of), and this was spacecraft number - well, we don't know, because the US Air Force does not officially disclose which of its spacecraft are up there during a mission. We DO know that it lifted off on May 20, 2015, on an Atlas 5 booster from Cape Canaveral LC-41. It spent 718 days in space.
 Side view of the X-37B. (US Air Force photo from

For more information on this mission, check out

50 Years Ago: Surveyor 3 on the Moon

Photo of Surveyor 3 actually on the Moon, as taken by astronauts of Apollo 12 years later.

Fifty years ago, NASA continued its preparations for the Apollo program by landing another probe on the lunar surface. This was the third in the Surveyor series, built by Hughes Aircraft, and principally tasked with getting photos of the surface, and sampling the soil. This was the first space probe to include an extendable scoop to bring lunar dust to a sampling experiment on the lander. Surveyor 3 lifted off from Cape Kennedy from launch complex LC-36B on April 17. 

An Atlas-Centaur booster used to place the Surveyor spacecraft on the Moon. This is the one from Surveyor-1. 

Surveyor 3 touched down on April 20, 1967, in the Mare Cognitum part of Oceanus Procellarum. It had a hard landing because the descent radar incorrectly calculated the altitude and shut the engine down early. It then bounced several times, as high as 10-meters on one bounce, eventually soft-landing and staying upright. Over the short time of its mission it took over 6,000 images to send to excited scientists on Earth.

One of the panorama-series of images taken by Surveyor 3.
The sampling arm on the spaceprobe made four short trenches in the soil. Each scoop would bring the sample up to a camera that would then take close pictures of the soil appearance and then transmit the images back to Earth.
Surveyor 3 is the most famous of the seven Surveyor missions, because of what happened during the Apollo 12 mission in 1969. Astronauts from Apollo 12 landed very close to the spacecraft (on purpose!) and retrieved several pieces for return to Earth and analysis. 

The camera from Surveyor 3, currently on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Center in Washington, D.C.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

China succeeds at first resupply spacecraft docking

Engineers helping to assemble the Tianzhou-1 robotic space cargo vessel.
On Thursday April 19, China took another step toward its goal of permanent Chinese presence in Earth Orbit, with the launch of a Long March 7 from the Wenchang Space Launch Center. Atop the rocket as the Tianzhou-1, China's first robotic resupply spacecraft. Looking very similar to the standard shape of international space cargo ships such as Cygnus, Japan's H-2, ESA's ATV, the Tianzhou-1 was set on an orbital approach to rendezvous with the Tiangong-2 space station.
Computer representation of Tianzhou-1 in orbit with power panels deployed.
Computer representation of Tianzhou-1 docking with the station Tiandong-2.
 The spacecraft rendezvoused with the station and docked successfully on Saturday the 22nd. With the main objective completed, engineers will study the combined craft operations and testing for two months. After that, Tianzhou-1 will undock and then begin a three-month period of orbital testing. Like many other cargo spacecraft, Tianzhou-1 is not designed to safely land back on Earth, but will eventually be de-orbited and burned up in the atmospheric re-entry.

Expedition 51 gets off to a busy start on ISS

Current docking arrangements on the ISS. (NASA)

Since the crew switch-over in mid-April, Peggy Whitson has been in command of the ISS and operational leader of Expedition 51. With the departure of Soyuz MS-02 earlier, that left three crew on the station to begin the Expedition 51 adventure: NASA astronaut (and station commander) Peggy Whitson, and flight engineers Oleg Novitskiy (Roscosmos), and Thomas Pesquet (ESA). While the crew awaited reiforcements from Earth, they continued biological and technical experiments, and important maintenance for an upcoming EVA on May 12. 

Once again spaceships left Earth to take supplies and new crewmembers to the station. First off the pad (LC-41) was Orbital ATK's Cygnus cargo spaceship, riding atop an Atlas V rocket, on Tuesday April 18. A couple of days later, on April 20th, SOyuz MS-04 blasted off from Baikonur carrying two new crewmembers, Fyodor Yurchikhin (Roscosmos) and Jack Fisher (NASA).

Last minute photos before the roll-out of the rocket that will carry them to orbit. Yurchikhin (L) and Fisher (R). (NASA)

The Cygnus cargo ship was already in orbit when the Soyuz blasted off the pad. But this time, unlike the previous several launches, there were no more new tests to do certifying the advanced Soyuz, so the craft entered a fast-track six-hour orbital path to the station. Cygnus was on a slow approach that would bring it to the station several days later.

The tried-and-true Soyuz arcs upwards on a fast trip to the station. (NASA)

Soyuz MS_04 arrives at the station (NASA TV)

Six hours later, at 7:18 am Mountain daylight time, MS-04 finally docked at the Poisk module on the ISS. Crewmembers began the seemingly long process of equalizing pressures and turning off the propulsion systems. Three hours later the hatches were opened and Expedition 51 had a total of five crew on board. This was Yurchikhin's fifth trip to the space station, and this was Fisher's first trip to space.
NASA TV image of Cygnus spaceship maneuvering into position after reaching the station.
 On Saturday the 22nd, The Cygnus spacraft had arrived at the station. Using the robotic arm, Peggy Whitson and Thomas Pesquet grappled the cargo ship and brought it to its docking port on the Unity module. The cargo ship was named the John Glenn, after the famous Mercury astronaut who had passed away last year. The cargo amounted to 7,600 pounds of supplies, fuel, air, and experiments. It will stay at the station for about three months while it is unloaded, and garbage stored back into it. 

On April 24, a special moment arrived for the station. Astronaut Peggy Whitson broke the record for US astronauts cumulative time in space, marking 535 days total on her several missions. During the day she received a congratulatory call from President Trump at the Whitehouse. Congratulations to Commander WHitson on this incredible achievement!

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.