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: