Weekly Links

Lots to catch up on since my last post on July 23rd. The great summer for spaceflight continues.

Down to Earth

After Eileen Collins spoke at the RNC, another Space Shuttle commander, Mark Kelly, spoke at the DNC.

Sierra Nevada is getting ready to start test flights of their Dream Chaser spaceplane in California, once their full-scale vehicle is shipped their from Colorado.

Virgin Galactic was awarded an operations license from the FAA as they are preparing to resume flight tests with their new SpaceShipTwo vehicle.

A small sample bag from the Apollo 11 mission is at the center of two lawsuits. I’m sure Dr. Jones would agree that it belongs in a museum.

One of the Orbiter Access Arm’s from the Space Shuttle program is now on display at Houston’s Space Center Houston.

Meanwhile, the next generation of crew access arms, for Boeing’ Starliner capsule, was delivered to the Atlas V pad in Florida.

SpaceX conducted a full duration test fire of one of their recovered first stage boosters. Here’s the video:

Google Lunar X Prize competitor, Moon Express, has received approval from the United States government for their private mission to land a rover on the moon.

Vector Space Systems completed their first successful sub-orbital launch.

In Orbit

Speaking of launches, there were four successful orbital flights since my last post. This brings the year’s total to 50 for 50 on orbital launches. For comparison, 2015 had 87 total with 5 failures.

First was an Atlas V launch from Cape Canaveral carrying a secret payload for the National Reconnaissance Office.

Second and third were two chinese launches carrying a new communications satellite and a radar imaging satellite.

Lastly was the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch early in the morning ofAugust 14. The rocket successfully delivered the Japanese JCSAT communications satellite to orbit and recovered the first stage booster on the ASDS at sea. Very impressive. This brings SpaceX’s year up to 8 successful launches for 8 attempts – a yearly record already in August – and 5 for 8 on booster recovery.

Coming up next week is a spacewalk on ISS by NASA astronauts Jeff Williams and Kate Rubins to install the new International Docking Adapter.

Around the Solar System

The Chinese Yutu rover is still communicating with the ground from the lunar surface, although it has long since stopped roving. Despite some reports that it is “dead” it is still expected to wake up from hibernation after the current lunar night.

Follow this link for an update on the Curiosity rover mission on Mars, including some nice pictures.

Here is a full year of observations of the Earth NOAA’s DSCOVR satellite. The cyclones in the Pacific are quite obvious.

Out There

Apparently claims of a discover of an Earth-like planet around Proxima Centauri (our nearest neighboring star) are exciting, but it is worth waiting for more reputable news sources to pick it up than just a small German newspaper… or a peer-reviewed journal paper?

August 15, 2016 6:52 am

Book review – Go, Flight!

I don’t want to bury the lead here: Go, Flight! The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control, 1965-1992 by Rick Houston is a must read for any serious space fan, and will be enjoyed by many more casual fans as well. Anyone who actually works in Building 30 at Johnson Space Center, like me, will have their love for their work stoked anew by this book.

Read this book

 

I know what you are thinking: another book about the Apollo program? I hear you, but this is not your father’s space race memoir. First of all, the book covers a time period more than an event or a specific NASA program. As the subtitle suggests, Go, Flight! covers all the events in NASA’s manned spaceflight program from Gemini in 1965 through the middle of the Space Shuttle’s golden years in the 90’s, although the focus is heavily on 1965 to 1975. This choice of dates is not random but matches the dates that the third floor MOCR (or the “Apollo room”) was used for active missions. The book opens with a description of Houston’s first visit to the MOCR, described in terms that can only be summarized as a religious experience. Houston compares the MOCR to a rather short list of other famous places: Gettysburg, Westminster Abbey, Pearl Harbor, and a few more. Houston felt the power of that place and this book is partially his attempt to share that experience with his readers.

But Go, Flight! is about more than just a place. More than just a room in a building. What gives it power is that it is also a book about people. Houston set out to learn about the characters who worked in the MOCR through first person interviews. Houston’s friendship with former flight director Milt Heflin, who gets coauthor credit, helped him get access to a great list of former flight controllers. You can see by how many people showed up to a book signing last year that Houston created quite a network of contacts while writing.

Signatures from Space Center Houston book signing

Yes, Houston tells stories about familiar missions through all three programs. Obvious missions covered include Apollo 11 and Apollo 13, as well as the tragedies of Apollo 1 and Challenger. There are also insightful chapters on less famous missions, such as Gemini 4 or Apollo 14. Did you know that Apollo 14 was almost aborted when they couldn’t dock the Command Module to the Lunar Module? I didn’t. Most readers will certainly learn some new tidbit of NASA history. But the value of Go, Flight! is not in new facts added. While the Apollo 14 story was new to me (or I had forgotten it), it is certainly not new to the vast literature covering the Apollo Program. I have read at least a couple of dozen space race histories, but I am missing some key classics such as Chaikin’s A Man On The Moon. What truly makes Go, Flight! unique is that it feels like the stories are being told by the people who were there.

Flight controllers discussing the Apollo docking probe in mission control

 

In general, the American public thinks of astronauts when it thinks of NASA. There is very little thought of the important contributions of the many hundreds of engineers and technicians on the ground in various NASA field centers around the country. The blockbuster Apollo 13 in 1995 helped to adjust that point of view by showing how crucial the flight controllers in mission control were to saving the crew. However, Apollo 13 didn’t do much to dispel the notion that mission control is full of a bunch of nerds with pocket protectors and glasses (thanks Clint Howard). Houston has set the record straight in Go, Flight!

Houston starts the book out with a quick overview of each of his main characters in a chapter titled “Who Did What”. Even just this chapter on its own proves the point that mission control was home to a diverse (albeit not diverse ethnically or by gender) group of young men with strong personalities. Start with John Llewellyn, a Korean war veteran with PTSD who once rode his horse to work after getting his on-site driving privileges revoked because he parked on mission control’s front steps. Or how about Ed Fendell, who had only an associates degree in marketing, but nevertheless worked his way up to the INCO console in the front room for some of the biggest missions in NASA’s history. One of Fendell’s proudest moments was controlling the pan-able television camera to capture Apollo 17 lifting off from the lunar surface.

These guys who got us to the moon and flew the space shuttle had lives and families – some (or many) of which were damaged by their over-zealous commitment to the cause. Fendell tells a story about going on a first date on a Friday night and promptly getting out of bed in the morning to head to work. When his date asks him what she is supposed to do with him going to work on a Saturday, Fendell simply told her “I’m going to work. I write mission rules on Saturday morning.” These were not German engineers in lab coats (thanks The Right Stuff), nor were they emotionless bookworms who stated technical facts and then did as the Flight Director says. These were men of personality and passion. They argued with each other, with management, with the sim supervisors, with everyone. The job was the thing, and it was going to get done. If bridges had to be burned, so be it.

These stories from a wide array of flight controllers helps to balance out what space fans have read in memoirs from men such as Kraft, Kranz, and various astronauts. For instance, a lot of people know about the legendary SCE to AUX call from EECOM John Aaron, which allegedly saved the Apollo 12 mission on ascent. But in Go, Flight! that story is expanded significantly to show how Aaron’s backroom support personnel were involved and how a critical call from the GNC flight controller was also needed to get the inertial measurement unit back online. This kind of deep dive gives the reader the best insight I have ever found into what working in a NASA mission control room is really like. Nothing gets done without teamwork – no one person fixes a problem on his own.

If there is a problem with Go, Flight! it is the rushed last few chapters. In a book of just over 300 pages, only the last 40 pages cover events after the last Apollo mission. Given that the author was trying to tell the story of the third floor MOCR, and not every mission in manned space flight, this choice is understandable but no less jarring to a reader that knows there is more history to tell. The book would feel a lot more cleanly wrapped up if it ended with the last Apollo flights flown from the room. That being said, I really appreciated the chapter on the Challenger accident.

Despite its flaws of pacing and scope, Go, Flight! easily makes its way into my list of essential books to read to understand the history of NASA’s human spaceflight program. Kraft may have invented mission control, but it was men like Llewellyn, Aaron, Fendell, Liebergot, Heflin, Garman, Briscoe, and more who took Kraft’s concept and made it the model for all modern control centers through their incredible dedication and preparation. These people and what they did should be remembered as long as our species dreams of spaceflight. Great things are done by men and women of passion, not cold calculating nerds, and Go, Flight! proves that point emphatically.

Go, Flight! can be found in hardcover or Kindle formats here on Amazon. If you want more stories from the front lines of the early space program, try Apollo EECOM by Sy Liebergot, Full Circle by David L. Cisco, and Highways Into Space by Glynn Lunney.

More “must read” books from my collection

 

August 11, 2016 12:51 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Former astronaut and Space Shuttle commander, Eileen Collins, spoke at the Republican National Convention:

Aboard the New Horizons probe that visited Pluto was a US postage stamp with a picture of Pluto and the phrase “not yet explored”. Last week the Guinness Book of World Records recognized this stamp as the farthest traveled postage stamp in history.

CASIS has partnered with Marvel to create this Guardians of the Galaxy inspired ISS National Lab emblem.

The 21st of NASA’s undersea NEEMO missions has started off the coast of Florida. The crew, made up of astronauts and other explorers, will spend 16 days in a habitat under the ocean simulating a deep space mission.

In Orbit

The only two rocket launches since my last post on July 7th were two cargo launches to the International Space Station. First, a Progress resupply freighter launched from Kazakhstan last Saturday and was docked on Monday evening.

Second, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched on Monday morning, arriving at the ISS early Wednesday morning. In addition, SpaceX successfully recovered the first stage of their booster at their landing facility in Florida. Here’s what that looked like to fans watching from miles away:

Around the Solar System

A new distant Kuiper Belt Object has been discovered. 2015 RR245 is on a 700-year eccentric orbit.

The Curiosity rover on Mars has been back in “full operations” following the safe mode event earlier this month.

Out There

The K2 space telescope has discovered another 100 extrasolar planets.

July 23, 2016 9:49 am

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

In late June, Orbital ATK test fired the second quality test solid rocket booster for SLS development:

Mike Suffredini, former ISS Program Manager, is now working for contractor SGT, Inc. and announced at a recent NewSpace conference his intentions to develop a commercial space station.

NASA and Apple announced a collaboration to create music inspired by the Juno mission.

A team of astronauts from five different nations completed a multi-night caving expedition in the Sardinia region of Italy. The project is run by ESA and is an spaceflight analog but also has real exploration objectives.

In Orbit

Here are all the rocket launches since the last post on June 24th:

  • June 25 – A Chinese Long March 7 rocket debuted from a new launch pad on Hainan Island. The rocket was carrying a demonstration for a future manned capsule design.
  • June 29 – Another Chinese rocket launched, this one with less information available about the payload.
  • July 7 – A Soyuz rocket launched from Kazakhstan carrying three crew members to the ISS.

The Soyuz crew successfully docked to the ISS on Friday night after 2 days in orbit.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s Juno probe arrived in Jupiter orbit last Monday, July 4th.

Several NASA missions received their official mission extensions. New Horizons was officially approved to continue its mission to the 2019 rendezvous with 2014 MU69 in the Kuiper Belt (we have 3 years to come up with a better name). The Dawn mission at Ceres was extended but it will stay in orbit there instead of moving on to another asteroid.

The Curiosity rover on Mars briefly went into safe mode but has since been recovered.

July 10, 2016 10:14 pm

Weekly Links

Here’s your busy June update!

Down to Earth

Blue Origin launched their reusable New Shepard rocket for the fourth time, with a hosted webcast this time. Here is a video of the flight:

A Saturn V first stage, meant to be used on the Apollo 19 flight, was moved to the Stennis Space Center’s visitor center for display, along Interstate 10 in Mississippi.

During a congressional hearing last week, the issue of astronaut post-mission health care was discussed.

This is not strictly space news, but the deep winter rescue mission from the South Pole is just as harrowing and difficult as spaceflight in some ways.

A team of astronauts are going on a multi-night spelunking trip this month as a spaceflight analog training mission.

In Orbit

The new 3D printer aboard ISS by Made In Space has printed its first functional tool.

The Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo vessel was released from the ISS on June 14th and re-entered the atmosphere on June 22nd. In the meantime, NASA conducted the SAFFIRE in-flight fire experiment. Here’s some of the video they recorded:

Also returning to Earth this month, but in a more controlled fashion, was there astronauts aboard Soyuz TMA-19M: Tim Peake, Tim Kopra, and Yuri Malenchenko.

Here are all the orbital launches since my last post on June 6th:

  • A Russian Proton rocket carrying a communications satellite (June 9).
  • A ULA Delta IV rocket launch from Florida carrying a spy satellite (June 11).
  • A Chinese launch of one of their navigation satellite (June 12).
  • A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with two communications satellites (June 15).
  • A European Ariane 5 rocket carrying two communication satellites (June 18).
  • An Indian PSLV rocket carrying a slew of satellites including a flock of PlanetLabs Doves (June 22).
  • A ULA Atlas V rocket carrying a US military communications satellite (June 24).

The SpaceX launch, as usual, was the most exciting, with another ASDS landing attempt. They missed the landing this time. Here are some pictures of the wreckage returning to port.

Around the Solar System

New analysis of Pluto has led to the hypothesis that the dwarf planet may have a subsurface ocean… really!

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) got a new shot of the rover Curiosity on the slopes of Mount Sharp.

You’ve got to love this trailer for Jupiter Orbit Insertion (JOI) of the Juno probe, coming up on July 4th.

June 24, 2016 11:11 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Check out this new video posted by SpaceX from their recent rocket landing:

The iconic Arecibo Observatory may be shut down.

A large meteor burned up spectacularly near Phoenix, Arizona last week.

In Orbit

The only launch of the past week was a Russian Rokot booster carrying a remote-sensing satellite.

Astronauts on the International Space Station will enter their new expandable module, BEAM, for the first time today.

Part of a Russian rocket, still in space after a launch many years ago, exploded in orbit last week.

Some exciting upcoming launches include a Delta IV Heavy from Florida on the 9th and another Falcon 9 on the 14th (as always, check out the “2016 in spaceflight” Wikipedia page for a good summary).

Around the Solar System

ESA’s Rosetta probe has confirmed the existence of the amino acid glycine in the coma of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

June 6, 2016 8:27 am

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Ohio’s Port Columbus International Airport has been renamed for astronaut John Glenn.

Orbital ATK says it is working on a new rocket, simply called the Next-Generation Launcher, to compete with ULA and SpaceX.

In Orbit

SpaceX continues their very successful year with a commsat launch (Thaicomm-8) to geostationary orbit and another successful landing of a Falcon 9 first stage at sea. Here is a timelapse from an onboard camera showing the landing.

Three other successful rocket launches in the last week included a Soyuz launch by ESA carrying new Galileo navigation satellites, a Soyuz launch by Russia carrying a single GLONASS navigation satellite, and a Chinese rocket carrying Earth-observing satellites.

Up on the ISS, NASA successfully completed deployment of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which is the first expandable structure to be launched as part of a manned spaceflight program. Astronauts are expected to egress BEAM in the near future.

Not much else happened in space news this week (but really, that’s a lot), so here are some pretty pictures from the ISS:

May 30, 2016 11:00 pm

My recent trip to LA

I love that the world can be both so small and so large. I don’t mean that you find yourself on vacation in Rome surrounded by millions of strangers and happen to bump into an old college friend (although those kinds of coincidences can feel quite odd). I’m referring instead to expecting to run into an old friend in a strange city because over time you seem to know someone everywhere. Family and friends move around for so many reasons – career, cost of living, or whim – and the older you get the more likely it is that you can fly to a particular city and have a friend to call on.

Now that I’ve been out of college for a number of years, I’ve realized that the same thing happens in any given field or interest area. Stay in an industry long enough and people you went to college with, worked with, interned with, or whatever, will tend to move around until you can find an acquaintance at all the important companies or institutions.

This made itself apparent this past weekend on a quick trip to the Los Angeles area to visit some friends and family. My wife and I weren’t in town at all for geeky reasons – we just wanted to see some old friends who deserved a visit – but space follows me these days. It’s not exactly amazing that we know some folks that work at Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. They are old engineering friends from high school and college, after all. But just because I know someone from SpaceX – who very, very graciously offered us a quick tour of the main factory – doesn’t mean I am somehow an insider. It just means I know someone. This is a hard concept for a lot of people in this world to realize and is why you end up with groupies and name-droppers and people like that. A person needs a good dose of humility to avoid the slippery slope that leads to vanity.

This was one of those "seeing a friend in Rome" coincidences

The last Space Shuttle External Tank also happened to be in town

I received my needed dose of humility when I was led down the hall from the visitor entrance at 1 Rocket Road, around the corner past mission control, out under a flown Dragon capsule, and saw the assembly lines of tanks, engines, and spacecraft in SpaceX’s flashiest factory. After a lifetime of being a space geek, 4 years in college, a couple of internships, and 7 years working at JSC, somehow I hadn’t realized that I’d actually never visited a facility where rockets are being built.

My mind had somehow glossed over this with the illusion that I had. After all, I have been to all the famous NASA rocket parks at JSC, KSC, and MSFC, not to mention each of National Air and Space Museum’s locations a number of times. I’ve seen rockets; I’ve seen a space shuttle launch; I’ve seen a Falcon 9 launch; I’ve been inside the VAB on a tour. But seeing those places is quite different from walking into a facility where photography is not allowed (another concept foreign to me from my years at JSC) and seeing an assembly line of Merlin 1 rocket engines getting ready for integration into the famous Falcon 9 “octaweb.” The images of massive tanks being welded, payload fairings being laid up, and Dragon capsules being integrated, are burned into my mind. I have no illusions that the factory is deliberately designed to leave me in awe. But it doesn’t matter. The point probably would have been made just as well at the ULA or Orbital ATK factories: it’s a big damn world.

Flight hardware! (Photo via Steve Jurvetson’s Flickr)

 

I felt absolutely ignorant walking around that factory. I have a degree in aerospace engineering and yet many of the details of what I saw on Saturday escape me. The world is big in both these gulfs of knowledge, but also the gulfs of time and experience. I last saw my high school classmate at least many years ago, if not a decade. His experience at SpaceX, watching it grow from a struggling startup in 2008 to a dominant industry force today, is vastly different from my experience in a steady job at NASA, surrounded by the always present glory of manned spaceflight but also at the whims of politics, and the morale roller coaster that provides. He has hands on knowledge of spacecraft design, while I am one of some hundreds of people in the world who know what it is like to operate a modern manned spacecraft. This is the largeness of the world that hit home for me last Saturday.

And yet, sitting and chatting over a meal with several Virgin Galactic employees gave me a feeling of smallness, like we are all in this together regardless of badge or funding source. It occurs to me now that networking is not important just for selfish reasons of career growth. It is also important to stay out of the trap of living in a bubble, of thinking that your little slice of the world is the most important. I can’t feel good about what I do without the context of how it fits into the bigger picture of what everyone is doing, not just in Houston and Los Angeles but around the world.

It is all too easy to let the size of the world become overwhelming. How can I have an influence among 5 million people in my city? A hundred million in my country? Seven billion in my world? How can I have an original idea? Surely I am not the only one to have thoughts like these from time to time. One way to make the world small again is to create and preserve relationships with other people doing the things you care about. They might show you some “flight hardware” and then you will be hard pressed not to feel motivated.

May 24, 2016 10:50 pm

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Some new videos from Blue Origin and SpaceX of their recent rocket successes were released this past week:

The astronaut Kelly brothers, Mark and Scott, had their childhood elementary school named after them this past week.

Two astronauts, Scott Parazynski and Brian Duffy, were inducted into the astronaut hall of fame.

The amazing Thierry Legault has done it again, this time taking a video of the ISS transiting the sun at the same time as the Mercury transit on May 9th.

An unusual parade happened in Los Angeles on May 21st when the last Space Shuttle External Tank was towed from the coast to the California Science Center.

In Orbit

The Indian Space Research Organization launched their new experimental space plane on May 23rd. The uncrewed vehicle actually didn’t make it to orbit, or even to space, reaching only a peak altitude of 65 km. Still, reaching Mach 5 on re-entry is no joke.

The only other notable rocket launch since my last post on May 9th was a Chinese low earth orbit (LEO) reconnaissance satellite launched on May 15.

Around the Solar System

Some recent experiments in a Martian atmosphere simulator have given us an update on the Recurring Slope Linae (RSL), which were announced last year as evidence of flowing liquid water on Mars. It may be that ice boiling directly to a gas may be causing the features.

NASA’s flying telescope, SOFIA, has detected atomic oxygen in the atmosphere of Mars. Atomic oxygen is highly reactive and thus can tell us a lot about what is going on at Mars, potentially even the chance for life.

Speaking of Mars, check out this new image from Hubble. Mars is at opposition this week – or the closest approach to Earth – making it a great target for Earth-based astronomers.

Out There

You probably didn’t miss this story: NASA announced the confirmation of more than 1,200 new exoplanets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. This brings the total planets discovered outside our solar system to over 3,300 worlds.

May 23, 2016 10:28 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Caltech has announced that Michael Watkins will replace Charles Elachi as director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.

New legislation in the US Senate, if passed, would put fallen astronaut Christa McAuliffe on a dollar coin for the 30th anniversary of the loss of Challenger.

Don’t miss today’s (Monday, May 9) transit of the sun by Mercury. If you don’t have the skill, equipment, or location to view it yourself, you can follow online with a live feed from various sources.

The joint European-Russian Mars rover project ExoMars has been delayed from the 2018 to 2020 launch window.

NASA’s Langley Research Center has named a new building for Katherine Johnson, the mathematician who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year.

In Orbit

Early on the morning of May 6, SpaceX launched a commercial communications satellite on a Geostationary Transfer Orbit. The launch was a beautiful and nominal night launch. After Main Engine Cut Off (MECO) the Falcon 9 first stage flew back to the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) for another successful landing at sea. Are you not entertained?

Speaking of SpaceX, don’t forget to tune into NASA TV on May 11 for coverage of their Dragon spacecraft departing the International Space Station.

And as usual, the ISS crew has been busy sharing their view on high with us. Here are some stunning recent posts from their Twitter accounts:

In Orbit

Cassini did some recent observations of Enceladus by watching a the moon transit in front of a star, revealing new clues about the ice world’s geology.

Out There

The TRAPPIST observatory in Chile has discovered a solar system of three small planets about 40 light years from Earth.

May 9, 2016 8:06 am