I don’t usually use this blog to post personal stuff. I’m actually quite happy with how not bloggy my blog is. However, there is something pretty cool going on in my personal life this month: my wife is locked up in a NASA simulation pretending to be an astronaut on her way to an asteroid. That’s pretty cool, so I’ll make an exception for some non-standard blogginess.
The HERA IX crew is still locked inside their habitat in Building 220 and JSC and hasn’t come out since they entered last Monday evening. Tonight will be their 10th night of 31 on their indoor camping trip. They are cut off not just physically but also virtually, with no outside communication besides mission control and a weekly family phone call. This is because one of the many experiments for this year’s HERA campaign has to do with the psychological and interpersonal aspects of being isolated with your fellow astronauts away from friends and family. If they were constantly connected via email, text message, or other forms of the internet, they could escape from that isolation and the data would not be the same.
Unfortunately, this means we can’t hear from Leah and the rest of the crew about how they are doing! The last private family call I had with Leah, or Mission Specialist 2, was last Friday. At the time, they were on mission day 4 and the crew was doing quite well. Leah said the food was very good and that everyone was getting along. The food they get to eat is the very same food that the ISS astronauts eat from the JSC food lab. In addition, they are testing out some new types of food that may get used for future Orion exploration missions because they are denser, thus saving weight.
Leah said that they had been so busy that they hadn’t had much time for down time like watching movies and reading books. Mission day 6, this past Sunday, was their first full day off so they may have got a little more relaxing in, unless mission control had some unplanned surprises for them like emergency drills! They are simulating as many aspects of spaceflight as possible including emergency drills, spacecraft maneuvers, spacewalks, and human experimentation. Just like the astronauts onboard ISS, they are doing experiments on themselves which involve saliva and blood samples, activity tracking, and all kinds of psychological and cognitive tests. Unlike the astronauts onboard ISS, they are wired up even more to get as much data s possible. Since Leah and her crew do not have real science to conduct like up on ISS, they are free to be encumbered by all kinds of trackers all over their body, including heart rate monitors, temperature sensors, and more.
Meanwhile, I’ve been left alone at home with the dog, trying to pretend my wife is really an astronaut in space. Honestly, it really doesn’t feel like that. It does feel like she’s far away – even though I can see building 220 from my desk. What it really feels like is that she’s on deployment with the military or on some other kind of dangerous job where I can’t talk to her much. I know she is quite safe, and could come home anytime if she wanted, but I at least have a small inkling now of both what it’s like to be an astronaut’s spouse and also a military spouse. You really have to respect families that have this kind of separation as a normal part of their life.
The meat of the mission is about to start. On mission day 11, this Friday, I get another private phone call with Leah (yay!) but then the HERA IX crew will go into radio silence for twelve days. The middle portion of the mission will involve a simulated communications delay with mission control as they are on “approach” to asteroid Geographos in deep space. In order to preserve the illusion, no private family calls will be allowed during the comm delay part of the mission. Their conversations with mission control will take at least several minutes round trip for every thing they say. That is going to feel like true isolation!
So while I’ll be at home feeling a bit lonely, Leah will be getting to some of the most exciting parts of the mission! When they get to Geographos, they get to do their simulated EVAs and pick up asteroid samples for scientific testing. Leah is designated as “EV1″ and gets to use the virtual reality gear to do her “spacewalk”. Pretty cool!
I can’t help but be proud of my wife and the whole HERA IX crew. It’s one thing to sit at home reading spaceflight news and tweeting about it. Getting to work in mission control and monitor spacecraft health and status data is of course awesome… but all of that feels quite silly compared to putting oneself out there as a test subject and sacrificing personal comfort to help collect data that will be used to further exploration, which is exactly what the HERA IX crew is doing. I can’t wait for Leah to come home but at the moment, I wouldn’t rather her be anywhere else than where she is right now on the front lines of NASA’s Human Research Program. Go #HERAIX!
Update: Here’s an interview with HERA project manager Lesa Spence
It’s been a busy two weeks since my last news post. Among other things, my wife started her “space mission” (not a real space mission) and I won’t see her again for another 26 days. See my last post before this one for some details on what she is doing. I also travelled to Huntsville, Alabama for a work meeting at Marshall Spaceflight Center this week. Now that I am back home and it is just me and the dog, it’s time to figure out what’s been going on out there in the world of spaceflight during the second half of January.
Down to Earth
Probably the biggest news was the successful reflight of the New Shepard rocket by Blue Origin. The same booster that flew suborbital and returned safely back in November was flown again on a similar mission profile on January 22nd. Here’s their shiny video:
SpaceX had some videos too, but not as shiny as exciting. First was this hover test of the new Dragon capsule:
Second was a parachute test:
There were 3 launches since the SpaceX Faclon 9 launch back on January 17th. First was an Indian PSLV rocket, launched on the 20th with one of their own navigation satellites. Second, a European Ariane 5 rocket launched on the 27nd with an Intelsat communications satellite. Lastly, a Proton rocket launched from Kazakhstan earlier today with an Eutelsat communications satellite.
Meanwhile in the category of fluff pieces, someone at Gizmodo has dubbed the Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft the “cutest” cargo hauler to the space station.
Aboard the ISS, the Tims are really getting into the swing of things with their Earth photography. Along with Scott Kelly, the stream of pictures on Twitter from the three of them has been quite good, including some good shots of the snow covered East Coast last weekend. Here are some of my favorites.
— Tim Peake (@astro_timpeake) January 18, 2016
— Tim Kopra (@astro_tim) January 19, 2016
— Tim Peake (@astro_timpeake) January 19, 2016
— Tim Kopra (@astro_tim) January 23, 2016
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) January 19, 2016
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) January 23, 2016
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) January 24, 2016
Oh and this was a cool thing from Scott Kelly also:
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) January 21, 2016
Around the Solar System
Check out this incredible picture of a Martian sand dune from the Curiosity rover:
Unfortunately, there may not actually be a planet orbiting in the Alpha Centauri system… or at least, the previous research that hinted at one may be wrong (but who knows, there may be one there anyway).
Fortunately, there is good news to counteract the bad: new mathematical models indicate there may be a new large planet orbiting far beyond Pluto. Astronomers are busy turning on various search campaigns to see if they can find the theoretical world.
I am super excited to be able to share that my wife is Mission Specialist 2 in the next mission in NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) habitat. HERA IX (as in, the 9th HERA mission) is a 30-day experiment with four women which started today. Below I have reproduced her blog posts from Facebook which she posted throughout the first eight days of their experience. Things got really busy last Friday and so her last post was from Thursday. The crew entered the habitat earlier this evening and from here on out they will have no outside contact besides “mission control” so we will have to wait until the end of the mission for further updates! I’m sure she will share her experiences once she is out: she is on Twitter @HERA_IX_MS2.
HERA Training – Day 1 – January 12, 2016
Day 1 of HERA training is complete! Some of the details of everything I saw and did today are already a blur, as tends to happen when you receive a ton of new information at once, but for me the most important and memorable milestone of today was meeting my fellow crew-mates. Unlike previous HERA missions that have typically consisted of two male and two female crew members, our mission is four women. I knew this prior to today, along with the other crew members names and only very superficial information about them that had emerged over an email chain in which we designed our crew patch (stay tuned for the grand reveal some time next week). I am thrilled to report that the other three women seem pretty awesome! The four of us took no time at all to fall into an easy, silly dynamic with each other. The four of us come from relatively different backgrounds, so it was interesting to watch each of us get giddy-enthusiastic about different aspects of our mission that reflected our individual backgrounds.
As for those things we were getting excited about: I definitely have a better understanding of what we’ll actually be doing with our 30 days in the habitat. The parts of the day-to-day mission that I’m most jazzed for are building a robotic rover (should be simpler than tearing apart Robonaut, right?) and performing the ECLSS In-Flight Maintenance. We will also be doing experiments with sea monkeys, plants, and a 3D printer. Beyond experiments, a lot of our time will be spent training for the “EVAs” we’ll be performing once we reach the asteroid. For these EVAs, two of the crew members will stay inside the habitat and pilot our MMSEV (Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle) to bring us from the habitat to the asteroid. Meanwhile, the other crew-mate and myself will be released from the robotic arm of the vehicle and use jet packs to get us to the specific parts of the asteroid that are considered the highest priorities for sample return. Of course, we’re not actually on an asteroid but rather in the airlock wearing virtual reality gear; after spending just 30 minutes in the VR gear today learning how the controller manipulated each degree of freedom, I definitely can see how real this whole mission can feel when all is said and done!
Meeting my crew mates and spending a lot of the day in the habitat today made this whole experience feel a lot more “real.” There were several moments when we could look at each other and say something along the lines of “this is so weird . . . but so awesome!” That sentiment pretty much sums up how I’m feeling about it all now. I can’t wait to see what comes next!
HERA Training – Day 2 – January 13, 2016
Another day of training is complete, and I’m even more excited for this upcoming HERA mission than I was yesterday! I’m definitely learning a lot of awesome new things, and the crewmates continue to get to know each other, figure out what we’re getting ourselves into, and laugh a LOT.
This morning started off with team-building activity that was a board game in which we’re all living in a space habitat and we have to work together taking turns to move our tokens to different rooms/pods where we can draw fight aliens and draw weapon/skill cards required to repair broken systems of our spacecraft. We spent a good chunk of the time figuring out the rules, and then ran out of time right when we started to get the hang of it, so we convinced the HERA people to let us bring the game into the habitat with us and promised that at the end of our mission, we’d be super awesome at it. Throughout all of this, a NASA psychologist who does crew psych conferences and did a lot of our psych screenings was sitting at the end of the table watching but not saying anything. I’m definitely intrigued as to what observations she had watching us interact as a group!
Following that, we met with a group of faculty/grad students from GA Tech who are conducting a suite of team dynamic experiments. The main one that we’ll do throughout our mission is designing/planning construction of water wells for a Martian colony. The four HERA crew mates will work with an eight-person mission control team in GA to form a 12-person task force to create the optimal design. The task force is broken down into four teams of three, and then each person is a different specialist within the team. My team is the Robotics and Rovers team, and my specialty is drilling, so I’ll be using their research GUI to figure out my preferences for creating a water well in a way that strictly optimizes drilling (soil type, accessibility for rovers, water reservoir depth, etc.), and then they’re going to watch how the entire team of 12 negotiates/compromises to create the optimal Martian water system.
After meeting with the GA Tech group (and taking a picture with them and our crew because they asked if we could join their group pictures since we’re the “celebrities”?!), we had a training session using the Robotic Work Station to control the SSRMS (a.k.a. Canadarm2).
The last activity of the day was learning all about microbial growth. Yep, we went from flying around on an asteroid to seeing disgusting fungi and bacteria that grow all around us. After a brief science lesson with words I haven’t heard since my biology class in 9th grade, we went back into the habitat to practice collecting surface and air microbial samples in petri dishes.
First, I’m excited about the first photo below, and I haven’t actually even seen it in real life yet (photo credit to my fearless commander Michelle Courtney!) When I left training this afternoon, I saw someone in the building setting up a monitor outside our habitat, but didn’t really think anything about it until I got home and saw that Michelle had posted this picture. The monitor is showing our mission patch! I’ll post a better picture of the patch later on and share what the different elements of the design signify, but for now it’s just really exciting to see the patch we worked together to design in front of the habitat that will soon be our home.
One cool thing we learned about/played with today is a CSA experiment called Astroskin. Astroskin is a pretty amazing piece of wearable technology that monitors heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature, blood oxygen levels, breathing rate, and activity. All of these measurements are sent to our iPads via bluetooth. The whole system consists of a stretchy tank top (think Spanx/running shirt kind of thing) and a headband which connects to a battery pack that fits in a pocket in the shirt. We’re all wearing these for a full 24 hours now to collect baseline data, so we got to spend the day looking like interesting hybrids of pirates/80s divas/really awesome people (ok, maybe nobody thought we looked like really awesome people, but oh well!) I think the Astroskin project is super interesting and has a ton of awesome potential uses. Check out their website here if you feel like learning more: http://www.asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/scienc…
After the Astroskin activity, we had a bit of free time before the next activity, so I took the girls over to building 9 to see a quick Robonaut demo and get a look at the rovers/mockups over there. We took the picture above when we passed a cardboard cutout of Scott Kelly and noticed he’s wearing the same watch that we’ve been wearing the past couple days (and will wear for our whole time in the habitat). This watch tracks sleep/activity as well as red-blue-green light levels. As someone who hasn’t always been the best sleeper, I’m definitely intrigued to see what impacts specific levels of different light colors actually have on sleep quality.
The last activity we did today was learn how the blood draws during our mission will work. 10 minutes before this picture was taken, the other EVA crew and myself had been in this airlock wearing the VR gear collecting asteroid samples, and now it’s being used to collect blood samples. In an effort to maintain the isolation of the experiment but also not require the crew members to perform blood draw, the HERA team has come up with a clever solution of dividting the airlock in half with a curtain and having a phlebotomist on the other side of the curtain. This way they can draw our blood but we will never actually see or talk to them.
HERA Training – Day 4 – January 15, 2016
Our HERA crew has officially survived the first week of training, and while I can’t speak for the other amazing women on my crew, I can definitely say I’m still having a whole lot of fun!
This morning started off with fam sessions for a whole bunch of cognition tests that will be used throughout the mission. These were all basically puzzles involving recognizing patterns, colors, numbers, shapes, and tones and then measuring our accuracy and speed of answering. Today was an intro to the different tests, and then we’ll collect baseline scores next week, and then I presume will use these after particular events in the mission to see how people react to and manage stressful situations.
Well, it turns out the experts knew what they were talking about warning us about not being able to finish a full bar! After eating these 4 small samples, I was full enough to skip lunch and didn’t eat anything else for the rest of the afternoon — a feat I don’t accomplish after eating my regular whole lunch on most days!
The last activity of the day was an Ultrasound fam session. After a bit of a learning curve (all the first couple ultrasound images really looked like a big blob of nothingness to me. Some of my crew mates saw birds, some saw aliens — we were supposed to see a candy cane?), we all had successful runs of finding the right target area of a crew mate’s heart and operating the crazy computer to collect the appropriate data. So far this is the activity that has felt the least natural to me (with the other end of the spectrum being a voice-loop protocol lesson yesterday, along with a time-delay robotic operations experiment yesterday where they began by asking how many hours of lifetime robot operation I’d had), but we’ll get another practice session next week and I’m confident that I’ll get it. Our team really came together well for during this ultrasound activity to help each other figure it out, and we definitely shared plenty of giggles along the way. Along with a borderline-delirious crackup session afterwards as we wrapped up for the day. I definitely think it’s an encouraging sign if we can continue responding to potentially stressful situations and exhaustion with lots of laughs!
We have the weekend off from training with the exception of several surveys (oh so many surveys! I may have accidentally said that I was a male who was born today on a survey today…), then one more week of training next week, then it’s go time to begin our month in the habitat!
HERA Training – Day 5 – January 18, 2016
Exactly 1 week from now, my crewmates and I will have just ingressed our habitat and closed the hatch! Things started feeling real when Ben casually mentioned something we should remember to buy next Sunday at our weekly grocery shopping trip, and I suddenly realized that our Sunday grocery shopping trip next week wouldn’t affect me. I guess we’re really doing this!
Anyway, today’s training consisted of additional sessions of some things we learned last week as well as a couple new things. My morning started off with a session on the Robotic Work Station playing with the simulator to grapple an HTV (Japanese spaceship) with the SSRMS (Canadarm2). Last week we were introduced to the simulator software and hardware controllers as a group, and then this morning I got a one-on-one session to get to drive and grapple the HTV 12 different times! It was super fun, but also really challenging in ways I hadn’t anticipated just from watching other crew do it. I’ll definitely have an increased appreciation the next time I’m watching a real ISS crew do it from MCC.
After that, I had an EEG training session. For this experiment, I’ll stick a bunch of sticky electrode things at different places on my face (and torso, for ground/control measurements), and then a headband with laser emitters/receivers will shoot lasers into my brain as I sleep and track which portions of my brain are active based on the wavelength of signal that’s received. I probably butchered that explanation, but I think anything with lasers is cool, sleep studies are cool, and brain stuff is cool, so I’m totally down for being a lab rat in an experiment combining the three!
After the EEG familiarization session, I quickly peeled off the electrodes and lasers from my head to run right into the airlock to put the VR gear on for another EVA practice session. “Flying” around the asteroid was fun, like always, but nothing terribly new to report here on that.
After EVA practice, we did a whole bunch of cognition studies and surveys. There’s definitely a wide range of material tested in all of these cognition studies — I’m super intrigued into what data the researchers are pulling from these and if they’re finding neat patterns/trends. Hopefully my matching patterns, shapes and sizes over and over will help them learn something really cool!
Only 4 more training days to go and then the real mission starts next Monday!
HERA Training – Day 6 – January 19, 2016
Just a quick update today, since I only had 2 hours of HERA stuff this morning and then I got to play in a sim for my actual OSO job.
This morning started out with another saliva sample and our first blood draw. The following picture is me getting my blood drawn through our crazy curtain setup while sucking on a cotton thing for my saliva sample — multitasking allows me to stop fasting quicker and get to breakfast/coffee!
HERA Training – Day 7 – January 20, 2016
We have shirts with our patch on them! That was definitely a big element contributing to the excitement of the day. I love the picture above — it’s the wall in the conference room where we’ve been doing a lot of our training, but I like to think it’s our HERA crew just chilling on the moon.
Anyway, today started with pregnancy tests and cool skeleton bone scan things (again, I’m sure I’m butchering the science, but all I know is I lay on a bed for a few minutes and then got to see a full scan of my bones/muscles/fat, so what can ya do).
After returning from the JSC clinic, we took our official crew photo with our snazzy new shirts!
The rest of the morning was spent meeting with a PI who set us up with yet another heart rate monitor, a slightly different EEG than we played with previously, and some lumosity brain teasers.
After lunch, we were introduced to some of our (sim) emergency drill training that we’ll do throughout the mission — expected protocol and responses for vehicle emergencies such as fire, rapid depressurization, toxic contaminant release, etc., and then also how to distinguish between alarms for these simulated emergencies and alarms for actual fires/toxic atmosphere, which hopefully we never experience in our habitat!
The last super exciting bit of the day was a fam session with the glove box and tests we’ll perform on the asteroid samples we collect on our EVAs. We will follow procedures to clean and setup the glove box, ensure all hoses and electrical connectors are properly mated, depressurize the glove box to vacuum, and then perform a series of different tests and measurements on the samples.
And one last picture from today, not of something that was scheduled or particularly eventful, but was still an “oh wow” moment for me. I had to go into the Mission Control room to hunt down one of our trainers for something, and this was my first time in there. The picture below shows just how many cameras they’ll be able to watch me on during this thing!
I’ve known all along that people would be watching my every move, but something about seeing this made that fact set in just a little bit more.
As we get closer to our “launch” day, my excitement for this mission continues to grow. I feel so fortunate to be on this journey with my crew mates, and I definitely think we’ll find an awesome balance of having fun together but also successfully completely our mission objectives. I’ve found almost every single experiment we’ve seen to be hugely interesting, and I feel so honored to be part of a team that’s figuring out some pretty amazing things about human spaceflight and humans in general. So much coordination has gone into planning all of our training and mission objectives, and so many PIs are hoping we perform our tasks and experiments adequately for them to collect valid data.
My realization of just how much of an honor and privilege it is to be part of this mission has grown and grown throughout training, and I can only imagine how this sense of awe will continue to expand once we’re really off on our mission to our asteroid. I’m definitely looking forward to what’s to come in the next several weeks!
Down To Earth
This week NASA finally announced the winners of the next Commercial Resupply Services contract, or CRS-2. This is the contract currently held by SpaceX and Orbital ATK to delivery cargo to the ISS. The contract was rebid for flights starting in the 2019 timeframe. NASA made the exciting decision to give the contract to all three remaining companies: SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and Sierra Nevada.
This was a good week for SpaceX, beyond just the cargo award. To get people excited, they released this video recap of their successful launch and landing last month:
Then they performed a “static fire” test of the recovered booster. The results were reportedly good with some anomalies.
Maybe some debris ingestion. Engine data looks ok. Will borescope tonight. This is one of the outer engines.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 16, 2016
And thirdly, SpaceX launched the Jason-3 satellite for NOAA on Sunday from their California launch site. The satellite reached orbit successfully, but the first stage recovery attempt – which was on a barge instead of a landing pad in this case – was close but unsuccessful. Here’s some information from NASA about the Jason-3 mission if you are interested. If you want even more, AmericaSpace has an interview with the Project Scientist.
Well, at least the pieces were bigger this time! Won't be last RUD, but am optimistic about upcoming ship landing. pic.twitter.com/w007TccANJ
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 17, 2016
And here’s some awesome video of the touchdown (I’ll add it as an embedded Vine below whenever it is posted there).
China also had a successful orbital launch today with a telecommunications satellite for Belarus. The SpaceX and Chinese launches are the first two flights of the new year.
Meanwhile, on the space station, the “Tims,” astronauts Tim Kopra and Tim Peake, went out for a spacewalk on Friday to repair one of the ISS power channels that malfunctions last November (while I was on shift, in fact). The EVA was successful in its main objective but had to be terminated early due to unexpected water accumulating in Tim Kopra’s helmet.
Around the Solar System
The European Space Agency attempted to contact the Philae lander, on comet 67P-C/G, but it is still nonresponsive. As the comet gets farther from the sun in its orbit and the light levels decrease, the chance of the little probe waking up are quickly diminishing.
— ESA Rosetta Mission (@ESA_Rosetta) January 8, 2016
The JUNO spacecraft, on its way to Jupiter, has broken the “distance record” for a solar powered spacecraft, according to Spaceflight Insider.
Down To Earth
The European Space Agency published a thought-provoking video about the future of lunar exploration.
Here is some interesting PR from the aspiring asteroid mining company Planetary Resources. At the Consumer Electronics Show they revealed a prototype that they 3D printed from a meteorite.
SpaceX’s next Falcon 9 launch will be from Vandenberg in California on January 17th. The rocket will be carrying the NOAA’s Jason-3 satellite. In addition, SpaceX will attempt to recover the first stage on their autonomous drone ship.
The United States Postal Service will issue new stamps with images of the New Horizons spacecraft and Pluto.
Speaking of New Horizons, that NASA team has won the annual Goddard Memorial Trophy.
NASA has officially organized a new Planetary Defense Coordination Office for overall management of projects for detection and characterization of Near Earth Objects (NEOs).
Next Friday “the Tims” (astronauts Tim Peake and Tim Kopra) will get to do a spacewalk.
Around the Solar System
On Mars, the Curiosity rover has driven right up to a 13 foot tall sand dune and is sending us some pretty cool pictures.
Also on Mars, the long-lived Opportunity rover is celebrating 12 Earth-years on the surface.
Honestly, at the beginning of 2015, I did not think the year could possibly be as interesting as 2014 when it came to the launch sector. I thought there was a possibility SpaceX would achieve some major milestones from its list of goals for the year – maybe recover a first stage, maybe launch a Falcon 9 Heavy, maybe double their flight rate – but probably only one or two of them. I never would have guessed that 2015 could have the same roller coaster ride of ups and downs of 2014, which had rocket launches, rocket explosions, and political tension. Surprisingly, not only did 2015 have me on the edge of my seat like 2014, it surprised me and almost everyone else with some crazy twists and turns.
Part II – Rockets
Let’s recap where we were at the end of 2014: SpaceX had just wrapped up a reasonably successful year with 6 flights and no failures, which was twice the number of flights they had in 2013. The debate over the RD-180 engine was still ongoing but had calmed down somewhat with a congressional budget provision for the US to start working on a homegrown replacement. In the meantime, ULA would be allowed to continue using RD-180s to a limited extent. The biggest event of course was the spectacular explosion of an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket on its way to the ISS. Really the story had all eyes on – and are we really surprised? – SpaceX. With Orbital Sciences grounded and ULA under heat for using imported Russian engines, SpaceX was here to save the day.
And SpaceX certainly got off to a roaring start in 2015. They launched the first rocket of the year, which certainly served to make a point, and from there on averaged one Falcon 9 launch per month through June. During two of those launches in January and April they thrilled everybody with their so close rocket landing attempts. I have to repost the videos again below because they are so awesome.
Close, but no cigar. This time. https://t.co/JowUE6a1D7
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 16, 2015
Meanwhile, while all that fun was going on, the US Air Force granted SpaceX certification for military payloads and SpaceX conducted a launchpad abort test with their Dragon V2 capsule. Things were looking pretty good for the (not so) New Space company. But then this happened during their CRS-7 launch to ISS, their 6th of the year:
Suddenly, things completely changed. Adding another layer to the story, a Russian Progress resupply flight to the ISS had also been lost in late May, after which some people had been saying “good thing we have a SpaceX flight coming up.” Not only was the future of SpaceX’s manifest and Falcon 9 rocket in question, there were serious questions about the logistics chain to the ISS. Three of the vital cargo rockets were grounded, with only the Japanese HTV unaffected.
Thankfully, one of the things the Russians are really good at is rebounding from launch failures, and they flew a successful Progress mission to ISS only a few days after the SpaceX explosion. Regardless, 3 of the last 8 unmanned flights to ISS had been lost, an unprecedented statistic.
Orbital ATK (the new name of Orbital Sciences after a merger early in the year) had already announced plans for their return to flight way back in January. Surprisingly, their strategy would be to purchase launch vehicles from their competitors to fly their Cygnus freighter while they worked on a redesign of the Antares first stage. The return to flight would be on a ULA Atlas 5 sometime late in the year. The good news for all involved is that that launch went off without a hitch (after some weather delays) in mid-December. The Cygnus freighter known as “SS Deke Slayton” is happily berthed to the ISS as I write this.
As for SpaceX, all plans for a Falcon Heavy launch, a rocket landing, or a new record flight rate, were taking backseat to the job of figuring out why their rocket had disintegrated on them. Second priority was getting a return to flight scheduled ASAP to pick up their deep manifest (which was already stacked pretty deep coming into 2015). It came out very quickly that the mishap was caused by the failure of a strut, or a structural beam, holding a high pressure helium tank in place. Unfortunately, just because you know the cause of a failure doesn’t mean you know how long it will take to sort out the problem and get back to regular launches. For the next few months it was unclear to the public outside SpaceX if they could even return to flight within the calendar year.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world kept launching rockets. ULA in particular had a pretty good year with 12 launches and no failures. Even though ULA’s Atlas and Delta rockets are extremely successful and don’t really need replacing, they responded to pressures both from the government (which was saying stop using Russian engines) and SpaceX (who is threatening to change the launch industry entirely with reusability) and revealed plans for their new Vulcan rocket. The Vulcan is an ambitious new project which will take at least 5 years to complete. It will use a new American built liquid stage engine and aim to save money by recovering those engines after every launch. Their plan is kind of crazy, as it involves a helicopter. Here it is graphically:
Then in November ULA made space news headlines by not bidding on a GPS satellite contract from the DoD, essentially ceding the launch to SpaceX. ULA listed a couple of reasons they felt that it was not really worth their time to bid, including the Congressional mandate against them to not buy any more RD-180s from Russia. ULA was basically saying, we don’t have enough engines. John McCain in particular was not amused. McCain, who is strongly against the import of Russian rocket engines, feels that ULA has more than enough RD-180 engines already in stock without buying new ones from Russia. They simply need to allocate less engines for commercial and NASA launches and more to DoD payloads. The move was basically a bluff from ULA to get people talking, and it has yet to be seen if it will work.
Which brings us to the tail end of the year, with two of the biggest surprises still left. While everyone was busy talking about SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and ULA, Blue Origin came out of nowhere with a pretty spectacular flight demonstration of their New Shepard rocket. The secret launch occurred in their West Texas facility, reaching the edge of space before the capsule safely came back to Earth under parachute and the first stage touched down vertically under power.
On the face of it, it appears Blue Origin had swooped in and accomplished the first real first stage recovery after a functional rocket launch, right from under SpaceX’s nose. In reality, the technical challenge involved with Blue Origin’s feat is somewhat different than what SpaceX had been trying to do, as the below graphic illustrates. Blue Origin’s launch – while impressive – was suborbital. Meanwhile, SpaceX had been trying to bring back a first stage from a rocket that was actually putting payloads into orbit, which requires much higher velocity.
Regardless, Blue Origin is clearly the quiet dark horse in this story. They almost stole the limelight this year, at least that’s the way it looked before SpaceX stole it back just 9 days before the end of the year. Less than 6 months after their failure, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 on December 22nd, placing a fleet of Orbcomm satellites into orbit and, to everyone’s amazement, successfully landing the first stage back at “Landing Zone 1″ at Cape Canaveral.
This made the mishap back in June look like small potatoes. SpaceX had just achieved one of those three big goals for the year. While there is still a lot of work for them to do to checkout the rocket and determine how much refurbishment would be needed for reflight, this was a major step towards their goal of reuse. Not only that, but being back on flight status puts them in a great posture going into 2016 ready to fly out a big part of their deep manifest. They also likely now have the focus and resources to get that first Falcon Heavy in the air this year.
2016 looks good for Orbital ATK too – with a second Cygnus flight on an Atlas 5 coming up quickly in March and then the maiden flight of their upgraded Antares rocket in May. Overall, the year ended on a high note for the launch industry, with many space fans pretty optimistic. Given how things were looking back in the summer, this year could have turned out quite differently. Losing a Progress cargo craft, which is the only source of fuel resupply and propulsive support for ISS, is always a big deal at NASA and it spins up contingency planning. Fortunately, we ended the year with not just Russia but everyone having returned to flight. Not only do we have a solid reliable supply chain re-established to ISS, lots to look forward to from SpaceX, and resumed orbital flights from Virginia, we are also getting tantalizingly close to the first test flights of the Dragon V2 and Boeing CST-100 manned spacecraft.
I had my heart in my throat for a bit this year, but ended up jumping up and down and cheering with everyone else on December 22nd. It was exciting and all, but after the last two years I’m ready for less drama, and more launches. Ad astra.
Here is NASA’s 8-minute take on what they did in 2015, which may provide some helpful context to my commentary below.
Part I – NASA
Perhaps I am biased, but if you really want to know what happened in spaceflight in a given year, you have to first start with the government side of things. If you are like me, you are way more interested in exploration, so NASA is where its at. Other people with a keen interest in rockets, satellites, cubesats, and communications technology may disagree. But in the area of exploration, NASA is king.
Maybe some day years from now, SpaceX or a company like it will be so successful that they no longer rely on government contracts to stay afloat. When that day comes, it is very possible that NASA could be overshadowed in the minds of the public – no longer being synonymous with spaceflight. This actually kind of happened in 2014, which was not a standout year for NASA while excitement for SpaceX was building and the loss of an Orbital Antares rocket and the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo made the news. However, as we will see, the banner year that 2015 was and the loss of a SpaceX rocket in June reversed the trend. For now, NASA rules the headlines. Later when we look ahead to 2016 I will speculate on whether the pendulum will again swing back towards “New Space”.
As I alluded to above, 2014 was not a standout year for NASA (see my 2014 in review posts for a recap). The two big space stories were Rosetta/Philae comet rendezvous (which is an ESA mission) and the Orion launch late in the year. While space fans were certainly thrilled about Rosetta, overall NASA’s achievements were somewhat forgettable to the general public. Fortunately for those of us who want the public to be thinking about space all the time, 2015 was not at all like 2014. The only way you could stir more excitement would be with a major crisis or failure (not desirable!) or with astronauts launching on American rockets. Given that we are still a couple years from the end of the astronaut gap, 2015 was about as good as you could get for NASA.
Let’s just list out briefly the big things for NASA in 2015: New Horizons flyby of Pluto, Dawn reaches orbit of asteroid Ceres, Scott Kelly starts one year mission on ISS, MRO discovers flowing water on Mars, Europa mission greenlit, and NASA budget for 2016 gets a boost. Not to mention the movie The Martian was a huge success and was basically a love letter to NASA (and very good almost-free PR). The standout is obviously Pluto for space story of the year. The loss of a SpaceX rocket in June and the dramatic return to flight in December will probably be argued by some for story of the year, but Google Trends seems to show that it is no contest.
This is a screenshot from a Google Trends query on five NASA related search terms and their worldwide frequency throughout 2015. I think there are a few interesting features to point out. First, SpaceX’s baseline interest is really low, some notable spikes surrounding their launches, but nothing compared to the interest NASA’s missions stir up. Also of note, the baseline interest in Mars is very high, probably due to Mars just being a common feature in all aspects of culture. Mars has periodic peaks for various reasons – NASA missions, astronomical conjunctions, and movies. Mars interest this year was about average with the exception of the water on Mars story in October (which is probably mixed in with people searching Mars due to the film The Martian). The peak early in the year appears to correspond to an astronomical conjunction in the skies, and not any NASA-related news. The last major feature is the huge spike in interest in Pluto in July during the New Horizons rendezvous. It sets the baseline interest for my search and no other topic even comes close. This for me is what seals the deal on Pluto as the story of the year.
So why is Pluto a big deal? The New Horizons mission closed the opening chapter on humanity’s exploration of the solar system as the last probe to complete initial reconnaissance of a major body. Before New Horizons approached Pluto this year, the dwarf planet was basically just a blob in some Hubble images. And boy, did we make discoveries! Pluto is an incredible diverse world with apparently active geology and a measurable atmosphere. Incredible.
Meanwhile over at the largest main belt asteroid, Ceres, Dawn was doing some initial reconnaissance also after reaching orbit in March. This was another fuzzy blog brought into focus. The news about the “bright spots” made the news big time. Although the speculation about “alien cities” was worth an eye roll at best, the fact that people are interested in such a pure scientific endeavor is the important part of the story to me.
This is that elusive spirit of exploration that the public loves about spaceflight. They eat this stuff up. Cassini, NASA’s probe at Saturn, continues to return simply amazing images of that planet and its moons and continues to make discoveries. However, we already know what Saturn looks like. Meanwhile, missions like Rosetta, New Horizons, and Dawn make headlines because we are seeing a new world for the first time. This is what makes planetary exploration NASA’s “crown jewel”. Going into 2016, there is less clear opportunity for standout planetary science. The number of active solar system probes is changing – MESSENGER crashed into Mercury last year (on purpose) and Cassini will be ending its mission in 2017. However, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return should launch this year and Juno should arrive at Jupiter. With the boost to the planetary sciences budget of NASA, which went up from $1.4 billion to $1.6 billion in the December omnibus bill, things are looking good.
Besides robotic planetary exploration, NASA had a busy year with its human exploration programs. For a spaceship just going in circles around the Earth, ISS had a pretty exciting year. Scott Kelly’s mission has been going well after he launched in March and some unexpected failures, both from ISS onboard systems and the loss of resupply rockets, kept NASA on their toes and in the news. Unfortunately, Sarah Brightman pulled out of her ISS tourist flight for the fall, so NASA missed that opportunity for front page news last year.
The loss of 3 out of 10 ISS resupply flights in the 12 month period from October 2014 to October 2015 was unprecedented. But NASA and its partners proved the quality of their partnership by recovering with no major setbacks, other than extending the Expedition 43 mission, which allowed Samantha Cristoforetti to break the record for longest spaceflight for a woman. As I pointed out in this post back in the summer, the multi-rocket redundancy of the ISS supply chain is what kept the ISS flying this year and should serve as a solid counterpoint to the simple-minded idea that the US or Russia could simply pull out of the program as a political move. I hope that after 2015, that discussion has been put to bed.
To really understand what 2015 meant for NASA, I think we need to swing our focus back to planetary exploration before we wrap up this retrospective. I talked a lot about Ceres and Pluto above, but there was a lot of other stuff going on, including the water on Mars story, the confirmation of a global subsurface ocean at Enceladus, and the announcement of a new Europa mission. I wrote a post back in March 2015 trying to predict what the space story will be for 2015. My three options were basically ISS, Pluto, or SpaceX. Both ISS and SpaceX didn’t pan out due to the unforeseen. By contrast, it should be no surprise that NASA’s planetary missions delivered the goods.
While Congress and the general public continue to be fixated on rockets, SpaceX, and when the next American astronaut will launch from Florida, robotic missions continue to fly under the radar and keep the general publics interest in space alive. 2015 showed more than ever the importance of these missions and why a healthy balance is needed between human and robotic exploration both for political and practical reasons. Robotic missions keep up our excitement during gap years and will reliably continue even if the next presidential administration cancels the SLS and Orion programs. The good news is that it appears this was recognized by Congress in the 2016 budget increase. For me, planetary science is the canary in the coal mine of the story of NASA and 2015 gives me reason to be optimistic about the years ahead.
Postscript: Thanks as always to my wife Leah for her excellent proofreading of this post!
The last year was full of spacey goodness. Some things were expected – even long anticipated – like space probes Dawn and New Horizons arriving at their targets. Other things were a complete surprise, like the loss of SpaceX’s seventh commercial flight to ISS and the discovery of flowing water on the surface of Mars. All-in-all, there was a lot to follow and talk about. Thus, I am putting together one or more “year in review” blog posts to give my perspective on what has happened and what’s to come. In the meantime, you can enjoy other people’s thoughts of 2015 in spaceflight through the links I have gathered below. Happy new year!
As usual, I love to lean on the “year in spaceflight” pages on Wikipedia. The folks that put these together do a thorough job. If we look at the 2015 in spaceflight page, we see that the human race is maintaining our high flight rate, with 82 successful orbital launches out of 87 attempts. These numbers have been steadily growing for years. Here is the last decade’s successful launches numbers, starting with 2005: 52, 62, 63, 66, 73, 70, 78, 72, 77, 88, 82. As I wrote in last week’s Weekly Links post, Russia had the most launches with 26 and their Soyuz rocket is by far the most dominant, at 17 launches. However, their two failures this year make it hard to call Soyuz both the most dominant and most reliable. China launches 19 of their Long March family of rockets with no failures.
Using the “list of spaceflight records” we can see some changes in the list for total time in space. Most notably, Gennady Padalka spent 167 days on ISS during Expedition 43/44, his 5th spaceflight, to put him at the top spot for most spaceflown human ever. He has spent 879 days of his life in space. Also notable is Anton Shkaplerov, who returned to Earth during Expedition 43 and is at the 32 spot, Oleg Kononenko, who returned during Expedition 45 and holds the 13 spot with 533 days, and Yuri Malenchenko and Sergey Volkov who are currently in space and hold the 7 and 31 spots respectively.
The other notable record that was broken this year is “longest single flight by a woman” (which is on the list of spaceflight records page), broken this year by Samantha Cristoforetti, partly because her crew got stuck on ISS a little bit longer after the loss of a Progress resupply flight in May.
AmericaSpace, but on planetary science.
AmericaSpace’s compilation video of launches:
And here’s a series of four year in review posts from NASA Spaceflight:
Government Agency PR
NASA’s summary of 2015. With video below.
NASA’s top 15 images of Earth from ISS (if you are a real photography or geography nut, you will want to click “read more” on each picture).
Top Space Stories of 2015
Down To Earth
Here are some new high resolution images from the SpaceX booster flyback landing last week.
And here is a nice shot of the booster being returned to the SpaceX launch complex.
United Launch Alliance has ordered more of the RD-180 engines that power its Atlas rockets. This is the Russian-built engine that has been causing political controversy since early 2014, since American politicians understandably don’t want our military satellites dependent on a geopolitical adversary’s technology. The new engines are only planned to be used for civil and commercial launches.
Meanwhile, the USAF awarded a bunch of money to several companies for propulsion development so that RD-180s won’t have to be purchased in the future.
Components of ESA’s ExoMars mission have arrived at the launch site in Kazakhstan. Launch is coming up quick in March!
Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, was dissolved by law this week under the ongoing reorganization of the space industry going on in that country.
Oak Ridge in Tennessee has produced the first Plutonium-238 in decades. This non-weapons grade nuclear fuel is needed for the RTG power sources of deep space missions.
Only two launches since my last post on December 22nd: a Russian Proton rocket* with a communications satellite and a Chinese rocket with an Earth observation satellite. With no apparent planned launches for the rest of the year (according to my favorite Wikipedia page), that leaves the yearly totals as seen below, with Russia at 25 successful launches and China and the US tied at 18. If SpaceX had launched as many Falcon 9s as they had hoped this year, then the US may have matched or surpassed Russia’s numbers for the first time since probably 2003*. Comments from Musk at a recent press conference indicate he hopes for 12 launches in 2016. We will see.
*The Proton is the rocket that seemed to blow up every other launch a couple of years ago. Although there has been only been one failure every year since 2012, the failure rate has remained about the same since 2010, with 4 out of 32 launches failed 2010 to 2012 and 3 out of 26 from 2013 to 2015.
**In 2003, Orbital Sciences was operating the Pegasus rocket (four launches), ILS was launching out of both Florida and Kazakhstan (I counted based on launch site) and Boeing and Lockheed had yet to merge as ULA. USA outscored Russia by 23 to 21 that year by my count.
Around the Solar System
Here’s a cool new “self-portrait” panorama from the Curiosity rover on Mars.
Here are some new images from Dawn’s new low mapping orbit at Ceres.
Because I didn’t see anyone post all three of these videos together in one place I thought I would. In chronological order throughout 2015: January, April, December. The spectacularly entertaining explosions makes the pinpoint landing yesterday all the more sweet. I am very impressed.
Close, but no cigar. This time. https://t.co/JowUE6a1D7
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 16, 2015
Landing from helo https://t.co/dYomRtG0Xs
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) December 22, 2015