Archive for the ‘astronauts’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Check out this innovative moving ISS tracker someone built.

Chris Hadfield is releasing an album of songs he recorded while on ISS. Here’s a music video of Feet Up off the album.

In Orbit

All of the big events last week up at the ISS went fine. First, on Monday, HTV5 rendezvoused with the station on time and was captured with Canadarm-2. Later in the week, the crew of Soyuz TMA-16M strapped into their re-entry couches for a quick 30 minute fly around to change docking ports. Here’s an awesome time lapse of the “relocate”.

A few orbital rocket launches this past week, but none related to the ISS program. Here’s a rundown of the three launches from three different nations: India launched a communications satellite on a GSLV rocket, China launched a military satellite on a Long March 4C rocket, and Russia launched a commercial communications satellite on a Proton rocket. An Atlas V was supposed to launch from Florida with a military satellite but was delayed due to tropical storm Erika.

Here’s a nice animation by ESA about astronaut Andreas Mogensen’s flight to ISS next week. Soyuz TMA-18M is slated to launch with the next ISS crew on Wednesday, September 2.

As usual, lots of good photos from the ISS were posted to Twitter by the current crew, including some great shots of active tropical storms and hurricanes. Here’s a selection.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s New Horizons probe will flyby a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69 in 2019. The final selection of the Pluto probes next target was announced last week.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Veteran astronaut Steve Swanson, who flew on the space shuttle and commanded the ISS last year, is retiring from NASA. According to his Wikipedia page, he has spent an impressive 195 days in space with almost 28 hours of spacewalk time across 5 EVAs. This leaves NASA with 45 active astronauts (which doesn’t count ESA and JAXA astronauts who are qualified to fly to ISS).

Last week an important engine test in the development of the new SLS rocket was conducted at Stennis Space Center. The RS-25 engine was run for almost a full ten minuets. Here’s a video (test starts at 31:15).

In Orbit

Last Monday, August 10th, two Russian Cosmonauts went outside the ISS for a spacewalk. Padalka and Kornienko spent about five and a half hours outside. It was Padalka’s tenth spacewalk, which should put him nicely on this list once it is updated.

Later in the week, on Friday morning, a Russian Progress cargo craft undocked from the aft port of the ISS. That port will be empty until Soyuz 42S does a “relocate” from the Poisk port later this fall. The relocate is needed to free up Poisk for the docking of the next Soyuz. There will be three Soyuz onboard for a direct handover this fall.

Some cool stuff happened inside the ISS this past week as well. The astronauts were able to eat some red romaine lettuce grown on the space station in the “VEGGIE” experiment.

Japanese astronaut Kimiya Yui did some remote robotics experiments.

The launch of the next ISS resupply flight from Japan has been delayed to Monday, due to bad weather.

Also in ISS cargo news, Orbital Sciences announced they will launch not just one but two or more of their Cygnus cargo resupply missions on someone else’s rocket. Orbital is working hard to recertify their Antares rocket with new Russian engines, following the loss of one of their rockets last October. In the meantime, they are buying Atlas V rockets from United Launch Alliance in order to fulfill their NASA contract.

Around the Solar System

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has reached perihelion (closest point to the sun), which has made the comet rather “active”. Check out these images from Rosetta, in orbit about the comet.

How cool is this? There is evidence of cryovolcanism (ice volcanoes) on Pluto.

Speaking of Pluto, here’s an awesome simulation of the New Horizons flyby in real-time, based on actually imagery from the spacecraft.

If you love the ins and outs of Martian rover exploration, here’s a comprehensive update on what the Curiosity rover has been up to.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Russia recently made it official that they are willing to fund joint operations of ISS through 2024. Meanwhile, NASA sent Russia almost half of a billion dollars to renew the contract for sending astronauts to the ISS on Soyuz spacecraft. The new contract is to protect against further slips in the commercial crew program schedule, as insufficient funds are being allocated by Congress, according to administrator Charlie Bolden.

NASA’s ISS program manager, Mike Suffredini, is retiring from NASA. His replacement will be Kirk Shireman.

Buzz Aldrin has taken a faculty position at Florida Tech.

Don’t forget that the Perseid Meteor Shower is this week!

In Orbit

Two cosmonauts on the ISS will go for a spacewalk Monday morning (August 10). You can watch live on NASA TV.

NASA has named the astronauts that will make up Expeditions 51 and 52 in 2017.

Check out this view of the moon passing in front of the Earth from the DISCOVR satellite.

As usual, lots of great tweets from the crew on the ISS this week, including stunning shots of Super Typhoon Soudelor.

Around the Solar System

Check out this animation of our current map of the asteroid Ceres, from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft.

Comet 67P, Where ESA’s Rosetta probe is in orbit, will reach perihelion this week. ESA is hosting a Google Hangout on August 13th.

Comet orbit diagram from ESA

The number of potential landing sites for NASA’s “Mars 2020″ rover has been reduced to 8 candidates.

Meanwhile, Curiosity just celebrated its third anniversary on Mars.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Astronauts Stephen Frick and Michael Foreman announced their retirement from NASA this week. If you are interested, NASA maintains an updated list of active astronauts here, which can be easily copied into a spreadsheet. With the addition of the class of 2013 as active astronauts, the number is currently at 46 after recent retirements. Interestingly, the oldest class still represented is the class of 1996, of which Scott Kelly (currently in space) and Peggy Whitson and Jeff Williams (upcoming ISS commanders), are all members.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released their findings regarding the accident last fall that destroyed the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo spacecraft and one of its pilots. Their findings are summarized nicely at Parabolic Arc or you can read the longer executive summary of the report. In short, it was indeed the “early unlocking” of the spaceplanes “feather system” that doomed the craft. the NTSB’s analysis found that the risk of human error was not properly taken into account during development.

Rumors out of Russia is that a new “Manned Spaceflight Center”, analogous to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, is in the planning stages, and would be headed by former cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev.

In Orbit

Last weekend, on Saturday, July 25th, ISS flight controllers had to command a debris avoidance maneuver to dodge orbital debris that was headed to the ISS.

Check out this absolutely awesome virtual ISS tour published by ESA and narrated by Samantha Cristoforetti. Some people are calling it “Google Street View on ISS” but it’s really just an old school click-through VR tour. It’s very well done!

ESA is exposing the bacteria found in kombucha to space on the ISS to see how it fares in the harsh environment.

Another cool experiment I learned about while at an ISS payloads meeting in Huntsville, Alabama last week is a small genetic sequencer called minION, which will launch next year.

Peggy Whitson, who will command ISS Expedition 51 in 2017, has joined Twitter!

Speaking of Twitter, here are some good posts from the three tweeters in space right now:

Around the Solar System

The Cassini spacecraft has discovered strange red stripes or streaks on the surface of Saturn’s moon, Tethys. Check it out.

The Curiosity rover is busy investigating some interesting new rocks it has found on the slopes of Mount Sharp on Mars.

Out There

A combination of observations from the HARPS-North ground telescope and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope have confirmed the existence of a rocky exoplanet just about 21 light-years away.

While studying another star that is about 20 light-years away, NASA astronomers from JPL have discovered aurora in the atmosphere of a brown dwarf star.

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Last Monday, SpaceX announced preliminary findings related to the loss of a Falcon 9 rocket and its Dragon cargo mission last month. Here’s the companies official statement on their investigation so far. They have found that a structural support (or “strut”) holding up a pressurant tank in the second stage failed. Elon Musk hopes a delay of only a few months to their manifest.

Tony Antonelli, who piloted two space shuttle missions, has retired from the astronaut office.

The Smithsonian Institution has started a new Kickstarter campaign called “Reboot the Suit” to raise money to restore Neil Armstrong’s moonsuit. The restoration is planned to be completed in time for a new exhibit for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2019. I pledged!

In Orbit

Three launches from the Earth’s three spacefaring nation’s this past week: first, a Russian Soyuz rocket launched from Kazakhstan on July 22nd, followed a few hours later by a successful docking to ISS. The crew is now back up to full strength of 6, with the addition of Oleg Kononenko, Kimiya Yui, and Kjell Lindgren. Lindgren and Yui are on Twitter, so you should follow my “people in space” Twitter list.

Second, a Delta IV rocket launched from Florida on July 23rd. The mission delivered a new military communications satellite to orbit.

China also had a successful orbital launch last week. A Long March 3B delivered two navigation satellites to orbit on July 25th.

Around the Solar System

New pictures from the New Horizons’ Pluto flyby! Check out the new views of small moons Nix and Hydra.

Also, check out this view of the dark side of Pluto, with the sun lighting up its thin nitrogen atmosphere!

via Universe Today

Not to mention they discovered nitrogen glaciers!

via Universe Today

Closer to home, at Ceres, the Dawn spacecraft has discovered evidence of a “haze” in Occator crater. This is the large crater with several “bright spots” in its center.

JAXA is accepting applications to choose a name for asteroid 1999 JU3 which will be visited by their Hayabusa-2 spacecraft.

Out There

NASA announced the discovery of Kepler-452b, a small planet around a Sun-like star about 1,400 light years distant. This is the most similar planet in size and circumstance to Earth that we have yet found, but it still has 1.6 times Earth’s diameter (mass, and thus surface gravity, unknown). However, the fact that it is so small and in the habitable zone, makes it an awesome discovery.

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Claudia Alexander, a successful planetary scientist who has been a project manager for NASA, died Saturday, July 11th.

William Borucki, Principal Investigator of the Kepler Space Telescope, has retired from NASA after over 50 years with the agency.

A few announcements out of NASA’s astronaut office this week: Chris Cassidy is the new chief of the astronaut office, replacing Bob Behnken, who will be busy training as one of the four astronauts chosen for the first commercial crew flights in 2017. The other three are Sunita Williams, Eric Boe, and Doug Hurley. Also, the class of 2013 has officially graduated from ASCANs (astronaut candidates) to astronauts, after finishing what is basically their “basic training”.

Nicole Stott, who recently retired from the astronaut office, is taking up space-themed art as her new mission. Very cool!

In Orbit

Follow-up to the launch news from last week: the Progress resupply vehicle launched on July 3rd made it to ISS on the 5th, keeping the supply chains flowing. The next ISS cargo mission is a Japanese HTV flight in August.

Also in rocket news, there was one orbital launch last week from India, carrying several commercial and technology demonstration satellites. Upcoming launches include an Ariane 5 launch from Kourou and an Atlas V launch from Florida, both on the 15th (I use this Wiki page to track launch schedules).

You’ve got to love a good ISS transit photo. Here’s one of the station passing in front of the moon.

Around the Solar System

It’s time! New Horizons will fly past Pluto on Tuesday! Here is a summary of NASA TV’s coverage of the flyby. The probe gave us a scare last weekend when it went into safe mode briefly, but it is back up and running now and sending home new pictures every day.

One of the latest looks at Pluto

The Dawn spacecraft, in orbit around dwarf planet Ceres, also went into safe mode recently, but was also recovered. Dawn was planning to spiral down to a lower mapping orbit but the issue has delayed that next step in the flight plan.

Mission controllers for the Curiosity rover are dealing with some troubles of their own on Mars. The rovers wheels are continuing to show signs of worsening wheel damage. However, the JPL guys know what they are doing, and they don’t seem too worried yet. Here are some good details from Space.com.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Astronaut Nicole Stott has retired from NASA. She flew to space on Discovery twice with one mission being a long duration stay at the ISS.

The Canadian Space Agency has committed to their partnership in the ISS through 2024. This means that their two unflown astronauts, Jeremy Hansen and David Saint-Jacques, will get to fly expeditions to the station.

In Orbit

Half of the Expedition 43 crew will finally return to Earth this week aboard their Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft. This will start Expedition 44 with a 3-man crew of Padalka, Kelly, and Kornienko. NASA TV will cover the undocking from ISS on Thursday morning, June 11. The undocking was delayed last month due to the launch failure of an unmanned Progress spacecraft. Due to the extended mission, Samantha Cristoforetti now holds the record for the longest spaceflight by a woman.

On Friday, June 5, a Russian military satellite launched on a Soyuz 2a.1 rocket. This launch is notable because it is the first flight of a Soyuz rocket since the launch failure of the Progress spacecraft. Flights of unmanned Progress and manned Soyuz spacecraft to ISS both launch on the Soyuz family of rockets.

Speaking of Soyuz, check out this awesome timelapse from the TMA-16M docking to ISS earlier this year.

The Planetary Society has confirmed via telemetry that their LightSail’s solar sail has deployed. No photos or video available yet.

Here’s another cool video from a GoPro mounted to the inside of a Falcon 9 payload fairing after a recent launch. The video starts after the fairing has already separated from the rocket.

Around the Solar System

A new analysis of Hubble Space Telescope data shows that at least two of Pluto’s small moons (Nix and Hyrda) are tumbling unpredictably. Here is a simulation:

Weekly Links

This post will have to cover the last two weeks, as I missed last week’s update partly due to being on the evening shift at the ADCO console. I happened to be on duty in mission control when the lost Progress cargo ship re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific. Unfortunately, ISS was too far away for us to see anything from the onboard cameras.

Down to Earth

The crew of Expedition 43 will not be coming back down to Earth as planned this month. NASA and the other ISS partners announced this week that upcoming crew rotation dates will be delayed due to the ongoing investigation of the Progress resupply craft that failed to reach ISS. The next launch was also postponed by a couple of months.

Fortunately, the astronauts aboard ISS seem to be in high spirits and are making the best of it:

In a seemingly unrelated announcement, British singer and spaceflight hopeful, Sarah Brightman, has postponed her plans to fly on a Soyuz to the International Space Station, according to a press release on her website. No official word yet if her backup Satoshi Takamatsu will take her Soyuz seat on TMA-18M later this year.

A new astronaut movie called Pale Blue Dot will star Reese Witherspoon. Let’s hope it lives up to the pedigree of its namesake. Based on what little we know about it so far, I don’t know if I am convinced.

The company that designed the capillary flow coffee cups for serving espresso on the ISS wants to commercially produce the cups for sale on Earth. You can pledge to their Kickstarter here.

The UAE space agency has produced a pretty interesting promo video for their Martian orbiter mission plans:

In Orbit

Check out this awesome video blog from Smarter Every Day about the window shutters in the Cupola on ISS (via Bad Astronomy).

Here are some of my favorite posts from the astronauts in space from the last week or so:

Around the Solar System

The small Japanese probe Procyon was unable to recover its ion engine in time for a needed course correction and will miss its asteroid rendezvous. Procyon launched with Hayabusa 2 in December.

New Horizons is now close enough to Pluto to image all 5 of its known moons!

The “tiger stripes” on Europa could be “sea salt” from beneath the surface.

In other icy moon news, the geysers on Enceladus, seen by the Cassini probe, may actually be curtains rather than geysers.

Check out this awesome Vine from Saturn:

And How could I not share this sunset image taken by the Curiosity rover on Mars.

Out There

Astronomers may have found the first volcanoes on a planet around another star.

Astronomers from Yale University discovered the most distant galaxy ever seen – a stunning 13 billion light years distant.

31st Space Symposium

I imagine that my time in Colorado Springs during the week of April 13th was a lot like what some first-time attendees at the Star Wars Celebration (also occurring that week, in LA) were going through. Surrounded by geeks and famous names in my own passion, attending the 31st Space Symposium was like something you might win in a sweepstakes. Except I wasn’t there just as a fan of space. Somehow, I had managed to impress someone enough to be invited as a speaker. What? Yes, I still don’t believe it either. I guess some background is required.

When I joined Twitter in late 2008, it was mostly because it seemed like something the cool kids were doing, and I didn’t want to admit I wasn’t hip. I didn’t think I would use it much. I definitely didn’t think I would find 2,000 people out there who wanted to hear about my job at NASA. It turns out that Twitter, or social media in general, is a great way to stay in touch with the things you care about in the world, and to connect with like-minded people, no matter where they live. This is how I ultimately ended up on stage at the 31st Space Symposium last week, talking about my job as an ISS flight controller. A fellow flight controller, half a world away in Germany, followed me on Twitter and recommended my name as a good representative of the Houston mission operations community for a panel she was helping to organize. It seems like a 21st century idea – to give a professional recommendation for someone you have never met face-to-face!

Our panel, called “Controlling the ISS: Global Collaboration and the Contribution of Young Professionals” was made up of four of us from ISS ops: one each from Houston, Huntsville, Germany, and Japan. Our moderator, retired astronaut Leroy Chiao, was commander of ISS during Expedition 10, his last of four flights to space. Getting ready for the conference was a bit like what we do daily in the ISS program; we had to find a good time for a Google Hangout video conference across 4 time zones in 3 countries. Our first “hangout” all together was at 6 AM in Houston, noon in Germany, and 8 PM in Japan! Our second hangout was at the Space Foundation’s Yuri’s Night party in Colorado Springs, two days before our panel!

It was a unique experience to find oneself with so much in common with people from literally all over the world. Culturally, we are from at least 3 totally different backgrounds (two of us being American) but we share a common language in ISS operations speak. I learned throughout the symposium that this is a theme of the space business these days, and is exactly why the Space Foundation put our panel together. There is a large industry of space and space-related companies and organizations out there, all trying to do similar things. Why allow the barriers of politics, geography, and culture to stand in the way of a shared passion? It was international collaboration that has made the ISS so successful, a success very visible to everyone else trying to do big things in space. Even the military panels had discussions about how cooperation and collaboration across international borders is the path to global space security, and the ISS is often referenced as a model for those efforts!

Our panel was just a one hour session in a full week of panels, speakers, and technical forums. We had a marginal audience of maybe a hundred people – there were concurrent sessions about satellite design, military space situation awareness, and of course the ever buzzing exhibit hall was open. So I feel content that we had a decent audience at all – not to mention Bill Nye came to listen. The pressure was on… one of my childhood heros was going to listen to me talk…

One hour of talking goes really fast when you have 5 people on stage, but we managed to cover some good ground: from what it takes to be a flight controller, to working with the Russians, to challenges of international collaboration, to the Chinese space program, and more. My co-panelists of course had some great things to say, but I thought I would recap a bit of what I covered, since it is what I remember the best!

When prompted by Chiao to address the impact of the Ukraine crisis and other geopolitical tensions on ISS, I noted that we don’t see the effect of politics at all at the working level. I explained that the mass media’s narrative of the program, with Russia holding all the cards, misses the big picture. The Russians can’t just stop flying NASA’s astronauts to the space station as a political tool if they want to keep the station running. Successful ISS operations is not one-sided, but involves contributions from all partners. Russia provides our launch vehicle but NASA brings much to the table also. I gave the example of how the Russian thrusters and American gyroscopes (CMGs) are both needed together if we intend to fly ISS for another decade. It’s a chicken and egg problem. The ISS needs both Russia and the US equally, in its current operational model.

When China was discussed, Chiao asked us “if the political issues were overcome, what would it take to add China to the program?” something I learned from Andrea (my co-panelist from Germany) is that ESA already has a relationship with the Chinese program and their astronauts learn Chinese. As for NASA, we currently don’t have a direct relationship with the Chinese program (it is tricky, since they do not have a clear delineation between civil and military space industry). I did note that adding any new player to ISS, no matter who they are, would present challenges, especially if they would be a new equal partner. Processes like mission management teams and flight rule boards would require additional coordination. I also pointed out that the current relationship NASA has with Russia did not start with ISS. Following the fall of the USSR, we built a relationship of trust through stages of operations such as flying astronauts on each others vehicles and then with the Shuttle-MIR program. A similar phased in approach would be needed with China or any new country that we have never worked with before.

I also fielded a question about debris avoidance on ISS which allowed me to give the example of the Pre-Determined Debris Avoidance Maneuver (PDAM), which is a triumph of international collaboration. The procedure allows the US mission control team to direct the crew to send the reboost command, using the russian segment computers and rocket engines, even if none of the Russian planning team is on duty in Moscow. This capability enables more rapid response to a debris threat but also requires a great level of trust on the part of our Russian friends. I think this is a great example of the successful partnership we have built with the ISS. When asked about the future of spaceflight, I remarked that it would be wise for any future programs, no matter where we go, to be an international endeavor. It would be a shame to waste the lessons we have learned since the concept of Shuttle-MIR was formed in the 1990s.

We even had time to field a few good questions from the audience, including the predictable “what would you tell someone who wants to be a flight controller?” Fortunately, we talk about this often at work, so I explained that even though our intent is to hire steely-eyed engineers with great technical knowledge and aptitude, we don’t put a huge emphasis on grades when hiring. More important is a proven ability to learn and adapt and especially to work with other people and communicate clearly. I spend infinitely more time in my job communicating in many ways (verbal, email, console logs, etc) than doing any math that looks anything like what I studied in college. Mission operations is all about working in a team environment.

The Space Symposium this year placed an emphasis on young professionals with an entire track for “New Generation Space Leaders”, featuring an evening reception with Bill Nye and a luncheon with Dr. Ellen Ochoa (astronaut and director of JSC) as keynote speaker. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of those “New Gen’ers” who came up to us after our panel and thanked us for sharing about working in the ISS program. Before the Symposium, I imagined my fellow young professional attendees to be made up primarily of young engineers excited about New Space – wanting to build rockets with SpaceX, Xcor and Virgin Galactic, and not interested in the slow bureaucracy of NASA. Fortunately, I was proven very wrong! It turns out most everyone still thinks NASA is cool, and wants to hear about working there. We even had a few people try to give us their resumes… of course I gave them some advice, but had to tell them to just check the job postings online!

One of my favorite things I noticed was that almost every booth in the exhibit hall, and all of the videos played at award dinners and luncheons, tended to utilize imagery of the ISS at some point. Even the FedEx booth had the ISS on their booth’s banner, with the phrase “mission control” prominently displayed. They very much want to help out with ISS – by transporting precious experiments and cargo to the launch site, or home from splashdown.

One lesson I have learned from this Symposium is that NASA and the ISS program should be very proud of the example we are setting, and should not be shy about telling our story, because it is a good one. At the same time, it is a wide world of spaceflight industry out there, with thousands of people working on their own projects, regardless of NASA. If we don’t keep up with them, they will leave us behind. That is why I am honored that my company and NASA trusted me to attend the conference based on an invite obtained through social media. It is also why it is great to see NASA embracing social media in the broader context – giving astronauts free reign to post to Twitter without a pre-screening (at least it looks like there is no pre-screening!) and allowing so many flight controllers, flight directors, and others to engage with the public online.

With the ISS program now solidly moved from “assembly” to “utilization” phase, and with social media now something most of the world understands and uses, I have a new confidence that the general public will learn about the ISS and the space program and will be supportive of further exploration. The days of meeting people on the street who don’t even know we have a permanent space station are coming to a close – at least that is my hope! I do realize that going to a conference full of other space geeks is like going into a bit of an echo chamber. But my confidence comes from the support across programs and companies for the future of space. No longer do you hear other space fans referring to the ISS as an expensive “boondoggle” – at least not at the Space Symposium.

And regardless, even if some do still feel that way about the ISS, the symposium showed me that the space industry is a big place. For instance, even if Sierra Nevada doesn’t get the ISS cargo contract for their Dream Chaser, they have agreements with Japan and Germany to use the vehicle – it will get built anyway. A lot of wheels are turning and there are a lot of people out there doing amazing things. The Symosium had panels about the new Europa clipper mission (and the advantages of flying it on an SLS), about constellations of satellites providing broadband internet to the world, about the United Arab Emirates’ new space agency. The list goes on. For me, a young engineer who has only had one job and has not really traveled abroad, going to the Space Symposium was like leaving home for the first time and seeing the size of the world. There is so much to do, so let’s work together and get it done!

Book Review: Altered Space Series by Gerald Brennan

When I bought myself my first e-reader last month, a small wi-fi enabled Amazon Kindle, I was looking forward to all the common advantages expounded by their advocates: portability, lower book prices, etc. I also was hoping to supplement the constant LCD screen time I find in my life these days with something more relaxing. I was a nerd growing up and used to read constantly (often at the expense of my social life or studies). These days I find myself spending hours staring at an iPhone or computer screen keeping up with my favorite blogs, and the stack of new books beside my bed growing larger. What I did not expect was that my Kindle would open up a whole new genre of fiction.

Amazon knows me very well – recommending each new space memoir as it is released (many of which are still in that unread pile beside my bed, including last year’s Sally Ride and Neil Armstrong biographies) – and as soon as I registered my new Kindle to my account, I started getting Kindle Store recommendations as well. On the first page was a short story that caught my eye immediately: Zero Phase – Apollo 13 on the moon.

I had heard of alternate history fiction before, like Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South series, which was always in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy aisle that I spent hours in at Borders as a teenager. But Brennan’s alternate history of “NASA’s finest hour” requires no time travel. In fact, I am not sure which category of the bookstore it should be placed. Zero Phase is a meticulously researched thought experiment based entirely in reality. The only difference between the real saga of Apollo 13 and Brennan’s story is a fateful difference in timing: what if the accident happened after reaching lunar orbit? Would they still have made it home alive?

Intriguing, right? Zero Phase, at only about 100 pages, is a fast and exciting entry into what for me was a hidden genre: alternative spaceflight history. My Kindle is now full of short story and novel titles with the same spirit: Recovering Apollo 8, Gemini 17, One False Step, STS-136, Launch On Need… most I have yet to read. Maybe most of them are poorly executed, which could explain the genre’s quiet existence? But the first two entries in the Altered Space series are an engrossing ride for any lover of space history. After finishing Zero Phase I also quickly devoured Brennan’s second story, Public Loneliness, which chronicles a solo circumlunar flight by Yuri Gagarin.

Both stories are written in the first person and don’t waste any time on exposition. Zero Phase opens with Jim Lovell and Fred Haise together in their Lunar Module (LM), already floating free of the Command Module (CM), moments from beginning their descent burn. Brennan has a knack for turning tedious technical details into a story. The prose is dense with a wealth of research into the sequence of events of a powered lunar descent and preparation for a surface EVA. But mixed in with the facts is an intriguing view into the character of an Apollo commander put into an unusual situation.

Brennan performed his research with Jim Lovell’s consent and help and it certainly would not be the thought-provoking read that it is without the fictional but believable voice of narration from Lovell. The story moves in a fast pace from descent, to EVA prep, through the accident, and then preparation for an emergency ascent from the lunar surface – each piece true to actual NASA procedure. But mixed in are periods of flashbacks or commentary from this fictional Lovell that do as good a job as Tom Hanks in the film Apollo 13 of creating a sympathetic character.

You may not get the answer you are looking for at the end of Zero Phase. The story ends as abruptly as it starts (no hints on whether it is a happy ending or not) and leaves you excited enough to read more that you will quickly go and download Public Loneliness, the slightly longer Gagarin story.

Public Loneliness is a different story from Zero Phase in many ways. For one thing, it is going to be a much less familiar setting for most readers, given that Zero Phase involves characters and events from one of the most beloved space movies of all time. The character of Gagarin himself is a bit jarring. Based on a legendary Soviet hero long dead, Brennan likely had a harder time researching for this story, including teasing the facts from fiction in the various biographies (and Gagarin’s autobiography). Brennan takes an interesting tact in his fictional tale and what seems as an honest narration from Gagarin is sprinkled with hints that he isn’t being completely honest, that you may be reading a propaganda piece with half-truths.

Gagarin’s story starts atop a Proton rocket ready to launch towards to moon, but spends as much time on flashbacks as the circumlunar flight itself. Having not read much on Gagarin previously myself, these parts were in some ways more interesting to me. The fictional mission that is the subject of the story is less interesting than in Zero Phase because it is somewhat more fanciful. The nature of his flight and the problems that arise are imagined by Brennan, while in Zero Phase, a known problem merely takes place later in the mission.

Public Loneliness is an exploration of what it must have been to be a hero in the USSR – so much in the public eye but with your true nature hidden from even those closest to you. Did he really buy into the propaganda or was he just doing his job? Despite these interesting digressions into unanswerable questions about personality, Brennan still manages to focus the story on a realistic adventure aboard a Soviet spacecraft that almost was. Like in Zero Phase, portions of the book focus on technical procedures – like doing a trajectory correction burn on the way home from the moon – that are true to Soviet design while also creating exciting tension for the reader.

Again, I highly recommend Zero Phase to all fans of spaceflight history, especially if the Apollo Program and Apollo 13 are exciting to you. Public Lonelines is not as quick a read, but is just as intriguing a “what if” story, not only because of the extensive research done in its writing, but because of the fictional voice of a long-dead hero jumping off the pages. If nothing else, Gerald Brennan’s first two entries in what will hopefully be a continuing series will get most space geeks addicted to this new genre of alternate history story. Happy reading!

You can buy Zero Phase in Kindle or paperback editions here. You can buy Public Loneliness in Kindle or paperback editions here.