Archive for the ‘astronauts’ Category

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.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Last week, on Wednesday, March 11th, Orbital ATK conducted a successful static test fire of one of the solid propellant rocket motors that will be used for the SLS rocket.

The next day, on the 12th, the Soyuz carrying Butch Wilmore, Elena Serova, and Alexander Samokutyaev returned to Earth. Check out these incredible pictures of their descent and landing. Looks like it was a beautiful (cold) day in Kazakhstan.

With Butch and crew on the ground, Expedition 43 is underway with only three crew members onboard – Terry Virts, Samantha Cristoforetti, and Anton Shkaplerov. They are a good trio to have onboard together, as they are all very active on Twitter, providing us awesome views of Earth from on orbit! However, they will be joined very shortly by Scott Kelly, Gennady Padalka, and Mikhail Korniyenko who are launching next Friday, March 27th.

On March 18th, many space fans celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first ever spacewalk, conducted by Alexei Leonov on the Voskhod 2 mission.

Leonov is 80 years old, and did a press circuit for the occassion!

In less fun news, there has been a lot of talk about a couple of space-related hearings in Washington, D.C. that happened earlier this month. Let me break it down into the biggest talking points for you:

1. On March 4th, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden appeared before the “House Appropriations Committee” for a budget hearing. Some folks latched on to a discussion between Bolden and Congressman John Culbertson about whether NASA has a plan for ISS if Russia decides to no longer participate. Given that the program is a joint venture that depends on both parties, it seems to me like an unfair premise.

2. On March 12th, Bolden appeared before the “Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness”. One of the big takeaways was Bolden’s comments about why the Opportunity’s rover’s budget is being cancelled in 2016. The Planetary Society has a pretty good explanation of why that is a bad idea.

3. In the same hearing, Bolden was asked by Texas Senator Ted Cruz why NASA spends so much time on Earth science instead of exploring space. Of course, Earth science is part of NASA’s core mission. Parabolic Arc explains why Ted Cruz doesn’t seem to know what he is talking about.

4. Lastly, the senate held an “Army and Air Force hearing” on March 18th. There was some discussion about the RD-180 engine issues (see my earlier post) and whether the Air Force could provide a replacement by the 2019 deadline. USAF and ULA officials say it is not possible. Some of the senators scolded that no progress has been made. However, Aerojet recently conducted a test of their new AR1 engine, which may be a starting point for a replacement.

In Orbit

I will optimistically put this news in the “in orbit” section: with bids on the CRS-2 (commercial resupply services) contract due, both Lockheed Martin and Sierra Nevada have been promoting their ideas for how to get cargo to and from the ISS. Lockheed Martin has a unique design involving a reusable cargo ferry that stays in orbit and transfers cargo to a rocket stage with a robotic arm. Sierra Nevada is proposing an unmanned variant of their Dreamchaser spaceplane, which recently lost out on the ISS crew transfer contract (CCtCAP).

Speaking of ISS cargo, NASA has extended the contracts with SpaceX and Orbital ATK by a few additional flights in 2017 to close the gap between CRS and CRS-2.

Alright, back to the fun stuff. Up in space, the pretty pictures from the ISS crew just keep on coming:

Today there is a total solar eclipse in the Northern Atlantic and Arctic. Hopefully the astronauts can get some views from the ISS! In fact, Cristoforetti just posted the below picture just a few minutes ago, as I write this.

Around the Solar System

Recent observations of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede using the Hubble Space Telescope confirms the presence of a sub-surface ocean. Wicked.

Meanwhile, Cassini has discovered evidence or hydrothermal activity below the surface of Saturn’s moon, Enceladus.

The MAVEN spacecraft has discovered ultraviolet aurora at Mars.

Out There

There is a new nova in the constellation Sagittarius bright enough to see with binoculars. It was too cloudy this morning in Houston to spot it but I will keep looking!

2015 in space: the year of ______

In my first post looking back on 2014 in space, I discussed how the year in spaceflight might be remembered. A few major events happened that may stick in the public’s mind – Rosetta/Philae’s comet encounter and the first Orion capsule launch. For the average person, that may be all they remember from last year. Definitely not a banner year for space, although the world rightly celebrated the triumph of landing on a comet for the first time. So not a bad year either. Overall, as I concluded in that earlier post, 2014 was a building year. For those of us who pay closer attention to space news, 2014 was also a year to worry about policy, budgets, and the future of the launch sector, as I wrote about in my second post.

While 2014 was a building year, 2015 looks to be a year of action. Action that goes beyond just NASA and extends to the “New Space” sector, as SpaceX plows forward aggressively, Virgin Galactic attempts to regroup from last year’s tragedy, and some lesser-knowns like XCOR might have their first flights.

2015 looks to be an exciting year. The question is not whether it will be an exciting or busy year, but rather, what will grab the public’s attention more? Will the old childlike excitement over new discoveries be stirred up by NASA’s ambitious missions arriving at Pluto and the asteroid Ceres? Or will the sexy sleek SpaceX rockets – launching ever more frequently – grab the most headlines?

The Year of the Dwarf Planet?

This will be a big year for NASA’s planetary science program. 2014 had a lot of great action at Mars. Unfortunately, Mars has a “been there, done that” tone for the general public (perhaps the 2015 release of Ridley Scott’s The Martian will help turn that around?). Mars makes headlines if there is a daring rover landing or a manned mission, or of course if we discovered life. Otherwise, Mars is cool, but not front page cool. ESA’s Philae landing on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko proved that robotic exploration is still front page cool, but that it takes a new destination these days. That’s exactly why 2015 is exciting. Two robotic missions launched almost a decade ago will rendezvous with their destinations: two unexplored worlds, both newly classified as “dwarf planets” back in 2006. There’s a whole new category of world out there which we will get to see for the first time this year.

As I write this, the Dawn spacecraft is mere days away from the March 6th rendezvous with dwarf planet Ceres, king of the asteroid belt. Dawn will go into orbit around the asteroid, where it will stay for the rest of its mission. The popular space blogs have already been getting pretty excited about the high(er) resolution images coming back from the probe, including mysterious bright spots in a crater. Could they be ice geysers? Or something else unexpected?

Latest view of Ceres from Dawn (courtesy: NASA)

Much farther from home, the New Horizons probe is now only months away from a July flyby of distant dwarf planet Pluto. New Horizons was launched in 2006; so long ago that the probe was actually launched before the International Astronomical Union (IAU) made its controversial decision to change the definition of “planet.” Of course, this sets up for the pithy quip that the probe took so long to get there that when it left, Pluto was a planet! I suppose we will be hearing that line a lot more, come July.

The public loves Pluto. So much so that it make front page news back in 2006 just due to a classification debate. I have no doubt that the public will get pretty excited over the upcoming encounter. The mission has all the drama a good space rendezvous needs: the promise of views of a new world and new discoveries with the very real danger of the probe being destroyed by some rogue undiscovered moon. Success or failure, it’s a win-win for the media. People love the tension.

If rendezvous goes well for both Dawn and New Horizons, the American public will be reminded how exciting it is to discover new worlds. That excitement can likely be funneled by NASA and organizations like The Planetary Society into support for future missions like the Europa Clipper. 2015 is a chance for NASA’s crown jewel, planetary science, to take center stage.

The Year of SpaceX?

Unfortunately for NASA, Dawn and New Horizons may get overshadowed by the new kid on the block. Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) stands poised to have their busiest year yet. Their manifest calls for somewhere between 12 and 18 launches in 2015. SpaceX only launched 3 rockets in 2013 and doubled that to 6 in 2014. With 3 launches already this year as of March 2nd, I am starting to believe they can double their launch rate again this year.

Of course, a bunch of rocket launches isn’t by definition more exciting than the first flyby of Pluto or Ceres. The reason NASA stands to get overshadowed is the story of SpaceX. SpaceX isn’t just another rocket company out for profit – they are a product of one billionaire’s crazy vision of the future. And 13 years after their founding, with thousands of employees and billion dollar government contracts, the company has somehow stayed focused on their longterm goals. Other startups with dreams of Mars have been called “scams”. Meanwhile, SpaceX has proven their technical expertise with the reliability of their Falcon 9 rocket and has become a major player in the industry, continuing to snap up government and private launch contracts. Sexy rockets, an eccentric billionaire, and dreams of Mars. Usually the news is full of negative stories – airplane crashes, war, corrupt politicians, police brutality, racial tensions – but SpaceX is exactly the kind of positive story people love. And SpaceX has manages to hook us in by being just transparent enough to make us take them seriously, but also keep us guessing. For instance, the SpaceX twitter feed was fairly silent through much of December as they tried to launched their fifth resupply flight to ISS. Then 6 days after this launch they posted this incredible Vine of their failure to land the first stage safely on their autonomous drone ship. I don’t know about you, but I’ve watched it about a thousand times.

Besides a record number of launches, here are a few of the things SpaceX is planning to do this year:

  • four missions to resupply the International Space Station
  • build a new hangar and launch tower for crew launches in Florida
  • build a new spaceport near South Padre Island in Texas
  • pad abort tests for new Dragon V2
  • land a rocket on an autonomous drone ship (minus the explosion)
  • the first demo launch of the new Falcon Heavy rocket

New Space has been on a slow crawl for years, full of promise but few results. With Virgin Galactic likely out of commission for at least many more months and no planned launches in the Google Lunar X Prize competition until 2016, SpaceX is seemingly alone in the New Space business – at least as far as going to space is concerned. All the buzz about mining asteroids, billionaire funded flybys of Mars, and crowd-sourced space missions seems to have faded into the background noise. A lot of people seem to have the attitude of “I’ll believe it when I see it,” myself included. But even the cynics and naysayers have to be impressed by SpaceX’s continued progress. If they can achieve most of their goals for this year while continuing to fly safely and reliably, it just might be the year of SpaceX.

The Year of ISS?

As if dwarf planets and SpaceX aren’t enough, I think there is a third possibility for the biggest story of 2015. In fact, it made front page news before 2015 even started. In case you missed it, here was the cover of Time for their “2015: the year ahead” issue.

Scott Kelly Time cover

What’s the big deal? Astronauts have been living and working on the ISS non-stop since November 2000. The following major world events have all happened with a continuous human presence in space (from Futuretimeline.net and Wikipedia): George Bush sworn in, terrorist attack on 9/11/01, iPod launched, iPhone launched, Space Shuttle Columbia lost, invasion of Iraq, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, three summer Olympic Games, four FIFA World Cup Finals, the Great Recession, Barack Obama sworn in, Burj Khalifa constructed, two new Popes, and all 7 Harry Potter films released.

Ok, maybe I got a little carried away. The point is, astronauts living and working on the ISS is nothing new. Even the story of the Kelly twins – a major focus of the Time issue – is not new. Scott Kelly already commanded the ISS once during Expedition 26 and Mark Kelly, husband of Gabby Giffords, commanded STS-134. But just like the two NASA probes visiting new worlds this year, Scott Kelly’s missions is new territory for NASA. His stay aboard the ISS of almost a year will beat the next longest flight by an American by over four months. America loves a hero figures and pioneers. So when Commander Kelly got a personal invitation to the State of the Union Address, he got the biggest ovation of the night.

Having a single human face to connect with the space program this year may bring more attention to NASA than we have seen in a while. Only half a decade ago, the ISS was thought of by a good segment of the space community as a “white elephant” that sucked up money and the public largely didn’t know it existed (or would be reminded and then promptly forget). Now the ISS is featured in major motion pictures like Gravity and video games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. NASA public affairs has embraced social media and at least one member of every space station crew regularly tweets stunning views and thoughts from space. When school kids or the morning news shows get to interview the astronauts on ISS, no one ever asks “is the space station a waste of money?” Instead they ask, “what is it like?”

Scott Kelly won’t be the only famous face people will connect with the ISS this year. In September 2015 the next space tourist, Sarah Brightman, will launch to the ISS as part of a “ferry crew”. She will spend less than 2 weeks in space while crews and Soyuz capsules are shuffled on the ISS – Scott Kelly’s long stay will mess up the regular and predictable 4 month cycle of 3-person crews. Brightman will be the first tourist on the ISS since Guy Laliberte in 2009. While she is not exactly a household name, people love to talk about rich people and the expensive things they buy. What is more glamorous than paying your way into space? A human story is just what NASA needs to bring attention to the ISS, and NASA has two of those stories this year. If Mark Kelly is open to media interviews while he goes through the same experiments as his brother, it may even make an interesting recurring story in the media, if it gets picked up. It could be a big story – or maybe the ISS was only front page news for one week at the beginning of the year? We will have to wait and see!

Conclusion

Of course, there is a lot more that might happen this year. The XCOR Lynx spaceplane may take flight finally; Virgin Galactic may return to flight; Curiosity may continue to build a case for organics on Mars; the Philae lander may wake up as comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko approaches the sun. Going in to 2014, it was predictable that the Rosetta mission and Philae lander would be a big story. But nobody predicted that 2014 would be largely remembered for two major spaceflight accidents, nor that a lot of sweat would be spent on the impacts to the launch sector from deteriorating international relations in Eastern Europe.

Although the unexpected may happen, I’m kind of hoping for a predictable year with lots of success and increasing media and public attention. I want to learn some new and surprising things about Ceres and Pluto while also checking Twitter every day for some stunning Earth views posted by Commander Kelly. I want to see thousands of people flock to the Space Coast for an on time launch of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

Space exploration of all kinds is a great positive endeavor for us to share as a society, especially as a seemingly improving economy opens up space in our culture to look outward. I think a good year in all sectors of spaceflight could lead to even more bipartisan support of manned and robotic exploration alike in the NASA budget, and we can start to see a way out of the woods towards a clear space policy. Or I could be wrong, and distractions like the upcoming 2016 US presidential election could keep us in limbo for a while longer. What I like about the future is that anything is possible. Either way, I get to find out what those bright spots on Ceres are in just 4 days. Are you excited too?

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Some good stuff from NASA’s astronaut office this week. First, the members of ISS Expeditions 48, 49, and 50 were announced. The crews have some veterans such as Jeffrey Williams and Peggy Whitson but also some rookies such as Katie Rubins and Takuya Onishi. Then, the Expedition 45 crew gave us this awesome mission promo poster.

Arianespace scooped some recent commercial launch contracts that SpaceX probably would have liked to win. Interestingly, the two companies each won 7 new contracts last year.

Items from a long-forgotten bag of odds and ends from the Apollo 11 mission are on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The bag was found in Neil Armstrong’s closet by his widow. You can’t make this stuff up!

In Orbit

It has been a busy week in space! On Tuesday, SpaceX brought home a Dragon capsule from the ISS and then a day later launched another Falcon 9 rocket, this time with NOAA’s DSCOVR spacecraft. The launch was at just about sunset making for some great pictures, which are all over the internet: Spaceflight Now has some good ones, or you can just browse Twitter.

Also on Wednesday, ESA launched a Vega rocket on a suborbital test mission of a small reusable spaceplane-like spacecraft (technically a “lifting body”). Watch how fast this rocket jumps off the pad!

The excitement extended into the weekend, with the departure of ESA’s last ATV cargo vehicle from ISS this morning. Here is the final status report from the ATV mission manager from prior to undocking. Unfortunately, the undocking was during orbital night so it is hard to find any good pictures. Here you can see ATV’s navigation lights shining in the darkness.

Next week a new Progress cargo vehicle will launch from Kazakhstan taking ATV’s place at the aft port of ISS. Then late in the week, Barry Wilmore and Terry Virts will step outside on the first of three upcoming spacewalks.

With such a busy and memorable week for ESA, it would be remiss of me not to share their Week in Images post!

And of course Terry and Samantha continue to take amazing photos of the Earth and post them quickly on Twitter for us to enjoy! Here is your weekly selection:

Around the Solar System

As always, the rover Opportunity is slowly trudging along on Mars. She is approaching “Marathon Valley,” the point where her odometer will reach 26.2 miles. At over 11 years, her time won’t break any records; but she sure is determined.

Because it’s Cool

Two new episodes of Phil Plait’s Crash Course Astronomy are up!

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

February 2nd is “budget day”: when NASA will announce the preliminary 2016 budget request for the agency as proposed by the White House.

Rookie European astronaut Andreas Mogensen has been posting video blogs of his training for launch. The latest entry is posted from Moscow and focuses on the Sokol spacesuit which is worn in the Soyuz.

The European Space Agency has a new unmanned spaceplane they plan to launch on a technology demonstration on February 11th. The IXV, or Intermediate Experimental Vehicle, has been undergoing launch preparations at the launch site in French Guinea.

Speaking of ESA, here’s their Week In Images, which is always a good click.

SpaceX has announced in a statement on their website that they are essentially dropping their lawsuit against the U.S. Air Force over the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) contract which awarded 36 rocket launches to United Launch Alliance (ULA). SpaceX and USAF have apparently made a deal which allows USAF to honor current contracts with ULA but also work to certify SpaceX’s rockets soon and open competition to them for future payloads.

SpaceX also released a new animation to stir up excitement for the first test flight of their Falcon Heavy rocket later this year.

And in the last SpaceX news from last week, the company completed a static fire test on the launch pad in Florida in preparation for their next launch on February 8.

The Planetary Society has secured a launch aboard an Atlas V rocket this May for their LightSail solar sailing prototype. I am super excited for this mission! Check out this great video explaining the spacecraft.

In Orbit

Last week Wednesday, the ISS did a “deboost”, or an orbital correction maneuver to slow/lower the orbit. Usually we do reboosts to keep the orbit higher as the ISS is slowly degraded due to drag. In this particular case, the trajectory officers found a deboost the best solution for upcoming trajectory needs, and we had the extra propellant that we could afford it. I was lucky enough to be assigned the early morning shift on Wednesday to command the OPM (Optimized Propellant Maneuver) to spin the ISS around in preparation for the burn – which went well later in the day.

ISS astronauts got some nice photography of the blizzard that hit the US east coast last week:

And here is a selection of a few other great shots from ISS over the last week. If you want to follow Twitter posts from the ISS, follow my list, “people in space,” which I will always have updated with any astronauts who are tweeting from ISS.

Three launches occurred in the last week, bringing this year’s total up to 5 launches. NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) Earth-observing satellite was the third launch of the year – and third from the US – but almost didn’t beat a Japanese launch and then a Russian launch due to a scrub first for weather and then for technical issues. They finally got off the ground from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Saturday morning. Here’s a video.

The other two launches were this morning, Sunday, February 1st. Japan launches a spy satellite on an H-2A rocket (the same rocket that sends the HTV cargo vehicle to ISS) and Russia launched a communications satellite on a Proton rocket from Kazakhstan. This was the 5th successful Proton flight since their most recent failure last May.

Around the Solar System

Newly released high resolution images from the Rosetta spacecraft reveal a rather large crack in the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Could the comet split in two when it gets closer to the sun? Exciting!

The image release also included some new shots of the Philae lander descending to the comet from the perspective of the orbiter.

Last Monday a rather large asteroid named 2004 BL86 flew by the Earth at about 3 lunar distances (750,000 miles). The asteroid is 325 meters (1,066 feet) in diameter and has a tiny moon! Check out this radar imagery from NASA’s Goldstone antenna:

As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft gets closer and closer to the solar system’s largest asteroid, Ceres, it is now returning images of the world that are better than what Hubble has shown us in the past.

Pop Space

Adidas is releasing a spacesuit-inspired shoe.

Phil Plait’s Crash Course Astronomy Episode 3 is up:

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Elon Musk released photos on his Twitter feed of the moment that the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket first stage hit their “autonomous spaceport drone ship” (see, barge) and blew up. This occurred a few minutes after the launch of the latest Dragon resupply craft last Saturday. It seems like they hit their target but came in too hard. Maybe better luck on their next flight in a couple of weeks.

Update: Just a little while after I wrote this post, the SpaceX twitter account posted this amazing Vine video.

NASA completed a “hot fire” test of the new RS-25 liquid fueled engine at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The RS-25 is a modified Space Shuttle main engine which will power the SLS.

Much noise has been made about Ted Cruz (R-TX) being assigned to a US Senate subcommittee that oversees the budget of NASA. The main concern is that Cruz is considered anti-science. At the very least, he is anti-science when it comes to climate research, which NASA supports with a fleet of Earth-observering satellites. Houston Chronicle has the best analysis I have seen of what impact Cruz may actually have on the NASA budget. If you are concerned about this topic, you should read Eric Berger’s post. Here’s a longer more technical analysis at Space Policy Online.

Virgin Galactic is teaming up with a small satellite company known as OneWeb to launch a large constellation of satellites to bring broadband internet to the entire world. Replacement satellites will be launched by the LauncherOne rocket dropped from Virgin’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.

There is an idea floating of a new reality show which would be a competition between inventors and scientists to get their research flown to ISS. Sounds cool!

In Orbit

Two big things happened on the ISS this week. on Monday, the latest SpaceX Dragon resupply craft arrived. This was the first cargo delivery to ISS from the US since the loss of an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket in October. There was one Russian Progress resupply flight back in November.

The SpaceX flight was quickly overshadowed by an emergency alarm onboard the ISS on Wednesday morning. The alarm was for a toxic leak of ammonia, which cools the space station avionics hardware in fluid loops on the outside of ISS. In certain failure cases (for which there is multiple layers of redundancy to prevent) the ammonia can break into the internal fluid lines (which carry water) and endanger the astronauts.

Ground teams and the astronauts took immediate safety actions, as we train for hours and hours for, and evacuated to the Russian side of the space station, which does not have ammonia coolant lines. The emergency alarm was eventually determined to be false, caused by a computer glitch, and the astronauts were allowed to open the hatch to the rest of the station late in the day on Wednesday.

While the astronauts are safe, cleanup from such a major (potential) failure takes some time because of all of the automatic safing software that shut down ISS systems on Wednesday. The Flight Control Team will still be diligently working towards bringing the ISS back to “nominal” during my evening shifts this weekend.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s New Horizons probe has technically begun science operations for its Pluto encounter, although it is still more than 100 million miles from Pluto.

The long-lost Beagle 2 lander has been found on Mars by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The lander was lost during EDL phase (Entry, Descent, and Landing) back in 2003, which was a huge disappointment to the United Kingdom’s space agency. Incredibly, although the world had assumed that Beagle 2 crashed into the surface – hence the loss of communication – the MRO images show the lander safely on the surface, partially deployed. In honor of deceased mission designer John Pillinger, I think this image deserves an update to show that Beagle 2 made it to the surface.

Check out this colorized view from Opportunity on the summit of Cape Tribulation. Image processing done by @mars_stu at his blog The Road to Endeavour (click to embiggen, of course).

Opportunity at Cape Tribulation (credit: NASA/JPL processed by Stuart Atkinson)

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The Chinese rocket that launched on December 31st was only carrying a Chinese weather satellite – not super exciting. But check out these incredible images of the first stage of that rocket, which appears to have landed in the middle of a road in a rural Chinese town. I am glad that in the US we have more concern about where our spent rocket stages end up…

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that was supposed to launch to ISS Tuesday is still stuck on the ground. A problem with a hydraulic actuator for the second stage’s Merlin 1D engine lead to a launch scrub. They will try again on Friday, January 9th. Here are some shots of the rocket on the pad.

In a pretty awesome outreach move, Elon Musk did an “Ask Me Anything” hour on the website Reddit on Monday night (on the eve of their launch attempt). Here is the link to the whole thread, or you can read some highlights at Parabolic Arc.

The new SpaceX launch site at the extreme southern coast of Texas is likely going to seem more and more real throughout 2015. Just this week, SpaceX has begun posting job openings for the new location near Brownsville, Texas.

Richard Branson wrote a blog post about his thoughts in the immediate aftermath of the SpaceShipTwo accident, and his continued resolve to move forward with Virgin Galactic. As always, Doug Messier has some excellent commentary and dissects Branson’s writing.

The US Government Accountability Office has denied Sierra Nevada’s protest regarding the awarding of the CCtCap contract for commercial crew flights to ISS. That means that NASA’s decision to fund only SpaceX and Boeing will stand.

In Orbit

The Atlantic had an extensive feature article about the ISS titled “5,200 days in space: an exploration of life aboard the International Space Station, and the surprising reasons the mission is still worthwhile.” It is one of the most compelling stories covering the ISS that I have ever read.

Surprisingly, at about the same time, Time ran a cover article about Scott Kelly, who will be launching in March for his one-year stay aboard the ISS. It is also a very good story that touches on the human side of life in space.

And of course, our friends in orbit continue to dazzle us on Twitter with views from orbit. Here is a sampling.

Around the Solar System

The Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is getting very close to the summit of Cape Tribulation on the rim of Endeavour crater. It amazes me every time I read an update on Opportunity that the mission is still going and still so successful 11 years later! (Edit: and here is a more detailed MER update from the Planetary Society blog)

On the other side of the planet (Mars that is) Curiosity has made some exciting discoveries. The rover has proven the existence of organics in the rocks of Gale crater and also that there is detectable concentrations of methane in Mars’ atmosphere. The methane is important because, due to chemical reactions that must necessarily occur, the methane is transient – meaning something is producing it. A very detailed discussion of this new finding is at the Planetary Society blog. The research was also published in the journal Science.

Out There

The Kepler team announced yesterday that a number of newly confirmed planets (based on old Kepler data) brings the total exoplanets discovered by the space telescope to 1,000. 8 of these new worlds can reasonably be considered “Earth-sized” and even in their stars’ habitable zones. Because we don’t have details on their composition or atmosphere, we can’t actually know how likely it is that life could live on these planets. But, as Phil Plait writes, this is further confirmation that the universe is full of small planets. Eventually, we will find Earth’s twin.

Graphic from JPL-NASA

Because it’s cool

This creative short film titled “Shoot for the Moon”:

New footage from the Marianas Trench documents the deepest known fish. An alien world in its own way.