Archive for the ‘Benefits of Spaceflight’ Category

2016 In Review – Part I

2015 year in review posts: Part I and Part II.

2014 year in review posts: Part I and Part II.

2013 year in review posts: Part I and Part II.

Part I – Exploration

Spaceflight, as a many-hundred billion-dollar sector, is a broad and complex industry. Even if we focus in on “exploration” – which is the primary focus of this blog – so that we can ignore military and commercial uses of Earth orbit, we are still left with a global list of activities, studies, missions, and companies. This means there is a lot of stuff going on. 2016 was a busy year with many exciting missions from several different countries. This diversity is great, but makes it hard to boil down the events of last year into a coherent story. Even within NASA, we have the ISS program, with its own highs and lows, and the totally separate and just as successful planetary science portfolio of missions. Those missions keep on going, regardless of whether the most recent cargo delivery has made it to our astronauts in orbit, for instance. Meanwhile, in China, the CNSA is continuing to grow as a nascent space power with new rockets, new launch sites, and a brand new space station. Then there’s Russia, Japan, Europe, India, and more. If any theme can be found at all in the events of last year it is that space exploration continues to be a diverse and global endeavor. Putting any nationalism aside, this should give us hope that despite the ups and downs of the economies or space budgets in any given country, that exciting times lie ahead.

It’s hard to start a summary of 2016 in spaceflight without acknowledging that the United States had a major election, with a new President to be inaugurated this week. Any presidential transition leads to uncertainty in the future of government programs, including NASA. Often election years leave the federal government in a continuing resolution. A continuing resolution means that Congress has yet to pass a budget for the year. This leaves NASA and other agencies working under last year’s budget levels, with no increase for inflation or otherwise. The election was a big story for the country in a lot of ways, but NASA and its programs are most likely to feel the effects in 2017, as it tries to continue with business as usual as it waits for new priorities and a new budget.

While 2017 may bring about change (or not), 2016 was another good year for NASA’s flagship space exploration missions. NASA had no major failures last year, just the usual hiccups and challenges (space is hard, after all) and even launched a new planetary exploration mission: OSIRIS-REX, which is on its way to visit an asteroid in 2023. In fact, last year showed that NASA is still a clear leader in planetary exploration, with probes in action all over the solar system. The NASA fleet at Mars remains strong, with two rovers on the surface and two probes in orbit. New Horizons received a mission extension and is on its way to a Kuiper Belt Object rendezvous in a few years. Meanwhile, the probe Juno made orbit at Jupiter and started scientific observations. Unfortunately, Juno has some sticky propellant valves and missed some of its early science orbits when it entered “safe mode.” Fortunately, the probe was brought out of safe mode and completed a Jupiter flyby in December. Most of the probe’s 20-month mission is ahead. Hopefully Juno’s worst days are in the past! Out at Saturn, NASA is still operating the Cassini probe, which has been in orbit since 2004. Sadly, 2017 will see the end of Cassini, as it destroys itself in dramatic fashion, with a dive into Saturn’s atmosphere.

Two other planetary missions of note from other countries had some action last year. ExoMars (a joint mission between ESA and Russia) launched and made it to Mars. However, its companion lander, Schiaparelli, was unable to make it safely to the Martian surface and crash-landed. Thus, NASA remains the sole space agency to have safely brought a spacecraft to the surface of Mars… having done so seven times. Of course, we shouldn’t forget that the Soviet Union is the only country to have ever landed a probe on Venus! A feat which has not been repeated since 1982, and does not appear to be repeated any time soon, as most space agencies focus on asteroids and the outer solar system in their planetary science missions. Venus is not forgotten though, as Japan was able to begin doing science with their Akatsuki orbiter at Venus last year.

Following the theme of “space is hard,” Japan had a pretty devastating failure when their new X-ray telescope Astro-H, or Hitomi, went out of contact after reaching orbit. Fortunately, Japan already has a strong space program and seems mature and professional enough to learn from their mistakes – they released a failure report very quickly after the accident. They currently have an asteroid sample return mission, Hayabusa 2, en route to its target in 2018, which we should all be very excited about. NASA has a strong relationship with JAXA, and will be curating the Hayabusa samples here at the Johnson Space Center when they return.

In human space exploration, the story continues to be the International Space Station. The ISS had an exciting year, partly because NASA and ESA continue to send charismatic astronauts who manage to make the mission feel very personal to all of us following back on Earth. It was a great year for following astronauts on Twitter, including Jeff Williams, Kate Rubins, Tim Kopra, Tim Peake, Scott Kelly, Shane Kimbrough, Thomas Pesquet, and Peggy Whitson. It’s hard to see how this trend will do anything but accelerate, as it’s a cheap and easy way for NASA to connect with the American public and share its mission. Scott Kelly of course returned from space early in the year and retired from NASA on a high note. Since the “year in space” was such a success, both operationally and as a public affairs bonanza, it seems likely NASA will want to try more longer duration expeditions in the future.

On the more nuts and bolts side of things for the ISS, all major mission events went well last year, with both the arrival and installation of the new IDA2 docking adapter and the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). BEAM is an exciting demonstration of where human habitability in Earth orbit may be able to go in the future with inflatable structures. It is exciting to think that the technology may spinoff a private-public partnership with either or both of the companies Bigelow and Axiom to expand the ISS with new large inflatable modules in the future.

The ISS did face some minor setbacks of its own, although not quite as dramatic as in more recent years. Two rocket failures impacted ISS logistics: the SpaceX explosion on the pad in Florida in September and the loss of a Russian Progress resupply mission in December. The good news for NASA was that the SpaceX failure was not an ISS mission, but it meant a delay to the next planned resupply flight of a Dragon capsule, now scheduled for February. ISS is well stocked on supplies thanks to a Japanese resupply mission that also flew in December and the Orbital ATK Antares rocket returning to flight status in October. Even with both Japanese and American rockets able to keep ISS supplied, having the Russian Soyuz rocket family grounded must always make mission managers uneasy. After all, it is the same rocket family that failed in December that also delivers crews to the station. We are not in uncharted territory, as expedition schedules were in limbo after similar accidents in 2011 and 2015. But the ups and downs of the launch vehicle sector are a continual challenge not only for NASA’s ISS program but for dreamers who envision hundreds of people at a time into deep space for colonization. ISS truly is the foothold where we must learn first, and is a great proving ground for those dreamers.

The ISS accounts for over 2,000 person days of space experience a year. The day-in and day-out slog of operating an aging orbital laboratory and learning to live there is slowly but surely preparing us for what comes next. This experience is shared by a partnership of 15 nations (USA, Canada, Russia, Japan, and 11 countries from ESA). However, the rising nation of China finds itself on the outside. Just like in many other sectors, China is finding its own way in space. Last year was a good one for the China National Space Agency (CNSA). Not only did they launch a brand new space station, Tiangong-2 and send a crew of 2 on a 30-day mission to the outpost, they also debuted a brand new Long March 5 heavy lift launcher while matching the US in successful launches on the year – twenty-two. A new medium-lift rocket, Long March 7, also debuted from a new coastal spaceport on Hainan Island, which should give CNSA more flexibility. CNSA’s recent white paper publically published outlining their five-year plan shows ambition but also should be a douse of cold water on people expecting a space race between China and the USA. China certainly has a lot to be proud of as only the third independent nation to place humans in space. But they have a long way to go to put themselves on par with the modern space programs in America and elsewhere. I look forward to their planned lunar sample return mission in 2017, which will give them a lot of “street cred” if they pull it off!

Obviously these are not the only happenings in space exploration and related science areas. I could go on about the exciting developments in exoplanet astronomy, a field that may provide worlds to explore decades or centuries from now, for example. We continue to live in a golden age of space exploration that started with the Galileo probe to Jupiter in the early 90s. For me, 2016 was a testament to the true diversity of the state of space exploration and should serve as a reminder to avoid tunnel vision. There are many facets to how we explore. It’s not just about shiny new rockets and capsules and astronauts, but its also not just about gathering science through a space telescope or a distant robotic probe. All these pieces fit together to move forward the state of our knowledge about the universe together. One of my favorite examples of this from last year was astronaut Kate Rubins’ work on gene sequencing while aboard the ISS. Talk about two sectors that do not traditionally intersect, at least not in the minds of the general public. Diversity – both in the space agencies doing the exploration as well as the type of exploration – will keep the dream alive. I can’t wait to see what we do on ISS this year but I also look forward to news out of China and India as they learn what it takes to fly in space.

The biggest problem with keeping up this steady cadence of exploration is how all these space agencies will pay for it, as the world faces challenging fiscal and security issues. Space is exciting – and important – but it is far from the first priority when it comes to setting budgets in most parts of the world. Fortunately, we have disruptive new players in the launch sector that can help us keep costs down. More on that in my next post.

Lean on me

Last Thursday night, I stayed up late like many space fans to watch a “routine” Russian Progress cargo launch to the ISS. This was the 60th flight of a Progress to ISS, clearly a very reliable way to get cargo up there, given that only two previous missions had failed in their objective. But, one of those failures came only about 9 weeks prior, and just 6 days prior a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket also failed to reach orbit. So despite the apparently reliability of both the Progress vehicle and the Soyuz rocket family, the spaceflight world was on “pins and needles” as Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle put it.

There seemed to be a theme in the general mood last Thursday about being glad that Russia was able to have a successful launch, but regret that Russia is the country that had to save the day.

This mood is not surprising. Since the last Space Shuttle mission 4 years ago, America’s astronauts have only flown to space on Russian Soyuz capsules. And of course, there are political reasons – unrelated to spaceflight and ISS – that makes people wary to have close ties with the Russian government right now. The loss of two American unmanned flights to ISS in the last year highlights what is an apparently lopsidedness between NASA and Roscosmos when it comes to flying to space.

This whole situation causes the patriot to come out in a lot of people, which is also understandable. Americans have grown accustomed over the last 50 years to NASA being top dog in space. We want our astronauts launching from Florida, not Asia (much harder road trip) and we don’t want our tax dollars going to Russia either. This all makes sense, and I agree. We should all be excited for American space companies being successful, and the commercial crew flights from Boeing and SpaceX can’t come soon enough. Nevertheless, the narrative that somehow Russia has the upper hand is misplaced and frankly doesn’t make sense to me.

This is the narrative that has been a great political point in Washington ever since the end of the Shuttle program but has been used even more over the last year. The phrases people use are that we are “hitching rides” with the Russians or that we are “dependent on” the Russians. Some people are implying that this means the Russians have some sort of power over us. That they are somehow in control of the ISS program politically, and could use it as a bargaining chip if they wanted. In fact, last year Russian Deputy Prime Minister seemed to think that as well when he said that the US should “use a trampoline” to get to space and I even saw a blog article titled “No, Russia did not just kick the US out of the Space Station.”

What I would like to propose is an alternate perspective based up on a more nuanced consideration of what goes on in a partnership. Perhaps the politicians, including Rogozin, do not understand the nuances of what each member country really contributes to the ISS. Yes, right now we are “dependent” upon the Russians Soyuz launch vehicle to get to the ISS. But there is more to operating a giant space station than just getting up there.

Consider my wife (no seriously, stay with me here). Two weeks ago she fractured her right leg playing soccer and has been in a cast. She hasn’t been able to drive, so has been “dependent” on me to get around. I am her only way to work (kind of like the Russian Soyuz is the astronaut’s only way to work). Does this mean I have some kind of power over my wife? Yes, temporarily, but it wouldn’t make sense to exploit that power for a few reasons. The obvious one being that she is my wife and I’m not a jerk, but for the purposes of my analogy, let’s consider the others: while she is dependent on me for transportation and some chores around the house, I am dependent on her for companionship, love, conversation, and wardrobe ideas, not to mention she helps us pay the bills with her equally cool job at NASA! Like any balanced partnership, there is much more going on than just who can drive the car to work. And of course, the cast will come off in about another week and my period of apparent power will be over. What would it gain for our marriage in the longterm for me to somehow use the fact that I have to drive her around to get something I want?

The more I think about it, the more I think this is exactly like the relationship of NASA and Roscosmos in the ISS program right now. Whether you agree or disagree with the decision to retire the Space Shuttle in 2011, it happened and cannot be undone, leaving us in a period of a few years during which astronauts will not be launching from American soil. But we are not in this space business alone anymore. The open-mindedness of the politicians and NASA management who went ahead with the ISS program over 20 years ago has put us in the unique situation of being able to keep our astronauts flying during our period of weakness, if you want to call it that.

But we are not weak. We invented the modern concept of Mission Control and continue to operate the ISS – and the odd Orion flight – from the Johnson Space Center, day in and day out. America has fully seven manned spacecraft* of some type or another in development right now. We operate the critical US Orbital Segment of the ISS without which the ISS could not function. Anyone who thinks it would be a technically simple thing to do for the Russians to “kick us out” and keep the ISS functioning without us (even if such a political move was likely, which I doubt) either doesn’t understand the International Space Station, or is oversimplifying the situation in favor of their politics.

Russia provides critical access to the ISS right now via the Soyuz spacecraft, as well as propulsive support and propellant resupply with the Progress spacecraft. However, just as critical, the USOS provides non-propulsive attitude control with the CMGs, so that the propellant doesn’t get used up so fast that it would be impossible to resupply in time. Also, over half an acre of solar panels on the US segment are needed to power those CMGs – not to mention we ship some of those kilowatts to the Russian Segment, since it has grown too big for its own solar panels over the years.

I could go on. Much of the redundancy of the ISS is built specifically around the concept that the backup system is on the other segment. Sometimes the cosmonauts are even assigned to sleeping quarters in Node 2, on the USOS. The ISS was designed as a partnership from the beginning and our joint interest in continuing our own individual legacies in spaceflight, which has now become a joint legacy, would prevent pretty much anything short of a complete diplomatic breakdown from causing either party to pull out of the program, because it would likely mean doom for the station itself.

So, before you go off on a rant about how its too bad that America is “dependent” on the Russians to get to space, think about whether we should be grateful we are willing to work together despite geopolitical tensions. Perhaps we should be grateful that twice in our time of need, after the loss of an Orbital rocket last year and a SpaceX rocket last month, they quickly launched a Progress resupply vehicle to restock the International Space Station. Perhaps we should be grateful that instead of our astronaut corps being grounded, like it was for 6 years between Apollo-Soyuz and STS-1, that our astronauts continue to fly in space and that our teams on the ground continue to hone their skills as we wait for the big adventures to come with Orion and beyond.

I don’t think we should let the politics and the nationalism overshadow what is really going on here. The International Space Station is just that, international. So to get bent out of shape over sharing rides is kind of counter to the whole point of the thing. Our access to space, to the ISS, is assured specifically because of the redundancy of the partnerships we have built. We have supply lines from America, Russia, and Japan on 4 different rockets. Very soon, our crew access will be from both America and Russia via 3 different rockets. It will be very hard to stop humanity’s access to space at that point. And who knows where we will go from there, together?

Thank you Russia, for letting us lean on you for a little while, as we journey onward.

*Orion, Dragon V2, CST-100, Dreamchaser, SpaceShipTwo, Lynx, New Shepard

2013 in Review – Part I

Hello, and Happy New Year! Thanks for stopping by while you are hopefully enjoying a New Year’s break with friends or family. Last year, my 2012 in Review post was a link style post of discoveries made, missions launched, and heroes lost throughout the year. Reading that post again, it doesn’t give a real feel for the lay of the land, or the lay of space, if you will. Therefore, in the spirit of New Year Resolutions, this year I resolve to spend some extra effort and write a more op-ed style summary of 2013. So read on to get my impression of the triumphs, losses, and curiosities of 2013 as I see them.

Part I – NASA’s present and future

I have never liked the phrase “mixed bag”, but that’s really what the world of spaceflight has been over the past 12 months, especially if you have a balanced interest, as I do, in Earth science, planetary science, manned spaceflight, and commercial development. Space exploration is dominated by NASA and its government-given budget. Therefore, it is hard to ignore the impact of the American government’s indecision and disagreement when it comes to NASA funding, and the impact that has on our industry as a whole. NASA continues to get a relatively flat budget, which stagnates growth. But you can’t begrudge the American government too much for this – most people agree that our federal government should do something about the deficit; all agencies are being asked to do with less. The story of 2013 isn’t that NASA is getting a flat budget, it is specifically how NASA has chosen to distribute that money.

NASA continues to generously fund the growth of commercial resupply missions to ISS as well as the development of a new exploration system consisting of the Orion crew capsule and the SLS rocket. When combined with the annual operating budget of ISS, this exploration funding amounted to around 44% in both 2013 and 2012. We can see the results of this spending in a very successful year for SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (one successful ISS resupply flight each and 3 other combined test flights and no major failures) and the steady progress that the Orion capsule is making towards the first flight next fall. However, on the other side of the agency, Planetary Science has slid from 8.5% to 6.7% of the budget (here is my source for budget numbers). This doesn’t sound like much, but the dollar amount is nearly $300 million less than the planetary science community is used to. What this led to in 2013 is the beginning of the budget squeeze;  it looks as though the coming decade will have far less new planetary science missions than the American public has gotten used to from the golden ages of funding in the 1990s and 2000s. I know you probably like pictures, because I do too, so here’s a chart from the Planetary Society that can help put it into perspective.

NASA planetary science funding over time

As you can see, less money means fewer missions. The reason 2013 was full of great science results and pictures, despite budget woes, is because of the funding that launched so many great spacecraft over the past 10 years – MER rovers, Curosity rover, MESSENGER, Cassini, Juno, New Horizons, all of the Mars orbiters, Dawn, MAVEN, LADEE, LRO. All of these spacecraft were built and launched under an earlier year’s budgets. This highlights the core contradiction of where we found ourselves in 2013 in planetary science. Stunning pictures from Saturn and Mars come in daily from Opportunity, Curiosity, and Cassini, while planetary scientists are very concerned about the future. As NASA funding is funneled into the James Webb Space Telescope and the 2020 Mars rover (both missions I hope to see launched!), the American expertise when it comes to solar system exploration may, for a time, be funneled through the camera lenses of just a few spacecraft.

My intent is not to express an opinion about how much money NASA should get – or even what percentage should be given to planetary science versus other programs – but merely to paint a picture of the internal conflict (and conflict with the public perception of NASA) that started with the budget cuts in 2012 and will continue as long as NASA’s budget remains flat. Just look at this amazing view of Mount Sharp on Mars, from the Curiosity rover, a marvel of science and engineering…

The foothills of Mount Sharp on Mars

The Curiosity rover (and her older sometimes forgotten sister Opportunity) continues to inspire the enthusiast and layman alike. Budget or not, NASA has a mastery of robotic exploration, and demonstrated it in 2013 by continuing to operate missions successfully. NASA did lose two missions in 2013 – Kepler and Deep Impact/EPOXI – but both had technically fulfilled their primary missions.

While planetary science missions are usually the “best foot forward” for NASA, 2013 showed us that the public still loves our astronauts and finds manned spaceflight worthwhile. As I wrote last year, 2012 was the year that NASA’s astronaut office realized the importance and potential of online social media. The active ISS crews in 2013 took this to heart and turned Expeditions 34 and 35 during the first half of the year into an internet sensation, mainly due to the charismatic presence of Commander Chris Hadfield on Youtube and Twitter (here’s a Flickr stream of Hadfield’s mission).

Hadfield was special in that he combined the constant joy of being in space (which is not unique to him at all) with an open and emotional personality, a desire to share, and artistic talent. That last one locked in the “sensation” part. All impressive for someone who is first – professionally – a fighter pilot.

If NASA is crafty, it will take advantage of the enthusiasm for Hadfield and the ISS program before it has time to fade (which I hope it won’t!) and direct it into support for future programs like SLS and Orion and the Asteroid Retrieval and Utilization mission. In case you missed it, the ARU is the plan to send a spacecraft to a Near Earth Asteroid, capture that asteroid, and return it to Earth, all with human astronauts aboard. The ARU was announced by NASA leadership in the spring of 2013. As I wrote about in late April, the plan got somewhat less excitement from the public than was probably hoped.

The problem with ARU, and NASA’s current approach to manned spaceflight overall, is context and an end goal. When asked to explain the initiative this spring, NASA stated that the mission will integrate the best of our science and technology, while utlizing the new Orion and SLS systems, while at the same time keeping “…NASA on target to reach the President’s goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s.” The question is, is NASA’s focus on planetary defense and asteroid deflection or is it just an excuse to test technology for going to Mars? NASA leadership is quoted as saying that Mars is a priority and that the moon is not even being considered. Yet, no clear internal roadmap or guiding set of priorities outlines the timeline and rationale for future exploration missions. Instead it often feels to the public like NASA is searching for missions to justify new hardware, rather than the other way around.

It may very well be that NASA knows where it is going, but is simply in the necessary doldrums. Stuck in between manned launch vehicles (the dreaded “gap”) there is a lack of inspiration for the public. NASA may just need some results, some action, when it comes to these grand future plans, and the public will jump onboard. Orion’s first (unmanned) flight is less than a year away. The Exploration Flight Test (EFT-1) will send Orion up to almost 4,000 miles to test out the heat shield on a blazing fast re-entry. Will this mission inspire and excite? It is possible. It could be that more results and less talk will cause the roadmap to also become more clear. For now, talk is cheap, and that is essentially NASA’s problem – lots of talk, and a cheap government.

Talk is also cheap in the continuously emerging private sector, and yet somehow they seem to inspire somewhat more excitement. I will explore the new private initiatives of 2013, and their impact on the spaceflight industry, in part II of my 2013 year in review.

The surrealism of what we do

Sometimes I see where the moon hoaxers are coming from.

Okay, now that I’ve dropped that bomb (and Phil Plait is mad at me) I’ll explain where I’m coming from.

I had the privilege of working 8 of the last 11 days at a console in the mission control center. Not only that, I will get to work in MCC again for 5 days next week. I hit my hundredth flight control shift sometime late this past summer and I have been certified as an ADCO 2 years this week. My point is, I’ve been doing this a little while, and I still take my camera to work and take pictures like a tourist. Partly because I’m a geek, and partly because I’m still baffled that I get to do what I do.

Tourist or flight controller?

On Tuesday evening I was working as a HawkI* (ADCO’s support position who sits upstairs) on the last shift before Dragon arrived at ISS. The trajectory officer notified us shortly after sunset that ISS and Dragon would be flying over just north of us. Sounded like a good time for a coffee break to us.

“Is she in the right orbit, Joe?” “Sure, Bob. Looks about right.”

ISS was bright and moving fast. If you have never seen a -3 magnitude flyover of ISS, you are missing out. We watched her fly over mostly in silence, until she disappeared behind the control center building. Everyone started going back inside, it seemed we wouldn’t be able to see the SpaceX capsule that night. Everyone was about halfway back to the door when I yelled out “there it is!” A faint point of light was about a minute behind ISS following the same path.

Just because I can see those points of light and know they are two spacecraft in a chase 300 miles above my head doesn’t mean I understand it. The years of training it takes to do this job involves mostly reading word documents and staring at simulated data on a computer screen. Where is the space station in all of that? I know it’s real, and yet, the sensory input I am providing my brain in no way say “you are learning to command an orbiting laboratory moving at 17,000 mph in the near vacuum of orbit.” This is why it is easy to see where the moon hoaxers – or other historical conspiracy theorists – are coming from.

The idea that we organized our efforts to land 12 guys on the moon or build a million pound spacecraft is pretty fantastic. If I didn’t see it, why not assume it is more likely that it’s all made up? One of the arguments used by skeptics against government conspiracy theorists is that our government is not sinister and competent enough to pull off something as vast as a faked Apollo program and cover up. However, I think it might be something of the opposite. NASA’s history of successful programs are exactly a demonstration of what can be achieved by peaceful cooperation and hard work. Perhaps the conspiracy theorists are too cynical to think such a thing could ever be achieved without being botched? Well there’s a million pound laboratory flying over your head every night as proof of what we can achieve.

The ISS and Dragon fly over on Tuesday actually wasn’t the best I’ve ever seen. Last December I was working another evening shift and saw a stunning pass right over head at sunset. She came out of the sunset, passed by Venus, flew over my head for a few minutes and set behind the American flag atop the Mission Control Center. I’m not skilled enough to describe in words how it felt to see that. But on that occasion the reality of what that point of light meant did hit home. But then I thought “who’s flying that thing?!” and had to go back inside.

ISS setting over MCC (look for the faint spec about dead center)

*Stands for momentum, angular acceleration, angular rate, kinetic energy, and inertia

The ISS as an engineering test bed

Last week the Expedition 32 crew celebrated their successful spacewalk to repair a Main Bus Switching Unit outside ISS. This spacewalk followed one the week before that failed to complete the same task. Hundreds of people spent the days between the two EVAs building and testing tools and procedures and replanning the whole timeline to allow for the success that we had on September 5th. The optimist will celebrate the ingenuity and resolve of NASA to get the job done – the pessimist or cynic will lament all the time wasted on ISS maintenance when we should be doing science. Clearly, my pessimist (perhaps a strawman, I admit) is missing the point.

I often get frustrated trying to justify space exploration, and especially the ISS, to people that do not share my innate love of spaceflight. Most space enthusiasts – I’m sure many readers of my blog – know what I’m talking about. Much like skeptics debating young Earth creationists, we have a lot of practice and have developed some nice lists of great talking points (most effective when delivered by Neil DeGrasse Tyson). Nevertheless, people that aren’t impressed by spaceflight are still often hard to sway – even when you explain that spending on the space industry isn’t just launching money into space, but is investing in technology and business here on Earth. I’m going to make an argument about the value of the ISS here, but my argument already assumes you agree that spaceflight is worth it, and that we should eventually send humans to impressive destinations like the moon, asteroids, Mars, and the moons of Jupiter (so Lawrence Krauss will not be impressed). If you still need to be convinced that these things are worth it, then I send you to Carl Sagan.

What I want to point out to those that question the ISS as a useful step in humanity’s road to the stars is that it is about more than just crystal growth, microgravity fire, and spiders in space. ISS research is interesting, and has real returns, but to try to justify the scale and cost of the project over the last 3 decades by just the science being done is to miss the point. Of course, the fact that there are humans in orbit all day every day every year is a philosophical point that you can’t put a price on – maybe not enough of humanity knows about ISS for this fact to make an impact. But what I want to talk about is the engineering value of ISS. Do not be fooled by the people that want to convince you that ISS has us “stuck” in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The technical ranks of the ISS program are filled with people that dream of Mars and see what we are doing now as a way to get there.

You can’t send people to Mars without making the spacecraft and its crew significantly more independent than the Apollo spacecraft or the ISS. With Apollo, you could always just run home if you have a problem (like we did on Apollo 13) and on ISS much of the system operations and troubleshooting is done by ground controllers in real time – not to mention the Soyuz can serve as an escape capsule in a pinch. On an interplanetary cruise, if your systems don’t work and work well, you’re dead. Scary and simple.

For instance, a Mars mission with our current life support technology would be dicey. ISS has the first attempt at a real closed loop life support system (we call it Regen ECLSS). It works, but we do a lot of maintenance on it, more than would be feasible on an interplanetary flight with no hope of new spare parts or tools. I think of the ISS as an ECLSS test bed for these future missions. I would expect the next generation of hardware to vastly improve on the ISS systems as a direct result of lessons learned. It makes the time and money spent troubleshooting the ISS systems worth it, although we don’t see those returns now.

As the ISS ages, more things will break as a matter of course. In the summer of 2010 we had to replace a cooling pump that had been running for years, followed by the decade old MBSU we fixed last week. Both of these repairs took 2 EVAs or more (the pump module took 3). We are going to quickly improve our techniques for doing these repairs while also getting better and better at spacewalks and learning lessons that will make the designs of these components better in their next iterations. Take a look at Wikipedia’s list of cumulative spacewalking records.

ISS repairs gain EVA experience

The MBSU repairs for Williams and the cooling pump for Wheelock have earned them a huge amount of EVA experience. We can only expect this trend to continue over the next decade of ISS operations. Certain repairs are expected and there are many working groups at NASA who are already preparing “next-worst-failure” plans for how we will tackle them. Hopefully no daring Bruce Willis style spacewalks will ever be needed in future missions, but it would be folly not to plan for needing to go EVA while on interplanetary cruise. When the ISS program ends (be it in 8, 15, or 20 years depending who you ask) we will be well prepared with a vast pool of experience from the Space Shuttle and ISS programs to press on to the future. To be sure, the Orion program is already taking our hard earned lessons into account.

When you also consider that ISS will surely be used for Mars analog missions and endurance spaceflights before it is done, it is clear that ISS is an important learning platform. Every generation wishes that it will be the one to go to Mars, so it is understandable that there is more disappointment lately than optimism. I am confident that when we do finally go we will know what we are doing, thanks in great part to lessons learned as the ISS ages.

Ad astra!

Friday Links

Down to Earth

NASA JSC will allow tourists from Space Center Houston to tour the Shuttle Avionics Integration Lab (SAIL) – an “honorary” space shuttle.

Two space shuttles met during a KSC “rollover” for the last time.

The air force’s X-51 failed a flight test this week.

Early in the week the President of the United States made a phone call to the Mars Science Laboratory team at JPL. Politics aside, that’s pretty cool. (via Universe Today).

A sporty descent trajectory test by Masten Space Systems.

In Orbit

During an ISS reboost this week there was a failure (or perhaps “anomaly”) that caused the correction burn to end early. ESA’s ATV3 was controlling the reboost at the time. ISS and ATV teams are working together to correct the problem and plan for a repeat reboost next week. I was flying the ADCO console a few hours before the reboost on Wednesday morning but have otherwise not been involved.

More awesome ISS timelapse imagery…

Ron Garan highlights just one of the many reasons spaceflight is worth the investment.

Around the Solar System

While Curiosity is still warming up its wheels, Opportunity is roving strong on the other side of the planet.

Even though Curiosity is not yet on the move, there’s still a huge gallery of images already piling up on the JPL website. You can go dig through them, or just check out this list of the best images so far. Here’s the first full resolution mastcam panorama.

Here’s a video update of what’s been going on with Curiosity this week (mostly engineering tests to get ready for mobility) – via Universe Today.

Oh, and by the way… in one of the first images Curiosity sent back from Mars, JPL captured an image of the dust plume of the descent stage crashing 2 kilometers away. Whoa.

J.R.R. Tolkien finally has a solar system feature named after him – a crater on Mercury.

Mars may have plate tectonics?

Evidence of a crater on Mars that is less than 3 years old.

Out There

This is a very imaginative video of all the planets discovered by Kepler in orbit at once.

Last Week’s Links

Okay, really late this week. No excuses. I can and will do better! I have a lot of posts that (I think) should be interesting in the hopper. Hopefully coming soon! For now here’s what’s been going on in space news. But, before we get into that, the really exciting news is that CERN found the Higgs!

Okay, I tricked you a bit with that link. Here’s a real article about it, and a good video about the discovery below.

Down to Earth

Sad news last weekend. NASA astronaut Alan Poindexter – commander of STS-131 – died in a jet ski accident. Clearly a great loss.

Here’s one of my ideas of paradise.

A beautiful shot of Venus and Jupiter at dawn. More early morning conjunctions can be enjoyed later this week.

The exhibit of Space Shuttle Enterprise in New York will officially open on July 19.

Last week was one year since the launch of STS-135, the last space shuttle mission. A plaque has been installed on the runway at KSC to commemorate “wheel stop” of the Space Shuttle Program.

Astronaut Stephen Robinson has left NASA.

Straying into the realm of politics, I think this essay on the current state of human spaceflight policy is worth a read.

Similarly, this contrary take on the “STEM crisis” in America is enlightening (via SciGuy).

On a more inspiring tract, Bill Nye tells us why we need our space (well, I find the video inspiring anyway).

Or, if you like, how about a 50th anniversary video for KSC?

In Orbit

The Houston Chronicle did a nice interview with Expedition 31 before they left ISS.

One of the last pictures of Expedition 31 last weekend before coming home.

Before undocking, Andre posted a nice tour of ISS. There is a bite-size 4 minute version and a monster 90 minute version.

Don Pettit shows us the emotional side of returning to Earth through poetry.

Looks like returning to Earth from ISS isn’t all glory. Multiple posts prove my point.

Around the Solar System

While everyone else was talking about how Curiosity will land on Mars in 30 days, Opportunity silently rolled passed 3000 Sols (Martian days) of her mission.

Out There

Jill Tarter may be retiring from her life of hunting aliens, but she’s not done promoting the idea of SETI. Here’s a good interview with her from the Washington Post.


More ways to feel optimistic

Speaking of sources of inspiration, there’s no better place to feel good for a space geek than the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

In my rocket surgeon t-shirt in front of the National Air and Space Museum

I’ve been there twice now (only once to the annex out at Dulles), and I could go a hundred times more. If you are a space geek and haven’t been then why are you still reading my blog and not on an airplane? You should visit DC for that museum alone, and then see everything else just because you happen to be there.

Why am I gushing about the Smithsonian? Because I was catching up on the latest episodes of Planetary Radio  today. The last two episodes contain material recorded from a show at the Air and Space Museum earlier this year, with interview guests John Lodgsdon (who was at the astronaut quarters at KSC the morning Apollo 11 left for the Moon) and museum curator  David DeVorkin. Something John Lodgsdon said really resonated with me and I think it bears repeating.

The role I hope [this museum] plays is to remind people what we have done and make them think about what we will do. It’s not a mausoleum. It’s a celebration of what we’ve done. I mean, in the annex of the air and space museum out near Dulles, just this past week, the Discovery shuttle orbiter has arrived. We should celebrate what it did but we should also be thinking about what’s next; where we’re going; how we’re gonna get there. That’s a story that museums should be telling.

Logsdon’s thoughts are in line with previous posts of mine about history and the end of the Space Shuttle. We need more people to think this way. We also need more people to understand the past: by visiting museums like the National Air and Space Museum. And we need more people to be inspired: for instance, by the types of initiatives ExxonMobil is apparently working on.

I encourage you to go listen to some or all of the latest two Planetary Radio episodes, and be inspired yourself.

ExxonMobil gets it

It’s no secret that America’s investment – and proportionally, our superiority – in STEM education is nowhere near where it was when the Cold War sent us to the Moon. The problem these days is convincing people that it is a big enough problem for our elected officials to want to increase that investment, even in hard fiscal times. That’s why this video made me somewhat more optimistic (via NASA Watch).

Now, you may not like big oil companies, perhaps even especially ExxonMobil. That’s an ethical debate for another forum. Whatever you think of them, ExxonMobil is still the second largest corporation in the world (Apple passed them in market capital back in January). A company that big has a lot of weight to throw around; it seems they are throwing that weight in great ways.

I poked around their “Let’s Solve This” website to see if Exxon was just talking the talk but not walking the walk. I was happy to see that they are putting their money where their YouTube is and, among other initiatives, they have a free summer science camp for kids at at least 3 universities (in partnership with The Harris Foundation). They also work with the Sally Ride Science Academy to help improve science curricula and run a science academy for elementary school teachers.

There are a lot of people out there (like Lawrence Krauss, who I may expound on some other day) who think that how we invest in spaceflight is some kind of economical equation, and we should do whatever makes the most money sense. But those people don’t get it, or are forgetting. Human spaceflight is inspiring beyond almost anything else we can do. It is what made America a science powerhouse in the 20th century and it can do it again. By using that historic success in their video, ExxonMobil shows that they get it.

ExxonMobil is basically the largest company in the world and they have no direct ties to spaceflight, or NASA, or most basic science research. They are reaping in billions of dollars in revenue a year just fine. They don’t need to promote science education for the stockholders to see a reward this year, or next year, or even 5-10 years from now. Nevertheless, they are forward thinking enough to realize the long-term implications of a society that does not invest in the education of its populace, and especially in developing STEM expertise. That’s why this makes me optimistic. I applaud Exxon for this initiative and I hope it catches on.

I agree, we can “solve this”.

Friday Links

I don’t know if I have enough of a readership for anyone to notice, but nevertheless I apologize for Friday Links being late (yet again!). I had the day shift in ISS mission control this weekend so it has been hard knocking items off of the to do list. It felt great to be back in MCC though!

Below is just a small sampling of the space news and “the internets” I have been catching up on since my vacation. Some good stuff, anyway. Enjoy.

Down to Earth

Kennedy Space Center’s visitor center will again be offering public tours of the Launch Control Center for what is the first time in decades. Plan your trip now, but after Debby is done dumping water on Florida.


My view of Debby from the ISS ADCO console midday Sunday, June 24. Up is roughly East.

Some more astronauts have left NASA: Kenneth Ham (STS-132 commander) and Nicholas Patrick (STS-130 spacewalker). Also, Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk (veteran of Expedition 20/21) intends to leave his post as well.


Interestingly, only Patrick is in the latest poster so I only need to bring out the Sharpie for one of them

Not directly tied to spaceflight, but I thought this article was important.How Government Funding of Science Rewards US Taxpayers (via SciGuy)

In Orbit

Still there is Shenzhou 9, docked to Tiangong-1!

No longer there is the second US Air Force X-38B Orbital Test Vehicle.

Andre Kuipers on the ISS had a conference call with aquanauts of Neemo 16 while they were still underwater in Florida. Try explaining how that works to your grandmother.

How about some great photography from Andre Kuipers before he leaves this coming weekend:

The large magellanic cloud from ISS. Wow.

A beautiful lightning flash from ISS.

Or just some sunglint.

Kuipers comments frankly that he will never return to space.

And some recent blogs from Don Pettit to catch up on:

A stunning time lapse showing how the ISS can have periods where the sun never sets.

Some pictures of the souvenir the ISS crew left in the Dragon descent module.

Ever innovative, Don Pettit wears the ISS cupola like a turtleneck sweater in order to block stray light.

Pettit describes in frank terms how his time is spent as an ISS Flight Engineer.

Around the Solar System

Curiosity is getting awfully close to Mars.

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Out There

This NASA image of the day is one of my favorite astrophotos that I’ve ever seen.

Kepler discovers one of the most interesting planetary systems I’ve ever heard of.

Randall Munroe gives us every planet ever discovered in one illustration.

Because its Cool

Check out this blog I just discovered (thanks to @Twisst) called SatTrackCam. He imaged 30 satellites/objects in one exposure?!

A montage of the transit of Venus from inside the Arctic Circle in Norway.