Archive for the ‘History’ Category
What will be the legacy of the International Space Station? It seems ridiculous to ask at this early stage, with probably a decade of operations remaining. But when you ask the man who was ISS program manager since August 2005, you get a pretty convincing answer. Michael Suffredini, who retired from NASA earlier in August, recently sat down and gave a refreshingly frank interview with Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle. Simply put, this is a must read if you care enough to have a strong opinion of the ISS and the future of NASA. By the end of the article, not only did Suffredini have me fairly convinced that ISS will have a lasting legacy – leaving in the dust all that talk of station as a “white elephant” – but he had me feeling somewhat optimistic.
Over the past ten years, through all the ups and downs of the ISS, NASA, and this country, Suffredini was the guy who had to deal face-to-face with US politicians, heads of foreign space programs, and CEOs of major contractors. You’d think there’d be a lot of frustration and head-banging involved with those kinds of dealings, and yet Suffredini provides optimistic statements about the two most important players today in the space business other than NASA.
First, when Berger asks if there is any question about the safety of SpaceX’s rockets following their accident earlier this year, Suffredini expresses some pretty strong confidence in the corporation:
And I can tell you, my involvement with what they’ve been doing, they’re taking it very seriously. They’ll do far more mods than are mandatory to fix the problem that occurred. It’s that kind of mindset that’ll allow you to be able to fly crew safely.
Things have come a long way from even just five years ago when the public perception was that NASA didn’t trust SpaceX and SpaceX didn’t want NASA’s help. Such a strong statement as Suffredini’s makes the vision of an affordable and more adaptive future for NASA and the space industry seem very likely.
However, that vision has been thwarted somewhat by shifting federal funding in the area of the ISS commercial crew program. My favorite quote from the interview came from Suffredini’s thoughts on commercial crew funding:
Even our Russian partners would tell you, to have a single crew vehicle to ISS, is not the right way to operate in low-Earth orbit.
I don’t believe this quote is just rhetoric. Suffredini probably had to deal with the heads of the Russian space program on the regular to do his job successfully, so he knows what they think. In fact, if I had to guess, they’ve probably had conversations behind closed doors about this very topic and they probably told Suffredini directly they wished there was more redundancy for crew transportation.
This cuts right to something I have been trying to tell people when the “relying on the Russians” angle of the ISS program comes up. The folks working ISS over in Moscow just want to explore space, same as us. If something unfortunate grounded the Soyuz fleet, everyone would be disappointed – obviously – and I’m sure the Russians would be grateful if NASA had a SpaceX or Boeing capsule ready to go to keep the program on its feet.
So what is the legacy of station? In Suffredini’s answer to that particular question, he only discussed contributions to furthering exploration and learning lessons to get us to Mars. However, in his answers throughout the rest of the interview, he implied much more: international collaboration, catalyzing a commercial space market beyond just satellite manufacturing, and the early success of SpaceX.
Sign me up… oh wait.
Down To Earth
Last Monday, SpaceX announced preliminary findings related to the loss of a Falcon 9 rocket and its Dragon cargo mission last month. Here’s the companies official statement on their investigation so far. They have found that a structural support (or “strut”) holding up a pressurant tank in the second stage failed. Elon Musk hopes a delay of only a few months to their manifest.
Tony Antonelli, who piloted two space shuttle missions, has retired from the astronaut office.
The Smithsonian Institution has started a new Kickstarter campaign called “Reboot the Suit” to raise money to restore Neil Armstrong’s moonsuit. The restoration is planned to be completed in time for a new exhibit for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2019. I pledged!
Three launches from the Earth’s three spacefaring nation’s this past week: first, a Russian Soyuz rocket launched from Kazakhstan on July 22nd, followed a few hours later by a successful docking to ISS. The crew is now back up to full strength of 6, with the addition of Oleg Kononenko, Kimiya Yui, and Kjell Lindgren. Lindgren and Yui are on Twitter, so you should follow my “people in space” Twitter list.
Second, a Delta IV rocket launched from Florida on July 23rd. The mission delivered a new military communications satellite to orbit.
China also had a successful orbital launch last week. A Long March 3B delivered two navigation satellites to orbit on July 25th.
Around the Solar System
New pictures from the New Horizons’ Pluto flyby! Check out the new views of small moons Nix and Hydra.
Also, check out this view of the dark side of Pluto, with the sun lighting up its thin nitrogen atmosphere!
Not to mention they discovered nitrogen glaciers!
Closer to home, at Ceres, the Dawn spacecraft has discovered evidence of a “haze” in Occator crater. This is the large crater with several “bright spots” in its center.
JAXA is accepting applications to choose a name for asteroid 1999 JU3 which will be visited by their Hayabusa-2 spacecraft.
NASA announced the discovery of Kepler-452b, a small planet around a Sun-like star about 1,400 light years distant. This is the most similar planet in size and circumstance to Earth that we have yet found, but it still has 1.6 times Earth’s diameter (mass, and thus surface gravity, unknown). However, the fact that it is so small and in the habitable zone, makes it an awesome discovery.
Almost 50 years after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, triumphantly ending America’s space race with the USSR, it is hard to find a fresh perspective on that slice of history. So much has been written about the early space program that it can be hard even to get through all of the old stuff. I have read memoirs from Collins, Cernan, Slayton, Shepard, Kranz, Kraft, Worden, and Scott, but have actually still never read The Right Stuff or A Man on the Moon (I know, I know). Despite the mountain of material out there, new books continue to be written. Not only are there new histories being written, like Dr. John Logsdon’s After Apollo?, but there are new astronaut memoirs: John Young’s Forever Young just came out a couple of years ago. But with all due respect to Captain Young, I have read a lot of test-pilot-astronaut memoirs.
The thing is, there are thousands of stories to tell from the Apollo program. It was a massive project that cost billions upon billions of dollars, which means that thousands upon thousands of people had their hands on the spaceships, on the control centers, on the Deep Space Network communications dishes. Everyone loves hearing from the astronauts, but what about all those other people who were a part of history? Fortunately for us space fans, some of those people have written those stories down to share with us. They are out there if you search for them!
One of those stories is Below Tranquility Base by Richard Stachurski. I wouldn’t expect you to recognize his name, because he is one of those thousands of small but important players in the epic story that is the Apollo program. Stachurski served as a flight controller starting in 1965. He started in the backroom and was promoted to the “Network” position for Apollo. Network was the call sign back then for the person in charge of the ground network comm link to the spacecraft, which is now called GC (Ground Control). Stachurski is a geek through and through. He is so excited to talk about his experiences in mission control during Apollo 11 that he spends very little time on his personal history and background. The book starts out “Did you ever have a job that you would pay to do? I did.” and the book thoroughly convinced me he meant it. Stachurski looks back on his time with NASA with almost unbelieving reverence to have been a part of something so amazing.
The details of Stachurski’s work as a Network flight controller are interesting in their own right, and Stachurski is happy to explain all of it. In fact, the book is so heavy on technical details that it may be off-putting to some more casual readers who aren’t already familiar with the details of an Apollo mission timeline. In fact, most of the book is a description of the Apollo 11 mission from the Network consoles perspective, detailing things that were broken and fixed, technical conversations on “the loops”, and Stachurski’s own emotions throughout the whole mission. So what exactly was “Network” responsible for?
While the movies and histories focus on the astronauts, their spacecraft, and the people in the Flight Control Room (FCR) with the Flight Director, there were hundreds of people working around the world trying to hold on to a communications link with the spacecraft so that the Flight Director could do his job. Anyone who has seen the movie The Dish knows a little about that. Today our link to the ISS is a bit simpler, since we have the Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS) in geostationary orbit. These still require ground antennae to get data back to mission control, but there are fewer stations, not to mention we have 50 years of experience coordinating that kind of worldwide network. In the 1960s, the entire concept was brand new, they had no geostationary comm satellites, and the missions were flying all the way to the moon, where the geo sats wouldn’t have helped anyway.
Stachurski paints a vivid picture of how this communications network worked (or didn’t). In some ways, there was more drama in the struggle to keep comm with the spacecraft than in what was actually going inside the Lunar Module during powered descent to the moon. Before I read Below Tranquility Base, I never would have guessed how close to the hairy edge of holding on to that link NASA was at several points during Apollo 11. As a flight controller myself, I can relate to Stachurski’s feeling of not being important or noticed until his system has a problem, and then all eyes are on him until the problem can be fixed. The speed with which they coordinated ground site swaps is impressive. Stachurski and his team from Apollo 11 truly were “steely-eyed missilemen” despite the humility in the face of history that he alludes to throughout his tale.
It is in fact this humility that makes Below Tranquility Base such an interesting read, and will probably help most readers get through the technical parts of the book. Stachurski’s academic background in fact is not technical at all. He studied history in college while in the ROTC program to help pay his tuition. After school, he went into active duty, which got him assigned to a bomber wing in Indiana. In those days, a bomber wing in the heartland meant that you looked after airplanes that stood at the ready 24/7 to take off with nuclear warheads to drop on our enemies. After Indiana, Stachurski spent some time babysitting nuclear missiles in the Dakotas. He was one of the guys with his finger on a launch key the Cuban Missile Crisis. The frank look we get from Stachurski into what these Cold War jobs were like is not something you would expect from a space program memoir, but is fascinating nonetheless.
This all leads to Stachurski’s assignment by the Air Force to support mission control in Houston for the Apollo program, where he feels like just a “liberal arts puke” (his words) out of his element. His journey from an overwhelmed nobody in the backroom to a front room flight controller for both the Apollo 11 launch shift and the lunar ascent shift is inspirational. In addition, his own opinion of himself that he was not that important of a player during Apollo 11 affords an unfiltered perspective on life in mission control. For instance, Stachurski gives us his frank opinion that he actually didn’t care for Gene Kranz much, feeling that his leadership style was a little bit overbearing and relied too much on micromanagement. He also tells us about the dirty magazines that they had hidden away on console for boring night shifts…
Below Tranquility Base and books like it are an important but rare part of the story of the early space age. Without them, we miss out on the small dramas that were happening all the time. Small triumphs, like having a solution when a whole network switch catches on fire in Spain during a crucial Apollo 11 mission phase, put in perspective how many people were required and how many things had to go right for the Apollo program to be successful. The book also helps to chronicle the early development of the culture of flight control in Houston that survives today. I even learned the definition of an acronym* I use regularly at work from Stachurski! This is a book that should make it onto the reading list of all avid space history fans and current flight controllers at NASA, but will probably be enjoyed by most casual fans of NASA or US history. You can get it for free on Kindle Unlimited here (it is $11.31 in paperback).
*Apparently a “pad” in a procedure is actually a PAD, standing for Pre-Advisory Data.
Some other good books that give the ground level perspective on the early space program include:
Full Circle by David L. Cisco, lunar module electrical technician.
Apollo EECOM by Sy Liebergot, Apollo flight controller.
The Unbroken Chain by Guenter Wendt, Apollo launch pad closeout team leader.
Obviously the big news this week was that New Horizons had its encounter with Pluto this past week. My space news feed was almost entirely Pluto news starting on July 12th, two days before the encounter. Rather than provide you a dozen links, some of which might be out of date, I would just suggest going over to The Planetary Society blog for up to date coverage of the latest pictures coming in from the outer solar system. Ok, on with some non-Pluto news…
Down to Earth
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the first joint manned spaceflight between the US and Russia (the USSR at the time). The mission is today remembered as an early precursor to the partnership that led to the ISS. NASA TV did a nice piece marking the anniversary, with interviews with the two commanders: Leonov and Stafford. Check it out! (jump to 9:27 for some prophetic words from President Gerald Ford about the future of cooperation in space)
There was a bit of excitement up on the ISS this week. Early on Thursday morning, Houston time, flight controllers in charge of monitoring the trajectory of the ISS were notified of a debris threat without enough notice to coordinate a debris avoidance maneuver rocket firing. Thus, the crew of Expedition 44 had to execute what is called a “shelter in place”. Essentially, they hunker down in their return capsule until the all clear call. No actual debris strike was noted at the “time of closest approach”.
In less scary ISS news, several sets of cubesats were launched from one of the ISS robotic arms. The spring-loaded launcher was built by the company Nanoracks and the cubesats came from various sources, including one test flight for the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources.
Nanoracks recently announced they will also work with Blue Origin to help them fly suborbital research, building on their experience on the ISS.
The next crewed launch to the ISS from Baikonaur will be on Wednesday, July 22nd. You can see NASA TV’s launch and docking coverage schedule here.
There were two successful orbital launches in the last week, both on Wednesday, the 15th: an Atlas V rocket launched a GPS satellite from Florida and an Ariane 5 rocket launched two satellites (one communication and one earth-observing) from Korou.
Around the Solar System
Of course, I can’t resist discussing Pluto at least a little bit… On Tuesday, July 18th, the NASA New Horizons probe made its closest approach to Pluto and survived, phoning home later that evening. The entire dataset from the flyby will take months to downlink back to mission control over the Deep Space Network, but the initial photographs of both Pluto and its largest moon Charon are enough to surprise and excite scientists with some odd unexpected features on both bodies. Some are calling this a “last first look” now that all the large bodies of the solar system have been photographed up close by spacecraft.
— NASA (@NASA) July 15, 2015
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.
Glad Progress made it. But not thrilled we're all up late, on pins and needles willing on a Russian rocket to save our $150 billion station.
— Eric Berger (@chronsciguy) July 3, 2015
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.
FWIW, "our" meaning humanity's ISS. The point is that relying on Russia is a bit galling right now. Not a fan of Putin's machinations.
— Phil Plait (@BadAstronomer) July 3, 2015
Having said that, Roscosmos is top notch, and good on them for this successful launch.
— Phil Plait (@BadAstronomer) July 3, 2015
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
Down to Earth
A new exhibit called ‘Forever Remembered’ at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center has opened, featuring artifacts from the fateful STS-51L and STS-107 missions.
NASA is offering to lease parts of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and Mobile Launch Platforms (MLP) at the Kennedy Space Center to commercial users. I guess NASA doesn’t need both high bays all the time due to the low launch rate expected for the new SLS rocket.
Famous composer James Horner died in a plane crash this week. Here are some excerpts from my favorite work of his, the Apollo 13 soundtrack:
In orbital launch news, the Russian military launch I wrote about last week was successful on June 23rd. The rocket was a Soyuz-2.1b, which has a different third stage than the Soyuz rockets used to launch missions to ISS. Here is a good discussion of the Soyuz rocket family from Russian Space Web.
There was also a Chinese Earth-observing satellite launch on June 26 (was early in the day, so June 25 in the US).
And of course, another much-anticipated SpaceX Falcon 9 launch is still scheduled for tomorrow. The pre-launch static fire test was successful on Friday, June 26, so they are ready for launch on June 27 at around 10:20 AM Eastern.
This Falcon 9 launch is supposed to have another barge landing attempt. SpaceX recently launched this new tracking cam footage of the almost-made-it attempt in April. This should get you excited for tomorrow!
As always, here are some more great photos from ISS, posted by @StationCDRKelly
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) June 23, 2015
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) June 24, 2015
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) June 26, 2015
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) June 27, 2015
Around the Solar System
The European Space Agency has extended the Rosetta mission, in orbit of comet 67P, until late 2016. Good thing too, because Rosetta keeps finding new things about comet 67P, like the recent announcement that they have found exposed water ice on the surface.
This song about the New Horizons mission to Pluto is rather fun. If you don’t like sentimentality or kitsch, you might want to skip it.
Some cool astronomy news worth sharing this week. First, the V404 Cygni system, which is a black hole orbited by a companion star, has recently become very active and is flaring into the brightest X-ray object in the sky (so you can’t see it).
Second, astronomers have discovered that exoplanet GJ436b (which is about the size of Neptune) has a giant cloud of hydrogen following it in its orbit, like a comet tail.
NASA’s Foundations of Mission Operations is meant to be a reminder to all working in the manned spaceflight program of the responsibility we hold to the taxpayer and to the astronauts we train and protect. Among other core values, the foundations state:
To always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences.
As part of that goal, certified flight controllers must complete annual proficiency training, which includes reading key chapters of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s report (the report is often simply referred to as “the CAIB”). We are not required to read the entire report annually – both because it is very long at over 200 pages and because many chapters are irrelevant now that the Shuttle program has retired. However, we read chapters that have a direct relation to how we continue to do our job as flight controllers, such as chapter 7: “The Accident’s Organizational Causes”. These parts of the report drive home the importance of good leadership, speaking up when you see a problem, and technical rigor, among other skills. For instance, page 191 has a very relevant discussion of the danger of trying to present a precise technical topic on a brief PowerPoint slide.
The most important part of the CAIB ultimately is the list of recommendations found in chapter 11, especially those that are organizational and apply still today. Nevertheless, it is human nature to ask “what if?” about the Columbia accident. A 2-page section of chapter 6, titled “Possibility of Rescue or Repair”, seeks to answer this question, however briefly. Chapter 6 (and the longer associated appendix) explain that, had NASA managers understood Columbia’s plight early in the flight, resources could have been conserved onboard to extend STS-107 to a mission length of several weeks and Atlantis – already being prepped for STS-114 in the Orbiter Processing Facility – could have been rushed for a possible bid at rescue. This section of the CAIB, almost a footnote, is the premise of the fictional novel Launch on Need by Daniel Guiteras.
Launch on Need takes the “what ifs?” about as far as they can go, exploring both the how the world would react to the drama of a stranded space shuttle as well as detailing NASA’s mobilization efforts for rescue. Surprisingly, the most central character to the novel is fictional CNN reporter John Stangley, rather than a NASA flight controller or astronaut. It is actually the novel’s biggest failing that Stangley is the only character who is truly explored with depth or appreciable character arc. At 350 pages, this means that a lot of time is spent with characters of little emotional interest to the reader. The fact that all of the characters are fictional – including STS-107 astronauts, rescue astronauts, and mission managers – definitely slowed down my ability to connect with them. However, to be fair to Guiteras, the book likely would not have faced problems getting published if he had assigned invented dialogue and motivations to real people, especially the crew of Columbia.
Fortunately, the reason I read Launch on Need was not really for complex characters. The book intrigued me probably for the same reasons Guiteras wrote it. NASA has not had to publically “save” a crew since the successful failure of Apollo 13, a generation ago. Both accidents during the space shuttle program were tragedies, not crises. By the time the public knew of the Challenger and Columbia accidents, the astronauts were already dead. What would a modern day Apollo 13 look like? How would the public react? Could NASA really pull it off? Of course, without a time machine, we will never really know the answers to these questions. But Launch on Need makes a compelling case for how things may have turned out differently. Despite the weak characters, and often weak dialogue, Guiteras’ loving attention to technical detail creates a drama that carries the reader all the way to the finish.
Guiteras sets up the structure of the novel in a clever way, with three parts titled The Discovery, The Challenge, and The Endeavour, using the names of three of NASA’s fleet of space shuttles. The Discovery starts at launch of STS-107 and ends with the wing inspection EVA, The Challenge covers the rescue flight’s prep for launch, and The Endeavour is the rescue mission itself. This means that, rather surprisingly, the rescue mission launches well over half way through the novel. If this story were ever to be made into a movie (unlikely) this would not fly. The big screen eye candy comes from action in space. The excitement of launch day and the drama of the rendezvous and tense rescue EVA would certainly be the focus, and launch would occur, at latest, halfway through the film. But this imagined big-screen version would steal the soul of Guiteras’ story. The real drama of the story occurs during part 2, as NASA prepares Atlantis for launch. Guiteras does a great job of building up the conflict of man versus schedule in this part of the book, which is hard to do, since the antagonist is not a person but is time itself.
One of my favorite chapters in the book comes in the middle of part 2, while Atlantis is still in the OPF, and NASA is working 3 shifts and struggling to shave precious hours of the launch prep timeline so that Atlantis can reach orbit before Columbia runs out of CO2 scrubbers. In the middle of this chaos, a careless worker drops a large bucket from an upper level of the OPF onto Atlantis’ wings, potentially putting the entire mission in danger, if the damage is bad enough. Not only did I fear for Atlantis herself but I really felt for Wally Jensen, the OPF manager you meet only for the brief 5 pages of this chapter. The accident’s impact on Jensen really painted an accurate picture of how the stress of something like a real rescue mission might take its toll on NASA’s employees.
In contrast to the parts of the novel about Atlantis being readied for launch are the chapters following the rescue crew, which I felt really missed the mark. For instance, during one chapter, we join two of the rescue mission astronauts who are selected to do the spacewalk to ferry all 7 astronauts from Columbia to Atlantis. They are training at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) the week before the flight. Actually, it is the day after they were assigned to the mission and they are already on their first NBL run. As they alone in the locker room getting ready for prebrief, one astronaut begins to confide in the other that he is worried and scared, that he has lost confidence in himself. While astronauts are just humans like you and me, and surely feel the pressure leading up to a big mission, the timing of the confession and the dialogue was rather contrived. Keep in mind that these two characters were introduced as NASA’s best spacewalkers. Unfortunately, this was a theme throughout and I felt that the astronauts were the weakest characters in the story. Similarly, a lot of the scenes that occur in mission control itself felt off to me, based on my experience in mission operations for the ISS. The most jarring scene for me was when a “tiger team” of 4 members is formed in the middle of the climactic rescue EVA to figure out how to open a stuck hatch, or else the last two crew of Columbia will die aboard. The entire logistics of this episode do not match how we do things at mission control: the IMMT chair, who was at the back of the control room at the management console, grabs 3 flight controllers who are currently on shift in the front room during an EVA and leave the room to come up with options. This would never happen. Instead, the army of back room flight controllers and engineering support rooms would be working together on the comm loops to come up with a plan.
Despite Guiteras lack of ability to provide believable astronaut or flight controller characters, the story has another strength in its exploration of the space program in the American psyche. One of the most interesting scenes to me (regardless of its realism) comes near the beginning of Part II, shortly after NASA has committed to rescue as the only option for Columbia. The NASA administrator is holding a meeting with the heads of his public affairs and communications divisions and outlines an innovative approach to media relations during preparations for the rescue mission: hide nothing, let the media in everywhere. The administrator realizes that this is an “Apollo 13 moment” and seizes on the opportunity to get everyone talking about NASA again.
As NASA starts to let reporters into the VAB and OPF, just inches from Atlantis as she is prepared for her rescue mission, the American public begins to become fixated on the mission. The 24-hour news channels essentially have a launch countdown ticker on the screen at all times and they do daily status updates. STS-300 is on the front page of the New York Times. This is my favorite part of Launch on Need. I think Guiteras has a great sense of how Americans really feel about space. Sometimes it seems NASA is ignored, often even forgotten, but that is not because people don’t love space. Spaceflight is in the background fabric of our culture, the way we expect to have a football game on TV on Sunday night or that we get 100 options of breakfast cereal at the grocery store. You don’t notice something so ingrained in our culture until they are gone. Everyone wants to talk about space when something goes wrong; we see this every time a cargo launch doesn’t make it to ISS – you see a headline in every news media outlet, even if they just use the AP brief. Often those launches aren’t covered when they are successful.
Guiteras seems to understand all of this about American culture, which makes his fictional tale about how STS-107 could have ended in triumph an optimistic but cautionary tale that I think leaders within NASA should read and learn from. Launch On Need is an interesting thought experiment about NASA public affairs. It points out that people love space (which I think is true of the majority), but that NASA needs to actively share its mission in an exciting and emotional way if we want people’s love of space to be active and conscious, and not just like their love of the breakfast cereal aisle.
We will never know if Atlantis really could have made it to orbit to save the Columbia crew before Flight Day 30. All we can say is that if NASA hadn’t made the errors in management, communication, and decision making which are outlined in the CAIB, there could have at least been a chance to try. Even if a rescue mission had been attempted and failed, the way we remember the Columbia disaster would be very different. The idea of following the Foundations of Mission Operations – of being ever vigilant – is not because we believe we can prevent all disasters from happening, but instead is to at least give ourselves the chance to turn something like Columbia from a tragedy that no one saw coming into a crisis that we can put forth our best effort to recover from. This is the point of the last line of the Foundations of Mission Operations:
To recognize that the greatest error is not to have tried and failed, but that in the trying we do not give it our best effort.
I would recommend Launch On Need to fans of space history and flight controllers alike. In fact, with some good editing and improved character development in another edition, I think it could be quite good. I hope that if and when NASA has another crisis in manned spaceflight, we will have improved our blind spots that led to disaster for Challenger and Columbia and will instead give ourselves the chance for redemption shown by Guiteras in Launch on Need.
You can read Launch on Need for free if you have Kindle Unlimited or order it for $11.60 in paperback. Here is the Amazon link.
Down to Earth
Jack King, who provided launch commentary for NASA missions in the 1960s and 1970s, has died at 84.
The United States Senate is busy working on a markup of a budget in the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, which includes money for NASA. The current budget, if passed, would include about $18.5 billion for NASA. However, there is some debate about how that money is being spent, including whether enough money is being allocated to the “commercial crew” program for launching astronauts to ISS on spacecraft built by SpaceX and Boeing.
NASA has awarded $30 million to SpaceX for their launch abort test milestone last month.
NASA’s Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) had a second drop test over Hawaii this week. The technology will help with Martian EDL for large mass spacecraft. Unfortunately, the parachute failed at high altitudes. More test flights are planned.
It was a very busy week up on the ISS. The most important update is that Expedition 43 ended on Wednesday when Terry Virts handed over command to Gennady Padalka for Expedition 44. Then on Thursday morning the crew of TMA-15M (consisting of Terry Virts, Samantha Cristoforetti, and Anton Shkaplerov) undocked from the ISS and landed safely in Kazakhstan a few hours later.
Earlier in the week, there was some unrelated excitement: first, on Monday, June 8th, the mission control teams in Moscow and Houston had to work together to execute a Pre-determined Debris Avoidance Maneuver (PDAM) to change the ISS orbit to dodge some space junk.
Then, on Tuesday, an unexpected thruster firing from a docked Soyuz vehicle caused ISS to take contingency actions. The Soyuz thruster firing overwhelmed the NASA-owned Control Moment Gyroscopes (CMGs), requiring use of Russian Segment attitude control thrusters to “right the ship” so to speak. Long story short, this is exactly the kind of contingency we plan for and practice hundreds of times in the ADCO group. From what I have heard, the situation was handled very well!
With Expedition 44 underway, there are only 3 astronauts aboard ISS. According to official launch dates from Roscosmos, we won’t see 6 people aboard again until TMA-17M launches in late July.
The LightSail mission has been declared a success, now that there are images of the mylar solar sails deployed! Can’t wait for the next test flight next year.
Around the Solar System
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has found evidence of impact glass, which may preserve evidence of past life.
Here is some new imagery of Ceres from the Dawn spacecraft, featuring a new high resolution look at the “bright spots”. Ceres is slowly moving to lower and lower mapping orbits.
There is also new imagery of Pluto from New Horizons:
THIS IS THE GREATEST IMAGE OF PLUTO AND CHARON EVER TAKEN. (Saying this will never get old.) (Taken 20 hours ago!) pic.twitter.com/l0WesvG7Cm
— Emily Lakdawalla (@elakdawalla) June 12, 2015
Because its Cool
Check out the first official trailer for the highly anticipated (at least by geeks) movie, The Martian:
It was a bit of a slow week in spaceflight, with only one rocket launch of note and a few bureaucratic developments. Meanwhile, the people of Nepal were hit hard by a major earthquake and over 3,000 are dead. USA Today has a list of charitable organizations (such as UNICEF, Red Cross, World Food Program, and more) that are mounting relief efforts. Here is the link. I gave to American Red Cross.
Down to Earth
NASA’s decision on the next set of contracts for ISS cargo resupply has been delayed until September. This is the re-bid of the contract currently being fulfilled by SpaceX and Orbital ATK.
The US House of Representatives has marked up their first draft of a spending bill for NASA which includes both 2016 and 2017. There is some good news is that the overall NASA budget is going up, pretty much matching the increase requested by the White House. However, the bill from Congress has a significant difference in funding levels for exploration systems and Earth science.
ESA could join NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, planned to launch in 2022, by providing a lander of some kind. Cool!
ABC released a trailer for “The Astronaut Wives Club”. Check it out.
Canada has budgeted support of the ISS through 2024 in their latest federal budget. Hooray!
This past week, many in the scientific community celebrated 25 years since the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into orbit. In fact, many not in the scientific community were also celebrating!
— Times Square (@TimesSquareNYC) April 23, 2015
With operations planned until at least 2020, Hubble will likely overlap in operations with its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2018.
Around the Solar System
The intriguing bright spots seen by the Dawn spacecraft on the asteroid Ceres have come back into view. Check out this imagery from the mission!
Down to Earth
Ron Howard is working on a TV a miniseries based on Elon Musk and his plans to colonize Mars.
Bulgaria has joined ESA as a “cooperating state”.
Orbital ATK has been contracted by Lockheed Martin to provide the launch abort motor for Orion.
Blue Origin will reportedly resume test flights of their New Shepard rocket later this year.
Check out these very creative animations of NASA’s Apollo mission patches (via CollectSpace).
The members of the Made in Space ISS 3-D printer team received their shipment recently. In fact, you can watch them unboxing it on YouTube (via Parabolic Arc):
SpaceX will launch their next ISS resupply mission today, April 13, and will also be giving the barge landing another shot. The static fire test happened on Saturday, which is an important milestone before launch. I suspect they won’t stream imagery of the barge landing live (like last time) but hopefully they will have dramatic imagery of a success or failure to share afterwards! Among other cargo, food, and science that this CRS-6 mission is hauling to the ISS, there is also a cubesat known as Arkyd-3, which is a demonstration mission for the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources.
Brown: next SpaceX CRS flight, SpX-6, will carry 8 CubeSat deployers, including 14 Planet Labs sats and Arkyd-3 reflight. #NRISSWorkshop
— Jeff Foust (@jeff_foust) February 17, 2015
The forecast for the launch window is only 60% as of last night. There is another launch window on Tuesday. Here is Spaceflight Now’s live stream with “mission status center”.
And of course I need to share a few recent tweets and pictures from the ISS:
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) April 10, 2015
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) April 10, 2015
— Sam Cristoforetti (@AstroSamantha) April 11, 2015
— Sam Cristoforetti (@AstroSamantha) April 11, 2015
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) April 12, 2015
Last glow of the Sun before orbital sunset. L'ultimo bagliore del Sole prima del tramonto in orbita. pic.twitter.com/07AVp5YlnB
— Sam Cristoforetti (@AstroSamantha) April 12, 2015
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) April 12, 2015
"Starry Night," it's not quite Van Gogh, but a pretty cool perspective from up here in space. pic.twitter.com/TcAAiiAOQ5
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) April 13, 2015
Around the Solar System
Curiosity has been very busy in Gusev Crater on Mars ever since the team resolved the issue with the instruments on the robotic arm earlier this year. They recently did a few good drives and got some great images. You can see them and follow along with the mission at The Martian Chronicles blog. I love this picture. Curiosity should be reaching the 10 kilometer mark soon.
NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft has completed 1,000 orbits of Mars.
Mission planners for ESA’s Rosetta are rethinking their future close flybys of the comet 67P due to the navigation hazard caused by dust. A flyby in March sent the spacecraft into safe mode.
And don’t forget Cassini, still orbiting Saturn taking amazing pictures and doing science!