Archive for the ‘History’ Category

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Down To Earth

Two space shuttle astronauts, Brian Duffy and Scott Parazynski, were recently inducted into the astronaut hall of fame.

Apollo astronaut and moonwalker, Edgar Mitchell, died at the age of 85.

Former President George H.W. Bush (Bush 41) visited Johnson Space Center and talked to the ISS astronauts from the Mission Control Center.

All of the segments of the primary mirror to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) have been assembled!

The Laser Interferometer Gravity-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has detected “gravitational waves”, which is what it was designed to do. This is a basically a new way to see the universe – like the first time an X-Ray observatory was put into space and returned data. Not only that, it validates parts of Einstein’s theories. Here are some brief articles from Phil Plait and Sean Carroll, who explain it well.

Check out this amazing zero-gravity music video by Ok Go, which doesn’t use any digital effects. Wow!

Curators at the Smithsonian recently did a 3D scan of the inside of the Apollo 11 Command ModuleColumbia, and found previously unknown handwritten notes on the walls.

Astronaut Kevin Ford has retired from NASA.

The new SpaceX “transporter erector” at pad 39A in Florida is pretty cool looking.

In Orbit

A number of rocket launches since my last post in late January: a Chinese rocket launched one of their navigation satellites (Beidou), a ULA Atlas V launched a GPS satellite, a Russian Soyuz rocket launched one of their navigation satellites (GLONASS), a ULA Delta IV launched a secret USA reconnaissance office payload, and lastly North Korea launched something.

This brings the worldwide launch cadence for the year up to 10 so far, or almost 2 per week. We are still waiting for the first SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of the year, which should be before March.

Veteran cosmonauts Sergey Volkov and Yuri Malenchenko conducted a successful spacewalk on the Russian Segment of the ISS.

Around the Solar System

The European Space Agency has announced that they are no longer attempting to send commands to the lost Philae lander, which has not transmitted from the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in months.

China has released some new photos of the moon from it’s Yutu rover mission (the rover died some time ago).

Book Review: Ride and Armstrong biographies

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In 2014, new biographies were published about America’s two most well-known space heroes: Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride. Just like their subjects, the two books are very different. However, they share an intriguing similarity in that they were both written by close friends of Armstrong and Ride who also happen to be award-winning journalists. This style of book (if we can call it a style) lends itself to an interesting middle-ground between an outright autobiography (which Armstrong and Ride never wrote – both shying away from the spotlight) and the distance of a more traditionally researched biography. I think it is fair to expect from a biography written by a friend of the subject a certain level of insight as well as new information or stories. In the end, only one of these books really delivers on that front.

(As you read my review, keep in mind I have never read the previous Armstrong biography, First Man)

Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight is by Jay Barbree, who is a well known journalist in space circles. His credentials are nothing to scoff at: NASA awarded him in 1995 as the only journalist to report on all 100 manned spaceflights.. Thus, it is not surprising that Barbree’s relationship with Armstrong goes all the way back to the early 1960s – Armstrong apparently even carried a memento to the moon for him on Apollo 11. Unfortunately, Barbree has tried to right a book for far too general an audience, and leaves out a lot of personal insights that might have been interesting to people that already have a good background on the history of NASA and the space program.

A Life of Flight opens with a thrilling telling of Armstrong’s ejection over Korea in the early 1950s and moves from there directly into his career with NACA and then later NASA. The story of Armstrong’s work before the astronaut corps – especially his time at Edwards – is very interesting and deserving of the time. However, leaving out his even earlier life leaves something to be desired as far as knowing the man. Barbree then rushes us into Armstrong’s selection as an astronaut in 1962 and from here the narrative goes downhill, in my opinion. Barbree’s choice of tone for the book from here on out is to try to give us Armstrong’s perspective and thoughts on all of the events of the space program, even those for which Armstrong as tangentially related. While I believe Barbree probably really did know Neil’s thoughts on all of these events, the choice of tense to tell the story as if we are seeing the entire space program unfold through Neil’s eyes comes off as a bit campy and although much of it may be accurate, many of the direct quotations are certainly based loosely on recollections at best.

Overall, A Life of Flight gives a good overview of the Gemini and Apollo programs and the life of Neil Armstrong for readers that may not already be well read on the history of NASA. For me, I felt myself constantly wishing Barbree would get on with it and when he would get through the things I can read in other more traditional space histories and learn what Armstrong the man was really like. Unfortunately, that book I was hoping for never materialized before the final chapter, when Barbree outlines his political views on the current state of the space program (going as far as to even mention political figures), an unfortunate choice, as it will quickly date itself after just one or two election cycles.

I was very happy to find that Sally Ride: America’s First Woman In Space by Lynn Sherr, does indeed deliver. Sherr has less experience with space reporting but covered the Space Shuttle program in depth for ABC in the 80s. Like, Barbree and Armstrong, Sherr and Ride met early in Ride’s NASA career, during Sherr’s first trip to Houston in 1981. They became fast friends after their first interview there at JSC. Despite their close friendship, Sherr did not even know the truth about some aspects of Ride’s private life until after she passed in 2012. The effect this had on her emotionally comes through in the book, as she struggles to understand a woman who was at once both so close and so distant.

If you don’t like biographies that spend time on a person’s lineage and background before they were famous, then you may actually like the Armstrong book more, as Sally Ride spends almost 100 pages on Ride’s family, youth, upbringing, and education before she is recruited at NASA as part of the first Space Shuttle class of astronauts in the late 1970s. However, Ride was an intriguing personality and a tough nut to crack, without understanding how she got there – and it was a bit of a windy road – the reader would lose much of what makes Ride such an enigma. What I love about Sherr’s biography is that she is not soft on telling us about Ride’s faults – she was often standoffish, hard to get close to, and kept to herself. This fits with what others have said about her: Mullane does not paint himself as a fan of Ride in his own memoir Riding Rockets. But with her unique position as a lifelong friend, Sherr is able to also give us a balanced view of Ride’s commitment and loyalty to friends who made it into her inner circle.

It may be unfair in some ways to compare these two books. Sally Ride was a symbol of social change, almost gaining all of her fame merely by being selected as an astronaut before she ever flew. We didn’t know it until recently, but not only did she break through gender barriers but she was breaking through barriers of sexual orientation, as well. By contrast, Neil Armstrong was just another white male test pilot in the 1950s and 1960s. While he is a true American hero in his own right, and wore his fame with a quiet dignity, his story does not have the same power as that of Sally Ride.

Sally Ride had me riveted the entire time, while A Life of Flight had me constantly wondering when I would learn something new. If you are a space geek – and let’s face it, you are or you wouldn’t be reading this – you are going to want to read Sally Ride but you might want to skip Barbree’s offering and go pick up First Man instead, which is on my 2016 reading list.

You can get both books I have reviewed here for reasonable prices on Amazon (links below).

Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight

Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Last week the US Senate passed a bill named the “U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act”.  One of the most talked about provisions in the bill allows private citizens or companies to lay claim to asteroid resources.

Virgin Galactic announced that they have hired their first female test pilot: Kelly Latimer, who has flown for the USAF and NASA.

An object known as WT1190F re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and broke up over the Indian Ocean on November 13th. The object was thought to be a rocket stage from an Apollo mission. Astronomers onboard an airplane caught some pictures of the event.

This is pretty cool:

In Orbit

In the past week, only one rocket blasted into orbit: an ESA Ariane 5 rocket with communications satellites for India and Saudi Arabia. The next launch in support of the ISS is still a few weeks away: an Atlas V carrying a Cygnus freighter for Orbital ATK.

Around the Solar System

I love this animated mission update on the Rosetta/Philae mission from ESA.

New analysis indicates that Mars’ small moon Phobos may only have millions of years to live. Due to its low orbit, it is getting torn apart by tidal forces, which cause the strange “grooves” on its surface.

New images of large mountains on Pluto may be evidence for “ice volcanoes” (or “cryovolcanoes”).

Check out this animation which shows the different spin rates of Pluto’s 5 moons.

Astronomers have discovered a new distant solar system object which may be the most distant rocky body known. V774104 is about half the size of Pluto and orbits several times further away.

Out There

Newly discovered planet , GJ 1132b, is the closest planet of about Earth’s size yet discovered, at only 39 light years distant. Unfortunately, the planet is tidally locked and very close to its star, making it not a fun place.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Jeff Bezos’ rocket company Blue Origin announced they will be manufacturing and launching from Cape Canaveral at Launch Complex 36.

Check out this Kickstarter for a planetary exploration based board game called Xtronaut.

A new exhibit about the early Russian space program, with some awesome artifacts, has opened at the Science Museum of London.

Check out this unique scale model of our solar system in the Nevada desert (via Universe Today).

In Orbit

There were several rocket launches to orbit in the past week, all from Russia and China carrying communications or Earth-observing spacecraft. China launched three rockets of various sizes from their Long March series, ending with a maiden flight of the new Long March 6 rocket. Russia’s single launch was a Proton rocket lofting a communications satellites.

Up on the ISS, Mikhail Kornienko and Scott Kelly reached the halfway mark of their one-year stay on the ISS. One of the ways they celebrated was by watching an advance copy of the new movie The Martian.

Some of the cast from The Martian visited the Johnson Space Center last week and got to talk to Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren aboard the ISS.

Speaking of “live from space”, there was a special event at the National Press Club last week with Mark Kelly, Terry Virts, and Scott Kelly.

Around the Solar System

You have to check out the latest batch of images of Pluto from the New Horizons spacecraft.

New analysis from the Cassini mission around Saturn has revealed that the liquid water under the ice on Enceladus may in fact be a global ocean, not just an isolated pocket or sea. This makes the prospect of a “life-hunting” mission to Enceladus all the more tantalizing.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

At the “grand opening” of Boeing’s new spacecraft processing facility, the new name for their space capsule was announced. Boeing CST-100 is now called Starliner. In addition, the former Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) at Kennedy Space Center will now be known as the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF). Check out the new mural on the side of the building!

via CollectSPACE

A couple of “design nerds” are running a Kickstarter campaign to reproduce the “NASA design manual” from 1976 which introduced the NASA worm logo, which the agency used until 1992. Given that I was born in 1987, I actually have such mixed memories of NASA imagery from my childhood that I didn’t realize that ” themeatball” (currently used logo) and “the worm” were mutually exclusive, and never used by NASA at the same time.

In Orbit

The big news in orbit this past week was the launch and docking of Soyuz 44, or TMA-18M, with crew of Sergey Volkov, Andreas Mogensen, and Aydyn Aimbetov. They docked this past Friday, September 4th. There will be 9 people on the ISS until Soyuz 42 (TMA-16M) undocks on September 11th. Mogensen and Aimbetov will be flying home with Gennady Padalka on the 11th.

In preparation for the crew rotation next week, Gennady Padalka handed command of the ISS over to Scott Kelly, who will command two consecutive missions, Expedition 45 and 46, until he ends his one-year mission next year.

In other launch news, a Navy communications satellite launched from Florida on an Atlas V rocket last Wednesday (actually, only a few hours after the Soyuz launch!).

Unfortunately, the big radar on NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) spacecraft (launched on a Delta II rocket earlier this year) has failed. The probe has one other science instrument so it will continue operations.

An old Soviet satellite called Kosmos 1315 re-entered the atmosphere over Hawaii on August 31st, which many locals caught on film.

Around the Solar System

The Curiosity rover spotted some really interesting wind-eroded rock formations on Mars.

I know I shared one of these before but this new Pluto flyby animation is even better than the last one.

What will be the legacy of ISS?

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.

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

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

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

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

In Orbit

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

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

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

Around the Solar System

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

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

via Universe Today

Not to mention they discovered nitrogen glaciers!

via Universe Today

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

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

Out There

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

Book Review: Below Tranquility Base

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.

Weekly Links

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)

In Orbit

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.

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