Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

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

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

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

In Orbit

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

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

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

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

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

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

Around the Solar System

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

Because it’s Cool

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

2014 in review – Part II

This is the second in a series of posts reviewing the year 2014 in spaceflight. Here is a link to Part I.

If you read my blog it’s because you are a lover of space, or you are my mom (hi mom!). So I assume you are not offended by the limited focus of this small slice of the internet. There are of course other things going on in the world besides rockets launching and people flying in space. And even I admit that in many cases those things are more important. For instance, the January 7th terrorist attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo commanded the world’s attention, and rightly so. Such a tragic and visible event is an important moment in the history of our culture – the way we choose to respond says something about how we value our free speech (or not).

The year of 2014 had its share of world events that command more attention than what I write about in this blog. From the threat of ISIS in the middle east, the winter olympics in Sochi, Russia, Ebola virus outbreaks in West Africa, the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and the normalization of US-Cuba relations, it was a busy year (it’s nice to see the Rosetta comet mission on some lists of major world events).

In the same way that my space blog almost completely ignores these events to stay on point, I think the space community at large tends to insulate itself from the outside world. As you might imagine, this can have its downsides. The world is connected, and as much as we want, the fun things we do in space are affected by the rest of the world. Fans of NASA know this as they watch the yo-yo-ing of NASA’s slice of the federal budget over the years. I think 2014 drove this lesson home in a way fans of spaceflight hadn’t been expecting. When Russia invaded Crimea in late February, most space fans weren’t thinking of a connection. We were busy talking about Orbital Sciences’ successful cargo mission to ISS or looking at pictures of SpaceX’s new rocket with legs. It took until April for “reality” to catch up with us.

Part II – Of trampolines and rockets

In early April, the US state department instructed NASA to cut all contact with Russia. This would of course be very concerning – and hard for the space community to tune out – except for that the ISS program was exempted. The ISS of course being the one major ongoing collaboration between our two space programs. The only other example I can think of is that NASA and Roscosmos are both involved in the ESA-led ExoMars mission.

Things really got interesting when Dmitri Rogozin, Russian Deputy Prime Minister, tweeted “After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.” Most Americans wouldn’t have even heard about it – after all, it was tweeted in Cyrillic – except it was too pithy a jab to go unnoticed by American media. In light of the geopolitcal tensions between our nations that had been brewing since February, it was a juicy new angle – Russia might not let American astronauts fly on their Soyuz. It didn’t matter that most Americans hadn’t heard of Rogozin before, if he was saying that he would cut America off from the ISS, it must mean he could. He said it on Twitter, after all.

It seemed that although the US had exempted the ISS program, Russian officials weren’t taking it off the table as a political chess piece. Rogozin’s anger stemmed from the fact that he was individually targeted in the recent sanctions from the US against Russia for their actions in Ukraine. As ABC News reported,

The sanctions freeze any assets under American jurisdiction and prevent American banks from doing business with the named individual, essentially freezing them out of the international banking system. The sanctions also impose a ban on their travel to the United States.

As Deputy Prime Minister, Rogozin is responsible for the entire Russian space program, including the state-owned corporation NPO Energomash, which produces the RD-180 rocket engine used by the American company United Launch Alliance (ULA) to launch US Department of Defense satellites with the Atlas V rocket… see where this is going?

However, nowhere in the sanctions against Rogozin are the companies and agency’s he manages directly called out. Business was going on as usual in the space industry up to this point (the NASA ban on Russian cooperation doesn’t apply to a private company, ULA, buying rocket engines). So, the question still stands, what set off Rogozin to author the trampoline tweet?

Enter Elon Musk and his company SpaceX, whose lawyers filed a lawsuit against the government (specifically, the U.S. Air Force) challenging a 36-rocket “block buy” contract with ULA. The main premise of the suit was that the contract was unfair and lacked competition (meaning of course, that SpaceX did not have a chance to offer a bid). Among other statements at the press conference announcing the suit, Musk is quoted as saying (from SpacePolitics.com):

How is it that we’re sending hundreds of millions of US taxpayers’ money at a time when Russia is in the process of invading Ukraine? It would be hard to imagine that Dmitry Rogozin is not benefiting personally from the dollars that are being sent there. On the surface of it, it appears that there’s a good probability of some kind of sanctions violation.

It seems that Elon Musk stoked the fire here, complaining that ULA’s use of the RD-180, a powerful engine built and sold by NPO Energomash, should not be allowed during this time of geopolitical tension with Russia. Hard to argue with his logic, isn’t it? A few days after the lawsuit was filed and Elon Musk’s press conference, Rogozin posted his famous tweet. The next day, a U.S. Court of Federal Claims issued an injunction saying that ULA could not purchase more RD-180 engines from NPO Energomash for Department of Defense rocket launches, citing the sanctions against Rogozin. Your move Dmitri.

How is it that Elon Musk, with his 12-year-old rocket company, had amassed enough influence to directly affect international relations between two of the biggest world powers? Granted, Musk is a billionaire, but his company is just a rocket company, not a media conglomerate or oil company, the traditional ways to have political influence as a rich guy. Founded in 2002, you wouldn’t think that SpaceX has a huge share of the world launch market. They have only 19 launches under their belt (a few of which were failures); compare that to the 14 successful launches from ULA just in 2014[1]. A big part of SpaceX’s quick rise surely comes from the intriguing personality of Elon Musk, whose vision and ideas capture the imagination of the young generation. His tenacity and commitment to his dreams make it hard to root against him – his three current big ventures (SpaceX, Tesla, and Solar City), if successful, seem to have a clear benefit for society. But this really only explains the cult of SpaceX, not its influence on a political level. To understand why SpaceX is in such a position of influence takes a revelation about the “launch services sector” (or, the rocket business), that I don’t think most people understand; I don’t think I got it until last year either.

Not to get too technical, but the revelation becomes clear with just a little bit of Wikipedia research. Forgive me for making you look at a data table, but I think it tells the story better than a bunch of links. Let’s say you work for Iridium, the satellite phone service company, and you need to buy a rocket to launch a new satellite. If your satellite weighs around 689 kg, then there are only 21 types of rockets in the world that have the power, and a lot of them aren’t for sale. Here’s the list:

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Source: Wikipedia article “comparison of orbital launch systems”

The first thing that should jump out at you is that there are only three companies from the United States that can launch medium-sized satellites. Fortunately for the folks at Iridium, their satellites are not military, and the company has utilized American, Russian, and even Chinese rockets to build their global sat-phone network.

In another scenario, you work at the Pentagon and need to find a large rocket to launch a secret spy satellite that weighs between 2,000 and 3,000 kg. Not only do your options get more limited (the Indian GSLV and Orbital Minotaur fall off the list, among others) but you are going to have to use an American company. You won’t be allowed to ship a secret satellite out of the country for launch, obviously.

So now your options are down to the three American companies, all of which have rockets that can launch your big spy satellite. However, if our scenario occurs before 2008, before the first Falcon 9 or Antares flight, there was only one choice – ULA. This is the revelation that 2014 made clear to me. We are 50 years into the “space age” but our grasp on space is hanging on by one company’s monopoly and just a few rocket designs. Until the Falcon 9 and Antares rockets, every major government launch – NASA, Air Force, NOAA, or other military – was on either a ULA rocket (or predecessors), or a Space Shuttle. If space is the frontier, then ULA is Union Pacific at Promontory Point.

So, three choices is pretty good, right? It’s better than we get in our presidential elections here in the US. Well, the problem is that although 2008 is 7 iPhone versions ago, it is very recent in terms of the space industry. As of April 2014, Orbital Sciences was not pursuing military payloads and SpaceX had not yet received certification from the USAF for their Falcon 9 version 1.1 rocket. ULA was the only game in town for the Pentagon, but SpaceX expected that to change soon, as they had successfully launched the CRS-3 mission to the ISS on April 18th, the all-important third flight needed as part of the certification process. The Russian sanctions and push back from Rogozin could not have been happening at a better time for SpaceX, who appeared to be on the verge of becoming a real direct competitor to ULA. SpaceX is an American company, using American-built rocket engines, seen to be on the verge of being able to fully replace America’s areas of dependence on Russia in space. Keep in mind that the Atlas V was also in the pipe to be the launch vehicle for both Boeing and Sierra Nevada if they were to be awarded commercial crew contracts to the ISS. It seemed everything about the US launch sector was wrapped up in this issue. You can bet Musk was going to take advantage of it.

The story didn’t end on April 30th with the injunction against he RD-180 engine. That should be obvious from the way Rogozin responded to Elon Musk’s comments days before. Unfortunately for SpaceX’s political goals, the injunction against the RD-180 engines was lifted by the court about a week later. Just as things were seeming to thaw out, Rogozin hit Twitter again.

Russia is ready to continue deliveries of RD-180 engines to the us only under the guarantee that they won’t be used in the interests of the Pentagon.”

Roscosmos doesn’t plan to continue cooperation with the US on the ISS after 2020

It may be tempting to dismiss Rogozin’s comments as just posturing on Twitter. However, they came after the topics were discussed at more length at a Russian press conference, and led directly to debate in the U.S. Senate and a letter from Congressmen to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden questioning how he plans to deal with these threats. It just goes to show that what’s most important is who says something, not how. And although a National Reconnaissance Office payload launched on an Atlas V on May 19 with no apparent political repercussions, Rogozin’s inflammatory remarks had done their job. An “RD-180 Study Group” was busy investigating the impacts of a potential loss of the RD-180 engine, which recommended allocating funds to develop a new engine. This would turn into a funding debate for the rest of 2015. Ultimately, the 2015 budget passed in December included $220 million to start designing an RD-180 replacement.

In the meantime, over at NASA, things never got much more heated than they were back in April and May. In fact, in August there were reports out of Russia from Roscosmos officials that ISS would likely be operated past 2020. But the “trampoline tweet” was ingrained in the community’s mind. Fortunately, optimism was available later in the year when NASA announced that the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts would go to Boeing for the CST-100 and SpaceX for the Dragon V2. It’s no surprise that SpaceX was included as one of the remaining two options – if NASA had gone with both Boeing and Sierra Nevada then NASA astronauts would be flying atop Atlas V’s starting in 2017, powered by RD-180 engines. Sierra Nevada immediately protested the award, but the protest was recently thrown out in January 2015.

Optimism turned to shock when on October 28th an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket, carrying cargo to the ISS, exploded spectacularly just seconds after liftoff.

First moments of Antares explosion (via Spaceflight Now, image courtesy NASA)

If you remember from our earlier chart, the Antares is the other large US rocket powered by foreign technology. The first stage engine for the Antares is the AJ-26, which is really just the Ukranian NK-33 imported by Aerojet Rocketdyne and refurbished. These imported engines were literally built decades ago, but are an affordable and well-built option. The seemingly excessive use of Russian or Ukranian engines in the US launch sector isn’t for nothing – the Soviets were darn good at building rocket engines, and that expertise has continued to today.

Earlier in the year an AJ-26 blew up on a test stand, but a successful launch of a mission to ISS in July eased everyone’s concerns. Things seemed to be going well for “commercial space” – SpaceX had recently launched their sixth and final Falcon 9 flight of the year – but everyone immediately thought of that old Soviet NK-33 engine the moment they saw the Antares rocket raining down in flames.

The loss of that Antares rocket unfortunately will be the lasting memory of 2014, a year of uncertainty and debate for rocket companies in the US. While Orbital Sciences has announced a path forward, it doesn’t help answer many of the questions raised by events of the past year. Orbital announced in December that it would fly at least its next ISS resupply mission on an Atlas V (yes, that Atlas V) while it works on a plan to replace the aging AJ-26 engines on its own Antares rocket. And finally, in January 2015, Orbital announced it had made a deal with NPO Energomash (yes, that NPO Energomash) to purchase RD-181 engines to power future versions of the Antares, hopefully with a first flight sometime in 2016.

So you can see the tricky spot the industry is left in at the beginning of 2015. Despite Russia not being a political ally of the United States, Russian rocket engines continue to be an important workhorse for American launches – both military and civil – and operations of the ISS cannot continue without Russian cooperation (by design). The good news is that the issues from 2014 are mostly reasons just to be cautious and concerned about the future, and to lay plans accordingly. No scary outcome, like an actual embargo against NASA astronauts flying on a Soyuz, seems at all likely. ISS operations continue as always, and those of us working on the program have not seen any real signs that that won’t continue for the life of the space station. Atlas V rocket launches – powered by Russian RD-180 engines – continue apace with no signs of stopping. In fact, an Atlas V will launch from Florida tomorrow night with the MUOS-3 reconnaissance payload.

In 2015, the Falcon 9 rocket is expected to achieve Air Force certification, and hopefully the ongoing lawsuit that SpaceX started in April of last year will be resolved. Will SpaceX win and break the monopoly held by ULA? Also, the next phase of the ISS commercial cargo contract will be awarded by NASA. Will the award go to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to maintain the status quo? Or will Orbital’s launch vehicle uncertainty open the door for a new player like Sierra Nevada? Either way that contract goes, the only fully domestic option available to NASA seems to be SpaceX. All of these questions involve SpaceX in one way or another and the answers will color the future of the rocket launching business in America.

Screen shot 2015-01-19 at 8.51.32 PM

[1] – ULA has actually only existed since 2006, but the parent companies – Lockheed Martin and Boeing – have a long-standing relationship with the U.S. Air Force. The current suite of ULA rockets are part of the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Program (EELV) which was started in the mid 1990’s.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

As of Friday night, the next SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to send a Dragon capsule to the ISS is still on the ground. But the issue that caused launch abort on Tuesday has been dealt with, and the SpaceX launch team is busy prepping for another attempt in just a few hours. Launch is scheduled for 4:47 AM Eastern, Saturday, January 10th. I will be getting up to watch mostly because of the crazy attempt to land the first stage on a barge… I mean autonomous drone ship.

At the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., a new exhibit just opened called Outside the Spacecraft. The exhibit celebrates 50 years of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) which started with Russian Alexei Leonov’s first spacewalk in 1965.

In Orbit

Space Adventures has announced they have signed on another ISS “spaceflight participant” (or, tourist, if you prefer) – Japanese advertising mogul Satoshi Takamatsu. It is likely that he is the “backup” for Sarah Brightman, who will be flying to ISS later in 2015.

The week in images, from ESA.

Have to include some obligatory tweets from space.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s amazing Mars rover Opportunity finally summited Cape Tribulation this week, the highest point Opportunity will see during her mission. She is now over 400 feet above the vast plains that she drove across for years to reach Endeavour Crater. Here is the view.

Out There

2015 is 25 years since the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, which is still returning amazing astronomical results. The Hubble team knows how to celebrate right, and this week released two amazing images: first a new view of the Pillars of Creation and second an amazingly huge view of the Andromeda galaxy.

Because it’s cool

Randall Munroe of XKCD does some fun calculations about building a swimming pool on the moon.

I love these exoplanet “travel posters“.

This response, which injects a dose of realism, is even better:

2014 in review – Part I

You can read last year’s 2013 in review posts for context here: Part I and Part II.

Part I – NASA

When trying to summarize a year for any topic, be it world events, politics, or some niche area, like spaceflight, it is tempting to try to pick out one or two big events that were the highlight of the year. I expect the people at NASA headquarters will want to focus especially on the successful first mission of the new Orion capsule. That unmanned mission, called EFT-1, went off without a hitch in early December and was promoted by NASA as a “first step” on our new journey to Mars. Certainly, the Orion (and the SLS rocket to fly it) is a significant enough portion of NASA’s budget ($3.1 out of $17.6 billion for FY 2014) to make some noise about. But it is obviously not the only thing the agency is doing.

NASA lives in a tough public relations environment in which its greatest area of success and stability – robotic planetary exploration – doesn’t receive the same level of attention as its manned exploration programs, which are more often in flux. In 2013, NASA launched a very expensive new Mars orbiter, MAVEN, which entered Mars orbit right on schedule. MAVEN is an interesting science mission, but it is hard to explain to the public in an easy sound bite why the “Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN” mission is exciting. MAVEN also serves a very important secondary role of being a replacement relay satellite for the active Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity. In fact, the solar system is full of continuing stories of NASA’s success in planetary exploration – sometimes referred to as NASA’s “crown jewel”: three Mars orbiters, two rovers on Mars, New Horizons on the way to Pluto, Cassini at Saturn, Dawn on the way to Vesta, Juno on the way to Jupiter, and I’ve certainly left something out.

The problem with ongoing planetary missions is that they move slowly. They don’t have the sex appeal that news channels can include on the morning edition. It seems to me that there are only a few distinct things that get a space story coverage on the national news, and none of them are “Mars rover continues to rove”. The hooks as I see them are: rocket launch, astronauts, political relevance, failure, or the specter of failure (like a daring Mars landing). So which planetary missions had a hook this year? Well, none, really. No major missions launched, no major missions failed in a newsworthy way, and no NASA missions had a daring EDL (Entry, Descent, and Landing) sequence to capture the public’s attention. The European Space Agency’s landing on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko got widespread media coverage specifically because of that hook about the specter of failure. Google even featured Philae in at least one of their “doodles” and in a national TV ad run on New Year’s Eve.

The story of the year was clearly ESA’s Rosetta/Philae mission. Robotic planetary exploration, NASA’s crown jewel, did not shine in 2014, and was in fact overshadowed by the plucky yet doomed Philae lander. So, although NASA had a lucky 13 planetary missions in operation during 2014, the biggest success of the year for the agency really did come late in the year with the EFT-1 flight of Orion. Thus, you would expect that NASA’s own PR would focus on this hugely expensive and visible part of their plans. But looking at their own year-end summaries, like the “This Year At NASA” video, Orion, SLS, and the future of manned spaceflight are not given the importance we would expect.

In fact, the video opens by mentioning “…the next giant leap in space exploration: sending astronauts to Mars” but only mentions development of certain “game-changing technologies” in that context, and briefly mentions that NASA’s plans “…could include a human mission in the 2020s to an asteroid…” SLS and Orion are mentioned in a different part of the video. Here in this short 6-minute 2014 summary video, we can see why coverage of the EFT-1 mission was by-and-large fleeting. NASA PR material does not make it clear what the long-term plan is. Astronauts could visit an asteroid? Why don’t we know where we are going yet? These are reasonable questions for the public to be asking. Americans probably wouldn’t mind if the first mission to Mars is 15 to 20 years away if you tell them specifically what needs to be done to reach that goal. Imagine a series of milestones like we had for Apollo – the Gemini program missions and then the early Apollo missions each had a purpose, a technology or technique to test out, that had to be done before a landing could be attempted. 2014 was a year of opportunity for NASA to lay out that plan for people as EFT-1 approached. Instead, we get two rather vague graphics (one released in April, and the other in December), which do not do much to outline specific milestones.

“Path to Mars” from April 2014 by NASA

“Journey to Mars” from December 2014 by NASA

With vagueness, very long timelines, and no second Orion mission for 3 years, it is understandable that the public did not latch on to the EFT-1 story in 2014. Before we blame “kids these days”, the state of education, or America’s preoccupation with reality TV and celebrities, I think in some ways 2014 also proved that people do in fact care about space exploration.

Perhaps I need to convince you. Go watch that Google TV spot again. It ends with a rather long sequence highlighting the success of Philae, voiced over by Bill Nye. The movie Interstellar was a financial success this year, hot on the heels of 2013’s Gravity. Most tellingly, in my opinion, is how the public responds to real stories and images of spaceflight from the astronauts onboard the ISS.

The ISS was home to many prolific tweeters in 2014, including Mike Hopkins, Richard Mastracchio, Koichi Wakata, Reid Wiseman, Alex Gerst, Terry Virts, and Samantha Cristoforetti (Virts and Cristoforetti are in space at the time of this writing). Commander Steve Swanson didn’t tweet, but posted lots of pictures on the ISS Instagram feed – more recent crews have kept up the postings there. And then during Expedition 40, the ISS crew joined Vine, with accounts from Reid Wiseman, Terry Virts, and “InsideISS” popping up. Most posts from astronauts average several hundred retweets, favorites, or comments per post, but often they reach several thousand. A tweet of a few shots of a moonset from ISS on Virts’ twitter feed from December 22nd has been retweeted 3,571 times.

The average person loves space exploration and the idea of living in space. What people don’t love is talking about space policy. The average person doesn’t want to know the political or technical nuances of this or that NASA budget or plan. I know this from personal experience talking about my job. What people want to know is where we are going, that we have a solid plan to get there, and that there’s a chance that their kid who wants to be an astronaut could be involved in those awesome plans. Americans expect NASA and its employees to be brilliant, driven, motivated, and no nonsense – the qualities of all of the characters in the movie Apollo 13. The “failure is not an option” mythos translates directly to an expectation that NASA knows what it’s doing and where it’s going. When NASA’s own PR says things like we could be going to an asteroid in a few years, not that we will, most people would understandably be thinking that they’ll check back in when NASA has its plans figured out.

I don’t know what the most common answer would be if you asked people on the street what important things happened for NASA in 2014, but I have some guesses. A lot of people may think that Rosetta/Philae was a NASA mission and mention that. Others will remember the “NASA rocket” that blew up, by which they would be referring to the Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket that failed shortly after launch (technically not a NASA failure, but it’s unfair to expect the layman to understand the difference). What would not likely be on the list is the official PR line about EFT-1: that NASA launched the first in a series of missions to take the human race to Mars. The general feeling towards NASA at the end of 2014 is likely more along the lines of “has plans to do some awesome stuff in 10 or 20 years that I’ll get excited about then.”

What answers would you get if you asked the same question of congress people and staffers on Capitol Hill? They are well aware of the SLS/Orion program because of its large cost – in the Fiscal Year 2015 budget that was approved in December, a big part of the $500 million increase over last year’s budget went to that project. A total of about $2 billion will be spent on SLS/Orion in 2015. Unfortunately, the willingness to increase NASA’s budget likely has more factors than a commitment to a long-term Path to Mars. More immediate issues, like the ripple effects of growing geopolitical tensions between the US and Russia, were likely on politicians minds when they approved the Cromnibus spending bill last month. The Crimea crisis in February set the tone for most discussion about NASA inside the Beltway during 2014: NASA can’t launch its own astronauts to space. Most of all, 2014 was a reminder of that fact. The good news is that with the award of the CCtCAP contract to Boeing and SpaceX and the launch of EFT-1, 2014 had a lot of bright points; it showed concrete evidence that NASA is working on closing the gap.

So how will 2014 be remembered? With an increased budget, an almost flawless Orion test flight, and lots of “rovers continuing to rove”, NASA has reasons to be optimistic going into 2015. However, 2014 was the middle year in the gap that hopefully will end in 2017 with a crewed test flight of an American spacecraft. The explosion of an ISS resupply rocket in October combined with mostly vague plans for future human spaceflight has left the public unconvinced that NASA is where their love of space should be focused right now. NASA faces a real chance of being further marginalized and replaced in the public’s psyche by “New Space”, but it all depends on what certain key players, such as SpaceX and Bigelow can achieve in the coming year.

In part 2 of my year in review, I will recap how the US sanctions on Russia related to Ukraine affected various aspects of the US space sector, a perfect opportunity for Elon Musk to steal the public’s focus away from NASA.

Weekly Links

Lots of cool stuff this week. Read all the way to the end for a special treat of a video.

Down to Earth

The James Webb Space Telescope, under assembly and testing at Goddard Spaceflight Center, did a full secondary mirror deploy test in November. NASA published this timelapse of the test, which gives a great sense of the immense scale of this space telescope. Note that this test is with the actual flight hardware.

The iconic – and very old – countdown clock at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center was disassembled last week to make way for a new modern clock, which should be ready for the EFT-1 launch later this week.

Admit it, whenever you are catching up on space news, you are wondering what will happen next with the two recent (but unrelated) space accidents – the loss of SpaceShipTwo and an Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket. Well, not a lot has happened in recent weeks. A couple little things have happened, such as Land Rover offering alternatives prizes in their Galactic Discovery Competition and initial damage assessments coming in from the Wallops Island launch pad. In the meantime, you can read this to-the-point discussion of what the accidents say about risk aversion (or acceptance) in the industry.

In Orbit

Last week, NASA and Made In Space were very excited to announce the first replacement part which was printed aboard ISS with the first 3D printer in space. The part was a simple plastic cover for the printer itself, but the point is the proof of concept. Much excitement surrounds the prospect of 3D printers in space – with the Made In Space printer being the first of several printers to make it aboard the space station. This article from the Space Review puts the idea in perspective, by summarizing the findings of the National Research Council Committee on Space-Based Additive Manufacturing.

Also on the ISS last week, the rather large “SpinSat” was deployed using the Japanese robotic arm. SpinSat is a 125 pound satellite designed by the U.S. Naval Research Lab to test out their ground surveillance technologies using lasers. You can read more about it in an NRL press release here. Here are some pictures that ISS commander Butch Wilmore took of the satellite being deployed.

Later this month, the 5th official SpaceX Dragon resupply mission to the ISS will launch from Florida aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. The launch is currently set for December 16th. Although every one of these missions is still exciting (if you haven’t seen a Falcon 9 launch, get down there), this mission will be especially interesting to follow because of what will happen to the rocket’s first stage. On previous flights, SpaceX has practiced “controlled landing” of the first stage in the open ocean. On this flight, the rocket will actually land on an autonomous floating platform. Elon Musk revealed a picture of the craft on his twitter, and I admit, it’s pretty slick. In addition, “grid fins” will help the rocket’s guidance on entry – here’s a picture of those as well.

The biggest story of this week should be the launch of EFT-1 (or Exploration Flight Test 1), which is the first test flight of the Orion spacecraft, which is the new NASA exploration vehicle. Although the spacecraft will be flying aboard a ULA Delta IV Heavy, rather than the Space Launch System (which isn’t ready yet), this is still a major milestone for NASA. The four-and-a-half hour, two-orbit mission will be the first non-ISS spacecraft operations from NASA’s Mission Control Center at the Johnson Space Center since STS-135 landed in 2011. Flight controllers (colleagues of mine, no less!) have been training hard for months and years for this first dress rehearsal of our new program.

Parabolic Arc has a great summary of the mission and the Planetary Society put together a very readable timeline of the mission’s events. The launch window opens at just after 7 AM EST on Thursday morning, December 4th. I highly suggest you tune in!

Around the Solar System

As if not to be outdone by EFT-1, a big moment in human spaceflight, the world of robotic planetary science has a big launch this week as well: Hayabusa-2. This is a JAXA follow-up to the first Hayabusa mission, which successfully returned samples of asteroid Itokawa in 2010. Hayabusa-2’s overall design is at its core the same as the first mission, with some important upgrades (“lessons learned” have no doubt been incorporated). The mission will hopefully launch from Tanegashima on Wednesday, December 3rd, and make it’s way to asteroid 1999 JU3 by 2018, where it will collect samples to return to Earth in 2020.

And last but not least, check out this awesome imaginative short film about the future of humanity throughout the solar system: Wanderers.

Expedition 40: Beginnings and Endings

The International Space Station program is unique in spaceflight in that it holds the record for the longest continuous human presence in space at over 5,000 days. The longevity of the program puts people like myself in a distinct and strange position: despite being a moderately experienced flight controller with over 5 years of experience, the start of Expedition 1 in November 2000 is distant history to me. Do you know where I was when Soyuz TM-31 launched that Fall? Taking Algebra and French in 8th grade. As far as my professional career is concerned, the ISS has always been there. There was no beginning – it just was.

Being the lead ADCO, or guidance officer, for Expedition 40, has been an outstandingly challenging and rewarding experience. Taking over the reigns of something with so much history and meaning and trying to learn to steer is a bit terrifying. I imagine that it’s a bit like what stepping into the Oval Office on the first day is like, although with significantly less pressure and responsibility. There are already so many pieces in motion when you step in – people doing their jobs, mostly quite well, who don’t care that a new guy is running the show. And of course, the space station didn’t reset the day Expedition 40 began. Any issues that came up in Expedition 39 (bugs in software, worn down mechanical systems, lost cargo) are still there when the shiny new Expedition 40 patch is velcroed to the side of the Flight Director console in FCR-1. There are people working those issues: running failure investigation teams, rewriting flight rules and procedures, and planning cargo manifests. That daily grind carries no Expedition number. It is simply the work that needs to be done day in and day out until the last expedition comes home.

Which brings us to endings. There’s a cliched question you are supposed to get asked at a job interview: “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” This question is used because 10 years is a long time. Long enough that your career should have progressed forward in some important way – maybe you moved on to management or got assigned to some new project, or maybe you don’t even want to do the same job for 10 years. Hence the interview question. Will I still be doing this job in 10 years? I don’t know. Based on the average rate that flight controllers move on to new things, I likely won’t still be in ADCO. But one thing is fairly certain: there will still be ADCOs. The ISS is planned to be flying until at least 2024. So the end is just as distant as the beginning. A child born on the day Bill Shepard launched to the ISS in 2000 could easily be manning the ADCO console when we send the space station into the Pacific in 2024, or later.

So when Expedition 40 ends tomorrow with the undocking and landing of Steve Swanson, Aleksandr Skvortsov, and Oleg Artemyev, isn’t it an ending? When Commander Steve Swanson shook Maxim Suraev’s hand today during the change of command ceremony it was the end of Expedition 40 and the beginning of Expedition 41. The return to earth of an ISS astronaut is an end to a long journey that includes years of training and preparation. For some astronauts like Chris Hadfield, who retired from the agency after he commanded ISS on Expedition 35, the return to Earth can signal the end to an important chapter of life and the chance to start something new. But at the same time, that handshake today was just the latest in a long line of handshakes that started with Bill Shepard and Yury Usachev in August 2001 when Expedition 1 ended and Expedition 2 began. Swanny and Max’s handshake was preceded by Swanny and Koichi, Koichi and Oleg, Oleg and Fyodor, Fyodor and Pavel, Pavel and Chris, and so on. So while we may choose to label tomorrow’s undocking with some importance as a minor beginning or ending, the reality is that that handshake really represents the continuation of something important and lasting.

In human spaceflight, as with many other difficult technical endeavors, the job is about building on the work of those that came before you. When the ISS elapsed time clock ticks over from 5,063 to 5,064 days tomorrow night, nothing will have begun nor ended. Instead, something amazing will continue. What a privilege to help keep it running for the 103 days of Expedition 40. Here’s to 5,000 more.

Weekly Links

It’s been a busy of December since my last post. A hectic week at work, following the thermal pump malfunction on December 11th, kept me very busy right up until my vacation to visit family around Christmas for a week. I am back in Houston now and working on catching up on what’s been happening outside of my little world for the past few weeks. This post will be followed shortly by a 2013 year in review post, so stay tuned!

Down to Earth

On December 10th, NASA JSC’s Morpheus vertical take-off and landing test vehicle conducted its first free flight since the previous model was destroyed in August 2012. Very cool to watch.

Edit: and they flew another flight just a few days later on December 17th, which I missed when I first wrote this post.

On December 11th, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo conducted a glide test in Mojave. More test are always good, but the frequency of glide tests without powered flights over the past few months was pretty much the nail in the coffin for Richard Branson’s prediction that he and his family would fly into space on the first suborbital flight on Christmas of this year. Clearly that didn’t happen. It seems likely however that Virgin will conduct another powered flight soon, possibly in the first week of January.

Doug Messier at Parabolic Arc is calling the first few days of 2014 “Launch Week”. Details on the various launches can be found over at his blog, but the quick summary is: SpaceX Falcon 9 commercial launch on Jan 3, Indian comm sat launch on Jan 5, Orbital Sciences ISS resupply flight on Jan 7, and a possible SpaceShipTwo flight.

Did you enjoy the movie Gravity? I liked it so much I saw it twice. Too bad the DVD wasn’t available for Christmas. Anyway, if you liked the movie, then take the time to watch this short behind-the-scenes clip that gives a glimpse at how some of the complex special effects were done.

The Las Vegas based company Bigelow Aerospace has put out a call for applicants to their “astronaut in-space simulations”. Basically the company wants to do their own independent look at how astronauts interact in closed quarters and also use the opportunity to improve their “crew systems” (in other words, the interior details of their inflatable space stations). Why not apply? Can’t hurt.

Be sure to go outside on January 3rd to look for the Quadrantid Meteors. They are supposed to be one of the best showers of the year, and this year the peak occurs on a new moon.

Astronaut Kevin Ford reminisced about spending Christmas in space during expedition 34 one year ago.

Folks are talking about Beyonce’s new song XO which opens with a sampling from the NASA broadcast of STS-51-L launch on January 28, 1986. The audio used is of the Public Affairs Officer reacting shortly after the shuttle Challenger was lost. The choice seems pretty tasteless and disrespectful, even if one can construe an ambiguous connection between the lyrics and the idea of a lost loved one. I personally can’t figure out if it is just a simple love song that has nothing to do with Challenger, or if it is intended to be something deeper. Listen for yourself.

In Orbit

The big news in orbit over the past couple of weeks was the malfunction onboard the International Space Station that led to two contingency EVAs that were prepared and executed right before Christmas. The issue also caused NASA to have to delay the launch and rendezvous of the second Orbital Sciences cargo flight to ISS, planned for a December 18th launch. The launch is now to occur in early January.

The summary of what happened is that on December 11th flight controllers started seeing anomalies in the ISS thermal cooling system. The problem was narrowed down to a faulty Flow Control Valve in one of the two pumps that flows ammonia to cool components on the outside of the station. Over the ensuing days, a few different teams were convened – one team was planning contingency EVAs to replace the pump, another was doing troubleshooting and thinking of ways to try to make the system work with the faulty valve, and another team was preparing a procedure to be executed in case the second pump failed (I was part of this team). After these teams worked night and day for over a week, it was determined that the pump should be replaced, and the first EVA was conducted on December 21st. The spacewalk was very successful; the pump removal went much better than a similar operation that replaced the same pump after a failure in 2010 during Expedition 24.

The second spacewalk was conducted on December 24th and left the station with a brand new pump and no more concerns about the thermal system for the time being. A potential third EVA was cancelled and the space station crew (and ground teams!) got a much needed break for Christmas.

The quick repair even allowed the Russian space agency to conduct their spacewalk that had already been scheduled for December 27th. One of the key objectives of the Russian EVA was to install some commercial cameras on the outside of the station. The purpose of the cameras is to make a live feed of Earth images, in fairly good resolution, available to the public. The cosmonauts got the cameras installed but they would not boot up, so they unfortately had to be brought back inside for troubleshooting.

Christmas 2013 is the 45th anniversary of an iconic photo taken by the crew of Apollo 8 while in orbit around the moon: Earthrise.

Earthrise

A team from NASA Goddard (with Andrew Chaikin for narration) put together a very cool (in an extremely nerdy way) recreation of how the image was captured that day (via Bad Astronomy).

Around the Solar System

On December 14th, the Chinese Chang’e 3 spacecraft came to a soft landing in the Bay of Rainbows on the Moon and quickly deployed the Yutu rover. Chang’e 3 is the first soft landing on the moon since the Soviet Luna 24 in 1976. Since that was over 37 years ago, almost 60% of the world’s population was not alive the last time there was an active rover on the moon. Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society has been doing an excellent job, as usual, gathering information and compiling the best photos and video clips of the Chang’e 3 mission. Here is an update from December 14th and  from December 23rd, but I recommend just following her blog directly for the best stuff!

Very cool news from the Hubble Space Telescope; recent data in ultraviolet wavelengths reveals strong evidence of liquid water geysers coming from Europa, a frozen moon of Jupiter. Previously, water geysers have been imaged in visible light coming from Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. The images are stunning. Water geysers imply an ample supply of subsurface water (either in a vast ocean or just pockets or lakes in the ice) as well as the possibility for a medium for life, and a way for our spacecraft to sample that water without needing to drill deep into the ice. More science needs to be done to confirm the Europa geysers but the current data seems very compelling. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the Juno spacecraft, currently on its way to Jupiter, will be able to confirm the geysers. This is because Juno’s missions objectives are related to the planet Jupiter itself, not its moons, and the visible light camera on Juno is more of an outreach tool than a primary instrument.

Lastly in planetary science news, the European orbiter Mars Express should have completed its very close flyby of the Mars moon Phobos by now. As Phil Plait writes, we don’t expect to get any close up pictures from the 27 mile flyby, but the data should help scientists nail down the exact mass of Phobos.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Many space enthusiasts and planetary scientists were unsettled by a NASA announcement on December 3rd about a restructuring of the planetary science budget. In particular, the money allocated for planetary science grants is being reorganized into new programs – and half of that money will not be used for new grants in 2014. In short, this means there is less money available to scientists writing new proposals.

In other disappointing news, some vandals in Houston spray-painted graffiti on the side of the Space Shuttle mock-up Independence. Independence lived for almost 20 years at KSC where it was known as Explorer. The mock-up is displayed outside near the Space Center Houston parking lot, with no significant security at night (in contrast to the nearby Rocket Park which is behind a locked fence at night).

On December 3rd, NASA scientist and former JPL director Ed Stone was on Stephen Colbert to talk about Voyager entering interstellar space. At the end of the episode, Stephen Colbert surprised Dr. Stone with the NASA distinguished service medal. You can watch the interview here and the award presentation here (both links to the Colbert Report’s website and the clips come with ads).

On December 6, 1957 (56 years ago today), the Vanguard TV3 was the first attempted launch of a satellite by the United States – which ended in a spectacular explosion on the launch pad.

41 years later, December 4, 1998, the Space Shuttle mission STS-88 attached the “Unity” Node to Russia’s “Zarya” – the first step in what would be over 10 years of ISS assembly.

Endeavour prepares Unity for docking (Source: NASA)

Thanks to a post from Parabolic Arc, I have bookmarked this interactive map from SpaceWorks Software that maps all planned, active, and former spaceports around the world.

Around the Solar System

According to Chinese media, the Chang’e 3 probe has reached lunar orbit. The lander is expected to make it to the surface on December 14th.

While we have seen imagery of Saturn’s mysterious North Pole hexagon before, the newly released images (and movie!) from Cassini is the highest resolution view yet, through multiple color filters. Pretty.

Out There

Astronomers using the Keck II telescope in Hawaii have taken images of 3 large (bigger than Jupiter) exoplanets. So few planets from other systems have been directly imaged that each new one is notable, even if the planets are unlikely to be habitable or otherwise remarkable. Phil Plait provides the images at the top of his post on the results.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

SpaceX has purchased more land on the coast near Brownsville and South Padre Island in Texas, making their intentions fairly clear.

The United States Congressional Budget Office issued a report with options for reducing the national deficit. One option outlined includes completely eliminating all NASA spending on manned spaceflight. Oh dear.

In Orbit

The big news in the past two weeks, in my opinion, was the launch of Chang’e 3, a Chinese lunar lander. Chang’e 1 and 2 were successful moon orbiters, and the third mission, launched December 2nd, is scheduled to land a large rover on the lunar surface – the first to do so in 37 years – on December 14th. So far, China is putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to their spaceflight program.

Today, December 3rd, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 version 1.1  with a commercial telecommunications satellite onboard. The SES-8 satellite was successfully sent on the planned geostationary transfer orbit – proving that SpaceX had sussed out and fixed the problem that marred an earlier test launch back in September. The failure of the upper stage to relight back on September 29 was traced back to frozen igniter fluid lines. As SpaceX points out in their press release, this mission is a big step towards fulfilling their long launch manifest, which includes many commercial launches, some requiring a geostationary orbit insertion. One more successful Falcon 9 v1.1 launch is needed for DOD certification. Also, the first ISS resupply flight aboard a Falcon 9 v1.1 is planned for early next year.

On November 19th, the robotic arm on the Kibo module of the ISS (the Japanese lab) was used to deploy several small “cubesats” into orbit. This is the second time the ISS has been used as a launching platform (last time was in December 2012 also using Kibo).

On November 20th, the International Space Station program celebrated the 15th anniversary of the first module launch – the Russian “Functional Cargo Block”, or more poetically “Zarya” (Sunrise)*. Here’s a short but amazing ISS timelapse to celebrate (via Universe Today).

*Nobody in Mission Operations at NASA JSC calls it Zarya.

Around the Solar System

The big story this past month (apart from recent Chinese success) has been comet ISON – the comet-of-the-century that wasn’t. ISON was a fun story to follow because the steep-diving comet (which grazed by the Sun at less than one solar diameter on Thanksgiving Day) was so dynamic that astronomers were having a hard time predicting how and when the comet might brighten, dim, or die. I had spent a week prior to perihelion (the name for closest approach to the sun) hoping I could get up in the morning and spot ISON before dawn, but the Houston weather would not cooperate. As evidenced by this amateur photographer, the comet was naked-eye in the right conditions. Anyway, ISON’s story ended shortly after perihelion, where the nucleus seemingly broke up in the extreme heat. The disintegrating rubble pile that emerged from the far side of the sun brightened very briefly, and is now dispersing and dimming, currently at 8th magnitude. As the writers at “Sky and Telescope” joke in their summary: “ISON now ISOFF”.

On December 1st, the Indian Mars orbiter Mangalyaan (now being referred to as “MOM” in all the english language media I follow) completed a successful rocket firing to leave high Earth orbit and go into solar orbit, on its way to Mars in September 2014. MOM is now cruising through interplanetary space behind NASA’s MAVEN orbiter, which successfully launched towards Mars on November 18th. Here’s a shot of MAVEN back in August when it was being readied for launch.

Maven spacecraft (Source: NASA)

The European Exomars project – which consists of two missions in 2016 and 2018 – has chosen the name “Schiaparelli” for the 2016 lander. Schiaparelli was the Italian astronomer in the late 19th century who mapped Mars (and incorrectly deduced that Mars was covered in canals).

The Mars rover Opportunity (still roving almost 10 years after landing!) has found a winter post. Opportunity will hang out for the next 6 months on a north-facing slope called “Murray Ridge”. Murray Ridge is named after Bruce Murray, an influential planetary scientist from JPL who died earlier this year.

Out There

Astronomers have used the Hubble Space Telescope to detect water in the atmosphere of 5 “hot Jupiters” orbiting nearby (in galactic terms) stars. Since the planets are Jupiter-like rather than Earth-like, there is nothing Earth-shattering (or Jupiter-shattering) about the finding. However, future studies should be able to analyze the atmospheres of smaller and smaller worlds, leading us closer to finding a true Earth twin.

There is a new naked-eye nova in the sky. Don’t go running outside expecting to see something as bright as Venus – it is only magnitude ~5 and is not visible from Northern latitudes.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Chris Hadfield, recently returned ISS commander and now retired astronaut, has announced he will be releasing a book titled “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”. It’s not clear yet if the format will be that of a memoir or something else.

John Anthony Llewellyn, who was selected as an astronaut in 1967, died earlier in July. He was 80 years old. Mr. Llewellyn was one of the scientist-astronauts of the 6th NASA group, and resigned from NASA before flying to space.

Its time for the NASA budget battle. Congress has been working on the authorization acts for the 2014 federal budget. The proposal from the Senate has NASA being funded at $18.1 billion, or even higher than the executive branch requested ($17.7 billion). However, the House of Representatives has something different in mind, and is proposing a budget as low as $16.6 billion, which is less than the White House requested. It would take a miracle for this to get resolved before the fiscal year starts.

The Apollo rocket parts being recovered from the Atlantic by Jeff Bezos have been identified as originating from the rocket that sent Apollo 11 to the moon.

In Orbit

Lots of news from ISS and the world’s active space programs in the past few weeks.

First, NASA conducted two spacewalks from the US airlock on the ISS. The first, on July 9th, was successful. Luca Parmitano and Chris Cassidy did maintenance outside for a solid 6 hours. However, if you google “July 2013 spacewalk” you won’t get any results for the July 9th EVA, because just a week later the two astronauts went out the door again, and were not as successful. The Tuesday, July 16 spacewalk ended after only 92 minutes because of water collecting in Parmitano’s helmet. It seems his spacesuit, or EMU, had some kind of cooling system leak.  NASA is still investigating to figure out what exactly is broken. There are 3 NASA spacesuits on ISS, so they have a backup if an emergency spacewalk is needed.

In Kazakhstan on July 2, a Russian Proton rocket crashed spectacularly just seconds after launch.

The rocket is the same kind that sometimes takes large ISS components into orbit – such as the MLM, or Nauka, module that is manifested to launch later this year. The rocket was carrying several Russian GPS satellites (known as Glonass). Obviously all the payload was lost.

Check out the shockwave hitting the cameraman in this amateur footage of the crash.

The official investigation commission in Russia has publicly announced their preliminary findings. It appears some sensors were improperly installed. Oops.

Meanwhile, the Kepler Space Telescope team is working towards attempting recovery of one of her failed reaction wheels – which are currently preventing the telescope from doing any more science.

Around the Solar System

The International Astronomical Union has given names to P4 and P5, the new moons of Pluto discovered by Hubble just over a year or so ago. The new moons will be named Kerberos and Styx, staying with the god of the underworld theme (the other 3 known moons are Charon, Nix, and Hydra).

The IAU named the Pluto moons just in time, because another astronomer looking through old Hubble data of Neptune, found a new Neptunian moon! It will need a name now also…

Curiosity has now roved more than 1 kilometer at Gale Crater on Mars. I wish she would rove faster!

Out There

Data from the Hubble Space Telescope (yes, more Hubble!) has identified the color of an alien world. By watching a distant planet “transit” in front of its parent star, the instrument called Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph was able to figure out that the Jupiter-sized planet is blue. Read Phil Plait’s explanation if you want the details. The color tells us more about the planet – like the fact that the atmosphere is probably full of methane.