Archive for the ‘NASA’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

An opinion piece by Barack Obama appeared in CNN last week discussing his vision for America’s future in space and particularly, future missions to Mars.

Amid talk of a schedule slip of the first Starliner missions, Boeing announced they will need to add an aeroskirt for their launch configuration atop the Atlas V rocket (follow the link for an illustration).

In Orbit

Astronauts on the ISS opened up the BEAM module for another round of inspections (that’s the “expandable” module that was added back in May). Meanwhile, NASA announced that it is seeking commercial partners to build new functional modules for the ISS. Of course, the supplier of BEAM, Bigelow Aerospace, is one of the companies seeking the contract.

The launch of Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket (returning to flight almost 2 years after the last one failed after launch) was delayed until tomorrow evening due to a technical issue.

Earlier this evening, China launched a manned Shenzhou capsule with two crew aboard. They are heading to the new Tiangong-2 space station for an extended mission. When the latest ISS Soyuz crew launches in a couple of days, there will be 8 people in space! It has been very rare for the number to grow above 6 since the last Space Shuttle mission five years ago.

Around the Solar System

Due to some sticky valves in the Juno spacecraft’s propulsion system, the probe will not be making a scheduled burn to reduce its orbital period from over 50 days to just 14 days. NASA is waiting another orbit (so, until December) to investigate and then try again.

Astronomers have discovered a new distant unnamed object (2014 UZ224) which may be large enough to qualify as a “dwarf planet”. The object is smaller than Pluto and orbits about 5 times farther from the sun.

The ExoMars/Schiaparelli mission – a joint mission between ESA and Roscosmos – had some critical mission events today, including separation of the Schiaparelli lander and a critical orbital maneuver to setup for orbital insertion next week.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Jack Garman, who worked a support console for Apollo guidance and navigation, passed away on September 20th, at 72 years old. Garman is best known as being instrumental in the calls to proceed with landing on Apollo 11 when some guidance computer program alarms showed up at just 3,000 feet above the surface. Here’s the raw audio from that part of the landing which is always worth listening to again. Great example of flight control in action.

Neil Degrasse Tyson’s podcast StarTalk had a special episode hosted by astronaut Mike Massimino with guest interviewees, flight directors Royce Renfrew and Emily Nelson. Check it out here!

Musician and singer Grace Potter collaborated with NASA on a music video for her song Look What We’ve Become. It was filmed completely at NASA’s Johnson Space Center! Check it out below.

One of the biggest national stories of the last week was Hurricane Matthew, which came close to dolling out a devastating blow to the East coast of Florida. Fortunately, the most dangerous winds stayed offshore as it passed the Kennedy Space Center, resulting in some damage but nothing too serious.

In the battle of the New Space giants, there were two big stories in recent weeks. First, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had his much anticipated presentation at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Mexico. the speech presented a high level framework of his plans to visit Mars. Most of the details were focused on the rocket design and less on how humans would survive and thrive on Mars. Below is the full length video, but Ars Technica had a good analysis if you don’t want to watch all of it. Another good take on it from Phil Plait here.

If you are interested in just the 4-minute animation from SpaceX showing their imagined Mars mission architecture, jump to the second video below.

The other big story was Blue Origin’s successful in-flight abort test of their New Shepard rocket (personally, I am not sure if they have a separate name for the capsule or if New Shepard refers to the whole system. It was a pretty exciting launch and test. Jump to 51 minutes in the webcast replay below to watch!

In Orbit

Lots of good news regarding the ISS flight manifest. The next Cygnus cargo freighter, launching from Virginia for the first time in 2 years on Orbital ATK’s redesigned Antares rocket, should fly next Thursday, the 13th.

The following week, the next crew should launch on their repaired Soyuz craft. That launch is scheduled for Wednesday, the 19th.

There were two rocket launches since my last post. First, an Indian GSLV rocket launched a slew of satellites into orbit, including some from Algeria, USA, Canada, and India. Second, an ESA Ariane 5 rocket launched two communications satellites to a geosynchronous orbit on the 5th.

Around the Solar System

Check out this “video” (really an animated gif made from stills) of the Curiosity rover drilling on Mars! The rover has just officially entered its next two-year mission extension.

NASA announced new findings from the Hubble Space Telescope that reinforce the conclusion that not only does Europa have a subsurface ocean of liquid water, but that the water regularly exits the moon in powerful plumes (which could be theoretically sampled by a visiting probe).

In even more exciting planetary science news, NASA announced new analysis of data from the MESSENGER spacecraft (which finished its Mercury orbital mission last year). By analyzing imagery from the last part of MESSENGER’s mission, when it was at a lower altitude, scientists have concluded that the surface shows signs of recent contraction, meaning that Mercury is tectonically active.

ESA’s Rosetta mission ended on September 30th with a controlled descent into comet 67P/Churyumov/Gerasimenko.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The next manned Soyuz launch has been delayed. The second half of the Expedition 49 crew was due to launch to ISS on September 23rd but technical issues have pushed the launch back.

In another delay, a wildfire in California has pushed back a launch of an Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Legendary cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, who has flown to space 6 times and is only second to Gennady Padalka for time in space at 827 days, has reportedly retired. He was most recently on ISS for Expedition 47 earlier this year.

A ridiculously large meteorite fragment was extracted from the ground in Argentina.

In Orbit

Three successful rocket launches in the past week: Israel launched a spy satellite on the 13th; China launched their new space station, Tiangong-2, on the 15th; Arianespace launched a Vega rocket with two commercial payloads on the 16th.

Up on the ISS, Kate Rubins donned a special flight suit painted by pediatric patients from MD Anderson’s Cancer Center. Kate was wearing the suit for a special event arranged by the “Space Suit Art Project” championed by retired astronaut Nicole Stott. The video of the event is below.

Around the Solar System

Pluto’s moon Charon has an odd red polar cap, first seen when the New Horizons probe visited the planet last year. A new analysis shows that the source may be methane from Pluto converted to organics by the sun’s radiation.

The Hubble Space Telescope caught images of a distant comet breaking apart (GIF courtesy NASA, of course).

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Easily the top story of the past couple of weeks (sorry, OSIRIS-REx) was the loss of a Falcon 9 rocket with its commercial satellite payload on the pad during a pre-launch static fire test (video below). The pad, Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) was damaged in the fire (pictures here) and SpaceX is currently still investigating the cause. It is impossible to speculate on what kind of setback this will cause in their launch manifest until some notion of the cause is determined. SpaceX still has one operational launch pad in California.

Just 3 days before the SpaceX pad fire, the Chinese space program suffered a failure in what is apparently the first launch failure of the year. The Long March 4C rocket was expected to put a reconnaissance satellite in orbit.

As for positive news, NASA’s troubled Mars lander InSight has been greenlit for a launch sometime in 2018.

Another goodie was Virgin Galactic conducting the first test flight of the new SpaceShipTwo (although just a captive carry flight).

Check out this blog post from one of the recent crew members of NASA’s asteroid mission simulation, HERA. Tess was on the crew of HERA 11.

The most important thing to come “down to Earth” last week was the crew of Expedition 48. Jeff Williams, Oleg Skripochka, and Aleksey Ovchinin landed in Kazakhstan last Wednesday after a flawless undocking and re-entry.

In Orbit

Before Expedition 48 ended, Jeff Williams and Kate Rubins conducted their second spacewalk in as many weeks, repairing and upgrading a slew of items outside the ISS.

Fortunately, there were at least two successful launches to offset the failures in early September. First, an Indian GSLV Mark II rocket lofted a weather satellite. Secondly, a ULA Atlas V rocket launched NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe on its 7-year journey to visit an asteroid and return to Earth with samples.

Around the Solar System

On Mars, the Curiosity rover is currently trundling through some incredible landscapes, snapping photos of beautiful buttes and rock layers.

Juno continues to return data from Jupiter, including a stunning image of the north pole.

And last but not least, one of the coolest stories of the last week, the European Space Agency finally located the lost comet lander, Philae, just weeks before the orbiter Rosetta is due to end its own mission. Check out the pictures!

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

It was space capsule drop test week, with an Orion drop test in water and a Boeing Starliner drop test on land, both at NASA Langley.

Here is video of the Starliner crew access arm being installed earlier this month:

SpaceX recently erected their first flown and recovered Falcon 9 rocket first stage’s as a display piece at their factory in California.

Veteran NASA astronaut Terry Virts has retired from NASA. Virts flew on one space shuttle mission (STS-130) and one ISS expedition (42/43) for a total of 213 days in space including 3 EVAs.

In Orbit

On August 19th, ISS astronauts Jeff Williams and Kate Rubins exited the ISS airlock for a 6-hour EVA to attach the new International Docking Adapter (IDA) to the front of the station (along with a few other tasks). The spacewalk went well so Williams and Rubins will conduct their second as planned on September 1st. Below are two videos, a 3-minute summary of the August 19th EVA and then a long press conference discussing the upcoming EVA. Jump to 8 minutes into the press conference for a narrated overview of the EVA.

Jeff Williams recently broke the American record for total time in space, besting Scott Kelly’s 520 days. Williams has launched to space four separate times. Kelly visiting mission control last week to congratulate Williams:

There were three more successful rocket launches since my last post on August 15th. First was a Chinese rocket with a main payload of an experimental quantum navigation satellite. Second was a Delta IV rocket carrying payloads for the U.S. Air Force. Last was a European Ariane 5 rocket with two telecommunication satellites.

Around the Solar System

NASA recently recovered contact with the STEREO-B satellite, which is one of a pair of Sun-observing probes that was lost a couple of years ago.

NASA’s Jupiter orbiter, Juno, completed close approach during its first orbit. This will be Juno’s closest approach to Jupiter during the nominal mission. We should get some great shots from the onboard JunoCam soon!

You should check out the work of Sean Duran, who is inserting accurately scaled astronauts into Mars rover Curiosity’s pictures to help us get a better feel for what Mars would really look like.

Out There

In what may very well be the biggest science story of the year, The European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile announced their findings that a small terrestrial world orbits in the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf star which orbits Alpha Centauri at a distance of 0.1 light years, and is the closest star to Earth at about 4.2 light years away.

Weekly Links

Lots to catch up on since my last post on July 23rd. The great summer for spaceflight continues.

Down to Earth

After Eileen Collins spoke at the RNC, another Space Shuttle commander, Mark Kelly, spoke at the DNC.

Sierra Nevada is getting ready to start test flights of their Dream Chaser spaceplane in California, once their full-scale vehicle is shipped their from Colorado.

Virgin Galactic was awarded an operations license from the FAA as they are preparing to resume flight tests with their new SpaceShipTwo vehicle.

A small sample bag from the Apollo 11 mission is at the center of two lawsuits. I’m sure Dr. Jones would agree that it belongs in a museum.

One of the Orbiter Access Arm’s from the Space Shuttle program is now on display at Houston’s Space Center Houston.

Meanwhile, the next generation of crew access arms, for Boeing’ Starliner capsule, was delivered to the Atlas V pad in Florida.

SpaceX conducted a full duration test fire of one of their recovered first stage boosters. Here’s the video:

Google Lunar X Prize competitor, Moon Express, has received approval from the United States government for their private mission to land a rover on the moon.

Vector Space Systems completed their first successful sub-orbital launch.

In Orbit

Speaking of launches, there were four successful orbital flights since my last post. This brings the year’s total to 50 for 50 on orbital launches. For comparison, 2015 had 87 total with 5 failures.

First was an Atlas V launch from Cape Canaveral carrying a secret payload for the National Reconnaissance Office.

Second and third were two chinese launches carrying a new communications satellite and a radar imaging satellite.

Lastly was the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch early in the morning ofAugust 14. The rocket successfully delivered the Japanese JCSAT communications satellite to orbit and recovered the first stage booster on the ASDS at sea. Very impressive. This brings SpaceX’s year up to 8 successful launches for 8 attempts – a yearly record already in August – and 5 for 8 on booster recovery.

Coming up next week is a spacewalk on ISS by NASA astronauts Jeff Williams and Kate Rubins to install the new International Docking Adapter.

Around the Solar System

The Chinese Yutu rover is still communicating with the ground from the lunar surface, although it has long since stopped roving. Despite some reports that it is “dead” it is still expected to wake up from hibernation after the current lunar night.

Follow this link for an update on the Curiosity rover mission on Mars, including some nice pictures.

Here is a full year of observations of the Earth NOAA’s DSCOVR satellite. The cyclones in the Pacific are quite obvious.

Out There

Apparently claims of a discover of an Earth-like planet around Proxima Centauri (our nearest neighboring star) are exciting, but it is worth waiting for more reputable news sources to pick it up than just a small German newspaper… or a peer-reviewed journal paper?

Book review – Go, Flight!

I don’t want to bury the lead here: Go, Flight! The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control, 1965-1992 by Rick Houston is a must read for any serious space fan, and will be enjoyed by many more casual fans as well. Anyone who actually works in Building 30 at Johnson Space Center, like me, will have their love for their work stoked anew by this book.

Read this book


I know what you are thinking: another book about the Apollo program? I hear you, but this is not your father’s space race memoir. First of all, the book covers a time period more than an event or a specific NASA program. As the subtitle suggests, Go, Flight! covers all the events in NASA’s manned spaceflight program from Gemini in 1965 through the middle of the Space Shuttle’s golden years in the 90’s, although the focus is heavily on 1965 to 1975. This choice of dates is not random but matches the dates that the third floor MOCR (or the “Apollo room”) was used for active missions. The book opens with a description of Houston’s first visit to the MOCR, described in terms that can only be summarized as a religious experience. Houston compares the MOCR to a rather short list of other famous places: Gettysburg, Westminster Abbey, Pearl Harbor, and a few more. Houston felt the power of that place and this book is partially his attempt to share that experience with his readers.

But Go, Flight! is about more than just a place. More than just a room in a building. What gives it power is that it is also a book about people. Houston set out to learn about the characters who worked in the MOCR through first person interviews. Houston’s friendship with former flight director Milt Heflin, who gets coauthor credit, helped him get access to a great list of former flight controllers. You can see by how many people showed up to a book signing last year that Houston created quite a network of contacts while writing.

Signatures from Space Center Houston book signing

Yes, Houston tells stories about familiar missions through all three programs. Obvious missions covered include Apollo 11 and Apollo 13, as well as the tragedies of Apollo 1 and Challenger. There are also insightful chapters on less famous missions, such as Gemini 4 or Apollo 14. Did you know that Apollo 14 was almost aborted when they couldn’t dock the Command Module to the Lunar Module? I didn’t. Most readers will certainly learn some new tidbit of NASA history. But the value of Go, Flight! is not in new facts added. While the Apollo 14 story was new to me (or I had forgotten it), it is certainly not new to the vast literature covering the Apollo Program. I have read at least a couple of dozen space race histories, but I am missing some key classics such as Chaikin’s A Man On The Moon. What truly makes Go, Flight! unique is that it feels like the stories are being told by the people who were there.

Flight controllers discussing the Apollo docking probe in mission control


In general, the American public thinks of astronauts when it thinks of NASA. There is very little thought of the important contributions of the many hundreds of engineers and technicians on the ground in various NASA field centers around the country. The blockbuster Apollo 13 in 1995 helped to adjust that point of view by showing how crucial the flight controllers in mission control were to saving the crew. However, Apollo 13 didn’t do much to dispel the notion that mission control is full of a bunch of nerds with pocket protectors and glasses (thanks Clint Howard). Houston has set the record straight in Go, Flight!

Houston starts the book out with a quick overview of each of his main characters in a chapter titled “Who Did What”. Even just this chapter on its own proves the point that mission control was home to a diverse (albeit not diverse ethnically or by gender) group of young men with strong personalities. Start with John Llewellyn, a Korean war veteran with PTSD who once rode his horse to work after getting his on-site driving privileges revoked because he parked on mission control’s front steps. Or how about Ed Fendell, who had only an associates degree in marketing, but nevertheless worked his way up to the INCO console in the front room for some of the biggest missions in NASA’s history. One of Fendell’s proudest moments was controlling the pan-able television camera to capture Apollo 17 lifting off from the lunar surface.

These guys who got us to the moon and flew the space shuttle had lives and families – some (or many) of which were damaged by their over-zealous commitment to the cause. Fendell tells a story about going on a first date on a Friday night and promptly getting out of bed in the morning to head to work. When his date asks him what she is supposed to do with him going to work on a Saturday, Fendell simply told her “I’m going to work. I write mission rules on Saturday morning.” These were not German engineers in lab coats (thanks The Right Stuff), nor were they emotionless bookworms who stated technical facts and then did as the Flight Director says. These were men of personality and passion. They argued with each other, with management, with the sim supervisors, with everyone. The job was the thing, and it was going to get done. If bridges had to be burned, so be it.

These stories from a wide array of flight controllers helps to balance out what space fans have read in memoirs from men such as Kraft, Kranz, and various astronauts. For instance, a lot of people know about the legendary SCE to AUX call from EECOM John Aaron, which allegedly saved the Apollo 12 mission on ascent. But in Go, Flight! that story is expanded significantly to show how Aaron’s backroom support personnel were involved and how a critical call from the GNC flight controller was also needed to get the inertial measurement unit back online. This kind of deep dive gives the reader the best insight I have ever found into what working in a NASA mission control room is really like. Nothing gets done without teamwork – no one person fixes a problem on his own.

If there is a problem with Go, Flight! it is the rushed last few chapters. In a book of just over 300 pages, only the last 40 pages cover events after the last Apollo mission. Given that the author was trying to tell the story of the third floor MOCR, and not every mission in manned space flight, this choice is understandable but no less jarring to a reader that knows there is more history to tell. The book would feel a lot more cleanly wrapped up if it ended with the last Apollo flights flown from the room. That being said, I really appreciated the chapter on the Challenger accident.

Despite its flaws of pacing and scope, Go, Flight! easily makes its way into my list of essential books to read to understand the history of NASA’s human spaceflight program. Kraft may have invented mission control, but it was men like Llewellyn, Aaron, Fendell, Liebergot, Heflin, Garman, Briscoe, and more who took Kraft’s concept and made it the model for all modern control centers through their incredible dedication and preparation. These people and what they did should be remembered as long as our species dreams of spaceflight. Great things are done by men and women of passion, not cold calculating nerds, and Go, Flight! proves that point emphatically.

Go, Flight! can be found in hardcover or Kindle formats here on Amazon. If you want more stories from the front lines of the early space program, try Apollo EECOM by Sy Liebergot, Full Circle by David L. Cisco, and Highways Into Space by Glynn Lunney.

More “must read” books from my collection


Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Former astronaut and Space Shuttle commander, Eileen Collins, spoke at the Republican National Convention:

Aboard the New Horizons probe that visited Pluto was a US postage stamp with a picture of Pluto and the phrase “not yet explored”. Last week the Guinness Book of World Records recognized this stamp as the farthest traveled postage stamp in history.

CASIS has partnered with Marvel to create this Guardians of the Galaxy inspired ISS National Lab emblem.

The 21st of NASA’s undersea NEEMO missions has started off the coast of Florida. The crew, made up of astronauts and other explorers, will spend 16 days in a habitat under the ocean simulating a deep space mission.

In Orbit

The only two rocket launches since my last post on July 7th were two cargo launches to the International Space Station. First, a Progress resupply freighter launched from Kazakhstan last Saturday and was docked on Monday evening.

Second, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched on Monday morning, arriving at the ISS early Wednesday morning. In addition, SpaceX successfully recovered the first stage of their booster at their landing facility in Florida. Here’s what that looked like to fans watching from miles away:

Around the Solar System

A new distant Kuiper Belt Object has been discovered. 2015 RR245 is on a 700-year eccentric orbit.

The Curiosity rover on Mars has been back in “full operations” following the safe mode event earlier this month.

Out There

The K2 space telescope has discovered another 100 extrasolar planets.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

In late June, Orbital ATK test fired the second quality test solid rocket booster for SLS development:

Mike Suffredini, former ISS Program Manager, is now working for contractor SGT, Inc. and announced at a recent NewSpace conference his intentions to develop a commercial space station.

NASA and Apple announced a collaboration to create music inspired by the Juno mission.

A team of astronauts from five different nations completed a multi-night caving expedition in the Sardinia region of Italy. The project is run by ESA and is an spaceflight analog but also has real exploration objectives.

In Orbit

Here are all the rocket launches since the last post on June 24th:

  • June 25 – A Chinese Long March 7 rocket debuted from a new launch pad on Hainan Island. The rocket was carrying a demonstration for a future manned capsule design.
  • June 29 – Another Chinese rocket launched, this one with less information available about the payload.
  • July 7 – A Soyuz rocket launched from Kazakhstan carrying three crew members to the ISS.

The Soyuz crew successfully docked to the ISS on Friday night after 2 days in orbit.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s Juno probe arrived in Jupiter orbit last Monday, July 4th.

Several NASA missions received their official mission extensions. New Horizons was officially approved to continue its mission to the 2019 rendezvous with 2014 MU69 in the Kuiper Belt (we have 3 years to come up with a better name). The Dawn mission at Ceres was extended but it will stay in orbit there instead of moving on to another asteroid.

The Curiosity rover on Mars briefly went into safe mode but has since been recovered.

Weekly Links

Here’s your busy June update!

Down to Earth

Blue Origin launched their reusable New Shepard rocket for the fourth time, with a hosted webcast this time. Here is a video of the flight:

A Saturn V first stage, meant to be used on the Apollo 19 flight, was moved to the Stennis Space Center’s visitor center for display, along Interstate 10 in Mississippi.

During a congressional hearing last week, the issue of astronaut post-mission health care was discussed.

This is not strictly space news, but the deep winter rescue mission from the South Pole is just as harrowing and difficult as spaceflight in some ways.

A team of astronauts are going on a multi-night spelunking trip this month as a spaceflight analog training mission.

In Orbit

The new 3D printer aboard ISS by Made In Space has printed its first functional tool.

The Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo vessel was released from the ISS on June 14th and re-entered the atmosphere on June 22nd. In the meantime, NASA conducted the SAFFIRE in-flight fire experiment. Here’s some of the video they recorded:

Also returning to Earth this month, but in a more controlled fashion, was there astronauts aboard Soyuz TMA-19M: Tim Peake, Tim Kopra, and Yuri Malenchenko.

Here are all the orbital launches since my last post on June 6th:

  • A Russian Proton rocket carrying a communications satellite (June 9).
  • A ULA Delta IV rocket launch from Florida carrying a spy satellite (June 11).
  • A Chinese launch of one of their navigation satellite (June 12).
  • A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with two communications satellites (June 15).
  • A European Ariane 5 rocket carrying two communication satellites (June 18).
  • An Indian PSLV rocket carrying a slew of satellites including a flock of PlanetLabs Doves (June 22).
  • A ULA Atlas V rocket carrying a US military communications satellite (June 24).

The SpaceX launch, as usual, was the most exciting, with another ASDS landing attempt. They missed the landing this time. Here are some pictures of the wreckage returning to port.

Around the Solar System

New analysis of Pluto has led to the hypothesis that the dwarf planet may have a subsurface ocean… really!

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) got a new shot of the rover Curiosity on the slopes of Mount Sharp.

You’ve got to love this trailer for Jupiter Orbit Insertion (JOI) of the Juno probe, coming up on July 4th.