Archive for the ‘NASA’ Category
I don’t usually use this blog to post personal stuff. I’m actually quite happy with how not bloggy my blog is. However, there is something pretty cool going on in my personal life this month: my wife is locked up in a NASA simulation pretending to be an astronaut on her way to an asteroid. That’s pretty cool, so I’ll make an exception for some non-standard blogginess.
The HERA IX crew is still locked inside their habitat in Building 220 and JSC and hasn’t come out since they entered last Monday evening. Tonight will be their 10th night of 31 on their indoor camping trip. They are cut off not just physically but also virtually, with no outside communication besides mission control and a weekly family phone call. This is because one of the many experiments for this year’s HERA campaign has to do with the psychological and interpersonal aspects of being isolated with your fellow astronauts away from friends and family. If they were constantly connected via email, text message, or other forms of the internet, they could escape from that isolation and the data would not be the same.
Unfortunately, this means we can’t hear from Leah and the rest of the crew about how they are doing! The last private family call I had with Leah, or Mission Specialist 2, was last Friday. At the time, they were on mission day 4 and the crew was doing quite well. Leah said the food was very good and that everyone was getting along. The food they get to eat is the very same food that the ISS astronauts eat from the JSC food lab. In addition, they are testing out some new types of food that may get used for future Orion exploration missions because they are denser, thus saving weight.
Leah said that they had been so busy that they hadn’t had much time for down time like watching movies and reading books. Mission day 6, this past Sunday, was their first full day off so they may have got a little more relaxing in, unless mission control had some unplanned surprises for them like emergency drills! They are simulating as many aspects of spaceflight as possible including emergency drills, spacecraft maneuvers, spacewalks, and human experimentation. Just like the astronauts onboard ISS, they are doing experiments on themselves which involve saliva and blood samples, activity tracking, and all kinds of psychological and cognitive tests. Unlike the astronauts onboard ISS, they are wired up even more to get as much data s possible. Since Leah and her crew do not have real science to conduct like up on ISS, they are free to be encumbered by all kinds of trackers all over their body, including heart rate monitors, temperature sensors, and more.
Meanwhile, I’ve been left alone at home with the dog, trying to pretend my wife is really an astronaut in space. Honestly, it really doesn’t feel like that. It does feel like she’s far away – even though I can see building 220 from my desk. What it really feels like is that she’s on deployment with the military or on some other kind of dangerous job where I can’t talk to her much. I know she is quite safe, and could come home anytime if she wanted, but I at least have a small inkling now of both what it’s like to be an astronaut’s spouse and also a military spouse. You really have to respect families that have this kind of separation as a normal part of their life.
The meat of the mission is about to start. On mission day 11, this Friday, I get another private phone call with Leah (yay!) but then the HERA IX crew will go into radio silence for twelve days. The middle portion of the mission will involve a simulated communications delay with mission control as they are on “approach” to asteroid Geographos in deep space. In order to preserve the illusion, no private family calls will be allowed during the comm delay part of the mission. Their conversations with mission control will take at least several minutes round trip for every thing they say. That is going to feel like true isolation!
So while I’ll be at home feeling a bit lonely, Leah will be getting to some of the most exciting parts of the mission! When they get to Geographos, they get to do their simulated EVAs and pick up asteroid samples for scientific testing. Leah is designated as “EV1″ and gets to use the virtual reality gear to do her “spacewalk”. Pretty cool!
I can’t help but be proud of my wife and the whole HERA IX crew. It’s one thing to sit at home reading spaceflight news and tweeting about it. Getting to work in mission control and monitor spacecraft health and status data is of course awesome… but all of that feels quite silly compared to putting oneself out there as a test subject and sacrificing personal comfort to help collect data that will be used to further exploration, which is exactly what the HERA IX crew is doing. I can’t wait for Leah to come home but at the moment, I wouldn’t rather her be anywhere else than where she is right now on the front lines of NASA’s Human Research Program. Go #HERAIX!
Update: Here’s an interview with HERA project manager Lesa Spence
It’s been a busy two weeks since my last news post. Among other things, my wife started her “space mission” (not a real space mission) and I won’t see her again for another 26 days. See my last post before this one for some details on what she is doing. I also travelled to Huntsville, Alabama for a work meeting at Marshall Spaceflight Center this week. Now that I am back home and it is just me and the dog, it’s time to figure out what’s been going on out there in the world of spaceflight during the second half of January.
Down to Earth
Probably the biggest news was the successful reflight of the New Shepard rocket by Blue Origin. The same booster that flew suborbital and returned safely back in November was flown again on a similar mission profile on January 22nd. Here’s their shiny video:
SpaceX had some videos too, but not as shiny as exciting. First was this hover test of the new Dragon capsule:
Second was a parachute test:
There were 3 launches since the SpaceX Faclon 9 launch back on January 17th. First was an Indian PSLV rocket, launched on the 20th with one of their own navigation satellites. Second, a European Ariane 5 rocket launched on the 27nd with an Intelsat communications satellite. Lastly, a Proton rocket launched from Kazakhstan earlier today with an Eutelsat communications satellite.
Meanwhile in the category of fluff pieces, someone at Gizmodo has dubbed the Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft the “cutest” cargo hauler to the space station.
Aboard the ISS, the Tims are really getting into the swing of things with their Earth photography. Along with Scott Kelly, the stream of pictures on Twitter from the three of them has been quite good, including some good shots of the snow covered East Coast last weekend. Here are some of my favorites.
— Tim Peake (@astro_timpeake) January 18, 2016
— Tim Kopra (@astro_tim) January 19, 2016
— Tim Peake (@astro_timpeake) January 19, 2016
— Tim Kopra (@astro_tim) January 23, 2016
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) January 19, 2016
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) January 23, 2016
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) January 24, 2016
Oh and this was a cool thing from Scott Kelly also:
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) January 21, 2016
Around the Solar System
Check out this incredible picture of a Martian sand dune from the Curiosity rover:
Unfortunately, there may not actually be a planet orbiting in the Alpha Centauri system… or at least, the previous research that hinted at one may be wrong (but who knows, there may be one there anyway).
Fortunately, there is good news to counteract the bad: new mathematical models indicate there may be a new large planet orbiting far beyond Pluto. Astronomers are busy turning on various search campaigns to see if they can find the theoretical world.
Down To Earth
This week NASA finally announced the winners of the next Commercial Resupply Services contract, or CRS-2. This is the contract currently held by SpaceX and Orbital ATK to delivery cargo to the ISS. The contract was rebid for flights starting in the 2019 timeframe. NASA made the exciting decision to give the contract to all three remaining companies: SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and Sierra Nevada.
This was a good week for SpaceX, beyond just the cargo award. To get people excited, they released this video recap of their successful launch and landing last month:
Then they performed a “static fire” test of the recovered booster. The results were reportedly good with some anomalies.
Maybe some debris ingestion. Engine data looks ok. Will borescope tonight. This is one of the outer engines.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 16, 2016
And thirdly, SpaceX launched the Jason-3 satellite for NOAA on Sunday from their California launch site. The satellite reached orbit successfully, but the first stage recovery attempt – which was on a barge instead of a landing pad in this case – was close but unsuccessful. Here’s some information from NASA about the Jason-3 mission if you are interested. If you want even more, AmericaSpace has an interview with the Project Scientist.
Well, at least the pieces were bigger this time! Won't be last RUD, but am optimistic about upcoming ship landing. pic.twitter.com/w007TccANJ
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 17, 2016
And here’s some awesome video of the touchdown (I’ll add it as an embedded Vine below whenever it is posted there).
China also had a successful orbital launch today with a telecommunications satellite for Belarus. The SpaceX and Chinese launches are the first two flights of the new year.
Meanwhile, on the space station, the “Tims,” astronauts Tim Kopra and Tim Peake, went out for a spacewalk on Friday to repair one of the ISS power channels that malfunctions last November (while I was on shift, in fact). The EVA was successful in its main objective but had to be terminated early due to unexpected water accumulating in Tim Kopra’s helmet.
Around the Solar System
The European Space Agency attempted to contact the Philae lander, on comet 67P-C/G, but it is still nonresponsive. As the comet gets farther from the sun in its orbit and the light levels decrease, the chance of the little probe waking up are quickly diminishing.
— ESA Rosetta Mission (@ESA_Rosetta) January 8, 2016
The JUNO spacecraft, on its way to Jupiter, has broken the “distance record” for a solar powered spacecraft, according to Spaceflight Insider.
Down To Earth
The European Space Agency published a thought-provoking video about the future of lunar exploration.
Here is some interesting PR from the aspiring asteroid mining company Planetary Resources. At the Consumer Electronics Show they revealed a prototype that they 3D printed from a meteorite.
SpaceX’s next Falcon 9 launch will be from Vandenberg in California on January 17th. The rocket will be carrying the NOAA’s Jason-3 satellite. In addition, SpaceX will attempt to recover the first stage on their autonomous drone ship.
The United States Postal Service will issue new stamps with images of the New Horizons spacecraft and Pluto.
Speaking of New Horizons, that NASA team has won the annual Goddard Memorial Trophy.
NASA has officially organized a new Planetary Defense Coordination Office for overall management of projects for detection and characterization of Near Earth Objects (NEOs).
Next Friday “the Tims” (astronauts Tim Peake and Tim Kopra) will get to do a spacewalk.
Around the Solar System
On Mars, the Curiosity rover has driven right up to a 13 foot tall sand dune and is sending us some pretty cool pictures.
Also on Mars, the long-lived Opportunity rover is celebrating 12 Earth-years on the surface.
Honestly, at the beginning of 2015, I did not think the year could possibly be as interesting as 2014 when it came to the launch sector. I thought there was a possibility SpaceX would achieve some major milestones from its list of goals for the year – maybe recover a first stage, maybe launch a Falcon 9 Heavy, maybe double their flight rate – but probably only one or two of them. I never would have guessed that 2015 could have the same roller coaster ride of ups and downs of 2014, which had rocket launches, rocket explosions, and political tension. Surprisingly, not only did 2015 have me on the edge of my seat like 2014, it surprised me and almost everyone else with some crazy twists and turns.
Part II – Rockets
Let’s recap where we were at the end of 2014: SpaceX had just wrapped up a reasonably successful year with 6 flights and no failures, which was twice the number of flights they had in 2013. The debate over the RD-180 engine was still ongoing but had calmed down somewhat with a congressional budget provision for the US to start working on a homegrown replacement. In the meantime, ULA would be allowed to continue using RD-180s to a limited extent. The biggest event of course was the spectacular explosion of an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket on its way to the ISS. Really the story had all eyes on – and are we really surprised? – SpaceX. With Orbital Sciences grounded and ULA under heat for using imported Russian engines, SpaceX was here to save the day.
And SpaceX certainly got off to a roaring start in 2015. They launched the first rocket of the year, which certainly served to make a point, and from there on averaged one Falcon 9 launch per month through June. During two of those launches in January and April they thrilled everybody with their so close rocket landing attempts. I have to repost the videos again below because they are so awesome.
Close, but no cigar. This time. https://t.co/JowUE6a1D7
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 16, 2015
Meanwhile, while all that fun was going on, the US Air Force granted SpaceX certification for military payloads and SpaceX conducted a launchpad abort test with their Dragon V2 capsule. Things were looking pretty good for the (not so) New Space company. But then this happened during their CRS-7 launch to ISS, their 6th of the year:
Suddenly, things completely changed. Adding another layer to the story, a Russian Progress resupply flight to the ISS had also been lost in late May, after which some people had been saying “good thing we have a SpaceX flight coming up.” Not only was the future of SpaceX’s manifest and Falcon 9 rocket in question, there were serious questions about the logistics chain to the ISS. Three of the vital cargo rockets were grounded, with only the Japanese HTV unaffected.
Thankfully, one of the things the Russians are really good at is rebounding from launch failures, and they flew a successful Progress mission to ISS only a few days after the SpaceX explosion. Regardless, 3 of the last 8 unmanned flights to ISS had been lost, an unprecedented statistic.
Orbital ATK (the new name of Orbital Sciences after a merger early in the year) had already announced plans for their return to flight way back in January. Surprisingly, their strategy would be to purchase launch vehicles from their competitors to fly their Cygnus freighter while they worked on a redesign of the Antares first stage. The return to flight would be on a ULA Atlas 5 sometime late in the year. The good news for all involved is that that launch went off without a hitch (after some weather delays) in mid-December. The Cygnus freighter known as “SS Deke Slayton” is happily berthed to the ISS as I write this.
As for SpaceX, all plans for a Falcon Heavy launch, a rocket landing, or a new record flight rate, were taking backseat to the job of figuring out why their rocket had disintegrated on them. Second priority was getting a return to flight scheduled ASAP to pick up their deep manifest (which was already stacked pretty deep coming into 2015). It came out very quickly that the mishap was caused by the failure of a strut, or a structural beam, holding a high pressure helium tank in place. Unfortunately, just because you know the cause of a failure doesn’t mean you know how long it will take to sort out the problem and get back to regular launches. For the next few months it was unclear to the public outside SpaceX if they could even return to flight within the calendar year.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world kept launching rockets. ULA in particular had a pretty good year with 12 launches and no failures. Even though ULA’s Atlas and Delta rockets are extremely successful and don’t really need replacing, they responded to pressures both from the government (which was saying stop using Russian engines) and SpaceX (who is threatening to change the launch industry entirely with reusability) and revealed plans for their new Vulcan rocket. The Vulcan is an ambitious new project which will take at least 5 years to complete. It will use a new American built liquid stage engine and aim to save money by recovering those engines after every launch. Their plan is kind of crazy, as it involves a helicopter. Here it is graphically:
Then in November ULA made space news headlines by not bidding on a GPS satellite contract from the DoD, essentially ceding the launch to SpaceX. ULA listed a couple of reasons they felt that it was not really worth their time to bid, including the Congressional mandate against them to not buy any more RD-180s from Russia. ULA was basically saying, we don’t have enough engines. John McCain in particular was not amused. McCain, who is strongly against the import of Russian rocket engines, feels that ULA has more than enough RD-180 engines already in stock without buying new ones from Russia. They simply need to allocate less engines for commercial and NASA launches and more to DoD payloads. The move was basically a bluff from ULA to get people talking, and it has yet to be seen if it will work.
Which brings us to the tail end of the year, with two of the biggest surprises still left. While everyone was busy talking about SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and ULA, Blue Origin came out of nowhere with a pretty spectacular flight demonstration of their New Shepard rocket. The secret launch occurred in their West Texas facility, reaching the edge of space before the capsule safely came back to Earth under parachute and the first stage touched down vertically under power.
On the face of it, it appears Blue Origin had swooped in and accomplished the first real first stage recovery after a functional rocket launch, right from under SpaceX’s nose. In reality, the technical challenge involved with Blue Origin’s feat is somewhat different than what SpaceX had been trying to do, as the below graphic illustrates. Blue Origin’s launch – while impressive – was suborbital. Meanwhile, SpaceX had been trying to bring back a first stage from a rocket that was actually putting payloads into orbit, which requires much higher velocity.
Regardless, Blue Origin is clearly the quiet dark horse in this story. They almost stole the limelight this year, at least that’s the way it looked before SpaceX stole it back just 9 days before the end of the year. Less than 6 months after their failure, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 on December 22nd, placing a fleet of Orbcomm satellites into orbit and, to everyone’s amazement, successfully landing the first stage back at “Landing Zone 1″ at Cape Canaveral.
This made the mishap back in June look like small potatoes. SpaceX had just achieved one of those three big goals for the year. While there is still a lot of work for them to do to checkout the rocket and determine how much refurbishment would be needed for reflight, this was a major step towards their goal of reuse. Not only that, but being back on flight status puts them in a great posture going into 2016 ready to fly out a big part of their deep manifest. They also likely now have the focus and resources to get that first Falcon Heavy in the air this year.
2016 looks good for Orbital ATK too – with a second Cygnus flight on an Atlas 5 coming up quickly in March and then the maiden flight of their upgraded Antares rocket in May. Overall, the year ended on a high note for the launch industry, with many space fans pretty optimistic. Given how things were looking back in the summer, this year could have turned out quite differently. Losing a Progress cargo craft, which is the only source of fuel resupply and propulsive support for ISS, is always a big deal at NASA and it spins up contingency planning. Fortunately, we ended the year with not just Russia but everyone having returned to flight. Not only do we have a solid reliable supply chain re-established to ISS, lots to look forward to from SpaceX, and resumed orbital flights from Virginia, we are also getting tantalizingly close to the first test flights of the Dragon V2 and Boeing CST-100 manned spacecraft.
I had my heart in my throat for a bit this year, but ended up jumping up and down and cheering with everyone else on December 22nd. It was exciting and all, but after the last two years I’m ready for less drama, and more launches. Ad astra.
The last year was full of spacey goodness. Some things were expected – even long anticipated – like space probes Dawn and New Horizons arriving at their targets. Other things were a complete surprise, like the loss of SpaceX’s seventh commercial flight to ISS and the discovery of flowing water on the surface of Mars. All-in-all, there was a lot to follow and talk about. Thus, I am putting together one or more “year in review” blog posts to give my perspective on what has happened and what’s to come. In the meantime, you can enjoy other people’s thoughts of 2015 in spaceflight through the links I have gathered below. Happy new year!
As usual, I love to lean on the “year in spaceflight” pages on Wikipedia. The folks that put these together do a thorough job. If we look at the 2015 in spaceflight page, we see that the human race is maintaining our high flight rate, with 82 successful orbital launches out of 87 attempts. These numbers have been steadily growing for years. Here is the last decade’s successful launches numbers, starting with 2005: 52, 62, 63, 66, 73, 70, 78, 72, 77, 88, 82. As I wrote in last week’s Weekly Links post, Russia had the most launches with 26 and their Soyuz rocket is by far the most dominant, at 17 launches. However, their two failures this year make it hard to call Soyuz both the most dominant and most reliable. China launches 19 of their Long March family of rockets with no failures.
Using the “list of spaceflight records” we can see some changes in the list for total time in space. Most notably, Gennady Padalka spent 167 days on ISS during Expedition 43/44, his 5th spaceflight, to put him at the top spot for most spaceflown human ever. He has spent 879 days of his life in space. Also notable is Anton Shkaplerov, who returned to Earth during Expedition 43 and is at the 32 spot, Oleg Kononenko, who returned during Expedition 45 and holds the 13 spot with 533 days, and Yuri Malenchenko and Sergey Volkov who are currently in space and hold the 7 and 31 spots respectively.
The other notable record that was broken this year is “longest single flight by a woman” (which is on the list of spaceflight records page), broken this year by Samantha Cristoforetti, partly because her crew got stuck on ISS a little bit longer after the loss of a Progress resupply flight in May.
AmericaSpace, but on planetary science.
AmericaSpace’s compilation video of launches:
And here’s a series of four year in review posts from NASA Spaceflight:
Government Agency PR
NASA’s summary of 2015. With video below.
NASA’s top 15 images of Earth from ISS (if you are a real photography or geography nut, you will want to click “read more” on each picture).
Top Space Stories of 2015
Down To Earth
Here are some new high resolution images from the SpaceX booster flyback landing last week.
And here is a nice shot of the booster being returned to the SpaceX launch complex.
United Launch Alliance has ordered more of the RD-180 engines that power its Atlas rockets. This is the Russian-built engine that has been causing political controversy since early 2014, since American politicians understandably don’t want our military satellites dependent on a geopolitical adversary’s technology. The new engines are only planned to be used for civil and commercial launches.
Meanwhile, the USAF awarded a bunch of money to several companies for propulsion development so that RD-180s won’t have to be purchased in the future.
Components of ESA’s ExoMars mission have arrived at the launch site in Kazakhstan. Launch is coming up quick in March!
Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, was dissolved by law this week under the ongoing reorganization of the space industry going on in that country.
Oak Ridge in Tennessee has produced the first Plutonium-238 in decades. This non-weapons grade nuclear fuel is needed for the RTG power sources of deep space missions.
Only two launches since my last post on December 22nd: a Russian Proton rocket* with a communications satellite and a Chinese rocket with an Earth observation satellite. With no apparent planned launches for the rest of the year (according to my favorite Wikipedia page), that leaves the yearly totals as seen below, with Russia at 25 successful launches and China and the US tied at 18. If SpaceX had launched as many Falcon 9s as they had hoped this year, then the US may have matched or surpassed Russia’s numbers for the first time since probably 2003*. Comments from Musk at a recent press conference indicate he hopes for 12 launches in 2016. We will see.
*The Proton is the rocket that seemed to blow up every other launch a couple of years ago. Although there has been only been one failure every year since 2012, the failure rate has remained about the same since 2010, with 4 out of 32 launches failed 2010 to 2012 and 3 out of 26 from 2013 to 2015.
**In 2003, Orbital Sciences was operating the Pegasus rocket (four launches), ILS was launching out of both Florida and Kazakhstan (I counted based on launch site) and Boeing and Lockheed had yet to merge as ULA. USA outscored Russia by 23 to 21 that year by my count.
Around the Solar System
Here’s a cool new “self-portrait” panorama from the Curiosity rover on Mars.
Here are some new images from Dawn’s new low mapping orbit at Ceres.
Down to Earth
The US federal budget bill for 2016 (referred to as the “omnibus bill”), which has been signed into law by the President, is good news for NASA, with over a $1 billion budget increase for next year.
NASA has confirmed with ESA that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will launch to space aboard an Ariane 5 rocket in 2018. Basically, they signed the contract to pay for the launch. Meanwhile, the JWST mirror installation has been ongoing at Goddard Spaceflight Center (GSFC) in Maryland.
— NASA Webb Telescope (@NASAWebbTelescp) December 22, 2015
— NASA Webb Telescope (@NASAWebbTelescp) December 22, 2015
— NASA Webb Telescope (@NASAWebbTelescp) December 21, 2015
NASA’s next mission to Mars, the InSight lander (not a rover), was delivered to the launch site in California. However, the launch will be delayed, probably about two years, due to an issue with the spacecraft. Here’s the press release from NASA.
NASA ordered a second Boeing CST-100 Starliner flight to ISS. The first crewed mission is expected sometime in 2017.
Other than the InSight delay, the year is wrapping up nicely with some successes. Since my last post on the 13th, there were 6 orbital launches, all successful. The launches included the arrival of the rest of the Expedition 46 crew on ISS, with Malenchenko, Kopra, and Peake aboard. Also an Indian commercial launch, a Chinese dark matter telescope, and a European launch of two Galileo satellites, which is their equivalent to the GPS system.
December 21st was a big day with the last two of those six launches as well as an emergency ISS spacewalk to fix the stuck Mobile Transporter. The spacewalk went fine. Meanwhile, Russia launched a Progress resupply mission to the ISS, which docks on the 23rd, and SpaceX made their return to flight launch of the Falcon 9 rocket with a commercial launch for Orbcomm. In addition to successfully returning to flight and launching the first of their upgraded version 1.2 Falcon 9, the first stage was successfully landed back at the landing site for the first time. Here’s a video:
Landing from helo https://t.co/dYomRtG0Xs
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) December 22, 2015
And here’s some photos of the booster on the landing pad the morning after.
Sunrise this morning at Cape Canaveral pic.twitter.com/c6i2Wn2JtL
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) December 22, 2015
The most viewed video of the International Space Station is certainly Chris Hadfield’s rendition of the David Bowie song Space Oddity, filmed while he was aboard the station in 2013. That music video was a surprise and a revelation for both the public and many within the space industry. Hadfield showed that it is possible to both be a stoic no-nonsense fighter pilot astronaut and also a creative, thoughtful and emotional artist. Other astronauts have tried to travel that road, such as Alan Bean, who is an accomplished painter, but never before with the kind of public attention Hadfield’s music video garnered. Hadfield’s personality combined with the video’s novelty and production value is captivating. The music video, which was taken down for a time until some copyright issues were resolved, now has 27 million views on YouTube.
What most of us didn’t realize at the time was that Hadfield is far from a one-trick pony. While he was busy commanding the ISS during his last spaceflight, he was quietly writing and recording music in his spare time. A collection of 12 songs, all recorded in space, has now been released as the aptly named Space Sessions: Songs from a Tin Can. All but the familiar Space Oddity track are original songs. If you are hoping that the first musical album recorded in space will be a window into the soul of an experienced and mature explorer, then you should just go order Space Sessions now without reading any further. Hadfield delivers in spades.
The album starts out strong and upbeat with three tracks very clearly about the experience of launching into space and seeing the Earth from orbit for the first time. The opening track, Big Smoke, was actually written by Hadfield in 1994, two years after his selection as a CSA astronaut, but before his first spaceflight, STS-74. The joy and anticipation of a young astronaut looking forward to his first flight comes through clearly in all of the songs lyrics, such as
“Big Smoke/ Carry precious cargo/ Show us how to live and how to dream”
Tracks 2 and 3 have similar upbeat themes about spaceflight but are unique in their own way. Beyond the Terra is about reaching orbit and looking back at the Earth, while Feet Up is more of a cheerful expression of the adventure of spaceflight with simple but honest lyrics:
“Can’t put my feet up/ Can’t hold my lunch down/ Turning the sound up/ I start to spin round/ Can’t stand on my own two feet/ I just float away/ I took a ride on the hot hot seat/ Now I’m ready to play/ Far away”
From there the album slows down and gets somewhat more thoughtful through the middle section. Songs such as I Wonder If She and Space Lullaby cut to the core of the emotions of being an explorer far from home thinking of loved ones. There are even songs not about spaceflight at all, such as Window on my Mind, which tells a story of a cross country road trip. This variety is one of the strengths of the album that makes it much more than its novelty might suggest. Space Sessions is first an autobiographical expression through music. It would not have the impact it does if it was 12 straight tracks about what it feels like to fly in a rocket.
One of my favorite tracks is Daughter of My Sins, which, according to the booklet, was conceived, written, and recorded all during a single day of work aboard the space station. Hadfield recorded the songs for the album in a makeshift “studio” which was really just his tiny sleep station in Node 2 with an acoustic guitar and a microphone hooked up to his iPad. The day he wrote Daughter of My Sins he kept sneaking off to his sleep station during breaks in his work day to jot down lyrics and then recorded it in the evening. It is fun to imagine than maybe the song was written on a day that I was on console quietly watching over the station’s guidance systems while he worked.
After reading my description of how the album was made, you may think that maybe the production value is low. While the vocal and acoustic guitar tracks are genuinely recorded in space, Hadfield has added professional production and full instrumentation to most tracks, giving his writing a chance to fully shine, and it works great. I found that on most of the tracks the added instrumentation highlights rather than drowns Hadfield’s performance. My favorite example of this is on the second to last track, Ride That Lightning, which uses piano and choir vocals to create a great gospel inspired feel.
The only exception is that I think his Christmas carol, Jewel in the Night, would have been even more hauntingly beautiful if it was left just with Hadfield’s own vocals and guitar track, allowing the subtle echo of sounds on the space station throughout the song.
I guess if you don’t like acoustic guitar folk music, you might not enjoy this album. Most of these songs are best listened to carefully, not simply played as background music. The booklet that comes with the CD adds important insight into each song – including who wrote it (some are cowritten with Hadfield’s brother), when it was written, and for most a brief discussion of the inspiration or idea behind the song.
This album is automatically an answer to an obscure trivia question “who was the first person to record an album in space?” but I think the longterm impact of Space Sessions will be much more than that. When the histories are written about the ISS program, an important piece will be how the astronauts living in orbit day in and day out shared their experiences with the public openly and in real-time, something no spacefarers had done before. Hadfield’s music blends the technical and emotional in a way that challenges our preconceptions of what an astronaut should be. If people ever do live on Mars, they will take Hadfield’s music with them.
If you’re not convinced, you can listen to many of the songs from the album on YouTube at Hadfield’s official channel. A few examples are below. The CD is produced in Canada so it is an import for US buyers, but can be easily ordered on Amazon for about $14.
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).