Archive for the ‘NASA’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

A new exhibit called ‘Forever Remembered’ at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center has opened, featuring artifacts from the fateful STS-51L and STS-107 missions.

NASA is offering to lease parts of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and Mobile Launch Platforms (MLP) at the Kennedy Space Center to commercial users. I guess NASA doesn’t need both high bays all the time due to the low launch rate expected for the new SLS rocket.

Famous composer James Horner died in a plane crash this week. Here are some excerpts from my favorite work of his, the Apollo 13 soundtrack:

In Orbit

In orbital launch news, the Russian military launch I wrote about last week was successful on June 23rd. The rocket was a Soyuz-2.1b, which has a different third stage than the Soyuz rockets used to launch missions to ISS. Here is a good discussion of the Soyuz rocket family from Russian Space Web.

There was also a Chinese Earth-observing satellite launch on June 26 (was early in the day, so June 25 in the US).

And of course, another much-anticipated SpaceX Falcon 9 launch is still scheduled for tomorrow. The pre-launch static fire test was successful on Friday, June 26, so they are ready for launch on June 27 at around 10:20 AM Eastern.

This Falcon 9 launch is supposed to have another barge landing attempt. SpaceX recently launched this new tracking cam footage of the almost-made-it attempt in April. This should get you excited for tomorrow!

As always, here are some more great photos from ISS, posted by @StationCDRKelly

Around the Solar System

The European Space Agency has extended the Rosetta mission, in orbit of comet 67P, until late 2016. Good thing too, because Rosetta keeps finding new things about comet 67P, like the recent announcement that they have found exposed water ice on the surface.

This song about the New Horizons mission to Pluto is rather fun. If you don’t like sentimentality or kitsch, you might want to skip it.

Out There

Some cool astronomy news worth sharing this week. First, the V404 Cygni system, which is a black hole orbited by a companion star, has recently become very active and is flaring into the brightest X-ray object in the sky (so you can’t see it).

Second, astronomers have discovered that exoplanet GJ436b (which is about the size of Neptune) has a giant cloud of hydrogen following it in its orbit, like a comet tail.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The next SpaceX resupply flight to ISS will now be on June 28.

NASA’s “Europa Clipper” mission, which will explore the icy moon of Jupiter, has moved on to development phase.

US Senator from Texas John Cornyn visited mission control last week.

In Orbit

For the rocket junkies, the first launch since June 5th occurred today. The ESA Earth-observing satellite Sentinel-2 launched from French Guiana just a little while ago as I write this. There are no press releases up about the successful launch yet, so here is the Wikipedia page about the mission. Russia is launching a reconnaissance mission on a Soyuz rocket tomorrow, and then there is the SpaceX launch next Monday (see Wikipedia page 2015 in spaceflight for launch schedule).

On Thursday, ISS flight control teams commanded a reboost burn in order to slightly changing the station’s orbit. This is done to make sure that upcoming rendezvous events, like the next Soyuz launch and docking in July, happen when and where they are planned.

Robonaut 2, which lives aboard the ISS, was named the 2014 Government Invention of the Year (US).

New high definition videos of cities, filmed from the ISS, were released by UrtheCast. From 200+ miles up, you can see cars moving on streets and boats on rivers. More than that though, I think I like watching the buildings “move” as the perspective shifts at 17,500 mph.

The Planetary Society’s LightSail solar sailing test re-entered Earth’s atmosphere last Sunday, June 13th. Their next test launch will be late in 2016.

Roscosmos has announced that Sarah Brightman’s empty seat on Soyuz TMA-18M later this year will be filled by a cosmonaut from Kazakhstan.

Scott Kelly is doing a great job still posting a great variety of beautiful images from ISS on Twitter all by himself. Here is a sampling:

Around the Solar System

ESA’s Philae lander, which has been hibernating on comet 67P since November, has woken up! Data was received by the Rosetta orbiter on June 13 and 14, prompting the mission team to start making plans for when they gain a more solid link with the probe.

Scientists have discovered methane in Martian meteorites (pieces of Mars that came to Earth as a meteorite), thus confirming and deepening the mystery around the methane that has been detected at Mars by various spacecraft.

Check out this epic trailer for the upcoming rendezvous of the New Horizons spacecraft at Pluto:

Book Review: Launch On Need

NASA’s Foundations of Mission Operations is meant to be a reminder to all working in the manned spaceflight program of the responsibility we hold to the taxpayer and to the astronauts we train and protect. Among other core values, the foundations state:

To always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences.

As part of that goal, certified flight controllers must complete annual proficiency training, which includes reading key chapters of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s report (the report is often simply referred to as “the CAIB”). We are not required to read the entire report annually – both because it is very long at over 200 pages and because many chapters are irrelevant now that the Shuttle program has retired. However, we read chapters that have a direct relation to how we continue to do our job as flight controllers, such as chapter 7: “The Accident’s Organizational Causes”. These parts of the report drive home the importance of good leadership, speaking up when you see a problem, and technical rigor, among other skills. For instance, page 191 has a very relevant discussion of the danger of trying to present a precise technical topic on a brief PowerPoint slide.

The most important part of the CAIB ultimately is the list of recommendations found in chapter 11, especially those that are organizational and apply still today. Nevertheless, it is human nature to ask “what if?” about the Columbia accident. A 2-page section of chapter 6, titled “Possibility of Rescue or Repair”, seeks to answer this question, however briefly. Chapter 6 (and the longer associated appendix) explain that, had NASA managers understood Columbia’s plight early in the flight, resources could have been conserved onboard to extend STS-107 to a mission length of several weeks and Atlantis – already being prepped for STS-114 in the Orbiter Processing Facility – could have been rushed for a possible bid at rescue. This section of the CAIB, almost a footnote, is the premise of the fictional novel Launch on Need by Daniel Guiteras.

Launch on Need takes the “what ifs?” about as far as they can go, exploring both the how the world would react to the drama of a stranded space shuttle as well as detailing NASA’s mobilization efforts for rescue. Surprisingly, the most central character to the novel is fictional CNN reporter John Stangley, rather than a NASA flight controller or astronaut. It is actually the novel’s biggest failing that Stangley is the only character who is truly explored with depth or appreciable character arc. At 350 pages, this means that a lot of time is spent with characters of little emotional interest to the reader. The fact that all of the characters are fictional – including STS-107 astronauts, rescue astronauts, and mission managers – definitely slowed down my ability to connect with them. However, to be fair to Guiteras, the book likely would not have faced problems getting published if he had assigned invented dialogue and motivations to real people, especially the crew of Columbia.

Fortunately, the reason I read Launch on Need was not really for complex characters. The book intrigued me probably for the same reasons Guiteras wrote it. NASA has not had to publically “save” a crew since the successful failure of Apollo 13, a generation ago. Both accidents during the space shuttle program were tragedies, not crises. By the time the public knew of the Challenger and Columbia accidents, the astronauts were already dead. What would a modern day Apollo 13 look like? How would the public react? Could NASA really pull it off? Of course, without a time machine, we will never really know the answers to these questions. But Launch on Need makes a compelling case for how things may have turned out differently. Despite the weak characters, and often weak dialogue, Guiteras’ loving attention to technical detail creates a drama that carries the reader all the way to the finish.

Guiteras sets up the structure of the novel in a clever way, with three parts titled The Discovery, The Challenge, and The Endeavour, using the names of three of NASA’s fleet of space shuttles. The Discovery starts at launch of STS-107 and ends with the wing inspection EVA, The Challenge covers the rescue flight’s prep for launch, and The Endeavour is the rescue mission itself. This means that, rather surprisingly, the rescue mission launches well over half way through the novel. If this story were ever to be made into a movie (unlikely) this would not fly. The big screen eye candy comes from action in space. The excitement of launch day and the drama of the rendezvous and tense rescue EVA would certainly be the focus, and launch would occur, at latest, halfway through the film. But this imagined big-screen version would steal the soul of Guiteras’ story. The real drama of the story occurs during part 2, as NASA prepares Atlantis for launch. Guiteras does a great job of building up the conflict of man versus schedule in this part of the book, which is hard to do, since the antagonist is not a person but is time itself.

One of my favorite chapters in the book comes in the middle of part 2, while Atlantis is still in the OPF, and NASA is working 3 shifts and struggling to shave precious hours of the launch prep timeline so that Atlantis can reach orbit before Columbia runs out of CO2 scrubbers. In the middle of this chaos, a careless worker drops a large bucket from an upper level of the OPF onto Atlantis’ wings, potentially putting the entire mission in danger, if the damage is bad enough. Not only did I fear for Atlantis herself but I really felt for Wally Jensen, the OPF manager you meet only for the brief 5 pages of this chapter. The accident’s impact on Jensen really painted an accurate picture of how the stress of something like a real rescue mission might take its toll on NASA’s employees.

In contrast to the parts of the novel about Atlantis being readied for launch are the chapters following the rescue crew, which I felt really missed the mark. For instance, during one chapter, we join two of the rescue mission astronauts who are selected to do the spacewalk to ferry all 7 astronauts from Columbia to Atlantis. They are training at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) the week before the flight. Actually, it is the day after they were assigned to the mission and they are already on their first NBL run. As they alone in the locker room getting ready for prebrief, one astronaut begins to confide in the other that he is worried and scared, that he has lost confidence in himself. While astronauts are just humans like you and me, and surely feel the pressure leading up to a big mission, the timing of the confession and the dialogue was rather contrived. Keep in mind that these two characters were introduced as NASA’s best spacewalkers. Unfortunately, this was a theme throughout and I felt that the astronauts were the weakest characters in the story. Similarly, a lot of the scenes that occur in mission control itself felt off to me, based on my experience in mission operations for the ISS. The most jarring scene for me was when a “tiger team” of 4 members is formed in the middle of the climactic rescue EVA to figure out how to open a stuck hatch, or else the last two crew of Columbia will die aboard. The entire logistics of this episode do not match how we do things at mission control: the IMMT chair, who was at the back of the control room at the management console, grabs 3 flight controllers who are currently on shift in the front room during an EVA and leave the room to come up with options. This would never happen. Instead, the army of back room flight controllers and engineering support rooms would be working together on the comm loops to come up with a plan.

Despite Guiteras lack of ability to provide believable astronaut or flight controller characters, the story has another strength in its exploration of the space program in the American psyche. One of the most interesting scenes to me (regardless of its realism) comes near the beginning of Part II, shortly after NASA has committed to rescue as the only option for Columbia. The NASA administrator is holding a meeting with the heads of his public affairs and communications divisions and outlines an innovative approach to media relations during preparations for the rescue mission: hide nothing, let the media in everywhere. The administrator realizes that this is an “Apollo 13 moment” and seizes on the opportunity to get everyone talking about NASA again.

As NASA starts to let reporters into the VAB and OPF, just inches from Atlantis as she is prepared for her rescue mission, the American public begins to become fixated on the mission. The 24-hour news channels essentially have a launch countdown ticker on the screen at all times and they do daily status updates. STS-300 is on the front page of the New York Times. This is my favorite part of Launch on Need. I think Guiteras has a great sense of how Americans really feel about space. Sometimes it seems NASA is ignored, often even forgotten, but that is not because people don’t love space. Spaceflight is in the background fabric of our culture, the way we expect to have a football game on TV on Sunday night or that we get 100 options of breakfast cereal at the grocery store. You don’t notice something so ingrained in our culture until they are gone. Everyone wants to talk about space when something goes wrong; we see this every time a cargo launch doesn’t make it to ISS – you see a headline in every news media outlet, even if they just use the AP brief. Often those launches aren’t covered when they are successful.

Guiteras seems to understand all of this about American culture, which makes his fictional tale about how STS-107 could have ended in triumph an optimistic but cautionary tale that I think leaders within NASA should read and learn from. Launch On Need is an interesting thought experiment about NASA public affairs. It points out that people love space (which I think is true of the majority), but that NASA needs to actively share its mission in an exciting and emotional way if we want people’s love of space to be active and conscious, and not just like their love of the breakfast cereal aisle.

We will never know if Atlantis really could have made it to orbit to save the Columbia crew before Flight Day 30. All we can say is that if NASA hadn’t made the errors in management, communication, and decision making which are outlined in the CAIB, there could have at least been a chance to try. Even if a rescue mission had been attempted and failed, the way we remember the Columbia disaster would be very different. The idea of following the Foundations of Mission Operations – of being ever vigilant – is not because we believe we can prevent all disasters from happening, but instead is to at least give ourselves the chance to turn something like Columbia from a tragedy that no one saw coming into a crisis that we can put forth our best effort to recover from. This is the point of the last line of the Foundations of Mission Operations:

To recognize that the greatest error is not to have tried and failed, but that in the trying we do not give it our best effort.

I would recommend Launch On Need to fans of space history and flight controllers alike. In fact, with some good editing and improved character development in another edition, I think it could be quite good. I hope that if and when NASA has another crisis in manned spaceflight, we will have improved our blind spots that led to disaster for Challenger and Columbia and will instead give ourselves the chance for redemption shown by Guiteras in Launch on Need.

You can read Launch on Need for free if you have Kindle Unlimited or order it for $11.60 in paperback. Here is the Amazon link.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Jack King, who provided launch commentary for NASA missions in the 1960s and 1970s, has died at 84.

The United States Senate is busy working on a markup of a budget in the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, which includes money for NASA. The current budget, if passed, would include about $18.5 billion for NASA. However, there is some debate about how that money is being spent, including whether enough money is being allocated to the “commercial crew” program for launching astronauts to ISS on spacecraft built by SpaceX and Boeing.

NASA has awarded $30 million to SpaceX for their launch abort test milestone last month.

NASA’s Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) had a second drop test over Hawaii this week. The technology will help with Martian EDL for large mass spacecraft. Unfortunately, the parachute failed at high altitudes. More test flights are planned.

In Orbit

It was a very busy week up on the ISS. The most important update is that Expedition 43 ended on Wednesday when Terry Virts handed over command to Gennady Padalka for Expedition 44. Then on Thursday morning the crew of TMA-15M (consisting of Terry Virts, Samantha Cristoforetti, and Anton Shkaplerov) undocked from the ISS and landed safely in Kazakhstan a few hours later.

Earlier in the week, there was some unrelated excitement: first, on Monday, June 8th, the mission control teams in Moscow and Houston had to work together to execute a Pre-determined Debris Avoidance Maneuver (PDAM) to change the ISS orbit to dodge some space junk.

Then, on Tuesday, an unexpected thruster firing from a docked Soyuz vehicle caused ISS to take contingency actions. The Soyuz thruster firing overwhelmed the NASA-owned Control Moment Gyroscopes (CMGs), requiring use of Russian Segment attitude control thrusters to “right the ship” so to speak. Long story short, this is exactly the kind of contingency we plan for and practice hundreds of times in the ADCO group. From what I have heard, the situation was handled very well!

With Expedition 44 underway, there are only 3 astronauts aboard ISS. According to official launch dates from Roscosmos, we won’t see 6 people aboard again until TMA-17M launches in late July.

The LightSail mission has been declared a success, now that there are images of the mylar solar sails deployed! Can’t wait for the next test flight next year.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has found evidence of impact glass, which may preserve evidence of past life.

Here is some new imagery of Ceres from the Dawn spacecraft, featuring a new high resolution look at the “bright spots”. Ceres is slowly moving to lower and lower mapping orbits.

There is also new imagery of Pluto from New Horizons:

Because its Cool

Check out the first official trailer for the highly anticipated (at least by geeks) movie, The Martian:

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Astronaut Nicole Stott has retired from NASA. She flew to space on Discovery twice with one mission being a long duration stay at the ISS.

The Canadian Space Agency has committed to their partnership in the ISS through 2024. This means that their two unflown astronauts, Jeremy Hansen and David Saint-Jacques, will get to fly expeditions to the station.

In Orbit

Half of the Expedition 43 crew will finally return to Earth this week aboard their Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft. This will start Expedition 44 with a 3-man crew of Padalka, Kelly, and Kornienko. NASA TV will cover the undocking from ISS on Thursday morning, June 11. The undocking was delayed last month due to the launch failure of an unmanned Progress spacecraft. Due to the extended mission, Samantha Cristoforetti now holds the record for the longest spaceflight by a woman.

On Friday, June 5, a Russian military satellite launched on a Soyuz 2a.1 rocket. This launch is notable because it is the first flight of a Soyuz rocket since the launch failure of the Progress spacecraft. Flights of unmanned Progress and manned Soyuz spacecraft to ISS both launch on the Soyuz family of rockets.

Speaking of Soyuz, check out this awesome timelapse from the TMA-16M docking to ISS earlier this year.

The Planetary Society has confirmed via telemetry that their LightSail’s solar sail has deployed. No photos or video available yet.

Here’s another cool video from a GoPro mounted to the inside of a Falcon 9 payload fairing after a recent launch. The video starts after the fairing has already separated from the rocket.

Around the Solar System

A new analysis of Hubble Space Telescope data shows that at least two of Pluto’s small moons (Nix and Hyrda) are tumbling unpredictably. Here is a simulation:

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

SpaceX officially received certification from the United States Air Force (USAF) to launch military payloads.

NASA has officially ordered the first official crew rotation flight to ISS under the contracts awarded to Boeing and SpaceX last year. Boeing is expected to make this flight (after a demo flight) in late 2017.

At NASA’s Stennis Space Center, the new RS-25 rocket engine went through a long duration test firing. The RS-25 is a modified space shuttle main engine and will be used on NASA’s new SLS rocket. Here is the full video of the 450 second (7.5 minute) test:

A new venture called MarsPolar hopes to work with SpaceX to mount the first expeditions to Mars. They have a rather shiny website (and an awesome logo). There are a lot of ambitious people promising big dreams these days, which is exciting. But it is hard to take these announcements seriously until we start seeing results. I wish them luck!

In Orbit

The big event on ISS last week was the relocation of the Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) from the bottom of ISS to another out of the way port, so that the previous location can be used as a docking port. Here are some images and timelapses of the operation:

The ISS is currently in perpetual twilight during a time of year we call “high beta”. This often means frequent and very bright ISS passes for much of the world. My favorite way to look up whether ISS will be flying over my location is with the website Heavens Above.

In rocket news, only one orbital rocket launched in the past week: an Ariane 5 rocket carrying a DirecTV satellite. The next ISS related launches are expected to be a SpaceX launch late in June and hopefully also the next Progress launch.

Around the solar System

As New Horizons is now less than two months from closest approach to Pluto, we are getting higher resolution images of the dwarf planet every week. Here is the latest batch. Here’s an animation of the imagery (via APOD):

These images are more than just pretty pictures. The New Horizons mission control team is watching Pluto and its moons closely throughout approach to ensure no hazards will destroy the spacecraft at the close encounter. Analysis so far is good.

If you are excited about the Pluto mission, maybe you should download the new “Pluto Safari” iPhone app. I have downloaded it, but not played with it yet.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Another SpaceX Dragon capsule completed its mission with a splashdown in the Pacific on Thursday, May 21st. Their next ISS mission is scheduled for late June.

NASA has certified SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch “medium risk” science missions.

Speaking of SpaceX, it looks like I forgot to post videos from their successful pad abort test earlier in May. Here is the original video as well as a new video from onboard the capsule, which is a must watch!

Congress has been doing a lot of space and NASA related work in their current session. The House Appropriations Committee has a markup that includes some details for NASA. Parabolic Arc has the breakdown.

In Orbit

There were two launches in the past two weeks, one successful and one not so successful. First, on May 16th, a Russian Proton rocket launched from Baikonaur with a Mexican commercial satellite did not deliver the payload to orbit. The last time a Proton rocket failed was about a year ago. They had had 6 successful launches between these most recent two failures.

The good news is that on Wednesday, May 20th, a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 launched from Florida on a flawless flight that delivered the Air Force’s secret X-37B spaceplane and also a fleet of ride-along cubesats.

Among the cubesats on the launch was the awesome LightSail mission from the Planetary Society. The citizen-funded mission is a technology demonstration mission of solar sailing. The current mission is to demonstrate that the sail can be unfolded in orbit. A later mission in 2016 will actually go to a high enough orbit to use light from the sun to steer. You can follow the mission here and contribute to their funding here.

On May 15th, a glitch on the space station caused a reboost, or orbital trajectory correction burn, to be cancelled. Mission controllers were able to turn the plan around and get a good reboost a couple of days later though. Way to go team! (I was on vacation in Austin, so I was not involved)

Because of the changes to the ISS mission schedule (Soyuz TMA-15M crew not coming home for a few extra weeks), the mission control team had the opportunity to come up with some “get aheads” to take care of while there are still 6 people on ISS. The result is that later this week we will be executing the “PMM relocate”, or moving the large logistics module from one place on ISS to another, to free up a new docking port. This animation should help:

This is the first large module relocation like this since the end of the Space Shuttle program. The activities will be covered on NASA TV this Wednesday, May 27th.

Here’s the view through the Node 3 forward hatch where PMM will be berthed:

Around the Solar System

ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft is still orbiting comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  Recently they released some pictures showing some boulders that appear to be “balancing” on their ends, due to the strange gravity field. The direction of “down” is highly dependent on your location on this strangely shaped object, causing configurations that would not be possible on a round world.

Here’s a new higher resolution view of the “bright spots” on Ceres.

Here’s a video of the sun setting on Mars, in real-time, as recorded by the Curiosity rover on Mars (via the Planetary Society).

Weekly Links

This post will have to cover the last two weeks, as I missed last week’s update partly due to being on the evening shift at the ADCO console. I happened to be on duty in mission control when the lost Progress cargo ship re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific. Unfortunately, ISS was too far away for us to see anything from the onboard cameras.

Down to Earth

The crew of Expedition 43 will not be coming back down to Earth as planned this month. NASA and the other ISS partners announced this week that upcoming crew rotation dates will be delayed due to the ongoing investigation of the Progress resupply craft that failed to reach ISS. The next launch was also postponed by a couple of months.

Fortunately, the astronauts aboard ISS seem to be in high spirits and are making the best of it:

In a seemingly unrelated announcement, British singer and spaceflight hopeful, Sarah Brightman, has postponed her plans to fly on a Soyuz to the International Space Station, according to a press release on her website. No official word yet if her backup Satoshi Takamatsu will take her Soyuz seat on TMA-18M later this year.

A new astronaut movie called Pale Blue Dot will star Reese Witherspoon. Let’s hope it lives up to the pedigree of its namesake. Based on what little we know about it so far, I don’t know if I am convinced.

The company that designed the capillary flow coffee cups for serving espresso on the ISS wants to commercially produce the cups for sale on Earth. You can pledge to their Kickstarter here.

The UAE space agency has produced a pretty interesting promo video for their Martian orbiter mission plans:

In Orbit

Check out this awesome video blog from Smarter Every Day about the window shutters in the Cupola on ISS (via Bad Astronomy).

Here are some of my favorite posts from the astronauts in space from the last week or so:

Around the Solar System

The small Japanese probe Procyon was unable to recover its ion engine in time for a needed course correction and will miss its asteroid rendezvous. Procyon launched with Hayabusa 2 in December.

New Horizons is now close enough to Pluto to image all 5 of its known moons!

The “tiger stripes” on Europa could be “sea salt” from beneath the surface.

In other icy moon news, the geysers on Enceladus, seen by the Cassini probe, may actually be curtains rather than geysers.

Check out this awesome Vine from Saturn:

And How could I not share this sunset image taken by the Curiosity rover on Mars.

Out There

Astronomers may have found the first volcanoes on a planet around another star.

Astronomers from Yale University discovered the most distant galaxy ever seen – a stunning 13 billion light years distant.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Ok, politics out of the way first. A committee in the US House of Representatives recently marked up a version of a budget bill for NASA that funds the agency at healthy levels but takes a bunch of money from Earth science and gives it to the manned exploration programs. Here is Administrator Charlie Bolden’s official statement on the bill.

Dr. Dava Newman, of MIT, has been confirmed by the US Senate as the new deputy NASA administrator.

SpaceX will conduct their first Pad Abort Test of the manned version of their Dragon capsule on Wednesday. Details of the test can be found here. The unmanned test will be streamed live on NASA TV. Here are some pictures of the Dragon on the pad waiting for the test.

Also, here is a new awesome picture from the failed droneship landing of the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster last month.

Blue Origin tested their New Shepard vehicle on April 29. The launch got them very close to space, only a few miles short of the Karman Line. Here is a video they released of the test.

Mark Kelly will appear on Celebrity Jeopardy! later this month.

The Adler Planetarium in Chicago is currently running a special exhibit about Apollo 13.

In Orbit

SpaceX successfully launched their 5th flight of the year, launching a comm satellite for Turkmenistan on April 27th.

On April 28, a Soyuz rocket carrying an unmanned Progress resupply craft launched from Kazakhstan, headed for the ISS. Unfortunately, a problem occurred at or near separation from the upper stage and the vehicle spun out of control. Mission controllers in Russia were not able to recover the spacecraft and it is expected to crash back to Earth this week. NASA and its partners have a plan for continued logistical support of the space station without the Progress (SpaceX is launching another resupply very soon) and Russia is conducting an internal investigation.

Meanwhile, up on the ISS, the crew has some distractions to keep them from thinking about the logistical challenges. They have installed their brand new espresso machine (or ISSpresso) and also setup a new projector movie screen.

Sam recorded a quick tour of her “hygiene corner” on the ISS.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s MESSENGER probe crashed into Mercury (deliberately) last week, after a successful 4 year orbital mission.

Check out these awesome new images of Pluto from the New Horizons probe… getting closer!

Because its Cool

You can always count on the Onion to make fun of NASA in the best way possible.

31st Space Symposium

I imagine that my time in Colorado Springs during the week of April 13th was a lot like what some first-time attendees at the Star Wars Celebration (also occurring that week, in LA) were going through. Surrounded by geeks and famous names in my own passion, attending the 31st Space Symposium was like something you might win in a sweepstakes. Except I wasn’t there just as a fan of space. Somehow, I had managed to impress someone enough to be invited as a speaker. What? Yes, I still don’t believe it either. I guess some background is required.

When I joined Twitter in late 2008, it was mostly because it seemed like something the cool kids were doing, and I didn’t want to admit I wasn’t hip. I didn’t think I would use it much. I definitely didn’t think I would find 2,000 people out there who wanted to hear about my job at NASA. It turns out that Twitter, or social media in general, is a great way to stay in touch with the things you care about in the world, and to connect with like-minded people, no matter where they live. This is how I ultimately ended up on stage at the 31st Space Symposium last week, talking about my job as an ISS flight controller. A fellow flight controller, half a world away in Germany, followed me on Twitter and recommended my name as a good representative of the Houston mission operations community for a panel she was helping to organize. It seems like a 21st century idea – to give a professional recommendation for someone you have never met face-to-face!

Our panel, called “Controlling the ISS: Global Collaboration and the Contribution of Young Professionals” was made up of four of us from ISS ops: one each from Houston, Huntsville, Germany, and Japan. Our moderator, retired astronaut Leroy Chiao, was commander of ISS during Expedition 10, his last of four flights to space. Getting ready for the conference was a bit like what we do daily in the ISS program; we had to find a good time for a Google Hangout video conference across 4 time zones in 3 countries. Our first “hangout” all together was at 6 AM in Houston, noon in Germany, and 8 PM in Japan! Our second hangout was at the Space Foundation’s Yuri’s Night party in Colorado Springs, two days before our panel!

It was a unique experience to find oneself with so much in common with people from literally all over the world. Culturally, we are from at least 3 totally different backgrounds (two of us being American) but we share a common language in ISS operations speak. I learned throughout the symposium that this is a theme of the space business these days, and is exactly why the Space Foundation put our panel together. There is a large industry of space and space-related companies and organizations out there, all trying to do similar things. Why allow the barriers of politics, geography, and culture to stand in the way of a shared passion? It was international collaboration that has made the ISS so successful, a success very visible to everyone else trying to do big things in space. Even the military panels had discussions about how cooperation and collaboration across international borders is the path to global space security, and the ISS is often referenced as a model for those efforts!

Our panel was just a one hour session in a full week of panels, speakers, and technical forums. We had a marginal audience of maybe a hundred people – there were concurrent sessions about satellite design, military space situation awareness, and of course the ever buzzing exhibit hall was open. So I feel content that we had a decent audience at all – not to mention Bill Nye came to listen. The pressure was on… one of my childhood heros was going to listen to me talk…

One hour of talking goes really fast when you have 5 people on stage, but we managed to cover some good ground: from what it takes to be a flight controller, to working with the Russians, to challenges of international collaboration, to the Chinese space program, and more. My co-panelists of course had some great things to say, but I thought I would recap a bit of what I covered, since it is what I remember the best!

When prompted by Chiao to address the impact of the Ukraine crisis and other geopolitical tensions on ISS, I noted that we don’t see the effect of politics at all at the working level. I explained that the mass media’s narrative of the program, with Russia holding all the cards, misses the big picture. The Russians can’t just stop flying NASA’s astronauts to the space station as a political tool if they want to keep the station running. Successful ISS operations is not one-sided, but involves contributions from all partners. Russia provides our launch vehicle but NASA brings much to the table also. I gave the example of how the Russian thrusters and American gyroscopes (CMGs) are both needed together if we intend to fly ISS for another decade. It’s a chicken and egg problem. The ISS needs both Russia and the US equally, in its current operational model.

When China was discussed, Chiao asked us “if the political issues were overcome, what would it take to add China to the program?” something I learned from Andrea (my co-panelist from Germany) is that ESA already has a relationship with the Chinese program and their astronauts learn Chinese. As for NASA, we currently don’t have a direct relationship with the Chinese program (it is tricky, since they do not have a clear delineation between civil and military space industry). I did note that adding any new player to ISS, no matter who they are, would present challenges, especially if they would be a new equal partner. Processes like mission management teams and flight rule boards would require additional coordination. I also pointed out that the current relationship NASA has with Russia did not start with ISS. Following the fall of the USSR, we built a relationship of trust through stages of operations such as flying astronauts on each others vehicles and then with the Shuttle-MIR program. A similar phased in approach would be needed with China or any new country that we have never worked with before.

I also fielded a question about debris avoidance on ISS which allowed me to give the example of the Pre-Determined Debris Avoidance Maneuver (PDAM), which is a triumph of international collaboration. The procedure allows the US mission control team to direct the crew to send the reboost command, using the russian segment computers and rocket engines, even if none of the Russian planning team is on duty in Moscow. This capability enables more rapid response to a debris threat but also requires a great level of trust on the part of our Russian friends. I think this is a great example of the successful partnership we have built with the ISS. When asked about the future of spaceflight, I remarked that it would be wise for any future programs, no matter where we go, to be an international endeavor. It would be a shame to waste the lessons we have learned since the concept of Shuttle-MIR was formed in the 1990s.

We even had time to field a few good questions from the audience, including the predictable “what would you tell someone who wants to be a flight controller?” Fortunately, we talk about this often at work, so I explained that even though our intent is to hire steely-eyed engineers with great technical knowledge and aptitude, we don’t put a huge emphasis on grades when hiring. More important is a proven ability to learn and adapt and especially to work with other people and communicate clearly. I spend infinitely more time in my job communicating in many ways (verbal, email, console logs, etc) than doing any math that looks anything like what I studied in college. Mission operations is all about working in a team environment.

The Space Symposium this year placed an emphasis on young professionals with an entire track for “New Generation Space Leaders”, featuring an evening reception with Bill Nye and a luncheon with Dr. Ellen Ochoa (astronaut and director of JSC) as keynote speaker. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of those “New Gen’ers” who came up to us after our panel and thanked us for sharing about working in the ISS program. Before the Symposium, I imagined my fellow young professional attendees to be made up primarily of young engineers excited about New Space – wanting to build rockets with SpaceX, Xcor and Virgin Galactic, and not interested in the slow bureaucracy of NASA. Fortunately, I was proven very wrong! It turns out most everyone still thinks NASA is cool, and wants to hear about working there. We even had a few people try to give us their resumes… of course I gave them some advice, but had to tell them to just check the job postings online!

One of my favorite things I noticed was that almost every booth in the exhibit hall, and all of the videos played at award dinners and luncheons, tended to utilize imagery of the ISS at some point. Even the FedEx booth had the ISS on their booth’s banner, with the phrase “mission control” prominently displayed. They very much want to help out with ISS – by transporting precious experiments and cargo to the launch site, or home from splashdown.

One lesson I have learned from this Symposium is that NASA and the ISS program should be very proud of the example we are setting, and should not be shy about telling our story, because it is a good one. At the same time, it is a wide world of spaceflight industry out there, with thousands of people working on their own projects, regardless of NASA. If we don’t keep up with them, they will leave us behind. That is why I am honored that my company and NASA trusted me to attend the conference based on an invite obtained through social media. It is also why it is great to see NASA embracing social media in the broader context – giving astronauts free reign to post to Twitter without a pre-screening (at least it looks like there is no pre-screening!) and allowing so many flight controllers, flight directors, and others to engage with the public online.

With the ISS program now solidly moved from “assembly” to “utilization” phase, and with social media now something most of the world understands and uses, I have a new confidence that the general public will learn about the ISS and the space program and will be supportive of further exploration. The days of meeting people on the street who don’t even know we have a permanent space station are coming to a close – at least that is my hope! I do realize that going to a conference full of other space geeks is like going into a bit of an echo chamber. But my confidence comes from the support across programs and companies for the future of space. No longer do you hear other space fans referring to the ISS as an expensive “boondoggle” – at least not at the Space Symposium.

And regardless, even if some do still feel that way about the ISS, the symposium showed me that the space industry is a big place. For instance, even if Sierra Nevada doesn’t get the ISS cargo contract for their Dream Chaser, they have agreements with Japan and Germany to use the vehicle – it will get built anyway. A lot of wheels are turning and there are a lot of people out there doing amazing things. The Symosium had panels about the new Europa clipper mission (and the advantages of flying it on an SLS), about constellations of satellites providing broadband internet to the world, about the United Arab Emirates’ new space agency. The list goes on. For me, a young engineer who has only had one job and has not really traveled abroad, going to the Space Symposium was like leaving home for the first time and seeing the size of the world. There is so much to do, so let’s work together and get it done!