Archive for the ‘Space Tourism’ Category

2013 In Review – Part II

In Part I of my 2013 year in review I discussed NASA policy and budget changes in 2013. The year for NASA can be summarized as continued excellence, with reason to be concerned for the future. Concern stems from the lack of funding or long-term policy. NASA always dominates space news, but much is also said of the emerging “private” or “New” space sector – as has been the case for the past decade – ever since SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize in 2004. In part II of my review I will discuss the developments in New Space in 2013 and whether I think New Space is finally about to deliver the revolution that we have been promised.

Part II – The Idea Frontier

The 2000s brought New Space to our attention, but the 2010s will be the decade that the dream is realized, fizzles out, or is replaced by New New Space. While Virgin Galactic is making powered flights (two short flights in 2013, none to space) a horde of other bold new companies are showing up, whose ideas make the idea of a blossoming  suborbital space tourism sector seem mundane.

The crazy ideas (and I say that in the most respectful way possible) started in 2012 with the announcement of Planetary Resources: The Asteroid Mining Company. Planetary Resources got attention for putting money where its mouth is; with big name and big money backers like Larry Page, James Cameron, Eric Shcmidt, and Ross Perot. Planetary Resources was followed by Deep Space Industries, another independent asteroid mining company announced in January 2013. By that same time in 2013, Planetary Resources was already working on hardware, with a ground test article of their Arkyd spacecraft. One would think that with all the backing that Planetary Resources has, the development and launch of some small space telescopes wouldn’t be too much of a stretch – SpaceX is doing it with only one billionaire – but apparently they don’t have enough billionaires. In May 2013 Planetary Resources unveiled a Kickstarter campaign to raise $1 million towards the first step in their mission: the launch of space telescopes (which they call their Arkyd model) to discover the asteroids they will later mine. Planetary Resources may have single-handedly proved the concept of crowdfunding a space mission by raising to date $1.5 million towards their goal.

But then again, after about 8 months Planetary Resources has received less than half a cent in donations from each American. Contrasted with the taxed $48 or so per American that NASA received last year, it’s not much. Numbers like that shows why the billionaires are necessary, and they are all getting in on the game. In January 2013, billionaire Dennis Tito (who paid for a trip to ISS in 2001) announced his new space project, Inspiration Mars. The extremely ambitious mission hopes to launch a manned mission to flyby Mars in 2018. The trip would be for only two people – preferably a middle-aged married couple, according to the company – but would aim to inspire the world. Hence the slogan “Send Two People, Take Everyone.” I personally think Inspiration Mars is a great idea. It does not seem to have any false or unreasonable pretenses – like intending to start a brand new multi-billion dollar industry of mining asteroids from scratch. Instead the goal is in the name: inspiration.

If achieved, the Inspiration Mars mission likely would change humanity’s perspective and focus – imagine the real life image of someone staring out through a spacecraft window at the globe of Mars? But Tito’s ambition is clearly bigger than his checkbook. A mission to Mars, even a flyby, is expected to cost billions of dollars, and no launch vehicle exists that would be able to send a manned vehicle on its way to Mars (the SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy is expected to eventually be able to do the trick). So who pays for it? That’s what everyone was asking back in early 2013. Tito answered that question by appearing before a congressional subcommittee in November and proposing that Inspiration Mars be a joint venture with NASA. Who will pay for it? The American taxpayer? It was worth a shot, but NASA and Congress did not seem impressed or swayed by the proposal. Whether funded philanthropically or federally, Inspiration Mars would be an amazing feat. But for now the US Government won’t be helping out.

So Inspiration Mars started off as an interesting and exciting kind of New Space that quickly morphed into a grasp at money to make it an Old Space style venture, which Congress shot down. To qualify as “New Space,” generally a venture needs to avoid NASA and come up with new, novel, cheaper ways to grow the space sector on their own. Well, that’s where Mars One came in, announcing in 2012 plans to send the first manned mission to Mars as part of a reality show.  Probably seeing the success of Planetary Resources’ Kickstarter campaign, the Mars One project started an IndieGoGo campaign in December 2013 to fund their orbiter and lander precursor mission in 2018. As of January 18th they have raised just short of half of their goal of $400,000.

So where does this put us? We have a lot of people with a lot of new crazy ideas. When Deep Space Industries was announced early last year, its chairman Rick Tumlison was quoted as saying “One company is an anomaly. Two companies is an industry.” But that is yet to be seen. A lot of excitement and press briefings and a few crowdfunding campaigns is enough to get made fun of by Jon Stewart (as in this April 2012 episode), but in my book, results are what matter. As far as the frontier of crazy new ideas goes, 2013 was mostly a year of announcements with results yet to come.

But that doesn’t mean that we are not seeing the glimmer of the results first foreshadowed by SpaceShipOne winning the Ansari X Prize ten years ago. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo succeeded on 3 different powered flights in the last year: April 29th and September 5th of last year, and then recently on January 10th. They have yet to reach space, but they are clearly very close to being “operational”. Also in the suborbital sector, XCOR’s Lynx is still under development and is expected to make a flight test soon. However, on the other side of the coin, some of the promising young companies that were kicked off by the X Prize Cup and the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge last decade have fizzled out. Armadillo Aerospace has officially been put on hold by John Carmack and Masten Space Systems never grew out of the tiny mom-and-pop operation they started as. They are doing interesting work, but are more like an R&D outfit than a company in a new industry. I don’t believe they had any flights in 2013 either.

The real results are clearly coming from the companies that are challenging the definition of “New Space” by not being afraid to work with the government to get their feet off of the ground. SpaceX is the most obvious success, with 3 flights of their Falcon 9 rocket last year, one earlier this month, and no major failures. They have demonstrated technical excellence with their low failure rate, by following through on their contract to resupply the International Space Station, and by their impressive efforts to develop a reusable rocket with their “Grasshopper” rocket. SpaceX is joined by other companies that are using NASA contracts as a funding source such as Sierra Nevada who are developing the Dreamchaser reusable space plan and Bigelow Aerospace, which may deliver an inflatable hab module to the ISS in the future.

SpaceX has even purchased nearly 100 acres near the Mexican border in Brownsville, Texas with the intent to launch commercial and military payloads – leaving operations for NASA cargo and crew missions in Florida. SpaceX is quickly morphing into something much more Old Space, with NASA, Department of Defense contracts (if their Falcon 9 rocket is certified by the DoD), and comm sat companies as their main source of revenue. Perhaps 2013 was the year that New Space gave its last gasp before it faded away as a false dichotomy. After all, you can’t fund a high tech company off of Kickstarter and dreams. But you can fund it off of NASA and the DoD. Perhaps the distinction between New and Old space isn’t whether you are funded by the government or not, but rather what your motivations are, and whether you keep the dream alive. So far SpaceX is still run by an eccentric billionaire with dreams of Mars. Meantime, no one at United Launch Alliance, Boeing, ATK, or Lockheed is publicly saying the goal of their company is to send the human species to the stars. And if SpaceX can keep that dream alive, maybe there is something to New Space after all. We will have to wait and see.

Weekly Links

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

Down to Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Orbit

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

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

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

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

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

Earthrise

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

Around the Solar System

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

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

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

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Sierra Nevada had an unpiloted glide and landing test of their DreamChaser space plane back on October 26th. Unfortunately, the left landing gear did not deploy on approach and the spacecraft crashed. The company quickly clarified that no major damage was sustained and they are looking into the mechanical cause of the stuck landing gear. The company has not released footage of the actual crash though. The video below cuts off just before landing.

Retired ISS commander Chris Hadfield’s new book “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life On Earth” is now on sale. I got my signed copy today here at NASA JSC! Commander Hadfield is back in Houston for a NASA checkup and is doing some book tour stops while here. Hope to read it and write a review soon!

In Orbit

November is a busy month for deliveries to the ISS. Last weekend, on November 2nd, ATV4 re-entered the atmosphere – undocking had been several days prior. A special experiment took place on ISS to get high resolution photos of the craft burning up and here are the results.

Courtesy ESA

ATV4 re-entry from ISS

With ATV gone, we are gearing up for the arrival of the new ISS crew. The second half of Expedition 38 – Koichi Wakata, Richard Mastracchio, and Mikhail Tyurin – will launch from Kazakhstan on their Soyuz spacecraft on Thursday, November 7. As is the new flavor of Soyuz flights, they will arrive at ISS just 6 hours later. This crew is one of the most veteran-filled to share a Soyuz in a while. Wakata and Mastracchio will each be on their 4th spaceflights while Tyurin will be on his third. I expect that when Wakata returns to Earth, he will be the only Japanese astronaut on the top 50 list of most time in space (Which you can find about halfway down the page here).

The really exciting thing about this Soyuz flight is that it launches before the first half of Expedition 37 leaves ISS – which is usual how we trade out crews. Instead there will be a short period of 9 people onboard ISS for the first time since the end of the Shuttle program. Why are we doing this? So that an Olympic torch can be carried on a Russian EVA this weekend and then quickly returned two days later with the Soyuz TMA-09M crew. In order for this even to work, last Friday that crew climbed aboard their Soyuz in full re-entry suits and “relocated” their spacecraft from one ISS port to another. A lot of work for a little PR. We will see if it pays off.

Around the Solar System

On Tuesday, November 5th, India launched their Mangalyaan spacecraft to Mars. Mangalyaan is a Mars climate orbiter that will reach the red planet next year after a 10-month Hohmann transfer orbit. India’s mission is the first of two missions to launch int he current Mars window. NASA’s MAVEN mission is to launch on November 18.

Out There

I always like getting to talk hard science. There have been some great results regarding astronomy in the past few weeks:

First, astronomers from various universities collaborated on an observation that found the most distant galaxy ever imaged. The work was done at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii (shout out to my dad who does coding work at Keck on the instrument that was used!). The galaxy has an extreme redshift that puts it only 700 million years after the birth of the universe. Hopefully imaging the youngest galaxies will help us understand fundamentals of galaxy formation.

In exoplanet news, there are some developments. Planet Kepler-78b, which is a small very hot planet orbiting its star in just 8.5 hours – had its density measured (using the Doppler Shift method) and it was discovered that it is about the same size and density as the Earth. Most people are calling this the first actual “Earth-like” planet discovered in another solar system. However, it is still too close to its star to be habitable.

But even more exciting, perhaps, than this actual discovery of an “Earth-like” world is the statistical analysis (again using Keck data!) that shows that one-in-five stars in our galaxy is likely to have an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone. Wow! You might be tempted to say “its just a statistical analysis” but really that’s all any estimate like this is ever going to be because we cannot get direct data on whether all 400 stars have planets. The more planets we discover, the better our sample size, of course. But right now it is looking promising that the follow-on missions to Kepler (JWST and others) have a high likelihood of directly imaging one of these sister Earths. We live in exciting times.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Two astronauts announced their departure from the NASA astronaut corps at the end of September – Ron Garan and Greg Chamitoff. Greg Chamitoff actually worked in my office as an ISS guidance officer, almost 20 years ago (although the ISS had not been launched yet at the time).

The J-2X upper stage engine, in development under NASA contract for about 6 years for use first in the Ares program and then on SLS, will apparently be “mothballed” next year. In other words, NASA has decided J-2X won’t work for SLS so it is going on hold until they find a future use for it. Bummer.

The European Space Agency is doing rover field tests in the Atacama Desert in Chile in preparation for their 2018 launch of the ExoMars rover.

Roscosmos – the Russian federal space agency – has once again replaced their head administrator in an effort to end the string of launch failures that has plagued the program over the past few years. Good luck with the new guy.

Speaking of Roscosmos; Russian media reports that they intend to try a new Phobos sample return mission (following their failed Phobos-Grunt mission in 2011). The new mission would not occur until 2020 or later. It bears repeating: good luck.

The SpaceX grasshopper test vehicle had one more test flight earlier this month – video below – which will apparently be the last. I have to admit that I am disappointed. I hope SpaceX has something more exciting up their sleeve; the Falcon 9-R might fit the bill.

The new company out of Tucson, Arizona known as “World View” intends to send paying customers to 30 km altitude in a balloon lifted capsule. The flights wouldn’t technically take tourists to space, but would give them a high altitude view of the Earth for far longer than flights in suborbital vehicles like SpaceShipTwo. Tickets are planned to only be $75,000.

In Orbit

Luca Parmitano wrote a nice blog post about what it was like to capture the Orbital Cygnus spacecraft last month.

A relatively large Near Earth Asteroid, 2013 TV135, was discovered on October 8th. TV135 has a diameter of about 400 feet and came within 4.2 million miles of Earth last month. The asteroid has another close approach in 2032 for which the probability of an Earth impact is 1-in-63,000.

Speaking of asteroids, on October 15 a Russian dive team found a half-ton chunk of the Chelyabinsk impact at the bottom of a lake near Chelyabinsk, Russia. Awesome.

Around the Solar System

On October 9, the NASA Jupiter probe Juno had a close flyby of the Earth to get a gravity assist and start heading to the outer solar system. Here is a view of Earth from Juno near closest approach. And here is a diagram of the spacecraft’s trajectory showing the affect of the Earth flyby.

The 2013 Mars launch window is coming up fast. First up is India’s Mars orbiter, currently scheduled to launch November 5. Then NASA’s MAVEN mission will launch on November 18.

Weekly Links

It’s been a whole month since I last posted, so there is some catching up to do. I’m going to try to just hit the highlights.

Down to Earth

A few quick news items from the “NewSpace” sector:

Most exciting and most recently, today Virgin Galactic flew the second powered flight of the SpaceShipTwo space plane. This test involved “feathering” the spaceship’s wings after the engine is shut down to help with a controlled “re-entry”. With this only being the second test flight of the year – the first was back in April – it seems unlikely Virgin will start flights to space by the end of the year. Still, it is awesome to see progress. Here’s a video of the flight.

ATK has partnered with Orbital Sciences to build the rocket for Stratolaunch. Orbital is designing the rocket and ATK will provide the first and second stages. For those that need a refresher, Stratolaunch is the Paul Allen project to have a 747-sized plane be the launch platform for a massive rocket that can deliver as much as 13,500 pounds to Earth orbit.

Last month Sierra Nevada’s “Dream Chaser” space plane went through some taxi tests out in California. Basically, it was just towed down the runway to test the landing gear. But if you think that’s exciting, there’s a video! Interestingly, the nose landing gear is a skid, not a wheel.

SpaceX had another test flight of their “Grasshopper” vertical take off and landing rocket. This time it was a “divert” test where it flew sideways and came back. Here’s the video.

In the NASA world there are a few updates also:

First of all, deputy NASA administrator Lori Garver has announced she will be leaving NASA for a job in the private sector (specifically as president of the American Airline Pilots Association).

Astronaut Mike Foale is also leaving NASA after a 26 year career.

A recent paper was published identifying 12 EROs (easily-retrievable objects) to add to a list of possible destinations for NASA’s asteroid retrieval mission. Unfortunately, Lori Garver (see above) was a chief proponent of this new controversial mission. Check out this article in the Washington Post outlining some of the technical and political issues that may hinder this mission.

In Orbit

Tomorrow night at 11:27 PM Eastern time, NASA’s LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) will launch from the Wallops Island facility in Virginia. The launch should be visible to much of the East coast, so stay up to watch if you can! The spacecraft will not have any cameras. Instead, it has spectrometers and dust scoops for studying the tenuous lunar atmosphere. Once LADEE has launched it will clear the Wallops Island launch range for the Orbital Sciences launch of their first Cygnus flight to ISS on September 17th.

A link I should have posted weeks ago is a first hand account from ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano of the EVA which was aborted in July when his helmet started filling up with water. This was probably the scariest thing to happen in spaceflight since the loss of Columbia a decade ago. Great job by flight controllers and especially Luca in staying calm under pressure.

NASA is officially no longer attempting to fully recover the Kepler Space Telescope. Fortunately, lots of people are thinking of ways Kepler can still do exciting science without the stability of three gyroscopes. One of the most publicized white papers from this past week was the idea to look for planets in the very close habitable zones of white dwarf stars.

Similarly, the WISE spacecraft (wide-field infrared survey explorer) is getting a new mission. WISE is being reactivated on a 3-year mission to look for NEOs (Near-Earth Object). As Phil Plait points out, this mission may be directly related to NASA’s asteroid retrieval mission, and the effort to find a candidate rock to go grab.

To round out the space telescope news, the Spitzer Space Telescope celebrated its 10th year in space this summer. Spitzer ran out of liquid helium coolant in 2009 but is still going strong with its “warm mission”.

In what is a startling development, the United States Air Force’s “Space Fence” will be shut down after the end of this fiscal year. The Space Fence is a key part of our orbital surveillance program. Without the space fence program there will be a gap in capability until if and when the new system comes on line in a few years. It’s very possible that without this system the risk of debris striking any given spacecraft without warning – including the ISS – goes up.

Around the Solar System

Mars rover Curiosity got an awesome set of images of the moon Phobos passing in front of Deimos. Not just a rover!

Because it’s cool

Speaking of Virgin Galactic, the term “space tourism” has been officially added to the OED.

The great XKCD comic recently did a great job describing the basics of orbital mechanics.

Somebody recreated the famous shot of a bike flying in front of the moon from the movie E.T.

In a post in July I wrote about how Hubble had determined the color of a far-flung exoplanet. What I failed to mention that they had also discovered that on this planet it probably “rains glass sideways”, which is a bit of a let down if you are wanting to visit this nifty blue world someday. The web comic Sci-Ence is apparently annoyed at how often the planets we discover are unlivable, and has created a handy guide.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Parabolic Arc has a quick summary of the history of NewSpace suborbital launches, based on some tabulated data from the FAA. It is interesting to see the number of (or lack of) launches for some companies. You can really see how SpaceX is the only reall success story so far.

On the almost success story front, there is Virgin Galactic who did another SpaceShipTwo flight on July 25. Disappointingly, it was only a glide test for pilot training. Everyone is hoping SpaceShipTwp will make its first trip to space before the end of the year.

And then at the bottom is Armadillo Aerospace, which is one step away from being simply a failure story of NewSpace. Armadillo blew up a rocket early this year and hasn’t flown since. Recently John Carmack (owner and investor) announced at a conference that the company is “going into hibernation” because it is out of money and he doesn’t want to sink any more cash in it.

NewSpace aside, there is a bit more drama going on – like the mess that is the Russian space program and its politics. The prime minister publicly called out Roscosmos head Popovkin for the recent Proton rocket failure (the spectacular crash you can see in an earlier post here). Popovkin was hired just a couple of years ago to take over the space program after several other high profile failures. Surprisingly, the Proton rocket is expected to fly 4 to 5 more times this year, with the return to flight coming as soon as next month.

In Orbit

In what is perhaps a revealing indication of where the Russian space program’s priorities really come from, the plan to fly an Olympic torch to the ISS for a spacewalk in time for the winter games in Sochi, Russia, is coming together. The crew of Soyuz flight TMA-11M even have a mission patch design that includes an Olympic flame element.

On Saturday, August 3rd, the fourth Japanese cargo resupply craft, HTV-4, launched from Japan on the way to ISS. The mission will arrive for rendezvous on early Friday morning.

I am assigned to the day shift (7-4) in Mission Control every day this week, so I am lucky enough to have the first shift after rendezvous, where the team will maneuver HTV on the end of the Space Station’s robotic arm to “berth” or attach to the ISS to deliver its cargo.

Look at ISS tracker websites like www.heavens-above.com over the rest of the week for upcoming ISS passes overhead – as you might also catch sight of a much fainter HTV in chase. There is a bright pass over North America tomorrow morning at around 4-5 AM. ISS will be visible in Houston at exactly 5 AM.

In what might be a pretty good PR move, NASA is advertising an upcoming research opportunity… to use twins to study the affect of long duration spaceflight. How? Well when Scott Kelly flies to ISS for a year in 2015, he will come home with 10 times more days in space than his twin brother, Mark Kelly. I’m no biologist or geneticist, but I imagine that being twins, there are some variables this can isolate to better understand what will be happening to Scott during his long flight. Its a very cool offer for the Kellys to make, considering Mark is retired.

I put this news item under the “In Orbit” as a show of hope: NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS (worst name for a rocket I’ve ever seen) , completed Preliminary Design Review at the end of July. Here’s hoping this project can stay near budget and get American back to space soon.

Around the Solar System

Happy Birthday to the Mars rover Curiosity, who has spent one year on the Martian surface as of today! Check out Phil Plait’s post for a cool timelapse of the last 365 days on Mars. It’s a great video, but a bit disappointing because of how little Curiosity has actually roved so far. Here’s to more roving in the next year! Really we shouldn’t celebrate for another 322 days, since the Martian year is about 687 days long… and let’s face it, Curiosity is a Martian.

Because it’s Cool

Check out this picture of 4 funnel spouts at once in the ocean off of Italy.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Sally Ride is to be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Recently returned ISS Commander Chris Hadfield announced his retirement from the Canadian astronaut corps today.

Last month, the governor of Texas signed a new law that is necessary for SpaceX to build a new spaceport near South Padre Island and Brownsville. The bill allows the mandated closure of Boca Chica Beach – a public state park – on the days of rocket launches. This bill is a big step towards SpaceX making South Texas their second launch site.

Apparently Justin Bieber made a down payment on a spaceflight with Virgin Galactic last week.

Great to hear @ & @ are latest @ future astronauts. Congrats, see you up there!
@richardbranson
richardbranson

If you are a night owl (or the opposite) you should go outside at about 4:30 AM (Eastern) on Tuesday, June 11, and see if you can spot some Gamma Delphinid meteors. The possible meteor outburst may only last 30 minutes or so, but may be dramatic.

The asteroid mining company Planetary Resources launched a “crowdfunding” campaign last month to help them raise money for their asteroid hunting space telescope(s). They are getting close to their $1 million goal. I think it is worth donating (I contributed already) just for the possibility of getting the cool “space selfie” perk they are offering. They are planning to have a small video screen on the outside of the spacecraft that can display photographs that can then be themselves photographed against the backdrop of the Earth.

Warner Brothers intends to make a feature film based on the nonfiction book “Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo”. I’ll go see it!

In Orbit

On Wednesday, May 29, the second half of Expedition 36 docked to the ISS in the second “express” docking. Launch to docking time was about 6 hours. The new crew consists of Karen Nyberg (American), Luca Parmitano (Italian), and Fyodor Yurchikhin (Russian). Soyuz Commander Yurchikhin is on his third spaceflight. He was just in space exactly 3 years ago for Expedition 24.

Last week, the fourth European transfer vehicle (ATV4) launched from French Guiana on its way to ISS. ATV4 is named “Albert Einstein” and will stay docked to ISS for several months.

Early tomorrow morning, China intends to launch their fifth manned spaceflight. The mission will be Shenzhou 10, and will send three taikonauts to the Chinese Tiangong-1 space station. (via NASA Watch)

Out There

The Keck Telescope in Hawaii (where my dad works) was used for some new research into the Big Bang. The giant telescope looked at stars to get spectroscopic data of their Lithium isotope content in order to confirm a prediction made by The Big Bang Theory of the universe’s origin.

Because it’s cool

Perhaps the answer to Life the Universe and Everything is 3, not 42.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Virgin Galactic has hired two new pilots, including former Space Shuttle Commander and Navy TOPGUN pilot, Frederick “CJ” Sturckow. Awesome!

At the Kennedy Space Center’s new visitor center, the payload bay doors were opened on Space Shuttle Atlantis, which is slated to go on display this summer.

In honor of the new Star Trek movie, here’s something that has nothing to do with space at all. But it’s funny.

In Orbit

A lot has happened at the space station in the past week and a half! Apart from Soyuz TMA-07M returning to Earth on Monday, May 13…

…on Thursday, May 9, in the morning, (while I was working in the Flight Control Room) the astronauts noticed some mysterious debris floating outside the space station…

…which led to an emergency spacewalk to fix a leaky coolant pump only two days later.

Amazon Prime, are you hiring? Chris Cassidy and Tom Marshburn delivered new pump package to ISS cooling system in less than 2 days.

For more information, check out my friend and colleague, Anthony, talking about the space station quick fix.

Chris Hadfield’s return to Earth marks the end of a very successful mission that was more than just a typical ISS expedition. Commander Hadfield reached out to people through social media more than any astronaut before. Here is a small “greatest hits” list of some of his photography. But for me, even better than all the pictures from his mission, was the way Hadfield seamlessly connected his love of music to space. Check out this music video he released just hours before coming home last week.

In less successful orbital news, the Kepler Space Telescope – NASA’s planet-finding spacecraft – seems to be in trouble. On May 15, NASA announced that a second of Kepler’s four reaction wheels may be failed. Kepler needs 3 reaction wheels to accurately point the telescope for precision science measurements. If they cannot recover the lost reaction wheel, Kepler’s mission is effectively done. Kepler has been able to discover thousands of planets in our galaxy (most still being officially “confirmed”) but it easily has thousands more left to discover. Save Kepler!

Around the Solar System

In only one day last week, the sun emitted three X-class solar flares (X-class is the biggest class of solar flare, but just like the earthquake scale, an X10 is significantly bigger than an X2, so it’s all relative). Welcome to solar maximum! If you live somewhere where you can see it, there should be some good aurora to see this year.

Remember that rover on Mars? No, not the bigger shiny new one, that one on the other side of the planet – Opportunity. The plucky rover that could just hit a distance record for NASA set by the Apollo 17 moon rover in 1972. Back in 1972, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt drove their lunar rover 35.74 km in just a few days. After almost 10 years on Mars, Opportunity just broke that record this week. Also, there’s still the Russian moon rover Lunokhod 2 which drove 37 km in 1973. Opportunity still has a ways to go. But it is amazing that she is still going at all!

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

I wrote last week about a few updates to Space Shuttle artifact exhibits coming online around the country. And there is yet more news to tell this week.

The exhibit of the Space Shuttle (not) Orbiter Enterprise at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum is coming together after recovering from hurricane Sandy. The new upgraded “pavilion” is being built over Enterprise now and will open on July 10.

The last pieces of wrapping paper were taken off of Space Shuttle Atlantis at KSC.

The first Canadarm, or Space Shuttle robotic arm, was put on display at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum last week. ISS Commander Chris Hadfield was linked to the museum live from space for the unveiling.

Speaking of the Canadian Space Agency, Canada also revealed this past week that the new Canadian $5 bill will feature space images, including a picture of the Space Station Robitc arm and an astronaut on a spacewalk.

NASA resigned the contract with the Russian space agency to provide transport for American astronauts to ISS on Soyuz launch vehicles. The renewal paid for seats through 2017 – which is only 3 years before the official end of ISS in 2020 (but everyone expects the program to extend into the late 2020s).

Boeing successfully completed a flight test of the X-51A scramjet known as “Waverider”. This was the longest airbreathing scramjet flight to date (that’s unclassified…).

Not Quite in Orbit

As I wrote about in a separate post, Virgin Galactic had their first powered flight of SpaceShipTwo last week on April 29. The video is too good not to repost.

In the wake of all the excitement surrounding that flight, Virgin Galactic has confirmed that ticket prices are about to go up 25% from $200,000 to $250,000 to account for inflation.

In Orbit

The European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory ran out of helium coolant last week and officially ended its mission.

A 3-D printer will fly to the ISS next year. This is a good idea in how to test ways to make spacecraft more self-sufficient, which will be necessary if humanity ever takes true deep space missions.

Chris Hadfield explains in a little over a minute my job as an Attitude Determination and Control Officer for ISS. Thanks, Chris!

The Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope did a debris avoidance maneuver in early April to avoid a nasty collision with an old Soviet Satellite. This was apparently the first time in Fermi’s mission (launched in 2008) that they had to use the thruster system for such a maneuver. This is a common problem for low Earth orbit spacecraft and the ISS has close calls with debris – and performs maneuvers – more than we would like to.

Around the Solar System

I enjoyed this story of unexpected scientific discovery. The team searching the outer solar system for an object for New Horizons to visit after it reaches Pluto happened to discover a new Trojan asteroid of Neptune (he explains what a Trojan asteroid is).

The Mars probes and rovers have woken up from solar conjunction. Opportunity and Curiosity should be off and roving again. Opportunity actually had a minor glitch when NASA initially resumed contact but she recovered no problem.

The asteroid that NASA’s Osiris-Rex sample return mission will visit in a few years has officially be named Bennu.

Why is suborbital space more exciting than NASA’s latest exploration plans?

Earlier today, Virgin Galactic flew the first powered flight of their SpaceShipTwo suborbital spacecraft.

In case you are out of the loop, Virgin Galactic is the company that intends to fly paying tourists to suborbital space on their 8 passenger spacecraft. The company was founded after Scaled Composites won the Ansari X Prize in 2004 for being the first private company to reach space with their SpaceShipOne. Virgin Galactic was formed when Sir Richard Branson saw dollar signs after the X Prize was won and decided to partner with Scaled Composites to design an upgrade to SpaceShipOne that could make a profit off of tourism. Virgin Galactic has around 500 customers already with down payments ready for a quick suborbital hop – for a mere several hundred thousand dollars – as soon as the SpaceShipTwo flight test program ends later this year.

From my view here at Johnson Space Center, as a member of the International Space Station flight control team, SpaceShipTwo should look like small potatoes. The max altitude of SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo each is a meager 110-120km – barely past the Karman Line, or the official border of space. And yet, this morning I found myself waiting for news of Virgin Galactic’s flight in eager anticipation, like a typical fan boy.

Let’s look at some other space news to see if maybe I’m just a big fan boy all the time?

Earlier this month, the White House released their federal budget proposal for 2014, which includes the exciting prospect of  funding “for a robotic mission to rendezvous with a small asteroid—one that would be harmless to Earth—and move it to a stable location outside the Moon’s orbit”. This is classic stuff. Exactly what most space advocates would say we should be spending our NASA tax dollars on. This idea combines robotic planetary exploration with human spaceflight (astronauts will visit the rock once it is in Earth orbit) with the practical application of planetary defense. Awesome. This is the kind of stuff I would be happy to spend my career working on. So why am I underwhelmed by this and excited by Virgin Galactic?

The likelihood of either of these missions failing is reasonably high. Both are high risk. But, I think the key difference is in the type of risk we are talking about. Virgin Galactic has a high risk of failure due to the challenges of spaceflight, and the reaction from their shareholders and customers if and when they have a major failure. Rockets fail. Accidents happen. People die. The company already lost three employees in 2007 in a rocket test stand explosion, which surprisingly did not slow down development much. Virgin is facing the same kind of risk that aerospace pioneers have always had when operating at “the edge of the envelope.” This is understood and accepted in the industry. But since they are trying to send rich comedians like Russell Brand to space and not trained test pilots, I’m not sure the program could sustain itself after a fatal accident.

By contrast, I think the risk that NASA’s new asteroid mission faces has largely to do with politics and little to do with the risks of high performance spaceflight.

In the same year that SpaceShipOne successfully earned Scaled Composites the Ansari X Prize, US President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) which evolved into the Constellation Program. Over the next 6 years, Constellation progressed as most government aerospace projects due – with steady progress, but a growing budget. Eventually, in 2010, the new Obama Administration cancelled Constellation, taking NASA back to square one with the cancellation of the Space Shuttle Program also on the horizon. In the meantime, Virgin continued steady development of their space plane – admittedly, with their own budget growing past expectations – and here we are less than ten years later looking at paying customers flying to space by the end of the year.

So, to answer to my rhetorical question…

The reality is that the chances of the political winds in Washington cancelling or underfunding an exciting Near-Earth Asteroid mission seems higher than the chances of SpaceShipTwo failing in flight, based on historical evidence. Thus, I am watching the skies for successful suborbital tourism with eager anticipation, while I also read about political progress in NASA exploration missions with cautious optimism.

In the meantime, you should support organizations like The Planetary Society, who hope to show lawmakers the benefits of space exploration of all kinds. This kind of lobbying seeks to secure steady funding for NASA to prevent the kind of stop-and-go programs that has most of us jaded to taxpayer funded exploration. With more excited enthusiasts showing support and private companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX posting more successes, the future may be brighter. But in the end a rocket’s flame is more convincing than a balance sheet, and that’s really what has me cheering for Virgin Galactic. Results.

SpaceShipTwo in flight on April 29,2013 (via @VirginGalactic)