Archive for the ‘Virgin Galactic’ Category
Down to Earth
NASA has finalized an agreement with Boeing to use the extra seats on two Soyuz flights to the ISS over the next year and a half for additional US astronauts. There is some contractual stuff going on here, but basically NASA is going to use seats that Roscosmos was going to leave empty to save money.
Virgin Galactic has spun off its LauncherOne program into a new company called Virgin Orbit.
Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin is now getting in on the new moon missions also. According to the Washington Post (owned by Bezos), Blue Origin has floated a proposal to the new US presidential administration that they want to help support NASA missions to the moon with their Blue Moon concept.
PBS News Hour did a brief segment on all of this new interest in lunar missions:
Two rocket launches since my last post:
- United Launch Alliance launched an Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg California, carrying two satellites for the NRO.
- China launched one satellite on their new Kaituozhe-2 rocket.
It’s hard to keep up with the current ISS crew, the members of Expedition 50, as they tweet like its all they do in what little spare time they have. Here’s a selection of the best pictures from just the last week.
— Thomas Pesquet (@Thom_astro) February 27, 2017
— Thomas Pesquet (@Thom_astro) February 28, 2017
— Shane Kimbrough (@astro_kimbrough) February 28, 2017
— Thomas Pesquet (@Thom_astro) March 1, 2017
— Thomas Pesquet (@Thom_astro) March 3, 2017
— Thomas Pesquet (@Thom_astro) March 4, 2017
— Shane Kimbrough (@astro_kimbrough) March 5, 2017
— Thomas Pesquet (@Thom_astro) March 6, 2017
— Shane Kimbrough (@astro_kimbrough) March 6, 2017
Around the Solar System
NASA’s MAVEN probe in orbit of Mars executed an avoidance maneuver of about 0.4 m/s to avoid colliding with the moon Phobos. That velocity change is small, about on the order of the debris avoidance maneuvers we do with the ISS.
Check out these dust devils spotted by Curiosity rover on Mars.
Did you know that Saturn’s moon Enceladus is half cratered and half smooth? Check out this recent image from NASA’s Cassini probe to see for yourself.
Down to Earth
During a media conference call on Friday, NASA managers provided some details about the potential plan to put astronauts onto the first test flight of the new SLS rockets. In particular, they stated that they would look at putting a crew of 2 onto the EM-1 mission for a 9-day loop around the moon (the baseline EM-1 mission is a 31-day mission, including a period in lunary orbit). The study should be completed in the Spring.
And then, on Monday, SpaceX held its own media conference call to announce plans to send a Dragon 2 capsule on a very similar trajectory to the revised crewed EM-1 mission. The plan would send two paying civilian astronauts on a trip around the moon next year. Welcome to the new space race?
Virgin Galactic had another glide flight of its new SpaceShipTwo spaceplane last Friday.
The popular movie Hidden Figures, which tells the story of three women mathematicians and engineers who worked at NASA in the 1950s and 1960s, had three nominations for the Academy Awards on Sunday, but did not win any. During the award show, Katherine Johnson, one of the women on which the movie is based, was invited on stage.
Speaking of movies, check out this new theatrical trailer for Mission Control, a movie based on the book Go, Flight! by Rick Houston.
And here’s one more fun video before we move on to actual news that happened in space. Check out this segment Stephen Colbert did on his visit to Boeing’s facilities at Kennedy Space Center.
There was only one orbital launch since my last post: On Thursday, February 23 Roscosmos launched a Soyuz rocket carrying a Progress cargo spacecraft headed to the International Space Station.
That Progress spacecraft arrived at the ISS a day later without issue, less than a day after the SpaceX Dragon capsule – launched on Sunday, February 19th – was captured using the Space Station’s Canadarm 2. Here’s a timelapse of what it looks like to conduct that operation from inside the Cupola module.
— Thomas Pesquet (@Thom_astro) February 25, 2017
While the Dragon rendezvous on Thursday was flawless, it came a day after a previous attempt had to be aborted due to an issue with relative GPS navigation with the space station.
NASA announced on Wednesday that the Spitzer Space Telescope had confirmed the existence of 7 small rocky worlds (similar in size to Earth) around the star TRAPPIST-1, which is 40 light years away.
Down to Earth
The crew of three Chinese taikonauts finished their 30-day stay aboard the Tiangong-2 space staion and returned to Earth last month.
A planned cargo resupply flight (with no astronauts aboard) launched from Kazakhstan on December 1 on its way to the ISS, but did not make orbit and crashed somewhere in a remote part of Asia. The next ISS resupply is a Japanese HTV vehicle launching next week.
Virgin Galactic continued their flight test program for the new SpaceShipTwo vehicle (named VSS Unity) with a captive carry flight on November 30 and then a glide drop test on December 3. Powered flights should be happening soon, but no specific dates are public. Here’s a photo gallery of the flight test.
Four other rockets launched since my last post on November 16, all successfully placing their payloads in orbit:
- ESA launched an Ariane 5 rocket carrying 4 new Galileo navigation satellites.
- Three new crew launched from Kazakhstan on their way to ISS: Peggy Whitson of USA, Thomas Pesquet of France, and Oleg Novitsky of Russia.
- ULA launched an Atlas V carrying a new weather satellite for NOAA.
- China launched a Long March 3C rocket with a new geosynchronous communications satellite.
The ISS has had a very busy month, notwithstanding the loss of Progress 65. After the last three members of Expedition 50 arrived, they got quickly to work with last-minute packing of the Cygnus freighter, which they released two days later.
— Shane Kimbrough (@astro_kimbrough) November 30, 2016
Since the Cygnus departure, the crew has been furiously working on their long list of on-orbit experiments. Thomas has someone found the time to tweet every day. Some of his best are below:
— Thomas Pesquet (@Thom_astro) November 24, 2016
The French flag is now floating in Columbus, my new office and the home of Europe in space! pic.twitter.com/jT9aWOO9t8
— Thomas Pesquet (@Thom_astro) November 25, 2016
— Thomas Pesquet (@Thom_astro) November 26, 2016
— Thomas Pesquet (@Thom_astro) November 26, 2016
— Thomas Pesquet (@Thom_astro) November 28, 2016
— Thomas Pesquet (@Thom_astro) December 1, 2016
— Thomas Pesquet (@Thom_astro) December 2, 2016
— Thomas Pesquet (@Thom_astro) December 3, 2016
— Thomas Pesquet (@Thom_astro) December 4, 2016
Around the Solar System
Radar measurements on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have discovered a vast deposit of frozen water under the Northern mid-latitudes of Mars.
Down to Earth
Easily the top story of the past couple of weeks (sorry, OSIRIS-REx) was the loss of a Falcon 9 rocket with its commercial satellite payload on the pad during a pre-launch static fire test (video below). The pad, Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) was damaged in the fire (pictures here) and SpaceX is currently still investigating the cause. It is impossible to speculate on what kind of setback this will cause in their launch manifest until some notion of the cause is determined. SpaceX still has one operational launch pad in California.
Just 3 days before the SpaceX pad fire, the Chinese space program suffered a failure in what is apparently the first launch failure of the year. The Long March 4C rocket was expected to put a reconnaissance satellite in orbit.
As for positive news, NASA’s troubled Mars lander InSight has been greenlit for a launch sometime in 2018.
Another goodie was Virgin Galactic conducting the first test flight of the new SpaceShipTwo (although just a captive carry flight).
Check out this blog post from one of the recent crew members of NASA’s asteroid mission simulation, HERA. Tess was on the crew of HERA 11.
The most important thing to come “down to Earth” last week was the crew of Expedition 48. Jeff Williams, Oleg Skripochka, and Aleksey Ovchinin landed in Kazakhstan last Wednesday after a flawless undocking and re-entry.
Before Expedition 48 ended, Jeff Williams and Kate Rubins conducted their second spacewalk in as many weeks, repairing and upgrading a slew of items outside the ISS.
Fortunately, there were at least two successful launches to offset the failures in early September. First, an Indian GSLV Mark II rocket lofted a weather satellite. Secondly, a ULA Atlas V rocket launched NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe on its 7-year journey to visit an asteroid and return to Earth with samples.
Around the Solar System
On Mars, the Curiosity rover is currently trundling through some incredible landscapes, snapping photos of beautiful buttes and rock layers.
Juno continues to return data from Jupiter, including a stunning image of the north pole.
And last but not least, one of the coolest stories of the last week, the European Space Agency finally located the lost comet lander, Philae, just weeks before the orbiter Rosetta is due to end its own mission. Check out the pictures!
Lots to catch up on since my last post on July 23rd. The great summer for spaceflight continues.
Down to Earth
After Eileen Collins spoke at the RNC, another Space Shuttle commander, Mark Kelly, spoke at the DNC.
Sierra Nevada is getting ready to start test flights of their Dream Chaser spaceplane in California, once their full-scale vehicle is shipped their from Colorado.
Virgin Galactic was awarded an operations license from the FAA as they are preparing to resume flight tests with their new SpaceShipTwo vehicle.
A small sample bag from the Apollo 11 mission is at the center of two lawsuits. I’m sure Dr. Jones would agree that it belongs in a museum.
One of the Orbiter Access Arm’s from the Space Shuttle program is now on display at Houston’s Space Center Houston.
Meanwhile, the next generation of crew access arms, for Boeing’ Starliner capsule, was delivered to the Atlas V pad in Florida.
SpaceX conducted a full duration test fire of one of their recovered first stage boosters. Here’s the video:
Google Lunar X Prize competitor, Moon Express, has received approval from the United States government for their private mission to land a rover on the moon.
Vector Space Systems completed their first successful sub-orbital launch.
Speaking of launches, there were four successful orbital flights since my last post. This brings the year’s total to 50 for 50 on orbital launches. For comparison, 2015 had 87 total with 5 failures.
First was an Atlas V launch from Cape Canaveral carrying a secret payload for the National Reconnaissance Office.
Lastly was the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch early in the morning ofAugust 14. The rocket successfully delivered the Japanese JCSAT communications satellite to orbit and recovered the first stage booster on the ASDS at sea. Very impressive. This brings SpaceX’s year up to 8 successful launches for 8 attempts – a yearly record already in August – and 5 for 8 on booster recovery.
Coming up next week is a spacewalk on ISS by NASA astronauts Jeff Williams and Kate Rubins to install the new International Docking Adapter.
Around the Solar System
The Chinese Yutu rover is still communicating with the ground from the lunar surface, although it has long since stopped roving. Despite some reports that it is “dead” it is still expected to wake up from hibernation after the current lunar night.
Follow this link for an update on the Curiosity rover mission on Mars, including some nice pictures.
Here is a full year of observations of the Earth NOAA’s DSCOVR satellite. The cyclones in the Pacific are quite obvious.
Apparently claims of a discover of an Earth-like planet around Proxima Centauri (our nearest neighboring star) are exciting, but it is worth waiting for more reputable news sources to pick it up than just a small German newspaper… or a peer-reviewed journal paper?
I love that the world can be both so small and so large. I don’t mean that you find yourself on vacation in Rome surrounded by millions of strangers and happen to bump into an old college friend (although those kinds of coincidences can feel quite odd). I’m referring instead to expecting to run into an old friend in a strange city because over time you seem to know someone everywhere. Family and friends move around for so many reasons – career, cost of living, or whim – and the older you get the more likely it is that you can fly to a particular city and have a friend to call on.
Now that I’ve been out of college for a number of years, I’ve realized that the same thing happens in any given field or interest area. Stay in an industry long enough and people you went to college with, worked with, interned with, or whatever, will tend to move around until you can find an acquaintance at all the important companies or institutions.
This made itself apparent this past weekend on a quick trip to the Los Angeles area to visit some friends and family. My wife and I weren’t in town at all for geeky reasons – we just wanted to see some old friends who deserved a visit – but space follows me these days. It’s not exactly amazing that we know some folks that work at Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. They are old engineering friends from high school and college, after all. But just because I know someone from SpaceX – who very, very graciously offered us a quick tour of the main factory – doesn’t mean I am somehow an insider. It just means I know someone. This is a hard concept for a lot of people in this world to realize and is why you end up with groupies and name-droppers and people like that. A person needs a good dose of humility to avoid the slippery slope that leads to vanity.
I received my needed dose of humility when I was led down the hall from the visitor entrance at 1 Rocket Road, around the corner past mission control, out under a flown Dragon capsule, and saw the assembly lines of tanks, engines, and spacecraft in SpaceX’s flashiest factory. After a lifetime of being a space geek, 4 years in college, a couple of internships, and 7 years working at JSC, somehow I hadn’t realized that I’d actually never visited a facility where rockets are being built.
My mind had somehow glossed over this with the illusion that I had. After all, I have been to all the famous NASA rocket parks at JSC, KSC, and MSFC, not to mention each of National Air and Space Museum’s locations a number of times. I’ve seen rockets; I’ve seen a space shuttle launch; I’ve seen a Falcon 9 launch; I’ve been inside the VAB on a tour. But seeing those places is quite different from walking into a facility where photography is not allowed (another concept foreign to me from my years at JSC) and seeing an assembly line of Merlin 1 rocket engines getting ready for integration into the famous Falcon 9 “octaweb.” The images of massive tanks being welded, payload fairings being laid up, and Dragon capsules being integrated, are burned into my mind. I have no illusions that the factory is deliberately designed to leave me in awe. But it doesn’t matter. The point probably would have been made just as well at the ULA or Orbital ATK factories: it’s a big damn world.
I felt absolutely ignorant walking around that factory. I have a degree in aerospace engineering and yet many of the details of what I saw on Saturday escape me. The world is big in both these gulfs of knowledge, but also the gulfs of time and experience. I last saw my high school classmate at least many years ago, if not a decade. His experience at SpaceX, watching it grow from a struggling startup in 2008 to a dominant industry force today, is vastly different from my experience in a steady job at NASA, surrounded by the always present glory of manned spaceflight but also at the whims of politics, and the morale roller coaster that provides. He has hands on knowledge of spacecraft design, while I am one of some hundreds of people in the world who know what it is like to operate a modern manned spacecraft. This is the largeness of the world that hit home for me last Saturday.
And yet, sitting and chatting over a meal with several Virgin Galactic employees gave me a feeling of smallness, like we are all in this together regardless of badge or funding source. It occurs to me now that networking is not important just for selfish reasons of career growth. It is also important to stay out of the trap of living in a bubble, of thinking that your little slice of the world is the most important. I can’t feel good about what I do without the context of how it fits into the bigger picture of what everyone is doing, not just in Houston and Los Angeles but around the world.
It is all too easy to let the size of the world become overwhelming. How can I have an influence among 5 million people in my city? A hundred million in my country? Seven billion in my world? How can I have an original idea? Surely I am not the only one to have thoughts like these from time to time. One way to make the world small again is to create and preserve relationships with other people doing the things you care about. They might show you some “flight hardware” and then you will be hard pressed not to feel motivated.
Down to Earth
Former Space Shuttle astronaut and commander Don Williams passed away on February 23rd at 74. Read about his impressive career at CollectSpace.
Orbital ATK’s S.S. Deke Slayton departed the ISS on February 20 after a successful two-month mission.
NASA received a record number of applicants to the astronaut class of 2017.
Ron Garan, former NASA astronaut, has been named the chief pilot at World View, which aims to launch tourists to the edge of space in a balloon.
Virgin Galactic unveiled their latest spaceship, the second version of their SpaceShipTwo. They hope to start their flight test campaign soon, but no new target date for commercial flights was announced.
China has announced that they plan to launch their next space station later this year.
Earlier this week, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly returned safely from his 340 day mission aboard ISS. Before he left, he had a little fun with a costume his brother sent up to him:
— Mark Kelly (@ShuttleCDRKelly) February 23, 2016
You can see all the pictures that Scott took while onboard the ISS here (and there a lot!).
SpaceX finally had another successful launch, after several scrubs over the past week or two. On Friday, March 4th, a Falcon 9 rocket carrying the SES-9 payload launched from Florida. It was their first launch since January and second of the year. The first stage attempted a landing on their Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) but had a hard landing.
Down to Earth
Former NASA mathematician Katharine Johnson was recently awarded the presidential medal of freedom. She is currently 97 years old.
Hungary is a new full member of the European Space Agency.
Virgin Galactic announced that they now plan to launch their LauncherOne rocket from a modified 747 instead of from the belly of the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. WhiteKnightTwo will then be free to fly more dedicated flights of SpaceShipOne for paying tourist-o-nauts.
The Apollo Saturn V rockets that Jeff Bezos pulled up from the seafloor in the Atlantic are headed to museums. Some of them have already been delivered to the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
The first of 18 primary mirror segments for the James Webb Space Telescope was installed into the spacecraft last month.
Blue Origin had a suborbital flight of their New Shepard vehicle. The unmanned capsule landed back on Earth under parachute and the rocket itself landed under its own power on two legs. Here’s the video.
And here’s an awesome video of Blue Origin employees celebrating the flight. Almost as good as JPL celebrating a rover landing on Mars. Way to go guys!
Lots of rocket launches since my last post. Here’s a quick run down. I use the Wikipedia page 2015 in spaceflight as a general source (with other references):
Three launches by China of various reconnaissance or communications payloads.
Two launches by Russia, seemingly military in nature. However, the recent launch last night may have had a mishap and part of the payload did not make orbit.
And then Japan, ESA, and America round out the crowd with one more launch each. Japan launched a commercial telecommunications satellite, ESA launched the LISA Pathfinder gravity wave physics probe, and United Launch Alliance sent a Cygnus cargo spacecraft on the way to the ISS for Orbital ATK.
Meanwhile on the ISS, the crew has been posting awesome pictures in whatever free they have. Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui will be coming home this week, on December 11th. I will miss their Twitter posts! You really should be following them on Twitter yourself, but here are some of their best (it may look like a lot but this is really a small selection from just the last three weeks):
— 油井 亀美也 Kimiya.Yui (@Astro_Kimiya) November 16, 2015
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) November 17, 2015
Honolulu and Diamond Head Crater. I can hear the waves and feel the sun from here. pic.twitter.com/sZPioOgBmc
— Kjell Lindgren (@astro_kjell) November 17, 2015
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) November 19, 2015
— Kjell Lindgren (@astro_kjell) November 19, 2015
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) November 20, 2015
Northern CA Bay Area. I spent the summer of 1996 doing research at NASA Ames Research Center. Great memories! pic.twitter.com/PjAHfnsHzz
— Kjell Lindgren (@astro_kjell) November 21, 2015
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) November 24, 2015
Boats sheltering in an atoll. pic.twitter.com/546lttQR8s
— Kjell Lindgren (@astro_kjell) November 29, 2015
Pictures of west coast, east coast of U.S. or small villages in Canada at night. Which do you like? 米国西海岸、東海岸、カナダの村） pic.twitter.com/j4KnI2dTSb
— 油井 亀美也 Kimiya.Yui (@Astro_Kimiya) November 27, 2015
Полярное сияние, в середине сверкает Москва, а слева вверху – Санкт-Петербург. Снимок сделал Олег Кононенко. pic.twitter.com/0NWBbpLMAJ
— Sergey Volkov (@Volkov_ISS) November 29, 2015
— Kjell Lindgren (@astro_kjell) December 1, 2015
Beautiful dunes. Arrakis? pic.twitter.com/WAsQpWAJfX
— Kjell Lindgren (@astro_kjell) December 2, 2015
View from JEM window) 宇宙での最後の週末。きぼうの窓から、景色を楽しんでいます。オーロラが綺麗です。この星々をみて、星座が分かる人は凄いです！ヒントは、太陽電池パネルの上の２つの明るめの星。右はりょうけん座。 pic.twitter.com/2U6Ea4SVjF
— 油井 亀美也 Kimiya.Yui (@Astro_Kimiya) December 6, 2015
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) December 6, 2015
Around the Solar System
The Japanese probe Akatsuki has entered orbit around Venus, several years after it missed its original orbit insertion due ot a thruster failure. Way to go JAXA!
Down To Earth
Last week the US Senate passed a bill named the “U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act”. One of the most talked about provisions in the bill allows private citizens or companies to lay claim to asteroid resources.
Virgin Galactic announced that they have hired their first female test pilot: Kelly Latimer, who has flown for the USAF and NASA.
An object known as WT1190F re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and broke up over the Indian Ocean on November 13th. The object was thought to be a rocket stage from an Apollo mission. Astronomers onboard an airplane caught some pictures of the event.
This is pretty cool:
Slow-mo footage of our pad abort test in May, a critical test in preparation for our first human missions. pic.twitter.com/vvZTlf5sH1
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) October 30, 2015
In the past week, only one rocket blasted into orbit: an ESA Ariane 5 rocket with communications satellites for India and Saudi Arabia. The next launch in support of the ISS is still a few weeks away: an Atlas V carrying a Cygnus freighter for Orbital ATK.
Around the Solar System
I love this animated mission update on the Rosetta/Philae mission from ESA.
New analysis indicates that Mars’ small moon Phobos may only have millions of years to live. Due to its low orbit, it is getting torn apart by tidal forces, which cause the strange “grooves” on its surface.
New images of large mountains on Pluto may be evidence for “ice volcanoes” (or “cryovolcanoes”).
Check out this animation which shows the different spin rates of Pluto’s 5 moons.
Astronomers have discovered a new distant solar system object which may be the most distant rocky body known. V774104 is about half the size of Pluto and orbits several times further away.
Newly discovered planet , GJ 1132b, is the closest planet of about Earth’s size yet discovered, at only 39 light years distant. Unfortunately, the planet is tidally locked and very close to its star, making it not a fun place.
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!