Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Rocket Lab released some information about their failed test launch last month. It turns out the issue was due to some ground segment hardware and they should be able to recover and continue with another test launch soon.

SpaceX is removing the Rotating Service Structure (RSS) at pad 39A at KSC. The RSS was needed for Space Shuttle launches from the historic pad. The RSS from 39B has already been removed in preparations for the SLS program.

The much anticipated launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) may get delayed from late 2018 into 2019 due to a launch site conflict down in French Guiana, where JWST will be launched on an ESA rocket.

A Japanese rocket launch was cancelled this week due to an unspecified glitch. JAXA was trying to launch a new GPS satellite.

In Orbit

This morning, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon resupply capsule to the ISS. The launch was flawless with a successful first stage landing at Landing Zone 1. The Dragon will rendezvous with the ISS on Wednesday.

Among the cargo on the Dragon capsule is a new experimental super computer, a cosmic ray detector, and a slew of other experiments.

The 6-person Expedition 52 crew is really hitting their stride with their on-orbit photography, with daily Twitter updates to enjoy. The mission will wind down with the return of Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer in early September, followed shortly by the launch of the second half of the Expedition 53 crew.

https://twitter.com/Astro2fish/status/895770661628465152

 

August 14, 2017 10:38 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Leonardo DiCaprio is going to produce a new TV series based on The Right Stuff.

NASA’s new TDRS-M satellite had a mishap during pre-flight processing. Launch has been rescheduled while repairs are conducted.

Virgin Galactic conducted another drop test of their SpaceShipTwo vehicle at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

NASA’s fourteenth crew of the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) program started their 45-day mission yesterday.

Rocket startup Vector Space Systems conducted a test launch of their suborbital rocket on Thursday. Here’s a short video of liftoff.

In Orbit

The International Space Station crew is back up to 6 after a new Soyuz launched from Kazakhstan and docked just a few hours later. The three new ISS crew members, Sergey Ryazanskiy, Paolo Nespoli, and Randy Bresnik, are all spaceflight veterans.

There are now 5 active Twitter users on ISS, sharing their thoughts, activities, and views with us! Check out their posts at this feed.

In addition to the Soyuz launch, the only other rocket launch in the past two weeks was a European Space Agency Vega rocket. The rocket launched on August 2 from French Guiana carrying two earth observing satellites.

Around the Solar System

In case you had forgotten that there are two active NASA rovers on the surface of Mars, here are some beautiful panoramas from Opportunity, on the edge of Endeavour crater.

Results are in of the stellar occultation observation of object 2014 MU69, and astronomers think it may actually be a binary, rather that single piece of rock. 2014 MU69 is the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) that the New Horizons spacecraft will visit in 2019.

New evidence suggests there may be more water hidden beneath the surface of the moon than previously thought.

Out There

Speaking of moons, a new paper analyzing the light curve data from Kepler of a distant star shows the possibility of a large planet with a large moon in orbit. Hubble is scheduled to do follow up observations in October to confirm the finding.

August 6, 2017 3:02 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Space Camp USA, in Huntsville, Alabama, unveiled a new outdoor display of one of the former Shuttle Training Aircraft.

NASA completed some egress testing of the Orion capsule in the Gulf of Mexico.

Here’s a nice short video that will help you get to know Randy Bresnik, who is launching to the ISS next week.

I also enjoyed this short biographical video about Ana Fisher, one of the first American women astronauts.

The latest of NASA’s medium-duration isolation spaceflight analog crews, HERA 13, finished their mission last week.

The independent NASA visitor center in Houston, Space Center Houston, has announced a Kickstarter campaign to help raise additional funds for their project to restore MOCR2 in the Christopher C. Kraft Mission Control Center on the Johnson Space Center campus. MOCR2 is most famous for being the flight control room during the Apollo 11 lunar landing. However, it was used for every Apollo flight starting with Apollo 8, as well as many Space Shuttle missions. In addition to being a site of much triumph (Apollo 8, Apollo 11, STS-1, etc) it was also the active control room during the Apollo 1 fire and the launch of Challenger on STS-51L. Here’s the Kickstarter link. I have already pledged!

Google has posted a brand new “street view” tour from inside the International Space Station! To get to it, navigate to NASA Johnson Space Center on Google Maps and drop the street view icon right on top of Building 9 Space Vehicle Mockup Facility.

In Orbit

Up on the actual ISS, the crew has been busy getting ready for the arrival of the next crew on July 27th. The Progress cargo craft departed with trash on July 20th.

But the NASA crew of Jack Fischer and Peggy Whitson still had time to share their mission with us with a couple informative videos:

Only one rocket launch since my last post on July 9th. Russia launched a Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan carrying payloads for commercial companies, including an impressive array of small “Dove” satellites for American company Planet. Even more impressively, Planet captured this beautiful footage of the launch from one of their spacecraft already in orbit:

Around the Solar System

To celebrate two years since the New Horizons flyby of Pluto, NASA released this amazing video that simulates a flyover of Pluto using mission imagery.

Speaking of the New Horizons mission, NASA’s amazing airborne observatory SOFIA did a special mission to catch an occultation of 2014 MU69, the Kuiper Belt object that the probe will visit next. Check out Phil Plait’s post on the event for some actual images of the occultation.

Out at Jupiter, NASA’s  Juno probe did a close flyby of the Great Red Spot and returned some amazing images.

July 22, 2017 2:05 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

With no new NASA administrator named as of last week, NASA has now broken the record for longest transition period under a new presidential administration.

Virgin Orbit published a video of a full duration test firing of their Newton Four upper stage.

Blue Origin announced that it was build a new rocket engine factory in Huntsville, Alabama, as part of its contract with United Launch Alliance to supply engines for the future Vulcan Rocket.

In Orbit

On July 2, the Chinese space agency attempted to launch a communications satellite on their heavy lift Long March 5 rocket. Unfortunately, the second stage failed and the payload did not make it to orbit.

On July 5, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a commercial communications satellite for Intelsat. The satellite was delivered to geosynchronous orbit. Due to the high performance requirements of the mission, the first stage was disposable, rather than being recovered. This was their 10th launch of the year (the most of any year for SpaceX).

Meanwhile, up on the ISS on July 3rd, the Expedition 52 astronauts unberthed and released the visiting SpaceX Dragon capsule, which splashed down and was recovered that same day.

Around the Solar System

Engineers at JPL have uploaded new driving software to the Curiosity rover on Mars. The software underwent extensive testing on Earth before it was approved for use. NASA hopes the new algorithm will reduce wear on the rover’s wheels by 10 to 20 percent.

July 9, 2017 9:05 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

NASA successfully completed its latest underwater NEEMO mission off the coast of Florida. A crew of astronauts and engineers spent several days in an underwater base testing techniques, gear, and technology for spaceflight. This was the 22nd expedition to the underwater facility.

The Canadian Space Agency announced the selection of their two latest Astronaut Candidates. Jennifer Sidley is a 28-year-old PhD and professor at the University of Cambridge. Joshua Kutryk is a 35-year-old fighter pilot and test pilot with several master’s degrees.

The President of the United States signed an executive order establishing a National Space Council, to guide all of the nation’s endeavours related to spaceflight.

In Orbit

There were five rocket launches since my last post:

Yes, SpaceX had a 48 hour turnaround between two launches, to reach 9 launches on the year. Both first stages were recovered.

In a non-orbital launch, NASA launched an experiment sounding rocket from Virginia’s Wallops Island.

A large satellite in geostationary orbit appears to have broken apart, causing concerns about orbital debris in one of the most important Earth orbits.

Around the Solar System

A recent survey of outer solar system bodies, which found several new distant objects, casts doubt on the hypothesized existence of “Planet 9”. However, the lead researchers of the Planet 9 theory have done their own analysis of the new data, and claim that the data can fit the model. The hunt for Planet 9 continues.

The Curiosity rover is still climbing up Mount Sharp in the center of Gale Crater on Mars. Recently, the MRO spacecraft captured this image of the rover from orbit.

July 1, 2017 10:46 pm

Rejected

Like many aspiring spacefarers, I finally received a long anticipated email this past Thursday. Paradoxically, the anticipation resulted from already knowing the news the email would contain. Given that NASA had announced the new Class of 2017 of astronaut candidates the week before, it was no surprise to me and about 17,000 others to get an email from the astronaut selection office which effectively said “thanks, better luck next time.”

As a young engineer with only one degree and less than a decade of experience, my application was a longshot, and will continue to be until I expand my experience base significantly. It is hard to compete with military pilots, doctors, and scientists that have traveled to Antarctica! My role in humanity’s exploration of outer space continues to be from a desk in mission control – only the second best job I can imagine.

And if you don’t work in mission control, there are still ways you can help. At the end of Thursday’s email were some helpful links about how to stay involved. However, I was a little disappointed that the email blast to thousands of motivated Americans wasn’t better utilized to plug some important volunteer opportunities to directly help with preparations for future missions.

Firstly, there are the various analog missions. NASA conducts their HERA missions in a small pressurized facility on-site at Johnson Space Center. The campaign is currently doing 45-day missions and they are always looking for interested “astronauts”. NASA also participates in the HI-SEAS project in Hawaii, which simulates deep space missions in a habitat on Mauna Loa. But, if you don’t have enough time to commit to the more lengthy analog missions, you can do what I’ve done, and volunteer with NASA to be a human test subject.

Last year I participated in two interesting experiments to help with NASA’s data-gathering on astronauts who return from the ISS. The first study – the easy one – involved driving a Mars rover simulator (the fun part) after 30 hours of sleep deprivation (the not so fun part).

Driving the martian rover simulator

Driving the martian rover simulator

In addition to the Mars rover, I did a few other cognitive and tactile tests on an iPad. Some of the tests are the same ones given to astronauts before, during, and after their flight. The idea is to see how ISS missions affect crew performance, especially if they are sleeping less up there.

The second study (called exMOD) was much more challenging. In the exMOD study, NASA was investigating the apparent changes to eyesight experienced by ISS astronauts. One of the hypotheses is that microgravity affects the intraocular pressure. In order to see what affect strenuous exercise has on the eyes – since we ask the crew to exercise many hours a day while onboard the ISS – I was fitted with a strain gauge in a contact lens (see picture below) and then asked to do strenuous exercise in an inverted position… oh yeah and did I mention the swimming goggles they added to make sure there was extra pressure on the eye?IMG_0521

After a tough few minutes of cycling during exMOD

After a tough few minutes of cycling during exMOD

The eye study was strenuous and exhausting. It wasn’t “fun” in the sense that I enjoyed it while it was happening. But every day that I reported in for the study, I felt a sense of excitement knowing I was helping NASA scientists and doctors better understand the specific and strange effects that the human body experiences during spaceflight. It is a unique opportunity that is available here at the Johnson Space Center, and the good news is that it is not just for people like me who are already on the “in crowd”. Anyone can apply to be a human test subject (see link below) and they are still looking for about a dozen more people for this year’s Fitness for Mission Tasks (FMT) study.

FMT is more exciting for me than exMOD was (and I’m promised that it is not as exhausting). The idea behind FMT is to try to gather a baseline of data across a variety of demographics on the level of strength required to complete certain mission tasks (walk around a Mars base, rescue a fellow crew member, escape a capsule after splashdown). They do this by first putting me through various tests and measuring things like my deadlift, bench press, VO2 max, etc. Then I do timed trials of all of the planned tasks. The fun part then takes place in the last 4 sessions, where I am timed completing the same tasks with a weight suit weighing from 20% up to 80% of my own body weight. The idea is to approximate the weakness or muscle atrophy caused by months of interplanetary travel without having to do a lengthy bedrest study.

So, you don’t have to get a callback from the astronaut selection office to play astronaut. There are plenty of practical opportunities to directly contribute to our ability to send humans into space. Of course, for the FMT study, you need to be able to report to JSC for the study. Check out the links below and check back in here where I will try to post pictures of my FMT time trials in the coming weeks!

NASA Human Test Subject program: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/human-test-subject

Apply for HERA: https://www.nasa.gov/analogs/hera/want-to-participate

Hi-Seas: http://hi-seas.org/

June 18, 2017 3:49 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Orbital ATK performed a qualification test firing of the abort motor for the Orion spacecraft.

A recent study at the University of Nevada – Las Vegas (UNLV) found that the cancer risk for a journey to Mars may be higher than previously thought. Spaceflight Insider published a response opinion piece by Robert Zubrin (author of The Case for Mars).

Jeffrey Kluger (science editor at time and coauthor with Jim Lovell of Apollo 13) has published a new book Apollo 8 about humanity’s first mission to orbit the moon. I am currently listening to the book on Audible and will publish a review next week.

A private company based in Europe called Bake In Space has announced plans to fly an experimental zero-gravity oven and dough recipe to the space station.

In Orbit

There have been two orbital rocket launches in the last week:

The Progress freighter arrived at ISS this past Friday and docked successfully, delivering supplies from station propellant to food, water, and science experiments.

Tragically, an employee of the Russian space program died after he was deployed to the cleanup zone after the Soyuz launch and a fire engulfed his truck.

The Chinese space agency has tested robotic refueling with their uncrewed Tianzhou freighter at the Tiangong-2 space station.

Ever since the SpaceX Dragon capsule docked to the ISS last week, robotics engineers have been busy at work unloading new science experiments, including the NICER neutron star observatory and the Roll Out Solar Array (ROSA).

Out There

Astronomers continue to search for habitable, Earth-like planets around other stars. However, other oddball planets also continue to pop up, like KELT-9b, which is the hottest planet ever discovered.

June 18, 2017 2:48 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

It was a busy two weeks since my last post, but the most important event for those of us in the ISS program was the safe return of two crew members from the ISS on June 2nd. France’s Thomas Pesquet and Russia’s Oleg Novitskiy undocked and landed on the same day, leaving Fyodor Yurchikhin, Peggy Whitson, and Jack Fischer aboard ISS.

Speaking of astronauts, NASA announced a new class of 12 astronaut candidates last week at an event at Johnson Space Center. Here is a link to their short bios, and the complete video of the event is below. Notably, the United States Vice President came to JSC for the event. Also, 3 of the candidates under thirty (the first time anyone of my generation has been selected) and one of the candidates is a former SpaceX employee.

Also speaking of astronauts, the astronaut office has a new chief astronaut. Patrick Forrester has replaced Chris Cassidy in the role. The change was made so that Cassidy can go back into flight rotation.

The enormous Stratolaunch aircraft – designed to air launch large orbital rockets – made a debut in Mojave, California when it was rolled out for a fueling test.

Also in Mojave, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo conducted another glide test flight.

LEGO has released a $120 model kit of the Saturn V.

In Orbit

Five orbital rocket launches so far in June:

Up at the International Space Station, the station crew was busy with cargo transfer. First, the Cygnus vehicle, which had been docked for a month, departed and then two days later the SpaceX Dragon capsule was successfully captured by the robotic arm.

Around the Solar System

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter was struck by a meteor. Remarkably, the results were captured in an image.

NASA has announced a solar investigation probe that will launch next year.

June 12, 2017 7:17 am

Movie Review – Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo

It’s not often that a film gets made about your line of work. For most people, this might be a once-in-a-lifetime event. I am lucky: not only am I in a career but also an office building that attracts film productions on an annual basis. Some of the biggest movies of the past couple of years involve NASA astronauts or flight controllers: Gravity, Hidden Figures, The Martian. Nevertheless, it’s still rare for a film to focus directly on the mission operations team here on the ground. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of films get made that show the beauty and wonder of spaceflight. But in all of the IMAX movies (Space Station 3D, Hubble 3D, Journey to Mars, A Beautiful Planet) the flight controllers work quietly off-screen. Astronaut bio-pics are also a popular type of space movie, but of course in those films (In the Shadow of the Moon, The Last Man on the Moon) they are heavy on astronaut interviews and not much else. The last time a movie had NASA flight controllers as central characters was Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, over two decades ago. Finally, the drought is over. The new feature length documentary Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo, has captured the soul of Houston’s Mission Control Center in a way not even Apollo 13 could.

Mission Control is based loosely on the book Go, Flight! by Rick Houston. If you read my review of the book, you’ll know that I highly recommend it. Since the film consists entirely of interviews, it diverges from the book in many ways. The two major differences is that fewer people are profiled – only 17 men are interviewed – and the focus changes from the entire 30 year history of the MOCR down to the decade of work on Apollo. The focus gives the film life in that we get to really meet and hear from the flight controllers. In fact, the only audio we hear in the whole film is either the voices of the interviewees, or TV news coverage from the Apollo era. The editing removes all need for narration or a back-and-forth with an interviewer. While some of the interviewees are astronauts (Charlie Duke, Eugene Cernan, and Jim Lovell) most of the time is spent on the flight directors and flight controllers, whom the audience will not have seen before (with the exception of Gene Kranz of course). The men are frank and emotional. We really get a sense of what it was like to figure out how to fly to the moon with no instruction manual.

Mission control movie premier

Disclosure: my wife and i were invited to the premiere, but i was not compensated for this review

Most of the stories told in Mission Control are stories you’ve heard before: the Apollo 1 fire, the Apollo 11 program alarms, and Apollo 13. So you might ask, why do I need to hear these stories told again? Viewers should temper their concerns that they might be bored by the retelling. Instead, you will feel in some cases like you are hearing the stories for the first time. Hearing it from the point of view of the consoles in mission control lends a new perspective and drama that is missing from a History Channel documentary. Not to mention, the filmmakers of Mission Control were able to find a lot of very interesting archival footage that I had never seen before. The video of a technician inspecting the burned out Apollo 1 capsule while taking notes was especially unexpected and haunting.

Mission Control will certainly be enjoyed by general space fans, but it will be loved by anyone who has worked in mission control, from 1961 to today. The filmmakers do a great job of tying the history to the present day, with two brief bonus interviews near the beginning of the film with current flight directors Courtenay McMillan and Ginger Kerrick. McMillan and Kerrick discuss the strong influence of the founders of mission control on the current generation in both emotional and humorous terms (McMillan tells of referring to the movie Apollo 13 and “the guy with the buzz cut and the vest” when explaining her job to friends and family). There was a lot for me to relate to in the film, from descriptions of simulation training to the look of simultaneous fear and satisfaction on Steve Bales face when singled out for recognition by legendary flight director Chris Kraft.

NASA’s Apollo program of the 1960s was an odd moment in time. You have to wonder if those who made the moon landings happen realized the impact they had at the time; did they even realize what was going on in the outside world? Bob Carlton in the movie talks of being so busy that he neglected his family. If he had to do it all over again, he said he wouldn’t. You have to imagine they were so heads down that the social and political turmoil outside may have gone unnoticed. Gene Kranz confirms that they often got consumed with their work while planning for a mission. He says that after moving on to management work during the later Apollo missions, he found himself more appreciative of Apollo’s impact. Ed Fendell relates a story of walking into a diner the morning after the Apollo 11 landing and hearing a man say the only time he had been prouder to be an American was when he landed at Normandy in 1943.

However, we also get a sense that the men of mission control were indeed a bit insulated from anything not NASA related. Jim Lovell himself, when talking about his Apollo 8 mission in December 1968 – the first to the moon – refers to The Christmas Eve broadcast from lunar orbit. This is a familiar story. Apollo 8 was a ray of hope at the end of a very difficult year in America. But rather than point out how Apollo 8 felt uplifting to Americans, Lovell instead says “it all just fell into place,” as if sending three men to the moon – impressive as it was – could simply erase for nearly 17,000 men lost in Vietnam (the worst of any year), the violence at the DNC, and the assassinations of RFK and Dr. King*.

This is the beauty of Mission Control. We get real insight into an era we all love, but from the nuanced and flawed perspectives of 17 men that made it happen. One historical theory of the Apollo Program is that it was a flash in the pan – a combination of leaders, money, fear, talent, and other motivations that can only come together once in a century. A key part of that recipe was Dr. Chris Kraft and his ability to take his vision of a mission control center and bring it to life by collecting an incredible team of engineers from all over the country. They were of varied backgrounds, temperaments, and leadership styles; some were abrasive; some were quiet. But all of them were committed to their task in a singular way. East coast, West coast, Midwest, southern drawl, and even son of Chinese immigrants, it didn’t matter. They were the embodiment of teamwork, giving us a lot to learn from their history.

I had a few nitpicks of the film, mostly to do with some editing choices and the omission of some of my favorite stories. The biggest mistake is that it took someone so long to make Mission Control. While the average age in mission control during Apollo 11 was younger than 30 years old, the men of that era are now approaching an average age of 80, and many important men (Jack Garman, John Llewellyn, and others) have died. Without their voices, we would be missing an important part of the tale of the origins of NASA. I am thankful to author Rick Houston for doing the extensive research that led to the book Go, Flight! and to the filmmakers for making a documentary that has so much meaning to me. Hopefully Mission Control will be successful enough to encourage someone to pursue a similar project for other eras in mission control. There are still many stories to hear from Shuttle, Skylab, Mir, and ISS. Help encourage this kind of filmmaking is appreciated by ordering Mission Control on streaming or buying the DVD (go to missioncontrol.movie). I guarantee you will learn something new!

*See Jeffrey Kluger’s new book Apollo 8 for more on 1968 and NASA’s impact.

 

June 3, 2017 8:03 am

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Two very accomplished former NASA astronauts, Dr. Mike Foale and Dr. Ellen Ochoa, were inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame.

SpaceX conducted a static fire test in Florida in preparations for their next rocket launch on Thursday, June 1. This launch is a Dragon cargo mission headed to the ISS.

The New Zealand company (but based in Los Angeles), Rocket Lab, had their first launch last week. The Electron rocket was launched as strictly a test flight, and thus carried no payload.

In Orbit

Astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer conducted a contingency spacewalk on May 23rd to replace a failed computer outside the ISS. The repair was successful and Peggy Whitson now has the 3rd all-time most hours on spacewalks, having been on 10 EVAs.

Three orbital rocket launches since my last post on May 14th:

  • May 15 – A Falcon 9 rocket launched a communications satellite for Inmarsat from Florida
  • May 18 – An ESA Soyuz rocket launched a communications satellite for SES from French Guiana
  • May 25 – A Russian Soyuz rocket launched a military satellite from Plesetsk in northern Russia

Two astronauts will undock their Soyuz from the ISS later this week and head home. Check out these brief reflections from ESA’s Thomas Pesquet as he prepares to end his mission:

May 29, 2017 10:02 pm