'This Week In Space' – June 6, 2010

June 7, 2010 by

Falcon 9 Launch. June 4, 2010

Hello and Welcome to a special edition of “This Week In Space.”  I am talking about what might very well be the beginning of a new era in space – the door might have opened with the successful inaugural test flight of the Falcon 9 rocket – built by SpaceX.   It happened on Friday at Cape Canaveral.  The nine Merlin engines fired as designed – produced more than a million pounds of thrust – sending Falcon 9 on its way to space. The first stage separated as it was supposed to – and the second stage rocket fired on schedule as well. The only apparent fly in the ointment – second stage – along with mockup up of the Dragon Capsule – began a slow roll. No word on why just yet. SpaceX is leading the charge to open up low earth orbit to private ventures seeking to create a new industry in space. It is a lynch pin of the Obama space vision – and it remains the subject of a lot of controversy – even after this successful first flight. I caught up with SpaceX founder Elon Musk about 24 hours after the launch.

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'This Week In Space' – May 29, 2010

May 29, 2010 by

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Atlantis lands. Source: NASA

We begin at the end this week – the end of an era in space. Well maybe. This was the scene at the Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday – commander Ken Ham dead-sticking Atlantis down the steep glide slope to Runway 33.  The mission – STS-132 – was the final scheduled flight of Atlantis.  But she is not heading straight to the museums.  She’s now back in her Orbiter Processing Facility – NASA-speak for hanger – where she will be prepped for flight on short notice should there be trouble on the remaining pair of missions. BUT the museums might have to wait –  NASA is leaving the door open to schedule an encore mission for Atlantis. Since there would be no rescue vehicle at the ready – she would likely fly with a scaled down crew that would use the Russian Soyuz as a lifeboat.  NASA will make a decision on this by mid-June. Maybe the shuttle program will end as it began – with a two person crew.

For those of you keeping score at home – If it turns out this was the last ride to space for OV-104 – here are her final game stats:  32 flights – 11 of those to the International Space Station, over 120 million miles on the odometer, 294 days in orbit, 4,649 revolutions around Earth.  She was home-away-from-home to 189 astronauts.  She carried the Magellan and Galileo interplanetary probes to space, as well as the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. She was the first orbiter to dock with the Russian Space Station Mir, and the last one to visit the Hubble Space Telescope. Not bad at all. Way to go Atlantis. Way to go…

He’s the E.F. Hutton of astronauts –  “when he talks, people listen.”  Or would Greta Garbo be a better analogy.  Or maybe J.D. Salinger.  I digress.  You guessed it, I’m talking about Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, a bona fide National Hero, and a man who chooses his words very carefully. And he has been speaking out recently in opposition to the Obama Administration’s plan to kill the moonshot program known as Constellation. This week, he took center stage again – at a House Science and Technology committee hearing.  He reiterated his support for Constellation in particular and a return to the moon in general. The man has a lifetime supply  of dry powder – and he fired at will:

The issue facing this meeting has produced substantial turmoil among space advocates. So many normally knowledgeable people were completely astounded by the President’s proposal. Had the announcement been preceded by the typical review, analysis and discussion among the Executive branch, the agency, the congress, and all the other interested and knowledgeable parties, no member of this committee would have been surprised by the announcement of a new plan.  In this case, a normally collegial sector of society was split in many fragments, some focused on contracts and money, some on work force and jobs, some on technical choices.    All because a few planners, with little or no space operations experience, attempted an end run on the normal process.    It has been painful to watch.

Armstrong was joined by the last man to walk on the moon- Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan, who also took aim at Obama’s plan, which he views as long on talk and short on funds.  In other words, “show me the money.”

And, when one examines details of the FY2011 budget proposal, nowhere is there to be found one penny allocated to support space exploration. Yes, there has been much rhetoric on transformative technology, heavy lift propulsion research, robotic precursor missions, significant investment in commercial crew and cargo capabilities, pursuit of cross-cutting space technology capabilities, climate change research, aeronautics R&D, and education initiatives, all worthwhile endeavors in their own right. Yet nowhere do we find any mention of the Human Exploration of Space and nowhere do we find a commitment in dollars to support this all important national endeavor. We (Armstrong, Lovell and I) have come to the unanimous conclusion that this budget proposal presents no challenges, has no focus, and in fact is a blueprint for a mission to ‘nowhere.’

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was also on hand, testifying earlier in the day.  He disclosed that it will cost and estimated four and half billion dollars over five years to implement Obama’s recently announced plan to turn the Orion capsule into an ISS lifeboat – money that NASA will have to take out of other programs.  And he assured the committee that NASA is continuing work on Constellation in good faith. Yes – the work goes on until Congress weighs in because that is the way the law is written. Bolden got an earful from Arizona’s Gabrielle Giffords over NASA’s just-announced decision to reassign the outspoken Constellation Program Manager Jeff Hanley.

Gabrielle Giffords:  Mr. Bolden, my concern is, particularly concerning the news we had last week, that the program manager was actually working hard to make the program work, given the constraints of the budget, but again from where we sit, his work to restructure and potentially save the parts of Constellation that need to be saved, by removing him from his position…I think again it demonstrates to us that the question that I asked you earlier, whether or not you would give this committee your assurance that you were doing everything that you can as NASA administrator to make progress with Constellation for the remainder of FY 2010, when the constellation manager is removed from his position, it frankly makes me personally very dubious that that is in fact happening .  So I’m wondering again, the assurance that you can give us in the united states congress that your actually carrying this out.  and whether or not the program will actually carry forward, and whether or not you are actually planning on replacing him with someone competent, and whether or not you are planning to replace him expeditiously.

Charlie Bolden:  We would replace him with someone who is incredibly competent, I don’t think I have anyone in the hierarchy of the constellation program or anywhere else that is not competent and has my confidence. Jeff Hanley is not leaving NASA.  Jeff Hanley is moving up to become the deputy director of the Johnson Space Center for Strategic Studies and Strategic plans.  He is an incredibly talented individual.  Jeff and I have spoken for quite sometime since I became the NASA administrator, about his future.

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'This Week In Space' May 22, 2010

May 23, 2010 by

The lastest edition of “This Week In Space” is now out!  Give us a watch…

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Hello, and welcome…
We have a scoop for you this week – an exclusive interview with SpaceX founder Elon Musk – we’ll ask him how things are going as he and his team prep for that high stakes first flight of the Falcon 9 rocket…And we’ll also share with you David Letterman’s reaction to seeing his first shuttle launch…that’s coming up shortly…But first some other space news – and this week in honor of the Falcon 9 countdown and Dave’s first launch – we are doing it top ten list style…

Number 10

The Mars rover "Spirit." Source: NASA/JPL

Comes from the fourth rock from the sun.  (Miles mutters to himself and counts on his fingers).  Mars!  Yeah, Mars.  On March 20, the rover Opportunity overtook the Viking-1 Lander and is now holds the surface longevity record for NASA probes on Mars.  Opportunity is now six years, 116 days and counting into a 3 month mission.    But if you are listening Oppy – don’t rest on your laurels.  Your sibling  Spirit on the other side of the planet  is in winter hibernation mode, and if she manages to wake up come Spring, she will grab the record.  Spirit landed on Mars about three weeks before Opportunity back in 2004.  And as long as we are on Mars – the team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory commanded the the Mars Odyssey spacecraft to make  a final listen for life signs from the Phoenix Mars Lander this week.  Phoenix landed in the Northern polar region back in 2008, and operated successfully for about 6 months until the cold and dark of the Martian winter set in and craft went silent.  Mission managers were pretty sure that the lander would not survive the winter, but figured it wouldn’t hurt to see if they might be able to reestablish communication.  Looks like “no dice” though.  Rest in Peace, Phoenix.

Number 9

An update on a manned mission to Mars that is launching next month – had ya there for a minute didn’t I? Actually this is an ersatz trip to Mars that will never get off the ground.  I am talking about the Mars 500 SIMULATED mission to the red planet. Liftoff – well actually lock down – is set for early June.  Six crew members – two Europeans, one Chinese, and three Russians will spend 520 days locked inside a spacecraft mock-up at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow.  Mission controllers are doing their best to make this mission as close to the real thing as possible.  They’ll have to take all the food they’ll need with them from day one – no ordering in pizza a la Biosphere 2.  Communication is limited to email, – and it will be intermittent – just as it would on a really interplanetary voyage, and it will include a delay of as much as 40 minutes.   ESA has picked their two crew members.  Diego Urbina, who has Italian-Colombian nationality, and Frenchman Romain Charles.  The rest of the crew will be announced later this month.

Number 8

Oil’s not so well in the Gulf of Mexico – and NASA is pitching in to help. The space agency flew its King Air  research aircraft over the Gulf of Mexico this week in an effort to help monitor the size and thickness of the BP oil spill…Researchers wondering how the oil might impact sea life.   The Langley Based King Air 200 was outfitted with instruments normally used to study clouds and aerosols in the atmosphere – which researchers hope can help them learn more about spills. NASA satellites have also been trained on the oil slick since the drilling rig exploded in April. Crew members aboard the ISS have a unique vantage point to keep an eye on the growing environmental crisis.  Cosmonaut Oleg Kotov has been watching the oil spread.

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Final (?) Atlantis Launch version of 'This Week in Space'

May 20, 2010 by

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The Latest Episode of 'This Week in Space' Now Available for Your Viewing Pleasure!

May 9, 2010 by

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This Week in Space – May 8, 2010

May 9, 2010 by

Atlantis at the launchpad. Source: NASA

Hello and Welcome from the Kennedy Space Center. The Space Shuttle Atlantis is on the pad – pointed in the right direction – marching toward what will likely be her last mission. The crew of 6 – led by commander Ken Ham is headed to the international space station to deliver some supplies, replace some solar array batteries and install a new satellite dish. The shuttle was cleared to fly after a smooth flight readiness review – the team focused a fair amount of time on some ceramic inserts that hold window frames – one of them fell off during the last descent – of Discovery in April. The fix: a thicker braided chord designed to keep the insert from unscrewing. Interestingly, Shuttle Program Manager John Shannon said there was no talk about it being the last flight for Atlantis:

The tone of the meeting was extremely positive.  Nobody mentioned, we weren’t purposely avoiding it, but nobody mentioned this was Atlantis’ last planned flight.  It’s just folks are so focused on doing thier jobs, and they are performing with such pride all the way to the end, that it’s just normal business.  The team is very mature, looking a the data, looking and things they can do, you know might ask did you really have to go and replace all of the braided cord on all of these plugs which have performed pretty well in the past, and the answer is we thing we can make it better, and because we can make it better we’re going to go do it.  That’s the kind of attitude this team has.  They are such an asset to human spaceflight, and I just couldn’t be more proud of them.

In fact here in Florida – Launch Director Mike Leinbach says the shuttle team is moving through the stages of grief:

Let’s take ourselves back in time, maybe a year or 18 months or so, when we were talking about the end of the program, and a lot of people didn’t believe it, and were in denial.  Thought, heck, the program can’t end, we are going to fly forever.  Well now we know that’s not the case.  The program will end.  People have absolutely come to grips with that, when I talk to folks on the floor of the processing facilities, and I’m sure it was the same in Utah, they know the end is coming and they are making their plans.  And so we’ve gotten past the denial stage of change, and we are into the exploration and acceptance of change.  And that’s good…that’s very healthy for people to go through that process.  And we are there.  Again, it does not change the way they work on the vehicle, it’s just their mental capacity have accepted the fact that the program is going to end, and they need to make plans for the future.

Atlantis is slated to launch Friday at at 2:20pm here – 1620 GMT. Our live webcast on Spaceflight Now begins at 9:30- 1330 GMT.

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Obama's 'Space Summit'

April 15, 2010 by

Discovery launch. Source: NASA

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – FL – My head is spinning as I sit here waiting for President Obama to do what should have been done when the White House rolled out its budget for NASA: do the vision thing.

I have faith in POTUS to deliver the goods and explain his revolutionary approach to space exploration.

Here are a few things to remember as you watch the speech and listen to the spin:

The dramatic job loss that has so many people riled is not the result of the Obama White House shift in space. The shuttle retirement was actually set in stone by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. The shuttle fleet could fly on longer – each orbiter is rated to fly 100 flights – but the CAIB decided that it was time to move on to the next thing in space. Something safer.

Obama is also not responsible for the so-called “gap” between the shuttle and whatever is next. The gap is an artifact of inattention and meager funding over several years. Even before the CAIB gave us a date certain for retiring the shuttles, we knew the fleet could not – and should not – fly forever. And yet no one on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue had the persistence and forethought to insist the investment in a new ride be healthy and timely enough to give US astronauts seamless access to space on US vehicles once the orbiters were chalked and pickled in museums. George Bush painted a vision for space exploration that was bold and exciting – but it never got the funding it needed to get off the ground.

This is the hand Team Obama has been dealt. The shuttles are going away – and the program of record is way over budget and behind schedule. The gap is now a chasm – and those shuttle jobs cannot be saved no matter what.

So what to do? Obama could double down on the Bush vision, but the truth is that would be good money after bad. It also means NASA would have to deep-six the International Space Station at the end of 2015 (no money to pay for it – and the moonshot program know as Constellation) and would have to continue shorting budgets for technology development, earth sciences, robotic missions and aeronautics research.

Now imagine dropping the station into the Pacific in five years – after 25 years of construction it is finally all but complete – and in a position to yield some scientific discoveries. And imagine what kind of message this would send to the 15 other nations who are a part of the ISS project.

So couple all this with the fact that some things have changed since Bush announced his vision in 2004. The time now is ripe for a new brand of companies to make their mark in space. Why shouldn’t the government stimulate a new sector of the economy – instead of stifling it?

'This Week In Space' – April 10, 2010

April 11, 2010 by

The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is hot off the presses.  Check us out!

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Discovery launch. Source: NASA

Hello and welcome – and happy Yuri’s night – hard to believe it has now been 49 years since the first human being left the planet – and 29 years since the first shuttle flew – we’ll check in with one of the founders of the global Yuri’s night celebration – in a little while – see what is in store this year –

But first – let’s talk about the 131st space shuttle mission – currently “in work” as they say in the space business. I must admit – I am pretty lucky to have witnessed a lot of shuttle launches – and each of them is beautiful in their own special way – like a snowflake I suppose…but this one stands out – for one thing – we got a great view of Discovery’s destination – the international space station – as it flew overhead in the predawn darkness shortly before launch…then came the launch itself,

Those of us at the cape were able to see Discovery with eyes only – for a full seven and a half minutes – no one can remember anything like that – and then after Discovery was out of view and safely in space – were were left with this spectacular scene as the sun rose…remnants of the shuttle plume lit up like a pastel painting…

Discovery commander Alan Poindexter had to dock his craft at the station without the benefit of a radar system that failed. It is the same device that allows the orbiter to send out streaming video (or what we used to call TV)…and so that meant they had to record the heat shield inspection – and then send it down to earth using the station’s system.

The joint crews successfully attached the space equivalent of a PODS moving crate to the station – the Leonardo Multipurpose Logistics Module – in it – about 17 thousand pounds of gear and supplies – including some new crew sleep quarters…a fancy exercise machine that will give researchers a better idea about how physically fit the station-keepers are…and a device that ads cameras, spectrometers and other sensors to better observe the earth as it passes below the station.

They do see some cool things up there – look at this shot from crew member Soichi Noguchi of the Aurora Boraealis – or Northern Lights – he tweeted that one down.

Three spacewalks are planned for the 13 day mission.

Late as this is in the shuttle program – there is still room for some firsts as well as lasts – there are four women on the  combined shuttle station crews – a space record. And no – none of them stopped and asked for directions.

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This Week In Space – April 2, 2010

April 3, 2010 by

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Discovery. Source: NASA

Hello and welcome –  I am taking the week off – doing some diving with my 17 year old son in the Cayman Islands…would love to be with you – but this one trumps TWIS hands down…So while I am diving – the shuttle Discovery has been getting ready to go in the other direction.

Don’t forget to join us for the launch – we are the best place to watch it all unfold. Our coverage on Spaceflight Now begins at 2am Eastern – 0600 GMT. Ouch. Hey with four launches left – I promise not to complain…

The Mars rover "Spirit." Source: NASA/JPL

The Mars Rover Spirit missed a communications session with with ground controllers this week, which likely means it has gone into hibernation mode as winter descends on Mars’ southern hemisphere.  Spirit’s operators knew this was coming.  The rover has been stuck in a sand it for nearly a year – without a tow truck in sight…  In January, with winter coming, mission managers gave up trying to drive to concentrate on better positioning the rover so that its solar panels would be more optimally tilted toward the sun.  Unfortunately, that didn’t work very well.  The best guess as to what has happened is that Spirit’s batteries have drained and there is not enough sunlight hitting the solar panels to recharge them.   Will the rover survive the long cold winter and wake up six months from now to resume it’s science mission?  We’ll keep you posted.

Expedition 23 Crew

A Soyuz rocket carrying members of the Expedition 23 crew to the International Space Station has blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazhakstan.  Before making their way to the launchpad, Alexander Skvortsov, Mikhail Kominenko, and Tracy Caldwell Dyson ran the gauntlet of Russian pre-launch rituals, which include watching a movie called “White Sun of the Desert” the night before launch, sipping a glass of champagne, signing a door at the Cosmonaut Hotel, getting blessed by a Russian Orthodox priest, and taking a ceremonial leak on the tire of one of the crew buses – women can take a pass on that last one if they want, which was probably a relief to Tracy Caldwell Dyson.  She also may have started a new tradition – singing to her spouse before launch.
Once they arrive at the ISS, the new crew members will only have a few days to settle in before house guests arrive aboard the shuttle Discovery.

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This Week In Space – March 26, 2010

March 28, 2010 by

The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is available now – check us out!

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Source: Virgin Galactic

Space for the rest of us is got just a little closer this past week. Over the high desert of California – in the rarefied air where the X-1, X-15 and the space shuttle first tested their wings – a new spaceship took flight for the first time. I am talking about the Virgin VSS Enterprise – bolted beneath its carrying aircraft – the VMS Eve – formerly known as White Knight 2. The test flight lasted just less than 3 hours – they reached 45 thousand feet – and we are told it went well. Eve/Enterprise designer Burt Rutan called it “a momentous day for the Scaled and Virgin Teams.” Ahead – independent glide tests and then powered flight this year and next. Once the team is happy – revenue service to space will begin… Eve will take Enterprise to 50 thousand feet – where they will part company – the rocket motor will fire –  Enterprise will make a beeline for the dark sky – carrying a half dozen paying passengers into a new era.

Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of ArizonaIt is springtime in the northern hemisphere of Mars – and while NASA’s lander called Phoenix has not survived the long dry ice encrusted winter – there are signs of – activity, though not life – elsewhere on the Red Planet.  Check out this image captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The dark spots are patches of basaltic sand that is carried to the surface as the temperature warms and the dry ice sublimates – meaning goes straight from a solid to a gas – skipping the liquid stage (it’s just a phase). Notice how they all fan out in the same direction – proof they formed at the same time – when the wind speed and direction were identical. Basalt fans – a sublime sign of warmer days ahead on Mars – sorta like our Washington cherry blossoms here in the U.S.

It will be the fall of 2011 before the Mars Science Laboratory makes its way to the Red Planet. The ambitious rover mission was supposed to be there by now, but the launch was delayed after a host of technical and money woes (the two tend to go hand in hand – see: Constellation). In any case, the folks at The Jet Propulsion Lab in California – are glad they got an extra 26 months – because this mission is the most complex ever.

Source:  Hubble Space TelescopeAnd while it may be a long time before humans ever get to Mars – you can simulate the long journey now – if you are so inclined.  The Russian and European space programs have teamed up for an endurance experiment that seems like the premise for a bad reality TV show – survivor meets big brother I suppose…these are some of the applicants for Mars 500 – a 520 day trip to nowhere that will try to create the rigors and challenges of a piloted mission to the Red Planet. The ersatz spacecraft sits at the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems. Three Russians, two Europeans and One Chinese will be hermetically sealed inside the steel container in May. They will live in 550 cubic meters – will only eat from food stored inside – and will communicate with the outside world either by deliberately ratty internet – or with a 20 minute one way delay once they reach simulated Mars. The goal: to better understand the psychological and physiological rigors of such a, long, isolated mission.   The big question: whether to select a rainbow coalition Star Trek like crew – or a bunch of GI-Joe’s – who think act and look alike. So should we take a pool to on whether they will make it the full 520 days? I sure hope there is a webcam…appointment TV for space cadets for sure.  Though the team final team has not been selected yet, candidate Arch’hanmael Galliard, of France, is feeling strong about his chances.

“I think that I will be accustomed rapidly to this environment.  I thought at the beginning this environment could be smaller.   No, I think everything could be done here  – experiments, living, doing sports,  there is many things that we can do, I think, during this period, we will see with time, if it is really possible or not, but I think that we can do it.”

The Mars 500 crew will sure have plenty of time to refine their video game playing prowess. And a now ESA is out with a new study that suggests gaming can enhance collaboration among scientists and engineers – and can be a good education and public outreach tool. The study suggests ESA strike deals with some game developers to create titles that teach – how about Grand Theft Spacecraft? I suppose not…

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