Posts Tagged ‘International Space Station’

“This Week In Space” – August 28, 2010

August 29, 2010

The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is now out.  Please watch!

Source: Hubble Space Telescope

We begin with an arrival of a spacecraft that aims to tell us how the universe formed.  The  2.1 billion dollar Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer arrived at Kennedy Space Center as it gets prepped for its flight to the Space Station. It will be mounted on the space station to search for antimatter, dark matter, and strange matter – and it will also search for cosmic rays.  It’s a spacecraft that almost never made it to space after being built.  The mission to fly it was canceled after the Columbia accident in 2003.  But AMS had some strong supporters in Congress, and NASA managers reshuffled plans to fly it.  It’s the last big piece station hardware to go up shuttle.  Principal Investigator Samuel Ting of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has high hopes for the science that AMS will conduct on orbit.

We have checked and rechecked and double checked the detector, and we are now quite confident, we will stay on the space station, for its lifetime.  For the next 20 years when you look at space and see the space station, there is one very very precise detector to collect data.

AMS is scheduled to fly aboard Endeavour on what at the moment is the last scheduled space shuttle mission set for February 26th 2011.

But first things first, before STS-134 delivers the AMS to the station, Steve Lindsay and the STS-133 crew will be visiting the orbiting outpost on Discovery’s last flight to space.  That mission is currently slated to lift off November 1st.  OV-103 is currently in its Orbiter Processing facility undergoing final preps for rollover to the VAB on September 8th.  The media recently got a chance to take a look at some of cargo they’ll be taking up to the ISS – including Robonaut 2, as well as the Permanent Multipurpose Module and an Express Logistics Carrier filled with spare parts and supplies.  The crew was recently at KSC for a Crew Equipment Interface Test – that’s a last chance for the crew to personally look over the orbiter and payload before flight.  For these final missions, NASA is getting the public involved in selecting some of the wake-up songs that rouse the astronauts out of bed every morning on orbit.  Traditionally, crew members’ family and friends make the picks…but now you can get in on the action too.  Check out songcontest.nasa.gov for details.  And a final word before we leave shuttle behind, NASA has not yet officially announced whether or not the Atlantis will get one final flight next year, but they are kicking a prospective schedule.  You might want to pencil June 28, 2011 on your calendars for STS-135.  We’ll you know when you can ink that in.

International Space Station. Source: NASA

Meanwhile in space, things are getting back to normal and science activities have resumed now that the International Space Station’s radiator problems have been put to bed. With flight engineer Shannon Walker at the controls of the station’s robotic arm, astronauts Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson conducted three marathon spacewalks to swap out a failed ammonia pump that shut down half the station’s cooling system for a couple of weeks earlier this month.  The spacewalkers hit some frustrating snags while trying to disconnect the broken pump, especially a balky ammonia line called M3 that repeatedly stuck in place, and leaked ammonia as well.   Afterward, Wheels said the secret to their ultimate success was going out the hatch with the right attitude about  unexpected  problems.

I think the greatest thing that I’ve learned on my earlier EVA’s is just to expect that, just take a deep breath, think about different ways that you can finesse the piece of hardware and listen to what your ground trainers are telling you from the ground, and don’t give up trying.  And so we kept at it.  M3 became my giant through this whole thing that I had to face out there.  And we did it together and we needed both of us on either end of the line to get it, to just find that sweet spot to mate it up and demate it as well.  So I don’t know it sort of became the villan for us, and we sort of needed a villan to fight against when we were out there and it became a real challenge for us and we were able to rise to the challenge as a team.

SpaceX has conducted a high-altitude drop test of its Dragon spacecraft designed to ferry cargo – and eventually crew – to the ISS.  An Erikson “Air Crane” helicopter dropped a Dragon test article at an altitude of 14,000 off the California coast to test the capsule’s parachute system  as well as recovery operations.   SpaceX says the exercise met 100% of test objectives.  SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a dummy Dragon spacecraft  into space in June.  The company is planning another launch later this year that will put an operational Dragon into orbit, and return it to Earth.

The Mars Science Laboratory rover – also known as Curiosity – continues to take shape in its clean room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.  Engineers have now attached its robotic arm.  It was so heavy that they had to hoist it  into place using a crane.  The arm is tipped with a suite of instruments including a camera, a spectrograph and a drill that will core out and deliver samples to other instruments on the rover’s deck.  Curiosity is set to launch to Mars late next year.

And speaking of Mars launches, it was thirty-five years ago that NASA launched the Viking missions to Mars – Viking 1 on August 20th and Viking 2 on September 9th, 1975.  Each probe consisted of an orbiter and lander.  In their day,  Viking 1 and 2 were the most successful interplanetary probes ever deployed to the red planet – beaming back color images of the Martian surface and scooping up soil samples for analysis.  It would be nearly 20 years before Mars Pathfinder returned for further exploration of the surface.

Artist's rendering of Kepler 9. Source: NASA

The holy grail for astrobiology buffs is finding an Earth-sized, Earth-like planet.  That hasn’t happened yet (we’ll be leading the show with it when that happens!) but there are a couple of interesting developments on the planet-hunting beat this week.  Scientists working with the Kepler spacecraft have identified a planetary system orbiting a sun-like star called Kepler 9.  The new solar system includes two Saturn-sized gas giants and possibly a slightly-larger-than-earth sized planet orbiting very close to the star.  No chance of Earth-like conditions though…it’s just too hot.   Also this week, researchers working with the European Southern Observatory announced they’ve identified a solar system with at least five and maybe as many as seven planets orbiting a sun-like star located 127 light years away in the constellation Hydrus.  And one of those two unconfirmed planets is thought to be roughly Earth-sized and also orbiting very close to its sun.  Again, too hot for life.  So we’ve got new solar systems breaking out all over.  No pale blue marbles though.

Erupting volcanoes have been in the news this summer – and no I am NOT going to try to pronounce the name of that volcano in Iceland.  But take a look a cosmic volcano, erupting out of the black hole at the center of galaxy M-87.  These images from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory combined with radio telescope data from the Very Large Array show the black hole blasting gas and energy out.  The good news – air travellers in Europe have nothing to worry about with this volcano – it’s 50 million light years away.

And finally, we leave you with this time-lapse video of earth from space, shot by NASA astronaut and Mr. “Saturday Morning Science” himself, Don Pettit.  I’ve spent my whole career in TV and I can tell you, most everything looks better in forward.  Turns out Earth is no exception.  Night is even cooler than day.  Check out those green auroras when they zip by…absolutely incredible.  Pettit is headed back for a second tour of duty on the ISS next year.  What are you going to wow us with next time, Don?  It’s going to be hard to top this!

Time for us to hit the stop/eject button for this week.  Thanks for watching…please check us out regularly.  Also, please think about tossing us a few bucks at spaceflightnow.com/twis, we’re kind of singing for our supper here with this show..send us an email twis@spacelfightnow.com,  tweet us @thisweekinspace. Check out the blog here.  Thanks so much to our sponsor, Binary Space.  We really appreciate your ongoing support.  Join us next time for all the news off the planet.  Miles O’Brien will be back next week – we’ll see you then.

“This Week In Space” – August 14, 2010

August 15, 2010

Check out the latest edition of “This Week In Space.”

International Space Station Source: NASA

Hello and welcome – they call them quick disconnect valves – but apparently on the International Space Station – they don’t always live up to their name. One of them – that connected a faulty ammonia pump to the station’s cooling system sent NASA into a tiger team frenzy of troubleshooting and head scratching this week. first time they tried to disconnect it – it spring a huge leak of ammonia – nasty stuff…so they reattached it and then tried again on the next walk – at first it wouldn’t budge. But in the end, the solution was precisely what you or I would have done if it was a pipe under the sink at home – they shook the darn thing like crazy until it came free. Spacewalker Doug “Wheels” Wheelock employed the elbow grease – spacewalking sidekick Tracy Caldwell Dyson was at his side. It was the second spacewalk to replace the pump and get that cooling system back on-line. When it failed – the station still had one other set of operative radiators – but the reduced capability created a significant brown out for the 6 person crew.

Veteran astronaut and spacewalker Dave Wolf was helping lead the effort on the ground to figure out how to solve case of the stubborn valve. I spoke with him via Skype.

Former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe and his teenage son Kevin survived a horrific plane crash in Alaska this week that killed five people, including former senator Ted Stevens.  They were on a fishing trip when the amphibious twin otter they were in plowed  into the side of a mountain in bad weather.  Both O’Keefes are banged up pretty badly but are expected to survive. Sean served as NASA Administrator from 2002 to 2005 – he was sent there by the Bush White House to tighten the reins on the space station budget. He ended up leading the agency through the Columbia accident – and offered up a text book example of expert crisis management. Sean was the man who signed on to the idea of sending yours truly to space – an idea that ended with the loss of Columbia. He is a good friend – and I wish him and Kevin a speedy recovery.

A dawn rocket launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station lit up the sky over central Florida Saturday.  That’s an Atlas V rocket, and the payload is the AEHF-1 satellite.  Its one of what will be a network of four military satellites designed to provide global, secure, protected and jam-resistant communications for our armed forces.  Hopefully our troops will have better communication than i get with AT&T on my iPhone.

Good news Space Tweeps. – it’s official NASA will hold another tweet-up at KSC for the next shuttle launch – that’s STS-133, currently scheduled for November 1 (but you knew that).  They are fantastic events – and if you are prone to tweet – you really should put your 140 characters in the ring. This is a good way to satisfy your assignment to see a shuttle launch before it is too late.  Registration opens at noon on Tuesday, August 24, and closes at noon on Wednesday, August 25.  If you want to know more, go to www.nasa.gov/tweetup.

Hard to believe it’s now been six years since the Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn. And it is still a very busy space probe. So busy it just got another extension – through 2017 – giving it a chance to observe the summer solstice in Saturn’s northern hemisphere.  Here’s a cool new movie from Cassini.   The spacecraft was getting some close-up images of Saturn’s F-ring, and purely by chance captured these images of a globular star cluster passing though the field of view.  That’s NGC 5139, or Omega Centauri – nearly 16 thousand light years away.

As long as we are talking clusters – here’s a long exposure Hubble Space Telescope image of a galaxy in the Coma Cluster, 320 million light years away.  this is a spiral galaxy called NGC 9411 captured face-on.  And the Hubble folks have all kinds of questions about this picture of  NGC 4696.  This galaxy is not a perfect spiral – in fact it curls around on itself, kind of like a question mark.   Astronomers are scratching their heads about it – they have all kinds of questions about why it is  shaped so strangely, and what those filaments that stretch out from it might be. We’ll let you know if they find some answers…

Hubble is a third of the triumvirate of telescopes NASA called the Great Observatories – the other two are Chandra, and Spitzer – together these space scopes see the universe in the optical, x-ray and infrared wave lengths.  Now imagine if they could work together – like the Justice League –  This is a composite image – a super-space-scopes mash-up – of two colliding galaxies located about 62 million light years away.  The Chandra data is in blue, the Hubble data in gold and brown, and Spitzer data in red.  These so-called Antennae galaxies started colliding about 100 million years ago…and they are home to highly active star-forming regions. to infinity and beyond indeed!

Mars. Source: Hubble Space Telescope

Two anniversaries worth noting this week.  Fifty years ago, NASA launched Echo-1, it’s first communications satellite.  It was basically a big mylar balloon – able to bounce television, radio and TV signals cross-country and even across continents.  And five years ago, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launched from Cape Canaveral.  MRO has become a workhorse for NASA – imaging the surface of Mars with unprecedented clarity, scanning for minerals and water, monitoring Martian weather, and serving as a communications relay for robotic missions on the surface.

Which brings us to our favorite simulated Mars mission – well I guess it’s the only simulated Mars mission – you know it by now – 6 men entered a human sized hamster habitat in Moscow – and will spend 520 days there pretending to go to Mars, explore the surface and then come back. We have now gone past the seventy day mark – which means they are about 15 percent done! and the video diaries they are posting on YouTube show no signs of reality show style discontent. Here is Romain Charles showing one of the…er…highlights – air sampling:

So Romain what’s up with the white socks and sandals and the wife beater t-shirt? I think that is a fashion don’t on Mars as well…just saying.

And on that note – I am outta here – you can email us a twis@spaceflightnow.com – or tweet us @thisweekinspace – the blog version of this podcast is at milesobrien.com. But here is the most important thing – please go to spaceflightnow.com/twis – and send us a few bucks – we really need you help – and if you don”t i’ll start wearing a wife beater – and white socks and sandals. Is that extortion? Sorta, I suppose. thanks to our most loyal sponsor ever – Binary Space – we really appreciate your support. We’ll see ya next time.

“This Week In Space” – August 7, 2010

August 8, 2010

The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is out!  David Waters is in for Miles O’Brien this week.

International Space Station. Source: NASA

One spacewalk down, at least one more to go in NASA’s efforts to remove and replace a failed ammonia pump that’s crippled part of the International Space Station’s radiator system.  Astronauts Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson conducted the longest spacewalk in station history – 8 hours, 3 minutes – attempting to switch out the pump with a spare.  Unfortunately, removing the ammonia umbilicals from the old pump turned out to be a lot more difficult that anticipated, and there was significant  ammonia leakage from one of the lines as well.  The spacewalkers quickly fell behind on the timeline.   In the end, they had to wrap up the EVA with the broken pump still in place.  Ground controllers are now regrouping, and will need to re-plan the second spacewalk to try to make up for lost time.   And ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini says a third spacewalk may be in the offing.

I will tell you we’ve lengthened the amount of time from now until we get this pump running.   I would tell you that it would take a lot of good luck, and somebody coming up with a really short tweak to the EVA for us to get to the point that we could start that ammonia pump after the next EVA.  I really do think we are going to end up with three EVA’s.  So I think we are going to end up being in this condition, this risk posture, a few more days than we had originally planned.

There will be no doubt be developments in this story daily.  Please check in with us at Spaceflight Now for all the latest news.

The full Senate approved its compromise version of the NASA authorization bill for the 2011 budget late on Thursday – by voice vote with no discussion – and then they skedaddled out of town for the August recess.  The Senate legislation would add a final shuttle flight to the manifest, extend the life of the space station through 2020, fund commercial space activities, and start work on a new heavy lift rocket that’s supposed to be ready for orbital missions by the end of 2016.  But, the forward plan for the space agency remains in limbo for the foreseeable future.  The House of Representatives, is working on its own, very different, version of a plan…that preserves key parts of the Constellation program, slashes funding for commercial space, and puts that heavy-lift rocket championed by the Senate on the back burner.  The soonest the full House will vote on their version is September – and then compromise legislation will have to be hammered out in a conference committee.  So…if you are holding you breath for this all to be wrapped up soon…it’s gonna be a while.

While the wheels of government turn slowly, workers at the Kennedy Space Center are getting pink slips as the shuttle program winds down.  Commerce Secretary Gary Locke toured KSC this week along with NASA brass and Representative Suzanne Kosmas of Florida.  Locke sits on a White House task force aimed at improving the economy on the Space Coast as the clock ticks down for shuttle.  He met with about a dozen workers who will soon be hitting the unemployment lines.  The task force will be submitting a report to Obama this month on the prospects for helping the workforce through the tough transition ahead. Let’s hope they can come up with some good ideas.

And speaking of shuttles, it seems we are all going to have to wait a little longer to hear from NASA where the orbiters are headed after the program ends next year.  The agency had said it would announce in July which museums would get shuttles – but that deadline has come and gone with no word.  NASA spokesman Mike Curie told our friend Robert Pearlman over at collectSPACE that a final decision has been postponed because  the dates for the final two shuttle missions have slipped…and while the powers-that-be ponder whether or not to add an additional flight for Atlantis next summer.  Here’s what we know:  the shuttle Discovery will be going to the Air & Space Museum, which means NASA shuttle test article, Enterprise, currently housed there but never actually flew in space, also becomes available.  We’re in standby mode to find out where Atlantis and Endeavour will, er, land.

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'This Week In Space' – July 20, 2010

July 20, 2010

The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is available for your viewing pleasure.  Please take a look!

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Atlantis lands. Source: NASA

Hello, and welcome.  Our theme this week is detente – as in the easing of hostilities between rivals. It is what we saw in space 35 years ago this week when Apollo and Soyuz joined together in low earth orbit – and it is what we are seeing unfold over the past few days in Washington – as Congress and the White House try to compromise on what is next for NASA after the shuttles are retired.  The Senate Commerce Committee unanimously  approved an authorization bill that embraces much of the white house space vision – with some key differences:   Under the Senate plan, NASA will launch Atlantis one more time next year…meaning there are three shuttle missions remaining.  NASA will begin work on a heavy lift rocket immediately – not in 2015 as Obama had promised.  As for the similarities: Ferrying cargo and astronauts to low Earth orbit will still fall to commercial companies, the ISS gets a lease extension to 2020, and there is more money earmarked for space and earth science and aeronautics.  The man leading the charge on this  Senator Bill Nelson of Florida. He bristled when reporters suggested the new plan mandates NASA do exactly what the Augustine Commission warned against: throwing out Constellation to start work on an underfunded new rocket.

What this does is set up a new heavy lift vehicle, on a deadline of December 31, 2016, and this is achievable because of the policy that has been set by the committee.  The committee cannot tell NASA how to design a rocket, but we can give policy direction to the executive branch of government, and we’ve done that in the bill.  Using shuttle derived technology, building on that, making it evolvable, not building the largest rocket around but starting in the range of 75 to 100 metric tons, that is evolvable, and that would be built over the course of those six years within a budget of 11 and a half billion dollars.  Now that is doable.  And if anybody tells you that it is not, then if I were you I’d question their particular agenda.

In the interest of detente – the White House released a statement – saying in part – the Senate bill  “represents an important first step towards helping us achieve the key goals the President has laid out…“We look forward to continuing to work with Congress to help advance an ambitious and achievable space program, one that helps us blaze a new trail of innovation and discovery.”

Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Source: NASA

Thirty five years ago this week, they were blazing a whole new trail in space – when two space capsules – a Soviet Soyuz and an American Apollo rendezvoused and docked in low earth orbit. The Apollo Soyuz Test Project captured the attention of the world – as the two nuclear superpowers put their differences aside – and found they had much in common. This past week the surviving crew members came to New York City – to the OMEGA Watch Boutique on Fifth Avenue to celebrate the anniversary – hey what better place to mark a moment in time??
What they accomplished on their mission planted the seed for the international space station. U.S. Commander Tom Stafford flew with two rookies – one of whom was his boss – the late Deke Slayton – one of the original Mercury Seven – was grounded for years because of a heart murmur – but finally got a clean bill of health. Also on board Apollo:  Vance Brand – who later commanded three shuttle missions.  The Soviets were led by Alexey Leonov – the first person to walk in space. He flew with Valery Kubasov.  The three of them gathered for a panel talk in the OMEGA Boutique – yours truly served as moderator. Unfortunately Alexey Leonov was not feeling well – and could not join us.

Thanks to OMEGA for hosting that great event – as you probably know, the company has a long, rich history with human spaceflight.

In fact, there would not be an international space station without Apollo Soyuz – and while the Senate bill we told you about envisions another mission for Atlantis – until that happens the Endeavour sts-134 mission is still the last in line – and the external fuel tank that will power that shuttle to orbit arrived at the Kennedy Space Center a few days ago – after a safe voyage across the BP tainted gulf. The mission is set to fly at the end of February.

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'This Week In Space' – July 11, 2010

July 11, 2010

The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is now available for your viewing pleasure.  Please give us a look…

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ET-138 rolls out at the Michoud Assemby Facility. Source: NASA

Hello and Welcome. We begin with a big orange caboose – if you will. The last space shuttle external fuel tank on the manifest made its way out of the barn at  Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The tank  is known affectionately as ET-138…but you can can call her “E” if you like. Tank builder Lockheed Martin pulled out all the stops for this one – hundreds of workers were on hand while a brass band played. The tank will ride on its custom barge to the Kennedy Space Center where it will be mated with Endeavour, now slated to fly the final shuttle mission N-E-T – or no earlier than – February 26th, 2011. Now there is one more tank that will be shipped from Michoud – it will be used by Atlantis should the Endeavour crew get in a jam – and need a lift home. And this is where I get to put in my plug for flying that tank – with Atlantis – one more time. Why not? And this is also where I get to nag you: if you have not seen a shuttle ride the fire to orbit – you are assigned to be at one of the last launches. No excuses. There will be a test later.

Tanks for the memories – I guess – prime shuttle contractor United Space Alliance announced its largest layoff to date –  15 percent of its workforce.  Most of those employees are in Florida – since that is where most of their employees live.  Somewhere between 800 to a thousand wrench turners and pad rats will be getting pink slips.   Another 400 or so will be sacked from other USA operations. More cuts, are expected of course as the program winds down.

And that would explain the turnout at recent job fairs at KSC – somewhere between 2 and three thousand shuttlers showed up to press the flesh and hand deliver some resumes. About 60 public and private sector employers showed up. Can you guess which company had the most popular booth? Why that would be a certain California based launch company called SpaceX.  Better SpaceX than ex-space I suppose.

If any of those jobless USAers are space history buffs – and I know there are more than a few you – you may want to consider this job: official NASA historian. apply at USAjobs.gov by the 13th. Also in the comings and goings department – NASA’s Wayne Hale is hanging up his headset but we hope not his keyboard – the veteran flight director, shuttle program manager – and eloquent blogger says its a personal decision. I sure hope he keeps sharing his pearls of wisdom with us. And the Hubble repairman just added another line to his long resume – John Grunsfeld is now a research professor at Johns Hopkins. he will keep his gig down the road as the number two man at the space telescope science institute – which is Hubble Science Central. Hey if he can’t multi task – who can?

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This Week In Space – June 20, 2010

June 20, 2010

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

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Falcon 9 Launch. Source: Chris Thompson/SpaceX

Hello and Welcome – I had a long interesting talk with the president of the Constellation Nation – ex officio – Mike Griffin. I asked him what he things about the success of Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 test launch – you may be surprised at his response – I also asked him about the latest skirmish in the war between old and new space.  The full answer – and much more – coming up after we check the rest of the weeks space news.

Let’s get started with some fire and smoke – at the Baikonur Cosmodrome – that’s the site and sound of the 24th Space Station crew leaving earth behind for a long stint at the orbiting outpost. On board the Soyuz Capsule – Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and NASA astronauts Shannon Walker and Doug Wheelock. Their arrival at the space station went well – the crew up there had an inkling they might be dropping by – so they dressed up in their fresh jumpsuits – and didn’t say they gave at the office their new station mates knocked on the door.  The arrival of Shannon Walker marks a minor milestone in space for those of you who keep track of the stats. For the first time ever – two women are a part of the long duration crew at the same time. Right now there is no room at the ISS inn – 6 station keepers are up there…working in the coolest science lab anywhere.

Among the experiments on the schedule — A new way to take a look at the world’s shipping traffic. The ESA-sponsored experiment is using the ISS to track ships from space.  All big ships are required to have on-board transponders, but the equipment really only works when the ship is close to shore.

The VHF radio signals that power the system have a horizontal range of just 40 nautical miles – so open ocean traffic is largely un-tracked.   But, as it turns out, the vertical range of those radio waves is much greater…all the way up the space station.  The experiment runs on remote control and will last for two years.

In the meantime, another NASA eye-in-the-sky is also keeping tabs on ships.  The MODIS instrument on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites captured these views of what you might think of as ship “contrails.”  It turns out the sulphur in a ship’s exhaust interacts with the water vapor over the ocean to form these bright streamers.  They wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye, but MODIS can sniff them out.

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'This Week In Space' – May 29, 2010

May 29, 2010

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

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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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Obama's 'Space Summit'

April 15, 2010

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

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

The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is available!  Check us out

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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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