Posts Tagged ‘Low Earth orbit’

'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' – June 6, 2010

June 7, 2010

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

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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New 'This Week in Space' – March 12, 2010

March 14, 2010

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

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Hubble2Hello and welcome – President Obama will finally say something about his plan for NASA – but there are still mixed messages coming out of the space agency – as the space shuttle program winds down – and new commercial players try to spin up. And while SpaceX tried to figure out why a launch pad test ended before it really got started – We are told by the man in charge of the shuttle program that the fleet doesn’t have to stop flying after 4 more flights – it is just a matter of money…more on all of this in a bit – but first I have to tell you about tje Warner Brothers “IMAX: Hubble 3D” movie that captures some of the space shuttle’s greatest moments – and gives those of us who have never been to space – an idea of what it is really like to be there. I am talking about the IMAX Hubble 3-D movie – which premiered this week at the Air and Space Museum in Washington…The movie focuses on the last Hubble repair mission in May. NASA  bolted a 3-D IMAX camera into the payload bay of Atlantis – it captured the astronauts at work in a vivid big screen – in your face – kinda way.

Hubble1Leonardo DiCaprio narrates the film. Hubble 3D also includes scenes from the first Hubble repair mission – and the deployment of the telescope as well. But this time there is something different – IMAX took some of the most iconic images captured by Hubble – to the National Center for Super Computing Applications at the University of Illinois Ubrana-Champaign – there the filmmakers and the computer whizzes made those images 3-D – so in this movie not only do you feel as if you are flying on board the shuttle – you also are treated to an amazing 3-D odyssey through distant galaxies and nebulas. It’s an amazing ride…

Hubble3They rolled out the red carpet at the Air and Space museum for the premiere – the space glitterati – such as it is – was there in large numbers – to see the Hubble 3-D. Now Leonardo sent his regrets from a movie set in Japan – and the real star of the show – Hubble was unable to be there was well – so that meant the big stars of the evening were the crew members of STS-125 – decked out in their blue flight suits – ready for their closeups. The crew of course felt a ton of pressure to fix and improve Hubble for the last time – so you would think shooting the movie would be no problem at all. But get this – they only had 8 minutes worth of film in that 3-D camera in the payload bay. And the camera only shoots 30 seconds at a time. So they had to be extremely careful about when to say “action” – but they had trained for it long and hard – and it all paid off. I spoke to these John Glenn Steven Spielberg hybrids as they walked down the carpet.

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The Politics of NASA's New Path

February 28, 2010

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Mr. Bolden goes to Capitol Hill this week…

The NASA boss Charlie Bolden is a former Marine fighter and test pilot and astronaut and he is used to taking flak – after all he flew a hundred combat missions over southeast Asia during the Vietnam war. So facing off with some lawmakers on Capitol Hill over the controversial Obama NASA budget proposal – piece of cake- right?  Well, it started out that way – he began with the Senate Subcommittee on Science & Space.  The chairman – his former shuttle crew member – then Congressman – now Senator Bill Nelson.  Watch their exchange here.

And a somewhat chillier one with Senator David Vitter – a Republican from Louisiana – home of the Michoud Assembly facility – where they make the external fuel tanks for the shuttle- here.

And I got in on the action too…Here is some of what I had to say. And you can read my full remarks here.

The next day – Charlie Bolden found himself in a different orbit – namely the House of Representatives – where they don’t know comity – from comedy…and when he appeared before the House Science Committee, it was so silly you almost had to laugh as members from Texas Alabama and Florida tried to out Bolden-bash one another.

Cygnus Spacecraft.  Source:  Orbital Sciences

Cygnus Spacecraft. Source: Orbital Sciences

The Obama budget for the space agency puts some big bets on some commercial players to work more independently to get cargo – and ultimately humans to and from low earth orbit. But there are a host of concerns about transferring so much risk outside the space agency. One of the main players in this game is Orbital Sciences – Like its competitor SpaceX, the company is building a vehicle to deliver cargo to the ISS under contract to NASA. Veteran astronaut and NASA manager Frank Culbertson is now a senior VP with orbital – and he was listening intently – as I was  – when his former fellow astronaut Hoot Gibson said this in that Senate Hearing.  Watch and listen to our conversation here.

Orion Agonistes

February 13, 2010
Orion.  Source:  NASA

Orion. Source: NASA

NASA’s budget rollout was confused – but so is the message – we do know this: the Obama White House would like NASA to get out of the low earth orbit taxi business – and instead get the private sector to get some skin in the game – and build what amounts to private spaceliners that NASA – and those who have the cash – can fly to space. Arthur C. Clarke would be proud…but beyond low earth orbit things get murky and vague – NASA will spend money on cool new technologies that might one day get us farther into the solar system a lot faster – but there is no destination or date. Later in the week, Bolden told the Houston Chronicle his personal vision is a piloted mission to Mars. You have to wonder if the White House is on board with that. Meanwhile the big contractors who are a part of Constellation are scheduling therapy for Post Traumatic Stress – at Lockheed Martin, they were hoping their piece of the program – the Orion capsule survive – no such luck.  the man in charge there – John Karas – joined me at the cape during the shuttle countdown.

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Good Night Moon

January 30, 2010
Ares I-X Launch.  Source:  NASA/Scott Andrews, Cannon

Ares I-X Launch. Source: NASA/Scott Andrews, Cannon

No bucks – no buck Rogers – Our sources tell us NASA is no longer headed back to the moon – or anywhere else for that matter.
After spending upwards of 9 billion dollars to design the Ares 1 rocket – the Orion space capsule – the altair lunar lander -all collectively known as the Constellation Project –  NASA is being told by the Obama white house to scrap the whole program. The Vision for Space Exploration rolled out by George Bush 6 years ago this month – was never funded properly – and never gelled with the public.

NASA will get a little more money in its budget – which is more than most federal agencies can say – for Earth Science the International space station and for Commercial Orbital Transportation Services – or COTS – which envisions privately operated rocket rides to the space station. But nowhere near the dollars needed to chart a course for manned exploration beyond low earth orbit.
Grim news for those of us who care about human exploration of space – even worse if your livliehood depends on it. For more, I talked to John Karas – VP and General Manager of Human Space flight for Lockheed Martin – prime contractor for the Orion capsule:

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The Big 'Y'

January 28, 2010

Challenger Y

I was fast asleep when the Challenger exploded. It was almost high noon – but I had turned in only about three hours before.

I had spent the night in a citrus grove in Polk County, Florida. I was a general assignment reporter for a TV station in Tampa, and we were up all night providing viewers constant updates on the record freeze. The fate of the citrus crop is very big news in that part of the world.

We had huddled near smudge pots and (more modern) kerosene heaters that dotted the grove in neat rows beside the trees. But they did little to ease our chill, and I suspect, they were equally futile in protecting the valuable fruit. As I think back on it, seeing central Florida that clear, cold night from low earth orbit would have been an eerie, spectacular site.

When the call came from the assignment desk, I was in a deep sleep, so it took me some time to comprehend what I had just been told: “You are not going to believe this, but the shuttle has blown up.”

I turned on the TV and dressed quickly. My assignment: to gather local reaction to the tragedy. When I walked outside, I looked up at an implausibly blue sky – the kind of sky you only get when high pressure and low temperatures intersect.

Then I saw it. At first, I thought it was a cloud. But it was such an odd shape. Kind of like a big “Y”. It was, in fact, the awful scar that loomed off the coast of Cape Canaveral – more than 150 miles away. It seemed to be asking us all a question that to this day offers no easy answers: “Why?”naive-shuttle-concept

As you know, the truth is painful and sad. NASA managers were determined to prove their shuttle fleet was truly “operational” – even commercially viable. If their dreams had become reality, 1986 would have been the busiest year ever in the history of the Space Transportation System.

Fifteen flights were scheduled over 11 months. One was supposed to be the first mission to launch from the new shuttle facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Nine communications satellites, three classified payloads for the Pentagon and two major unmanned probes were to be carried into space in the payload bay of an orbiter that year.

NASA managers were trying to live up to years and years of their own unrealistic expectations, fanciful claims, pure science-fiction, and outright lies.

So when they discounted and discarded the firm “no-go” admonitions of engineers at the Thiokol plant in Utah where the solid rocket boosters are made, mission mangers team were, in fact, lying to themselves.

They, too, were asleep on that bitter morning when the world witnessed a nightmare.

All of this was tumbling through my head as I traveled up the road to Chattanooga to meet June Scobee Rodgers nine years ago. I wondered if, after all these years, she was bitter, or angry, or sad.

The answer is “none of the above.”

With the “Y” still hanging in the sky, she was telling then Vice President George Bush and then Senator John Glenn that her husband, Challenger Commander Dick Scobee, would not have wanted the country to take the fork in the road that would bring manned space exploration to an end.

But it went beyond lip service. “I couldn’t NOT help to continue that mission – I couldn’t NOT do my part,” June told me.

Sometime later, as she and the other surviving family members met in her living room, it became clear they HAD to do SOMETHING.

“Each of us wanted to do our part to see that space exploration continued – that shuttle flights went on and their mission in particular lived,” says June.

And so the Challenger Learning Centers were born. Middle school students come to these places to role-play as astronauts and flight controllers – learning about math, science and teamwork in a way that doesn’t seem like learning. Visit one sometime – and you will marvel at the intensity, the concentration and the utter joy these children display as they accomplish their mission.

There are now about 50 of these magical places – and millions of kids have tasted the excitement of saving the space station.

Clearly, this has helped June Scobee Rodgers cope with her loss. Happily remarried (to former Army General Don Rodgers) she has journeyed down a tough road to some happiness and peace.

But, as she confided, “there is always that morning when you wake up – on the 28th – where you think about that tremendous loss. I am so blessed, though, because I have had a beautiful life since then… and I have been given a chance to love again.

“Those are hard days and my children and I always talk to each other – and I often talk to the other families. But then we go on and we celebrate how far we have come and we often have a great celebration – a ribbon cutting (at a) new learning center that is opening – and we see that they lived in truth and they have given us so much.”

Today, I am lucky to be a member of the Board of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. It is an organization that does much to engage and inspire kids – and keep the dreams and hopes of that lost crew alive.

The organization does great things – but it needs our help. I encourage you to support it.

Obama Ponders the Future of Human Space Flight

January 24, 2010

384659main_Report_WidgetMy name is Miles O’Brien and and I drive a truck. Now can I go to the Senate – and insist our space program gets a little more scratch – so we can once again scratch the surface of another world – with human boots? Apparently not – and for those of you who space lovers who like to read tea leaves – the picture is not pretty this week at all…

The first omen came from the President’s political guru David Axelrod – who told reporters when it comes to space “The president is going to speak to that through his budget”  – meaning no uplifting Obama oratory that aims us for the stars.

Not good according to Democratic senator – and onetime shuttle payload specialist – Bill Nelson- He says he’s told the White House  “that that’s a mistake…I hope they are reconsidering that the President comes out and makes his own statement about what he plans for the future of NASA…”

All this talk is putting the DC rumor mill into warp drive – Space News reports “Obama’s 2011 budget request is no longer expected to include the $1 billion boost that has undergirded NASA’s planning.” Remember what the Augustine commission told us over the summer – you can’t get beyond low earth orbit on a shoestring – the committee said NASA should get $3 billion more a year. Houston, we could really have a problem…

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Musk Fires Back

January 24, 2010
DragonLab In Orbit.  Courtesy:  SpaceX

DragonLab In Orbit. Courtesy: SpaceX

Even though the Augustine Commission did not pick a vehicle or a destination  when it issued its report on the future of human Spaceflight to Obama –  it was clear from reading the tea leaves in their report that the Augies liked the idea of entrepreneurs building rockets for trips to low earth orbit.

But another group of gray beards that noses around NASA – the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel – this week lowered the boom on this notion – ASAP said anything other than the plan of record – specifically the the Ares 1 rocket – would be no faster, no cheaper – and less safe than, say the Falcon 9 rocket, being built by SpaceX. I caught up with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk this week via Skype – he was fuming over that report.

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