SpaceX, NASA Ready for Vital Test May 18, 2012Posted by skywalking1 in Space.
Tomorrow morning at 4:55 am EDT (May 19), SpaceX will attempt to launch its Falcon 9 booster, carrying the Dragon cargo capsule, to the ISS. SpaceX built the Falcon 9 and Dragon as part of NASA’s commercial orbital transportation services (COTS) program, combining private and NASA/taxpayer funds to supply the Station after shuttle retirement.
SpaceX has received about $400 million for the test launches, and has a contract worth $1.6 billion for 12 cargo shipments to the ISS. Founded in 2002, Elon Musk’s company has flown its Falcon 9 to orbit twice, and its Dragon capsule once. On that Dec. 2010 orbital mission, Dragon became the first private spacecraft in history launched to and recovered from orbit.
This mission will combine two previously planned missions, a Dragon orbital test with an approach to ISS, and a second mission to berth with ISS and deliver a demonstration cargo shipment. Tomorrow’s 2-week flight will try to test Dragon in orbit and also berth with ISS. On this flight, Dragon will for the first time:
– Deploy solar panels for power (instead of using batteries)
– Employ rocket thrusters for maneuvering, and guidance software to fly formation with ISS
– Be grappled by the ISS crew and berthed to the Earth-facing (nadir) hatch in the Harmony module (Node 2) at the forward end of the ISS.
If all goes well, on Tuesday, May 22 (Flight Day 4), the SpaceX team will attempt its close approach to the Station, followed by grapple operations and berthing. Dragon will stay at the ISS for about nine days, deliver its cargo, be loaded with trash and returning science hardware, and then be unberthed for departure. Following a retro-rocket burn, Dragon will re-enter the atmosphere, deploy parachutes, and splash down off the California coast for recovery.
Importance for NASA
SpaceX’s launch is the first cargo delivery to the ISS under NASA’s commercial services contract. NASA needs SpaceX and its other commercial partner, Orbital Sciences (whose first test launch may come in August) to succeed. NASA will rely on these companies in order to deliver cargo once launched by the space shuttle. Cargo launches by Russia, Europe, and Japan cannot make up the demand if these private companies do not succeed.
So overall commercial launch success is vital to NASA’s attempt to lower costs, escape the Russian cargo monopoly, and fill ISS cargo demands after shuttle retirement (some 40 metric tons through 2015).
SpaceX is nearly 3 years behind schedule on delivery of cargo to ISS (as is Orbital), as the companies have wrestled with everything from new rocket designs to delays in launch pad construction. This is a tough mission: Dragon has not flown as a maneuvering spacecraft, where it will exercise its navigation software, proximity operations sensors, thrusters, and solar power systems, all needed to reach the ISS. Most critically, the guidance and navigation software must perform flawlessly to enable formation flying within 30 feet of ISS; software checkout has caused months of delays, and in no case must Dragon endanger crew safety or the safety of ISS.
If it can approach safely, my colleagues Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers will reach out with the ISS robot arm and grab Dragon. Berthing via the robot arm will follow, followed by leak checks, hatch opening, and cargo transfer.
Most experts think Falcon 9 will launch successfully and put Dragon in orbit, but that Dragon may not achieve berthing with ISS. I rate the odds about 50/50 on an actual berthing with the Station.
Implications of failure
Success on the Dragon mission will make NASA’s commercial cargo strategy look like a good choice, with progress being made toward buying cargo services routinely. Success will also burnish the follow-on plan to send astronauts to ISS on commercial ships, around 2017. If Dragon launches on Falcon 9, but does not make it to ISS, SpaceX will claim that they at least accomplished the original first test flight objectives. They can then fly a second mission (as originally planned) to achieve rendezvous and berthing, after fixing any shortcomings.
Of course, it’s the nature of the space business that a failure always helps pave the road to eventual success. NASA and SpaceX can claim that “we learned from the test” – and they will go ahead with the next test launch as soon as possible. But a failure will anger a Congress very skeptical of the commercial crew launch approach, even as it recognizes the need for commercial cargo services.
If SpaceX suffers a spectacular failure, (and I’m rooting for success), you’ll see calls for NASA to reshape its plans for commercial astronaut launches. Congress the past couple of years has appropriated only half the funds requested by White House for commercial astronaut launches. A Dragon failure may cause legislators to reduce NASA’s private astronaut launch funding even further. Without those funds, NASA’s 2017 date for commercial astronaut launches will slip further. Congress instead may force NASA to choose a proven satellite booster (Delta IV or Atlas V) and one commercial space capsule to restore astronaut access to Earth orbit as soon as possible.
Already, we are waiting far too long to restore our ability to get our people to the ISS. It will take much more than Dragon success to correct the fix we are in in terms of providing vital space access. We’ve lost three years as NASA’s commercial program has lagged. It will cost more, but I think NASA itself should quickly build a rocket/capsule system to restore our access to ISS. We are risking our $100 billion investment in the Space Station as we go year after year without a domestic rocket to get our crews up there, all the while paying the Russians $55M+ per seat (going to $63 million soon). When the commercial firms are ready, they should replace the NASA interim system. This dual-track approach costs more, but recognizes the risk to our Space Station operations posed by exclusive Russian access. Prudent leaders will increase the NASA budget to quickly restore our own launch capability. This might cost us 0.6% of the federal budget, rather than 0.5%. We can afford that investment. I don’t think we can afford the risk of not doing so.
I wish NASA success on the cargo launch, because my colleagues and friends working on the ISS need the supplies – and so we can stop paying the Russians, too. My estimate is that Dragon will not make it all the way to ISS on this first attempt. I hope SpaceX scores a big success, but what they are trying is truly “rocket science.”
One measure of how hard this rendezvous and berthing job is comes from shuttle experience. We never failed to dock the shuttle at Mir or ISS, but it took humans at the controls to achieve that record. Mission Control can help, but in the end Dragon’s computers have to come close to human piloting skills, and that’s a lot to ask on a first attempt.
Alaska Coast from Shuttle Endeavour, April 18, 1994 May 17, 2012Posted by skywalking1 in Space.
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Mount St. Elias and glaciers spilling into the sea, Alaska Peninsula
Our mission aboard Endeavour with the Space Radar Lab 1 was nearly over. Yet Earth was ever-fascinating, as in this view from along Alaska’s coast. In this view, (with thanks to NASA’s Earth Observation office for the research), the spring thaw along the coast of the Gulf of Alaska has not touched the St. Elias Mountains, southeast of Yakutat Bay and Malaspina Glacier. A prominent glacier flows from Mt. Fairweather (15,300 feet) at right center, to form Cape Fairweather. Another glacier to the northwest almost reaches the sea; the valley of the Alsek River forms a broad, braided plain at upper left. In this 250mm Hasselblad telephoto shot, the low sun elevation and oblique angle provide a 3-dimensional appearance to the black-and-white landscape.
I later cruised the inside passage of Alaska’s panhandle with my family, and these mountains and glaciers were a marvel. Our crew was blessed with 11 days of views like this, around the globe. I’m still trying to check off a few more with visits on the ground!
The View from Endeavour, April 10, 1994 May 16, 2012Posted by skywalking1 in History, Space.
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From STS-59, Space Radar Lab 1, a panorama from 2 Hasselblad frames, STS-153-044/046. The scene is shot from over Arizona looking west at Baja, Mexico,the Gulf of California, San Diego, the Salton Sea, Los Angeles at upper right, Edwards AFB, and stretching toward the camera, the lower Colorado River. We were about 120 miles up in Endeavour when these images were taken. With views like these, it’s amazing the Endeavour crew (Apt, Chilton, Clifford, Godwin, Gutierrez, and Jones) got any work done inside the flight deck. Panorama by T. Jones.
Argument for Human Spaceflight April 12, 2012Posted by skywalking1 in Space.
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A recent correspondent to Aerospace America magazine (April 2012 issue) argued that human spaceflight was, at core, a joy ride for privileged astronauts, and that robot explorers could do better and more science exploration than any human space mission. The writer further asked that advocates of human space exploration help him make sense of the cost of NASA’s current human spaceflight programs in light of the nation’s deficit troubles. I volunteered to assist, and my reply also appeared in the April 2012 issue:
Plainly, Americans wish to see a continued U.S. presence in space, and politicians, however imperfectly, reflect that priority in the budget because of the real and perceived value of human spaceflight. Our elected representatives attach enough importance to U.S. human spaceflight that they have consistently funded such a program for over fifty years.
NASA’s budget of approximately $8 billion annually for human spaceflight (about 0.2% of the federal budget) is hardly the cause of our deficit woes. Zeroing out human spaceflight will make only an imperceptible dent in the $1.3 trillion deficit the president proposes to run this year.
Those funds protect our current initiatives in space and set the stage for future exploration. We have just completed an International Space Station for a cost approaching $100B. Research aboard should deliver a future return on our investment, but we do need to maintain a crew there to conduct research and get the pay-off. Likewise, investing in our current commercial crew transport program will restore U.S. domestic access to the ISS, and lower the long-term cost of reaching the Station.
As NASA develops the means to reach beyond low Earth orbit, we solve engineering and scientific problems that serve to maintain a vigorous and healthy industrial base. This delivers to the nation a managerial and technical competitive edge that transfers directly to national defense and related technology leadership. There is no better way to stimulate our high-tech sector — other than with a war — than with a challenging program of human spaceflight.
Certainly, human spaceflight attracts human talent to our aerospace sector in a way that defense work or robotic exploration does not. Our high-tech industrial base plainly benefited from the human team forged in the Apollo years, followed by the shuttle and Space Station. Challenging our best students with tough, yet exciting problems at the frontiers of engineering and science plainly attracts talent in a way that developing better windmills or bullet trains does not. I was personally inspired in the 1960s to study science and math not so I could grow up to build better transistor radios than the Japanese, but so I might have the chance to follow in the footsteps of the Apollo astronauts. Our nation’s determination to lead in space attracted tens of thousands like me to a technical education, and we have gone on to give our country another generation of leadership in civil aircraft manufacturing and defense technology.
The nation also benefits, as we have since Apollo, from a global perception that we are leaders in the most challenging, visible, and peaceful application of high-tech: space exploration achievement. Putting human explorers on the space frontier is the most visible expression of that leadership.
Why not just use robots to maintain this technical edge? First, other nations like China and Russia understand the prestige that flows from putting their explorers into space. Second, humans play a decisive role in solving the problems of space science and ensuring mission success. As I wrote in my March 2012 “View from Here” column, planetary scientist Steve Squyres, who supervised the missions of Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity and is now chairman of the NASA Advisory Council, strongly backs human exploration. In 2009 he told a Space.com interviewer:
You know, I’m a robot guy, that’s what I have spent most of my career doing, but I’m actually a very strong supporter of human spaceflight. I believe that the most successful exploration is going to be carried out by humans, not by robots.
What Spirit and Opportunity have done in five and a half [now eight] years on Mars, you and I could have done in a good week. Humans have a way to deal with surprises, to improvise, to change their plans on the spot. All you’ve got to do is look at the latest Hubble mission to see that.
And one of the most important points I think: humans have a key ability to inspire, that robots do not.
This exploration partnership between people and machines is the only way we will be able to tap the energy and raw materials available at the Moon and on nearby asteroids, resources that are the key to building a thriving industrial economy in space.
We can ensure these benefits continue to flow to our nation with a prudent investment in the future of human exploration. The Augustine Committee in 2009 estimated we will need about another $3B annually to return Americans to deep space – perhaps $10B instead of the $8B we now budget. The payoff from that investment compares favorably to the $3B spent on the worthless 2009 “Cash for Clunkers” program, or the $10B our citizens wagered on last month’s Super Bowl. The president’s 2009 stimulus bill cost $787B and delivered little but added debt to our economy; it would have funded NASA’s current human spaceflight budget for 98 years.
America has the resources, even as we borrow $1.3 trillion per year, to invest a small fraction of its wealth on insuring its competitive technological and educational edge. Our elected representatives and our policy makers must choose national priorities, cut where necessary, and fund those areas that truly deliver benefits now and into the future. Human space exploration is one of those priorities where a modest investment will yield new discoveries, new wealth, and a secure future for our citizens.
Thomas D. Jones, PhD
Planetary Scientist, veteran NASA astronaut
Passing of a Hell Hawk April 12, 2012Posted by skywalking1 in History.
On April 1, 2012, George J. Wagasky, Jr. — “Ed” — passed away in Las Vegas, NV. Ed Wagasky was a fighter pilot during WWII, one of the men Bob Dorr and I chronicled in our book, “Hell Hawks!” He served in 1944 with the 386th Fighter Squadron of the 365th Fighter Group, the “Hell Hawks.” As a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot, Ed flew combat on D-Day, through the breakout from the beachheads, the rapid advance across France, and into the Battle of the Bulge. Later he served as a photo-recce pilot and forward air controller. I compiled the following record on Ed through an interview conducted earlier this year. We will miss him…and his many contributions to our freedom. It’s up to us today to preserve the freedom that he handed on to us.
George J. Wagasky, Jr. was born June 2, 1922, in Duquesne, Penn. After initial flying training in the southeast U.S., he achieved his dream of becoming a fighter pilot and was assigned to P-47 Thunderbolts. On arrival in Europe, he was sent as a replacement pilot to the 365th FG, the Hell Hawks, in March 1944.
On D-Day, his unit, the 386th Fighter Squadron, was assigned to cut road and transportation links behind the German beach defenses in Normandy. Assigned to fly on Lt. Robert L. Shipe’s wing, he carried three 500-lb. bombs slung under his P-47, with one on the centerline in place of the drop tank. Wagasky was chagrined when, upon takeoff, the left bomb fell off on the runway at Beaulieu.
Over Normandy, he followed his leader, Lt. Shipe, on the target, an embankment at St. Sauveur de Pierre Pont. Faulty fuses on the bombs caused fatal damage to his leader’s Thunderbolt; Shipe went down in flames from his low-level run and was killed. Determined to hit the target, Wagasky dove in turn and released only his right bomb. The same fuse problem caused the 500-pounder to detonate on impact, and shrapnel from the blast shredded the right wing and fuselage of Wagasky’s P-47.
Pulling out, he could hear the slipstream whistling through the many holes perforating the Jug’s skin just behind his seat. Still, the engine ran on, and Wagasky set about nursing the plane home back across the Channel. First order of business was to climb above 1,000 feet, because aircraft below that height were considered intruders by the naval armada below.
Wagasky managed to stay above that threshold until he arrived over Beaulieu, where he shook the damaged landing gear down by rocking the wings and porpoising the airplane. Anticipating a blown tire on the right side, he made a straight-in approach with the left wing low. Upon touchdown, the damaged gear folded up and slammed the right wingtip onto the runway. Wagasky’s -47 spun to the right and almost stood on its nose before falling back on its left main and tail wheel. Despite the exciting landing, the ruggedness of the P-47’s construction protected the pilot from any injury.
With a new plane assigned, “Ed” was soon back in the air over Normandy.
On a later mission, he tangled with a long-nosed Fw 190D in a dogfight. The Focke Wulfs bounced his flight of P-47s; someone yelled “Break!” over the radio, and Wagasky pulled and rolled right. He “had a hell of a time” getting way from the enemy in his heavy Jug, nearly “nailed to a cloud” by Herman the German. His Thunderbolt shuddered as the Luftwaffe pilot put three rounds into him as he dove for the shelter of the clouds. One strike hit the tail, a second slug hit just behind the cockpit, and the third slammed into the engine cowling. After landing, Wagasky’s crew chief found an unexploded 20mm round inside the lower cowling, where it had come to rest after ricocheting from a pair of engine mount struts. He kept the “dud” slug as a souvenir, wondering since if some prisoner on a German ammo assembly line purposely sabotaged the round, later saving his life.
In the fall of 1944, Ed was assigned as a forward air controller with the 3rd and 4th Armored Divisions, flying a Piper L-4 Grasshopper observation plane. He was flying in this role at the start of the Germans’ Ardennes offensive on December 16, 1944. Shortly after the Bulge fighting, Wagasky was assigned as a “Sweepstakes” forward controller, involved in vectoring Hell Hawk and other P-47 strikes to their targets.
He later went on to fly F-6 (P-51) photoreconnaissance ships with the 109th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron. At war’s end, he supervised the ferrying of an F-6 squadron to a field near Kassel, Germany. With the Air National Guard, Wagasky served in Korea as a forward air controller. He retired with the rank of Major, U.S. Air Force.
Clear skies and smooth air to you, George. God bless your family with great memories and His comforting grace.
– Based on an interview on Jan. 3, 2012, with Tom Jones. (www.AstronautTomJones.com)
Education Advice for Aspiring Astronauts March 26, 2012Posted by skywalking1 in Space.
I’ve had some questions from school visits and public lectures recently about the best educational strategy to follow for aspiring astronauts. Here’s my brief advice:
- As you consider college and your future career, remember that NASA is looking for aspirants who have a science or engineering degree. You must earn a 4-year undergraduate degree in science or engineering, and then obtain at least three years of work experience. See http://astronauts.nasa.gov/.
- There is no “best” subject or career discipline to study. Choose anything from Astronomy to Zoology — as long as you love the subject! NASA has hired astronauts from all science disciplines and engineering backgrounds, and my classmates included physicists, materials scientists, flight test engineers, aerospace engineers, planetary scientists, and so on. My colleagues were veterinarians, medical doctors, military test pilots, and laser physicists. The important thing is to love your discipline, so you will excel, so you will be an expert, so NASA will be eager to have your expertise!
- Remember that the commercial spaceflight firms may soon hire astronauts to pilot their spaceplanes or capsules, to be adventure tour guides, in-flight cabin crewmembers, and eventually, industrial facility or space hotel operators. Most of the same educational requirements apply.
- Because NASA received over 6300 applications this last winter for its 2013 class (probably 10 or fewer candidates will be chosen), to be competitive, an applicant will usually need a Master’s degree or even a PhD or M.D. That extra education signals the ability to conduct independent research or to master the latest techniques in the field (aerospace engineering, for example). My advice is to apply when you are eligible, but keep applying as you work toward that advanced degree–which also counts for work experience.
- If you don’t make it at first to the astronaut ranks, your choice of career will be even more important, because your profession will have to engage and support you for a lifetime. Choose something you love to do — and make sure someone will pay you for doing it!
More to come in a later post about how the actual selection process goes at NASA.
(Astronaut selection and training is the topic of one of the earliest speeches I gave as an astronaut…would love to tell your group about the topic.)
John Glenn’s Launch Vaulted America Back Into the Space Race February 20, 2012Posted by skywalking1 in History, Space.
Today’s 50th anniversary of the launch of John Glenn aboard Friendship 7 takes me back to my 2nd grade classroom in Baltimore, MD. All classroom activity ceased as our teacher plugged in a black and white TV set at the front of the class (brought in by a parent), so we 7-year-olds could watch Glenn’s mission unfold. We were glued to the set for all five hours of the flight. And attending Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Elementary School, we were sure that our prayers helped bring him home safely.
Here are some photos I took on Feb. 3, 2012, at Glenn’s Launch Pad 14 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Out at Glenn’s (and Carpenter’s, Schirra’s, and Cooper’s) pad, most of the rusting metal and wiring has been cut away. A few years ago, the rusting flame bucket was still bolted to the concrete structure. Now only the concrete remains. Our human spaceflight program is on a similar trajectory: unless budgets are increased to enable NASA to aggressively restore a domestic launch capacity (most likely via a hybrid government-commercial system, just like Glenn’s Mercury Atlas), all that we’ll find at Cape Canaveral are the rusting and crumbling concrete monuments to what was once the world’s leading space program.
Searching for NASA’s Future February 7, 2012Posted by skywalking1 in History, Space.
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I just finished a week of speaking at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex, sharing with audiences my orbital experiences and hopes for a new generation of discoveries and human advances in space. As always, visitors from all over the world were fascinated to see and touch real artifacts from our half-century of space achievements, to visit the monumental facilities from which the first Moon explorers left Earth, and to imagine where we might go next in space. I share that same eagerness to explore the past, and to take part in the exciting future of space exploration.
At the Kennedy Space Center, we have no lack of evidence of our past space successes: a Saturn V moon rocket, the mammoth Vehicle Assembly Building, the twin Apollo and shuttle launch pads, and a rocket park “forest” exhibiting the pioneering vehicles of the early space age. The Visitor Complex’s museums, IMAX theaters, Shuttle Launch Experience, and interactive shows and exhibits take thousands daily on a fact-filled voyage to the space frontier.
Yet a visitor to the Kennedy Space Center today has a harder time discerning our nation’s future in space. We can see a retired space shuttle orbiter up close, but on this visit my ship Atlantis looked forlorn, missing engines and thruster pods. (That will change when she’s put on display at the Visitor Complex in 2013.) Its once-busy launch pads are now silent; Pad B, where I left for orbit on shuttle Columbia, has been stripped down to its massive foundation. The VAB still looms like a cathedral to exploration, but its empty assembly bays echo with inactivity. A few miles away on Cape Canaveral, the steel and concrete pads of the pioneering Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs are slowly losing their battle with the corrosive seaside atmosphere. More lamentable than rust and crumbling concrete are the missing workers: those who sent the shuttle aloft for three decades no longer work here – our space future did not arrive quickly enough.
Behind the scenes at the Space Center, though, there are stirrings. One shuttle hangar already houses test versions of a new astronaut transport craft. Private booster companies are building rockets to carry cargo—and eventually astronauts—to the International Space Station. They will fly this year. An old Apollo test and checkout building has been renovated into the factory for the deep-space Orion capsule. And the remaining cadre of engineers and scientists are still determined to pioneer space. Best of all, the nation’s future explorers and their families — by the thousands – still come here to learn and to dream. It all started here, and they want to experience the Cape’s history and excitement. Most of all, they want to know where and when we will launch, and explore, again.
Atlantis Awaits Display at KSC February 7, 2012Posted by skywalking1 in History, Space.
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Orbiter Atlantis in High Bay 4 of the Vehicle Assembly Building. Feb. 2011. (Stephen Smith)
Astronauts Wanted: Travel Required October 25, 2011Posted by skywalking1 in Space.
NASA has announced the start of the latest astronaut selection process, culminating next year in NASA’s choice of a new class of astronauts. NASA’s Kennedy Center Director, Bob Cabana, is a former astronaut and shuttle commander.
He relays a personal note on candidate qualifications:
From: Bob Cabana
Subject: Astronaut Selection Process
Even as we prepare KSC to support human exploration beyond our home planet, NASA is still in the human space flight business, with a permanent crew on the International Space Station (ISS) until at least 2020. That means NASA is going to continue to require astronauts to support ISS operations and provide crew support for development of the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and the Space Launch System (SLS) Programs. As you may have heard, NASA will begin accepting applications in early November for another astronaut class to provide that support. We’ve had a number of folks from KSC selected in the past, and I would encourage you to apply if you’re at all interested.
Here are some of the basic qualifications:
- U.S. citizenship
- Education: Undergraduate degree in engineering, physical or biological science, or math (may be computer science)
- Non-Pilot – 3 years of professional experience (this means after your qualifying degree, and it must be technical—graduate degrees may be substituted for experience)
- Pilot – 1,000 hours of flying time in jet aircraft
- Ability to pass NASA flight physical; some specifics:
- Distant and near visual acuity must be correctable to 20/20
- Blood pressure not to exceed 140/90 in a sitting position
- Standing height between 62 and 75 inches (have to meet anthropometric requirements of a Soyuz capsule)
Competition is within the following discipline groups:
- Physical Sciences
- Biological Sciences
- Flight Test Engineering
- No further breakdown
Here’s a link to more information on the selection process: http://astronauts.nasa.gov/content/timeline.htm
I can tell you this is the best job I have ever had. And the chance to work with the other astronauts is reward enough, even if one were never to fly in space!