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Oh, Shenandoah… May 18, 2012

Posted by skywalking1 in History, Space.
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Shenandoah River valley in Virginia
from STS-59 Endeavour
NASA STS059-225-072

Endeavour’s STS-59 crew took this look, on April 18, 1994, at the north and south Forks of the Shenandoah River. North is to the left. Seen in sunglint, the South Fork (top) and the North Fork (bottom) of the Shenandoah meet at upper left; Front Royal, Virginia is just above the combined rivers at the junction. Massanutten Mountain, covered by reddish-brown fallen leaves of the George Washington National Forest, separates the river forks in springtime view. Skyline Drive and the Appalachian Trail run along the Blue Ridge from upper left to mid-scene right, NE to SW. Passage Creek flows toward upper left in the interior, Fort Valley of Massanutten, finally reaching the Shenandoah’s north fork.I-66 enters this view from the top left center, from Washington.

At center left are the scars of two limestone quarries, which have now grown larger and threaten the Cedar Creek Civil War battlefield just left of the junction between I-66 and I-81. The Alleghenies form the mountain barrier to the west (bottom). Signal Knob is the promontory at the left (north) end of Massanutten; it was a critical Confederate observation point prior to the Cedar Creek battle in October 1864. Across this scene, Stonewall Jackson played out his masterful Valley Campaign in spring 1862. Employing audacity and rapid, unpredictable movements on interior lines, Jackson’s 17,000 men marched 646 miles (1,040 km) in 48 days and won several minor battles as they successfully engaged three Union armies (52,000 men), preventing them from reinforcing the Union offensive against Richmond.

Whenever one looks out the cabin window, the sweep of history and Earth’s natural beauty can nearly overwhelm an astronaut. But our work on Space Radar Lab 1 pulled us reluctantly away. Hope this view will inspire you to make time for a hike on the AT or up Massanutten.
(NASA STS59-225-072).

SpaceX, NASA Ready for Vital Test May 18, 2012

Posted by skywalking1 in Space.

Falcon 9/Dragon (SpaceX)

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).

 Technical Challenges

 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, 2012

Posted by skywalking1 in Space.
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Glaciers near Mt. St. Elias, Alaska

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, 2012

Posted by skywalking1 in History, Space.
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STS-59 Panorama of southwestern U.S.,
Baja, and Pacific Coast

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.