Thursday, August 16, 2018

EM-1 Update: NASA's Next Orion Capsule Has Moved One Step Closer to Flight...

At NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, engineers install the Orion EM-1 spacecraft's heat shield...on July 25, 2018.
NASA / Kim Shiflett

On July 25, workers at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida made tremendous progress on the march towards launching Exploration Mission (EM)-1 when Orion's heat shield was attached to the capsule. Re-designed from the heat shield that flew on Orion during Exploration Flight Test-1 almost four years ago, the silver, saucer-shaped component was connected to the Orion crew module using 68 bolts. The work was done inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at the KSC Industrial Area.

At NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, engineers install the Orion EM-1 spacecraft's heat shield...on July 25, 2018.
NASA / Kim Shiflett

Much progress is being made on Orion and the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket that will loft it towards the Moon on EM-1 in 2020...as well as the ground systems and launch infrastructure at KSC itself. The next two years will be a busy period for human spaceflight as astronauts resume lifting off from American soil aboard Boeing and SpaceX vehicles sometime in 2019, and the SLS will embark on its heralded mission from Cape Canaveral as well about a year later. If you're a space enthusiast like I am (you should be... Otherwise, you wouldn't be reading this), you'd know that fun times lie ahead!

At NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, engineers install the Orion EM-1 spacecraft's heat shield...on July 25, 2018.
NASA / Kim Shiflett

Mars (upper-left) shines bright high above the Vehicle Assembly Building and the Space Launch System's (SLS) Mobile Launcher at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida...on July 30, 2018.
NASA / Kim Shiflett

The Crew Access Arm on the SLS Mobile Launcher is tested at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida...on August 2, 2018.
NASA / Kim Shiflett

The Crew Access Arm on the SLS Mobile Launcher is tested at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida...on August 2, 2018.
NASA / Kim Shiflett

Friday, August 3, 2018

NASA Has Selected 9 Astronauts to Fly on the First Flights of Boeing's Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon Capsules!

A group photo of the 9 astronauts who will fly aboard the first flights of SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's Starliner capsules to the International Space Station as early as next year.
NASA

NASA Assigns Crews to First Test Flights, Missions on Commercial Spacecraft (Press Release)

NASA introduced to the world on Friday the first U.S. astronauts who will fly on American-made, commercial spacecraft to and from the International Space Station – an endeavor that will return astronaut launches to U.S. soil for the first time since the space shuttle’s retirement in 2011.

“Today, our country’s dreams of greater achievements in space are within our grasp,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “This accomplished group of American astronauts, flying on new spacecraft developed by our commercial partners Boeing and SpaceX, will launch a new era of human spaceflight. Today’s announcement advances our great American vision and strengthens the nation’s leadership in space.”

The agency assigned nine astronauts to crew the first test flight and mission of both Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. NASA has worked closely with the companies throughout design, development and testing to ensure the systems meet NASA’s safety and performance requirements.

“The men and women we assign to these first flights are at the forefront of this exciting new time for human spaceflight,” said Mark Geyer, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “It will be thrilling to see our astronauts lift off from American soil, and we can’t wait to see them aboard the International Space Station.”

Starliner Test Flight Astronauts

Eric Boe was born in Miami and grew up in Atlanta. He came to NASA from the Air Force, where he was a fighter pilot and test pilot and rose to the rank of colonel. He was selected as an astronaut in 2000 and piloted space shuttle Endeavour for the STS-126 mission and Discovery on its final flight, STS-133.

Christopher Ferguson is a native of Philadelphia. He is a retired Navy captain, who piloted space shuttle Atlantis for STS-115, and commanded shuttle Endeavour on STS-126 and Atlantis for the final flight of the Space Shuttle Program, STS-135. He retired from NASA in 2011 and has been an integral part of Boeing's CST-100 Starliner program.

Nicole Aunapu Mann is a California native and a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps. She is an F/A-18 test pilot with more than 2,500 flight hours in more than 25 aircraft. Mann was selected as an astronaut in 2013. This will be her first trip to space.

Boeing’s Starliner will launch aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Crew Dragon Test Flight Astronauts

Robert Behnken is from St. Ann, Missouri. He has a doctorate in engineering and is a flight test engineer and colonel in the Air Force. He joined the astronaut corps in 2000 and flew aboard space shuttle Endeavour twice, for the STS-123 and STS-130 missions, during which he performed six spacewalks totaling more than 37 hours.

Douglas Hurley calls Apalachin, New York, his hometown. He was a test pilot and colonel in the Marine Corps before coming to NASA in 2000 to become an astronaut. He piloted space shuttle Endeavor for STS-127 and Atlantis for STS-135, the final space shuttle mission.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

After each company successfully completes its crewed test flight, NASA will begin the final process of certifying that spacecraft and systems for regular crew missions to the space station. The agency has contracted six missions, with as many as four astronauts per mission, for each company.

Starliner First Mission Astronauts

Josh Cassada grew up in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. He is a Navy commander and test pilot with more than 3,500 flight hours in more than 40 aircraft. He was selected as an astronaut in 2013. This will be his first spaceflight.

Sunita Williams was born in Euclid, Ohio, but considers Needham, Massachusetts, her hometown. Williams came to NASA from the Navy, where she was a test pilot and rose to the rank of captain before retiring. Since her selection as an astronaut in 1998, she has spent 322 days aboard the International Space Station for Expeditions 14/15 and Expeditions 32/33, commanded the space station and performed seven spacewalks.

Crew Dragon First Mission Astronauts

Victor Glover is from Pomona, California. He is a Navy commander, aviator and test pilot with almost 3,000 hours flying more than 40 different aircraft. He made 400 carrier landings and flew 24 combat missions. He was selected as part of the 2013 astronaut candidate class, and this will be his first spaceflight.

Michael Hopkins was born in Lebanon, Missouri, and grew up on a farm near Richland, Missouri. He is a colonel in the Air Force, where he was a flight test engineer before being selected as a NASA astronaut in 2009. He has spent 166 days on the International Space Station for Expeditions 37/38, and conducted two spacewalks.

Additional crew members will be assigned by NASA’s international partners at a later date.

NASA’s continuous presence on the space station for almost 18 years has enabled technology demonstrations and research in biology and biotechnology, Earth and space science, human health, physical sciences. This research has led to dramatic improvements in technology, infrastructure and medicine, and thousands of spinoff technologies that have improved quality of life here on Earth.

The new spaceflight capability provided by Boeing and SpaceX will allow NASA to maintain a crew of seven astronauts on the space station, thereby maximizing scientific research that leads to breakthroughs and also aids in understanding and mitigating the challenges of long-duration spaceflight.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is facilitating the development of a U.S. commercial crew space transportation capability with the goal of achieving safe, reliable and cost-effective access to and from the International Space Station and low-Earth orbit. The public-private partnerships fostered by the program will stimulate growth in a robust commercial space industry and spark life-changing innovations for future generations.

Source: NASA.Gov

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Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson gets suited up prior to taking part in an emergency egress system demonstration at the Atlas V launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida...on June 19, 2018.
NASA / Kim Shiflett

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken, Suni Williams and Nicole Mann get suited up prior to taking part in an emergency egress system demonstration at the Atlas V launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida...on June 19, 2018.
NASA / Kim Shiflett

Commercial crew astronauts take part in an emergency egress system demonstration at the Atlas V launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida...on June 19, 2018.
NASA / Kim Shiflett

Commercial crew astronauts take part in an emergency egress system demonstration at the Atlas V launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida...on June 19, 2018.
NASA / Frank Michaux

Astronauts Chris Ferguson and Suni Williams take part in an emergency egress system demonstration at the Atlas V launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida...on June 19, 2018.
NASA / Kim Shiflett

Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Launch Dates for Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon's Flight Tests Have Been Updated...

An artist's concept of Boeing's CST-100 capsule approaching the International Space Station.
Boeing

Flight Tests to Prove Commercial Systems Fit for Human Spaceflight (News Release)

The first test flights for new spacecraft designed by commercial companies in collaboration with NASA to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station from the United States are known as Demo-1 for SpaceX and Orbital Flight Test for Boeing.

NASA’s goal in collaborating with Boeing and SpaceX is to achieve safe, reliable and cost-effective transportation to and from station on the companies’ spacecraft. Both companies have matured their designs, are making significant progress through their extensive testing campaigns, and are headed toward flight tests to validate their systems.

An uncrewed flight test was not a NASA requirement for certifying these systems for human spaceflight. Boeing and SpaceX volunteered to perform these tests to demonstrate their systems are safe for crew.

“This was above and beyond the NASA requirement in the contract,” said Kathy Lueders, Commercial Crew Program manager at NASA Kennedy. “Both partners said they really wanted to have an uncrewed flight test to make sure the integrated rockets, spacecraft and re-entry systems are all working as designed to be able to ensure the integrated system is functioning.”

Each test flight will provide data on the performance of the rockets, spacecraft, ground systems, and operations to ensure the systems are safe to fly astronauts. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft will be launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

“Tomorrow we will meet the astronauts who will be the first to fly the CST-100 Starliner. Our commitment has always been to provide NASA and those crews the highest level of mission assurance,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for Boeing’s Commercial Crew effort. “We believe the earliest time we can confidently do that will be in mid-2019 after flying an uncrewed flight test late this year or early next year. I’m incredibly proud of the progress our team has made, and it has been inspiring to watch them work through challenges quickly, while developing a brand new human-rated spacecraft that Boeing, NASA and the nation can be proud of.”

SpaceX designed its Crew Dragon spacecraft to launch atop the company’s Falcon 9 rocket from historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“Safely and reliably flying commercial crew missions for NASA remains the highest priority for SpaceX,” said Benji Reed, Director of Crew Mission Management at SpaceX. “We look forward to launching Crew Dragon—designed to be one of the safest, most-advanced human spaceflight systems ever built—and returning human-spaceflight capabilities to the United States for the first time since the Space Shuttle Program retired in 2011. SpaceX is targeting November 2018 for Crew Dragon’s first demonstration mission and April 2019 for Crew Dragon’s second demonstration mission, which will carry two NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station.”

NASA is making crew assignments now for the Boeing Crew Flight Test and SpaceX Demo-2 to support flight training as we return to launching our astronauts from American soil. As a partner approaches its target readiness date, NASA will work with the company and the Eastern Range to identify launch dates within the busy International Space Station schedule to ensure science investigations, as well as logistics activities and critical operations continue while these new spacecraft are tested.

Many of the team members leading the unique public-private partnership believe the agency is on the cusp of something life changing with its Commercial Crew Program.

“I’m excited to be part of the future of space travel,” said Jon Cowart, acting deputy manager for the Commercial Crew Program’s Mission Management and Integration office at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “When we get to this point the companies will have tested every piece of the spacecraft individually, but there is so much more learning that occurs when the spacecraft is actually operated in space. The systems will be operated in the actual environment to test it and ensure it’s ready for crew.”

The hardware for these uncrewed missions is being prepared for launch. Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is being outfitted at the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility on the Kennedy and the United Launch Alliance Atlas V dual engine Centaur that will launch Starliner will be shipped to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in August to prepare for the upcoming flight. Separately, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft for Demo-1 arrived to the Cape in July for final processing. Falcon 9’s first and second stages for the Demo-1 mission are targeted to ship from SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California to the company’s rocket testing facility in McGregor, Texas for additional testing in August.

Once the uncrewed flight tests are complete and the data reviews have validated the spacecraft systems, NASA astronauts will have their first opportunity to fly in the spacecraft. Crew for Boeing’s Crew Flight Test and SpaceX’s Demo-2 flights will each include at least a flight commander and pilot aboard to test out the systems.

These flight tests will have similar configurations to the uncrewed tests, but the crew will have the ability to interface with spacecraft displays, communicate with mission control, and practice manual controls during flight. Starliner and Crew Dragon will dock and undock autonomously to the space station before returning the crew safely home.

“The crew right now is actually working on integrated crew simulations on the flight systems,” said Lueders. “They are providing input to the partners to help ensure the interior of the cabin is appropriately located and set up so crew can function and conduct key activities. They’re verifying crew layout, doing simulations where they’re actually practicing their maneuvers, and also checking out the software and the display systems, and everything else for the crew to be functioning safely in the spacecraft.”

After successful completion of the flight tests with crew, NASA will review flight data to verify the systems meet the agency’s safety and performance certification requirements and are ready to begin regular servicing missions to the space station.

“I see parallels between commercial crew and the early aviation industry, when government nurtured that commercial innovation,” said Cowart. “In similar fashion, NASA is empowering private industry to gain solid footing in low-Earth orbit, which will allow NASA to explore new frontiers in deep space.”

Source: NASA.Gov

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An artist's concept of a Crew Dragon capsule about to dock with the International Space Station...with a berthed Dragon cargo freighter in the foreground.
SpaceX

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

EM-1 Update: The Space Launch System's Forward Skirt Is Ready To Be Mated To Other Core Stage Hardware...

An avionics box in front of the Space Launch System's forward skirt at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Louisiana.
NASA / Eric Bordelon

First SLS Core Stage Flight Hardware Complete, Ready for Joining (News Release)

The first major piece of core stage hardware for NASA's Space Launch System rocket has been assembled and is ready to be joined with other hardware for Exploration Mission-1, the first integrated flight of SLS and the Orion spacecraft. SLS will enable a new era of exploration beyond low-Earth orbit, launching crew and cargo on deep space exploration missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

The backbone of the world's most powerful rocket, the 212-foot-tall core stage, will contain the SLS rocket's four RS-25 rocket engines, propellant tanks, flight computers and much more. Though the smallest part of the core stage, the forward skirt will serve two critical roles. It will connect the upper part of the rocket to the core stage and house many of the flight computers, or avionics.

"Completion of the core stage forward skirt is a major step in NASA's progress to the launch pad," said Deborah Bagdigian, lead manager for the forward skirt at the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. "We're putting into practice the steps and processes needed to assemble the largest rocket stage ever built. With the forward skirt, we are improving and refining how we'll conduct final assembly of the rest of the rocket."

On July 24, forward skirt assembly was wrapped up with the installation of all its parts. As part of forward skirt testing, the flight computers came to life for the first time as NASA engineers tested critical avionic systems that will control the rocket’s flight. The construction, assembly and avionics testing occurred at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

Located throughout the core stage, the avionics are the rocket's "brains," controlling navigation and communication during launch and flight. It is critical that each of the avionics units is installed correctly, work as expected and communicate with each other and other components, including the Orion spacecraft and ground support systems.

"It was amazing to see the computers come to life for the first time" said Lisa Espy, lead test engineer for SLS core stage avionics. "These are the computers that will control the rocket as it soars off the pad for Exploration Mission-1."

The forward skirt test series was the first of many that will verify the rocket's avionics will work as expected during launch. The tests show the forward skirt was built correctly, and that all components and wiring on the inside have been put together and connected properly and are sending data over the lines as expected.

The avionic computers ran "built-in tests" that Espy compares to the internal diagnostic tests performed by an automobile when first started. All of the health and data status reports came back as expected. The tests were a success and did not return any error codes. Such error codes would be similar to a check engine light on a car.

The successful tests give the team the confidence needed to move forward with avionics installations in the core stage intertank and engine section. With more hardware and more interfaces, the installation in the intertank will be more complex, and the complexity will ramp up even more as the team moves to the engine section, introducing hydraulics and other hardware needed for the rocket's engines.

"Each piece of hardware and each test builds to the next," Espy said. "That's why we're excited about the successful forward skirt tests. They lay a solid foundation as we continue to build more and more complex components and get the rocket ready for its first launch."

The forward skirt is now ready to be joined with the rest of the rocket's core stage. Integration of the massive core stage will take place in two joins, the forward join -- including the forward skirt, liquid oxygen tank and intertank -- and the aft join -- including the liquid hydrogen tank and the engine section.

Engineers will perform standalone tests on each component as they are completed. Once the forward and aft joins are integrated, they will perform a final integrated function test, testing all the core stage's avionics together.

The fully integrated core stage and its four RS-25 engines will then be fired up during a final test before launch. At NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the core stage will be stacked with the upper part of the rocket, including Orion, and joined to the rocket's twin solid rocket boosters, in preparation for EM-1.

Source: NASA.Gov

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The Space Launch System's forward skirt on display at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Louisiana.
NASA / Eric Bordelon

Monday, July 30, 2018

5 Factoids About Orion...

An artist's concept of NASA's Orion spacecraft flying above the Moon.
NASA

Top Five Technologies Needed for a Spacecraft to Survive Deep Space (News Release)

When a spacecraft built for humans ventures into deep space, it requires an array of features to keep it and a crew inside safe. Both distance and duration demand that spacecraft must have systems that can reliably operate far from home, be capable of keeping astronauts alive in case of emergencies and still be light enough that a rocket can launch it.

Missions near the Moon will start when NASA’s Orion spacecraft leaves Earth atop the world’s most powerful rocket, NASA’s Space Launch System. After launch from the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Orion will travel beyond the Moon to a distance more than 1,000 times farther than where the International Space Station flies in low-Earth orbit, and farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever ventured. To accomplish this feat, Orion has built-in technologies that enable the crew and spacecraft to explore far into the solar system.

Systems to Live and Breathe

As humans travel farther from Earth for longer missions, the systems that keep them alive must be highly reliable while taking up minimal mass and volume. Orion will be equipped with advanced environmental control and life support systems designed for the demands of a deep space mission. A high-tech system already being tested aboard the space station will remove carbon dioxide (CO2) and humidity from inside Orion. Removal of CO2 and humidity is important to ensure air remains safe for the crew breathing. And water condensation on the vehicle hardware is controlled to prevent water intrusion into sensitive equipment or corrosion on the primary pressure structure.

The system also saves volume inside the spacecraft. Without such technology, Orion would have to carry many chemical canisters that would otherwise take up the space of 127 basketballs (or 32 cubic feet) inside the spacecraft—about 10 percent of crew livable area. Orion will also have a new compact toilet, smaller than the one on the space station. Long duration missions far from Earth drive engineers to design compact systems not only to maximize available space for crew comfort, but also to accommodate the volume needed to carry consumables like enough food and water for the entirety of a mission lasting days or weeks.

Highly reliable systems are critically important when distant crew will not have the benefit of frequent resupply shipments to bring spare parts from Earth, like those to the space station. Even small systems have to function reliably to support life in space, from a working toilet to an automated fire suppression system or exercise equipment that helps astronauts stay in shape to counteract the zero-gravity environment in space that can cause muscle and bone atrophy. Distance from home also demands that Orion have spacesuits capable of keeping astronaut alive for six days in the event of cabin depressurization to support a long trip home.

Proper Propulsion

The farther into space a vehicle ventures, the more capable its propulsion systems need to be to maintain its course on the journey with precision and ensure its crew can get home.

Orion has a highly capable service module that serves as the powerhouse for the spacecraft, providing propulsion capabilities that enable Orion to go around the Moon and back on its exploration missions. The service module has 33 engines of various sizes. The main engine will provide major in-space maneuvering capabilities throughout the mission, including inserting Orion into lunar orbit and also firing powerfully enough to get out of the Moon’s orbit to return to Earth. The other 32 engines are used to steer and control Orion on orbit.

In part due to its propulsion capabilities, including tanks that can hold nearly 2,000 gallons of propellant and a back up for the main engine in the event of a failure, Orion’s service module is equipped to handle the rigors of travel for missions that are both far and long, and has the ability to bring the crew home in a variety of emergency situations.

The Ability to Hold Off the Heat

Going to the Moon is no easy task, and it’s only half the journey. The farther a spacecraft travels in space, the more heat it will generate as it returns to Earth. Getting back safely requires technologies that can help a spacecraft endure speeds 30 times the speed of sound and heat twice as hot as molten lava or half as hot as the Sun.

When Orion returns from the Moon, it will be traveling nearly 25,000 mph, a speed that could cover the distance from Los Angeles to New York City in six minutes. Its advanced heat shield, made with a material called AVCOAT, is designed to wear away as it heats up. Orion’s heat shield is the largest of its kind ever built and will help the spacecraft withstand temperatures around 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit during reentry though Earth’s atmosphere.

Before reentry, Orion also will endure a 700-degree temperature range from about minus 150 to 550 degrees Fahrenheit. Orion’s highly capable thermal protection system, paired with thermal controls, will protect Orion during periods of direct sunlight and pitch black darkness while its crews will comfortably enjoy a safe and stable interior temperature of about 77 degrees Fahrenheit.

Radiation Protection

As a spacecraft travels on missions beyond the protection of Earth’s magnetic field, it will be exposed to a harsher radiation environment than in low-Earth orbit with greater amounts of radiation from charged particles and solar storms that can cause disruptions to critical computers, avionics and other equipment. Humans exposed to large amounts of radiation can experience both acute and chronic health problems ranging from near-term radiation sickness to the potential of developing cancer in the long-term.

Orion was designed from the start with built in system-level features to ensure reliability of essential elements of the spacecraft during potential radiation events. For example, Orion is equipped with four identical computers that each are self-checking, plus an entirely different backup computer, to ensure Orion can still send commands in the event of a disruption. Engineers have tested parts and systems to a high standard to ensure that all critical systems remain operable even under extreme circumstances.

Orion also has a makeshift storm shelter below the main deck of the crew module. In the event of a solar radiation event, NASA has developed plans for crew on board to create a temporary shelter inside using materials on board. A variety of radiation sensors will also be on the spacecraft to help scientists better understand the radiation environment far away from Earth. One investigation called AstroRad, will fly on Exploration Mission-1 and test an experimental vest that has the potential to help shield vital organs and decrease exposure from solar particle events.

Constant Communication and Navigation

Spacecraft venturing far from home go beyond the Global Positioning System (GPS) in space and above communication satellites in Earth orbit. To talk with mission control in Houston, Orion’s communication and navigation systems will switch from NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS) system used by the International Space Station, and communicate through the Deep Space Network.

Orion is also equipped with backup communication and navigation systems to help the spacecraft stay in contact with the ground and orient itself if it’s primary systems fail. The backup navigation system, a relatively new technology called optical navigation, uses a camera to take pictures of the Earth, Moon and stars and autonomously triangulate Orion’s position from the photos. Its backup emergency communications system doesn’t use the primary system or antennae for high-rate data transfer.

Source: NASA.Gov

Thursday, July 26, 2018

SpaceShipTwo Update: The VSS Unity's Third Rocket-Powered Flight Is Successfully in the Books...

An onboard camera shot of VSS Unity as she soared 170,800 feet above California's Mojave Desert during Unity's third rocket-powered flight on July 26, 2018.
Virgin Galactic

Into the Mesosphere at Mach 2.4 (News Release)

Virgin Galactic test pilots broke Mach 2 this morning, as VSS Unity took her third rocket-powered supersonic outing in less than four months. After a clean release from carrier aircraft VMS Eve at 46,500 ft, pilots Dave Mackay and Mike “Sooch” Masucci lit the spaceship’s rocket motor, before pulling up into a near vertical climb and powering towards the black sky at 2.47 times the speed of sound.

The planned 42 seconds rocket burn took pilots and spaceship through the Stratosphere and, at an apogee of 170,800 ft, into the Mesosphere for the first time. This region, often referred to by scientists as the “Ignorosphere”, is an under-studied atmospheric layer because it is above the range of balloon flight, and in the future is an area we can help the research community explore further.

After a safe landing back at Mojave Air and Space Port, Chief Pilot Dave Mackay summed up the experience: “It was a thrill from start to finish. Unity’s rocket motor performed magnificently again and Sooch pulled off a smooth landing. This was a new altitude record for both of us in the cockpit, not to mention our mannequin in the back, and the views of Earth from the black sky were magnificent.”

Sooch added: “Having been a U-2 pilot and done a lot of high altitude work, or what I thought was high altitude work, the view from 170,000 ft was just totally amazing. The flight was exciting and frankly beautiful. We were able to complete a large number of test points which will give us good insight as we progress to our goal of commercial service.”

Every time VSS Unity is tested on the ground, or in the skies, we gain invaluable experience and fresh data. This continuously improves our modelling and helps us optimise objectives and test points as we progressively expand the flight envelope. Today’s test, among other things, gathered more data on supersonic aerodynamics as well as thermal dynamics.

As it has been on previous flights, Unity’s cabin was equipped to gather data vital to the future safety and experience of our astronaut customers. These cabin analysis systems record a host of parameters that are designed to help us further understand the environment inside the cabin during powered flight – temperatures, pressures, humidity, acoustics, thermal response, vibration, acceleration and even radiation.

The carrier aircraft, VMS Eve, was piloted today by Todd Ericson and Kelly Latimer.

Congratulations to everyone at Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company today for achieving another significant step towards commercial service. With VSS Unity, VMS Eve and the pilots safely back on the ground, we will now analyze the post-flight data as we plan and prepare for our next flight.

Source: Virgin Galactic

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VSS Unity rides under the belly of White Knight II prior to Unity's third powered flight above California's Mojave Desert, on July 26, 2018.
Virgin Galactic

VSS Unity fires her engine to begin a third powered flight above California's Mojave Desert on July 26, 2018.

The VSS Unity is about to touch down at the Mojave Air & Space Port after successfully completing her third powered flight above the California desert...on July 26, 2018.
Virgin Galactic

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

NASA Will Soon Announce the Names of the First Humans to Launch from U.S. Soil Since 2011...

An artist's concept of Boeing's CST-100 capsule approaching the International Space Station.
Boeing

NASA to Name Astronauts Assigned to First Boeing, SpaceX Flights (Press Release)

NASA will announce on Friday, Aug. 3, the astronauts assigned to crew the first flight tests and missions of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon, and begin a new era in American spaceflight. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine will preside over the event, which will begin at 11 a.m. EDT on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

NASA will announce the crew assignments for the crew flight tests and the first post-certification missions for both Boeing and SpaceX. NASA partnered with Boeing and SpaceX to develop the Starliner spacecraft to launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and the Crew Dragon launching atop the Falcon 9 rocket, respectively.

U.S. media are invited to attend the event at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and, afterward, speak with the astronauts about their assignments. Media wishing to attend must contact Johnson's newsroom at 281-483-5111 by 4 p.m. CDT Wednesday, Aug. 1.

Johnson Space Center Director Mark Geyer and Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana will join Bridenstine and representatives from Boeing and SpaceX to introduce the crews.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is working with the American aerospace industry as companies develop and operate a new generation of spacecraft and launch systems designed to carry crews safely to and from low-Earth orbit. The Starliner and Crew Dragon will launch American astronauts on American-made spacecraft from American soil to the International Space Station for the first time since NASA retired its Space Shuttle Program in 2011.

Commercial transportation to and from the space station will enable expanded station use, additional research time and broader opportunities of discovery aboard the orbiting laboratory. The station is critical for NASA to understand and overcome the challenges of long-duration spaceflight, and necessary for a sustainable presence on the Moon and missions deeper into the solar system, including Mars.

Source: NASA.Gov

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An artist's concept of a Crew Dragon capsule about to dock with the International Space Station...with a berthed Dragon cargo freighter in the foreground.
SpaceX

Friday, July 20, 2018

EM-1 Update: More Pushin' and Pullin' for SLS Test Components...

A test version of the Space Launch System's intertank hardware is about to undergo structural testing at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
NASA / Tyler Martin

Space Launch System Intertank Readied for Structural Testing (News Release - July 19)

Engineers installed structural test hardware for NASA's deep space rocket, the Space Launch System, into a test stand at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama where testing recently began. The test version of the SLS intertank is being pushed, pulled and bent with millions of pounds of force to ensure it can withstand the forces of launch and ascent.

The test hardware is structurally identical to the flight version of the intertank that will connect the core stage's two colossal fuel tanks, serve as the upper-connection point for the two solid rocket boosters and house critical avionics and electronics. Delivered to Marshall via NASA's barge Pegasus from NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans this spring, the intertank is the second of four core stage structural test articles scheduled for testing at Marshall.

The test facility for NASA’s new exploration rocket was originally used for Saturn V rocket testing that enabled the Apollo Moon missions. The facility's special cranes and design features make it ideal for exposing large rockets and spacecraft to the extreme forces of spaceflight.

Source: NASA.Gov

Thursday, July 19, 2018

7 Down, 1 More to Go: The Penultimate Drop Test for Orion Above the Yuma Desert...

The Orion test article lies on the desert floor after its three main parachutes successfully deployed above the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona, on July 12, 2018.
NASA

Orion Parachutes Chalk Up Another Test Success in Arizona (News Release - July 18)

The parachute system for Orion, America’s spacecraft that will carry humans to deep space, deployed as planned after being dropped from an altitude of 6.6 miles on July 12, at the U.S. Army Proving Ground in Yuma, Arizona. Data from the successful seventh drop in a series of eight qualification tests will help NASA engineers certify Orion’s parachutes for missions with astronauts.

This was the final test using a special dart-shaped test article. The last test in the series, scheduled for September, will use a capsule-shaped test article representative of the spacecraft NASA will use on Orion’s upcoming missions, including the first crewed mission, Exploration Mission-2.

To demonstrate the system’s robustness, this test evaluated parachute deployment under conditions that exceeded the requirements for a system carrying crew. Engineers dropped the dart-shaped test article from an altitude that allowed it to generate enough speed to simulate almost twice as much force on the main chutes as would be expected under normal conditions. Orion’s full parachute system includes 11 parachutes — three forward-bay cover parachutes, two drogue parachutes, three pilot parachutes, and three main parachutes that will reduce the capsule’s speed after reentry in support of a safe landing in the ocean.

When deployed, each of Orion’s three main parachutes expands to 116 feet in diameter and contains enough fabric to cover 80 yards of a football field, but is carried aboard Orion in containers the size of a large suitcase. For storage, the parachutes are compacted with hydraulic presses at forces of up to 80,000 pounds, baked for two days and vacuumed sealed. Once packed, they have a density of about 40 pounds per cubic foot, which is roughly the same as wood from an oak tree.

Source: NASA.Gov

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Another Successful Flight of New Shepard...

A New Shepard rocket lifts off from Blue Origin's launch site in West Texas on a flight that took it 389,846 feet above the Earth on July 18, 2018.
Blue Origin

Latest Blue Origin Launch Tests Technologies of Interest to Space Exploration (News Release)

On July 18, 2018, at 8:35 am PDT, Blue Origin successfully launched its New Shepard rocket from the company’s West Texas launch site with five NASA-supported technologies onboard. For each of these payloads, this flight was one in a series of suborbital demonstrations to facilitate technology development.

The flight helped researchers collect critical data to help them confirm theories, refine previous results and fine-tune experiments for future testing.

Selected for flight test by Flight Opportunities, many of the payloads on this New Shepard flight aim to provide value to other payloads on future flights. For example, a sensor package developed at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston will help characterize suborbital test flight environments—data critical for implementation of technology and science payloads.

“What we’ve done is put together an instrumentation package that can gather data to characterize the environment on these flight platforms,” said Johnson’s Kathryn Hurlbert, principal investigator (PI) for the SFEM-2, which stands for Suborbital Flight Experiment Monitor-2. “The data we gather will help identify the types of payloads that would be good candidates for testing on a suborbital vehicle.”

SFEM-2 measures critical data, such as acceleration, pressure, temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide levels and acoustic levels. This sensor package first flew with Blue Origin in April 2018. This time, the SFEM-2 team was able to test the technology for a different flight profile.

“We modified the acceleration measurement range, allowing us to capture higher g levels from the flight,” said Hurlbert. “This, combined with the data from the first flight, should provide an extensive set of parameters of the test environment.”

Some of the payloads flying on this Blue Origin flight also aim to provide value to other researchers. For example, the company Solstar sent the world’s first commercial tweet from space on the Blue Origin flight in April. This time, the company continued work toward increasing the robustness of WIFI in space with an antenna designed to withstand the rigors of a rocket demonstration.

Also, onboard New Shepard was the Vibration Isolation Platform from Controlled Dynamics. Designed to isolate payloads from the disturbances of flight—the platform is also capable of creating environments required for a particular test scenario.

“A main advantage of the platform is that it can cancel out certain kinds of disturbances for anything that’s mounted to it, or it can introduce excitations at specific times to enhance an experiment,” said PI Scott Green. “This platform is destined to be a resource for future payloads.”

Green and his team flew a specific subset of the isolation technology on the flight, gathering data necessary to tune the full system for a future Blue Origin flight.

Other researchers leveraged the flight to gather data to reach specific goals.

Purdue University flew an experimental predictive technology for the control of liquid droplets and avoidance of liquid plugs in tubes—important considerations for condenser flow passage design in phase-change heat transfer systems. Such systems are advantageous for spaceflight because they provide better power capacity, lower volume and better temperature uniformity than single-phase systems.

“We’re flying the experiment to test our computer simulations so that we can publish that data and show the research community that our tool is useful for designing systems for the weightlessness of spaceflight,” said PI Steven Collicott.

Collicott also acknowledged that further development may be needed, depending on the results from the flight.

“A lot of the next steps are driven by discovery,” said Collicott. “We have to ask: What did we miss in our predictions? Are phenomena coming into play that we didn’t anticipate? You have to fly to be sure.”

Discovery is also key for a system designed to gather electromagnetic field measurements developed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). The objective for this flight was to characterize the electromagnetic field environment inside the spacecraft to understand the potential effects of strong external and internally generated fields on the spacecraft and payloads.

Echoing the other PIs on the flight, PI H. Todd Smith noted the value of being able to secure suborbital demonstration through Flight Opportunities.

“Flight Opportunities is the only way we’ve been able to secure funding for flights,” Smith said. “We might not be doing what we’re doing today if it hadn’t been for the support NASA has provided for our technology development.”

Through the program, the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) selects promising technologies from industry, academia and government for testing. The Flight Opportunities program has helped to test and mature 136 technologies through 162 suborbital flights. The program is funded by STMD and managed at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California.

“NASA needs technologies that enable space exploration,” said Ryan Dibley, NASA Flight Opportunities campaign manager. “The Flight Opportunities program funds flights on commercial suborbital vehicles to test these technologies in a relevant environment, enabling researchers to validate their technology, as well as fostering the public and private relationships that grow this nation’s economy.”

Source: NASA.Gov

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The New Shepard booster is about to touch down at Blue Origin's launch site in West Texas following a successful flight on July 18, 2018.
Blue Origin

The New Shepard capsule touches down in the West Texas desert following a successful flight from Blue Origin's launch site on July 18, 2018.
Blue Origin