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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Mission CRS-6: The Dragon Takes Off...

A Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon spacecraft launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015...beginning the CRS-6 mission.
NASA / SpaceX

Research for One-Year Space Station Mission Among NASA Cargo Launched Aboard SpaceX Resupply Flight (Press Release)

Research that will help prepare NASA astronauts and robotic explorers for future missions to Mars is among the two tons of cargo now on its way to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft. The spacecraft launched on a Falcon 9 rocket at 4:10 p.m. EDT Tuesday, April 14 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

“Five years ago this week, President Obama toured the same SpaceX launch pad used today to send supplies, research and technology development to the ISS,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “Back then, SpaceX hadn’t even made its first orbital flight. Today, it’s making regular flights to the space station and is one of two American companies, along with The Boeing Company, that will return the ability to launch NASA astronauts to the ISS from U.S. soil and land then back in the United States. That’s a lot of progress in the last five years, with even more to come in the next five.”

The mission is the company's sixth cargo delivery flight to the station through NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract. Dragon's cargo will support approximately 40 of the more than 250 science and research investigations that will be performed during Expeditions 43 and 44, including numerous human research investigations for NASA astronaut Scott Kelly's one-year mission in space.

Science payloads will support experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science -- research that improves life on Earth and drives progress for future space exploration. Investigations include:

A study of potential methods for counteracting cell damage that occurs in a microgravity environment

The Cell Shape and Expression research program will provide for the first time a reliable experimental model able to highlight the relationships between microgravity, cell shape and gene expression, which may also inform pharmacological ways to counteract microgravity-induced cell damages.

Research to improve understanding of bone cells, which could lead to treatments for osteoporosis and muscle wasting conditions

Osteo-4 studies the effects of microgravity on the function of osteocytes, which are the most common cells in bone. These cells reside within the mineralized bone and can sense mechanical forces, or the lack of them, but researchers do not know how. Osteo-4 allows scientists to analyze changes in the physical appearance and genetic expression of mouse bone cells in microgravity.

Continued studies into astronaut vision changes

Dragon also will deliver hardware to support an ongoing one-year crew study known as Fluid Shifts. More than half of American astronauts experience vision changes and alterations to parts of their eyes during and after long-duration spaceflight. The Fluid Shifts investigation measures how much fluid shifts from the lower body to the upper body, in or out of cells and blood vessels, and determines the impact these shifts have on fluid pressure in the head and changes in vision and eye structures.

Tests on a new material that could one day be used as a synthetic muscle for robotics explorers of the future

Robots can perform tasks too repetitive, difficult or dangerous for humans. Robots built with synthetic muscle would have more human-like capabilities, but the material would have to withstand the rigors of space. This investigation tests the radiation resistance of an electroactivepolymer called Synthetic Muscle, developed by RasLabs, which can contract and expand like real muscles.

The spacecraft also will deliver hardware needed for the installation of two International Docking Adapters scheduled for delivery on future SpaceX missions. Once installed, these adapters will enable commercial crew spacecraft to dock to the space station.

ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti will use the space station's robotic arm to grapple Dragon to the station at 7 a.m. Friday, April 17. Expedition 43 Commander Terry Virts of NASA will assist.

After about five weeks, Dragon will depart the space station for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean west of Baja California. The capsule will return more than 3,000 pounds of science, hardware, crew supplies and spacewalk tools.

The International Space Station is a convergence of science, technology and human innovation that enables us to demonstrate new technologies and make research breakthroughs not possible on Earth. It has been continuously occupied since November 2000 and, since then, has been visited by more than 200 people and a variety of international and commercial spacecraft. The ISS remains the springboard to NASA's next giant leap in exploration, including future missions to an asteroid and Mars.

Source: NASA.Gov

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Aerial footage of the Falcon 9's first stage booster about to make a hard landing on the deck of SpaceX's unmanned drone ship out in the Atlantic Ocean...on April 14, 2015.
SpaceX

Monday, April 6, 2015

SLS Update: Assembly Soon to be Finished on Key Test Component...

At NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, fabrication is completed on the core stage simulator test article for the Space Launch System (SLS).
NASA / MSFC

Fabrication Complete on SLS Core Stage Simulator Test Article (Press Release)

Engineers recently completed fabrication of the core stage simulator structural test article for NASA's new rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built for deep space missions, including to an asteroid and ultimately to Mars.

The structural test article is a replica of the top of the core stage and is approximately 10 feet tall and 27 feet in diameter. The rocket's core stage, towering more than 200 feet tall, will house the vehicle’s avionics and flight computer. It also will store cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that will feed the vehicle’s RS-25 engines. When combined with two five-segment solid rocket boosters, the rocket will produce 8.4 million pounds of thrust at liftoff to carry 154,000 pounds.

The full configuration at launch includes several parts that are stacked on top of the core stage to reach a total height of 322 feet. When the test versions of all the parts are completed, engineers will stack the 56-foot tall structure at a Marshall test stand for testing to verify the integrity of the hardware and ensure it can withstand the loads it may experience during flight. They include:

Orion spacecraft – designed to carry the crew to distant planetary bodies; provide emergency abort capability; sustain the crew during space travel; and provide safe re-entry from deep space

Multi-purpose crew vehicle stage adapter – connects the Orion spacecraft to the SLS

Interim cryogenic propulsion stage – gives the Orion spacecraft the big push needed to fly beyond the moon before the spacecraft returns to Earth for the first flight test of SLS

Launch vehicle stage adapter – used to connect the core stage and interim cryogenic propulsion stages

"Our engineering work force has the expertise to produce large test articles, such as the core stage simulator," said Keith Higginbotham, integrated structural test lead in the Spacecraft/Payload Integration & Evolution (SPIE) Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where the work is being conducted, and the SLS Program is managed for the agency. "We've made a tremendous amount of progress and look forward to testing."

After inspections and final machining, the core stage simulator test article is scheduled to be completed by mid-April. Engineers have already completed structural test articles of the multi-purpose crew vehicle stage adapter and Orion spacecraft simulator, and test articles for the interim cryogenic propulsion stage and launch vehicle stage adapter are currently in production.

"Our skilled, talented engineering and technician team members, manufacturing capabilities and robotic welding facilities allow us to build these critical large space structures for Space Launch System testing at the Marshall Center," said Tim Vaughn, chief of the Metals Engineering Division in Marshall’s Materials and Processes Laboratory. "The lessons we learned building the core stage simulator has helped us hone processes that we will use to produce other SLS test hardware."

At the same time, the SPIE Office kicked off its critical design review March 19, which is a major milestone for the program and proves the hardware is mature enough for production. This is the last rocket element to undergo a critical design review before the SLS Program begins its integrated critical design review this summer.

The first flight test of the SLS will feature a configuration for a 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lift capacity and carry an uncrewed Orion spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit to test the performance of the integrated system. As the SLS evolves, it will provide an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons) to enable missions even farther into our solar system.

Source: NASA.Gov

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An artist's concept of how the SLS core stage test articles will be stacked in the test stand at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
NASA / MSFC

Thursday, April 2, 2015

EM-1 Update: CubeSats To Hitch A Ride Into Deep Space Aboard The SLS...

An artist's concept of the NEA Scout solar sail studying an asteroid.
NASA

NASA’s Space Launch System to Boost Science with Secondary Payloads (Press Release)

When NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS) launches on its first flight, it will be doing some serious multi-tasking. Not only will Exploration Mission-1 test the performance of SLS and its integration with the Orion spacecraft – the agency plans to use its massive lift capability to carry nearly a dozen nano-satellites to conduct science experiments beyond low Earth orbit.

NASA’s newest rocket will launch Orion on an uncrewed test flight to a distant retrograde orbit around the moon. Tucked inside the stage adapter -- the ring connecting Orion to the top propulsion stage of the SLS -- will be 11 self-contained small satellites, each about the size of a large shoebox.

"NASA is taking advantage of a great opportunity to conduct more science beyond our primary focus of this mission," said Jody Singer manager of the Flight Programs and Partnerships Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. "While this new vehicle will enable missions beyond Earth orbit, we're taking steps to increase the scientific and exploration capability of SLS by accommodating small, CubeSat-class payloads."

About 10 minutes after Orion and its service module escape the pull of Earth’s gravity, the two will disconnect and Orion will proceed toward the moon. Once Orion is a safe distance away, the small payloads will begin to be deployed, all at various times during the flight depending on the particular missions.

These CubeSats are small nano-satellites designed to be efficient and versatile. The masses of these secondary payloads are light -- no heavier than 30 pounds (14 kilograms) -- and will not require any extra power from the vehicle to function. They will essentially piggyback on the SLS flight, providing what otherwise would be costly access to deep space.

"We are expanding the capabilities of this particular SLS test flight," said Joseph Pelfrey, deputy manager of the Exploration and Space Transportation Development Office at Marshall. "The rocket will be the strongest ever built by NASA and we want to take advantage of that design. Flying secondary payloads is something we plan to do for missions to come and provide the science community an opportunity they haven't had before."

The dispensers on the adapter ring will be built with commercially available materials. No pyrotechnic devices will be a part of the payloads and each will be ejected with a spring mechanism – similar to opening a lid on a toy jack-in-the-box.

The principal investigators and engineers for the payloads will work with the secondary payload integration team to develop mission-specific requirements and verify interfacing and safety requirements are met. Multiple organizations at NASA Headquarters in Washington are soliciting inputs for the available EM-1 secondary payload slots, and three have already been selected for further development: Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) Scout, Lunar Flashlight and BioSentinel.

Both NEA Scout and Lunar Flashlight involve Marshall engineering and science teams, while BioSentinel is managed by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.

NEA Scout, using solar sail propulsion, will fly by a small asteroid, taking pictures and making observations that will enhance the current understanding of an the asteroid environment and will yield key information for future astronauts exploring an asteroid.

"A solar sail works best when deployed in deep space and SLS will get us there," said Les Johnson, principal investigator for NEA Scout at Marshall. "It will take us out of Earth orbit and to interplanetary space -- where we need to be to deploy the solar sail. It's a perfect ride to begin our mission."

NASA’s Lunar Flashlight will scout for locations on the lunar surface that are rich in resources that, once broken down into their component molecules, could be used in future exploration, such as building materials, propellant, oxygen and water. Lunar Flashlight will use a large solar sail, similar to the NEA Scout sail, to reflect sunlight and illuminate the moon’s permanently shadowed craters and then the science instruments will measure the surface water ice.

BioSentinel will use yeast to detect, measure, and compare the impact of deep space radiation on living organisms over long durations beyond Low-Earth Orbit, which will help us understand the effects of the deep space environment on biological systems as we plan to send humans farther into space than ever before. The BioSentinel mission will be the first time living organisms have traveled to deep space in over 40 years and the spacecraft will operate in the deep space radiation environment throughout its 18-month mission.

Exploration Mission-1 will serve as a proving ground for the integrated Orion spacecraft and SLS, allowing designers to steadily move forward with development of the vehicle and prove the systems' ability to carry and deploy experiments yielding invaluable science results.

Source: NASA.Gov

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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

ARM Update: Developing the Spacecraft's State-of-the-Art Engine...

A Solar Electric Propulsion engine is tested at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
NASA / Michelle M. Murphy (Wyle Information Systems, LLC)

Pushing the Boundaries of Propelling Deep Space Missions (Press Release)

Engineers at NASA’s Glenn Research Center are advancing the propulsion system that will propel the first ever mission to redirect an asteroid for astronauts to explore in the 2020s. NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission will test a number of new capabilities, like advanced Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP), needed for future astronaut expeditions into deep space, including to Mars.

The Hall thruster is part of an SEP system that uses 10 times less propellant than equivalent chemical rockets. In a recent test, engineers from Glenn and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, using a Glenn vacuum chamber to simulate the space environment, successfully tested a new, higher power Hall thruster design, which is more efficient and has longer life. “We proved that this thruster can process three times the power of previous designs and increase efficiency by 50 percent,” said Dan Herman, Electric Propulsion Subsystem lead.

Hall thrusters trap electrons in a magnetic field and use them to ionize the onboard propellant. The magnetic field also generates an electric field that accelerates the charged ions creating an exhaust plume of plasma that pushes the spacecraft forward. This method delivers cost-effective, safe and highly efficient in-space propulsion for long duration missions. In addition to propelling an asteroid mission, this new thruster could be used to send large amounts of cargo, habitats and other architectures in support of human missions to Mars.

Source: NASA.Gov

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An artist's concept of NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission spacecraft retrieving a boulder from an asteroid.
NASA

Friday, March 27, 2015

ISS Update: Two Crew Members Are About to Spend One Year Aboard the Orbital Outpost...

A Soyuz rocket carrying Expedition 43-44 crew members Scott Kelly, Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka launches from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome on March 28, 2015 (Kazakh Time).
NASA / Bill Ingalls

Year in Space Starts for One American and One Russian (Press Release)

Three crew members representing the United States and Russia are on their way to the International Space Station after launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 3:42 p.m. EDT Friday (1:42 a.m., March 28 in Baikonur).

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will spend about a year living and working aboard the space station to help scientists better understand how the human body reacts and adapts to the harsh environment of space.

“Scott Kelly’s mission is critical to advancing the administration’s plan to send humans on a journey to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “We’ll gain new, detailed insights on the ways long-duration spaceflight affects the human body.”

Launching with Kelly and Kornienko was cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, who will spend a standard six-month rotation on the station. The trio is scheduled to dock with the station at 9:36 p.m., about six hours after launch. NASA Television coverage of docking will begin at 8:45 p.m. Hatches are scheduled to open at about 11:15 p.m., with coverage starting at 10:45 p.m.

The arrival of Kelly, Kornienko and Padalka returns the station's crew complement to six. The three will join Expedition 43 commander Terry Virts of NASA, as well as flight engineers Samantha Cristoforetti of ESA (European Space Agency) and Anton Shkaplerov of Roscosmos, who have been aboard the complex since November.

Virts, Cristoforetti and Shkaplerov will return home in May. At that time, Padalka will take command of Expedition 44, becoming the first person to command four station crews. Padalka will return in September, while Kelly and Kornienko will remain aboard until March 2016.

The one-year mission will focus on seven key areas of human research. Functional studies will examine crew member performance during and after the 12-month expedition. Behavioral studies will monitor sleep patterns and exercise routines. Visual impairment will be studied by measuring changes in pressure inside the human skull. Metabolic investigations will examine the immune system and effects of stress.

Physical performance will be monitored through exercise examinations. Microbial changes in the crew will be monitored, as well as the human factors associated with how the crew interacts aboard the station. Each of these key elements carries a potential benefit for populations here on Earth, from functional improvements for patients recovering from a long period of bed rest to improving the monitoring of immune functions of people on Earth with altered immunity.

Data from Kelly and Kornienko’s 342-day expedition will be used to determine whether there are ways to further reduce the risks on future long-duration missions necessary for deep space missions.

In tandem with the one-year mission, Kelly’s identical twin brother, former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, will participate in a number of comparative genetic studies, including the collection of blood samples as well as psychological and physical tests. This research will compare data from the genetically identical Kelly brothers to identify any subtle changes caused by spaceflight.

The tests will track any degeneration or evolution that occurs in the human body from extended exposure to a microgravity environment. These new twin studies are a multi-faceted national cooperation between universities, corporations and government laboratory expertise.

Expedition 43 will perform scientific research in several other fields, such as astrophysics and biotechnology. Among the planned experiments are a study of meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere and testing of a new synthetic material that can expand and contract like human muscle tissue. The crew members also are scheduled to greet a host of cargo spacecraft during their mission, including the sixth SpaceX commercial resupply flight and a Russian Progress resupply mission. Each flight will carry several tons of food, fuel, supplies and research. No spacewalks are planned during Expedition 43.

The International Space Station is a convergence of science, technology and human innovation that demonstrates new technologies and makes research breakthroughs that are not possible on Earth. The space station has been continuously occupied since November 2000. In this time, it has received more than 200 visitors and a variety of international and commercial spacecraft. The space station remains the springboard to NASA's next giant leap in exploration.

Source: NASA.Gov

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NASA astronaut Scott Kelly trains inside a Soyuz simulator at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center...in preparation for his one-year stint aboard the International Space Station, which began today.
NASA / Bill Ingalls

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

ARM Update: NASA Will Retrieve A Celestial Boulder for Astronauts to Study...

An artist's concept of NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission spacecraft retrieving a boulder from an asteroid.
NASA

NASA Announces Next Steps on Journey to Mars: Progress on Asteroid Initiative (Press Release)

NASA Wednesday announced more details in its plan for its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which in the mid-2020s will test a number of new capabilities needed for future human expeditions to deep space, including to Mars. NASA also announced it has increased the detection of near-Earth asteroids by 65 percent since launching its asteroid initiative three years ago.

For ARM, a robotic spacecraft will capture a boulder from the surface of a near-Earth asteroid and move it into a stable orbit around the moon for exploration by astronauts, all in support of advancing the nation’s journey to Mars.

"The Asteroid Redirect Mission will provide an initial demonstration of several spaceflight capabilities we will need to send astronauts deeper into space, and eventually, to Mars," said NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot. "The option to retrieve a boulder from an asteroid will have a direct impact on planning for future human missions to deep space and begin a new era of spaceflight."

The agency plans to announce the specific asteroid selected for the mission no earlier than 2019, approximately a year before launching the robotic spacecraft. Before an asteroid is considered a valid candidate for the mission, scientists must first determine its characteristics, in addition to size, such as rotation, shape and precise orbit. NASA has identified three valid candidates for the mission so far: Itokawa, Bennu and 2008 EV5. The agency expects to identify one or two additional candidates each year leading up to the mission.

Following its rendezvous with the target asteroid, the uncrewed ARM spacecraft will deploy robotic arms to capture a boulder from its surface. It then will begin a multi-year journey to redirect the boulder into orbit around the moon.

Throughout its mission, the ARM robotic spacecraft will test a number of capabilities needed for future human missions, including advanced Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP), a valuable capability that converts sunlight to electrical power through solar arrays and then uses the resulting power to propel charged atoms to move a spacecraft. This method of propulsion can move massive cargo very efficiently. While slower than conventional chemical rocket propulsion, SEP-powered spacecraft require significantly less propellant and fewer launches to support human exploration missions, which could reduce costs.

Future SEP-powered spacecraft could pre-position cargo or vehicles for future human missions into deep space, either awaiting crews at Mars or staged around the moon as a waypoint for expeditions to the Red Planet.

ARM's SEP-powered robotic spacecraft will test new trajectory and navigation techniques in deep space, working with the moon's gravity to place the asteroid in a stable lunar orbit called a distant retrograde orbit. This is a suitable staging point for astronauts to rendezvous with a deep space habitat that will carry them to Mars.

Before the piece of the asteroid is moved to lunar orbit, NASA will use the opportunity to test planetary defense techniques to help mitigate potential asteroid impact threats in the future. The experience and knowledge acquired through this operation will help NASA develop options to move an asteroid off an Earth-impacting course, if and when that becomes necessary.

In 2005, NASA's Deep Impact comet science mission tested technology that could assist in changing the course of a near-Earth object using a direct hit with a spacecraft. The ARM robotic spacecraft opens a new and second option for planetary defense using a technique called a gravity tractor. All mass exerts and experiences gravity and, in space, the gravitational attraction even between masses of modest size can significantly affect their motion. This means that by rendezvousing with the asteroid and holding a halo orbit in the appropriate direction, the ARM robotic spacecraft can slowly pull the asteroid without touching it.

The effectiveness of this maneuver is increased, moreover, if mass is moved from the asteroid to the spacecraft by the capture of a boulder.

It will take approximately six years for the ARM robotic spacecraft to move the asteroid mass into lunar orbit. In the mid-2020s, NASA's Orion spacecraft will launch on the agency’s Space Launch System rocket, carrying astronauts on a mission to rendezvous with and explore the asteroid mass. The current concept for the crewed mission component of ARM is a two-astronaut, 24-25 day mission.

This crewed mission will further test many capabilities needed to advance human spaceflight for deep space missions to Mars and elsewhere, including new sensor technologies and a docking system that will connect Orion to the robotic spacecraft carrying the asteroid mass. Astronauts will conduct spacewalks outside Orion to study and collect samples of the asteroid boulder wearing new spacesuits designed for deep space missions.

Collecting these samples will help astronauts and mission managers determine how best to secure and safely return samples from future Mars missions. And, because asteroids are made of remnants from the formation of the solar system, the returned samples could provide valuable data for scientific research or commercial entities interested in asteroid mining as a future resources.

In 2012, the president's NASA budget included, and Congress authorized, $20.4 million for an expanded NASA Near-Earth Object (NEO) Observations Program, increasing the resources for this critical program from the $4 million per year it had received since the 1990s. The program was again expanded in fiscal year 2014, with a budget of $40.5 million. NASA is asking Congress for $50 million for this important work in the 2016 budget.

"Asteroids are a hot topic," said Jim Green, director of NASA Planetary Science. "Not just because they could pose a threat to Earth, but also for their scientific value and NASA's planned mission to one as a stepping stone to Mars."

NASA has identified more than 12,000 NEOs to date, including 96 percent of near-Earth asteroids larger than 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) in size. NASA has not detected any objects of this size that pose an impact hazard to Earth in the next 100 years. Smaller asteroids do pass near Earth, however, and some could pose an impact threat. In 2011, 893 near-Earth asteroids were found. In 2014, that number was increased to 1,472.

In addition to NASA's ongoing work detecting and cataloging asteroids, the agency has engaged the public in the hunt for these space rocks through the agency's Asteroid Grand Challenge activities, including prize competitions. During the recent South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, the agency announced the release of a software application based on an algorithm created by a NASA challenge that has the potential to increase the number of new asteroid discoveries by amateur astronomers.

Source: NASA.Gov

Monday, March 23, 2015

Back in the Day: Gemini III Takes Off...

The Gemini III rocket carrying the Molly Brown spacecraft launches from Cape Canaveral in Florida on March 23, 1965.
NASA

March 23, 1965: Launch of First Crewed Gemini Flight (Press Release)

In a span of 20 months from March 1965 to November 1966, NASA developed, tested and flew transformative capabilities and cutting-edge technologies in the Gemini program that paved the way for not only Apollo, but the achievements of the space shuttle, building the International Space Station and setting the stage for human exploration of Mars.

The first crewed Gemini flight, Gemini III, lifted off Launch Pad 19 at 9:24 a.m. EST on March 23, 1965. The spacecraft "Molly Brown" carried astronauts Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, command pilot, and John W. Young, pilot, on three orbits of Earth.

NASA's two-man Gemini spaceflights demonstrated that astronauts could change their capsule's orbit, remain in space for at least two weeks and work outside their spacecraft. They also pioneered rendezvous and docking with other spacecraft. All were essential skills to land on the moon and return safely to Earth.

Veteran Mercury astronaut Grissom was selected as command pilot of Gemini III, making him the first person traveling into space twice. Joining Grissom was Young, the first member of the second group of NASA pilots to fly in space. Young would go on to become the first person to make six spaceflights, including commanding Apollo 16 during which he walked on the moon. He also commanded STS-1, the first shuttle mission.

Gemini III's primary goal was to test the new, maneuverable spacecraft. In space, the crew members fired thrusters to change the shape of their orbit, shift their orbital plane slightly, and drop to a lower altitude. The revolutionary orbital maneuvering technology paved the way for rendezvous missions later in the Gemini Program and proved it was possible for a lunar module to lift off the moon and dock with the lunar orbiting command module for the trip home to Earth. It also meant spacecraft could be launched to rendezvous and dock with an orbiting space station.

Source: NASA.Gov

Friday, March 20, 2015

Paving The Way for the Future: CST-100's First Launch Vehicles Begin Fabrication...

Former astronaut and current Boeing director Chris Ferguson—who commanded Atlantis on the final space shuttle flight, STS-135, in July of 2011—poses in front of an Atlas V booster at the United Launch Alliance factory in Decatur, Alabama.
ULA

Rockets for Commercial Crew Launches Begin to Come Together (Press Release)

The codes AV-073 and AV-080 may not mean much to many, but they mean a whole lot to former astronaut Chris Ferguson and the team of engineers and technicians who will assemble the first Atlas V rocket to launch a crew to the International Space Station. That test and a precursor flight without crew are part of the final development work Boeing is completing with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to certify a new crew transportation system for low-Earth orbit.

On its factory floor in Decatur, Alabama, United Launch Alliance, or ULA, is beginning to fabricate parts for the two rockets that are to launch Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft in 2017.

As Boeing's director of Crew and Mission Systems for the company's commercial crew division, Ferguson toured ULA’s assembly factory this week to watch the rockets begin to take shape. Ferguson's last spacecraft, NASA's space shuttle Atlantis, already was built and had achieved veteran spaceflight status years before "Fergie," as he is known, climbed into the commander's seat for the last of the shuttle missions in 2011. Beginning later this year, the CST-100 spacecraft that will launch atop the Atlases will be assembled at another place familiar to Ferguson, a former space shuttle hangar at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

"The last time we were at this stage of development for a human spacecraft was in the 1970s when we were building the shuttle," Ferguson said. "I have Apollo manuals on my desk -- not to copy designs but to understand how they did it and to validate the decisions we've made with regard to provisions for the crew, what kind of spacesuits they wear, what kind of seats they sit in, and why they sit that way. Engineers put an enormous amount of thought into many low-level designs decades ago, but now we're trying to recreate the “why” behind all that. It's a little intimidating, but it's fun. You learn why the space program took the shape it is today over five decades ago."

Just like airplanes, rockets have unique tail numbers, or codes, that distinguish them from one another. AV-073 is the 73rd Atlas V that will be built, and AV-080 is the 80th in the line of boosters. Both have another distinguishing characteristic from other Atlas V launch vehicles, as well – since no previous Atlas V has carried people into space, these will be the first to be certified to launch humans. Up until this point, the rockets have been used to lift more than 60 critical missions without people: satellites, robotic probes and even the Mars rovers.

"To have Chris come in and talk to the team really put a face to the program," said Fred Hernandez, production operations chief engineer for ULA. "We're so used to launching things, and so to get to see the people involved in the launching of humans means we're that much closer to our goal."

The factory is building pieces of the rocket unique to the CST-100/Atlas V stack that will be used in the testing regimen. The adapter connecting the top of the rocket’s upper stage to the spacecraft, for example, is a new piece that has been meticulously designed and must be built with equal care.

"There are a lot of different major structures for the flight test vehicles that are going through the factory now," Hernandez said.

Manufacturing also has begun for the fuel and oxygen tanks of the Centaur upper stage that will provide the final push to get the CST-100 and its crews into Earth obit.

"They begin constructing the rocket about 18 months in advance, so it's still a little early, but a lot of the parts that will go into our first vehicle are here," Ferguson said. "So component-level assembly's going on. We don't have a parking spot out here yet, but it comes very soon. And by the end of the year we will have an actual slot. It'll become very, very real when that happens."

NASA's Commercial Crew Program relied on years of human spaceflight experience to develop the requirements needed to ensure transportation systems are qualified to fly astronauts. Through a Commercial Crew Transportation Capability, or CCtCap, contract, NASA will work with Boeing to ensure its rocket, spacecraft and associated ground and mission systems are safe and reliable.

For starters, each Atlas V will carry an extensive suite of sensors and fly with a robust computer that together will be able to detect a problem in the booster as it launches and ascends into space. Although unlikely to occur, a problem severe enough to risk the mission would trigger an abort sequence for the rocket that would automatically eject the spacecraft and carry its astronaut crew back to Earth safely. Additionally, the boosters for the CST-100 flights will use a Centaur upper stage fitted with two RL10 engines, instead of the usual single engine, to provide added performance.

"We fortunately don't see a lot of surprises in manufacturing," Hernandez said. "The Atlas line builds 10 or 11 rockets a year, and that rhythm alone helps to minimize a lot of the issues that we could have."

AV-073 will be outfitted as though it is carrying a crew but will fly the CST-100 without astronauts in an orbital flight test, a significant step on Boeing’s path to certification.

AV-080 is the rocket that will carry the first people inside a CST-100 for a flight into space. Still a flight test, the objective is to launch the Atlas V from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and place the CST-100 on a path to the station. Crew members will fly to the orbiting laboratory and stay there for a few days while the spacecraft’s systems are evaluated for their performance. The flight test crew would then use the vehicle to return home to the United States, completing the test.

Although still about two years away, the flight tests are close enough to prompt excitement and ramp up anticipation almost daily at the Atlas V assembly hall.

"We're obviously very proud of our success rate, and we're sort of taking the approach that we have a recipe for mission success, and we have to continue to execute on that," Hernandez said. "If we keep that focus, that will transition over into the crew vehicles as well."

Source: NASA.Gov

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An artist's concept of Boeing's CST-100 capsule and the Atlas V rocket on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Boeing

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Orion Update: Donning the Suit That Crew Members Will Someday Wear to an Asteroid and Mars...

At NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, two technicians test out a spacesuit that astronauts will wear aboard the Orion vehicle beyond Earth orbit.
NASA / Bill Stafford

Astronaut Spacesuit Testing for Orion Spacecraft (Press Release)

Engineers and technicians at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston are testing the spacesuit astronauts will wear in the agency’s Orion spacecraft on trips to deep space. On March 17, members of the Johnson team participated in a Vacuum Pressure Integrated Suit Test to verify enhancements to the suit will meet test and design standards for the Orion spacecraft. During this test, the suit is connected to life support systems and then air is removed from Johnson’s 11-foot thermal vacuum chamber to evaluate the performance of the suits in conditions similar to a spacecraft. The suit, known as the Modified Advanced Crew Escape Suit, is a closed-loop version of the launch and entry suits worn by space shuttle astronauts. The suit will contain all the necessary functions to support life and is being designed to enable spacewalks and sustain the crew in the unlikely event the spacecraft loses pressure.

This is the first in a series of four tests with people in the suits to evaluate the performance of the spacesuit systems in an environment similar to a spacecraft. Learn more about where the suits are tested or track all of the latest news at www.nasa.gov/orion.

Source: NASA.Gov

Saturday, March 14, 2015

ISS Update #2: Studying Crew Health Aboard the Orbital Outpost...

European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti works on the Airway Monitoring experiment aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
ESA / NASA

Testing Astronauts’ Lungs in Space Station Airlock (Press Release - March 9)

Air was pumped out of the International Space Station’s air lock for the first time in the name of science last week. Inside the cylindrical Quest airlock, ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and NASA’s Terry Virts monitored their breathing for researchers back on Earth.

With each lungful of air, our bodies absorb oxygen and exhale waste-product molecules such as carbon dioxide and the important ‘signalling’ molecule nitric oxide. The Airway Monitoring experiment looks at the amount of nitric oxide the astronauts expelled by the astronauts in the airlock.

Nitric oxide is a gas found in cigarette smoke and car exhaust, for example, and it is produced in our bodies to regulate blood vessels and act as an antibacterial agent.

Doctors measure the amount of nitric oxide exhaled by patients to help diagnose inflamed lungs and asthma.

Airway Monitoring for Space and Earth

On Earth, dust drifts to the floor where vacuum cleaners or a damp cloth remove it easily. In weightlessness, dust circulates freely and often irritates and inflames eyes and lungs.

In addition, dust on the Moon and probably Mars sticks to astronauts through static electricity and has sharp edges – all making it more likely that dust will enter astronauts’ lungs and do harm.

The Airway Monitoring experiment will test the use of nitric oxide as a tool to monitor lung inflammation as well as charting lung health in astronauts.

Four sessions will see the pair exhale into the equipment. Samantha and Terry made their first contributions before flight at NASA and ran their first space session in space in January.

On Friday, they entered the Station’s Quest airlock for their last run and reduced the pressure by 30% – equivalent to being on a mountain at 3000 m altitude.

They are the first of eight astronauts to collect data on their lungs for this experiment. It is also the first time that Quest is used for scientific purposes – the module was installed to allow astronauts to venture outside on spacewalks.

A Complete View of Lung Health

Testing the nitric oxide diagnostic technique in space adds to the data for use on Earth. More than 300 million people suffer from asthma, so a quick and simple lung test would be of great benefit.

Lars Karlsson, lead investigator for this experiment from the Karolinska Institutet of Sweden, is hopeful that the experiment in the airlock will open up new fields of research in reduced pressure in space: “In the future, it is quite likely that drugs could be designed based on exhaled nitric oxide measurements, to find the most effective molecules to treat inflamed airways and lungs. This type of research is a first step down this road.”

Source: European Space Agency

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Inside the Quest airlock, ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti assists fellow crew members Terry Virts and Butch Wilmore for a spacewalk aboard the ISS about two weeks ago.
ESA / NASA