Wednesday, September 28, 2016

EM-1 Update: Preparing SLS For Its Cargo of CubeSats...

An engineer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center conducts measurements on the Orion stage adapter that will deploy 13 CubeSats into space during 2018's Exploration Mission-1.
NASA / MSFC / Emmett Given

Work Underway On Hardware That Will Do Double Duty On First SLS Flight (News Release)

David Osborne, an Aerie Aerospace LLC machinist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, takes measurements prior to the start of precision machining of the Orion stage adapter for NASA's new rocket, the Space Launch System. The adapter will connect the Orion spacecraft to the interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS) for the first flight of SLS with Orion in late 2018. The ICPS is the liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen-based system that will give Orion the big, in-space push needed to fly beyond the moon before it returns to Earth. The adapter also will carry 13 CubeSats that will perform science and technology investigations that will help pave the way for future human exploration in deep space, including the Journey to Mars.

The adapter's top surface will be machined completely flat on a seven-axis mill turntable before hundreds of holes are drilled in it for bolting to the rest of the rocket. To complete the same work on the other side of the adapter, the hardware will later be flipped using a Posi-Turner load rotation device and an assembly jig, the ring that connects the Posi-Turner to the bottom of the adapter and rotates it. The adapter will then undergo inspections, and a special coating will be added to the top and bottom of the structure to make it more corrosion resistant.

Source: NASA.Gov


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

SpaceX Officially Unveils Its Plans for Mars (and Beyond)...

Earlier today, SpaceX founder Elon Musk revealed the vehicle that his company will develop as it sets its sight on Mars. Known as the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), this mega-rocket is designed to ferry a large capsule carrying at least 100 people to the Red Planet and beyond. Musk targets the mid-2020s as the timetable during which he plans to send humans to Mars...which would be at least 10 years faster than the date that NASA is eyeing to send crews to the Red Planet via Orion and the Space Launch System. But Musk isn't just settling for Mars; the ITS is intended to ferry homo sapiens even deeper into space—as shown with the illustrations below.

It will be a historic day when, not if, SpaceX's "Mars Vehicle" becomes a reality.

An artist's concept of a woman staring out a window aboard the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) towards Mars.

A schematic depicting the mega-rocket and spacecraft that comprise the ITS.

An infographic comparing the size of the ITS to NASA's Saturn V rocket.

A full-size replica of a fuel tank for the ITS.

An artist's concept of the ITS spacecraft orbiting Jupiter.

An artist's concept of the ITS spacecraft on the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa.

An artist's concept of the ITS spacecraft floating above Saturn's rings.

An artist's concept of the ITS spacecraft on the surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Staying the Course to Mars Through the Next Presidency...

An artist's concept showing the Space Launch System soaring through a layer of clouds following lift-off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Key Senate Panel Approves Plan to Send Astronauts to Mars (Press Release)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A key Senate panel today unanimously approved a one-year spending plan for NASA that, for the first time, explicitly requires the space agency to send humans to Mars in the next quarter century.

The bill, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), would give the space agency $19.5 billion for the next fiscal year starting Oct. 1. It would, among other things, require NASA to establish a human settlement on Mars and continue the commercial space industry’s development of a new American-made rocket to once again send American astronauts to and from the International Space Station without having to rely on Russia.

“55 years after President Kennedy challenged the nation to put a man on the moon, the Senate is challenging NASA to put humans on Mars,” said Nelson, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees NASA. “The priorities that we’ve laid out for NASA in this bill marks the beginning of a new era of American spaceflight.”

The last time Congress passed a long-term authorization bill for NASA was in 2010. That bill, co-authored by Nelson and former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), is the current blueprint from which NASA has been operating. It set NASA on a course to build a new monster rocket to carry the Orion crew capsule into deep space and, eventually, Mars. It also laid the groundwork for the development of a commercial space industry.

Nelson is hopeful that the bipartisan support this bill received will continue as the Senate begins work on a more comprehensive, multi-year blueprint for the agency next year.

Highlights of S. 3346:

Sustaining National Space Commitments and Utilizing the International Space Station

- Support for Continuity – Affirms Congress’ support for sustained space investments across presidential administrations to advance recent achievements in space exploration and space science. This includes the development of the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and the Orion crew vehicle for deep space exploration, maximizing utilization of the International Space Station (ISS), the James Webb Space Telescope, and continued commitment to a national, government-led space program.

- International Space Station – Supports full and complete utilization of the ISS through at least 2024, and the use of private sector companies partnering with NASA to deliver cargo and experiments. Also facilitates the development of vehicles to transport astronauts from U.S. soil to end our reliance on Russian launches for crew transport.

- Facilitating Commercialization and Economic Development of Low-Earth Orbit – Requires NASA to submit a report to Congress outlining a plan to facilitate a transformation of operations in low-earth orbit from a model largely reliant on government support to one reflecting a more commercially-viable future.

. Advancing Human Deep Space Exploration

- Journey to Mars – Amends current law by adding human exploration of Mars as one of the goals and objectives of NASA and directs NASA to manage human space flight programs to enable humans to explore Mars and other destinations. Requires NASA to develop and submit a plan to Congress on a strategic framework and critical decision plan based on current technologies to achieve the exploration goals and objectives.

- Development of Deep Space Capabilities – Directs NASA to continue the development of the Space Launch System and Orion for a broad deep space mission set, with specific milestones for an uncrewed exploration mission by 2018 and a crewed exploration mission by 2021.

Medical Monitoring of Astronauts

- Medical Effects of Space – Authorizes NASA to provide for the medical monitoring, diagnosis, and treatment of astronauts, including scientific and medical tests for psychological and medical conditions deemed by NASA to be associated with human space flight.

- Recognizing Impact of Scott Kelly’s 340 Days in Space – Gives recognition that the 340-day space mission of Scott Kelly aboard the ISS generated new insight into how the human body adjusts to weightlessness, isolation, radiation, and the stress of long-duration space flight and will help support the physical and mental well-being of astronauts during longer space exploration missions in the future.

Improving Cybersecurity and Maximizing Efficiency

- Improved Oversight of IT and Cybersecurity – Directs steps to improve agency-wide management and oversight over information technology operations and investments and information security programs for the protection of NASA systems, implementing a number of Office of Inspector General and GAO identified deficiencies. Requires the Administrator to ensure the NASA Chief Information Officer has a significant role in relevant management and oversight.

- Agency Cybersecurity Requirements – Requires the Administrator develop an agency-wide security plan to provide an overview of the requirements of NASA systems, identification of roles and responsibilities, and increased coordination among each center, facility, and mission directorate.

- Addressing Inefficiency – Improves inter-disciplinary collaboration and planning across NASA’s Mission Directorates to maximize outcomes for projects or missions.

Source: Bill Nelson -


An artist's concept depicting the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle soaring in orbit above Mars.

Monday, September 19, 2016

EM-1 Update: Welding Is Complete on the SLS' Massive Liquid Hydrogen Tank...

The liquid hydrogen tank for NASA's Space Launch System completes welding at the Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans, Louisiana.
NASA / Michoud / Steven Seipel

Piece by Piece: Building Space Launch System’s Core Stage (News Release)

The largest rocket stage in the world is coming together piece by piece at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Large elements for NASA's Space Launch System are in production and will be joined together to create the rocket's 212-foot-tall core stage, the backbone of the SLS rocket.

Why is NASA building the world’s most powerful rocket? Because SLS is ready to support both near-term missions in the proving ground around the moon starting in 2018, while at the same time being capable of carrying the very large hardware like landers, habitats and other supplies and equipment needed to explore Mars and other deep space destinations in the 2030s and beyond.

To power a Mars rocket, the core stage carries around 2.3 million pounds of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen to fuel the four RS-25 engines. Engineers just completed welding the largest part of the core stage, the 130-foot-tall liquid hydrogen tank that will provide fuel for the first SLS flight in 2018, but there’s still work to ready the tank for its maiden voyage.

"Building the core stage is similar to building a house," said Joan Funk, SLS core stage lead at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. "With the massive, welded elements coming off the Vertical Assembly Center at Michoud, we've laid the foundation, framed the walls and put up the roof. The big items are in place. Now it's time to get to work on the inside." That's where engineers will clean and prime each element before beginning the internal integration.

Michoud's Vertical Assembly Center, the largest spacecraft-welding tool in the world, is welding many of the core stage's main elements -- the forward skirt, the liquid oxygen tank, the liquid hydrogen tank and the engine section. The core stage's fifth element, the intertank, which is bolted, is also being built at Michoud. The Boeing Company, headquartered in Chicago, is the prime contractor building the core stage, but to build the stage, Boeing has worked with 442 businesses across America, including 297 small businesses.

“When welding is complete, these structures still have to go through more processing to turn them into functional parts of the rocket,” said Funk. “The core stage has parts with very different functions from housing the flight computer and primary avionics to holding the fuel to supporting the four RS-25 engines.”

The final manufacturing processes and outfitting for each part of the core stage varies with the section’s function. Wet structures -- elements that hold fuel, or the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen tanks -- are put through "proof tests" to assure manufacturing quality. The liquid oxygen tank is hydrostatically tested and filled with water; and the liquid hydrogen tank is pneumatically tested.

After testing, the tanks and dry structures -- elements that don't hold fuel, or the forward skirt, intertank and engine section -- are cleaned, primed and readied for the "work on the inside." Much like a house being constructed, the core stage is outfitted with wiring, plumbing and insulation.

The dry structures house flight computers, cameras and avionics -- or the "brains" of the rocket. In a house, wiring can carry power or television and internet data from room to room. In the SLS's core stage, 45 miles of wire cabling serves a similar purpose, carrying power and data from element to element powering flight computers, cameras, sensors, avionics and other electronics housed in the dry structures.

The core stage's plumbing contains lines that deliver the propellant and oxidizer from the tanks to the engines. Each dry structure also contains purge vent lines and hazardous gas lines designed to eliminate dangerous gases building up in the dry structures prior to launch.

"The dry structures are cram-packed full of equipment and the domes of the tanks take up a lot of the room inside the dry structures," said Funk. Racks, cameras, sensors, vent lines, wire cabling, valves, shelves, couplings, and more fill the core stage's dry structures to near capacity. With every inch planned, equipment is mounted and wiring is placed methodically, accounting for time, space, accessibility and much more. When the dry structures are ready to be "stacked," or joined to the other elements, there isn't much room to spare.

Before the elements can be stacked, insulation -- which is more important to a rocket than to a house -- is applied. Not only does NASA's thermal protection system give the rocket its signature orange color, but more importantly, it protects the core stage from the extreme temperatures encountered during launch and maintains the fuels' extremely low temperatures. The liquid hydrogen is chilled to minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit and the liquid oxygen is chilled to minus 297 degrees.

How do those elements finally come together to form the 212-foot-long core stage? With the initial wiring, plumbing and insulation complete, the elements are divided into two sections for stacking. Each section is stacked vertically, with elements bolted to one another using segmented support rings welded to each element, providing stiffness. The liquid hydrogen tank sits atop the engine section to create the aft section, and the forward skirt and intertank are bolted to the top and bottom of the liquid oxygen tank to create the forward section.

When complete, engineers "break over" the sections, or move them to a horizontal position, for their final assembly. Final wiring, plumbing and insulation are installed after the forward section is joined to the aft to complete the core stage assembly.

Before punching its ticket to launch, the core stage will travel by barge to NASA's Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, where it will undergo a free modal test to understand the structure then be mounted in the recently renovated B-2 Test Stand for propellant fill and drain testing and hot fire testing called a “green run.” A green run, or the first time the engines are assembled into a single configuration with the core stage and fired at nearly full-power, tests the compatibility and functionality of the system to ensure a safe and viable design.

Once post-test assessments and adjustments are complete, the core stage will travel again by barge to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, for its first flight with Orion.

Source: NASA.Gov


The engine section for NASA's Space Launch System completes welding at the Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans, Louisiana.
NASA / Michoud / Steven Seipel

Thursday, September 8, 2016

SpaceShipTwo Update: VSS Unity's Flight Test Program Begins Today...

VSS Unity rides under the belly of White Knight II during Unity's first captive carry flight, on September 8, 2016.
Virgin Galactic

A few hours before NASA was to launch its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on a 7-year voyage to and from asteroid Bennu today, Virgin Galactic achieved the long-awaited milestone of bringing SpaceShipTwo back to flight status following the tragic events of almost two years ago. VSS Unity, the successor to the ill-fated VSS Enterprise, embarked on a captive captive flight via its mothership, White Knight II (a.k.a. VMS Eve), above California's Mojave Desert. VSS Unity remained attached to VMS Eve during the whole test. The day will soon come when Unity fires up its rocket engine to begin the climb to suborbital altitude for the first time...and thus resume Virgin Galactic owner Richard Branson's bid to bring paying customers to the edge of space and back. We're rooting for you, Unity.

VSS Unity is attached to the underbelly of White Knight II at The Spaceship Company in California's Mojave Desert, on September 8, 2016.
Virgin Galactic

White Knight II lifts off from The Spaceship Company to begin VSS Unity's first captive carry flight, on September 8, 2016.
Virgin Galactic

An onboard camera showing White Knight II and VSS Unity soaring high above California's Mojave Desert, on September 8, 2016.
Virgin Galactic

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Another ISS Expedition Comes to a Successful End...

An aerial view of the Soyuz TMA-20M capsule as it comes in for a landing at Kazakhstan...on September 6, 2016 (U.S. Time).
NASA / Bill Ingalls

NASA’s Record-breaking Astronaut, Crewmates Safely Return to Earth (Press Release)

NASA astronaut and Expedition 48 Commander Jeff Williams returned to Earth Tuesday after his U.S. record-breaking mission aboard the International Space Station.

Williams and his Russian crewmates Alexey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka, of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, landed in their Soyuz TMA-20M at 9:13 p.m. EDT southeast of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan (7:13 a.m. Sept. 7, local time).

Having completed his fourth mission, Williams now has spent 534 days in space, making him first on the all-time NASA astronaut list. Skripochka now has 331 days in space on two flights, while Ovchinin spent 172 days in space on his first.

“No other U.S. astronaut has Jeff’s time and experience aboard the International Space Station. From his first flight in 2000, when the station was still under construction, to present day where the focus is science, technology development and fostering commercialization. Jeff even helped prepare the space station for future dockings of commercial spacecraft under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program,” said Kirk Shireman, ISS Program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “We’re incredibly proud of what Jeff has accomplished off the Earth for the Earth.”

Williams was instrumental in preparing the station for the future arrival of U.S. commercial crew spacecraft. The first International Docking Adapter was installed during a spacewalk by Williams and fellow NASA astronaut Kate Rubins Aug. 19. Outfitted with a host of sensors and systems, the adapter’s main purpose is to connect spacecraft bringing astronauts to the station in the future. Its first users are expected to be Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, now in development in partnership with NASA.

During his time on the orbital complex, Williams ventured outside the confines of the space station for a second spacewalk with Rubins to retract a spare thermal control radiator and install two new high-definition cameras.

Together, the Expedition 48 crew members contributed to hundreds of experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science aboard humanity’s only orbiting laboratory.

The crew members also welcomed five cargo spacecraft during their stay. Williams was involved in the grapple of Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft in March, the company's fourth commercial resupply mission, and SpaceX’s eighth Dragon spacecraft cargo delivery in April, and welcomed a second Dragon delivery in July. Two Russian ISS Progress cargo craft also docked to the station in April and July delivering tons of supplies.

Expedition 49 continues operating the station with Anatoly Ivanishin of Roscosmos in command. He, Rubins, and Takuya Onishi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, will operate the station for more than two weeks until the arrival of three new crew members.

Shane Kimbrough of NASA and cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko of Roscosmos are scheduled to launch Sept. 23, U.S. time, from Baikonur, Kazakhstan.


NASA astronaut Jeff Williams completed a 534-day stay aboard the International Space Station...on September 6, 2016 (U.S. Time).
Roscosmos / NASA TV

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Today's Falcon 9 Mishap and the Effect It May Have on Dragon 2 and SpaceX's Future...

A Falcon 9 booster explodes at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 40...on September 1, 2016.

So a few weeks ago, I read online that in its bid to send crews up to the International Space Station (ISS) beginning next year, SpaceX plans to have astronauts board its Dragon 2 vehicle before fueling operations are to commence with the Falcon 9 booster at the launch pad. The reason for this being that SpaceX has been employing a new type of cryogenic propellant for its rockets since they returned to flight last December...and the propellant needs to remain at a super-cooled temperature up until lift-off to ensure optimal performance for the Falcon's nine Merlin 1D engines. In the wake of today's explosion at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida, NASA may have an issue with having astronauts inside the Dragon capsule while a hazardous fueling operation is taking place beneath their seats.


While no new regulations by the government should be created in response to today's disaster (personally-speaking... There were no fatalities or injuries this morning, all of the damage occurred on SpaceX property at CCAFS, and the Israeli AMOS-6 satellite it was carrying is fully insured), NASA will no doubt set up some strict guidelines for how SpaceX preps its launch vehicles once human beings begin to hitch rides on them sometime in 2017 (assuming the delay caused by today's anomaly won't be that severe as to push the first crewed launch to 2018—the same year as NASA's Exploration Mission 1 and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner's first manned flight to the ISS). Let's cross our fingers that SpaceX will be able to fully recover from this the same way it recovered from the CRS-7 launch mishap that took place more than a year ago.

A composite image showing the Red Dragon capsule on the surface of Mars.

Sometime this month, SpaceX founder Elon Musk plans to reveal to the world his company's blueprint to sending humans to Mars aboard a new type of rocket (one that's much bigger than the Falcon Heavy that's supposed to make its flight debut before the end of this year). It would be unfortunate if we have to wait much longer for SpaceX to presumably unveil the so-called Mars Colonial Transporter (a.k.a. BFR, or Big F**kin' Rocket) that will either challenge or complement NASA's Space Launch System destined towards bringing crews to the Red Planet in a little over a decade. Today is no doubt a pivotal moment for SpaceX and how it will get back on its feet to continue revolutionizing manned spaceflight. That is all.

An artist's concept of the Falcon Heavy rocket, with Red Dragon aboard, lifting off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.