Friday, January 12, 2018

Photos of the Day: The VSS Unity Moves One Step Closer to Powered Flight...

VSS Unity rides under the belly of White Knight II during Unity's seventh test flight above California's Mojave Desert, on January 11, 2018.
Virgin Galactic

A little over a year after she conducted her first glide test, the VSS Unity successfully landed at the Mojave Air & Sport Port in the California desert after completing her seventh solo flight yesterday. SpaceShipTwo (SS2) moves one step closer to performing a rocket-powered demonstration once more...with Unity having simulated a powered flight by carrying water ballast that mimicked the weight and positioning of RocketMotorTwo if it were attached to the spacecraft. Also, upon release from her mothership White Knight II from an altitude of 50,000 feet during the test, SS2 immediately made a sharp descent, accelerating to Mach 0.9...which is around the maximum airspeed the vehicle could attain without igniting her hybrid rocket engine!

And in another preparation for VSS Unity's eventual flight into suborbital space, the thermal protection system (TPS) was fully applied to the craft's outer surface prior to yesterday's test. The TPS prevents heat loads generated by air friction during rocket-powered ascent and supersonic re-entry from causing damage to the vehicle. The TPS is visible as the protective silvered film that covers the white flaps on Unity's "feather system" in the last two photos posted below.

If all goes well with her test flights in 2018, we may well see VSS Unity ignite her rocket engine thousands of feet in the air before the end of this year. Let's cross our fingers.

VSS Unity detaches from the belly of White Knight II to conduct her seventh glide test above California's Mojave Desert, on January 11, 2018.
Virgin Galactic

The VSS Unity soars above California's Mojave Desert during her seventh glide test on January 11, 2018.
Virgin Galactic

The VSS Unity rolls down the runway at the Mojave Air & Sport Port after successfully completing her seventh glide test above the California desert...on January 11, 2018.
Virgin Galactic

Monday, January 8, 2018

Falcon Heavy Is Back at the Pad!

The Falcon Heavy rocket is rolled back to Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a static-fire test...on January 8, 2018.
Elliott Skeer

After SpaceX successfully sent the U.S. government's classified Zuma payload to low-Earth orbit yesterday (via a Falcon 9 rocket), the company is now primed on launching its newest vehicle—the Falcon Heavy—to space before the end of this month. These photos are courtesy of Elliott Skeer, who posted them on Twitter while taking a bus tour at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida this morning...courtesy of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Within the next day or two, the Falcon Heavy will finally ignite all 27 of its Merlin engines during a static-fire test. Unlike the previous static fires conducted for the Falcon 9 following its return to flight after a September 2016 pad explosion at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station near KSC, the payload fairing will remain attached to the Falcon Heavy during this ground test. Apparently, the prospect of losing Elon Musk's $200,000 Tesla Roadster in another pad explosion isn't as bad as losing a hundred-million-dollar satellite instead! It's all good. I can't wait to see the Falcon Heavy come to life!

Happy Monday.

The Falcon Heavy rocket is rolled back to Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a static-fire test...on January 8, 2018.
Elliott Skeer

The Falcon Heavy rocket is rolled back to Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a static-fire test...on January 8, 2018.
Elliott Skeer

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Rest In Peace, John Young (1930-2018)...

NASA astronaut John Young jumps from the lunar surface while posing with the American flag during the Apollo 16 mission...on April 21, 1972.
NASA / Charlie Duke

NASA Remembers Agency’s Most Experienced Astronaut (Press Release)

The following is a statement from acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot on the passing of John Young, who died Friday night following complications from pneumonia at the age of 87. Young is the only agency astronaut to go into space as part of the Gemini, Apollo and space shuttle programs, and the first to fly into space six times:

“Today, NASA and the world have lost a pioneer. Astronaut John Young's storied career spanned three generations of spaceflight; we will stand on his shoulders as we look toward the next human frontier.

“John was one of that group of early space pioneers whose bravery and commitment sparked our nation's first great achievements in space. But, not content with that, his hands-on contributions continued long after the last of his six spaceflights -- a world record at the time of his retirement from the cockpit.

“Between his service in the U.S. Navy, where he retired at the rank of captain, and his later work as a civilian at NASA, John spent his entire life in service to our country. His career included the test pilot’s dream of two ‘first flights’ in a new spacecraft -- with Gus Grissom on Gemini 3, and as Commander of STS-1, the first space shuttle mission, which some have called ‘the boldest test flight in history.’ He flew as Commander on Gemini 10, the first mission to rendezvous with two separate spacecraft the course of a single flight. He orbited the Moon in Apollo 10, and landed there as Commander of the Apollo 16 mission. On STS-9, his final spaceflight, and in an iconic display of test pilot ‘cool,’ he landed the space shuttle with a fire in the back end.

“I participated in many Space Shuttle Flight Readiness Reviews with John, and will always remember him as the classic ‘hell of an engineer’ from Georgia Tech, who had an uncanny ability to cut to the heart of a technical issue by posing the perfect question -- followed by his iconic phrase, ‘Just asking...’

“John Young was at the forefront of human space exploration with his poise, talent, and tenacity. He was in every way the 'astronaut’s astronaut.' We will miss him.”


NASA astronaut John Young works aboard the flight deck of space shuttle Columbia...during mission STS-1 in April of 1981.
NASA / Robert L. Crippen

Friday, January 5, 2018

EM-1 Update: The Space Launch System and Orion Are Set to Reach Major Milestones This Year...

An artist's concept of NASA's Space Launch System rocket soaring in the sky.

NASA Deep Space Exploration Systems Look Ahead to Action-Packed 2018 (News Release)

Engineers preparing NASA’s deep space exploration systems to support missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond are gearing up for a busy 2018. The agency aims to complete the manufacturing of all the major hardware by the end of the year for Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), which will pave the road for future missions with astronauts. Planes, trains, trucks and ships will move across America and over oceans to deliver hardware for assembly and testing of components for the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket while teams at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida prepare the Ground Systems infrastructure. Testing will take place from the high seas to the high skies and in between throughout the year and across the country, not only in support of EM-1, but also for all subsequent missions.


Early in the year, engineers at Kennedy will bolt Orion’s heat shield to the crew module. The heat shield will endure temperatures as high as 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, half as hot as the surface of the Sun, when Orion returns from its missions near the Moon. Mating the heat shield is a crucial step before the service module arrives from Europe in the middle of the year. Once the powerhouse for the spacecraft arrives, technicians will outfit it for mating with the crew module and stack the elements together, joining propulsion lines, avionics and other connections. After the major elements are stacked together, technicians will verify that the integrated crew and service module work as expected and hardware is responding as intended before shipping the stack to NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio for testing in 2019.

NASA engineers and the U.S. Navy will head out to sea off the coast of California in January to evaluate how they plan to recover Orion after the EM-1 test flight. In Yuma, Arizona, engineers will perform three remaining tests to qualify Orion’s parachutes for missions with crew, and at White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico, workers will continue tests to verify the propulsion system for Orion’s European Service Module works as planned. At the Denver facility of Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin, a structural test article will undergo pressure, acoustic, pyrotechnic and other testing to help ensure Orion can stand up to vibrations, loads, sounds and blasts associated with separation events in flight.

Work is already well underway and will continue for the Orion spacecraft that will carry astronauts on Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2). Workers are welding the primary elements of Orion’s structure at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and will ship the completed vessel to Kennedy by the end of 2018. At NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, engineers will review the life support and crew survival systems, and astronauts and test subjects will continue evaluations of the crew interface. NASA engineers are preparing a test version of the spacecraft and separation ring for a mid-air test of Orion’s launch abort system. A precursor to the EM-2 crewed flight of Orion, the test, called Ascent Abort 2, will validate the operations of the launch abort system in a dynamic flight environment.

Space Launch System

SLS engineers will move at full throttle to complete building rocket hardware that will roar off the launch pad. Michoud will see a surge of activity, as five major structural pieces of SLS come together to form the 212-foot-tall core stage. The four RS-25 engines that will produce two million pounds of thrust upon launch will be attached to the stage. Engineers will ship the integrated hardware on the Pegasus barge to NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, for the final test in 2019 before launch, called the “green run” test, when all four engines roar to life and drain the core stage tanks of more than 700,000 gallons of propellant in a mere eight minutes. The brains of the rocket, the core stage avionics and flight computers, will complete qualification and functional testing and be readied for the green run.

Solid rocket booster segments made by Orbital ATK in Utah will ride the rails to Kennedy and join booster parts, such as the aft and forward skirts. Two launch adapters made at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama will also arrive at Kennedy. Pegasus will take the 30-foot-tall launch vehicle stage adapter, and NASA’s Guppy cargo airplane will carry the Orion stage adapter. The Orion stage adapter not only connects the Orion vehicle to the SLS, but will also be loaded with 13 small satellites.

SLS testing will continue as the core stage structural test articles for the liquid hydrogen tank, intertank, and liquid oxygen tank arrive at Marshall and are loaded into towering test stands to be pushed, pulled and twisted to simulate flight. Meanwhile, engineers are working on the design of the Exploration Upper Stage and preparing drawings and engineering products for a Critical Design Review in late 2018. Plans call for using the Exploration Upper Stage on EM-2 as part of the first crewed flight test. SLS teams will also continue to build core stage components and other rocket parts for EM-2 and test engines in support of future missions with crew.

Ground Systems

Workers at Kennedy will continue to ready NASA’s modernized spaceport in Florida for blast off of the rocket and spacecraft. In the spring, the mobile launcher will be rolled out to Launch Pad 39B ahead of a fit check that will verify all physical connections between the launcher and pad systems fit before rolling it into the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for testing. This includes the major interfaces such as mount mechanisms and ignition overpressure and sound suppression water pipes, as well as smaller interfaces like gaseous nitrogen and helium supply lines and access platforms. After testing in the VAB is complete, the mobile launcher will roll back to the pad for several months of full system testing. Over the summer, critical software updates used for command and control to support EM-1 will be completed and teams will prepare for crewed missions.

Ground systems engineers will begin launch pad preparations for launch processing in support of EM-2 by fabricating umbilicals that will service the Exploration Upper Stage engines while the rocket is on the pad. Workers will also start construction for a massive holding tank for liquid hydrogen that will be pumped into the core stage of SLS.

All the work by NASA and its contractors helps set the stage for an even busier 2019, when Orion and SLS will be integrated, tested, and rolled out to the launch pad — one of the final steps before EM-1. That initial test flight of the SLS -- launched from NASA’s modernized spaceport in Florida -- will send Orion beyond where any spacecraft built for humans has ventured. All of this foundational work in 2018 and 2019 will enable NASA’s efforts to build a flexible, reusable and sustainable infrastructure that will last multiple decades and support missions into deep space of increasing complexity.

Source: NASA.Gov


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

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The CST-100 Moves One Step Closer To Its First Orbital Flight This Year!

An artist's concept of an Atlas V rocket launching Boeing's CST-100 Starliner capsule into space.

United Launch Alliance Completes Key Milestone for Launch of Boeing’s Starliner and Return of U.S.-based Human Spaceflight (Press Release)

Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., Jan. 4, 2018 – United Launch Alliance (ULA) successfully completed an Atlas V Launch Segment Design Certification Review (DCR) recently in preparation for the launch of astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. soil in The Boeing Company’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. ULA’s Atlas V DCR supported the Boeing International Space Station (ISS) DCR that was held with NASA at Kennedy Space Center in early December.

“Design Certification Review is a significant milestone that completes the design phase of the program, paving the way to operations,” said Barb Egan, ULA Commercial Crew program manager. “Hardware and software final qualification tests are underway, as well as a major integrated test series, including structural loads. Future tests will involve launch vehicle hardware, such as jettison tests, acoustic tests, and, finally, a pad abort test in White Sands, New Mexico.”

Launch vehicle production is currently on track for an uncrewed August 2018 Orbital Flight Test (OFT). The OFT booster for the uncrewed flight is in final assembly at the factory in Decatur, Ala., and the OFT Centaur upper stage has completed pressure testing. Other hardware such as the launch vehicle adapter and aeroskirt production are on schedule to support test articles and flight.

“ULA is progressing into the operational phase to launch the OFT and Crew Flight Test in 2018, and we are pleased with the progress we’re making toward a successful launch of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner on the Atlas V,” said Gary Wentz, ULA Human and Commercial Systems vice president. “We cannot overstate the importance of all the steps that go into this process as there is more than just a mission or hardware at stake, but the lives of our brave astronauts.”

The Boeing Company selected ULA’s Atlas V rocket for human-rated spaceflight to the ISS. ULA’s Atlas V has launched more than 70 times with a 100 percent mission success rate.

With more than a century of combined heritage, ULA is the nation’s most experienced and reliable launch service provider. ULA has successfully delivered more than 120 satellites to orbit that aid meteorologists in tracking severe weather, unlock the mysteries of our solar system, provide critical capabilities for troops in the field and enable personal device-based GPS navigation.

Source: United Launch Alliance


The Starliner Pad Abort Test and Orbital Flight Test vehicles undergo construction at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Happy New Year, Everyone!

The Falcon Heavy rocket is in vertical position for testing at Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A in Florida...on December 28, 2017.

Just thought I'd start this year off by posting these amazing hi-res photos that were recently released by SpaceX of its first Falcon Heavy rocket. The Falcon Heavy's static-fire test is currently scheduled for January 6—while its maiden flight is being targeted for no earlier than January 15. Exciting times lie ahead! Especially considering that NASA's Space Launch System should truly be taking form at the Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana over the course of this year, and test flights for SpaceX's Crew Dragon vehicle and Boeing's CST-100 capsule should take place sometime in the spring and summer, respectively...

Godspeed and have a safe and memorable 2018.

The Falcon Heavy rocket is in vertical position for testing at Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A in Florida...on December 28, 2017.

The Falcon Heavy rocket is in vertical position for testing at Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A in Florida...on December 28, 2017.

The Falcon Heavy rocket is in vertical position for testing at Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A in Florida...on December 28, 2017.