Category Archives: Spaceflight

NASA is Back in the Game – A New Era in Space Exploration

Today was a historic day for American spaceflight.  After more than forty years America finally has a launch vehicle to take humans beyond low-Earth orbit.  It’s not as if we’ve wasted our time hanging out in LEO since 1972, we’ve learned some truly amazing things about space as an environment since then.  After the Apollo program ended we built Skylab where humans had their first extended stays in space and began the study of the effect of micro gravity on the human body, animals, and plants.  Skylab led to Mir, the Russian space station, we sent up the venerable Hubble Space Telescope, performed many incredible experiments with the space shuttle, built the International Space Station and much more up until now.  Now we have turned the page on all that we’ve accomplished since Gene Cernan climbed back into the LEM a final time in 1972.  We’re not leaving all those accomplishments behind, we’re simply moving forward, and upward.

Space Launch System (SLS) test flight of the unmanned Orion capsule (Credit:  CNN)

Space Launch System (SLS) test flight of the unmanned Orion capsule (Credit: CNN)

Today was the first test flight of the Orion Crew Module (OCM) on board a Delta IV Heavy Rocket.  The whole unit together comprises the Space Launch System (SLS).  Today’s test flight was unmanned so instead of astronauts the OCM was packed with sensors to monitor the performance of the capsule’s performance during every second of the 4 hour flight.  The SLS looks very similar to the Apollo-era Saturn V rockets.  While not quite as tall it is certainly more powerful than the rockets that carried Neil Armstrong to the moon in 1969.  SLS features three separate booster engines compared to the Saturn V’s three engines in one block.  The goal is more usable fuel to go deeper into space.

No human has left low-Earth orbit in over forty years but today’s test flight took us one step closer to that achievement.  The OCM was blasted 3,600 miles above Earth’s surface.  For reference the Hubble telescope which was at the upper limit of the space shuttle’s range orbits at 347 miles.  At an altitude of 3,600 miles you could see most of the Earth out the window.  The photo below was taken from the OCM and is probably very familiar if you’re old enough to remember the days of the Apollo missions when we first left the Earth behind.  Now four decades removed from those heady days an entire generation has grown up without seeing these kind of images shown on the news.  It’s my hope that as the SLS-Orion program moves forward the American public will rediscover a love for space exploration that its parents and grandparents had which made our country great.

An image we haven't seen live for over 40 years.  (Credit NASA)

An image we haven’t seen live for over 40 years. (Credit NASA)

The seeds of success have been sown by hard work, determination, and talent from all the people who have thus far worked on the SLS-Orion program.  Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13 wrote in his book Lost Moon, “I look up at the moon and wonder when we’ll be going back and who that will be?”  We’ve yet to answer that question but right now we can at least say, “Soon.”

Voyager 1 Has Left the Solar System

Voyager 1 has officially left the building!  Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Voyager 1 has officially left the building! Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A new space milestone has just occurred, or occurred around August 2012.  The Voyager 1 space probe that was launched on September 5, 1977 has finally left the solar system.  Thirty five years after its launch the audacious probe enters a new stage in its mission, exploring the region of space outside of the Sun’s influence.

The Sun’s influence in space extends way beyond the orbit of Neptune.  We know that beyond the inner planets lies the Kuiper Belt which is home to Pluto and many, many other dwarf planets.  Finally at about 18 billion kilometers from the Sun and four times the distance between the Sun and Neptune, is a region known as the heliopause.  The heliopause is the region where the solar wind from the Sun collides with the interstellar medium, a collection of particles which is the collection of gas, dust, and cosmic rays.  The solar particles are so dilute once it reaches the interstellar medium that the heliopause is considered the end of the Sun’s influence (although its gravity extends well beyond the heliopause to the Oort Cloud).

A new paper that has been published confirms the conclusions that were drawn about the solar wind particles back in December.  Data from the probe showed that the number of subatomic particles coming from the Sun dropped dramatically sometime around August 2012 while the number of cosmic rays from the interstellar medium spiked.  While it’s not exactly new news, it still is exciting to think about.  There is now a man-made object outside of the solar system and is still able to communicate with us 18 billion kilometers away.

Eventually the plutonium inside of Voyager will stop producing electricity and communications will cease.  At that point, the probe will continue to sail in the direction of the galactic center.  There is an estimated 10-15 years of power left on the probe so we need to enjoy it while it lasts.  It will be a long time before human travelers can journey this far from our home, but we’ll do it one day.

Grab a Dragon by the Tail

This morning marks an historic achievement for private spaceflight.  At 9:56 am EDT SpaceX’s unmanned Dragon capsule docked with the International Space Station marking the first time a private spacecraft has rendezvoused with the orbital lab.  The time of nation-state dominance in space has come to an end with this historic link-up.  SpaceX has shown the world that space is open for all of humanity, not just governments.  What was once done by clandestine government agencies motivated by one-upmanship  is  now achievable for citizens for the advancement of space exploration and colonization.

Image Credit: NASA/SpaceX

During the docking, astronaut Don Petit on-board the space station used the giant 58-foot grapple arm called Canadarm2 to reel Dragon in for berthing.  After grabbing a hold of the capsule, Petit said to Mission Control in Houston, “Houston, station, it looks like we’ve got us a dragon by the tail” followed by applause in Houston and SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, CA.  The operation was done in almost total darkness during orbital night using only the ISS’s exterior lights to illuminate the capsule and the grappling arm.  However, the rendezvous was not without a hiccup.  On Dragon’s approach to the space station, its navigation system experienced a glitch.  Dragon uses a system called LIDAR (light detection and ranging) to measure distances.  The LIDAR uses laser beams to measure the distance to objects by observing how long it takes the beams of light to reflect back off an object.  The LIDAR experienced a glitch when stray light reflections from another module on the space station were being gathered by device.  Dragon’s mission control was quick on its feet and resolved the problem by narrowing LIDAR’s field of view to eliminate the stray light.  All went smoothly from there.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk is one step closer to realizing the dream of his company, to make humanity a multi-planet species.  Although that goal is a very long way off, this historic accomplishment’s importance cannot be overlooked.  Whether a SpaceX craft is the vehicle that takes humans to Mars or not, SpaceX has helped NASA by freeing up precious budget room that can now be devoted to planning for a Mars mission.  Now NASA doesn’t have to build and fund another transport vehicle to low-Earth orbit.  Now we can look forward to a future when governments and private companies cooperate in space to achieve massive goals once possible only in dreams.  Now, we can, to use the common phrase, boldly go where no man has gone before!

Year of the “Dragon”

After watching the 60 Minutes segment on SpaceX last night I’m convinced that 2012 truly is the year of the “Dragon”.  As SpaceX founder and Chief Development Officer Elon Musk says, “We are at the dawn of a new age”.  That new age is the beginning of private spaceflight taking over what only governments could do for fifty years, launching astronauts into space.  In the 60 Minutes segment CBS anchor Scott Pelley interviewed Musk and toured the SpaceX facility in Los Angeles.  Musk is a daring young entrepreneur who isn’t a stranger to uncharted territory.  Musk founded PayPal back in 1999, which at the time was revolutionary.  He is also the CEO of Tesla Motors which produces all-electric luxury cars.  At age 40 he is a naturalized U.S. citizen and one of America’s most successful entrepreneurs.  In 2002, Musk’s ambitions shifted to the aerospace industry and he founded SpaceX with the vision of lowering the cost of building rockets and spaceships to transport astronauts to low Earth orbit and beyond.

The SpaceX Dragon capsule

Now in its tenth year, SpaceX is competing for a NASA contract to build America’s next fleet of spaceship.  Musk considers himself a little kid battling against sumo wrestlers to win the contract but he believes that his company will emerge victorious.  Having already invested $100 million of his own money into SpaceX, Musk is determined to see the honors given to his spaceship.  Back in 2010 SpaceX officially became the first private company to launch an unmanned ship into orbit and return it safely to Earth.  After two near-misses involving timing glitches and software bugs, the unmanned capsule sat aboard a Falcon 9 rocket designed by SpaceX and orbited the Earth two times before successfully splashing down in the Pacific.  The Falcon 9 rocket is a multi-stage rocket much like the Saturn class rockets used by NASA in the Gemini and Apollo programs.  But unlike the Saturns, the Falcon series rockets are fully reusable.  This was a part of Musk’s early goal of lowering the cost of spaceflight as each component can be recovered and reused multiple times.

SpaceX is primed to make history again on April 30th when they send their unmanned capsule named “Dragon” to the International Space Station to dock and deliver supplies.  This will be the first private docking with the ISS and will surely usher in a long line of firsts in private spaceflight.  The Dragon capsule is currently being used for unmanned missions, but as Pelley inquired on his visit to SpaceX’s facility, it has windows.  “Why put windows on a cargo capsule?” he asks.  Why?  Because it’s not a cargo capsule, Musk responds.  Dragon’s ultimate design is to carry astronauts.  SpaceX is currently exploring the possibility of seating for seven, as many as the Space Shuttle.

When asked about American space heroes Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan’s disapproval of the government’s transitioning of space exploration to private enterprise, Musk says he’s saddened to hear men who he regards as personal heroes disapproval of his work.  He believes that if they were to visit SpaceX’s facility and see the over 1,000 employees and how hard they work they would change their minds.  Regardless of what critics say, Musk remains focused on fulfilling his goal of landing that NASA contract to build the next fleet of spacecraft for human exploration.  Extending human presence in space is a fundamental belief of Musk’s.  His vision for eventually making humans a multi-planet race would allow us to greatly increase our knowledge of the universe and survive a potential extinction scenario on Earth.

Musk, along with everyone at SpaceX is striving towards the goal set ten years ago by the daring entrepreneur to make 2012 the year of the Dragon Capsule.  Americans need to get back into space and SpaceX is certainly on the brink.

Falcon 9 rocket and SpaceX founder Elon Musk Credit: FoxNews

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