Thursday, October 29, 2009

RIP Crew Module Simulator

After a day of trials by weather and an eventual scrub, the Ares I-X booster launched Wednesday morning into a hazy Florida sky. After a 2 minute, twelve second burn of its sole solid rocket booster, the vehicle performed a planned stage separation, with the booster itself parachuting down to the recovery area in the Atlantic Ocean. The Upper Stage Simulator continued its parabolic track and crashed in to the ocean, taking with it the Orion Crew Module Simulator. Even though it was only a mockup, and not even what you could call a boilerplate, it is sad that it won't wind up on display anywhere.

Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana described it as "the most beautiful thing he ever saw". I agree, but adding the thrill was less like watching humans travel to space aboard a Shuttle, and more like a large model rocket. Like a model rocket, the X-1 used a reusable booster launched with solid fuel, and deploying a recovery system. There was no recovery system for the USS and the CMS, so as planned they were expendable. So good-bye CMS! We hardly knew you! And we end with a cardinal rule of model rockets: If you don't want to lose it, don't launch it!

My apologies for the shaky cam!

Spacecraft of the Week #9

Another late entry, but this weeks' Spacecraft of the Week' celebrates the first flight of the Space Shuttle program. Before Columbia was first launched in 1981, NASA conducted a series of free-flights with Enterprise, OV-101. Taking flight piggy-backed on top a specially modified 747 purchased from American Airlines, Enterprise would be released to glide back to the runway, providing a valuable cache of data needed to refine landing techniques after spaceflight. Unpowered, at least for flight, it would not glide as much as proceed through a controlled fall, much like a flying squirrel drops and swoops from one tree to another or the ground. Only when it nears the ground and raises its nose is there enough lift created by its wings to truly be flying. (And Truly was flying! Dick Truly, destined to fly the orbiter to space and become NASA Administrator was one of Enterprise's pilots!) A soon as this happens, though, drag increases and airspeed rapidly drops. The goal is to have wheels on ground before airspeed reaches stall conditions, when the vehicle really would fall. Despite the complexity, astronaut pilots have had remarkable success in bringing the spacecraft to the runway - mostly due to their training on a modified Gulfstream V. And how did NASA know how to modify the Gulfstream? With the data collected by Enterprise, of course.

In the words of Buzz Lightyear, "This isn't flying. It's falling... with style!"

Monday, October 19, 2009

Spacecraft of the Week #8

Tomorrow morning, Tuesday, October 20, shortly after midnight, an event will occur that has not happened in almost 30 years. A new launch vehicle will leave the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center and make its way to Launch Complex 39B. Atop the Ares I-X booster is our Spacecraft of the Week. The 'Crew Module Simulator' is a boilerplate of an Orion Spacecraft. Mounted on a simulated service module and topped with a Launch Abort System Simulator, the CMS is heavily instrumented to provide feedback of the forces experienced in the launch.

The Ares I-X has been the center of some controversy. Built as a test for the more powerful Ares I, this uprated Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) was never intended to launch alone. Paired up along side an external fuel tank , SRBs have helped launch Space Shuttles since 1981. With modifications and an extra segment of rocket fuel, the Ares I was intended to launch astronauts to orbit and the International Space Station. Critics fear that undampened vibrations of the burning solid fuel would prove fatal for astronauts aboard. The same fears arose after the Saturn V's first flight. Engineering provided an answer and the Saturn V became one of the most successful boosters in history. The Ares I-X will provide similar data and provide engineers with a benchmark for final development of the Ares I.

But first, the CMS and the Ares I-X need to get to the pad. Tomorrow will be an exciting day for space hardware enthusiasts, and sitting atop the object of their attention will be our Spacecraft of the Week, the Crew Module Simulator.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

LCROSS – What Happened?

Last week, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, completed its 113-day mission by crashing into the surface of the moon. Preceding the satellite was the bus-sized Centaur booster stage that accompanied it most of the way. Many of you knew this was going to happen from the day it was launched piggyback with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter on June 18. NASA predicted the impact would raise a could of debris 10 meters in altitude, rising over the limb of the moon, that would be visible to telescopes on earth.

I was at my telescopes eyepiece watching – a long shot to see anything as those of us on the east coast were already in daylight, but I was hoping the scientists had underestimated the effect of the impact. I remembered reading about the monks in 1178 AD who witnessed “two horns of light” while looking at the moon, which some astronomers speculate was the creation of crater Giordano Bruno. I thought if they could see that with the unaided eye, I might get to see something with my scope.

The time came, and went. Nothing to be seen. Did I miss it? Was I looking in the right place? Did I mess up the time? I went inside to check NASA TV and used the DVR to rewind back to impact time. Nothing there either. Meanwhile, I hear the scientist say that it was successful with data returned to earth. The bombing of the moon that had been trumpeted in the news was a fizzle.

This is one of the difficulties in communicating science to others. Predictions are made – most conscientious scientists will be conservative in their predictions, but often excitement tends to cause over speculation. We really did not know what would happen when the Centaur and LCROSS impacted the moon, although we did have a precedent. In1971, the Saturn V S-IVB third stage of the Apollo 14 mission slammed into the moon at 2.54 km/sec. It left a crater 35 m in diameter, ejecting debris for 1.5 km. Although smaller, the Centaur was traveling faster, and was predicted to evacuate a larger crater and produce a much larger plume. In fact, both of these events occurred, observed by LCROSS and LRO, just not from earth.

Sometimes science can produce a wonderful show that helps to motivate and interest the general public, and sometimes we get disappointed. Nature is fickle. There is a difference between what you see on a tour at Kennedy Space Center and what you see on the Jungle Cruise at the Magic Kingdom. The important thing is not the show, but the data returned. And in that respect, LCROSS was very successful.

Spacecraft of the Week #7

Forty one years ago this week, Project Apollo became operational with the launch of Apollo 7, our Spacecraft of the Week. This inaugural manned launch occurred at Launch Complex 34 at Cape Canaveral, the same place where 18 month earlier three astronauts were lost in the worst NASA accident at the time. The crew were launched on the Saturn IB booster, while the big sister Saturn V was awaiting clearance to launch her first astronauts later in the year. While Apollo 7 stayed within low-earth orbit, it never the less generated a lot of interest with the inclusion of a TV camera, enabling the first live transmissions from space. I remember watching the black and white show, annotated by hand-drawn notecards: "The Wally, Walt & Don Show".."From the Lovely Apollo Room"..."High Atop Everything!"

While otherwise non-eventful (except for a later released report of illness of the crew), the mission successfully paved the way for those who would follow. Although the spacecraft was featured in the inaugural parade of Richard Nixon, it's importance and popularity were soon eclipsed by it's siblings. For years it was displayed at the National Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa, Canada. Apollo 7 returned to the States in 2004 to be displayed at the Frontiers of Flight in Dallas, Texas, with a little help from crew member Walt Cunningham, who provided some images for the Field Guide.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Glenn Visitor Center Closes Saturday

This Saturday will be the last for the Visitor Center at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland Ohio. Due to budget cuts, the VC will close and move to the Great Lakes Science Museum downtown. The VC is currently home for the Skylab 2 Apollo capsule, displayed in a small rotunda on a rotating base. It is assumed the spacecraft will follow the VC to Great Lakes, but the decision is up to the Smithsonian. There are a lot of newer air and space museums that would love to display a flown manned spacecraft.

If anyone is in the Cleveland Area, drop in one more time to great this unique CM.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Spacecraft of the Week #6

Spacecraft of the Week is back after a short hiatus, and features an unflown spacecraft that would have given America's first astronaut a chance to orbit the earth. The Mercury program was to incrementally allow astronauts and NASA researchers experience into longer stays in space. After the first two suborbital flights would come a trio of three orbit flights, followed by three or four 22 orbit full day flights. This would take the program right to the start of the two seat Gemini flights. The first of these day trips was to be Mercury 10, piloted by Alan Shepard, who was launched on the first sub-orbital manned flight. Shepard's capsule would be outfitted with extra consumables for the longer mission. He christened his second Mercury Freedom 7 II, being the only spacecraft to my knowledge with a name that contains both Aramaic and Roman numbers. Due to budget constraints, the first day mission was reassigned to Gordon Cooper's Mercury 9 flight. After Cooper's successful flight, all remaining Mercury missions were canceled to free up talent for project Gemini, and Freedom 7 II was declared excess.

I originally saw Freedom 7 II at the visitor center for Ames Research Center in California. It was very accessible, displayed without a cover (only over the open hatch) and mounted on a McDonnell service rack. Previously, it was held in storage at Cape Canaveral after its mission was cancelled. For many years it wowed west coast Space Campers, but in 2003 was recalled by the Smithsonian and placed in the new Udvar-Hazy Center. There it sits under the protective wing of the orbiter Enterprise.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Buzz and Buzz

Buzz Aldrin visited Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom today to be part of a ticker tape parade for the returning Buzz Lightyear. Buzz (Lightyear, not Aldrin) spent over 400 days aboard the International Space Station before returning with Discovery's crew last month. Michael Fincke, a crew mate of Buzz (Lightyear, not Aldrin) also joined in on the celebration. Aldrin and Fincke rode in classic Camaro convertibles while Lightyear was carried by his trusty friend RC Car. The paraders were followed by the WDW Marching Band.

The procession began in Frontierland, made it's way to the Castle Hub, and then down MainStreet, USA. A stop on Main Street allowed for brief interviews, cheers by the crowds, and pictures and videos. Along the way, crowds waved, with many wearing NASA shirts and hats and many children (possibly in anticipation of the evening's Halloween party) were wearing flight suits.

After the parade, Fincke held a Q & A in the auditorium behind the Expo Center, while concurrently Aldrin had a book signing in the same building. I had time only for the book signing, so I waited in the hour long line and finally had my turn. Aldrin looked very good, though much older than when I first met him 20 years ago. I related to him a time we worked an Epcot event together, where he wore a Buzz Lightyear button in which the words 'Buzz off!' were imprinted. I asked him then what he thought of his namesake, and he told me, "I'm as proud as if he were my own son!" I've shared that story with many students and teachers, and Buzz appeared to enjoy it. A good day.