Monday, February 1, 2016

Forever remembered: the crew of STS-107

The crew of STS-107. Photo Credit: NASA
This post will be rather quick. Over the last week, NASA held a number of remembrance events for the three biggest tragedies in the US space program's history: Apollo 1 in 1967, Challenger STS-51L in 1986 and Columbia STS-107 in 2003.

I am 27 years old. I wasn't alive when Challenger exploded, but I was for Columbia. Next to 9/11, it was the biggest news event of my life. I will never forget where I was when I learned of the break up of the Space Shuttle over Texas.

I had been interested in space since 1998 when I watched Discovery send John Glenn back to space. I watched it on TV, but the energy of that launch came through the set and into my soul. I loved it. 

But for the next four-and-a-half years, it was just another interest. I liked dinosaurs, Titanic, and architecture too. Columbia, however, did something to me that would change me forever. I realized that this was something that people were willing to die for. From that point on, I knew that whatever I did in my life, it would revolve around space in some way.

The legacy of the crew of Columbia is many things -- friendship, faith, comradery, science, exploration -- but I think their biggest legacy is the change in trajectory that ultimately happened at NASA. The agency, while it still has many flaws, is pushing outward.

I love the International Space Station. It is one of the greatest projects ever attempted. But, because of the end of the Shuttle program and the push for an exploration class rocket, the station has become more than just a research lab in low Earth orbit. It is a testing ground for long-duration missions. It is a place where private companies can do business, and it is our way-station to deep space.

I do believe these things would have eventually happened, with or without ISS or a tragic accident, but because of the crew of Columbia and their sacrifice, their memories will be honored by continuing to push the limits of the frontier.

May humanity never forget Rick Husband, William McCool, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon. Hail Columbia and her final crew.

Video Courtesy of NASA

Welcome to 2016

The view of the main pressurized modules of ISS from
 the astronauts during US EVA-35. Credit: NASA
Welcome to 2016. I know it is already February. It has been a busy last couple of months. I plan to expand the website this year, and get into better posting habits. But for now, here is my outlook on what to expect at our favorite palace in space.

This year, the International Space Station turns 16 years old—at least some of the pieces. This was the year that ISS program was originally supposed to end. In 2010, all five space station partner agencies decided to delay that to 2020. Even now, talks are underway to continue the life of the outpost to 2024.

Had the decision held to end the program, it is arguable that the burgeoning commercial cargo and crew industries would still be a decade or more away. Instead, today, active private cargo ships are routinely delivering supplies to the station. Next year, commercial crews will begin visiting the outpost. This year, Bigelow Aerospace, a company that develops expandable space habitats, will have it's first module attached to the ISS, and there are talks of a private airlock being added to ISS by 2018.

Instead of planning for the disposal the 400 ton satellite into the Pacific Ocean this year, mission planners are busy working on "traffic jams" of visiting vehicles constantly coming and going to and from the station. They do this all while working on training for more than a half-dozen spacewalks.

This year promises to be one of the busiest at the outpost. Starting in March, the first of up to five SpaceX Dragon cargo ships will be launched to resupply the orbiting lab. Commercial Resupply Service 8 will be a return to flight for SpaceX's Dragon cargo ship after a launch mishap in June of last year during the CRS-7 mission. The company already returned the Falcon 9 booster to flight in December.

BEAM seen attached to Tranquility's aft port.
Photo Credit: NASA
CRS-8 will haul with it the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). Once the capsule berths to the Harmony node, the BEAM will then be pulled out of the "trunk" of Dragon by the space station's robotic arm and be attached to the aft port of the Tranquility module.

BEAM is a small test module that will study the structural integrity, leakage, radiation exposure and more, during its two year stay on the outpost. Afterwords, it will be removed and allowed to burn up in the atmosphere. Bigelow Aerospace intends to use a similar design for an airlock on it's eventual private space stations sometime in the 2020s.

SpaceX will launch International Docking Adapter 2 in March on CRS-9. This will be attached to Pressurized Mating Adapter 2 on forward end of Harmony. IDA-1 was originally supposed to be attached there, however, it was lost during CRS-7.

A replacement, IDA-3, will be launched on a future SpaceX Dragon flight. It will be attached to PMA-3. To prepare for that, it will be moved from it's current location (port side of Tranquility) to the zenith port of Harmony.

Cygnus OA-4 as seen from the ISS crew below
the station moments before being captured by the
space stations robotic arm.
Photo Credit NASA
The other company delivering cargo, Orbital ATK, recently returned it's Cygnus cargo ship to flight. This year, the company plans to launch three times. As early as late May, the OA-5 Cygnus mission should see the return to flight of the Antares rocket, which exploded shortly after liftoff in October 2014.

If the schedule holds, SpaceX and Orbital ATK should both have cargo ships berthed to the space station at the same time in late spring or early summer.

While commercial resupply is poised to have it's biggest year yet, the Russian's plan to continue their steady supply of Progress spacecraft. Three are scheduled to launch this year - all of which are of the new modernized MS variant. Additionally, Japan will launch it's HTV-6 cargo ship in October. In all, up to 12 resupply ships could reach the station in 2016.

In March, the first one-year crew members on the ISS are scheduled to return to Earth. Scott Kelly and Mikhail Korniyenko launched in late March 2015 and are scheduled to return to Earth on March 3, 2016. Also leaving with them will be Sergey Volkov, who launched in September 2015.

Launching a couple of weeks later, Soyuz TMA-20M will take Russian cosmonauts Aleksey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka as well as NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams. They will stay aboard as part of Expedition 47 and 48 and return to Earth in September. This will put Williams about 14 days ahead of Kelly as the most experienced U.S. astronaut with a cumulative 534 days over four missions.

A new Soyuz model, called MS, will replace the
TMA-M series currently serving the space station.
Photo Credit: NASA
Following the departure of TMA-19M in June with Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and astronauts Timothy Peake and Timothy Kopra of ESA and NASA respectively, Expedition 48 will begin. Joining the expedition a couple weeks later will be the crew of a brand new Soyuz: Soyuz MS-1. Aboard will be NASA astronaut Kathleen Rubins, Russian cosmonaut Anatoli Ivanishin and Japanese astronaut Takuya Onishi. They will stay in space till November.

Launching on Soyuz MS-2 in September to be part of Expedition 49 will be NASA astronaut Robert Kimbrough and Russian cosmonauts Andrei Borisenko and Sergey Ryzhikov. They will land in March 2017.

Finally, in November, the 50th expedition to the orbiting outpost will launch. Soyuz MS-3 will carry NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy and French astronaut Tomas Pesquet. They will stay in space till May 2017.

So far in 2016, the ISS has seen one extravehicular activity. US EVA-35 saw astronauts Tim Kopra and Tim Peake step outside to fix a failed power regulator. The Sequential Shunt Unit, as it is called, failed in November and needed to be replaced at the earliest convenience.

The SSU was fixed, and other tasks completed as well, however, only a few hours into the spacewalk, water was discovered in Kopra's helmet forcing a "termination" of the EVA. The suit will be evaluated before used further.

This month, the ISS should see a Russian EVA, as well as the departure of the Cygnus currently berthed at the Earth facing port of Node 1.

A highlight video of EVA-35, which occurred on Jan. 15.
Video courtesy of NASA.