Sunday, January 27, 2013

A last minute mission with a fairy tale ending

Columbia's ill-fated final mission, STS-107, launched in January 2003, while Expedition 6's crew of three was living aboard the International Space Station. STS-107 was one of the last space shuttle missions that did not dock at the International Space Station. So, with the exception of the world's first long-distance extraterrestrial chess match between Station and Shuttle crew members, there was little interaction between STS-107 and Expedition 6.

ISS crew member Don Pettit and Columbia pilot Willie McCool started (but of course never finished) a match, played on velcro chess boards
Source: Wikipedia.

However, the tragic Columbia accident had an immediate, serious effect on Expedition 6's mission. The disaster grounded the space shuttle fleet indefinitely, so the three astronauts' expected ride home - the Space Shuttle Atlantis - did not come to pick them up in March 2003. In fact, it was over two years before another space shuttle mission would fly again.

The trail of the ISS across the sky, and a full moon, viewed in Yosemite National Park.

Without space shuttles launching, Don Pettit, Ken Bowersox, and Nikolai Budarin's only option for getting home was the Russian Soyuz escape capsule docked to the ISS. So the three men spent an extra month and a half in space and in May 2003 they hitched a ride home on the Soyuz, landing safely in the hills of central Kazakhstan.

Expedition 6, soon after the recovery crew arrived.

The ISS can't stay untended for long, so NASA and the Russian Space Agency had to cobble together a last-minute Expedition 7 to replace Pettit, Bowersox, and Budarin. Even with the ISS's amazing recycling capabilities (every drop of water aboard the station -- the vapor the crew exhales in each breath, their urine, water evaporating from drying laundry -- is recycled) the station still requires constant resupply of hydrogen, oxygen, food, and space parts.

Long-exposure photo of stars taken on board the ISS.

As an aside, I should mention that even though the Station is dependent on Earth, it does recycle enough hydrogen and oxygen to save $700 million a year in the cost of replenishing supplies. Chris Jones' Too Far From Home provides an example of just how this recycling works in practice: Pettit's favorite snack in orbit was bread and honey, and he'd use a disposable wet wipe to clean up the sticky mess after eating. Before throwing away the used wet wipe, he'd leave it out to dry for a few hours. That way, the ISS recycling system could reclaim the tiny bit of water in the wet wipe!

International Space Station Expedition 6 Crew.
Source: NASA.

Without the space shuttles flying, there weren't as many supplies being ferried up to the station. This meant that Expedition 7 was crewed by only two men instead of the usual three: Astronaut Ed Lu and Cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko. Both men were veterans of multiple past missions, and had flown together (and gotten along quite well) during a 2000 Atlantis mission. After they were picked, Ed had just a few short weeks to train for his unexpected Soyuz launch.

Expedition 7. Lu added an STS-107 mission patch to his suit before the launch, in honor of Columbia's last crew.
Source: NASA.

Launching in April with a bunch of extra supplies, the two men spent just a just a few days on the Station with Pettit, Bowersox, and Budarin before Expedition 6 returned to Earth. Then, for the next nearly five months, it was just Lu and Malenchenko in Earth orbit... except for a few hours on October 15, when they were joined in outer space by Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei, whose capsule orbited 40 miles below the Station.

Astronaut Yang, after completing China's first manned space flight!

Lu and Malenchenko shared something in common that I don't think any other spaceflight crews have: they were both engaged to be married when they went into space! Lu had proposed to his fiancee, Christine Romero, in Star City a week before he launched. Malenchenko had also recently gotten engaged when he was picked to fly. Lu and Romero were married a year after the launch, in May 2004. Malenchenko, however, was married in August 2003, while aboard the International Space Station(!!!)

Ed Lu and Christine Romero, back at Johnson Space Center after Expedition 7's return.
Source: NASA.

Malenchenko and his fiance Ekaterina Dmitrieva took advantage of a quirk of Texas law that allows a wedding to proceed by proxy with one party absent. Kat Dmitrieva, a Russia-born Texan, walked down the aisle of an auditorium at NASA's Johnson Space Center in front of several hundred guests. Meanwhile, floating about 240 miles above New Zealand, Malenchenko hovered in front of a video camera and TV screen, with Ed Lu, his best man and only witness, floating beside him. Lu played "here comes the bride" on the station's electronic keyboard. Following the ceremony, everyone (except Malenchenko and Lu) enjoyed a wedding reception at a fancy restaurant nearby.

A lifesize cardboard cutout of Malenchenko, bowtie added, attended the wedding reception.
Source: MSNBC.

The extraterrestrial couple's road to the alter was not without a few bumps. Apparently the Russian Space Agency was a little iffy about allowing the wedding to proceed... Malenchenko is a military officer, and there are restrictions on marriages between officers and foreign citizens. But eventually they gave the wedding their go-ahead. The couple will celebrate their ten year anniversary this July; they have one son. Lu and Romero are coming up on their ninth anniversary, and also have a child.

A wedding chapel with a view.

Sources: MSNBC; Florida Today; Wikipedia; and a great audio book I've been listening to lately: Chris Jones's Too Far From Home, the story of Pettit, Bowersox, and Budarin's time on the international space station following the Columbia disaster.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Space Shuttles' Faithful Friends

For over thirty years, a small fleet of airplanes made possible each space shuttle flight. First, there's the Northrop T-38 Talon. The T-38 is the world's first supersonic jet trainer, and the longest serving, as T-38s are still in use today. During the heyday of the space shuttle program, NASA operated a fleet of over 30 of these little airplanes, which were used to train astronauts and employed as chase planes during the first space shuttle landings and space shuttle transport flights.

Five T-38s fly in formation over the Space Shuttle Enterprise, in 1977.
Source: NASA.

Astronauts have relied on T-38 jets for transportation between Cape Canaveral, Houston, and a myriad of other training destinations. Access to these jets also kept military pilot astronauts' flying skills sharp. But in the early days of manned space flight, T-38 crashes killed a stunningly high fraction of NASA's astronauts. Of the first 30 astronauts hired by NASA in the late 1950s and 1960s, four died in T-38 crashes: Theodore Freeman, Elliot See, Charlie Bassett, and C.C. Williams. The high fraction of T-38 fatalities likely says more about the amount of time the astronauts were spending flying T-38s (a whole lot of time) than any other contributing factor.

Astronaut Theodore Freeman, biking to work at Mission Control in Houston.

Despite that grim statistic, many astronauts think the T-38 is a nice plane to fly. It is relatively predictable, with few unusual difficulties. But... only experienced pilots can fly the T-38. According to what I've read, NASA currently only allows astronauts who are military pilots (on active duty, not retired) to fly its T-38s. It's not a forgiving aircraft, especially at slower speeds. It is relatively hard to handle on landing because of its high stall speed.

One of NASA's T-38s in flight.
Source: Wikipedia.

In addition to being used for crew training and transport, T-38s were used as chase planes, to observe early space shuttle flights (the first seven shuttle flights or so). T-38 crews would fly behind the shuttle as it approached the runway, confirming that the spacecraft's landing gear has been extended and gathering data on the craft's performance.

A T-38 chases Columbia on the shuttle's inaugural landing in 1981.

As I mentioned, the T-38 is part of a whole fleet of aircraft that supported shuttle missions. There were two modified Boeing 747s that served as Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA); these are perhaps the most well known NASA planes. The T-38s have worked with them too, for example accompanying the shuttles and SCAs as chase planes on the final shuttle flights last year.

Atlantis, being mated to a shuttle carrier aircraft.
Source: Wikipedia.

There were four modified Gulfstream II aircraft used to train shuttle pilots with simulated shuttle landings. They were also occasionally used in place of T-38s to transport shuttle crews. I talked in more detail about how that training worked in another blog post.

The shuttle controls are on the left; regular Gulfstream II controls are on the right.
Source: NASA.

NASA also operated two Martin WB-57Fs, called NASA 926 and 928. NASA 926 and 928 are unique in that they the only two Martin WB-57Fs still in service anywhere in the world today. These aircraft served as chase planes during each shuttle launch. 

STS-114, Space Shuttle Discovery, launching. 
The view from one of NASA's WB-57s.
Source: Youtube.

They were modified to carry a special high-definition camera,  and could cruise at a high altitude, tracking the launch. Historically, 926 and 928 been used not just to observe shuttle launches, but for other scientific purposes, as they are equipped with a range of sensors and can carry very large payloads.

NASA's 928, back in the space shuttle days.
Source: Wikipedia.

As is true for the other aircraft I've discussed, NASA has less use for the 926 and 928 since the shuttles stopped flying. But while NASA may not be using 926 and 928 these days, someone else is. These two planes started showing up at airbases in Afghanistan and elsewhere a few years ago, with new low-profile paint jobs. Presumably, they are in use by another government agency, on a not-space-related, secret mission.

A 2012 photo of NASA 928, repainted.
Source: Wikipedia.

It seems a little sad that these two airplanes, the last of their kind, are no longer tasked with observing launching spaceships. NASA 925 was retired in the early 1980s, sits at the Pima County Air Museum in Tuscon, Arizona. One of the four Gulfstream II trainers has also been retired, since 2011 it has sat at the Texas Air & Space Museum in Amarillo. NASA is set to retire half of its T-38 fleet by 2015.

NASA's two shuttle carrier aircraft.
Source: Wikipedia.

What's next for NASA 928 and 926, the three remaining Gulfstream IIs, and what's left of the T-38 fleet? Are they all destined for museums, scrapyards, or re-purposing  in a few years? Or, as the United States begins launching manned space missions again, will there be a renewed role for these veteran airplanes?

Sources: NASA; Arlington Composite Squadron; Collect Space; Astrosaur; Wikipedia;

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Carnival of Space #284!

Welcome to the Carnival of Space! This is my second time hosting the Carnival; you can find my first Carnival hereThe Carnival is a weekly round-up of space stories from around the internet. If you've got a space-related blog, you too can join the Carnival of Space. Email carnivalofspace at gmail dot com to host, share a story you wrote, and to get to know other space bloggers. 

This week's carnival will take you on a voyage around the world; into outer space; to the distant and not-so-distant past... and will explain how you can get there!

Travel to the Sahara Desert: Links through Space shares the story of the Astronomy Club Toutatis's recent trip to Morocco, where club members viewed the club's namesake asteroid, Asteroid 4179 Toutatis, in the night sky over the Sahara. More stories on their trip (and photos!) can be found here.

Watch our moon travel in front of the star Spica, and watch an asteroid fly by the Earth: Astroblogger shares photos and details on his observations of the moon's recent occultation of the blue giant Spica. Also on Astroblogger, you can read the good news that imaging of Asteroid Apophis on its recent flyby proves that that asteroid definitely won't hit Earth in 2036. 

Source: ebay.
Travel to Canberra, Australia: Cheap Astronomy is dedicated to exploring outer space for free (or nearly free). They've posted a podcast answering listeners' questions on a variety of topics.

Secretly fly into low Earth orbit: Weird Warp reports on last week's launch of the U.S. Air Force's secretive X-30 7B space plane. It's a very interesting overview of what's known of the craft's missions and specs.


Voyage to the Winking Demon: Hablo espaƱol? Vega 0.0's Spanish-language post explains how to observe a stellar eclipse in the Algol star system. (An Algol is a demon, hence the system's creepy nickname, "winking demon.")

Travel almost a thousand light years away: Chandra X-Ray Observatory shares observations of the Vela Pulsar, a relatively young pulsar that's a little less than 1,000 light years away. You can also watch a movie of the Vela pulsar spinning! It is turning at a rate of over 11 rotations a second- which is faster than a helicopter rotor!

Journey into NASA's past: NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center might be renamed in honor of Neil Armstrong. But who was Dryden, anyway? The Once and Future Moon shares the story of Hugh Dryden's life, and his significant contributions to aeronautical engineering.

Time travel into the ancient past: Supernova Condensate takes readers a few billion years into the past, to examine new evidence that ancient Mars may have been a watery, Earth-like world.

How might we voyage beyond our solar system? Next Big Future covers the work of researchers seeking to use the Mach Effect to create propellant-less space travel and possibly even to travel via wormholes. Also at Next Big Future you can also read about the electric sail, a propulsion method that features electrically charged  metal tethers that interact with solar wind.

End your journey back on Earth, landing on a dirt road. My latest post tells the story of the one time a space shuttle landed on the dried lakebed runway at White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Dirt Road Landing at White Sands Space Harbor

I traveled to New Mexico for work a couple months ago. It was my first visit to that state, and it was just a short trip to Albuquerque. I really wanted to visit White Sands Space Harbor while I was there, but it was hours away. So my only space related sight-seeing occurred in the Albuquerque airport, where I perused a few display cases of aviation and space travel memorabilia...

The closest I've been to White Sands Space Harbor.

Someday I'll follow in my grandfather's footsteps and actually visit White Sands! In the meantime, I've done a little reading about White Sands- turns out that it's a neat little footnote in the history of the space shuttle program.

Of the 133 space shuttle missions to safely return from Earth orbit, 132 landed at Cape Canaveral in Florida or in California at Edwards Air Force Base. There's only one mission that didn't land in California or Florida: STS-3, Columbia, landed at White Sands Space Harbor* in New Mexico in 1982.

*: At the time, White Sands wasn't yet called a 'Space Harbor.' Congress renamed the runway facility the month after Columbia's landing, in honor of that event.

Gliding towards a landing at Edwards Air Force Base.
Source: NASA.

Any of the other shuttle missions could have landed at White Sands, though. It was an abort site for each shuttle launch. It was also the back-up option for landing if bad weather or some calamity foreclosed a landing at Kennedy and Edwards.

White Sands Space Harbor contains the ultimate runway: an enormous and flat dried lake bed. It's nearly 7 miles long. The shuttle's landing strip in the lake bed is 300 feet wide, and engineers further leveled the land on both sides of that strip as well, effectively making it 900 feet wide.

Isn't it funny how a spaceship can end its journey by landing on a dirt road?

Columbia landing at White Sands, accompanied by T-38 chase planes.
Source: NASA.

The shuttle's runways at Edwards Air Force Base were also mainly dried lakebeds. Given the similarities, White Sands was a sensible practice site for shuttle pilot training. Shuttle pilots simulated landings on the White Sands runway in a modified Grumman Gulfstream II business jet launched out of El Paso. They'd do 10 practice landings in one go. The Gulfstream would never actually touch down during the practice runs.  It would just drop down till it was cruising 20 feet off the ground, since that's how high off the ground the pilot sits when the shuttle touches down. At 20 feet off the ground, the Gulfstream's autopilot would kick in, and the jet would take back off for another practice run.

Folks camping out in anticipation of the STS-3 landing.

White Sands' role as a training facility partially explains why Columbia landed there in 1982. Columbia was scheduled to land at Edwards Air Force Base, like every shuttle flight had to that point. But Edwards' lake beds were flooded, so it wasn't an option. Columbia's crew chose to land at White Sands over Kennedy. They preferred White Sands since all their training had been on that runway. White Sands' runway was also several times larger then Kennedy's, another factor working in its favor. Actually, no space shuttles landed at Kennedy until nearly two years later.

The crew of STS-3: Commander Jack Lousma and Pilot C. Gordon Fullerton.
Source: Wikipedia.

Real-life space travel is (sadly) far more complicated than science fiction space travel. Columbia's crew couldn't just pick their landing spot, touch down, and be done with it like we see on Star Trek or Firefly. Massive ground support is necessary. The switch from Edwards to White Sands was made about two weeks before the landing, and the space shuttle program was still in its infancy. So, White Sands was not fully equipped for a landing. Much of the set-up for a landing at Edwards needed to be moved to White Sands. NASA equipped 40 train cars on two separate trains to move equipment the over 1,000 miles between Edwards and White Sands.

Serenity landing in the desert, with much less fuss.

STS-3's White Sands landing was planned for the seventh day of its mission. Commander Jack Lousma recalls that they'd packed everything, suited up, and were strapped in and ready to de-orbit when ground control scrubbed the landing. There was a bad windstorm at White Sands and visibility was too poor for a landing. So, Commander Lousma and Pilot C. Gordon Fullerton were treated to an extra day in space (as Lousma put it, "an extra day in our world's favorite vacation spot") as they waited for conditions to improve. They needed to land soon; they were running out of consumables.

STS-3 lands at White Sands.
Source: NASA.

Meanwhile, on Earth, crash/rescue teams at White Sands ran last minute practice drills. Thousands of people from nearby towns, excited to see a shuttle landing, gathered at White Sands. The crowd was on hand to enthusiastically greet the second supply train when it arrived from Edwards. Winds in the area finally died down enough that a landing was possible.

So, Columbia landed at White Sands on March 30, 1982. By Commander Lousma's account, the landing went very well and there weren't any complications.

Markings painted onto the lake bed, creating a runway at White Sands.
Source: Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields: New Mexico.

White Sands was almost used again in 2006, when Discovery's planned landing at Kennedy was nearly rained out. Landing at Edwards was not an option because of high cross-winds. The first window for a Kennedy landing was abandoned, but the second window presented better conditions in Florida, so there was no need to land at White Sands after all.

The only other time a shuttle ever traveled to White Sands was on the back of a Boeing 747 in September 2012. Endeavor flew over the Space Harbor on its way to its final home at the California Science Center.

Endeavor over Las Cruces, New Mexico in September 2012.
Sources: NASA; MSNBC; AP News Archive; Holloman Air Force Base; Johnson Space Center Oral History Project; Wikipedia; El Paso Times.