Discovery’s Final Mission Scrubbed 24 Hours Due to Weather

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Discovery’s final flight faced its first hurdle in the form of a fuel leak in its right OMS pod. This problem seemed solved, but using an over-abundance of caution mission managers had the seals around the affected flange replaced. Then unrelated leaks of hydrogen and helium pushed the launch back to Nov. 2 and then Nov. 3. With that problem resolved many thought Discovery’s problems were behind her – enter a voltage issue in the number three engine’s backup control system. This conspired to push the launch back to Nov. 4.

However, in the early morning hours of Nov. 4 it was obvious that Florida’s turbulent weather would not allow a launch on this day and mission managers scrubbed the launch for at least 24 hours. Weather for Friday shows a 70 percent chance of favorable conditions. If Discovery does launch tomorrow, it will take place at 3:04 p.m. EDT.

Discovery’s final mission, STS-133, will deliver the Leonardo Multipurpose Module (PMM) with its cargo – including the first humanoid robot to be sent into space – Robonaut-2 (R2). Also riding along on this mission is the Express Logistics Carrier-4 and spare parts. Like the other remaining shuttle flights, these new components and supplies are designed to leave the space station better prepared for when the space shuttles are retired next year.

The crew of STS-133 will be comprised of Commander Steve Lindsey, Pilot Eric Boe and Mission Specialists; Alvin Drew, Nicole Stott, Tim Kopra and Michael Barratt. All of these astronauts are space flight veterans.

Discovery’s Final Mission Delayed Again

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UPDATE: Discovery has been cleared for a launch attempt on Nov. 4 at 3:29:43 p.m. EDT. After a review, NASA managers decided the electrical glitch that prompted a 24-hour delay was not a threat to flight safety. The only problem now is that the weather report calls for rain and clouds, and gave an 80% chance for conditions that would prohibit launch. We’ll keep you updated.

A power controller on space shuttle Discovery’s main engine number three failed to start during routine checks this morning causing shuttle managers to push the final launch of Discovery back at least 24 hours to Nov. 4. Engineers began troubleshooting the problem – when it appeared to correct itself. Circuit breakers have had problems like this before. However, NASA mission managers wanted to make sure they fully understood what was causing the problems.

“We make sure we truly understand the risk before we fly,” said Mike Moses, Mission Management Team Chair. “The problem is pretty simple and we wanted to make sure we’re not to aggressive on our response.”

Teams will work through the night and into Wednesday morning on this problem. To remove the affected circuit is a fairly invasive procedure and some of the circuits involved cannot be retested on the launch pad. If the launch does not occur Thursday NASA has until Sunday to launch before the launch window closes. Currently, Discovery is set to launch Thursday, Nov. 4 at 3:29 p.m. EDT.

From a crew perspective it made sense to take an additional 24 hours,” said Mike Leinbach, Shuttle Launch Director. “We’ll pick back up with our launch countdown on Thursday morning.”

Discovery is set to launch on her final, 11-day mission to the International Space Station on mission STS-133. The crew of Discovery consists of Commander Steve Lindsey, Pilot Eric Boe and Mission Specialists; Alvin Drew, Nicole Stott, Tim Kopra and Michael Barratt. The payload for this mission is the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module which houses among other things the first humanoid robot to fly into space – Robonaut-2. Also onboard is the Express Logistics Carrier-4 and much-needed spare parts.

Former Shuttle Astronaut Reflects on Discovery’s Final Mission

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As he looks back over the years, former shuttle astronaut Robert Springer remembers the shuttle era very clearly. He flew on Atlantis – and Discovery. With the final flight of Discovery only a few days away, he took time out of his busy schedule to reminisce about his time ‘riding rockets.’

“Great memories,” Springer said, “I’m really proud of the opportunity I had and the chance to serve my country, and so it was was special — very special.”

Springer received his aviator’s wings in 1966 with the United States Marine Corps. He flew F-4 Phantoms in Vietnam where he also served as an advisor to the South Korean Marine Corps. Springer would fly some 300 combat missions in F-4s and an additional 250 combat missions in O-1 Bird Dogs, UH-1 “Hueys.” Springer would eventually attend navy Fighter Weapons School – known more commonly as “TOPGUN.” Springer has been awarded numerous awards including the Navy Distinguished Flying Cross and the Bronze Star.

He was selected to become an astronaut in 1980, completing training one a year later in 1981. He served on the support crew for STS-3 working on various aspects of the “Canadarm” remote manipulator system. Between 1984 and 1985 he served as CAPCOM on seven shuttle flights. After waiting nine years he flew his first mission in 1989 aboard Discovery on STS-29.

Crew portrait with Springer in the middle of the top row. Image Credit: NASA

STS-29 was a highly-successful mission that deployed a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) and conducted numerous experiments while on orbit. A year later in 1990 Springer again left Earth for the black sky on STS-38. This mission was aboard Atlantis and was a classified Department of Defense mission. It was the first mission to land at Kennedy Space Center in Florida since 1985. Of the two missions, Springer remembers STS-38 with a bit of a smile.

“My first flight on STS-29 was shortly after the first Return-to-Flight in 1988 and while the media attention was nice, once is enough,” Springer said. “So for STS-38 we were completely cut off from the press – it was fantastic! I just felt kind of bad for the new guys on that flight as they missed that aspect of a shuttle mission.”

When speaking with Springer, you can see the smile fade somewhat when the subject turns to the final flight of Discovery, arguably the most historic of the surviving orbiters.

“It’s going to be a little tough, realizing that this will be the last time that Discovery will be going into space,” Springer said while looking out at Launch Complex 39a. “You know that someday that the program is going to come to an end, but to actually have that take place and come to fruition, while exciting to see it launch – it will be sad.”

He fondly recollected his experience on board Discovery as one of the most amazing experiences in a career that has witnessed some of the most powerful experiences in American history.

“The flight overall was fantastic, it was so incredibly intense,” Springer said with a smile. “We were one of the first flights after the Challenger accident. While we normally plan for a 16 hour day during missions, we were so busy it ended up being an 18 hour day. Whenever we had a free minute we would hog the windows and stare out into space until you couldn’t fight it anymore and you’d drift off to sleep – and around the shuttle cabin.”

ISS Particle Detector Ready to Unveil Wonders of the Universe

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The Principal Investigator (P.I.) for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2 (AMS-02) experiment, Professor Samuel Ting, says that the experiment is already accruing data as it awaits its February 2011 launch date. Scheduled to fly aboard the final flight of the space shuttle Endeavour, STS-134, AMS-02 will search through cosmic rays for exotic particles, antimatter and dark matter. The experiment will be mounted to the outside of the International Space Station (ISS) and will require no spacewalks to attach.
Continue reading “ISS Particle Detector Ready to Unveil Wonders of the Universe”

NASA’s Ames Director Announces “100 Year Starship”

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The Director of NASA’s Ames Center, Pete Worden has announced an initiative to move space flight to the next level. This plan, dubbed the “Hundred Year Starship,” has received $100,000 from NASA and $ 1 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). He made his announcement on Oct. 16. Worden is also hoping to include wealthy investors in the project. NASA has yet to provide any official details on the project.

Worden also has expressed his belief that the space agency was now directed toward settling other planets. However, given the fact that the agency has been redirected toward supporting commercial space firms, how this will be achieved has yet to be detailed. Details that have been given have been vague and in some cases contradictory.

The Ames Director went on to expound how these efforts will seek to emulate the fictional starships seen on the television show Star Trek. He stated that the public could expect to see the first prototype of a new propulsion system within the next few years. Given that NASA’s FY 2011 Budget has had to be revised and has yet to go through Appropriations, this time estimate may be overly-optimistic.

One of the ideas being proposed is a microwave thermal propulsion system. This form of propulsion would eliminate the massive amount of fuel required to send crafts into orbit. The power would be “beamed” to the space craft. Either a laser or microwave emitter would heat the propellant, thus sending the vehicle aloft. This technology has been around for some time, but has yet to be actually applied in a real-world vehicle.

The project is run by Dr. Kevin L.G. Parkin who described it in his PhD thesis and invented the equipment used. Along with him are David Murakami and Creon Levit. One of the previous workers on the program went on to found his own company in the hopes of commercializing the technology used.

For Worden, the first locations that man should visit utilizing this revolutionary technology would not be the moon or even Mars. Rather he suggests that we should visit the red planet’s moons, Phobos and Deimos. Worden believes that astronauts can be sent to Mars by 2030 for around $10 billion – but only one way. The strategy appears to resemble the ‘Faster-Better-Cheaper’ craze promoted by then-NASA Administrator Dan Goldin during the 1990s.

DARPA is a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense whose purview is the development of new technology to be used by the U.S. military. Some previous efforts that the agency has undertaken include the first hypertext system, as well as other computer-related developments that are used everyday. DARPA has worked on space-related projects before, working on light-weight satellites (LIGHTSAT), the X-37 space plane, the FALCON Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle (HCV) and a number of other programs.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA has been involved with a number of advanced technology projects. Image Credit: DARPA

Source: Kurzweil

STS-133 Crew Conducts TCDT Training

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The crew for the last mission for space shuttle Discovery spent the week at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center conducting the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test or as it is more commonly know – TCDT. The crew arrived Tuesday, Oct. 12 and immediately set to work. This week of training is the last major milestone on the path to launch, currently scheduled to take place on Nov. 1 at 4:40 p.m. EDT.

TCDT consists of is training that simulates the final hours up until launch. This provides training for both the crew and the launch team. The launch team practices launch day timelines as well other, crucial flight-day procedures. The crew on the other hand went through a number of exercises that included:

• Rescue training – The astronauts will run through several simulations where they practice what to do in the event of an emergency. The crew will be instructed on how to use the emergency baskets that will allow them to escape the launch pad in case there is a fire. They will also learn how to operate the tank-like M113 personnel carrier and other emergency equipment.
• The commander in pilot will perform abort landings and other flight aspects in the Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA). The plane is a Grumman Gulfstream II and it duplicates the shuttle’s approach profile and many of the orbiter’s handling qualities.
• Conduct a launch day simulation that includes everything that will happen on launch day – except the launch. The crew walked out in their bright orange launch and entry suits. TCDT also includes a simulated abort so that the crew is well-versed as to what do to in case of that scenario.

STS-133 crew members arrive at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in their sleek T-38 jets. Photo Credit: Universe Today/awaltersphoto.com

These activities allow the crew and flight teams to do a rehearsal of all the events that will take place on launch day.

“This is a dress rehearsal for the real flight so the crew is kind of peaked up; they’ve put all the sequence of events together, when they go out to the pad they’ll do everything except igniting the main engines,” said Robert Springer a two-time shuttle veteran. “It’s a chance to review all your procedures and make sure everything is in place.”

The crew of STS-133 consists of Lindsey, Pilot Eric Boe and Mission Specialists, Michael Barratt, Tim Kopra, Alvin Drew and Nicole Stott. The crew is comprised entirely of space flight veterans.

NASA's official crew portrait of the crew of STS-133. Image Credit: NASA
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STS-133 is an 11-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS) to deliver the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) which contains, among other thing, the first humanoid robot to fly into space – Robonaut-2 (R2). Also onboard is the Express Logistics Carrier-4 and spare parts for the orbiting laboratory.

Springer’s first flight was on space shuttle Discovery and as he watched the crew for her final mission his thoughts reflected on his experiences and the end of the shuttle era.

“It’s going to be a little tough, my personal experiences that I have of Discovery and my memories that I have of that time make it a little bittersweet to realize that this will be the last time that Discovery will go into space.”

President Signs NASA 2010 Authorization Act

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President Barack Obama signed the NASA 2010 Authorization Act into law Monday, giving the go-ahead for $58.4 billion be spent on NASA programs over the course of the next three years. However, where and how that money will be spent – has yet to be decided. For that the space agency has to wait for appropriations to wrangle out the specifics in the upcoming legislative sessions. But this much is known for certain: there will be an additional shuttle flight added, the life of the International Space Station will be extended to 2020 – and perhaps beyond, and the development of heavy-lift rocket will start as early as 2011.

“We will foster a growing commercial space transportation industry that will allow NASA to focus our efforts on executing direction in the act to start work on a heavy-lift architecture to take astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit and to develop a multipurpose crew vehicle for use with our new space launch systems,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden when he thanked the president for signing the bill. “Also, we will continue to invest in green aviation and other technologies that make air travel safer and more efficient.”

This particular bill was one of two that were vying for dominance in the House and Senate over the past weeks. After the NASA FY 2011 Budget was announced it was clear that many were unhappy with the direction this budget entailed and wanted a balanced compromise. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) led the charge to see that while commercial firms were included in the new space mix, decades of skill and experience of workers at Kennedy Space Center and other centers and contractors are not lost in this transition period.

“We now have a way forward for NASA,” Nelson said during a press briefing today. “Now with the signing of this legislation into law, NASA has a blueprint, NASA has a roadmap. The goal is not the moon. We were there 40 years ago. The goal is Mars by a flexible path. The president has stated that goal and this legislation which he is signing into law will now set us on that course.”

Nelson has been working closely with U.S. Rep Suzanne Kosmas, whose district includes NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC). Both of the lawmakers took time to acknowledge that this bill was a bipartisan effort that included concerned members from both political parties.

Kosmas had been highly critical of the president’s plans for NASA, stating that the changes he had planned would turn the space flight ‘gap’ into an “abyss.” Since that time numerous lawmakers including Kosmas have worked to see that NASA’s way forward contained elements from both established space companies as well as new start ups – the so-called ‘NewSpace’ groups.

Under this bill, the development of a new heavy-lift rocket would start as early as next year. This is a far cry from the 2015 review date for heavy-lifts that Obama had called for. This means that the space flight gap that NASA is facing potentially stands to be far less expansive than under the president’s original plans. Nelson stated that he views this and other elements of the bill as ensuring that NASA will have a very bright future.

Optimus Prime Defends Kennedy Space Center! Transformers 3 Filming at Spaceport

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NASA’s Kennedy Space Center came under attack from the merciless Decepticons this week. However, Optimus Prime and his valiant band of Autobots fended them off, and then stood watch over the space center for the remainder of the week – along with the cast and crew of “Transformers 3, The Dark of the Moon.” Although the set was closed – there were some interesting revelations about what one can expect to see in the third installment of the highly-successful film franchise – including a very special guest star.

Journalists that were present on Oct. 7, for the delivery of STS-133’s payload were treated with the sights and sounds of Hollywood. Although these reporters and correspondents were kept on a very short leash the journalists present still managed to see the Autobots leader in truck mode, some actors in black soldier gear and some other tantalizing tidbits.

Numerous KSC employees have been selected to act as extras in the film. This serves the purpose of creating added realism to the film. Instead of training someone to “look” they know what they’re doing – more-likely-than-not those are the actual workers who do that job at America’s spaceport everyday. Outside of this film being a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to appear in a big budget summer blockbuster, it also provided an opportunity to rub shoulders with real and upcoming movie stars.

Already, John Turturro, the actor that portrays Agent Simmons in the film has been spotted wheeling in and around the Vehicle Assembly Building. Shia LaBeouf (Sam Witwicky) has been seen with his character’s new love interest Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (Carly) wandering the set.

Optimus Prime rests in front of the Pegasus Barge that delivered the final External Tank to Kennedy Space Center. Photo Credit: Universe Today/Alan Walters

There is however one star whose presence in the film has been kept top secret. Her identity however, is crucial to the plot of the film which is said to revolve around the space age. She is none other – than the space shuttle Discovery. That’s right, the orbiter that returned America to flight twice is revealed to actually be a transformer. That is at least what sources close to the film are saying. Michael bay, the film’s director, had his computer hacked during the filming of the first Transformers movie and has been notorious about spreading disinformation.

For NASA, having a motion picture film at KSC is a no-brainer. The Transformers series of movies is very popular with children and young people and this allows them to relay the NASA story to a whole new audience.

“This gives us the chance to open up what we do, real space exploration to audiences that we may not already have in a blockbuster film,” said NASA’s KSC News Chief Allard Beutel. “We’re talking about a worldwide audience and it’s a natural fit in the sense that it is sci-fi and real space exploration but also it allows us to get into the theatres and let kids see what we do, inspire them to look into what NASA is all about and reach an audience we may not normally reach.”

Soyuz Launches; Discovery’s Final Payload Delivered to Launch Pad

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October 7 was a busy day in spaceflight, as a Soyuz launched 2 cosmonauts and 1 astronaut to the International Space Station, and for the last time the payload canister for the space shuttle Discovery made its way to Launch Complex 39A (LC39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Crews are now preparing to install the payload into Discovery’s cargo bay on Monday morning, which includes the first humanoid robot to fly into space Robonaut-2 or “R2.”

See below for a video of the Soyuz launch.

Alexander Kaleri, Oleg Skripochka and Scott Kelly are now on their way to join three other crew members aboard the ISS station after a two-day trip on the Soyuz.

For the final flight of Discovery, STS-133, the another payload is the reconfigured Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) now dubbed the Permanent Multipurpose Module. The mission will also carry the Express Logistics Carrier 4 and much-needed spare parts to the International Space Station (ISS).

The mission is slated to launch no-earlier-than Nov.1 at 4:40 p.m. EDT.

A large white canister is hoisted up and the payload that is sealed inside will be removed. From there the canister is taken away, the Rotating Service Structure (RSS) will swing over the space shuttle and then be loaded into the shuttle’s cargo bay. The entire process takes a little over a week.

STS-133 will mark the final flight of the space shuttle Discovery. Photo Credit: Universe Today/Alan Walters

The crew for STS-133 consists of Commander Steve Lindsey, Pilot Eric Boe and Mission Specialists Nicole Stott, Alvin Drew, Tim Kopra and Michael Barratt.

The crew of STS-133. from left to right, Alvin Drew, Nicole Stott, Eric Boe, Steve Lindsey, Micheal barratt and Tim Kopra. Image Credit: NASA

The canisters that deliver the payload out to the launch pad have been used since the shuttle program’s inception. However, that does not mean that they are destined to go to the Smithsonian or some other world-famous museum. In fact there is no real clear destination for any of these pieces of hardware. As NASA no longer has a clear path forward it is not known whether-or-not the canisters will be used in some future, as-yet-unnamed program.

“They’re pretty old critters, they’ve been with us since the beginning of the shuttle program,” said Scott Higginbotham NASA’s mission manager in charge of payloads. “They’ve delivered all the payloads either to the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) for horizontal installation or out here to the pad for vertical installation.”

The payload canister is loaded onto the RSS in preparation for loading into Space Shuttle Discovery for STS-133. Image is an HDR composite from five images. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com) for Universe Today.

Dragon Ascendant: SpaceX Prepares for Second Falcon 9 Launch

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Earlier this year, SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies) successfully launched the first of its Falcon 9 rockets. The firm has continued to move forward, prepping for the next demonstration flight. This mission will include the first flight of an operational Dragon spacecraft (the first payload was a spacecraft qualification unit), and will be the first demonstration launch under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS)program. THe launch is currently scheduled to take place in the Nov. 8-9 timeframe.

Under the contract SpaceX is required to fly 3 demonstration flights and 12 operational missions to the International Space Station (ISS), to resupply the orbiting outpost.

The Dragon spacecraft shown here has significant payload capabilities and has both unmanned and manned versions planned. Photo Credit: SpaceX/Michael Rooks

Falcon 9’s second flight will liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and will closely match the first flight. However, on this mission the Dragon spacecraft will separate from the second stage of the rocket and test a number of crucial flight requirements. Some of these include, maneuvering, communications, navigation and reentry. The Dragon is designed to make touchdown on terra-firma but its initial landings will occur on water. These landings will be provided via its Draco thrusters – which may enable the craft to land within a few hundred yards of the desired target.

For its first demo flight, the Dragon will test out its systems as it conducts a number of orbits around the Earth. Afterward it will fire its thrusters and reenter the Earth’s atmosphere. The splashdown is planned to take place in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Southern California. The entire mission is not expected to last more than four hours.

In this image the Dragon spacecraft is mounted on a test stand in the hangar at Cape Canaveral. Photo Credit: SpaceX/Brian Attiyeh

While the Dragon spacecraft does not have the space shuttle’s payload capabilities – it is designed to return payloads weighing up to 6,600 lbs. The shuttle is the only other craft that has such a large cargo return capability. The Russian Progress M1 spacecraft has a similar payload capacity but it is not currently designed to return to Earth (the Progress burns up in the atmosphere). This would be a huge leap forward for returning payloads (and hopefully, eventually people) from the ISS.

Under NASA’s new direction, it is hoped that by investing in commercial crew transports that competition will be created and thus lower the cost for access to space.

SpaceX recently conducted a successful wet dress rehearsal (WDR) that included rolling the rocket out to the launch pad, located at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 40. It was then loaded with fuel and went through a complete launch sequence – right up until launch. It was then de-fueled and “safed.” The procedures of the wet test included specific procedures required for the inclusion of an operational Dragon spacecraft.

The Falcon 9 demo-2 on the launch pad during the full wet dress rehearsal, which includes everything prior to engine ignition. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Before the WDR, SpaceX completed the first integration of its Falcon 9 and an operational Dragon spacecraft. The Dragon will be integrated onto the Falcon 9 rocket horizontally within the hangar. This helps to eliminate the cost of constructing and maintaining a vertical mobile service tower. It also makes processing of the payload less complicated. After integration is complete the Falcon 9 with the Dragon spacecraft will be moved to SpaceX’s mobile transporter/erector and be moved out of the hangar to the launch pad and then it will be erected vertically. The next step will be to conduct a static firing which is scheduled to take place in the coming weeks.

The Dragon is designed to be similar to the Russian Soyuz/Progress spacecraft in that they can be used to launch both materials and astronauts into orbit. The spacecraft includes eighteen Draco engines, hypergolic fuel systems, avionics, power systems, software, guidance, navigation, the largest PICA-based heat shield yet to fly, and a dual-redundant deployment system for the spacecraft’s three recovery parachutes.

NASA astronauts Cady Coleman and Scott Kelly go over spacecraft cargo operations with some of SpaceX's engineers. Photo Credit: SpaceX

NASA astronauts have been trained in how to use the Dragon’s systems. Under both the COTS and Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) programs over a dozen astronauts from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) have been taught how to use the spacecraft’s controls. There has been a mutual exchange of information, as the astronauts learned about the spacecraft’s operating systems, SpaceX employees have been given insights about what it takes to live and work in space. This knowledge will eventually make its way into procedures and flight hardware.