Antares Commercial Rocket Cleared for July 11 Space Station Blastoff Following Engine Re-Inspection

NASA WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY, VA – The long delayed liftoff of an Orbital Sciences Corp. commercial Antares rocket on a cargo mission bound for the International Space Station (ISS) has been cleared for blastoff this Friday, July 11, from the Eastern shore of Virginia, following a thorough re-inspection of the two Russian built and US modified AJ26 engines that power the rocket’s first stage after the test failure of a different engine in May.

The critically important Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 engine re-inspection was mandated following the significant failure of another AJ26 engine during acceptance testing on May 22 at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi to investigate any concerns and insure against an in flight failure.

NASA and Orbital Sciences are now targeting the Antares launch carrying the privately developed Cygnus resupply freighter on the Orb-2 mission from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia, on July 11 at 1:40 p.m. (EDT).

Universe Today was granted a visit to the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket integration facility at NASA Wallops recently as the engine re-inspection work was winding down. See my Antares/Cygnus Orb-2 rocket photos herein.

Antares soars to space on Jan. 9, 2014 from NASA Wallops on Virginia coast on the Orb-1 mission to the ISS.  Photo taken by remote camera at launch pad. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Antares soars to space on Jan. 9, 2014 from NASA Wallops on Virginia coast on the Orb-1 mission to the ISS. Photo taken by remote camera at launch pad. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Aerojet engineers re-inspected the engines while they were still mated to the bottom of the Antares rocket and found them to be satisfactory for fight. No swap out was required.

The Cygnus cargo logistics spacecraft was then mated to the rocket on July 3 and will be rolled out to the Wallops launch pad on Wednesday morning at 8:30 a.m., July 9.

Late stow items including time sensitive science experiments will be packed aboard on Tuesday, July 8.

The launch window on July 11 opens at 1:40 p.m. for a duration of 5 minutes.

NASA will broadcast the Antares launch live on NASA TV – http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

In the event of a delay for any reason the next available launch opportunity is July 12 at 1:14 p.m.

Until the first stage engine failure, this Antares rocket had been slated to blastoff on June 10 with the Cygnus cargo freighter on the Orb-2 mission which is the second of eight cargo resupply missions to the ISS under Orbital’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.

1st and 2nd stage of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket set for blast off on July 11, 2014 on the Orb-2 mission from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, bound for the ISS.  The rocket undergoes processing at the Horizontal Integration Facility at NASA Wallops during visit by Universe Today/Ken Kremer.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
1st and 2nd stage of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket set for blast off on July 11, 2014 on the Orb-2 mission from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, bound for the ISS. The rocket undergoes processing at the Horizontal Integration Facility at NASA Wallops during visit by Universe Today/Ken Kremer. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The AJ26 rocket engine that failed in May was extensively damaged about halfway through the planned test aimed at qualifying the engine for an Antares flight scheduled for early next year.

“There was a test failure at Stennis on May 22,” Orbital Sciences spokesman Barry Beneski told Universe Today at that time. “Engineers are examining data to determine the cause of the failure.”

The failure occurred approximately 30 seconds into the planned 54-second test.

“It terminated prematurely, resulting in extensive damage to the engine,” Orbital said in a statement in May.

The pressurized Cygnus spacecraft will deliver 1,657 kg of cargo to the ISS including science experiments and instruments, crew supplies, food, water, computer equipment, spacewalk tools and student research experiments.

Up-close side view of payload fairing protecting Cygnus cargo module during launch for Orb-2 mission to ISS. Vehicle undergoes prelaunch processing at NASA Wallops during visit by Universe Today/Ken Kremer.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Up-close side view of payload fairing protecting Cygnus cargo module during launch for Orb-2 mission to ISS. Vehicle undergoes prelaunch processing at NASA Wallops during visit by Universe Today/Ken Kremer. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Cygnus will remain berthed at the station for 40 days.

For the return to Earth it will be loaded with approximately 1,346 kg of material for disposal upon atmospheric reentry.

The two stage Antares rocket stands 133 feet tall.

It takes about 10 minutes from launch until separation of Cygnus from the Antares vehicle.

ATK built 2nd stage integrated onto 1st stage of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket slated for July 11, 2014 launch on the Orb-2 mission from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, bound for the ISS.  The rocket undergoes processing at the Horizontal Integration Facility at NASA Wallops during visit by Universe Today/Ken Kremer.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
ATK built 2nd stage integrated onto 1st stage of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket slated for July 11, 2014 launch on the Orb-2 mission from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, bound for the ISS. The rocket undergoes processing at the Horizontal Integration Facility at NASA Wallops during visit by Universe Today/Ken Kremer. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Flight time to the ISS is approximately 3 days. An on time launch will result in Cygnus arrival at the ISS on July 15.

Station commander Steven Swanson of NASA and Flight Engineer Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency (ESA) will grapple and berth Cygnus using the stations 57 foot-long robotic arm onto the Earth-facing port of the station’s Harmony module.

The Antares first stage is powered by a pair of liquid oxygen and kerosene fueled AJ26-62 engines that deliver a combined 734,000 pounds (3265 kilonewtons) of sea level thrust.

To date the AJ26 engines have performed flawlessly through a total of three Antares launches from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia starting in April 2013.

They measure 3.3 meters (10.9 feet) in height and weigh 1590 kg (3,500 lb.).

The AJ26 engines were originally known as the NK-33 and built during the 1960s and 1970s in the Soviet Union for their manned moon landing program.

Aerojet extensively modified, checked and tested the NK-33 engines now designated as the AJ26-62 to qualify them for use in the first stage Antares core, which is manufactured in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine by the Yuznoye Design Bureau and based on the Zenit launch vehicle.

Orbital Sciences technicians at work on two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today at NASA Wallaps.  These engines powered the successful Antares  liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia bound for the ISS.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Orbital Sciences technicians at work on two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today at NASA Wallaps. These engines powered the successful Antares liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia bound for the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Orbital Sciences was awarded a $1.9 Billion supply contract by NASA to deliver 20,000 kilograms of research experiments, crew provisions, spare parts and hardware for 8 flight to the ISS through 2016 under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) initiative.

The July mission marks the second operational Antares/Cygnus flight.

SpaceX has a similar resupply contract using their Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo carrier and just completed their 3rd operational mission to the ISS in May.

Watch for Ken’s onsite Antares Orb-2 mission reports from NASA Wallops, VA.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing ISS, OCO-2, GPM, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more Earth & Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about Orbital Sciences Antares ISS launch on July 11 from NASA Wallops, VA, and more about SpaceX, Boeing, commercial space, NASA’s Mars missions and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations.

July 10/11: “Antares/Cygnus ISS Launch from Virginia” & “Space mission updates”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, evening

Antares Orb-2 launch viewing map for July 11, 2014 liftoff from NASA Wallops, VA. Credit: NASA
Antares Orb-2 launch viewing map for July 11, 2014 liftoff from NASA Wallops, VA. Credit: NASA

Spectacular Southern Lights, Shooting Stars, Sahara Snapshots and more from ESA’s Alexander Gerst aboard ISS

Spectacular snapshots of the Southern Lights, Shooting Stars, the Sahara Desert and much more are streaming back from space to Earth courtesy of Alexander Gerst, ESA’s German astronaut currently serving aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

See a gallery of Alex’s stunning space-based views (sagenhafte Weltraum bilder) collected herein – starting with the auroral fireworks seen from space – above. It coincides with the Earth-based fireworks of America’s 4th of July Independence Day weekend celebrations and spectacular Noctilucent Clouds (NLCs) wafting over the Northern Hemisphere. NLC gallery here.

“Saw a beautiful Southern Light last night. I so wish you could see this with your own eyes!” Alex tweeted in English.

Gerst is posting his Earth & space imagery from the ISS on a variety of social media including Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and his ESA astronaut blog bilingually in English and German.

Another new snapshot of Earth’s “beautiful Southern Lights”  taken from the ISS on 5 July 2014. Credit: ESA/Alexander Gerst
Another new snapshot of Earth’s “beautiful Southern Lights” taken from the ISS on 5 July 2014. Credit: ESA/Alexander Gerst

“Habe gestern ein wunderschönes Südlicht gesehen. Ich wünschte ihr könntet das mit eigenen Augen sehen!” Alex tweeted in German.

Check out Alexander Gerst’s stunning 1st timelapse video from the ISS:

Video Caption: ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst’s first timelapse from the International Space Station features the first shooting star that he saw from above. Made by stitching together over 250 images this short clip shows the beauty of our world and the space around it. Published on July 5, 2014. Credit: ESA/Alexander Gerst

Gerst launched to the ISS on his rookie space flight on May 28, 2014 aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule along with Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev and NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman.

ISS Expedition 40 patch
ISS Expedition 40 patch

The trio are members of Expeditions 40 and 41 and joined three more station flyers already aboard – cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov & Oleg Artemyev and astronaut Steve Swanson – to bring the station crew complement to six.

Alex will spend six months on the ISS for ESA’s Blue Dot mission. He is Germany’s third astronaut to visit the ISS. He is trained as a geophysicist and a volcanologist.

Gerst also has practiced and honed another talent – space barber! He shaved the heads of his two American crew mates – to match his bald head – after winning a friendly wager with them when Germany beat the US in a 2014 FIFA World Cup match on June 26.

Here’s several of Alexander Gerst’s newest views of the Sahara Desert and more.

“Even from space, the Sahara looks dry! Sogar vom Weltraum aus, sieht die Sahara trocken aus!” Taken from the ISS on 6 July 2014. Credit: ESA/Alexander Gerst
“Even from space, the Sahara looks dry! Sogar vom Weltraum aus, sieht die Sahara trocken aus!” Taken from the ISS on 6 July 2014. Credit: ESA/Alexander Gerst
“Harsh land. Windswept valleys in northern Africa. Hartes Land. Windgefraeste Taeler in Nordafrika.” Taken from the ISS on 6 July 2014. Credit: ESA/Alexander Gerst
“Harsh land. Windswept valleys in northern Africa. Hartes Land. Windgefraeste Taeler in Nordafrika.” Taken from the ISS on 6 July 2014. Credit: ESA/Alexander Gerst
“Sometimes our atmosphere looks incredibly complex and three-dimensional, sometimes you don't even see it. Manchmal schaut unsere Atmosphäre unglaublich Komplex und dreidimensional aus, manchmal fast unsichtbar.”  Taken from the ISS on 5 July 2014. Credit: ESA/Alexander Gerst
“Sometimes our atmosphere looks incredibly complex and three-dimensional, sometimes you don’t even see it. Manchmal schaut unsere Atmosphäre unglaublich Komplex und dreidimensional aus, manchmal fast unsichtbar.” Taken from the ISS on 5 July 2014. Credit: ESA/Alexander Gerst
Antarctic aurora.  The Antarctic aurora, photographed by ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst and posted on social media with the comment: "Antarctic Aurora fleeing from  sunrise. I have rarely seen something more magical in my life!" Credits: ESA/NASA/Alexander Gerst
Antarctic aurora. The Antarctic aurora, photographed by ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst and posted on social media with the comment: “Antarctic Aurora fleeing from sunrise. I have rarely seen something more magical in my life!” Credits: ESA/NASA/Alexander Gerst

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing ISS, OCO-2, GPM, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more Earth & Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about Orbital Sciences Antares ISS launch on July 11 from NASA Wallops, VA, and more about SpaceX, Boeing, commercial space, NASA’s Mars missions and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations.

July 10/11: “Antares/Cygnus ISS Launch from Virginia” & “Space mission updates”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, evening

Astronauts Say Happy Canada Day!

On 1 July, Canadians celebrate Canada Day, which honors the day the nation was officially born when the Constitution Act united three colonies into a single country. Astronauts both past and present send their greetings today: ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst took this image, above, from the International Space Station and sent the message from space: “Canada is beautiful! Happy Canada Day!”

Below, NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman took a beautiful image showing storms swirling near Winnipeg, Manitoba.

And then, there’s a very special new video featuring former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and his brother Dave singing an original song by Dave titled, “In Canada.” It’s pretty great, and it gives you an inside look at the Hadfield family (they do family rocket launches!) and what it’s like to live in Canada. If you think Chris has a great singing voice, you’ll love Dave’s voice (they sound almost exactly the same!) and when they harmonize, it’s golden because they blend perfectly as only sibling voices can.

Storm begins to swirl near Winnipeg, Canada, as seen from the International Space Station on June 29, 2014. Image taken by astronaut Reid Wiseman. Credit: NASA.
Storm begins to swirl near Winnipeg, Canada, as seen from the International Space Station on June 29, 2014. Image taken by astronaut Reid Wiseman. Credit: NASA.

Find out more about the song and Dave’s various endeavor’s at his website.

We send special Canada Day greetings to the Canadians at Universe Today, our publisher Fraser Cain, and journalists Elizabeth Howell and Daniel Majaess.

Astronauts Shave Their Heads Bald After U.S. Loses FIFA Match To Germany

Lose a soccer game and lose your hair. That’s apparently the deal that American astronauts made on the International Space Station last week, as commander Steve Swanson and Reid Wiseman both were shaved bald after the U.S. lost to Germany 1-0 June 26 in the FIFA World Cup. Gleefully wielding the shaver was Alexander Gerst, who happens to be from Germany.

Despite their busy science schedule, the astronauts have been enthusiastically following (and tweeting about!) the games. Not to mention they did a couple of improvised soccer matches in zero gravity, complete with awesome celebratory dances. You can check out all the video action below.

Launch Alert! Watch Live As Three People Rocket To Space Today

In a few hours, you’ll be able to watch three crew members of Expedition 40/41 rocket to space — live from Kazakhstan!

At 3:57 p.m. EDT (7:57 p.m. UTC) a rocket carrying a Soyuz spacecraft is expected to lift off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, carrying Reid Wiseman (NASA), Alexander Gerst (ESA) and Maxim Suraev (Roscosmos). Full schedule details are below.

NASA TV will turn on the cameras at 3 p.m. EDT (7 p.m. UTC) and stay on the crew until after they make it to orbit. If all goes to plan, NASA TV will then resume coverage at 9 p.m. EDT (1 p.m. UTC) for docking to the International Space Station 48 minutes later.

Next comes the hatch opening. NASA will start coverage at 11 p.m. EDT (3 a.m. UTC) for the opening about 25 minutes later. Greeting the arriving crew members will be the other half of the Expedition 40 crew: Steve Swanson (NASA), Alexander Skvortsov (Roscosmos) and Oleg Artemyev (Roscosmos). The incoming crew traditionally participates in a televised chat with their families once they are a little settled in.

Because these are live events, all schedules are subject to change. Make sure to follow the NASA Twitter feed for any adjustments. For example, during the last launch the Soyuz spacecraft failed to make a burn to bring the crew members to the station quickly, making the crew go to a standard backup procedure that brought them to the station about two days later. No one was at risk, NASA said, and the delayed docking happened flawlessly.

By the way, all three crew members are on Twitter: @astro_alex, @astro_reid and @msuraev.

A Terrifying Virtual View Of Floating Away From The Space Station

You wanna talk about fear? This view would likely be many people’s worst nightmare — being in a spacesuit, untethered, floating away from the International Space Station and its relative safety. NASA has astronauts covered for this Gravity-type scenario, however, with a sort of jet backpack that can send astronauts back to safety.

A new video featuring European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst (also embedded below) explains the steps an astronaut would take to swing back to safety. “We actually train how to use that in the virtual reality lab,” he said shortly after the video showed an astronaut floating away.

The key lies in a system called SAFER (Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue), which Gerst has practiced on numerous times (virtually) in preparation for his flight in May, which could involve spacewalks if NASA addresses a spacesuit water leak problem in time.

“You have to train it for a while to operate and actually come back, and not miss the station and fly into the blackness of space,” Gerst said.

An astronaut floating away from the International Space Station in virtual-reality training for emergencies. Credit: European Space Agency/YouTube (screenshot)
An astronaut floating away from the International Space Station in virtual-reality training for emergencies. Credit: European Space Agency/YouTube (screenshot)

The Russian Orlan spacesuit (which Gerst is also trained on) does not have such a system, but Roscosmos gets around that by having a different procedure for spacewalking than the Americans. The Russians mandate a minimum of two attachment points to station at all times, whether it’s a pair of tethers or a tether and a gripped hand.

Gerst emphasizes a floating away scenario is unlikely, in either case — it would involve losing the anchor, losing the tether and also losing your grip all at the same time. While this has never actually happened, NASA did test the SAFER system in space on STS-64 in 1994 with a crew member standing by on the Canadarm robotic arm if something went wrong.  In 2000, two astronauts aboard STS-92 each did a 50-foot flight with the system.

In 2006, the SAFER system got a little loose on the back of astronaut Piers Sellers, necessitating a tether fix. NASA emphasized that the system was not in danger of being lost.

You can view the section on SAFER in the video below at around 6 minutes. Gerst recorded this as a summary of his training ahead of Expedition 40/41, which lifts off in May.

ff

Why Trapping Somebody In Space Only Takes A Breeze (And Other Highlights From Expedition 40)

Imagine that you were in the middle of a module on the International Space Station. Floating in mid-air, far from handholds or any way to propel yourself. Is there any way to get out of that situation?

The short answer is not easily, and the longer answer is it could be an effective way to trap criminals in space, joked veteran cosmonaut Maxim Suraev in a press conference today (March 18) for the upcoming Expedition 40/41 mission, which also includes rookies Alex Gerst and Reid Wiseman.

Speaking in Russian, Suraev explained that during his last 2010 mission, he had crew members set him up in the middle of the station’s Node 3. “It is true that you can twist as much as a contortionist, but you won’t be able to move because you have nothing to bear against,” he said in remarks translated into English.

That said, the ventilation system on station does tend to push objects (and people) towards the vents after a time, he observed. What if you had multiple vents set up, however?

“I thought that if ever we have a permanent human habitation in space, this would be the best way to keep a person confined — like in a prison — in the middle of the room, where he or she could not move anywhere,” Suraev continued. “Being in limbo, as you will. The only thing that is required is a large room, a person and several fans blowing in different directions to keep the person in the middle of the room. That’s scary, trust me!”

NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman does spacewalk training in a partial gravity simulator ahead of his Expedition 40/41 flight in 2014. Credit: NASA
NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman does spacewalk training in a partial gravity simulator ahead of his Expedition 40/41 flight in 2014. Credit: NASA

There’s no fear on Suraev’s part that it will happen with his crewmates, however. “My new crew, they’re really good guys and I’m really looking forward to being with my new crew in space, and to spend five and a half months aboard the space station,” he said in an English phone interview after the press conference. (Good news given that Suraev will assume command of Expedition 41.)

The crew (who lifts off in May) will have an action-packed mission. It will include the arrival of the last Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and — if NASA fixes on a spacesuit leak allow — two American maintenance spacewalks. There also are 162 experiments to perform (this according to Gerst) and if there’s time, checking out our home planet.

“Earth observation was not one of the primary goals that [station] was designed for,” he cautioned in a phone interview, but he added that one of its strengths is there are people on board the orbiting laboratory that can fill in the gaps for other missions.

Gerst (who was a volcano researcher before becoming an astronaut) pointed out that if a volcano erupts, a typical Earth satellite would look straight down at it. Astronauts can swing around in the Cupola and get different views quickly, which could allow scientists to measure things such as the volcano plume height.

Another example of flexibility: The Expedition 39 crew right now is (news reports say) helping out with the search for the missing Malaysian Airline Flight 370.

“We’re really good at capturing things quickly and then sending the  pictures down to the ground,” Gerst said.

Wiseman, as one of the rookies on mission, says he is interested in comparing the experience to his multi-month Navy missions at sea. It’s all a matter of mindset, he said in a phone interview. He once was assigned to a naval voyage that was expected to be at sea for six months. Then they were instructed it would be 10 months, leading to fistfights and other problems on board, he recalled.

Russian cosmonaut Maxim Surayev during a spacewalk in January 2010 for Expedition 22. Credit: NASA
Russian cosmonaut Maxim Surayev during a spacewalk in January 2010 for Expedition 22. Credit: NASA

Astronauts for the forthcoming one-year mission to station, he pointed out, will launch with different expectations than someone expecting about a six-month stay. “If you know you’re up there for one year, you’re going to pace yourself for one year,” he said.

But there still will be sacrifices, as Wiseman has two daughters (five years old and eight years old). He’s asking the older child to do a bit of social media, and the younger one to draw pictures that could be included in the “care packages” astronauts receive from Earth. “It’s going to be tough not to see them on a daily basis. They grow so fast,” he said.

Other things to watch for on this mission include the arrival of the station’s first 3-D printer, setup of an alloy furnace to make new materials in microgravity, and a potential Wiseman-led “come out and wave campaign” that would encourage families to go outside and tweet about the space station as they watch it.

You can follow Expedition 40/41’s continuing adventures at Universe Today as well as on social media: @astro_reid for Wiseman, and for Gerst, @astro_alex or his Facebook page.

The crew members of Expedition 40/41 pose in front of a Soyuz spacecraft simulator in Star City, Russia. From left, Alex Gerst (European Space Agency), Max Suraev (Roscosmos) and Reid Wiseman (NASA). Credit: NASA
The crew members of Expedition 40/41 pose in front of a Soyuz spacecraft simulator in Star City, Russia. From left, Alex Gerst (European Space Agency), Max Suraev (Roscosmos) and Reid Wiseman (NASA). Credit: NASA

 

Volunteer Firefighter Readies To Face Space Station’s Biggest Nemesis

Facing a fire in space? It’s among the most catastrophic situations possible, according to NASA, so the agency spends a lot of time thinking of what to do. Here’s what you do with NASA training: Don a mask, grab an emergency book, and head quickly but calmly to the nearest control post to plot an attack.

This is presumably what is happening in the recent picture above, where Alexander Gerst (from the European Space Agency, on the left) and NASA’s Reid Wiseman are doing a fire drill on the ground.

Astronauts practice emergency procedures so often that their first instinct is to go to the procedures, Gerst said in a previous Universe Today interview. “They sink in and become a memorized response or a natural reaction,” he said in August. And in his case, Gerst has training from a previous career that would come in handy if a fire broke out on the International Space Station.

Gerst was a volunteer firefighter when he was attending school, and although Expedition 40/41 this year will be his first spaceflight, he’s well-used to extreme environments: he also has done science in Antarctica, where researchers are essentially responsible for themselves for months at a time.

NASA strives to make the fire training as real as possible to keep astronauts on their toes, including creative combinations of smoke machines. Gerst said the agency won’t go to extremes, however: “We don’t light our modules on fire,” he said.

Check out more about emergency training in this past Universe Today article, which also explains the difference between fighting a fire on the space station and dealing with one in a Soyuz spacecraft. Gerst and Reid (both rookie astronauts) and Russian astronaut Maxim Suraev (who was on Expeditions 21 and 22) are supposed to head into space in May.

Astronaut Does A ‘Moon’ Walk In The Sea. Better Yet, It’s Just One Of Many Recent Underwater Missions

The black-and-white tones of this photo evoke a famous Moon walk of 1969, but in reality it was taken in Mediterranean waters just a few days ago.

For the “Apollo 11 Under The Sea” project, European Space Agency astronaut Jean-François Clervoy (pictured above) and ESA astronaut instructor Hervé Stevenin took on the roles of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first two men to walk on the moon during Apollo 11.

A major goal was to test the Comex-designed Gandolfi spacewalk training suit (based on the Russian Orlan spacesuits) during the sojourn. The mission was considered the first step (literally and figuratively) to figuring out how Europeans can train their astronauts for possible Moon, asteroid and Mars missions in the decades to come.

“The Gandolfi suit is bulky, has limited motion freedom, and requires some physical effort – just like actual space suits. I really felt like I was working and walking on the Moon,” Clervoy stated.

Even the photos come pretty darn close to the real thing. Compare this picture of Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad during his Moon walk in 1969:

Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad on the moon in 1969. The glow is due to the sun being at a low angle, NASA says. Credit: NASA
Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad on the moon in 1969. The glow is due to the sun being at a low angle, NASA says. Credit: NASA

Water is considered a useful training tool for spacewalk simulations. NASA in fact has a ginormous pool called the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. Inside are duplicate International Space Station modules. Astronauts are fitted with weights and flotation devices to make them “float” similarly to how they would during spacewalks.

With trained divers hovering nearby, the astronauts practice the procedures they’ll need so that it’s second nature by the time they get into orbit. (NASA astronaut Mike Massimino once told Universe Today that one thing he wasn’t prepared for was how spectacular the view was during his spacewalk. Guess it beats the walls of a pool.)

The first tests for the Apollo 11 underwater simulations began at a pool run by Comex, a deep diving specialist in France, before the big show took place in the Mediterranean Sea off Marseille on Sept. 4. The crew members used tools similar to the Apollo 11 astronauts to pick up soil samples from the ground.

ESA astronaut Jean-François Clervoy collecting a rock sample underwater off the coast of Marseille, France. He was simulating the Apollo 11 mission underwater  to prepare for future missions to the Moon, Mars or an asteroid. Credit: Alexis Rosenfeld
ESA astronaut Jean-François Clervoy collecting a rock sample underwater off the coast of Marseille, France. He was simulating the Apollo 11 mission underwater to prepare for future missions to the Moon, Mars or an asteroid. Credit: Alexis Rosenfeld

“Comex will make me relive the underwater operations of [Neil] Armstrong on the moon, but with an ESA-Comex scuba suit and European flag,” Clervoy wrote in French on Twitter on June 4, several weeks ahead of the mission.

And ESA promises there is more to come: “Further development for planetary surface simulations in Europe will be co-financed by the EU [European Union] as part of the Moonwalk project,” the agency wrote.

Clervoy isn’t the only European astronaut working in water these days. Starting Tuesday (Sept. 9), Andreas Mogensen and Thomas Pesquet joined an underwater lab as part of a five-person crew. Called Space Environment Analog for Testing EVA Systems and Training (SEATEST), it also includes NASA astronauts Joe Acaba and Kate Rubins, as well as Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi.

JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi underwater during the September 2013 SEATEST mission in the Atlantic Ocean about seven miles from Key Largo, Fla. Credit: Soichi Noguchi (Twitter)
JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi underwater during the September 2013 SEATEST mission in the Atlantic Ocean about seven miles from Key Largo, Fla. Credit: Soichi Noguchi (Twitter)

“The crew will spend five days in Florida International University’s Aquarius Reef Base undersea research habitat, conducting proof-of-concept engineering demonstrations and refining techniques in team communication. Additional test objectives will look at just-in-time training applications and spacewalking tool designs,” NASA stated on Sept. 6.

“We made it to Aquarius n [sic] did our first “spacewalk” today. From the ocean floor to space: Aquanaut to Astronaut. It is quite the adventure,” Acaba wrote on Twitter on Sept. 10. He walked twice in space on shuttle mission STS-119 in March 2009.

You can follow the livestream here (it runs intermittently until Sept. 17).

And a few days ago, ESA astronauts Alexander Gerst and Reid Wiseman, both bound for the station in 2014, were doing underwater training in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. “Worked with @astro_reid in the pool today, and guess who we met?”, Gerst said on Twitter Sept. 5 while posting this picture below.

"Worked with @astro_reid [ESA astronaut Reid Wiseman] in the pool today, and guess who we met?" joked ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst on Twitter on Sept. 5, 2013. Presumably the joke referred to the protagonist in WALL-E, a 2008 Pixar-animated film that features space exploration. Credit: Alexander Gerst/Twitter
“Worked with @astro_reid [ESA astronaut Reid Wiseman] in the pool today, and guess who we met?” joked ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst on Twitter on Sept. 5, 2013. Presumably the joke referred to the protagonist in WALL-E, a 2008 Pixar-animated film that features space exploration. Credit: Alexander Gerst/Twitter

Don’t Panic: How Space Emergency Astronaut Training Works

Routines. They tell you when to get up in the morning, what to do at your day job and how to handle myriad tasks ranging from house cleaning to using a computer. Memorizing these procedures makes it a lot easier to handle things that come up in life.

In space, establishing routines is even more important because they will help guide your thinking during an emergency. That’s why astronauts spend thousands of hours learning, simulating and memorizing before heading up to space.

European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst, who will fly to the International Space Station in 2014 during Expedition 40/41, gave Universe Today some insight on how it’s done.

Why train so often? According to Gerst, practicing an emergency procedure on the ground makes it easier to think clearly during a situation up in space. An astronaut’s reaction to any problem on station — a fire, a depressurization, toxic air — is to begin with the procedures. “They sink in and become a memorized response or a natural reaction,” he said. In a fire situation, for example, “Immediately when you hear the sound of the alarm, I will grab the nearest gas mask and the nearest emergency book and head to our control post, which is part of the emergency response.” (Chris Cassidy, a former Navy SEAL on station right now, had more to say to Universe Today in March about “muscle memory” during emergencies.)

European Space Agency astronauts Alexander Gerst (left) and Samantha Cristoforetti in Russian Orlan spacesuits during training in 2012. Credit: GCTC
European Space Agency astronauts Alexander Gerst (left) and Samantha Cristoforetti in Russian Orlan spacesuits during training in 2012. Credit: GCTC

What’s the biggest challenge? The complexity of the station. The American and Russian sides have different procedures and different equipment. There are three types of gas masks on station, for example, and three kinds of fire extinguishing systems. (According to Gerst, all but the most stubborn fires on station are extinguished after cutting ventilation and electricity to the affected area.) To address the complexity, the astronauts spend hours in the classroom discussing what to look for in the fire sensors, pressure sensors, ammonia sensors and other parts of the vehicle. The signatures look different for depressurizations, fires and other conditions in space and it’s key to know what they mean at a glance.

What happens during a simulation? After discussing what actions to take, it’s time to play them out. “We don’t light our modules on fire, but the trainers are creative in creating that [emergency] condition,” Gerst said. Sometimes smoke machines will be used during a fire simulation, for example, or the astronauts will simply be informed by instructors that there is a fire in a section of the station. As the astronauts go through the procedures, trainers keep an eye on them and give feedback. In more complex situations, 10 to 20 flight controllers can join in to simulate communications with Mission Control in Houston or its equivalent in Russia.

ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst (left) and NASA astronaut Gregory Reid Wiseman (middle) during training at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Credit: ESA–S. Corvaja
ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst (left) and NASA astronaut Gregory Reid Wiseman (middle) during training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Credit: ESA–S. Corvaja

What about dealing with emergencies in a smaller spacecraft? Astronauts can spend anywhere from hours to days on a Russian Soyuz getting to and from the station. If there’s a fire on board, the three people squashed inside the capsule wouldn’t have much room to deploy fire extinguishers. The response is essentially for astronauts to slam shut the visors on their spacesuits and vent the spacecraft. During a depressurization, the procedure is also to close the visor. “You don’t even have to get out of your seat to deal with the emergency, which makes it quite different,” Gerst said.

What about emergencies during a spacewalk? Astronauts spend hundreds of hours inside the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston, a huge pool with a mockup of most of the International Space Station inside. They practice spacewalk procedures such as how to bring an unconscious crew member back to the airlock, or what to do if air leaks out of a spacesuit. Gerst credits this sort of training for helping out during a recent incident involving fellow ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano. In July, emergency procedures kicked in for real when Parmitano’s spacesuit sprung a water leak during a spacewalk. In a nutshell, the crew worked to bring Parmitano back inside as quickly as possible, which led to a safe (but early) end to the work. (Read Parmitano’s nail-biting first-hand account of the incident here.)

What’s the big takeaway? Gerst emphasizes that emergency training is a “huge topic”. He and Reid Wiseman recently got checked out for emergency procedures on the United States side of the station, only to fly to Moscow and then have to do the same thing for the Russian side in mid-August. And there’s other training to do as well — another huge topic is medical emergencies , which Gerst practiced in a German hospital in July.