Gene Cernan, Last Man on the Moon, Honored at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

Remembrance Ceremony honoring the life of astronaut Eugene Cernan, last Man to walk on the Moon during NASA’s Apollo 17 moon landing mission in Dec. 1972, was held at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida, on Jan. 18, 2017. Cernan passed away on Jan. 16, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER VISITOR COMPLEX, FL – Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon, and one of America’s most famous and renowned astronauts, was honored in a ceremony held at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida, on Jan. 18. [Story/photos expanded]

Cernan passed away earlier this week on Monday, January 16, 2017 at age 82, after a long illness, surrounded by his family.

Cernan, a naval aviator, flew on three groundbreaking missions for NASA during the Gemini and Apollo programs that paved the way for America’s and humanity’s first moon landing missions.

His trio of historic space flights ultimately culminated with Cernan stepping foot on the moon in Dec. 1972 during the Apollo 17 mission- NASA final moon landing of the Apollo era.

No human has set foot on the Moon since Apollo 17 – an enduring disappointment to Cernan and all space fans worldwide.

Cernan also flew on the Gemini 9 and Apollo 10 missions, prior to Apollo 17.

The Gemini 9 capsule is on display at the KSC Visitor Complex. Cernan was the second NASA astronaut to perform an EVA – during Gemini 9.

The Cernan remembrance ceremony was held at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame inside the newly opened ‘Heroes & Legends’ exhibit at the KSC Visitor Complex – two days after Cernan died. It included remarks from two of his fellow NASA astronauts from the Space Shuttle era, Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana, and space shuttle astronaut Jon McBride, as well as Therrin Protze, chief operating officer, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Robert Cabana, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and space shuttle astronaut Jon McBride, following remarks at the Jan 18, 2017 Remembrance Ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida, honoring the life of astronaut Eugene Cernan. Credit: Julian Leek

A NASA portrait and floral wreath were on display for visitors during the ceremony inside and outside of the ‘Heroes and Legends’ exhibit.

“He was an advocate for the space program and hero that will be greatly missed,” said Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana during the ceremony inside.

“I don’t believe that Gene is going to be the last man on the moon. And one of the things that he was extremely passionate about was our exploring beyond our own planet, and developing that capability that would allow us to go back to the moon and go beyond.

“I feel badly that he wasn’t able to stay alive long enough to actually see this come to fruition,” Cabana said.

Portrait of NASA astronaut Gene Cernan and floral wreath displayed during the Jan. 18, 2017 Remembrance Ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida, honoring his life as the last Man to walk on the Moon. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA is now developing the SLS heavy lift rocket and Orion deep space capsule to send our astronauts to the Moon, Mars and Beyond. The maiden launch of SLS-1 on the uncrewed EM-1 mission to the Moon is slated for Fall 2018.

“We are saddened of the loss of our American hero, Astronaut Gene Cernan. As the last man to place footsteps on the surface of the moon, he was a truly inspiring icon who challenged the impossible,” said Therrin Protze, chief operating officer of Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

“People throughout generations have been and will forever be inspired by his actions, and the underlying message that what we can achieve is limited only by our imaginations. He will forever be known as ‘The Last Man on the Moon,” and for the extraordinary impact he had on our country and the world.”

Cernan was one of only 12 astronauts to walk on the moon. Neil Armstong and Buzz Aldrin were the first during the Apollo 11 moon landing mission in 1969 that fulfilled President Kohn F. Kennedy’s promise to land on the Moon during the 1960’s.

Launch of Apollo 17 – NASA’s last lunar landing mission – on 7 December 1972 from Launch Complex-39A on the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

Cernan retired from NASA and the U.S. Navy in 1976. He continued to advise NASA as a consultant and appeared frequently on TV news programs during NASA’s manned space missions as an popular guest explaining the details of space exploration and why we should explore.

He advocated for NASA, space exploration and science his entire adult life.

The prime crew for the Apollo 17 lunar landing mission are: Commander, Eugene A. Cernan (seated), Command Module pilot Ronald E. Evans (standing on right), and Lunar Module pilot, Harrison H. Schmitt (left). They are photographed with a Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) trainer. Cernan and Schmitt used an LRV during their exploration of the Taurus-Littrow landing site. The Apollo 17 Saturn V Moon rocket is in the background. This picture was taken during October 1972 at Launch Complex 39A, Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

“As an astronaut, Cernan left an indelible impression on the moon when he scratched his daughter’s initials in the lunar surface alongside the footprints he left as the last human to walk on the moon. Guests of Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex can learn more about Cernan’s legacy at the new Heroes & Legends exhibit, where his spacewalk outside the actual Gemini IX space capsule is brought to life through holographic imagery.”

Actual Gemini 9 capsule piloted by Gene Cernan with Commander Thomas P. Stafford on a three-day flight in June 1966 on permanent display in the Heroes and Legends exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida. Cernan logged more than two hours outside the orbiting capsule, as depicted in description. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

From NASA’s profile page:

“Cernan was born in Chicago on March 14, 1934. He graduated from Proviso Township High School in Maywood, Ill., and received a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Purdue University in 1956. He earned a master of science degree in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

Cernan is survived by his wife, Jan Nanna Cernan, his daughter and son-in-law, Tracy Cernan Woolie and Marion Woolie, step-daughters Kelly Nanna Taff and husband, Michael, and Danielle Nanna Ellis and nine grandchildren.”

The following is a statement released by NASA on the behalf of Gene Cernan’s family:

A funeral service for Capt. Eugene A. Cernan, who passed away Monday at the age of 82, will be conducted at 2:30 p.m. CST on Tuesday, Jan. 24, at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, 717 Sage Road in Houston.

NASA Television will provide pool video coverage of the service.

The family will gather for a private interment at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin at a later date, where full military honors will be rendered.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Grand opening ceremony for the ‘Heroes and Legends’ attraction on Nov. 11, 2016 at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida and attended by more than 25 veteran and current NASA astronauts. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Last Man on the Moon, Gene Cernan, Has Died

One of Apollo’s finest, astronaut Gene Cernan, has left Earth for the last time. Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon, died Monday, January 16, 2017.

“Gene Cernan, Apollo astronaut and the last man to walk on the moon, has passed from our sphere, and we mourn his loss,” said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden in statement. “Leaving the moon in 1972, Cernan said, ‘As I take these last steps from the surface for some time into the future to come, I’d just like to record that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow.’ Truly, America has lost a patriot and pioneer who helped shape our country’s bold ambitions to do things that humankind had never before achieved.”

In a statement, Cernan’s family said he was humbled by his life experiences, and he recently commented, “I was just a young kid in America growing up with a dream. Today what’s most important to me is my desire to inspire the passion in the hearts and minds of future generations of young men and women to see their own impossible dreams become a reality.”

“Even at the age of 82, Gene was passionate about sharing his desire to see the continued human exploration of space and encouraged our nation’s leaders and young people to not let him remain the last man to walk on the Moon,” the family continued.

A trailer for the film “The Last Man on the Moon:”

Cernan was a Captain in the U.S. Navy but he is remembered most for his historic travels off Earth. He flew in space three times, twice to the Moon.

He was one of 14 astronauts selected by NASA in October 1963. He piloted the Gemini 9 mission with Commander Thomas Stafford on a three-day flight in June 1966. Cernan was the second American to conduct a spacewalk, and he logged more than two hours outside the Earth-orbiting Gemini capsule.

During his two hour, eight minute spacewalk on June 5, 1966, Gemini IXA pilot Eugene Cernan is seen outside the spacecraft. Credit: NASA/Tom Stafford.

In May 1969, he was the lunar module pilot of Apollo 10, and dramatically descended to within 5 km (50,000 ft) of the Moon’s surface to test out the lunar lander’s capabilities, paving the way for Apollo 11’s first lunar landing two months later.

As Cernan flew the lunar module close to the surface, he radioed back to Earth, “I’m telling you, we are low. We’re close baby! … We is down among ‘em!”

Apollo 17 Mission Commander Eugene A. Cernan during the second spacewalk on December 12, 1972, standing near the lunar rover. Credit: NASA.

But his ultimate mission was landing on the Moon and walking across its surface during the Apollo 17 mission, the sixth and final mission to land on the Moon. During three EVAs to conduct surface operations within the Taurus-Littrow landing site, Cernan and his crewmate Harrison “Jack” Schmitt collected samples of the lunar surface and deployed scientific instruments.

On December 14, 1972, Cernan returned to the lunar module Challenger after the end of the third moonwalk, officially becoming the last human to set foot upon Moon.

Nobody can take those footsteps I made on the surface of the moon away from me.” – Eugene Cernan

Bolden said that in his last conversation with Cernan, “he spoke of his lingering desire to inspire the youth of our nation to undertake the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) studies, and to dare to dream and explore. He was one of a kind and all of us in the NASA Family will miss him greatly.”

The words of Cernan as he left the Moon’s surface bring us hope, for one day embarking on human missions of exploration of space once more.

“We shall return, in peace and hope, for all mankind.” – Gene Cernan.

A portion of a poem by space poet Stuart Atkinson is a wonderful remembrance:

Another One Falls

No mournful blare of trumpets but a forlorn Tweet announced
Another one had gone;
Another of the tallest redwoods in the forest of history
Had fallen, leaving a poorer world behind.

One by one they pass – the giants who dared to step
Off Terra, fly through a quarter million miles of deadly night
And stride across the Moon. On huge TVs in living rooms and schools
We watched them bounce across its ancient plains,
Snowmen stained by dust as cold and grey
As crematorium ash, mischievous boys with smiles flashing
Behind visors of burnished gold as they lolloped along,
Hopping like drunk kangaroos between boulders
Big as cars, so, so far away from Earth that their words
Came from the past –

And another one has gone.

(Read the full poem here.)

Apollo 17 mission commander Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, looks skyward during a memorial service celebrating the life of Neil Armstrong in 2012. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The Moon Is Getting Slammed Way More Than We Thought

Animation of a temporal pair of the new 39-foot (12-meter) impact crater on the moon photographed by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University
Animation of a temporal pair of the new 39-foot (12-meter) impact crater on the moon photographed by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

We often hear how the Moon’s appearance hasn’t changed in millions or even billions of years. While micrometeorites, cosmic rays and the solar wind slowly grind down lunar rocks, the Moon lacks erosional processes such as water, wind and lurching tectonic plates that can get the job done in a hurry.

After taking the first boot print photo, Aldrin moved closer to the little rock and took this second shot. The dusty, sandy pebbly soil is also known as the lunar ‘regolith’. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA
One of a series of photos Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin Aldrin made of his bootprint in the dusty, sandy lunar soil, called regolith. Based on a newy study, the impression may disappear in a few tens of thousands of years instead a few million. Credit: NASA

Remember Buzz Aldrin’s photo of his boot print in the lunar regolith? It was thought the impression would last up to 2 million years. Now it seems that estimate may have to be revised based on photos taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) that reveal that impacts are transforming the surface much faster than previously thought.

Distribution of new impact craters (yellow dots) discovered by analyzing 14,000 NAC temporal pairs. The two red dots mark the location of the 17 March 2013 and the 11 September 2013 impacts that were recorded by Earth-based video monitoring [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University]
This map shows the distribution of new impact craters (yellow dots) discovered by analyzing 14,000 narrow-angle camera (NAC) temporal pairs. The two red dots mark the location of the March 17, 2013 and September 11, 2013 impacts that were recorded by Earth-based video monitoring. LRO’s mission was recently extended an addition two years through September 2018. Credit: NASA/GSFC/ASU
The LRO’s high resolution camera, which can resolve features down to about 3 feet (1-meter) across, has been peering down at the Moon from orbit since 2009. Taking before and after images, called temporal pairs, scientists have identified 222 impact craters that formed over the past 7 years. The new craters range from 10 feet up to 141 feet (3-43 meters) in diameter.

By analyzing the number of new craters and their size, and the time between each temporal pair, a team of scientists from Arizona State University and Cornell estimated the current cratering rate on the Moon. The result, published in Nature this week, was unexpected: 33% more new craters with diameters of at least 30 feet (10 meters) were found than anticipated by previous cratering models.

their brightest recorded flash occurred on 17 March 2013 with coordinates 20.7135°N, 335.6698°E. Since then LRO passed over the flash site and the NAC imaged the surrounding area; a new 18 meter (59 feet) diameter crater was found by comparing images taken before and after the March date.
LRO before and after images of an impact event on March 17, 2013. The newly formed crater is 59 feet (18 meters) in diameter. Subsurface regolith not exposed to sunlight forms a bright halo around the new crater. There also appears to be a larger nimbus of darker reflectance material visible much further beyond but centered on the impact. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Similar to the crater that appeared on March 17, 2013 (above), the team also found that new impacts are surrounded by light and dark reflectance patterns related to material ejected during crater formation. Many of the larger impact craters show up to four distinct bright or dark reflectance zones. Nearest to the impact site, there are usually zone of both high and low reflectance.  These two zones likely formed as a layer of material that was ejected from the crater during the impact shot outward to about 2½ crater diameters from the rim.

An artist's illustration of a meteoroid impact on the Moon. (Credit: NASA).
An artist’s illustration of a meteoroid impact on the Moon. Impacts dig up fresh material from below as well as send waves of hot rock vapor and molten rock across the lunar landscape, causing a much faster turnover of the moon soil than previously thought. Credit: NASA

From analyzing multiple impact sites, far flung ejecta patterns wrap around small obstacles like hills and crater rims, indicating the material was traveling nearly parallel to the ground. This kind of path is only possible if the material was ejected at very high speed around 10 miles per second or 36,000 miles per hour! The jet contains vaporized and molten rock that disturb the upper layer of lunar regolith, modifying its reflectance properties.


How LRO creates temporal pairs and scientists use them to discover changes on the moon’s surface.

In addition to discovering impact craters and their fascinating ejecta patterns, the scientists also observed a large number of small surface changes they call ‘splotches’ most likely caused by small, secondary impacts. Dense clusters of these splotches are found around new impact sites suggesting they may be secondary surface changes caused by material thrown out from a nearby primary impact. From 14,000 temporal pairs, the group identified over 47,000 splotches so far.

Example of a low reflectance (top) and high reflectance (bottom) splotch created either by a small impactor or more likely from secondary ejecta. In either case, the top few centimeters of the regolith (soil) was churned [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
Here are two examples of a low reflectance (top) and high reflectance (bottom) splotch created either by a small impactor or more likely from secondary ejecta. In either case, the top few inches of the regolith (soil) was churned Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University
Based on estimates of size, depth and frequency of formation, the group estimated that the relentless churning caused by meteoroid impacts will turn over 99% of the lunar surface after about 81,000 years. Keep in mind, we’re talking about the upper regolith, not whole craters and mountain ranges. That’s more than 100 times faster than previous models that only took micrometeorites into account. Instead of millions of years for those astronaut boot prints and rover tracks to disappear, it now appears that they’ll be wiped clean in just tens of thousands!

Apollo 11 Landing 47 Years Ago; See it Through New Eyes

Looking for a way to commemorate the 47th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission landing on the Moon? Here are a few different ways look back on this historic event and take advantage of advances in technology or new data.

Below is a video that uses data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and its amazing suite of cameras, offering a side-by-side view of Apollo 11’s descent, comparing footage originally shot from the Eagle lunar module’s window with views created from reconstructed LRO imagery. This is a fun way to re-live the landing — 1202 alarms and all — while seeing high definition views of the lunar surface.

The National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC has a special way to mark the Apollo 11 anniversary. They have posted online high-resolution 3-D scans of the command module Columbia, the spacecraft that carried astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the Moon. This very detailed model allows you to explore the entire spacecraft’s interior, which, if you’ve ever visited the Air & Space museum and seen Columbia in person, you probably know is a tremendous ‘upgrade,’ since you can only see a portion of the interior through couple of small hatches and windows. The Smithsonian is also making the data files of the model available for download so it can be 3-D printed or viewed with virtual-reality goggles. Find all the details here.

While 3D scanning the Apollo 11 Command Module, museum staff uncovered writing on the interior walls of the module.The main control panel of the spacecraft contains essential switches and indicators that had to be referred to and operated during the most crucial aspects of the flight. Numbers and references written by hand onto the panel can be checked against the audio and written transcripts from the mission to provide a more vivid picture of just what transpired. Credit: Smithsonian Institution.
While 3D scanning the Apollo 11 Command Module, museum staff uncovered writing on the interior walls of the module.The main control panel of the spacecraft contains essential switches and indicators that had to be referred to and operated during the most crucial aspects of the flight. Numbers and references written by hand onto the panel can be checked against the audio and written transcripts from the mission to provide a more vivid picture of just what transpired. Credit: Smithsonian Institution.

Here’s a remastered version of the original mission video as aired in July 1969 depicting the Apollo 11 astronauts conducting several tasks during the moonwalk (EVA) operations on the surface of the moon, which lasted approximately 2.5 hours.

If you’re pressed for time, here’s a quick look at the entire Apollo 11 mission, all in just 100 seconds from Spacecraft Films:

Here’s a very cool detailed look at the Apollo 11 launch in ultra-slow motion, with narration:

Enjoy, and happy anniversary!

NASA Releases Strange ‘Music’ Heard By 1969 Astronauts

Lunar module pilot Eugene Cernan en route to the Moon during the Apollo 10 mission in the spring of 1969. Credit: NASA
Lunar module pilot Gene Cernan en route to the Moon during the Apollo 10 mission in the spring of 1969. Credit: NASA

Calling it music is a stretch, but that’s exactly how the Apollo 10 astronauts described the creepy sounds they heard while swinging around the farside of the moon in May 1969. During the hour they spent alone cut off from communications with Earth, all three commented about a persistent “whistling” sound that lunar module pilot (LMP) likened to “outer-space-type-music”. Once the craft returned to the nearside, the mysterious sounds disappeared.


Apollo 10 Farside-of-the-Moon Music.

Hands down it was aliens! I wish. Several online stories fan the coals of innuendo and mystery with talk of hidden files and NASA cover-ups narrated to disturbing music. NASA agrees that the files were listed as ‘confidential’ in 1969 at the height of the Space Race, but the Apollo 10 mission transcripts and audio have been publicly available at the National Archives since 1973. Remember, there was no Internet back then. The audio files were only digitized and uploaded for easy access in 2012. Outside of the secretive ’60s, the files have been around a long time.

Part of the Apollo 10 transcript of the conversation among the three Apollo 10 astronauts while they orbited the farside of the Moon. Credit: NASA
Part of the Apollo 10 transcript of the conversation among the three Apollo 10 astronauts while they orbited the farside of the Moon. Click the image for a pdf copy of the full mission transcript. Credit: NASA

The story originally broke Sunday night in a show on the cable channel Discovery as part of the “NASA’s Unexplained Files” series; you’ll find their youtube video below. As I listen to the sound file, I hear two different tones. One is a loud, low buzz, the other a whooshing sound. My first thought was interference of some sort for the buzzing sound, but the whoosh reminded me of a whistler, a low frequency radio wave generated by lightning produced when energy from lightning travels out into Earth’s magnetic field from one hemisphere to another. Using an appropriate receiver, we can hear whistlers as descending, whistle-like tones lasting up to several seconds.

Earthrise as photographed by the Apollo 10 crew in May 1969. Credit: NASA
Earthrise as photographed by the Apollo 10 crew in May 1969. Credit: NASA

Lightning’s hardly likely on the Moon, and whistlers require a magnetic field, which the Moon also lacks. The cause turns out to be, well, man-made. Cernan’s take was that two separate VHF radios, one in the lunar module and the other in command module, were interfering with one another to produce the noise. This was later confirmed by Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins who flew around the lunar farside alone when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon’s surface.

The Apollo 10 command/service module nicknamed "Charlie Brown" orbiting the Moon as seen from the lunar module. Credit: NASA
The Apollo 10 command service module nicknamed “Charlie Brown” orbiting the Moon as seen from the lunar module. Apollo 10 was a full dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 mission to place a man on the Moon. Click the image to visit the Apollo 10 photo archive. Credit: NASA

In his book Carrying the Fire, Collins writes: “There is a strange noise in my headset now, an eerie woo-woo sound.” He said it might have scared him had NASA’s radio technicians not forewarned him. The “music” played when the two craft were near one another with their radios turned on. Unlike Apollo 10, which never descended to the Moon’s surface but remained near the command module, the Apollo 11 lunar module touched down on the Moon on July 20, 1969. Once it did, Collins writes that the ‘woo-woo’ music stopped.

The astronauts never talked publicly or even with the agency about hearing weird sounds in space for good reason. Higher-ups at NASA might think them unfit for future missions for entertaining weird ideas, so they kept their thoughts private. This was the era of the “right stuff” and no astronaut wanted to jeopardize a chance to fly to the Moon let alone their career.


Outer Space Music Part 1 of NASA’s Unexplained Files —  to be taken with a boulder of salt

In the end, this “music of the the spheres” makes for a fascinating  tidbit of outer space history. There’s no question the astronauts were spooked, especially considering how eerie it must have felt to be out of touch with Earth on the far side of the Moon. But once the sounds stopped, they soldiered on — part of the grand human effort to touch another world.

“I don’t remember that incident exciting me enough to take it seriously,” Gene Cernan told NASA on Monday. “It was probably just radio interference. Had we thought it was something other than that we would have briefed everyone after the flight. We never gave it another thought.”


Messages from the Ringed Planet

Want to hear some real outer space music? Click the Saturn video and listen to the eerie sound of electrons streaming along Saturn’s magnetic field to create the aurora.

What Does it Take to Be an Astronaut?

What does it take to have the “Right Stuff” to become an Astronaut?

Are you an overachiever? Are you working on multiple PhDs in obscure and difficult topics? Can you speak multiple languages, including alienese? Do you suspect, if handed the controls, you could complete the Kessel Run in fewer parsecs than Han Solo?

If you said yes to any of these questions you might want to consider becoming an astronaut. In fact, if you’re an American citizen, there’s never been a better time to see if you’ve got the right stuff. NASA has opened up their astronaut corps to the few, the proud, the willing to get motion sickness in zero gravity. To boldly vomit where few have vomited before.

In the olden days, you either had to be a chimpanzee or an Air Force test pilot to be allowed to take the controls of a genuine NASA rocket and break free from the surly chains of gravity. When NASA finally upgraded its astronaut corps from chimps to humans in the 1950s to begin the Mercury program, they decided they’d only allow test pilots to apply for the first missions.

To fit in the cramped cabin, you had to physically be no taller than 180 cm (5’ 11”), and weigh no more than 82 kg (180 pounds). You needed to have book smarts, too. Astronaut candidates needed at least a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent, but still be under 40 years old. But most importantly, you had to be a test pilot with at least 1,500 hours of flying time and the ability to fly jets.

If you didn’t have hours behind the stick, piloting the most insane flying machines dreamt up by those nutty scientists, well then you didn’t have the right stuff.

Those qualifications continued through the Gemini and Apollo program, although, they relaxed them somewhat, allowing younger astronauts, and those with less flight time. In the recruitment of astronauts in 1965, they allowed a new class of scientist-astronauts; folks with science degrees and no flight time. The most famous of these was Jack Schmitt, a geologist who walked on the Moon with Apollo 17.

NASA now understands that they need astronauts with a wide range of space-based skills, and not just a bunch of test pilots. There are two kinds of people who get to go to space: pilots and mission specialists.

STS-134 commander Mark Kelly strides across the runway of the Shuttle Landing Facility. Credit: Michael Deep, for Universe Today.
STS-134 commander Mark Kelly strides across the runway of the Shuttle Landing Facility. Credit: Michael Deep, for Universe Today.

The first category are the commanders and pilot astronauts – the folks who actually fly the spacecraft. They’re the ones with thousands of hours behind the stick of a modern jet, the more cockamamie the better.

To be qualified as a pilot astronaut, you need to have at least 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time in a jet aircraft. You need to be healthy, with normal blood pressure, good vision and a height between 158 – 191 cm (62 and 75 inches). There are no longer any age restrictions, so astronauts have been selected between 26 and 46 years old.

You need a degree in some kind of space-related science, like engineering, mathematics, biological science and physical science. But that’s a minimum. You really want to have an advanced degree, or even multiple degrees. So, if you’re a healthy, eagle-eyed test pilot with a few advanced degrees, you should apply.

The other category is the mission specialists. These are the astronauts with specialties that will come into play on a space mission. For example: doctors, engineers, particle physicists, xenobiologists, alien translators, droid mechanics, etc. Since you won’t be required to fly the spacecraft, test pilot experience isn’t necessary, but you’ll need to have the same physical health as the pilot astronaut.

Nicole Stott, STS-133 mission specialist, is pictured in the Cupola of the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
Nicole Stott, STS-133 mission specialist, is pictured in the Cupola of the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

The main difference is that you’ll need to have one or multiple advanced degrees in engineering, science or math. The more degrees, and the more advanced they are, the better. Gotta collect them all.

I mentioned two kinds of astronauts, but there’s actually a third – the payload specialist. These were the astronauts who went to space during the shuttle era to support a specific mission. Priority was given to qualified NASA astronauts, but this was also how foreign astronauts like Canada’s Marc Garneau got a chance to fly in space.

Are you intrigued and thinking you might want to throw your name in the helmet? Want to know what being an astronaut pays? A starting astronaut can make $66,000 per year, while a senior one can earn $145,000 per year. Not bad at all, and the view from your office is spectacular.

So, if you’re a US citizen, you meet the qualifications, and you’d like to fly to space, you should apply during this latest call for candidates. And if you don’t think you make the cut, go ahead and wrap up those PhDs, as there’ll be another astronaut selection in a few years.

And if you do apply and don’t make the cut this time around, don’t despair. From the astronauts I’ve talked to, sometimes it takes a few applications before you get accepted. Persistence pays off.

Well, are you going to sign up and become an astronaut? Where do you think your mission will go? Tell us in the comments below.

NASA’s Space Launch System Passes Critical Design Review, Drops Saturn V Color Motif

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration. Credit: NASA/MSFC
Story/imagery updated[/caption]

The SLS, America’s first human-rated heavy lift rocket intended to carry astronauts to deep space destinations since NASA’s Apollo moon landing era Saturn V, has passed a key design milestone known as the critical design review (CDR) thereby clearing the path to full scale fabrication.

NASA also confirmed they have dropped the Saturn V white color motif of the mammoth rocket in favor of burnt orange to reflect the natural color of the SLS boosters first stage cryogenic core. The agency also decided to add stripes to the huge solid rocket boosters.

NASA announced that the Space Launch System (SLS) has “completed all steps needed to clear a critical design review (CDR)” – meaning that the design of all the rockets components are technically acceptable and the agency can continue with full scale production towards achieving a maiden liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 2018.

“We’ve nailed down the design of SLS,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator of NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Division, in a NASA statement.

Artist concept of the SLS Block 1 configuration on the Mobile Launcher at KSC. Credit: NASA/MSFC
Artist concept of the SLS Block 1 configuration on the Mobile Launcher at KSC. Credit: NASA/MSFC

Blastoff of the NASA’s first SLS heavy lift booster (SLS-1) carrying an unmanned test version of NASA’s Orion crew capsule is targeted for no later than November 2018.

Indeed the SLS will be the most powerful rocket the world has ever seen starting with its first liftoff. It will propel our astronauts on journey’s further into space than ever before.

SLS is “the first vehicle designed to meet the challenges of the journey to Mars and the first exploration class rocket since the Saturn V.”

Crews seated inside NASA’s Orion crew module bolted atop the SLS will rocket to deep space destinations including the Moon, asteroids and eventually the Red Planet.

“There have been challenges, and there will be more ahead, but this review gives us confidence that we are on the right track for the first flight of SLS and using it to extend permanent human presence into deep space,” Hill stated.

The core stage (first stage) of the SLS will be powered by four RS-25 engines and a pair of five-segment solid rocket boosters (SRBs) that will generate a combined 8.4 million pounds of liftoff thrust in its inaugural Block 1 configuration, with a minimum 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lift capability.

Overall the SLS Block 1 configuration will be some 10 percent more powerful than the Saturn V rockets that propelled astronauts to the Moon, including Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the Moon during Apollo 11 in July 1969.

Graphic shows Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). Credits: NASA/MSFC
Graphic shows Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). Credits: NASA/MSFC

The SLS core stage is derived from the huge External Tank (ET) that fueled NASA Space Shuttle’s for three decades. It is a longer version of the Shuttle ET.

NASA initially planned to paint the SLS core stage white, thereby making it resemble the Saturn V.

But since the natural manufacturing color of its insulation during fabrication is burnt orange, managers decided to keep it so and delete the white paint job.

“As part of the CDR, the program concluded the core stage of the rocket and Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter will remain orange, the natural color of the insulation that will cover those elements, instead of painted white,” said NASA.

There is good reason to scrap the white color motif because roughly 1000 pounds of paint can be saved by leaving the tank with its natural orange pigment.

This translates directly into another 1000 pounds of payload carrying capability to orbit.

“Not applying the paint will reduce the vehicle mass by potentially as much as 1,000 pounds, resulting in an increase in payload capacity, and additionally streamlines production processes,” Shannon Ridinger, NASA Public Affairs spokeswomen told Universe Today.

After the first two shuttle launches back in 1981, the ETs were also not painted white for the same reason – in order to carry more cargo to orbit.

“This is similar to what was done for the external tank for the space shuttle. The space shuttle was originally painted white for the first two flights and later a technical study found painting to be unnecessary,” Ridinger explained.

Artist concept of the Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS Program has completed its critical design review, and the program has concluded that the core stage of the rocket will remain orange along with the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter, which is the natural color of the insulation that will cover those elements.  Credits: NASA
Artist concept of the Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS Program has completed its critical design review, and the program has concluded that the core stage of the rocket will remain orange along with the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter, which is the natural color of the insulation that will cover those elements. Credits: NASA

NASA said that the CDR was completed by the SLS team in July and the results were also further reviewed over several more months by a panel of outside experts and additionally by top NASA managers.

“The SLS Program completed the review in July, in conjunction with a separate review by the Standing Review Board, which is composed of seasoned experts from NASA and industry who are independent of the program. Throughout the course of 11 weeks, 13 teams – made up of senior engineers and aerospace experts across the agency and industry – reviewed more than 1,000 SLS documents and more than 150 GB of data as part of the comprehensive assessment process at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where SLS is managed for the agency.”

“The Standing Review Board reviewed and assessed the program’s readiness and confirmed the technical effort is on track to complete system development and meet performance requirements on budget and on schedule.”

The final step of the SLS CDR was completed this month with another extremely thorough assessment by NASA’s Agency Program Management Council, led by NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot.

“This is a major step in the design and readiness of SLS,” said John Honeycutt, SLS program manager.

The CDR was the last of four reviews that examine SLS concepts and designs.

NASA says the next step “is design certification, which will take place in 2017 after manufacturing, integration and testing is complete. The design certification will compare the actual final product to the rocket’s design. The final review, the flight readiness review, will take place just prior to the 2018 flight readiness date.”

“Our team has worked extremely hard, and we are moving forward with building this rocket. We are qualifying hardware, building structural test articles, and making real progress,” Honeycutt elaborated.

Numerous individual components of the SLS core stage have already been built and their manufacture was part of the CDR assessment.

The SLS core stage is being built at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. It stretches over 200 feet tall and is 27.6 feet in diameter and will carry cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuel for the rocket’s four RS-25 engines.

On Sept. 12, 2014, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveiled the world’s largest welder at Michoud, that will be used to construct the core stage, as I reported earlier during my on-site visit – here.

The first stage RS-25 engines have also completed their first round of hot firing tests. And the five segment solid rocket boosters has also been hot fired.

NASA decided that the SRBs will be painted with something like racing stripes.

“Stripes will be painted on the SRBs and we are still identifying the best process for putting them on the boosters; we have multiple options that have minimal impact to cost and payload capability, ” Ridinger stated.

With the successful completion of the CDR, the components of the first core stage can now proceed to assembly of the finished product and testing of the RS-25 engines and boosters can continue.

“We’ve successfully completed the first round of testing of the rocket’s engines and boosters, and all the major components for the first flight are now in production,” Hill explained.

View of NASA’s future SLS/Orion launch pad at Space Launch Complex 39B from atop  Mobile Launcher at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Former Space Shuttle launch pad 39B is now undergoing renovations and upgrades to prepare for SLS/Orion flights starting in 2018. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View of NASA’s future SLS/Orion launch pad at Space Launch Complex 39B from atop Mobile Launcher at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Former Space Shuttle launch pad 39B is now undergoing renovations and upgrades to prepare for SLS/Orion flights starting in 2018. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA plans to gradually upgrade the SLS to achieve an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons), enabling the more distant missions even farther into our solar system.

The first SLS test flight with the uncrewed Orion is called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) and will launch from Launch Complex 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

The SLS/Orion stack will roll out to pad 39B atop the Mobile Launcher now under construction – as detailed in my recent story and during visit around and to the top of the ML at KSC.

Looking up from beneath the enlarged exhaust hole of the Mobile Launcher to the 380 foot-tall tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars.   The ML will support NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft during Exploration Mission-1 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Looking up from beneath the enlarged exhaust hole of the Mobile Launcher to the 380 foot-tall tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars. The ML will support NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft during Exploration Mission-1 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Orion’s inaugural mission dubbed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT) was successfully launched on a flawless flight on Dec. 5, 2014 atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Wide view of the new welding tool at the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept. 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Wide view of the new welding tool at the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept. 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Relive Missions to the Moon with Fan Videos Created from NASA’s Apollo Archives

When NASA recently posted over 8,000 images from the Apollo missions on Flickr, I just knew something good was going to happen! There are so many creative people out there that just need a little spark, a little inspiration and they’re off creating wonderful things. Three videos so far have surfaced based on the imagery from NASA’s Apollo Archive.

The first comes from Tom Kucy who posted his video titled “Ground Control” on You Tube and said this is a “small personal project, bringing NASA’s Apollo Archive photos to life.” This video is like a 2.5 minute mini-documentary of the Apollo missions. Kucy uses stunning photos and audio from the Apollo missions to create a truly stunning video. As one commenter said, “This happened prior to my birth, and I truly feel like I was there. Nice, nice work!”

Kucy also added that he has the intention of bringing more missions life, so stay tuned for more.

The second video was created by harrisonicus on Vimeo, who said he was looking through the Project Apollo Archive and “at one point, I began clicking through a series of pics quickly and it looked like stop motion animation. So, I decided to see what that would look like without me having to click through it.”

It’s like a flipbook of the images, with music:

The original Apollo Archive website has been online since 1999 and was created by Kipp Teague as a companion website to his “Contact Light” site , a personal retrospective on Project Apollo. NASA now has posted the imagery on Flickr, giving them wider accessibility.

The third is a short gif video put together by planetary astronomer Alex Parker and posted on Twitter. He found new images of the damaged Apollo 13 Service Module, cleaned them up a bit and created this wonderful animation:

It’s a great new look at the service module, which was damaged when an oxygen tank in the module exploded. When the Apollo 13 crew jettisoned the crippled Service Module as they returned to Earth, they saw the extent of the damage from the explosion of the tank. “There’s one whole side of that spacecraft missing!” Jim Lovell radioed to Mission Control, his voice reflecting his incredulousness at seeing the damage of a 13-ft panel blown off the spacecraft.

You can read more about the damage on the SM in an article in our series on Apollo 13 here.

Below are a few of our favorite images from the collection that we’ve found so far. Enjoy, and make sure you check out all the images for yourself!

The Apollo 15 Saturn V Space Vehicle is seen from a camera located at the mobile launcher’s 360-foot level at Launch Pad 39A during venting of the liquid oxygen during the “wet” portion of the Countdown Demonstration Test on July 13, 1971. Credit: NASA/KSC
The Apollo 15 Saturn V Space Vehicle is seen from a camera located at the mobile launcher’s 360-foot level at Launch Pad 39A during venting of the liquid oxygen during the “wet” portion of the Countdown Demonstration Test on July 13, 1971. Credit: NASA/KSC
The Lunar Module for the Apollo 17 mission undergoes final checkout in the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building prior to mating to the Saturn V launch vehicle. November 3, 1972. Credit: NASA.
The Lunar Module for the Apollo 17 mission undergoes final checkout in the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building prior to mating to the Saturn V launch vehicle. November 3, 1972.
Credit: NASA.
The Earth as photographed from the Apollo 4 mission, the first, unmanned test flight of the Saturn V, which reached an apogee of 18,092 kilometers. November 9, 1967. Credit: NASA.
The Earth as photographed from the Apollo 4 mission, the first, unmanned test flight of the Saturn V, which reached an apogee of 18,092 kilometers. November 9, 1967. Credit: NASA.
Crescent Earth as viewed by the crew of Apollo 15. Credit: NASA.
Crescent Earth as viewed by the crew of Apollo 15. Credit: NASA.
The Apollo 17 Lunar Module "Challenger" ascent stage after returning from the lunar surface, photographed from the Command Module "America" prior to rendezvous. Credit: NASA/KSC.
The Apollo 17 Lunar Module “Challenger” ascent stage after returning from the lunar surface, photographed from the Command Module “America” prior to rendezvous. Credit: NASA/KSC.

China Plans Lunar Far Side Landing by 2020

China plans lunar far side landing with hardware similar to Chang’e-3 lander
This time-lapse color panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 lander shows the Yutu rover at two different positions during its trek over the Moon’s surface at its landing site from Dec. 15-18, 2013. This view was taken from the 360-degree panorama. Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo.
See our complete Yutu timelapse pano at NASA APOD Feb. 3, 2014: [/caption]

China aims to land a science probe and research rover on the far side of the Moon by 2020, say Chinese officials.

Chinese scientists plan to carry out the highly complex lunar landing mission using a near identical back up to the nations highly successful Chang’e-3 rover and lander – which touched down in December 2013.

If successful, China would become the first country to accomplish the history making task of a Lunar far side landing.

“The mission will be carried out by Chang’e-4, a backup probe for Chang’e-3, and is slated to be launched before 2020,” said Zou Yongliao from the moon exploration department under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, according to a recent report in China’s government owned Xinhua news agency.

Zou made the remarks at a deep-space exploration forum in China.

“China will be the first to complete the task if it is successful,” said Zou.

Chinese space scientists have been evaluating how best to utilize the Chang’e-4 hardware, built as a backup to Chang’e-3, ever since China’s successful inaugural soft landing on the Moon was accomplished by Chang’e-3 in December 2013 with the mothership lander and piggybacked Yutu lunar rover.

Chang’e-3/Yutu Timelapse Color Panorama  This newly expanded timelapse composite view shows China’s Yutu moon rover at two positions passing by crater and heading south and away from the Chang’e-3 lunar landing site forever about a week after the Dec. 14, 2013 touchdown at Mare Imbrium. This cropped view was taken from the 360-degree timelapse panorama. See complete 360 degree landing site timelapse panorama herein and APOD Feb. 3, 2014. Chang’e-3 landers extreme ultraviolet (EUV) camera is at right, antenna at left. Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo – kenkremer.com.   See our complete Yutu timelapse pano at NASA APOD Feb. 3, 2014:  http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap140203.htm
Chang’e-3/Yutu Timelapse Color Panorama This newly expanded timelapse composite view shows China’s Yutu moon rover at two positions passing by crater and heading south and away from the Chang’e-3 lunar landing site forever about a week after the Dec. 14, 2013 touchdown at Mare Imbrium. This cropped view was taken from the 360-degree timelapse panorama. See complete 360 degree landing site timelapse panorama herein and APOD Feb. 3, 2014. Chang’e-3 landers extreme ultraviolet (EUV) camera is at right, antenna at left. Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo – kenkremer.com. See our complete Yutu timelapse pano at NASA APOD Feb. 3, 2014: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap140203.html

Plans to launch Chang’e-4 in 2016 were eventually abandoned in favor of further evaluation.

After completing an intense 12 month study ordered by China’s government, space officials confirmed that the lunar far side landing was the wisest use of the existing space hardware.

Chang’e-4 will be modified with a larger payload.

“Chang’e-4 is very similar to Chang’e-3 in structure but can handle more payload,” said Zou.

“It will be used to study the geological conditions of the dark side of the moon.”

The moon is tidally locked with the Earth so that only one side is ever visible. But that unique characteristic makes it highly attractive to scientists who have wanted to set up telescopes and other research experiments on the lunar far side for decades.

“The far side of the moon has a clean electromagnetic environment, which provides an ideal field for low frequency radio study. If we can can place a frequency spectrograph on the far side, we can fill a void,” Zou elaborated.

China will also have to launch another lunar orbiter in the next few years to enable the Chang’e-4 lander and rover to transmit signals and science data back to Chinese mission control on Earth.

In the meantime, China already announced its desire to forge ahead with an ambitious mission to return samples from the lunar surface later this decade.

The Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) plans to launch the Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission in 2017 as the third step in the nations far reaching lunar exploration program.

“Chang’e-5 will achieve several breakthroughs, including automatic sampling, ascending from the moon without a launch site and an unmanned docking 400,000 kilometers above the lunar surface,” said Li Chunlai, one of the main designers of the lunar probe ground application system, accoding to Xinhua.

The first step involved a pair of highly successful lunar orbiters named Chang’e-1 and Chang’e-2 which launched in 2007 and 2010.

The second step involved the hugely successful Chang’e-3 mothership lander and piggybacked Yutu moon rover which safely touched down on the Moon at Mare Imbrium (Sea of Rains) on Dec. 14, 2013 – marking China’s first successful spacecraft landing on an extraterrestrial body in history, and chronicled extensively in my reporting here at Universe Today.

360-degree time-lapse color panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 lander. This new 360-degree time-lapse color panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 lander shows the Yutu rover at five different positions, including passing by crater and heading south and away from the Chang’e-3 lunar landing site forever during its trek over the Moon’s surface at its landing site from Dec. 15-22, 2013 during the 1st Lunar Day. Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo – kenkremer.com.  See our Yutu timelapse pano at NASA APOD Feb. 3, 2014: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap140203.htm
360-degree time-lapse color panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 lander. This new 360-degree time-lapse color panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 lander shows the Yutu rover at five different positions, including passing by crater and heading south and away from the Chang’e-3 lunar landing site forever during its trek over the Moon’s surface at its landing site from Dec. 15-22, 2013 during the 1st Lunar Day. Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo – kenkremer.com. See our Yutu timelapse pano at NASA APOD Feb. 3, 2014: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap140203.html

See above and herein our time-lapse photo mosaics showing China’s Yutu rover dramatically trundling across the Moon’s stark gray terrain in the first weeks after she rolled all six wheels onto the desolate lunar plains.

The complete time-lapse mosaic shows Yutu at three different positions trekking around the landing site, and gives a real sense of how it maneuvered around on its 1st Lunar Day.

The 360 degree panoramic mosaic was created by the imaging team of scientists Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo from images captured by the color camera aboard the Chang’e-3 lander and was featured at Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on Feb. 3, 2014.

Chang’e-3 and Yutu landed on a thick deposit of volcanic material.

Mosaic of the Chang'e-3 moon lander and the lunar surface taken by the camera on China’s Yutu moon rover from a position south of the lander during Lunar Day 3.   Note the landing ramp and rover tracks at left.  Credit: CNSA/SASTIND/Xinhua/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Mosaic of the Chang’e-3 moon lander and the lunar surface taken by the camera on China’s Yutu moon rover from a position south of the lander during Lunar Day 3. Note the landing ramp and rover tracks at left. Credit: CNSA/SASTIND/Xinhua/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

China is only the 3rd country in the world to successfully soft land a spacecraft on Earth’s nearest neighbor after the United States and the Soviet Union.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Milestone Test Firing of NASA’s SLS Monster Rocket Engine Advances Human Path to Deep Space

During a 535-second test on August 13, 2015, operators ran the Space Launch System (SLS) RS-25 rocket engine through a series of tests at different power levels to collect engine performance data on the A-1 test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Credit: NASA
Story/imagery updated
See video below of full duration hot-fire test
[/caption]

With today’s (Aug. 13) successful test firing of an RS-25 main stage engine for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) monster rocket currently under development, the program passed a key milestone advancing the agency on the path to propel astronauts back to deep space at the turn of the decade.

The 535 second long test firing of the RS-25 development engine was conducted on the A-1 test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi – and ran for the planned full duration of nearly 9 minutes, matching the time they will fire during an actual SLS launch.

All indications are that the hot fire test apparently went off without a hitch, on first look.

“We ran the full duration and met all test objectives,” said Steve Wofford, SLS engine manager, on NASA TV following today’s’ test firing.

“There were no anomalies.” – based on the initial look.

The RS-25 is actually an upgraded version of former space shuttle main engines that were used with a 100% success rate during NASA’s three decade-long Space Shuttle program to propel the now retired shuttle orbiters to low Earth orbit. Those same engines are now being modified for use by the SLS.

Spectators enjoy the view during the Aug. 13, 2015 test firing of the RS-25 engine for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) on the A-1 test stand at NASA's Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.  Credit: NASA
Spectators enjoy the view during the Aug. 13, 2015 test firing of the RS-25 engine for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) on the A-1 test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Credit: NASA

“Data collected on performance of the engine at the various power levels will aid in adapting the former space shuttle engines to the new SLS vehicle mission requirements, including development of an all-new engine controller and software,” according to NASA officials .

The engine controller functions as the “brain” of the engine, which checks engine status, maintains communication between the vehicle and the engine and relays commands back and forth.

The core stage (first stage) of the SLS will be powered by four RS-25 engines and a pair of the five-segment solid rocket boosters that will generate a combined 8.4 million pounds of liftoff thrust, making it the most powerful rocket the world has ever seen.

Since shuttle orbiters were equipped with three space shuttle main engines, the use of four RS-25s on the SLS represents another significant change that also required many modifications being thoroughly evaluated as well.

RS-25 test firing in progress on the A-1 test stand at NASA's Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, on Aug. 13, 2015.  Credit: NASA
RS-25 test firing in progress on the A-1 test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, on Aug. 13, 2015. Credit: NASA

The SLS will be some 10 percent more powerful than the Saturn V rockets that propelled astronauts to the Moon, including Neil Armstrong, the human to walk on the Moon during Apollo 11 in July 1969.

SLS will loft astronauts in the Orion capsule on missions back to the Moon by around 2021, to an asteroid around 2025 and then beyond on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s – NASA’s overriding and agency wide goal.

Each of the RS-25’s engines generates some 500,000 pounds of thrust. They are fueled by cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. For SLS they will be operating at 109% of power, compared to a routine usage of 104.5% during the shuttle era. They measure 14 feet tall and 8 feet in diameter.

They have to withstand and survive temperature extremes ranging from -423 degrees F to more than 6000 degrees F.

This video shows the full duration hot-fire test:

NASA has 16 of the RS-25s leftover from the shuttle era and they are all being modified and upgraded for use by the SLS rocket.

Today’s test was the sixth in a series of seven to qualify the modified engines to flight status. The engine ignited at 5:01 p.m. EDT and reached the full thrust level of 512,000 pounds within about 5 seconds.

The hot gas was exhausted out of the nozzle at 13 times the speed of sound.

Since the shuttle engines were designed and built over three decades ago, they are being modified where possible with state of the art components to enhance performance, functionality and ease of operation, by prime contractor Aerojet-Rocketdyne of Sacramento, California.

One of the key objectives of today’s engine firing and the entire hot fire series was to test the performance of a brand new engine controller assembled with modern manufacturing techniques.

“Operators on the A-1 Test Stand at Stennis are conducting the test series to qualify an all-new engine controller and put the upgraded former space shuttle main engines through the rigorous temperature and pressure conditions they will experience during a SLS mission,” says NASA.

“The new controller, or “brain,” for the engine, which monitors engine status and communicates between the vehicle and the engine, relaying commands to the engine and transmitting data back to the vehicle. The controller also provides closed-loop management of the engine by regulating the thrust and fuel mixture ratio while monitoring the engine’s health and status.’

Video caption: RS-25 – The Ferrari of Rocket Engines explained. Credit: NASA

“The RS-25 is the most complicated rocket engine out there on the market, but that’s because it’s the Ferrari of rocket engines,” says Kathryn Crowe, RS-25 propulsion engineer.

“When you’re looking at designing a rocket engine, there are several different ways you can optimize it. You can optimize it through increasing its thrust, increasing the weight to thrust ratio, or increasing its overall efficiency and how it consumes your propellant. With this engine, they maximized all three.”

Engineers will now pour over the data collected from hundreds of data channels in great detail to thoroughly analyze the test results. They will incorporate any findings into future test firings of the RS-25s.

NASA says that testing of RS-25 flight engines is set to start later this fall.

“The RS-25 engine gives SLS a proven, high performance, affordable main propulsion system for deep space exploration. It is one of the most experienced large rocket engines in the world, with more than a million seconds of ground test and flight operations time.”

NASA plans to buy completely new sets of RS-25 engines from Aerojet-Rocketdyne taking full advantage of technological advances and modern manufacturing techniques as well as lessons learned from this hot fire series of engine tests.

The maiden test flight of the SLS is targeted for no later than November 2018 and will be configured in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds. It will boost an unmanned Orion on an approximately three week long test flight beyond the Moon and back.

Artist concept of the SLS Block 1 configuration.  Credit: NASA
Artist concept of the SLS Block 1 configuration. Credit: NASA

NASA plans to gradually upgrade the SLS to achieve an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons), enabling the more distant missions even farther into our solar system.

The first SLS test flight with the uncrewed Orion is called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) and will launch from Launch Complex 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center.

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Orion’s inaugural mission dubbed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT) was successfully launched on a flawless flight on Dec. 5, 2014 atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveils world’s largest welder to start construction of core stage of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, on Sept. 12, 2014. SLS will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveils world’s largest welder to start construction of core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, on Sept. 12, 2014. SLS will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
STS-135: Last launch using RS-25 engines that will now power NASA’s SLS deep space exploration rocket. NASA’s 135th and final shuttle mission takes flight on July 8, 2011 at 11:29 a.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida bound for the ISS and the high frontier with Chris Ferguson as Space Shuttle Commander. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
STS-135: Last launch using RS-25 engines that will now power NASA’s SLS deep space exploration rocket. NASA’s 135th and final shuttle mission takes flight on July 8, 2011 at 11:29 a.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida bound for the ISS and the high frontier with Chris Ferguson as Space Shuttle Commander. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com