NASA Webb Telescope Structure is Sound After Vibration Testing Detects Anomaly

The 18-segment gold coated primary mirror of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is raised into vertical alignment in the largest clean room at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, on Nov. 2, 2016. The secondary mirror mount booms are folded down into stowed for launch configuration. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MD – The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is now deemed “sound” and apparently unscathed, engineers have concluded, based on results from a new batch of intensive inspections of the observatory’s structure, after concerns were raised in early December when technicians initially detected “anomalous readings” during a preplanned series of vibration tests, NASA announced Dec. 23.

After conducting both “visual and ultrasonic examinations” at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, engineers have found it to be safe at this point with “no visible signs of damage.”

But because so much is on the line with NASA’s $8.8 Billion groundbreaking Webb telescope mission that will peer back to nearly the dawn of time, engineers are still investigating the “root cause” of the “vibration anomaly” first detected amidst shake testing on Dec. 3.

“The team is making good progress at identifying the root cause of the vibration anomaly,” NASA explained in a Dec 23 statement – much to everyone’s relief!

“They have successfully conducted two low level vibrations of the telescope.”

“All visual and ultrasonic examinations of the structure continue to show it to be sound.”

Technicians work on the James Webb Space Telescope in the massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, on Nov. 2, 2016, as the completed golden primary mirror and observatory structure stands gloriously vertical on a work stand, reflecting incoming light from the area and observation deck. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Starting late November, technicians began a defined series of environmental tests including vibration and acoustics tests to make sure that the telescopes huge optical structure was fit for blastoff and could safely withstand the powerful shaking encountered during a rocket launch and the especially harsh rigors of the space environment. It would be useless otherwise – unable to carry out unparallelled science.

To carry out the vibration and acoustics tests conducted on equipment located in a shirtsleeve environment, the telescope structure was first carefully placed inside a ‘clean tent’ structure to protect it from dirt and grime and maintain the pristine clean room conditions available inside Goddard’s massive clean room – where it has been undergoing assembly for the past year.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope placed inside a “clean tent” in Nov. 2016 to protect it from dust and dirt as engineers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland transport it out of the relatively dust-free cleanroom and into a shirtsleeve environment to conduct vibration and acoustics tests to confirm it is fit for launch in 2018. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is the most powerful space telescope ever built and is the scientific successor to the phenomenally successful Hubble Space Telescope (HST).

The mammoth 6.5 meter diameter primary mirror has enough light gathering capability to scan back over 13.5 billion years and see the formation of the first stars and galaxies in the early universe.

The Webb telescope will launch on an ESA Ariane V booster from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana in 2018.

“The James Webb Space Telescope is undergoing testing to make sure the spacecraft withstands the harsh conditions of launch, and to find and remedy all possible concerns before it is launched from French Guiana in 2018.”

However, shortly after the vibration testing began technicians soon discovered unexpected “anomalous readings” during a shake test of the telescope on Dec. 3, as the agency initially announced in a status update on the JWST website.

The anomalous readings were found during one of the vibration tests in progress on the shaker table, via accelerometers attached to the observatories optical structure known as OTIS.

“During the vibration testing on December 3, at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, accelerometers attached to the telescope detected anomalous readings during a particular test,” the team elaborated.

So the team quickly conducted further “low level vibration” tests and inspections to more fully understand the nature of the anomaly, as well as scrutinize the accelerometer data for clues.

“Further tests to identify the source of the anomaly are underway. The engineering team investigating the vibe anomaly has made numerous detailed visual inspections of the Webb telescope and has found no visible signs of damage.”

“They are continuing their analysis of accelerometer data to better determine the source of the anomaly.”

The team is measuring and recording the responses of the structure to the fresh low level vibration tests and will compare these new data to results obtained prior to detection of the anomaly.

Work continues over the holidays to ensure Webb is safe and sound and can meet its 2018 launch target. After thoroughly reviewing all the data the team hope to restart the planned vibration and acoustic testing in the new year.

“Currently, the team is continuing their analyses with the goal of having a review of their findings, conclusions and plans for resuming vibration testing in January.”

Webb’s massive optical structure being tested is known as OTIS or Optical Telescope element and Integrated Science. It includes the fully assembled 18-segment gold coated primary mirror and the science instrument module housing the four science instruments

OTIS is a combination of the OTE (Optical Telescope Assembly) and the ISIM (Integrated Science Instrument Module) together.

“OTIS is essentially the entire optical train of the observatory!” said John Durning, Webb Telescope Deputy Project Manager, in an earlier exclusive interview with Universe Today at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“It’s the critical photon path for the system.”

The components were fully integrated this past summer at Goddard.

The combined OTIS entity of mirrors, science module and backplane truss weighs 8786 lbs (3940 kg) and measures 28’3” (8.6m) x 8”5” (2.6 m) x 7”10“ (2.4 m).

The environmental testing is being done at Goddard before shipping the huge structure to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in February 2017 for further ultra low temperature testing in the cryovac thermal vacuum chamber.

The 6.5 meter diameter ‘golden’ primary mirror is comprised of 18 hexagonal segments – looking honeycomb-like in appearance.

And it’s just mesmerizing to gaze at – as I had the opportunity to do on a few occasions at Goddard this past year – standing vertically in November and seated horizontally in May.

Each of the 18 hexagonal-shaped primary mirror segments measures just over 4.2 feet (1.3 meters) across and weighs approximately 88 pounds (40 kilograms). They are made of beryllium, gold coated and about the size of a coffee table.

All 18 gold coated primary mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope are seen fully unveiled after removal of protective covers installed onto the backplane structure, as technicians work inside the massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland on May 3, 2016. The secondary mirror mount booms are folded down into stowed for launch configuration. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Webb Telescope is a joint international collaborative project between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

Webb is designed to look at the first light of the Universe and will be able to peer back in time to when the first stars and first galaxies were forming.

It will also study the history of our universe and the formation of our solar system as well as other solar systems and exoplanets, some of which may be capable of supporting life on planets similar to Earth.

Up close side-view of newly exposed gold coated primary mirrors installed onto mirror backplane holding structure of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope inside the massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland on May 3, 2016. Aft optics subsystem stands upright at center of 18 mirror segments between stowed secondary mirror mount booms. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch this space for my ongoing reports on JWST mirrors, science, construction and testing.

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

Ken Kremer

Ken Kremer/Universe Today reflecting in and about the golden mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope which will peer back 13.5 Billion years to unravel the mysteries off the formation of the early Universe and tell us how our place in the Universe came to be. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA Orders First Commercial Crew Mission to Space Station from SpaceX

SpaceX Crew Dragon will blast off atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida  for missions to the International Space Station. Pad 39A is  undergoing modifications by SpaceX to adapt it to the needs of the company's Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, which are slated to lift off from the historic pad in the near future. A horizontal integration facility (right) has been constructed near the perimeter of the pad where rockets will be processed for launch prior of rolling out to the top of the pad structure for liftoff. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
SpaceX Crew Dragon will blast off atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for missions to the International Space Station. Pad 39A is undergoing modifications by SpaceX to adapt it to the needs of the company’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, which are slated to lift off from the historic pad in the near future. A horizontal integration facility (right) has been constructed near the perimeter of the pad where rockets will be processed for launch prior of rolling out to the top of the pad structure for liftoff. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Restoring America’s ability to once again launch US astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) from US soil on US rockets took another significant step forward when NASA ordered the first the agency’s first commercial crew rotation mission from the Hawthorne, California based-company SpaceX. NASA and SpaceX hope that the blastoff with a crew of up to four astronauts will take place by late 2017.

The new Nov. 20 award from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) office to launch the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule follows up on an earlier commercial crew rotation mission award this past May to the Boeing Company of Houston to launch its CST-100 Starliner astronaut crew capsule to the ISS.

Since the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiters in Continue reading “NASA Orders First Commercial Crew Mission to Space Station from SpaceX”

NASA and Space Station Astronauts Salute Americas Veterans This Veteran’s Day

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly salutes all past and present US Veterans from the International Space Station on Veteran’s Day Nov. 11, 2015. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly salutes all past and present US Veterans from the International Space Station on Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11, 2015. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly

The entire NASA family on Earth and NASA’s two astronauts serving aboard the Earth orbiting International Space Station (ISS) salute all our country’s brave veterans on this Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11, 2015.

NASA astronauts Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren saluted America’s veterans today with out of this world salutes and beautiful photos of the American flag back dropped by Earth from the stations orbital altitude of 250 miles (400 km) above the planet. See above and below.

“NASA salutes our country’s veterans this Veteran’s Day,” wrote NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a special Veteran’s Day message. Bolden is also a former astronaut and served as Major General in the US Marine Corps. Continue reading “NASA and Space Station Astronauts Salute Americas Veterans This Veteran’s Day”

Boeing ‘Starliner’ Crew Spaceship; America’s Next Ride to Space Takes Shape

First view of the Boeing CST-100 ‘Starliner’ crewed space taxi at the Sept. 4, 2015 Grand Opening ceremony held in the totally refurbished C3PF manufacturing facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. These are the upper and lower segments of the first Starliner crew module known as the Structural Test Article (STA) being built at Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com
Story/photos updated[/caption]

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – ‘Starliner’ is the new name of America’s next spaceship destined to launch our astronauts to orbit. The new commercial craft from Boeing will restore America’s capability to launch American astronauts from American soil to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2017 – and the magnificent looking first capsule is already taking shape!

Built by The Boeing Company, ‘Starliner’ was officially announced by Boeing and NASA as the new name of the company’s CST-100 commercial crew transportation spacecraft during the Grand Opening event for the craft’s manufacturing facility held at the Kennedy Space Center on Friday, Sept 4. 2015 and attended by Universe Today.

‘Starliner’ counts as history’s first privately developed ‘Space Taxi’ to carry humans to space – along with the Crew Dragon being simultaneously developed by SpaceX.

“Please welcome the CST-100 Starliner,” announced Chris Ferguson, the former shuttle commander who now is deputy manager of operations for Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program, at the Grand Opening event hosting numerous dignitaries.

The CST-100 ‘Starliner’ is at the forefront of ushering in the new commercial era of space flight and will completely revolutionize how we access, explore and exploit space for the benefit of all mankind.

Starliner will be mostly automated for ease of operation and is capable of transporting astronaut crews of four or more to low Earth orbit and the ISS as soon as mid 2017 if all goes well and Congress approves the required funding.

“One hundred years ago we were on the dawn of the commercial aviation era and today, with the help of NASA, we’re on the dawn of a new commercial space era,” said Boeing’s John Elbon, vice president and general manager of Space Exploration.

“It’s been such a pleasure to work hand-in-hand with NASA on this commercial crew development, and when we look back 100 years from this point, I’m really excited about what we will have discovered.”

Boeing ‘Starliner’ commercial crew space taxi manufacturing facility marks Grand Opening at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept 4. 2015.   Exterior view depicting newly installed mural for the Boeing Company’s newly named CST-100 ‘Starliner’ commercial crew transportation spacecraft on the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com
Boeing ‘Starliner’ commercial crew space taxi manufacturing facility marks Grand Opening at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept 4. 2015. Exterior view depicting newly installed mural for the Boeing Company’s newly named CST-100 ‘Starliner’ commercial crew transportation spacecraft on the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com

The CST-100 ‘Starliner’ will be produced in Boeing’s newly revamped manufacturing facility dubbed the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) on site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The CC3P building was previously known as Orbiter Processing Facility-2 (OPF-3) and utilized by NASA to process the agency’s space shuttle orbiters between crewed flights during the three decade long Space Shuttle program.

“When Boeing was looking for the prime location for its program headquarters, we knew Florida had a lot to offer from the infrastructure to the supplier base to the skilled work force,” said Chris Ferguson.

Starliner will launch on an Atlas V from pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It has the capability to dock at the ISS within 24 hours. It can stay docked at the station for 6 months.”

Over the past few years, the historic facility has been completely renovated, upgraded and transformed into a state of the art manufacturing site for Boeing’s commercial CST-100 Starliner.

First view of upper half of the Boeing CST-100 '?Starliner?' crewed space taxi unveiled at the Sept. 4, 2015 Grand Opening ceremony held in the totally refurbished C3PF manufacturing facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. This will be part of the first Starliner crew module known as the Structural Test Article (STA) being built at Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com
First view of upper half of the Boeing CST-100 ‘Starliner’ crewed space taxi unveiled at the Sept. 4, 2015 Grand Opening ceremony held in the totally refurbished C3PF manufacturing facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. This will be part of the first Starliner crew module known as the Structural Test Article (STA) being built at Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com

Boeing was awarded a $4.2 Billion contract in September 2014 by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to complete development and manufacture of the CST-100 space taxi under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative.

It is also a key part of NASA’s overarching strategy to send Humans on a “Journey to Mars” in the 2030s.

“Commercial crew is an essential component of our journey to Mars, and in 35 states, 350 American companies are working to make it possible for the greatest country on Earth to once again launch our own astronauts into space,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “That’s some impressive investment.”

Crew access tunnel and seal for Boeing CST-100 Starliner that attaches to upper dome of the crew module for the Structural Test Article being manufactured at  the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com
Crew access tunnel and hatch for Boeing CST-100 Starliner that attaches to upper dome of the crew module for the Structural Test Article being manufactured at the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com

The commercial crew program is designed to return human spaceflight launches to the United States and end our sole source reliance on Russia and the Soyuz capsule for all manned flights to the ISS and crew rotation missions.

Since the forced retirement of NASA’s shuttle orbiters in 2011, US astronauts have been totally dependent on the Russians for trips to space and back.

SpaceX also received a NASA award worth $2.6 Billion to build the Crew Dragon spacecraft for launch atop the firms man-rated Falcon 9 rocket.

Final assembly of both half’s of Starliner will take place in the C3PF – namely the crew command module and the service module.

Boeing is already building the first version of Starliner known as the Structural Test Article (STA) . The STA will be used for extensive prelaunch testing and evaluation to ensure it will be ready and robust and capable of safely launches humans to orbit on a very cost effective basis.

The Starliner STA is rapidly taking shape. The first components have been built and were on display at the C3PF Grand Opening eventy of Sept. 4. They are comprised of the upper and lower halves of the crew command module, the crew access tunnel and adapter.

The shell of Starliner’s first service module was also on display.

“The STA will be completed in early 2016,” said John Mulholland Boeing Vice President, Commercial Programs, at the event.

“Then we start assembly of the Qualification Test Article.”

I asked Mulholland to describe the currently planned sequence of Starliner’s initial uncrewed and crewed flights.

“The first uncrewed flight is expected to occur in May 2017. Then comes the Pad Abort Test in August 2017. The first crewed flight is set for September 2017. The first contracted regular service flight (PCM-1) is set for December 2017,” Mulholland told me.

“It’s all very exciting.”

Boeing CST-100 crew capsule will carry five person crews to the ISS.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Boeing CST-100 crew capsule will carry five person crews to the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“Kennedy Space Center has transitioned more than 50 facilities for commercial use. We have made improvements and upgrades to well-known Kennedy workhorses such as the Vehicle Assembly Building, mobile launcher, crawler–transporter and Launch Pad 39B in support of Orion, the SLS and Advanced Exploration Systems,” said Robert Cabana, Kennedy’s center director.

“I am proud of our success in transforming Kennedy Space Center to a 21st century, multi-user spaceport that is now capable of supporting the launch of all sizes and classes of vehicles, including horizontal launches from the Shuttle Landing Facility, and spacecraft processing and landing.”

Boeing and NASA managers pose with the Boeing CST-100 Starliner crew module  being assembled into the Structural Test Article at company’s C3PF facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  From left are John Mulholland, Boeing Vice President Commercial Programs;  Chris Ferguson, former shuttle commander now Boeing deputy manager Commercial Crew Program; John Elbon, Boeing vice president and general manager of Space Exploration; and Robert Cabana, former shuttle commander and now Director NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, on Sept. 4, 2015.
Boeing and NASA managers pose with the Boeing CST-100 Starliner crew module being assembled into the Structural Test Article at company’s C3PF facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. From left are John Mulholland, Boeing Vice President Commercial Programs; Chris Ferguson, former shuttle commander now Boeing deputy manager Commercial Crew Program; John Elbon, Boeing vice president and general manager of Space Exploration; and Robert Cabana, former shuttle commander and now Director NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, on Sept. 4, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Read my earlier exclusive, in depth one-on-one interviews with Chris Ferguson – America’s last shuttle commander and who now leads Boeings CST-100 program; here and here.

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

Ken Kremer

Boeing’s commercial CST-100 'Space Taxi' will carry a crew of five astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS from US soil.   Mockup with astronaut mannequins seated below pilot console and Samsung tablets was unveiled on June 9, 2014 at its planned manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Boeing’s commercial CST-100 ‘Space Taxi’ will carry a crew of five astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS from US soil. Mockup with astronaut mannequins seated below pilot console and Samsung tablets was unveiled on June 9, 2014 at its planned manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

NASA’s New Horizons Zooms By Pluto, Solar Systems Last Planet – King of The Kuiper Belt

APPLIED PHYSICS LABORATORY, LAUREL, MD – With this morning’s (July 14) do or die flyby of Pluto by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft at 7:49 a.m. EDT while traveling over 3 billion miles away, America completed the initial up close reconnaissance of the last explored planet of our solar system at its frigid, far flung reaches and revealed a remarkably differentiated world dazzling us with alien terrain far beyond anyone’s expectation.

New Horizons barreled past Pluto for a history making first ever flyby at over 31,000 mph (49,600 kph) and passed only 7,750 miles (12,500 kilometers) above the planet’s amazingly diverse surface.

To mark the occasion, NASA released the highest resolution image ever taken of Pluto as the probe swooped past its prey this morning, centered on the two lobed, differentiated ‘heart’.

But because the one ton piano shaped spacecraft has been out of touch with Mission Control for the past day as planned and busily gathering hordes of priceless data, confirmation of a successful flyby didn’t reach Mission Control on Earth until half a day later when New Horizons ‘phoned home’ with critical engineering data confirmed the health of the probe at 8:53 p.m. EDT this evening- basically saying “I’m Alive”.

“With this mission we have we have visited every planet in our solar system,” proclaimed NASA Administrator Charles Bolden this evening, July 14, to a packed house of cheering team members, invited guests and media including Universe Today at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, during a live NASA TV media briefing shortly after accomplishing the historic feat after the nine year interplanetary voyage.

“No other nation has that capability. It’s a historic day for exploration.”

“We did it! exclaimed New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, during the live media briefing.

“That’s one small step for New Horizons, one giant leap for mankind,” Stern added, paraphrasing humanity’s first moonwalker, Neil Armstrong.

“New Horizons completes the first planetary reconnaissance, a capstone of our time.”

The Pluto flyby took place on the 50th anniversary of the first interplanetary flyby by America’s Mariner 4 spacecraft when it soared past Mars in 1965.

Pluto and Charon in False Color Show Compositional Diversity. This July 13, 2015, image of Pluto and Charon is presented in false colors to make differences in surface material and features easy to see. It was obtained by the Ralph instrument on NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, using three filters to obtain color information, which is exaggerated in the image.  These are not the actual colors of Pluto and Charon, and the apparent distance between the two bodies has been reduced for this side-by-side view.   Credit: NASA/APL/SwRI
Pluto and Charon in False Color Show Compositional Diversity. This July 13, 2015, image of Pluto and Charon is presented in false colors to make differences in surface material and features easy to see. It was obtained by the Ralph instrument on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, using three filters to obtain color information, which is exaggerated in the image. These are not the actual colors of Pluto and Charon, and the apparent distance between the two bodies has been reduced for this side-by-side view. Credit: NASA/APL/SwRI

“Today we inspired a whole generation of new explorers,” Bolden said to the crowd emotionally. “And you have more to do!” – as he pointedly acknowledge a crowd of young people in the room.

Pluto is covered by a spectacular array of craters, mountains, valleys, a whale shaped dark feature and a huge heart-shaped continent of pinkinsh bright ice as seen in the image taken on July 13 when the spacecraft was 476,000 miles (768,000 kilometers) from the surface.

“New Horizons has sent back the most detailed data ever of Pluto and its system of moons.”

“Every mission expands our horizons and bring us one step further on the Journey to Mars,” said Bolden regarding NASA’s agency wide plans to send astronauts to the Red Planet during the 2030s.

“You have made Pluto almost human.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden congratulates the New Horizons team after successful Pluto flyby on July 14, 2015 g, July 14, to cheering crowd at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, during  live NASA TV media briefing. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden congratulates the New Horizons team after successful Pluto flyby on July 14, 2015, to cheering crowd at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, during live NASA TV media briefing. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Tomorrow, the more than year long data playback begins.

“The best is yet to come,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, at the media briefing.

“You haven’t seen anything yet. There are many more months of data to be sent back.”

“This is like the Curiosity landing. This is just the beginning for fundamental discoveries. It’s a tremendous moment in human history.”

New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern celebrates in mission control after reception of signal from NASA’s New Horizons probe at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland after the successful Pluto flyby on July 14, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern celebrates in mission control after reception of signal from NASA’s New Horizons probe at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland after the successful Pluto flyby on July 14, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Congratulations rolled in from around the world including President Obama and world renowned physicist Stephen Hawking.

It has been three decades since we last visited planetary bodies at the outer reaches of our solar system when Voyager 2 flew past Uranus and Neptune in 1986 and 1989.

The New Frontiers spacecraft was built by a team led by Stern and included researchers from SwRI and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. APL also operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission.

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Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of the Pluto flyby on July 14/15 from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL).

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

Ken Kremer

New Horizons science team co-investigator John Spencer examines print of the newest Pluto image taken on July 13, 2015 after the successful Pluto flyby. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
New Horizons science team co-investigator John Spencer examines print of the newest Pluto image taken on July 13, 2015 after the successful Pluto flyby. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
How many planets are there? A resounding 9! Says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern and Ken Kremer/Universe Today, flashing Stern’s signature ‘9 Planets’ call sign. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
How many planets are there? A resounding 9! Says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern and Ken Kremer/Universe Today, flashing Stern’s signature ‘9 Planets’ call sign. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Elon Musk and the SpaceX Odyssey: the Path from Falcon 9 to Mars Colonization Transporter

In Kubrick’s and Clark’s 2001 Space Odyssey, there was no question of “Boots or Bots”[ref]. The monolith had been left for humanity as a mileage and direction marker on Route 66 to the stars. So we went to Jupiter and Dave Bowman overcame a sentient machine, shut it down cold and went forth to discover the greatest story yet to be told.

Now Elon Musk, born three years after the great science fiction movie and one year before the last Apollo mission to the Moon has set his goals, is achieving milestones to lift humans beyond low-Earth orbit, beyond the bonds of Earth’s gravity and take us to the first stop in the final frontier – Mars – the destination of the SpaceX odyssey.

Marvel claims Musk as the inspiration for Tony Stark in Ironman but for countless space advocates around the World he is the embodiment of Dave Bowman, the astronaut in 2001 Space Odyssey destined to travel to the edge of the Universe and retire an old man on Mars. (Photo Credit: NASA, MGM, Paramount Pictures, Illustration – Judy Schmidt)
Marvel claims Musk as the inspiration for Tony Stark in Ironman but for countless space advocates around the World he is the embodiment of Dave Bowman, the astronaut in 2001 Space Odyssey destined to travel to the edge of the Universe and retire an old man on Mars. (Photo Credit: NASA, MGM, Paramount Pictures, Illustration – Judy Schmidt)

Ask him what’s next and nowhere on his bucket list does he have Disneyland or Disney World. You will find Falcon 9R, Falcon Heavy, Dragon Crew, Raptor Engine and Mars Colonization Transporter (MCT).

At the top of his working list is the continued clean launch record of the Falcon 9 and beside that must-have is the milestone of a soft landing of a Falcon 9 core. To reach this milestone, Elon Musk has an impressive array of successes and also failures – necessary, to-be-expected and effectively of equal value. His plans for tomorrow are keeping us on the edge of our seats.

The Dragn Crew capsule is more than a modernized Apollo capsule. It will land softly and at least on Earth will be reusable while Musk and SpaceX dream of landing Falcon Crew on Mars. (Photo Credits: SpaceX)
The Dragon Crew capsule is more than a modernized Apollo capsule. It will land softly and at least on Earth will be reusable while Musk and SpaceX dream of landing Falcon Crew on Mars. (Photo Credits: SpaceX)

CRS-5, the Cargo Resupply mission number 5, was an unadulterated success and to make it even better, Elon’s crew took another step towards the first soft  landing of a Falcon core, even though it wasn’t entirely successful. Elon explained that they ran out of hydaulic fluid. Additionally, there is a slew of telemetry that his engineers are analyzing to optimize the control software. Could it have been just a shortage of fluid? Yes, it’s possible they could extrapolate the performance that was cut short and recognize the landing Musk and crew dreamed of.

A successful failure of a soft landing had no baring on the successful launch of the CRS-5, the cargo resupply mission to ISS. (Image Credits: SpaceX)
A successful failure of a soft landing had no baring on the successful launch of the CRS-5, the cargo resupply mission to ISS. (Image Credits: SpaceX)

The addition of the new grid fins to improve control both assured the observed level of success and also assured failure. Anytime one adds something unproven to a test vehicle, the risk of failure is raised. This was a fantastic failure that provided a treasure trove of new telemetry and the possibilities to optimize software. More hydraulic fluid is a must but improvements to SpaceX software is what will bring a repeatable string of Falcon core soft landings.

“Failure is not an option,” are the famous words spoken by Eugene Kranz as he’s depicted in the movie Apollo 13. Failure to Elon Musk and to all of us is an essential part of living. However, from Newton to Einstein to Hawking, the equations to describe and define how the Universe functions cannot show failure otherwise they are imperfect and must be replaced. Every moment of a human life is an intertwined array of success and failure. Referring only to the final frontier, in the worse cases, teams fall out of balance and ships fall out of the sky. Just one individual can make a difference between his or a team’s success. Failure, trial and error is a part of Elon’s and SpaceX’s success.

Only the ULA Delta IV Heavy image is real. TBC - to be completed - is the status of Delta Heavy. To be launch on its maiden flight in 2015, Falcon Heavy will become the most powerful American-made launch vehicle since Von Braun's Saturn rocket of the d1960s. (Credits: SpaceX, ULA)
Only the ULA Delta IV Heavy image is real. TBC – to be completed – is the status of Falcon Heavy. To be launch on its maiden flight in 2015, Falcon Heavy will become the most powerful American-made launch vehicle since Von Braun’s Saturn rocket of the d1960s. (Credits: SpaceX, ULA)

He doesn’t quote or refer to Steve Jobs but Elon Musk is his American successor. From Hyperloops, to the next generation of Tesla electric vehicles, Musk is wasting no time unloading ideas and making his dreams reality. Achieving his goals, making milestones depends also on bottom line – price and performance into profits. The Falcon rockets are under-cutting ULA EELVs (Atlas & Delta) by more than half in price per pound of payload and even more with future reuse. With Falcon Heavy he will also stake claim to the most powerful American-made rocket.

In both cost and performance the Falcon 9 and Heavy outperform the Delta IV. The Falcon vehicle is disruptive technology. (Illustration: T.Reyes)
In both cost and performance the Falcon 9 and Heavy outperform the Delta IV. The Falcon vehicle is disruptive technology. (Illustration: T.Reyes)

Musk’s success will depend on demand for his product. News in the last week of his investments in worldwide space-based internet service also shows his intent to promote products that will utilize his low-cost launch solutions. The next generation of space industry could falter without investors and from the likes of Musk, re-investing to build demand for launch and sustaining young companies through their start-up phases. Build it and they will come but take for granted, not recognize the fragility of the industry, is at your own peril.

So what is next in the SpaceX Odyssey? Elon’s sights remain firmly on the Falcon 9R (Reuse) and the Falcon Heavy. Nothing revolutionary on first appearance, the Falcon Heavy will look like a Delta IV Heavy on steroids. Price and performance will determine its success – there is no comparison. It is unclear what will become of the Delta IV Heavy once the Falcon Heavy is ready for service. There may be configurations of the Delta IV with an upper stage that SpaceX cannot match for a time but either way, the US government is likely to effectively provide welfare for the Delta and even Atlas vehicles until ULA (Lockheed Martin and Boeing’s developed corporation) can develop a competitive solution. The only advantage remaining for ULA is that Falcon Heavy hasn’t launched yet. Falcon Heavy, based on Falcon 9, does carry a likelihood of success based on Falcon 9’s 13 of 13 successful launches over the last 5 years. Delta IV Heavy has had 7 of 8 successful launches over a span of 11 years.

The legacy that Elon and SpaceX stand upon is a century old. William Gerstenmaier, a native of the state of Ohio - First in Flight, associate administrator for NASA Human Spaceflight and past program manager of ISS has been a prime executor of NASA human spaceflight for two decades. Elon Musk shares in common a long-time enthusiasm for space exploration with Gerstenmaier.  From top left, clockwise, Eugene Kranz, Michael Collins, Neil Armstron, Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, W. Gerstenmaier, Michael Griffin, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden shaking hands with Elon Musk. (Photo Credits: NASA, SpaceX, Illustration, J.Schmidt/T.Reyes)
The legacy that Elon and SpaceX stand upon is a century old. The Ohio native, William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA Human Spaceflight and past program manager of ISS, like Musk and so many others, dreamed of space exploration from an early age. From top left, clockwise, Eugene Kranz, Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong, Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, W. Gerstenmaier, Michael Griffin, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden shaking hands with Elon Musk, the Apollo 11 crew embarking on their famous voyage(center). (Photo Credits: NASA, SpaceX, Illustration, J.Schmidt/T.Reyes)

The convergence of space science and technology and science fiction in the form of Musk’s visions for SpaceX is linked to the NASA legacy beginning with NASA in 1958, accelerated by JFK in 1962 and landing upon the Moon in 1969. The legacy spans backward in time to Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert Goddard, Werner Von Braun and countless engineers and forward through the Space Shuttle and Space Station era.

A snapshot from the  SpaceX webpage describing their successful first flight of the Dragon Cargo vessel on Falcon 9. Musk's SpaceX could not have achieved so much so quickly without the knowledge and support of NASA. (Credit: SpaceX)
A snapshot from the SpaceX webpage describing their successful first flight of the Dragon Cargo vessel on Falcon 9. Musk’s SpaceX could not have achieved so much so quickly without the knowledge and support of NASA. (Credit: SpaceX)

The legacy of Shuttle is that NASA remained Earth-bound for 30-plus years during a time that Elon Musk grew up in South Africa and Canada and finally brought his visions to the United States. With a more daring path by NASA, the story to tell today would have been Moon bases or Mars missions completed in the 1990s and commercial space development that might have outpaced or pale in comparison to today’s. Whether Musk would be present in commercial space under this alternate reality is very uncertain. But Shuttle retirement, under-funding its successor, the Ares I & V and Orion, cancelling the whole Constellation program, then creating Commercial Crew program, led to SpaceX winning a contract and accelerated development of Falcon 9 and the Dragon capsule.

Mars as it might look to the human eye  of colonists on final approach to the red planet. To Elon Musk, this is the big prize and a place to retire and relish his accomplishments if only for a brief moment. (Credit: NASA)
Mars as it might look to the human eye of colonists on final approach to the red planet. To Elon Musk, this is the big prize and a place to retire and relish his accomplishments if only for a brief moment. (Credit: NASA)

SpaceX is not meant to just make widgets and profit. Mars is the objective and whether by SpaceX or otherwise, it is the first stop in humankind’s journey into the final frontier. Mars is why Musk developed SpaceX. To that end, the first focal point for SpaceX has been the development of the Merlin engine.

Now, SpaceX’s plans for Mars are focusing on a new engine – Raptor and not a Merlin 2 – which will operate on liquified methane and liquid oxygen. The advantage of methane is its cleaner combustion leaving less exhaust deposits within the reusable engines. Furthermore, the Raptor will spearhead development of an engine that will land on Mar and be refueled with Methane produced from Martian natural resources.

The Raptor remains a few years off and the design is changing. A test stand has been developed for testing Raptor engine components at NASA’s Stennis Space Center. In a January Reddit chat session[ref] with enthusiasts, Elon replied that rather than being a Saturn F-1 class engine, that is, thrust of about 1.5 million lbf (foot-lbs force), his engineers are dialing down the size to optimize performance and reliability. Musk stated that plans call for Raptor engines to produce 500,000 lbf (2.2 million newtons) of thrust. While smaller, this represents a future engine that is 3 times as powerful as the present Merlin engine (700k newtons/157 klbf). It is 1/3rd the power of an F-1. Musk and company will continue to cluster engines to make big rockets.

The future line-up of Falcon rockets is compared to the famous NASA Saturn V. The first Falcon Heavy launch is planned for 2015. Raptor engines may replace and upgrade Heavy then lead to Falcon X, Falcon X Heavy and Falcon XX. The Falcon X  1st stage would have half the thrust of a Saturn V, Falcon X Heavy and XX would exceed a Saturn V's thrust by nearly 50%. (Illustration Credit: SpaceX, 2010)
The future line-up of Falcon rockets is compared to the famous NASA Saturn V. The first Falcon Heavy launch is planned for 2015. Raptor engines may replace and upgrade Heavy then lead to Falcon X, Falcon X Heavy and Falcon XX. The Falcon X 1st stage would have half the thrust of a Saturn V, Falcon X Heavy and XX would exceed a Saturn V’s thrust by nearly 50%. (Illustration Credit: SpaceX, 2010)

To achieve their ultimate goal – Mars colonization, SpaceX will require a big rocket. Elon Musk has repeatedly stated that a delivery of 100 colonists per trip is the present vision. The vision calls for the Mars Colonization Transporter (MCT). This spaceship has no publicly shared SpaceX concept illustrations as yet but more information is planned soon. A few enthusiasts on the web have shared their visions of MCT. What we can imagine is that MCT will become a interplanetary ferry.

The large vehicle is likely to be constructed in low-Earth orbit and remain in space, ferrying colonists between Earth orbit and Mars orbit. Raptor methane/LOX engines will drive it to Mars and back. Possibly, aerobraking will be employed at both ends to reduce costs. Raptor engines will be used to lift a score of passengers at a time and fill the living quarters of the waiting MCT vehicle. Once orbiting Mars, how does one deliver 100 colonists to the surface? With atmospheric pressure at its surface equivalent to Earth’s at 100,000 feet, Mars does not provide an Earth-like aerodynamics to land a large vehicle.

In between launching V-2s in New Mexico and developing rockets at Redstone Arsenal, Von Braun had time to write Mars Projekt (1952) in which he outlined a mission to Mars delivering 70 explorers. Much has changed since that early vision but some of his concepts may still become a reality and solve the problem of sending SpaceX colonists to Mars. (Credit: Mars Project, Von Braun)
In between launching V-2s in New Mexico and developing rockets at Redstone Arsenal, Von Braun had time to write Mars Projekt (1952) in which he outlined a mission to Mars delivering 70 explorers. Much has changed since that early vision but some of his concepts may still become a reality and solve the problem of sending SpaceX colonists to Mars. (Credit: Mars Project, Von Braun)

In 1952, Werner Von Braun in his book “Mars Projekt” envisioned an armada of ships, each depending on launch vehicles much larger than the Saturn V he designed a decade later. Like the invading Martians of War of the Worlds, the armada would rather converge on Mars and deploy dozens of winged landing vehicles that would use selected flat Martian plain to skid with passengers to a safe landing. For now, Elon and SpaceX illustrate the landing of Dragon capsules on Mars but it will clearly require a much larger lander. Perhaps, it will use future Raptors to land softly or possibly employ winged landers such as Von Braun’s after robotic Earth-movers on Mars have constructed ten or twenty mile long runways.

We wait and see what is next for Elon Musk’s SpaceX vision, his SpaceX Odyssey. For Elon Musk and his crew, there are no “wives” – Penelope and families awaiting their arrival on Mars. Their mission is more than a five year journey such as Star Trek. The trip to Mars will take the common 7 months of a Hohmann transfer orbit but the mission is really measured in decades. In the short-term, Falcon 9 is poised to launch again in early February and will again attempt a soft landing on a barge at sea. And later, hopefully, in 2015, the Falcon Heavy will make its maiden flight from Cape Canaveral’s rebuilt launch pad 39A where the Saturn V lifted Apollo 11 to the Moon and the first, last and many Space Shuttles were launched.

References:

National Aeronatics and Space Administration

Space Exploration Web Pages

Happy Birthday to my sister Sylvia who brought home posters, literature and interest from North American-Rockwell in Downey during the Apollo era and sparked my interest.

Amazing Up Close Videos Capture Orion’s Final Descent, Splashdown and Ocean Recovery

Video Caption: Last moments of Orion descent as viewed from the recovery ship USS Anchorage. Credit: NASA/US Navy

Relive the final moments of the first test flight of NASA’s Orion spacecraft on Dec. 5, 2014, through this amazing series of up close videos showing the spacecraft plummeting back to Earth through the rollicking ocean recovery by dive teams from the US Navy and the USS Anchorage amphibious ship.

The two orbit, 4.5 hour flight maiden test flight of Orion on the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission was a complete success.

It was brought back to land to the US Naval Base San Diego, California.

Orion’s test flight began with a flawless launch on Dec. 5 as it roared to orbit atop the fiery fury of a 242 foot tall United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket – the world’s most powerful booster – at 7:05 a.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The unpiloted test flight of Orion on the EFT-1 mission ignited NASA’s roadmap to send Humans to Mars by the 2030s by carrying the capsule farther away from Earth than any spacecraft designed for astronauts has traveled in more than four decades.

Humans have not ventured beyond low Earth orbit since the launch of Apollo 17 on NASA’s final moon landing mission on Dec. 7, 1972.

Video Caption: NASA TV covers the final moments of Orion spacecraft descent and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean approximately 600 miles southwest of San Diego on Dec. 5, 2014, as viewed live from the Ikhana airborne drone. Credit: NASA TV

The spacecraft was loaded with over 1200 sensors to collect critical performance data from numerous systems throughout the mission for evaluation by engineers.

EFT-1 tested the rocket, second stage, and jettison mechanisms as well as avionics, attitude control, computers, environmental controls, and electronic systems inside the Orion spacecraft and ocean recovery operations.

It also tested the effects of intense radiation by traveling twice through the Van Allen radiation belt.

After successfully accomplishing all its orbital flight test objectives, the capsule fired its thrusters and began the rapid fire 10 minute plummet back to Earth.

During the high speed atmospheric reentry, it approached speeds of 20,000 mph (32,000 kph), approximating 85% of the reentry velocity for astronauts returning from voyages to the Red Planet.

The capsule endured scorching temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit in a critical and successful test of the 16.5-foot-wide heat shield and thermal protection tiles.

The entire system of reentry hardware, commands, and 11 drogue and main parachutes performed flawlessly.

Finally, Orion descended on a trio of massive red and white main parachutes to achieve a statistical bulls-eye splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles southwest of San Diego, at 11:29 a.m. EST.

It splashed down within one mile of the touchdown spot predicted by mission controllers after returning from an altitude of over 3600 miles above Earth.

The three main parachutes slowed Orion to about 17 mph (27 kph).

Here’s a magnificent up close and personal view direct from the US Navy teams that recovered Orion on Dec. 5, 2014.

Video Caption: Just released footage of the Orion Spacecraft landing and recovery! See all the sights and sounds, gurgling, and more from onboard the Zodiac boats with the dive teams on Dec. 5, 2014. See the initial recovery operations, including safing the crew module and towing it into the well deck of the USS Anchorage, a landing platform-dock ship. Credit: US Navy

Navy teams in Zodiac boats had attached a collar and winch line to Orion at sea and then safely towed it into the flooded well deck of the USS Anchorage and positioned it over rubber “speed bumps.”

Next they secured Orion inside its recovery cradle and transported it back to US Naval Base San Diego where it was off-loaded from the USS Anchorage.

The Orion EFT-1 spacecraft was recovered by a combined team from NASA, the U.S. Navy, and Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin.

Orion has been offloaded from the USS Anchorage and moved about a mile to the “Mole Pier” where Lockheed Martin technicians have conducted the first test inspection of the crew module and collected test data.

It will soon be hauled on a flatbed truck across the US for a nearly two week trip back to Kennedy where it will arrive just in time for the Christmas holidays.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden briefs the media about the ‘Big Deal’ goals of the first Orion deep space crew module during prelaunch meeting backdropped by Orion and Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida prior to launch on Dec. 5, 2014.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden briefs the media about the “Big Deal” goals of the first Orion deep space crew module during prelaunch meeting backdropped by Orion and Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida prior to launch on Dec. 5, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Technicians at KSC will examine every nook and cranny of Orion and will dissemble it for up close inspection and lessons learned.

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.   Launch pad remote camera view.   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. Launch pad remote camera view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

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.   Launch pad remote camera view.   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. Launch pad remote camera view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Prelaunch night view of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft bolted atop triple barreled United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Prelaunch night view of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft bolted atop triple barreled United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

NASA’s Exploration Roadmap to Mars Starts with Flawless Orion Launch and Landing

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA’s exploration roadmap aimed at sending Humans to Mars in the 2030s got off the ground magnificently with the flawless launch and landing of the agency’s new Orion deep space capsule on its maiden voyage to space on Friday, Dec. 5, 2014.

“The first look looks really good from a data standpoint and will help us as we go forward,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, at the post Orion landing media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

“We, as a species, are meant to press humanity further into the solar system and this is a first step. What a tremendous team effort.”

Orion roared to orbit atop the fiery fury of a 242 foot tall United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket – the world’s most powerful booster – at 7:05 a.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The unpiloted test flight of Orion on the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission carried the capsule farther away from Earth than any spacecraft designed for astronauts has traveled in more than four decades.

Humans have not ventured beyond low Earth orbit since the launch of Apollo 17 on NASA’s final moon landing mission on Dec. 7, 1972.

Orion’s inaugural launch on Dec. 5, 2014 atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida at 7:05 a.m.  Credit: Alex Polimeni/Zero-G News/AmericaSpace
Orion’s inaugural launch on Dec. 5, 2014, atop United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida at 7:05 a.m. Credit: Alex Polimeni/Zero-G News/AmericaSpace

The first stage of the mammoth, triple barreled Delta IV Heavy generates some two million pounds of liftoff thrust and was the only rocket powerful enough to launch Orion and achieve its intended goals.

During the two orbit, 4.5 hour flight, Orion reached an altitude of 3,604 miles above Earth, about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS).

The Delta rocket’s main stage and upper stage performed so well that Orion was injected into orbit within an accuracy of about 1 foot of the planned orbit, said Larry Price, Lockheed Martin Deputy Orion Program Manager in an interview with Universe Today.

“It’s phenomenal,” Price told me. NASA selected Lockheed Martin a decade ago as the prime contractor to design and build Orion.

A camera in the window of NASA's Orion spacecraft looks back at Earth during its unpiloted flight test in orbit. Credit: NASA Television
A camera in the window of NASA’s Orion spacecraft looks back at Earth during its unpiloted flight test in orbit. Credit: NASA Television

Orion was assembled, integrated, and tested inside the Neil Armstrong Operations & Checkout Facility at KSC.

“Lockheed Martin did a tremendous job of getting Orion ready,” noted Gerstenmaier.

“Thanks to everyone for getting us to be the leader in space.”

The EFT-1 mission concluded with a successful parachute-assisted splashdown of the Orion crew module in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles southwest of San Diego.

Orion Service Module fairing separation. Credit: NASA TV
Orion Service Module fairing separation. Credit: NASA TV

“It was a difficult mission,” said Mark Geyer, NASA’s Orion program manager at the KSC briefing. It appears to have been nearly flawless.”

“It is hard to have a better day than today, The upper stage put us right where we needed to be.”

“Today’s flight test of Orion is a huge step for NASA and a really critical part of our work to pioneer deep space on our Journey to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

“The teams did a tremendous job putting Orion through its paces in the real environment it will endure as we push the boundary of human exploration in the coming years.”

The spacecraft was loaded with over 1200 sensors to collect critical performance data on numerous systems throughout the mission for evaluation by engineers.

EFT-1 tested the rocket, second stage, and jettison mechanisms, as well as avionics, attitude control, computers, environmental controls, and electronic systems inside the Orion spacecraft and ocean recovery operations.

It also tested the effects of intense radiation by traveling twice through the Van Allen radiation belt.

Approximately 3 hours and 20 minutes into the mission, the spacecraft separated and soon experienced the highest radiation levels of the mission.

At about 4 hours and 15 minutes, the capsule began its high speed re-entry through the atmosphere at speeds approaching 20,000 mph, thereby testing the 16.5-foot-wide heat shield at speeds approximating 85% of the reentry velocity for astronauts returning from voyages to the Red Planet.

The capsule survived scorching temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit in a successful test of the heat shield and thermal protection tiles, before splashing down on a trio of parachutes in the Pacific Ocean at 11:29 a.m. EST.

The Orion crew module splashed down in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles southwest of San Diego.  Credit: NASA TV
The Orion crew module splashed down in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles southwest of San Diego. Credit: NASA TV

The purpose was to check out many, but not all, of the systems critical to the safety of astronauts who will eventually travel to deep space in Orion.

“When Orion started there were still a lot of Apollo veterans. Now we have finally done something for our generation,” said Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin Orion Program manager.

Onboard cameras captured stunning views during many stages of the EFT-1 mission, including the fairing jettison and views out the window.

“Some of those pictures where you could see the frame of the window, you don’t feel like you’re watching like a satellite, you feel like an astronaut yourself,” Geyer said.

In the Kennedy Space Center’s Press Site auditorium, agency leaders received prolonged applause on entering the room and spoke to members of the news media about the successful Orion Flight Test on Dec. 5, 2014. From left are: Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, Mark Geyer, Orion program manager, Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin Orion Program manager, and NASA astronaut Rex Walheim.  Credit:  Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
In the Kennedy Space Center’s Press Site auditorium, agency leaders received prolonged applause on entering the room and spoke to members of the news media about the successful Orion Flight Test on Dec. 5, 2014. From left are: Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations; Mark Geyer, Orion program manager; Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin Orion Program manager; and NASA astronaut Rex Walheim. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“That picture really meant something to me,” said astronaut Rex Walheim, who flew on the final space shuttle mission on STS-135.

A drone captured stunning images of Orion during the final plummet to Earth and parachute deployment.

The pace of the Orion program is constrained by budgets and is slower than anyone wishes.

The next Orion launch on the EM-1 mission is slated for the second half of 2018 and will also be unmanned during the debut launch of NASA’s powerful new SLS rocket.

America’s astronauts flying aboard Orion will venture farther into deep space than ever before – beyond the Moon to Asteroids, Mars, and other destinations in our Solar System starting around 2020 or 2021 on Orion’s first crewed flight atop NASA’s new monster rocket – the SLS – concurrently under development.

Watch for Ken’s ongoing Orion coverage from onsite at the Kennedy Space Center about the historic launch on Dec. 5.

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

Ken Kremer

Historic Human Spaceflight Facility at Kennedy Renamed in Honor of Neil Armstrong – 1st Man on the Moon

45 years ago on July 20, 1969, NASA astronaut and Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on another celestial body when he stepped off the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle and onto our Moon’s utterly alien surface.

Today, July 21, 2014, NASA officially renamed a historic facility at the Kennedy Space Center vital to human spaceflight in honor of Neil Armstrong during a a 45th anniversary ceremony at what until today was known as the ‘Operations and Checkout Building’ or O & C.

On that first moonwalk, Armstrong was accompanied by fellow NASA astronaut Buzz Aldrin on a two and a half hour excursion that lasted into the early morning hours of July 21. They came in peace representing all mankind.

Today’s ceremony was broadcast on NASA TV and brought together numerous dignitaries including Armstrong’s surviving crewmates Buzz Aldrin and Command Module pilot Mike Collins, Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell who was also Apollo 11’s backup commander, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana, and Armstrong’s family members including his sons Rick and Mark Armstrong who all spoke movingly at the dedication.

Dignitaries at the July 21, 2014 renaming ceremony included Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, sons Rick Armstrong and Mark Armstrong, Apollo 13 Commander James Lovell, and Apollo 11 crewmates Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace
Dignitaries at the July 21, 2014 renaming ceremony included Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, sons Rick Armstrong and Mark Armstrong, Apollo 13 Commander James Lovell, and Apollo 11 crewmates Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace

They were joined via a live feed from space by two NASA astronauts currently serving aboard the International Space Station (ISS) – Expedition 40 crew member Rick Wiseman and Commander Steve Swanson.

The backdrop for the ceremony was the Orion crew capsule, NASA’s next generation human rated spaceflight vehicle which is currently being assembled in the facility and is set to launch on its maiden unmanned test flight in December 2014. Orion will eventually carry US astronauts on journey’s to deep space destinations to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars.

Many of Armstrong’s colleagues and other officials working on Orion and NASA’s human spaceflight missions also attended.

Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong
Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong inside the Lunar Module

The high bay of what is now officially the ‘Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building’ was built in 1964 and previously was known as the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building.

It has a storied history in human spaceflight. It was used to process the Gemini spacecraft including Armstrong’s Gemini 8 capsule. Later it was used during the Apollo program to process and test the command, service and lunar modules including the Apollo 11 crew vehicles that were launched atop the Saturn V moon rocket. During the shuttle era it housed the crew quarters for astronauts KSC training and for preparations in the final days leading to launch.

“45 years ago, NASA’s journey to land the first human on the Moon began right here,” NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said at the ceremony. “It is altogether fitting that today we rename this facility the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building. Throughout his life he served his country as an astronaut, an aerospace engineer, a naval aviator, a test pilot and a university professor, and he constantly challenged all of us to expand the boundaries of the possible.”

“He along with his crewmates, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, are a bridge from NASA’s historic journey to the moon 45 years ago to our path to Mars today.”

At the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA officials and Apollo astronauts view the Orion crew module inside the Operations and Checkout Building, newly named for Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the moon. Viewing Orion from left, are Kennedy Center Director Bob Cabana, Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
At the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA officials and Apollo astronauts view the Orion crew module inside the Operations and Checkout Building, newly named for Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the moon. Viewing Orion from left, are Kennedy Center Director Bob Cabana, Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

The Apollo 11 trio blasted off atop a 363 foot-tall Saturn V rocket from Launch Complex 39A on their bold, quarter of a million mile moon mission from the Kennedy Space Center , Florida on July 16, 1969 to fulfill the lunar landing quest set by President John F. Kennedy early in the decade.

Armstrong and Aldrin safely touched down at the Sea of Tranquility on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969 at 4:18 p.m EDT as hundreds of millions across the globe watched in awe.

“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed !,” Armstrong called out and emotional applause erupted at Mission Control – “You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue.”

Armstrong’s immortal first words:

“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

During their 2 ½ hours moonwalk Armstrong and Aldrin unveiled a plaque on the side of the lunar module. Armstrong read the words;

“Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”

Here is NASA’s restored video of the Apollo 11 EVA on July 20, 1969:

Video Caption: Original Mission Video as aired in July 1969 depicting the Apollo 11 astronauts conducting several tasks during extravehicular activity (EVA) operations on the surface of the moon. The EVA lasted approximately 2.5 hours with all scientific activities being completed satisfactorily. The Apollo 11 EVA began at 10:39:33 p.m. EDT on July 20, 1969 when Astronaut Neil Armstrong emerged from the spacecraft first. While descending, he released the Modularized Equipment Stowage Assembly on the Lunar Module’s descent stage.

Armstrong passed away at age 82 on August 25, 2012 due to complications from heart bypass surgery. Read my prior tribute articles: here and here

Michael Collins concluded the ceremony with this tribute:

“He would not have sought this honor, that was not his style. But I think he would be proud to have his name so closely associated with the heart and the soul of the space business.”

“On Neil’s behalf, thank you for what you do every day.”

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

Ken Kremer

Orion service module assembly in the Operations and Checkout facility at Kennedy Space Center - now renamed in honor of Neil Armstrong.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion service module assembly in the Operations and Checkout facility at Kennedy Space Center – now renamed in honor of Neil Armstrong. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Why Commercial Crew is Critical for Future Exploration: One-on-One Interview with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden discusses future of NASA human spaceflight during exploration forum at NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
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NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MD – Why is NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to develop private human transport ships to low Earth orbit important?

That’s the question I posed to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden when we met for an exclusive interview at NASA Goddard.

The Commercial Crew Program (CCP) is the critical enabler “for establishing a viable orbital infrastructure” in the 2020s, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told Universe Today in an exclusive one-on-one interview at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Bolden, a Space Shuttle commander who flew four time to space, says NASA wants one of the new American-made private crewed spaceships under development by SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada – with NASA funding – to be ready to ferry US astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and back to Earth by late 2017. Flights for other commercial orbital space ventures would follow later and into the next decade.

Since the shutdown of NASA’s space shuttle program following the final flight by STS-135 in 2011 (commanded by Chris Ferguson), America has been 100% dependent on the Russians to fly our astronauts to the space station and back.

“Commercial crew is critical. We need to have our own capability to get our crews to space,” Bolden told me, during a visit to the NASA Goddard cleanroom with the agency’s groundbreaking Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science probes.

Chris Ferguson, last Space Shuttle Atlantis commander, tests the Boeing CST-100 capsule which may fly US astronauts to the International Space Station in 2017.  Ferguson is now  Boeing’s director of Crew and Mission Operations for the Commercial Crew Program vying for NASA funding.  Credit: NASA/Boeing
Chris Ferguson, last Space Shuttle Atlantis commander, tests the Boeing CST-100 capsule which may fly US astronauts to the International Space Station in 2017. Ferguson is now Boeing’s director of Crew and Mission Operations for the Commercial Crew Program vying for NASA funding. Credit: NASA/Boeing

Administrator Bolden foresees a huge shift in how the US will conduct space operations in low earth orbit (LEO) just a decade from now. The future LEO architecture will be dominated not by NASA and the ISS but rather by commercial entrepreneurs and endeavors in the 2020s.

“There are going to be other commercial stations or other laboratories,” Bolden excitedly told me.

And the cash strapped Commercial Crew effort to build new astronaut transporters is the absolutely essential enabler to get that exploration task done, he says.

“Commercial Crew is critical to establishing the low Earth orbit infrastructure that is required for exploration.”

“We have got to have a way to get our crews to space.”

“You know people try to separate stuff that NASA does into nice little neat packages. But it’s not that way anymore.”

Bolden and NASA are already looking beyond the ISS in planning how to use the new commercial crew spaceships being developed by SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada in a public- partnership with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

“Everything we do [at NASA] is integrated. We have to have commercial crew [for] a viable low Earth orbit infrastructure – a place where we can do testing – for example with what’s going on at the ISS today.”

“And in the out years you are going to be doing the same type of work.”

“But it’s not going to be on the ISS.”

“After 2024 or maybe 2028, if we extend it again, you are going to see the people on commercial vehicles. There are going to be other stations or other laboratories.”

“But there won’t be NASA operated laboratories. They will be commercially viable and operating laboratories.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveils SpaceX Dragon V2 next generation astronaut spacecraft on May 29, 2014.  Credit:  Robert Fisher/America Space
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveils SpaceX Dragon V2 next generation astronaut spacecraft on May 29, 2014. Credit: Robert Fisher/America Space

Private NewSpace ventures represent a revolutionary departure from current space exploration thinking. But none of these revolutionary commercial operations will happen if we don’t have reliable and cost effective human access to orbit from American soil with American rockets on American spaceships.

“We need to have our own capability to get our crews to space – first of all. That’s why commercial crew is really, really, really important,” Bolden emphasized.

The ongoing crises in Ukraine makes development of a new US crew transporter to end our total reliance on Russian spaceships even more urgent.

“Right now we use the Russian Soyuz. It is a very reliable way to get our crews to space. Our partnership with Roscosmos is as strong as it’s ever been.”

“So we just keep watching what’s going on in other places in the world, but we continue to work with Roscosmos the way we always have,” Bolden stated.

The latest example is this week’s successful launch of the new three man Russian-US- German Expedition 40 crew to the ISS on a Soyuz.

Of course, the speed at which the US develops the private human spaceships is totally dependent on the funding level for the Commercial Crew program.

Unfortunately, progress in getting the space taxis actually built and flying has been significantly slowed because the Obama Administration CCP funding requests for the past few years of roughly about $800 million have been cut in half by a reluctant US Congress. Thus forcing NASA to delay the first manned orbital test flights by at least 18 months from 2015 to 2017.

And every forced postponement to CCP costs US taxpayers another $70 million payment per crew seat to the Russians. As a result of the congressional CCP cuts more than 1 Billion US Dollars have been shipped to Russia instead of on building our own US crew transports – leaving American aerospace workers unemployed and American manufacturing facilities shuttered.

I asked Bolden to assess NASA’s new funding request for the coming fiscal year 2015 currently working its way through Congress.

“It’s looking better. It’s never good. But now it’s looking much better,” Bolden replied.

“If you look at the House markup that’s a very positive indication that the budget for commercial crew is going to be pretty good.”

The pace of progress in getting our crews back to orbit basically can be summed up in a nutshell.

“No Bucks, No Buck Rogers,” Chris Ferguson, who now leads Boeing’s crew effort, told me in a separate exclusive interview for Universe Today.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Ken Kremer (Universe Today) inspect NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mated quartet of stacked spacecraft at the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Ken Kremer (Universe Today) inspect NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mated quartet of stacked spacecraft at the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The Boeing CST-100, Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser and SpaceX Dragon ‘space taxis’ are all vying for funding in the next round of contracts to be awarded by NASA around late summer 2014 known as Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap).

All three company’s have been making excellent progress in meeting their NASA mandated milestones in the current contract period known as Commercial Crew Integrated Capability initiative (CCiCAP) under the auspices of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Altogether they have received more than $1 Billion in NASA funding under the current CCiCAP initiative. Boeing and SpaceX were awarded contracts worth $460 million and $440 million, respectively. Sierra Nevada was given what amounts to half an award worth $212.5 million.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk just publicly unveiled his manned Dragon V2 spaceship on May 29.

Boeing’s Chris Ferguson told me that assembly of the CST-100 test article starts soon at the Kennedy Space Center.

NASA officials have told me that one or more of the three competitors will be chosen later this year in the next phase under CCtCAP to build the next generation spaceship to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS by 2017.

In order to certify the fitness and safety of the new crew transporters, the CCtCAP contracts will specify that “each awardee conduct at least one crewed flight test to verify their spacecraft can dock to the space station and all its systems perform as expected.”

Dream Chaser commercial crew vehicle built by Sierra Nevada Corp docks at ISS
Dream Chaser commercial crew vehicle built by Sierra Nevada Corp docks at ISS

Concurrently, NASA is developing the manned Orion crew vehicle for deep space exploration. The state-of-the-art capsule will carry astronauts back to the Moon and beyond on journeys to Asteroids and one day to Mars.

“We need to have our own capability to get our crews to space. Commercial Crew is critical to establishing the low Earth orbit infrastructure that is required for exploration,” that’s the bottom line message from my interview with NASA Administrator Bolden.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Scale models of NASA’s Commercial Crew program vehicles and launchers; Boeing CST-100, Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, SpaceX Dragon. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Scale models of NASA’s Commercial Crew program vehicles and launchers; Boeing CST-100, Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, SpaceX Dragon. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com