Crazy Space Christmases: Moon Readings, Food Cans And Emergency Repairs

If you think the upside-down Christmas tree above is bizarre — that’s one of the latest activities of Expedition 42 astronauts in space right now — think back to the history of other holidays in orbit.

We’ve seen a vital telescope undergo repairs, an emergency replacement of part of a space station’s cooling system, and even a tree made of food cans. Learn more about these fun holiday times below.

Reading from above the moon (Apollo 8, 1969)

In this famous reading from the Bible, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders shared their experience looking at the Moon on Dec. 24, 1968. The Apollo 8 crew was the first to venture to lunar orbit, just seven months before the Apollo 11 crew made it all the way to the surface.

Food can “Christmas tree” (Skylab 4, 1973)

A "Christmas tree" created out of food cans by the Skylab 4 crew in 1973. Credit: NASA
A “Christmas tree” created out of food cans by the Skylab 4 crew in 1973. Credit: NASA

Living on the Skylab station taught astronauts the value of improvisation, such as when the first crew (under NASA’s instructions) repaired a sunshield to stop electronics and people from roasting inside. Skylab 4 took the creativity to Christmas when they created a tree out of food cans.

Hubble Space Telescope repair (STS-103, 1999)

The Hubble Space Telescope during a 1999 repair mission with STS-103 crew members Mike Foale (left, for NASA) and Claude Nicollier (European Space Agency). Credit: NASA
The Hubble Space Telescope during a 1999 repair mission with STS-103 crew members Mike Foale (left, for NASA) and Claude Nicollier (European Space Agency). Credit: NASA

When the Hubble Space Telescope was in hibernation due to a failed gyroscope, the STS-103 crew made repairs in December 1999 that culminated with the final spacewalk on Christmas Day. The telescope remains in great shape to this day, following another repair mission in 2009.

First Christmas on the International Space Station (Expedition 1, 2000)

The Expedition 1 crew with fresh oranges on the International Space Station in December 2000. From left, Yuri Gidzenko (Roscosmos), Bill Shepherd (NASA) and Sergei Krikalev (Roscosmos). Credit: NASA
The Expedition 1 crew with fresh oranges on the International Space Station in December 2000. From left, Yuri Gidzenko (Roscosmos), Bill Shepherd (NASA) and Sergei Krikalev (Roscosmos). Credit: NASA

The Expedition 1 crew was the first on the International Space Station to spend Christmas in orbit. “On this night, we would like to share with all-our good fortune on this space adventure; our wonder and excitement as we gaze on the Earth’s splendor; and our strong sense — that the human spirit to do, to explore, to discover — has no limit,” the crew said in a statement on Christmas Eve, in part.

Ammonia tank replacement (Expedition 38, 2013)

Just last year, an ammonia tank failure crippled a bunch of systems on the International Space Station and forced spacewalkers outside to fix the problem, in the middle of a leaky suit investigation. The astronauts made the final repairs ahead of schedule, on Christmas Eve.

Space Station Astronauts Land Tonight — Here’s How To Watch Live

UPDATE: The Expedition 38 crew landed safely at about 11:24 p.m. EDT (3:24 a.m. UTC) on March 11. You can catch the highlights of the crew extraction at this NASA video.

They fixed a broken space station and participated in a space Olympic torch relay. And now that they’ve spent their allotted six months in space, it’s time for Expedition 38 to come home.

The action starts today around 4:30 p.m. EDT (8:30 p.m. UTC) with the hatch closure ceremony, which you can watch in the video, with landing expected at 11:24 p.m. EDT (3:24 a.m. UTC). We have full details of the schedule below the jump.

Expedition 38’s landing crew includes Russian astronauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy, and NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins. Kotov was the one in charge of the station while four spacewalks and hundreds of experiments took place, not to mention visits from three vehicles. This past weekend, he passed the baton to Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, making Wakata the first person from his country to assume control of station.

Farewells and hatch closure will start around 4:30 p.m. EDT (8:30 p.m. UTC) on NASA Television, with undocking occurring at 8:02 p.m. EDT (12:02 a.m. UTC.) As usual, the crew will be in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for the landing, making their way back to an area near Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan. The deorbit burn will take place around 10:30 p.m. EDT (2:30 a.m. UTC), and landing at 11:24 p.m. EDT (3:24 a.m. UTC).

We recommend you tune into NASA TV slightly before each of these events, and to expect that the timing might be variable as mission events warrant. NASA’s full schedule (in central time) is at the bottom of this story.

Screenshot from NASA TV of the Soyuz TMA-09M spacecraft arriving at the International Space Station.
Screenshot from NASA TV of the Soyuz TMA-09M spacecraft arriving at the International Space Station.

expedition 38 landing

BUDGET 2015: Ukraine Crisis Not Disrupting Russian Soyuz Flights, NASA Admin Says

Astronauts are expected to leave the International Space Station on schedule next week, and training continues on the ground, despite a crisis in Ukraine that is disrupting American and Russian relations, NASA’s administrator said on Tuesday (March 4).

Russian troops moved into the Crimea region of Ukraine last week, triggering condemnation from the United States and other International Space Station partners. At least one ISS participant, Canada, has removed its ambassador from Moscow.

“Everything is nominal right now in our relationship with the Russians. We continue to monitor the situation,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden in a conference call with reporters.

“The safety of our crews and our assets that has not changed. Safety is the No. 1 of NASA’s core values, so we are constantly doing contingency planning on the International Space Station for emergencies that might arise,” Bolden added, citing the emergency ammonia pump replacement in December as one such example.

“Those are the kinds of things we are always planning for, and in terms of the situation on the ground, we will go into contingency planning for that as the situation dictates. But right now, we don’t see any reason to do so,” he said.

Structure arms for Soyuz TMA-11M (the launching vehicle for Expedition 38) raise into place in this long-exposure photograph taken in Kazakhstan. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Structure arms for Soyuz TMA-11M (the launching vehicle for Expedition 38) raise into place in this long-exposure photograph taken in Kazakhstan. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The Russian Soyuz is currently the only way that NASA can bring humans to the space station, although the agency is developing a commercial crew program to start lifting off astronauts from American soil again in 2017. The Soyuz missions depart and return from Kazakhstan under an agreement Russia has with the former Soviet Union republic.

Expedition 38 (which includes Russia’s Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy, and NASA’s Michael Hopkins) is expected to depart the space station March 10. Expedition 39 is scheduled to head to the ISS March 25.

Bolden avoided questions asking what sorts of contingencies NASA would consider if tensions escalated, saying the agency would evaluate that situation if it occurs.

The administrator delivered his comments as part of a conference call concerning NASA’s 2015 budget, which would increase funding for the commercial crew program to $848.3 million, up 21% from a planned $696 million in 2014. Proposals are currently being evaluated and little was said about CCP, except to note that the amount of funding would allow the program to have “competition”, implying multiple companies will be funded.

 Russian Soyuz spacecraft, docked to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA.
Russian Soyuz spacecraft, docked to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA.

Russia was a key partner in the station’s construction from the beginning. It launched the first component (Zarya) to space in 1998, and the station today includes several other Russian modules and docking ports. Additionally, the Russians perform their own spacewalks using the Russian Orlan spacesuit. Cosmonauts also form a large percentage of ISS crews under space station utilization agreements.

NASA collaborations with Russia in space began with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975, and expanded under an agreement that saw several shuttles dock with the Mir space station (and NASA astronauts train in Russia) in the 1990s.

When Doves Fly: Swarm Of Tiny Satellites Shot From Space Station

Astronauts fired up the International Space Station’s Yard-a-Pult (actually, we mean the Japanese Kibo arm’s satellite launcher) this week to send out a flock of Doves or tiny satellites that take pictures of the Earth below. An incredible 28 satellites from Planet Labs of San Francisco are expected to swarm into orbit — the largest fleet yet, NASA says — but there have been delays in launching some of them.

The aim? To provide Earth observation information for any purpose that is needed, whether it’s disaster relief or looking to learn more about the Earth’s environment. Planet Labs and NASA say that commercial applications could include real estate, mapping, construction and oil and gas monitoring.

Deployments of two satellites each began on Tuesday and Wednesday, but NASA noted there are “glitches” (which the agency didn’t specify) that are holding up the launch of other ones. There’s no estimated date yet for sending out the rest of the satellites.

“We believe that the democratization of information about a changing planet is the mission that we are focused on, and that, in and of itself, is going to be quite valuable for the planet,” stated Robbie Schingler, co-founder of Planet Labs.

The Japanese Kibo robotic arm on the International Space Station deploys CubeSats during February 2014. The arm was holding a Small Satellite Orbital Deployer to send out the small satellites during Expedition 38. Credit: NASA
The Japanese Kibo robotic arm on the International Space Station deploys CubeSats during February 2014. The arm was holding a Small Satellite Orbital Deployer to send out the small satellites during Expedition 38. Credit: NASA

Flock 1 is a customer of the NanoRacks CubeSats program. CubeSats are small satellites that heavily rely on computer miniaturization to do the job of Earth observation and telecommunication that previously was the province of much larger and more expensive satellites. NanoRacks provides space both inside and outside the station for research experiments.

Expedition 38’s Rick Mastracchio and Koichi Wakata both commented on the unusual launches. “Two small satellites are deployed from our launcher here on the space station. Each a little bigger than loaf of bread,” Mastracchio tweeted, while Wakata wrote, “Congratulations on the successful deploy of the satellites by the NanoRacks CubeSat Deployer and Kibo robotics!”

For more information on Flock 1, check out the Planet Labs website. You can also check out an animation of how NanoRacks CubeSats deploy in the animation below (which includes a clip from the song “We Are Young” by Fun.)

Ghostly Moon Crowns Pictures Beamed To Earth In Astronaut’s Twitter Feed

A crescent moon hovering above Earth’s delicate atmosphere. Green aurora flickering over Siberia. Space is a beautiful place, and we’re lucky right now to have an experienced photographer showing us the sights (or is that sites?) from the International Space Station.

In between preparing to be Japan’s first commander of the orbiting complex, JAXA Expedition 38 astronaut Koichi Wakata has tweeted at least one picture a day showing the view out the window and activities that he’s working on. It’s hard to pick favorites, but here are some of the best ones of the past week or so.

Expedition 38 JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata sports the Olympic rings in this photo taken aboard the International Space Station in 2014. Credit: Koichi Wakata (Twitter)
Expedition 38 JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata sports the Olympic rings in this photo taken aboard the International Space Station in 2014. Credit: Koichi Wakata (Twitter)
"Great to work on Capillary Flow Experiment-2, a research on liquid’s “wetting” behavior," wrote JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata in January 2014. At the time, Wakata was on the International Space Station as a member of Expedition 38. Credit: Koichi Wakata (Twitter)
“Great to work on Capillary Flow Experiment-2, a research on liquid’s “wetting” behavior,” wrote JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata in January 2014. At the time, Wakata was on the International Space Station as a member of Expedition 38. Credit: Koichi Wakata (Twitter)
A night shot of Nagoya, Japan -- one of the country's largest cities -- by Expedition 38 JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata in 2014. Credit: Koichi Wakata (Twitter)
A night shot of Nagoya, Japan — one of the country’s largest cities — by Expedition 38 JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata in 2014. Credit: Koichi Wakata (Twitter)
The aurora or northern lights over Siberia. Photo taken by Expedition 38 JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata in 2014 from the International Space Station. Credit: Koichi Wakata (Twitter)
The aurora or northern lights over Siberia. Photo taken by Expedition 38 JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata in 2014 from the International Space Station. Credit: Koichi Wakata (Twitter)
"Patagonia glacier – amazing art of the nature," wrote JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata of this picture he snapped during Expedition 38 in 2014. Credit: Koichi Wakata (Twitter)
“Patagonia glacier – amazing art of the nature,” wrote JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata of this picture he snapped during Expedition 38 in 2014. Credit: Koichi Wakata (Twitter)

‘Stupid Astronaut Tricks’ Spread The Joy of Space To New Astronaut Class

You sure couldn’t hide those grins on television from the Astronaut Candidate Class of 2013 when the call came from the International Space Station.

NASA’s latest recruits were at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. at an event today (Thursday) for students. Amid the many youngster questions to Expedition 38 astronauts Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio, astronaut candidate Jessica Meir managed one of her own: was the wait worth it?

Hovering in front of the camera, four-time flyer Mastracchio vigorously shook his hand “no” to laughter from the audience. Hopkins answered her more seriously: “It is definitely worth it. It is the most amazing experience I think you can ever have. Floating is just truly incredible; it just never gets old.”

Minutes later, Hopkins demonstrated a “stupid astronaut trick”: doing Road Runner-style sprinting in place in mid-air. The laughing crew signed off — “So they’re floating off now?” asked event moderator and veteran astronaut Leland Melvin — and the new class had the chance to answer questions of their own.

While the class expressed effusive delight at being astronauts — they were hired last year, so the feeling is quite new to them — Meir said that there was some sadness at leaving the careers they had before. As a recent article in Air&Space Smithsonian pointed out, this class will have several years to wait for a seat into space because there aren’t robust shuttle crews of seven people going up several times a year any more. The Soyuz only carries three people at a time, and there are fewer missions that last for a longer time.

There also is some ambiguity about where the astronauts will go. The International Space Station has been extended until at least 2024, but astronaut candidate Anne McClain added today that an asteroid or Mars are other things being considered for their class. “This class is such an exciting time to be at NASA,” she said.

Other questions asked of the class at the event include who is going to go in space first, and from a wee future astronaut, which planet they’d prefer to go to. You can watch the whole broadcast on the link above.

UPDATE: Six-Hour Spacewalk Yields Success for UrtheCast Cameras

UPDATE: As of Tuesday morning (Eastern time), UrtheCast announced that telemetry was successfully received, “contrary to the online broadcast of the installation.” CEO Scott Larson added that his company “can now focus on the routine commissioning of the cameras in preparation for the unveiling of our Ultra HD, color video of Earth.” Below is the report from Monday.

A second crack at installing the UrtheCast cameras on the International Space Station also ran into data trouble, according to a press release from NASA, although the company involved with the cameras says it is still waiting for more information about the telemetry.

Expedition 38 spacewalkers Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy were again trying to put the cameras outside the station for UrtheCast to provide live views of Earth to subscribers. The cosmonauts’ first attempt on Dec. 27 showed telemetry problems, at which point the spacewalkers were instructed to bring the cameras back inside.

“The duo translated to the Zvezda service module and installed a high-resolution camera and a medium-resolution camera to capture Earth imagery. However, the medium resolution camera again experienced telemetry issues,” NASA stated.

On Twitter, however, UrtheCast stated that it is still awaiting confirmation on the status of the telemetry. We’ll keep you posted when they issue an update.

Kotov and Ryazanskiy spent six hours, eight minutes outside performing this and other routine tasks, marking the fourth spacewalk in about a month for Expedition 38. Besides the other Russian spacewalk in late December, two American astronauts ventured out close to Christmas to make a contingency swap on a faulty ammonia pump.

Watch Live As Russian Spacewalkers Try To Install Urthecast Cameras Again

Think of this as Camera Install, Take 2. Russian spacewalkers are going to take another crack at installing the high-definition Urthecast cameras after a glitch prevented them from working properly during an attempt in December.

“The expedition crew members performed troubleshooting on several cable connectors and now believes the problem has been solved,” NASA wrote in an update on Friday (Jan. 24).

Russian Expedition 38 cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy are expected to head outside at 9:10 a.m. EST (2:10 p.m. UTC) today (Monday) to make the second attempt. The cameras will be installed on the International Space Station’s Zvezda service module and provide real-time views of the Earth to subscribers. The cosmonauts will also pick up an experiment package on the hull of the module.

Check out NASA TV coverage of the events above starting at 8:30 a.m. EST (1:30 p.m. UTC).

Will Spacewalks Happen On Expedition 40? NASA Undecided Due To Leak Investigation

Remember those snorkels and pads astronauts used during the ammonia pump replacement on station this past December? The new measures went a long way to helping astronauts stay safe if another helmet water leak happens, but at the same time, NASA is eager to find the cause so they know how it happened and how to prevent it.

Two maintenance spacewalks are planned for Expedition 40, but they’re not necessarily going forward yet. NASA has traced the issue to a fan pump separator, but there’s another issue, explained expedition commander Steve Swanson: where the particulates in the water came from. Perhaps they were from a filter, or perhaps from the water system itself. So NASA is reserving spacewalks on a need-only basis until more is known.

“That was the problem. Now, we’ve got to find out where that came from,” Swanson said in a phone interview with Universe Today from Houston to preview Expedition 39/40’s mission, which launches in late March. Joining the two-time shuttle astronaut will be two other people, including Alexander Skvortsov. The Russian cosmonaut commanded Expedition 24 in 2010, which experienced a similar ammonia leak to the one that was just repaired a few months ago.

Expedition 39/40 cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov during a 2010 mission to the International Space Station, when he served as commander of Expedition 24.  In the background is NASA astronaut NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson. Credit: NASA
Expedition 39/40 cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov during a 2010 mission to the International Space Station, when he served as commander of Expedition 24. In the background is NASA astronaut NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson. Credit: NASA

While leaks and spacewalks are the items that grab headlines when it comes to spaceflight, one of the major goals of the International Space Station is more subtle. Researchers hope to understand how spaceflight affects the human body during long-duration missions. (This will be a major focus of a one-year mission to station in 2015.) Through a translator, Skvortsov explained that the recent decision to extend station’s operations to at least 2024 will be a help for research of this kind.

“It is great that they have expanded the station until 2024 at least, and it will be very beneficial to the science programs and projects we have on board,” he said in Russian. “I hope that it will be extended even further. It will depend on the condition of the station.”

Rounding out the crew will be Oleg Artemyev, a first-time cosmonaut who has participated in precursor isolation experiments to the Mars 500 mission that saw a crew of people simulate a mission to Mars.

Expedition 39 is expected to launch March 26, 2014 from the Baikonour Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The crew will join orbiting spacefarers Koichi Wakata (who will command Expedition 39, a first for Japan), Rick Mastracchio (who participated in the ammonia pump swap-out) and Mikhail Tyurin.

The Expedition 39/40 crew at a NASA press conference in January 2014. From left, Oleg Artemyev, Alexander Skvortsov and Steve Swanson. Credit: NASA
The Expedition 39/40 crew at a NASA press conference in January 2014. From left, Oleg Artemyev, Alexander Skvortsov and Steve Swanson. Credit: NASA

Watch Spacewalkers Friday As They Install Earth Livestream Camera On Station

For all you Earth observation geeks out there, we have some good news — two Russian astronauts are going to install a camera on Friday (Dec. 27) that will beam live images of Earth back to your browser.

The UrtheCast camera is the headline task for Expedition 38 astronauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy to perform, on top of installing a foot restraint and doing some equipment swapouts. This spacewalk, by the way, is not related in any way to the two successful contingency ones earlier this week to replace a faulty pump on station.

The spacewalk is supposed to start at 8 a.m. EST (1 p.m. UTC) and will be carried live on NASA Television, which you can view in the media player above or at this alternate link. The spacewalk is scheduled for seven hours, but could be longer or shorter as events arise.

“Imagine you have a nearly live Google Earth, but it isn’t four-year-old data – you have data that is being refreshed all the time, with videos coming down over interesting areas where interesting events are going on, showing you what is changing, what is going on,” said George Tyc, the chief technology officer at UrtheCast, in an interview with Universe Today earlier this year.

“What we really hope to pull off is to change the paradigm, get the everyday person interacting and seeing the data coming down from space to see the Earth and how it is evolving over time in a way that isn’t available right now.”

Read more details about UrtheCast in this past Universe Today story.

NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins during his first spacewalk on Dec. 21, 2013 during Expedition 38. He tweeted the next day: "Wow . . .  can't believe that is me yesterday. Wish I could find the words to describe the experience, truly amazing." Credit: NASA
NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins during his first spacewalk on Dec. 21, 2013 during Expedition 38. He tweeted the next day: “Wow . . . can’t believe that is me yesterday. Wish I could find the words to describe the experience, truly amazing.” Credit: NASA

It’s been a busy week for spacewalkers on station as Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins successfully replaced a pump that shut down two weeks ago and crippled one of the station’s two cooling loops for regulating the temperature of systems on station. With that work completed Tuesday (Dec. 24), a NASA update today (Dec. 26) said systems are slowly coming back online.

“Early on Christmas Day, the heat exchangers for the Destiny laboratory, the Harmony and Tranquility nodes and the Japanese Kibo laboratory were reintegrated to enable experiments racks and other systems affected by the partial Cooling Loop A shutdown Dec. 11 to come back on line,” NASA stated.

“The Columbus laboratory heat exchanger will remain down until the European Space Agency, at its own request, conducts that module’s integration next week when personnel return from the holiday.”