UPDATE: NASA Pushes Back Cygnus Launch Decision Due To Space Station Cooling Problem

The decision to launch a cargo flight to the International Space Station next week has been pushed back until Monday (Dec. 16) because of a cooling problem on station that forced the shutdown of redundant systems, according to a NASA update.

Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus commercial spacecraft is expected to blast off on Dec. 18 from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. However, with some station systems offline, the launch does not now meet certain “commit criteria” to make its journey to space next week, said Kenny Todd, the space station’s mission integration and operations manager.

“We haven’t lost any primary functionality,” he said in a NASA Television update today (Dec. 12), emphasizing that the six-person Expedition 38 crew is fine. “There is some redundancy that we’re down right now, but that’s not something I would call critical to day-to-day station operations.”

While a spacewalk is a possibility to fix the problem, it’s too early to say what NASA and other space station partners will decide to do.

NASA controllers spent the night examining a control valve blamed for causing an ammonia pump to shut down yesterday (Dec. 12). The space station uses liquid ammonia to maintain its temperature, pumping the ammonia through external radiators to bleed off heat. Astronauts have made periodic spacewalks to repair parts of the ammonia system, most recently in May when Expedition 35 replaced a pump controller box on the P6 (far port) truss just days before some crew members went home.

Expedition 35 Flight Engineers Chris Cassidy (left) and Tom Marshburn on a spacewalk on May 11 to inspect and replace a pump controller box on the International Space Station’s far port truss (P6) leaking ammonia coolant. Credit: NASA.
Expedition 35 Flight Engineers Chris Cassidy (left) and Tom Marshburn on a spacewalk on May 11 to inspect and replace a pump controller box on the International Space Station’s far port truss (P6) leaking ammonia coolant. Credit: NASA.

“The pump module on one of ISS two external cooling loops automatically shut down today when it got too cold,” stated the NASA Johnson Space Center Twitter feed yesterday (Dec. 11).

“The pump was brought back online, but they think a valve may not be working correctly inside it. Some of the station’s internal electrical systems were moved over to the second loop, and some noncritical things were powered down. The crew was always safe and will work with the ground teams as they figure out what caused the issue.”

Non-critical systems were powered down in the Harmony node, Columbus Laboratory and Japanese Kibo laboratory. After confirming that the new configuration was stable, controllers began this morning (EST) to move the troublesome valve to several positions and monitor the effect on cooling temperatures, according to a NASA TV update.

The Japanese Kibo module on the International Space Station as photographed by a member of the Expedition 38 crew in 2013. Credit: NASA
The Japanese Kibo module on the International Space Station as photographed by a member of the Expedition 38 crew in 2013. Credit: NASA

The crew is going about their activities as much as possible, although they’re on a “reduced timeline” because some of the experiments aren’t running as usual. (Science collected up to now is “not at risk”, Todd said.)

Responding to questions on social media, NASA astronaut Douglas Wheelock — who led three unplanned spacewalks in 2010 to replace a broken ammonia pump module on the S1 truss in the same cooling loop — said he is working with Mission Control to see what needs to be done next.

Of note, NASA has suspended spacewalks after a water leak in one of its spacesuits forced Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano back to the airlock during work in July. (Crewmate Chris Cassidy, who was on the spacewalk at the same time, later said he felt Parmitano was in no immediate danger, but felt the prudent thing to do was stop.)

NASA astronaut Douglas Wheelock during a contingency spacewalk Nov. 16, 2010 after an ammonia cooling pump failed aboard the International Space Station. During this spacewalk, Wheelock and fellow Expedition 24 crew member Tracy Caldwell installed a spare ammonia pump module on the S1 Truss on the space station. The duo did three contingency spacewalks during the mission to address the problem. Credit: NASA
NASA astronaut Douglas Wheelock during a contingency spacewalk Nov. 16, 2010 after an ammonia cooling pump failed aboard the International Space Station. During this spacewalk, Wheelock and fellow Expedition 24 crew member Tracy Caldwell installed a spare ammonia pump module on the S1 Truss on the space station. The duo did three contingency spacewalks during the mission to address the problem. Credit: NASA

Astronauts have been troubleshooting the suit periodically on board station, but NASA is planning to send it back on the next SpaceX Dragon flight to Earth for further investigation. SpaceX isn’t planning to get to the station again until late February, media reports say. Russian spacewalks can still continue as they use a separate suit; the most recent one took place in November with the Olympic torch.

While Todd didn’t quite say the ban on spacewalks has been lifted, he added that NASA has new procedures in place to guard against another crew member facing the same water issue. He did not elaborate on what those procedures are.

The current launch window for Cygnus extends as far as Dec. 21 and “possibly” the 22nd, Todd said, but emphasized more time is needed to come to a decision. “At this point, for lack of a better term, we’re going to kick the can a little bit and let the team work a little bit more,” he said.

Updates will follow as the situation and fix progresses.

Astronauts To Chase Down Turkey Meal For Thanksgiving

Judging from the way those food packets are floating around, looks like the folks on the International Space Station will have to catch their turkey! NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins, two of the six people working on Expedition 38, recently shared their plans for U.S. Thanksgiving on Thursday.

“Though we miss our families, it’s great to be in space. As astronauts, this is what we train for and this is where we want to be. Opportunities to fly in space are rare, so we have to take advantage of them whenever they occur,” Hopkins said in the message.

The best part of this missive? Watching the astronauts casually toss the microphone back and forth in between their statements. That’s the fun of recording in microgravity.

Thanksgiving will be a full workday on station as the astronauts continue to work on their experiments. A recent status report indicated that Mastracchio (the crew medical officer) was examining Hopkins’ eyes as part of ongoing work looking at how microgravity affects ocular health. Flight controllers also moved one of the solar arrays for Mastracchio to take pictures and monitor how the mast is doing “for future inspections”, NASA stated.

Can The International Space Station Fit Bigger Astronaut Crews?

Things are a little more crowded than usual in the International Space Station. For a few days, nine astronauts and cosmonauts are floating in the cramped quarters of the orbiting complex. Typical crew sizes range between three and six. How did the astronauts find room to work and sleep?

“One of the things we had to do was make space for them,” said European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano in a rare press conference today (Nov. 8) from orbit, which included participation from Universe Today. He then explained a procedure where the astronauts swapped a Soyuz crew spacecraft from one Russian docking port to another a few days before Expedition 38/39’s crew arrived on board on Thursday. This cleared the way for three more people to arrive.

“We [also] had to adjust for emergency procedures. All of our procedures are trained and worked for a group of six. We had to work on a way to respond if something happened.” As for sleeping, it was decided the six people already on board, “as seniority, would stay in the crew quarters.” The newer astronauts have temporary sleeping arrangements in other modules until the ranks thin out a bit on Sunday.

So this works for a short while, but what about the long-term? Could the station handle having nine people there for weeks at a time, rather than six, and would there be enough science work to go around?

Luca Parmitano controlled the K-10 rover from space on July 26, 2013. Credit: NASA Television (screencap)
Luca Parmitano controlling the K-10 rover from space on July 26, 2013 in a test intended to see how well astronauts in a spacecraft can communicate with rovers on the surface. This information could be used for missions far in the future. Credit: NASA Television (screencap)

“I think, absolutely, moving to nine people is doable and in terms of the science would be fantastic,” NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg said. The station partners had experience with increasing crews before, she added, as for several years a regular space station rotation was only three astronauts during construction. Bumping up to the current maximum of six was a “big jump.”

“One of the things to be concerned about our environmental control system, our CO2 [carbon dioxide scrubbing] system … and also the consumables and the supplies we need,” she added. “Making up the science for us to do would be very doable. I think the hard part would be getting the systems to accommodate nine people.”

Parmitano, Nyberg and Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin plan to return to Earth Sunday, but a busy weekend lies ahead. On Saturday, Roscosmos (Russian Federal Space Agency) flight engineers Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy of the Russian Federal Space Agency will start a spacewalk around 9:30 a.m. EST (2:30 p.m. UTC) if all goes to plan.

Expedition 38/39 poses with the Olympic torch that they brought into orbit with them in November 2013 as part of the relay for the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia. From left, Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Mikhail Tyurin of Roscosmos, and Rick Mastracchio of NASA. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Expedition 38/39 poses with the Olympic torch that they brought into orbit with them in November 2013 as part of the relay for the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia. From left, Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Mikhail Tyurin of Roscosmos, and Rick Mastracchio of NASA. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

As part of the Olympic torch relay ahead of the Sochi games in 2014, they will briefly bring the Olympic torch outside with them, unlit, before doing some outside maintenance.

“After the photo opportunity, Kotov and Ryazanskiy will prepare a pointing platform on the hull of the station’s Zvezda service module for the installation of a high resolution camera system in December, relocate … a foot restraint for use on future spacewalks and deactivate an experiment package,” NASA stated in a Thursday press release.

Several journalists were unable to ask questions during the NASA portion of the press conference, which included participation from countries covered by NASA, the European Space Agency, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency and Roscosmos (the Russian Federal Space Agency).

“We had a failure in a crucial component in the phone bridge,” NASA spokesman Kelly Humphries told Universe Today following the media event. They don’t know what component failed, but most of the journalists were unable to hear the moderator or the astronauts.

“A piece of equipment picked the wrong time to fail,” Humphries said

NASA will do a thorough investigation before holding another event like this to make sure it works for everyone.

Here’s a replay of the news conference:

Expedition 37/38’s Tips For Surviving Long Voyages in Space

NASA wants to bring its astronauts outside of Earth. It recently recruited a new astronaut class for deep space voyages. It’s talking about picking up asteroids and possibly heading to the moon or Mars in the distant future. But there are a heck of a lot of steps to do before anyone can head into space for long periods of time.

The agency and Roscosmos are preparing for a one-year voyage to the International Space Station in 2015 that will add to the limited set of data on people being in space consecutively for a year, or longer. You can bet there will be reams of information collected on sleep habits, bone loss, muscle shrinkage, eye pressure and other health factors of concern.

How about the psychological side? The next space station crew to launch gave some hints about how their training prepares them to live cheek-by-jowl in a tiny space for six months.

The mission’s main goal:

The main goal is to put the station in a good condition, and also for the Russian segment, to [install] the new module, MLM (Multipurpose Laboratory Module.) We’re all targeted to this job. Me especially, being the commander of the station, I have the responsibility of the whole crew and their success and also for their psych [psychological] atmosphere. That’s really what I want to do. — Oleg Kotov, Expedition 37 flight engineer, Expedition 38 commander and preparing for his third spaceflight

Receiving advice from past crews:

Sometimes it’s the little things in terms of how to deal with, for example … the food and your clothes and supplies. Other times it’s trying to make sure you’re focusing on the critical items, and not necessarily getting caught up in all the little details [because] you’re going to be there for such a long amount of time.  — Michael Hopkins, Expedition 37/38 flight engineer and rookie astronaut

The Mars 500 long-duration mission vs. flying to the space station:

Mars 500 was really aimed at science. Most of the station [work] is mostly of the safety of the crew and the safety of the station, and then the [next priority is] science. But it also was a great experience to see, psychologically, the space station can be isolating, and how great the influence of this psychology is on the crew. So that was really the experience. Being commander there helps me a lot in my training for real flight.” — Sergey Ryzansky, commander of a 105-day segment as part of phase two of the Mars 500 program, Expedition 37/38 flight engineer and rookie cosmonaut

Michael Hopkins, Expedition 37/38 flight engineer, during spacewalk training. Credit: NASA
Michael Hopkins, Expedition 37/38 flight engineer, during spacewalk training. Credit: NASA

Communications with Mission Control:

Sometimes you ask a question or an item from the ground, and just realizing that you’re not always going to get that answer right away. Sometimes it takes some time for them to determine what the right answer is. — Hopkins

The challenge for other planets:

[I study] how to develop countermeasure means for flights on another planets. After 200 days, for example, flying in space, then we need human beings to work in a spacesuit on the surface of other planets, in different gravity. — Ryzansky