China Launches Mengtian, the Last Major Module to its Space Station

Artist's rendering of the completed Tiangong space station. Credit: Shujianyang/Wikimedia

On the afternoon of Monday, October 31st, 2022 (Halloween!), China launched the Mengtian laboratory cabin module into space, where it will join the Tiangong modular space station. This module, whose name translates to “Dreaming of the Heavens,” is the second laboratory and final addition to Tiangong (“Palace in the Sky”). This successful launch places China one step closer to completing its first long-term space station, roughly one-fifth the mass of the International Space Station (ISS) and comparable in size to Russia’s decommissioned Mir space station.

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Two Veteran NASA Astronauts Michael Foale and Ellen Ochoa Inducted into U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame at KSC

Two veteran retired NASA astronauts - Michael Foale and Ellen Ochoa - were inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame on May 22, 2017 during induction ceremony held below Space Shuttle Atlantis in the display pavilion at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/

Two veteran retired NASA astronauts – Michael Foale and Ellen Ochoa – were inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame on May 19, 2017 during induction ceremony held below Space Shuttle Atlantis in the display pavilion at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER VISITOR COMPLEX, FL – In a moving ceremony, a pair of veteran NASA astronauts – Michael Foale and Ellen Ochoa – who once flew together on a space shuttle mission, were inducted into the U. S. Astronaut Hall of Fame at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida, on May 19.

Between them, Foale and Ochoa flew to space a combined total of ten times – 6 for Foale and 4 for Ochoa.

They flew together as crewmates on the STS-56 space shuttle mission aboard Space Shuttle Discovery which launched from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on 8 April 1993.

The nine day STS-56 mission was Ochoa’s rookie flight and Foale’s second flight. It was the second of the shuttle’s ATLAS series of Earth science missions – dubbed Atlas-2 – whose purpose was to study the atmosphere and solar interactions.

“I was so happy to hear he and I were going to be inducted together,” Ochoa said during her acceptance speech. “He’d already had one mission and he passed along all kinds of helpful information that helped a rookie like me know where to focus and hopefully not be too surprised when the flight happened. Because being surprised in space is really not a good thing, as Mike found out.”

Ellen Ochoa counts as the first Hispanic woman to travel to space and currently serves as the 11th director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Michael Foale counts as the only U.S. astronaut to serve on both the International Space Station (ISS) and Russian space station Mir.

Foale was on board Mir in June 1997 during one of the worst disasters in space when an out of control unmanned Russian Progress cargo ship collided with the station’s Spektr module causing its air depressurization and sent Mir tumbling and rolling. He and his two Russian crewmates rapidly went into action to seal the leak, to stabilize and save Mir and themselves. He spent four months on Mir during the Mir 23 and Mir 24 missions.

The induction ceremony was held in a truly magnificent setting below NASA’s retired Space Shuttle Atlantis orbiter now on permanent display in a dedicated pavilion at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.

Two veteran NASA astronauts joined the ranks of the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman to travel to space and current JSC Director, and Michael Foale, the only U.S. astronaut to serve on both the International Space Station and Russian space station Mir. Credit: NASA

Ochoa and Foale joined the ranks of 93 prestigious American space heroes who have previously received the same honor over the years since the U. S. Astronaut Hall of Fame was established in its current incarnation more than 30 years ago by the founders of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, the six surviving Mercury 7 astronauts.

The new duo comprise the 16th group of space shuttle astronauts to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Thus the Astronaut Hall of Fame now numbers 95 heroic and famous space explorers.

Foale and Ochoa unveiled their new ‘Hall of Fame’ commemorative plaques during the ceremony.

The plaques will be put on public display for all to see where they will join the others at the new U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame (AHOF) pavilion – which had its Grand Opening in November 2016 as part of the new Heroes & Legends attraction located at the entrance to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

The Astronaut Scholarship Foundation has awarded more than $4 million in merit-based scholarships to more than 400 brilliant students since its inception.

Group shot of 21 NASA astronauts posing with the two new NASA astronauts – Michael Foale and Ellen Ochoa – who were inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame on May 19, 2017 during induction ceremony held below Space Shuttle Atlantis in the display pavilion at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/

Some 21 legendary NASA astronauts were on hand for the induction ceremony, including: Robert Cabana, Dan Brandenstein, Al Worden, Charlie Duke, Karol “Bo” Bobko, Brian Duffy, Scott Altman, Michael Bloomfield, Charles Bolden, Ken Bowersox, Curtis Brown, Michael Coats, Robert Crippen, Sam Durrance, Robert Gibson, Fred Gregory, Rhea Seddon, Brewster Shaw, Loren Shriver, Kathryn Thornton, and James Wetherbee.

Two veteran retired NASA astronauts – Michael Foale and Ellen Ochoa – were inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame on May 19, 2017 and show their medals to the media after induction ceremony held below Space Shuttle Atlantis in the display pavilion at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/

Here is a description of their space flight accomplishments from NASA:

“Ochoa joined NASA in 1988 as a research engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California after earning a doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University. She joined Johnson in 1990, when she was selected as an astronaut candidate. After completing astronaut training, she served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, conducting atmospheric studies to better understand the effect of solar activity on Earth’s climate and environment.

Ochoa has flown in space four times, including the STS-66, STS-96 and STS-110 missions, logging nearly 1,000 hours in orbit. She is Johnson’s first Hispanic director and its second female director. She also has served as the center’s deputy director and director of Flight Crew Operations.”

“Foale, whose hometown is Cambridge, England, earned a doctorate in laboratory astrophysics from the University of Cambridge, Queens’ College. A naturalized U.S. citizen, Foale was selected as an astronaut candidate in June 1987. Before his first spaceflight, he tested shuttle flight software in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory simulator.

Foale was a crew member on six space missions, including STS-45, STS-56, STS-63, STS-84, STS-103 and Soyuz TMA-3. During STS-84, he helped reestablish the Russian Space Station Mir after it was degraded by a collision and depressurization. Foale logged more than 374 days in space, including four spacewalks totaling 22 hours and 44 minutes.

Foale also served as chief of the Astronaut Office Expedition Corps, assistant director (technical) of Johnson, and deputy associate administrator for exploration operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington. His last assignment at Johnson was as chief of the Soyuz Branch, Astronaut Office, supporting Soyuz and International Space Station operations and space suit development. Foale retired from NASA in 2013.”

Read this description of the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame Induction Process and Eligibility:

“Each year, inductees are selected by a committee of Hall of Fame astronauts, former NASA officials, flight directors, historians and journalists. The process is administered by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. To be eligible, an astronaut must have made his or her first flight at least 17 years before the induction. Candidates must be a U.S. citizen and a NASA-trained commander, pilot or mission specialist who has orbited the earth at least once.”

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

Ken Kremer

Grand opening ceremony for the ‘Heroes and Legends’ attraction on Nov. 11, 2016 at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida and attended by more than 25 veteran and current NASA astronauts. It includes the new home of the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, presented by Boeing. In addition to displays honoring the 93 Americans currently enshrined in the hall, the facility looks back to the pioneering efforts of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. It provides the background and context for space exploration and the legendary men and women who pioneered the nation’s journey into space. Credit: Ken Kremer/

Mir: Russia’s Space Station

The Mir space station hangs above the Earth in 1995 (photo by Atlantis STS-71, NASA)

The Mir Space Station was Russia’s greatest space station, and the first modular space station to be assembled in orbit. Commissioned in 1986, the name can be translated from Russian as “peace”, “world”, and even “village” – alluding to the spirit of international cooperation that led to its creation. Owned and operated by the Soviet Union, it became the property of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) after 1991.

The space station was intended to advocate world peace and hosted international scientists and NASA astronauts. In this respect, Mir was very much the curtain-raiser for the International Space Station, which succeeded it as the largest satellite in Earth’s orbit after 2001.


During the 1960s and 70s, when the United States was largely focused on Apollo and the Space Shuttle program, Russia began to focus on developing expertise in long-duration spaceflight, and felt that a larger space station would allow for more research in that area. Authorized in February 1976 by a government decree, the station was originally intended to be an improved model of the Salyut space stations.

The original plan called for a core module that would be equipped with a total of four docking ports, but eventual grew to include several ports for crewed Soyuz spacecraft and Progress cargo spaceships. By August 1978, the plan had grown to the final configuration of one aft port and five ports in a spherical compartment at the forward end of the station.

The Mir Space Station and Earth limb observed from the Orbiter Endeavour during NASA's STS-89 mission in 1998. Credit: NASA
The Mir Space Station and Earth limb observed from the Orbiter Endeavour during NASA’s STS-89 mission in 1998. Credit: NASA

Two would be located at either end of the station (as with the Salyut stations) with an additional two on either side of a docking sphere at the front of the station to enable further modules to expand the station’s capabilities.  These docking ports would each accommodate 20-tonne space station modules based on the TKS spacecraft – a previous generation of space craft used to bring cosmonauts and supplies to the Salyut space stations.

Work began on the station in 1979, and drawings were released in 1982 and 83. By early 1984, work had ground to a halt as virtually all of Russia’s space resources were being put into the Buran program – a Soviet and later Russian reusable spacecraft project. Funding resumed in early 1984 when the Central Committee became determined to orbit Mir by early 1986, just in time for the 27th Communist Party Congress.


On February 19th, 1986, the assembly process began with the launching of Mir’s core module on a Proton-K rocket into orbit. Between 1987 and 1996, four of the six modules were launched and added to the station – Kvant-2 in 1989, Kristall in 1990, Spektr in 1995 and Priroda in 1996. In these cases, the modules were sent into orbit aboard a Proton-K, chased the station automatically, and then used their robot Lyappa arms to mate with the core.

Soviet/Russian space station Mir, after completion in 1996. The date shown for each module is its year of launch. Docked to the station are a Soyuz TM manned spacecraft and an unmanned Progress resupply ferry. Credit: Encyclopedia Britannica
Soviet/Russian space station Mir, after completion in 1996. The date shown for each module is its year of launch. Credit: Encyclopedia Britannica

Kvant-1, having no engines of its own, was delivered by a TKS spacecraft in 1987, while the docking module was brought to the station aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-74) in 1995. Various other external components, including three truss structures, several experiments and other unpressurized elements, were also mounted to the exterior of the station over the course of its history.

The station’s assembly marked the beginning of the third generation of space station design, being the first to consist of more than one primary spacecraft. First generation stations such as Salyut 1 and Skylab had monolithic designs, consisting of one module with no resupply capability, while second generation stations (Salyut 6 and Salyut 7) comprised a monolithic station with two ports to allow resupply cargo spacecraft (like Progress).

The capability of Mir to be expanded with add-on modules meant that each could be designed with a specific purpose in mind, thus eliminating the need to install all the station’s equipment in one module. After construction was finished, Mir had a collection of facilities. At 13.1 meters (43 feet) long, the “core” module of the station was the main area where the cosmonauts and astronauts did their work. It also housed the main computer and vital space station parts, such as communications.

In addition to solar arrays and a docking port, the station had several facilities for orbital science. These included, but were not limited to, the two Kvant modules (where astronomy and other scientific research was conducted), the Kristall module (which had a facility for microgravity manufacturing) and Spektr (focused on Earth work).

A view of the Russian space station Mir on 3 July 1993 as seen from Soyuz TM-17. Credit:
A view of the Russian space station Mir on 3 July 1993 as seen from Soyuz TM-17. Credit:


During its 15-year spaceflight, Mir was visited by a total of 28 long-duration, or “principal”, crews. Expeditions varied in length, but generally lasted around six months. Principal expedition crews consisted of two to three crew members, who often launched as part of one expedition but returned with another.

As part of the Soviet Union’s manned spaceflight program effort to maintain a long-term research outpost in space, operated by the new Russian Federal Space Agency after 1991, the vast majority of the station’s crew were Russian. However, through international collaborations, the station was made accessible to astronauts from North America, several European nations and Japan.

Collaborative programs included the Intercosmos, Euromir and Shuttle-Mir programs. Intercosmos, which ran from 1978-1988, involved astronauts from other Warsaw Pact Nations, other socialist nations – like Afghanistan, Cuba, Mongolia, and Vietnam – and pro-Soviet non-aligned nations such as India, Syria, and even France.

Euromir, which began in the 1990s, was a collaborative effort between the Russian Federal Space Agency and the European Space Agency (ESA) to bring European astronauts to the space station. With help provided by the NASA Space Shuttle program, the goal was to recruit and train European astronauts for the then-planned International Space Station.

Meanwhile, the Shuttle–Mir Program was a collaborative space program between Russia and the United States, and involved American Space Shuttles visiting the space station, Russian cosmonauts flying on the shuttle, and an American astronaut flying aboard a Soyuz spacecraft to engage in long-duration expeditions aboard Mir.

A view of the US Space Shuttle Atlantis and the Russian Space Station Mir during STS-71 as seen by the crew of Mir EO-19 in Soyuz TM-21. Credit: NASA
A view of the US Space Shuttle Atlantis and the Russian Space Station Mir during STS-71 as seen by the crew of Mir EO-19 in Soyuz TM-21. Credit: NASA

By the time of the station’s deorbit, it had been visited by 104 different people from twelve different nations, making it the most visited spacecraft in history (a record later surpassed by the International Space Station).


When it was launched in 1986, Mir was only supposed to have a life span of about five years, but it proved to have a greater longevity than anyone expected. Unfortunately, a series of technical and structural problems eventually caught up with the station; and in November 2000, the Russian government announced that it would decommission the space station.

This began on Jan. 24th, 2001, when a Russian Progress cargo ship rendezvoused with the station carrying twice its normal amount of fuel. The extra fuel was intended to fire the Progress’ thrusters once it had docked with Mir and push the station into a controlled descent through the Earth’s atmosphere.

The Russian government purchased insurance just in case the space station hit any populated area when it crashed to Earth. Luckily, the station ended up crashing into the South Pacific Ocean, landing about 2,897 kilometers from New Zealand. In 2001, former RKA General Director Yuri Koptev estimated that the cost of the Mir program to be $4.2 billion (including development, assembly and orbital operation).


The Mir Space Station endured for 15 years in orbit, three times its planned lifetime. It hosted scores of crew members and international visitors, raised the first crop of wheat to be grown from seed to seed in outer space, and served as a symbol of Russia’s past glories and it’s potential as a future leader in space exploration.

Jerry Linenger dons a mask during his mission on Mir in 1997. Credit: NASA
Jerry Linenger dons a mask during his mission on Mir in 1997. Credit: NASA

In addition, the station was a source of controversy over the years, due to the many accidents and hazards it endured. The most famous of these took place on February 24, 1997 during mission STS-81. On this occasion, which saw the Space Shuttle Atlantis delivering crew, supplies, and conducting a series of tests, the worst fire aboard an orbiting spacecraft broke out.

This caused failures in various on-board systems, a near collision with a Progress resupply cargo ship during a long-distance manual docking system test, and a total loss of station electrical power. The power failure also caused a loss of attitude control, which led to an uncontrolled “tumble” through space. Luckily, the crew managed to suppress the fire and regain control before long.

Another major incident took place on June 25th, when a Progress resupply ship collided with solar arrays on the Spektr module, creating a hole which caused the station to lose pressure. This was the first orbital depressurization in the history of spaceflight to take place. Luckily, no astronauts were lost while serving aboard the station.

Mir is also famous for hosting long-duration missions during its early years in space. Topping the list was Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov, who spent nearly 438 days aboard Mir and landed on March 22, 1995. The station itself orbited the Earth more than 86,000 times during its lifespan, and was also the largest orbiting object in the Solar System.

But most importantly of all, Mir served as the stage for the first large-scale, technical partnership between Russia and the United States after a half-century of mutual antagonism. Without it, there would be no ISS today, and numerous joint-research efforts between NASA, the ESA, Russia, and other federal space agencies, would not have been possible.

We have written many interesting articles about space stations here at Universe Today. Here’s What is the International Space Station?, Fire! How the Mir Incident Changed Space Station History, The Mir Space Station: An Unlikely Place for a Beautiful Art Exhibit, and Mir’s Fiery Re-entry, March 23, 2001.

For more information, check out the Mir Space Station and Shuttle-Mir.

And Astronomy Cast has a wonderful episode on Mir, titled Episode 297: Space Stations, Part 2: Mir


What Does NASA Stand For?

NASA Logo. Credit: NASA

Chances are that if you have lived on this planet for the past half-century, you’ve heard of NASA. As the agency that is in charge of America’s space program, they put a man on the Moon, launched the Hubble Telescope, helped establish the International Space Station, and sent dozens of probes and shuttles into space.

But do you know what the acronym NASA actually stands for? Well, NASA stands for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. As such, it oversees America’s spaceflight capabilities and conducts valuable research in space. NASA also has various programs on Earth dedicated to flight, hence why the term “Aeronautics” appears in the agency’s name.

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Fire! How the Mir Incident Changed Space Station Safety

Jerry Linenger dons a mask during his mission on Mir in 1997. Credit: NASA

Sixteen years ago, a fire on the Russian space station Mir erupted after a cosmonaut routinely ignited a perchlorate canister that produced oxygen to supplement the space station’s air supply. Jerry Linenger, an American astronaut aboard Mir at that time, wrote about the incident that occurred on February 24, 1997 in his memoir Off the Planet:

As the fire spewed with angry intensity, sparks – resembling an entire box of sparklers ignited simultaneously – extended a foot or so beyond the flame’s furthest edge. Beyond the sparks, I saw what appeared to be melting wax splattering on the bulkhead opposite the blaze. But it was not melting max. It was molten metal. The fire was so hot that it was melting metal.

Linenger famously had some trouble donning gas masks, which kept malfunctioning, but he and the rest of the crew managed to put out the blaze before it spun out of control. The cause was traced to a fault in the canister.

Mir itself was deorbited in 2001, but the fire safety lessons are still vivid in everyone’s mind today.

Outside view of the Mir space station. Credit: NASA
Outside view of the Mir space station. Credit: NASA

NASA fire expert David Urban told Universe Today that a fire is among the most catastrophic situations that a crew can face.

You can’t go outside, you’re in a very small volume, and your escape options are limited. Your survival options are limited. That space can tolerate a much smaller fire than you can tolerate in our home. The pressure can’t escape easily, and the heat stays there, and the toxic products are there as well.

Urban, who is chief of the combustion and reacting systems branch of the research and technology directorate of the NASA Glenn Research Center, said NASA and Russia have learned several things from the incident that they have implemented on the International Space Station today:

Changing fabrication procedures for the canisters. NASA officials and their Russian counterparts “took a good hard look” at the canisters and determined they were still the best solution given their modest weight and easy portability. They did, however, put stricter guidelines into the fabrication in the Russian facility. “The most likely cause was contamination during assembly of the cassette, the cartridge that contains the perchlorate. So, much stronger control there and more testing of the units as they make them. ”

Better insulation. Urban noted the canisters are now in specially designed cases, a sort of high-temperature insulation package that can absorb the “blow torch effect” that happens if a unit fails. “It protects the rest of the vehicle … like a fire in a fireplace.”

Clearing the way. Just before the Mir fire happened, the crew happened to clean up trash from the immediate area near the faulty canister.  The procedure was just a coincidence, but it could have ended up saving the ship, Urban said. Today’s space station crews are very careful to keep a buffer between the canisters on board and any items. “In the shuttle era, it was different because it came back in 16 days or less. The space station or Mir, it’s like your house. You can’t let clutter accumulate. We’ve learned a lot in Mir about how to manage a long-duration vehicle.”

Keeping up with the latest research. There are, in fact, two fire suppression systems on the International Space Station: a water foam system in the Russian sections, and a carbon dioxide system in the United States area. NASA is now working on a more modern “water mist” fire suppression method, based on an ongoing trend seen protecting terrestrial areas such as electronics and shipping rooms. This system emits fine particles, sort of like a sprinkler, that are just tens of microns across and act almost like a gas. Urban said the system is late in the design review part of development and should be ready for use on station within the next couple of years.

One 2011 NASA report on the incident also highlighted the importance of emergency preparation and safety drills to mitigate fires as they happen. “More effective warning systems could save several seconds of reaction time, which, in a crisis, could mean the difference between success and failure,” it stated. You can read the rest of that report here.