Get Teased by the New “Interstellar” Trailer

Christopher Nolan, the writer and director of Memento, Inception, and the most recent Batman films, is taking up space on the big screen next year — literally. Nolan’s newest film, Interstellar, will be a space exploration adventure featuring Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, and Michael Caine (of course) and, based on this teaser trailer, maintains a reverent awareness of the iconic missions of the Space Age.

Sweet.
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The Scariest Part of “Gravity” is the Lack Thereof

I love science fiction films and I especially love it when the “science” part leans closer to fact than fiction. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Europa Report.) Now I’ve never seen an actual catastrophe in orbit (and I hope I never do) but I have to assume it’d look a whole lot like what’s happening in the upcoming film “Gravity,” opening in U.S. theaters on October 4. This full official trailer was released today.

A disaster film sure becomes a whole lot more interesting when everything is moving 18,000 miles an hour and there’s no up or down. And, of course, space. (!!!)

So what do you think? Will you be seeing Gravity? Share your thoughts in the comments…
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The Lessons We Learned from Space Shuttle Enterprise

On this day 36 years ago, two astronauts aboard the space shuttle Enterprise took the ship out for its initial test flight. It landed on the back of a 747 before undertaking a series of free flights starting in June that year.

Enterprise was designed as a test ship only, and was never intended to fly in space. Instead, it was used for a series of flying and landing approach tests to see how well the shuttle maneuvered during the landing. The astronauts first flew a series of “captive” flights aboard the 747, then cut the test shuttle loose for five free flights over several weeks.

What lessons were learned and what design changes did NASA implement from the Enterprise test program? And how did Enterprise help shape the future of the space shuttle program? A few clues emerge from the program’s final evaluation report, which was released in February 1978.

– Stopping a hydrazine leak. Hydrazine was used as a fuel for the maneuvering thrusters on the space shuttle, but the chemical is toxic and shouldn’t be exposed to humans. During the first captive flight, an auxiliary power unit was turned on about 18 minutes in. That was part of the plan, but the next part wasn’t: NASA observed fuel was being used much faster than expected in the next 25 minutes. It turned out that a bellows seal in the fuel pump had failed and caused “significant hydrazine leakage” in the shuttle’s aft bay.

Preventing brake trouble or ‘chattering’. The first indication of trouble came after the second free flight. The astronauts felt a “chattering” (low-frequency vibration) sensation during braking as they were slowing down on the runway. This 16-hertz vibration happened again during “hard” braking on Flight 3. In light of the vibration, the brake control was modified and the astronauts did not feel the vibrations on Flights 4 and 5.

– Minimizing computer vibration. Enterprise’s Computer 2 fell out of sync with its fellow computers as the shuttle separated from the 747 on Flight 1, causing several computer errors. (The other three redundant computers effectively voted the computer off the island, to use Survivor parlance, and the flight carried on.) Ground tests of similar units revealed that the solder keeping the computer attached to the shuttle cracked when subjected to a slight vibration for a long period of time. NASA modified the attachments and the computers were just fine on Flight 2.

– Astronaut training. The astronauts experienced several control problems during Enterprise’s fifth free landing, when they deployed the speed brake to compensate for a landing that was a little faster than planned. As the pilot tried to control the shuttle’s sink rate, the elevons (a control surface for pitch and roll) were elevated more than usual, causing the shuttle to gently head back into the air and roll to the right before landing again. The astronauts could not see any unusual changes in pitch because the nose of the shuttle was not visible from the cockpit. Further, the center of gravity for the pitch changes was so close to the cockpit that the astronauts could not feel the sensation.  “The pilot was unaware of any problem other than that he was landing long and trying to get the vehicle on the ground near the desired touchdown spot,” the NASA report stated. Several recommendations came out of this incident, such as more simulations of landings, modifying the flight control system, and stating that speed brakes should not be used just before landing.

Bottom line, though, was NASA said the approach and landing tests accomplished all objectives. The authors of the report called for modifications to these problems and a few others, but said as soon as these situations were addressed the shuttle was performing well enough for further flights. You can read the whole report here.

Enterprise is now on display at the Intrepid Air & Space Museum in New York, but is temporarily closed to the public as the shuttle undergoes repairs from damage incurred during Hurricane Sandy.

How to Steal a Space Shuttle

For two days, from October 12 to 13, the shuttle Endeavour will be transported along 12 miles of road on the final leg of its journey to the California Science Center. During that time the orbiter will be the most publicly exposed as it’s ever been, a national treasure on the streets of LA. While this will of course be a well-orchestrated undertaking with the security of not only Endeavour but citizens and spectators being of utmost priority, one might be prompted to speculate: what if someone tried to steal the space shuttle?

And that one, in this instance, was Jalopnik.com‘s Jason Torchinsky. In his latest article, Jason describes in detail a method for snatching a spaceship — and a rather dramatic one at that, worthy of a Bondian supervillian (and requiring a similarly cinematic amount of funds.) However nefarious, fictitious, and unlikely, it’s nevertheless intriguing.

Now while we don’t encourage the theft of a space shuttle (or any federal property, for that matter) it’s a fun read… check it out.

Just keep an eye out for any suspicious Swiss skulking along Endeavour’s route…

(Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Fly Over California Alongside a Space Shuttle!

A view of Endeavour and SCA over California from one of NASA’s F/A-18 chase planes (NASA/DFRC)

We’ve shared several videos from Endeavour’s trip to Los Angeles last week, taken by excited spectators along various portions of the flight path, but what was it like for the crews of the two NASA F/A-18 chase planes that accompanied the orbiter and SCA every step of the way?

Watch the video below, and put yourself in the pilot’s seat…

Shared by NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, the video shows footage taken from the viewpoint of one of the chase planes as Endeavour was ferried aboard a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft from Edwards Air Force Base to Los Angeles International Airport.

Along the way SCA pilots Jeff Moultrie and Bill Rieke, both from NASA’s Johnson Space Center, guided the 747 over such landmarks as the State Capitol in Sacramento, the Golden Gate Bridge at San Francisco, and NASA’s Ames Research Center.

Once over the Los Angeles area Endeavour passed over well-known landmarks like Griffith Observatory, the Hollywood sign, Dodger Stadium, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Malibu Beach and the Santa Monica Pier, and Disneyland.

After several low flybys of the runway — some under 300 feet! — the SCA touched down at LAX on Runway 25L at 12:51 p.m. PDT.

NASA’s four F/A-18 Hornet aircraft, operated by Dryden Flight Research Center, are commonly called chase planes and fill the role of escort aircraft during research missions. They also are used as camera platforms for research missions that must be photographed or videotaped. Two of these chase planes accompanied Endeavour on its flight for such documentation as well as for security.

See more images of the F/A-18s here, and for more photos of Endeavour’s trip to California check out the NASA photographer photo set on Flickr.

Video: Dryden TV

NASA’s Colossal Crawler Gets Souped-Up for SLS

Shuttle Discovery riding one of KSC’s crawler-transporters to Launch Pad 39B in June 2005 (NASA)

One of NASA’s two iconic crawler-transporters — the 2,750-ton monster vehicles that have delivered rockets from Saturns to Shuttles to launch pads at Kennedy Space Center for nearly half a century — is getting an upgrade in preparation for NASA’s new future in space flight.

131 feet long, 113 feet wide and with a breakneck top speed of 2 mph (they’re strong, not fast!) NASA’s colossal crawler-transporters are the only machines capable of hauling fully-fueled rockets the size of office buildings safely between the Vehicle Assembly Building and the launch pads at Kennedy Space Center. Each 3.5-mile one-way trip takes around 6 hours.

Now that the shuttles are retired and each in or destined for its permanent occupation as a relic of human spaceflight, the crawler-transporters have not been doing much crawling or transporting down the 130-foot-wide, Tennessee river-rock-coated lanes at KSC… but that’s soon to change.

According to an article posted Sept. 5 on TransportationNation.org, crawler 2 (CT-2) is getting a 6-million-pound upgrade, bringing its carrying capacity from 12 million pounds to 18 million. This will allow the vehicle to bear the weight of a new generation of heavy-lift rockets, including NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).

Read: SLS: NASA’s Next Big Thing

In addition to carrying capacity CT-2 will also be getting new brakes, exhausts, hydraulics and computer systems.

Part of a $2 billion plan to upgrade Kennedy Space Center for a future with both NASA and commercial spaceflight partners, the crawler will have two of its onboard power engines replaced — but the original generators that power its eight enormous tread belts will remain, having been thoroughly inspected and deemed to be “in pristine condition” according to the article by Matthew Peddie.

When constructed in the early 1960s, the crawler-transporters were the largest tracked vehicles ever made and cost $14 million — that’s about $100 million today. But were they to be built from scratch now they’d likely cost even more, as the US “is no longer the industrial powerhouse it was in the 1960s.”

Still, it’s good to know that these hardworking behemoths will keep bringing rockets to the pad, even after the shuttles have been permanently parked.

“When they built the crawler, they overbuilt it, and that’s a great thing because it’s able to last all these years. I think it’s a great machine that could last another 50 years if it needed to,” said Bob Myers, systems engineer for the crawler.

You can see some really great full panoramas of the CT-2 at the NASATech website, where photographer John O’Connor took three different panoramic views while the transporter was inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at KSC in Highbay 1. There’s even a pan close-up of the giant cleats that move the transporter.

Read the full article on TransportationNation.org here, and find out more about the crawler-transporters here and here.

Since the Apollo years the transporters have traveled an accumulated 2,526 miles, about the same distance as a one-way highway trip from KSC to Los Angeles.

Inset image: the Apollo 11 Saturn V, tower and mobile launch platform atop the crawler-transporter during rollout on May 20, 1969. (NASA) Bottom image: NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on the site of the CT-2 upgrade in August 2012. Each of the crawler’s 456 tread shoes weighs about one ton. (NASA)

Former Astronaut Criticizes NASA’s Current Course

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Former NASA astronaut Story Musgrave is neither happy nor excited about the current state of the space administration or about the commercial COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) program. He’s not happy, and he’s not afraid to say so.

“The whole thing is chaos and a cop out. The whole thing is a Washington failure,” Musgrave bluntly stated to Examiner.com’s Charles Atkeison in an interview this past weekend.

Story Musgrave in 1983 (NASA)

Musgrave was a NASA astronaut for over 30 years and was a crew member on six shuttle missions. He performed the first shuttle spacewalk on Challenger’s first flight, was a pilot on an astronomy mission, was the lead spacewalker on the Hubble repair mission and on his last flight he operated an electronic chip manufacturing satellite on Columbia.

He has 7 graduate degrees in math, computers, chemistry, medicine, physiology, literature and psychology. He has been awarded 20 honorary doctorates and was a part-time trauma surgeon during his 30 year astronaut career.

And, according to Atkeison, Musgrave “feels the space agency has no true goals or focus today.”

“We’re not going anywhere… there is no where, there is no what, and there is no when,” the former astronaut told Atkeison. “There is no Mars program, none. There is also no Moon program. There is no asteroid program… there’s no what we’re gonna do and no when we’re gonna do it.”

Neither does Musgrave put much faith in the value of the COTS program… which includes the upcoming launch of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule.

This isn’t the first time Musgrave has spoken out against NASA’s direction, either; in June of 2011 Musgrave lambasted the administration for its failure to have a “next step” after phasing out the shuttle program.

“Why are we so poor in our vision and so poor in our project management that we come to a point where it’s reasonable to phase out the current program and we have no idea what the next one is?” Musgrave said in 2011. “Washington has to stop doing that.”

Story Musgrave, now 76, currently operates a palm farm in Orlando, FL, a production company in Sydney and a sculpture company in Burbank, CA. He is also a landscape architect, a design professor and  a concept artist with Disney Imagineering. It’s clear that Musgrave is a man who knows what vision is — and isn’t. Still, he’s always honored to have had the opportunity to be a part of NASA.

“I’m massively privileged to be part of the space program, and I never forget to say that,” said Musgrave last year.

Read the full story by Charles Atkeison on Examiner.com here.

First spacewalk of the space shuttle era (STS-6) by Story Musgrave and Don Peterson to test new spacesuits and life support systems. (NASA)

Shuttle vs. Soyuz

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Here’s an interesting illustration showing the size comparison of a Space Shuttle to a Soyuz vehicle, shared on Twitter by NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio (@AstroRM). Amazing to think that three flight-suited astronauts are able to fit inside a Soyuz and have life support for up to a month! (Although I’m sure most hope they won’t have to stay that long.)

Compare the 7-person capacity, 65.8 cubic meter crew cabin of an orbiter to the 3-person, 10 cubic meter space inside a Soyuz and one can imagine how cozy it must get during trips to and from the Station.

Rick is currently in training for a Soyuz flight to the ISS in November of next year as a member of the Expedition 38 crew, at which time he’ll get plenty of first-hand experience with the precise interior measurements of a Soyuz.

Thanks to Rick for sharing this! You can find out more about the Soyuz vehicles here, and check out the full source publication MIR Hardware Heritage (1995) by David S. F. Portree for Johnson Space Center.

Far Above the World

Astronaut Bruce McCandless untethered above the Earth on Feb. 12, 1984. (NASA)

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28 years ago today, NASA astronaut Bruce McCandless left the relative safety of Challenger’s payload bay and went untethered into orbit around Earth, venturing farther than anyone ever before.

The historic photo above was taken when McCandless was 320 feet from the orbiter — about the length of an American football field, or just shy of the width of the International Space Station.

The free-flying endeavor was possible because of McCandless’ nitrogen-powered jet-propelled backpack, called a Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU). It attached to the space suit’s life-support system and was operated by hand controls, allowing untethered access to otherwise inaccessible areas of the orbiter and was also used in the deployment, service and retrieval of satellites.

Astronaut Dale Gardner using the MMU during STS-51A in Nov. 1984 to travel to the Westar VI satellite. (NASA)

The MMU used a non-contaminating nitrogen propellant that could be recharged in the orbiter. It weighed 140 kg (308 lbs) and has a built-in 35mm camera.

After the Challenger disaster, the MMU was deemed too risky and was discontinued. But for a brief period of time in the early ’80s, humans had the means for really “soaring to new heights”.

Image credits: NASA