Mir: Russia’s Space Station

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.

Origin:

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.

Deployment:

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

Missions:

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).

Decommissioning:

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).

Legacy:

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

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What Does NASA Stand For?

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. However, NASA also has various programs on Earth dedicated to flight, hence why the term “Aeronautics” appears in the agency’s name.

Formation:
The process of forming NASA began in the early 1950’s with the development of rocket planes – like the Bell X-1 – and the desire to launch physical satellites. However, it was not until the launch of Sputnik 1 – the first artificial satellite into space that was deployed by the Soviets on October 4th, 1957 – that efforts to develop an American space program truly began.

Fearing that Sputnik represented a threat to national security and America’s technological leadership, Congress urged then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower to take immediate action. This result in an agreement whereby a federal organization similar to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) – which was established in 1915 to oversee aeronautical research – would be created.

Sputnik 1
Photograph of a Russian technician putting the finishing touches on Sputnik 1, humanity’s first artificial satellite. Credit: NASA/Asif A. Siddiqi

On July 29th, 1958, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which officially established NASA. When it began operations on October 1st, 1958, NASA absorbed NACA and its 8,000 employees. It was also given an annual budget of US $100 million, three major research laboratories (Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory) and two small test facilities.

Elements of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and the United States Naval Research Laboratory were also incorporated into NASA. A significant contribution came from the work of the Army Ballistic Missie Agency (ABMA), which had been working closely with Wernher von Braun – the leader of Germany’s rocket program during WWII – at the time.

In December 1958, NASA also gained control of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a contractor facility operated by the California Institute of Technology. By 1959, President Eisenhower officially approved of A NASA seal, which is affectionately referred to as the “meatball” logo because of the orbs included in the design.

First designed in 1959, this NASA seal has commonly been known as the "meatball" logo. Credit: NASA
First designed in 1959, this NASA seal has commonly been known as the “meatball” logo. Credit: NASA

Early Projects:
NASA has since been responsible for the majority of the manned and unmanned American missions that have been sent into space. Their efforts began with the development of the X-15, a hypersonic jet plane that NASA had taken over from the NACA. As part of the program, twelve pilots were selected to fly the X-15, and achieve new records for both speed and maximum altitude reached.

A total of 199 flights were made between 1959 and 1968, resulting in two official world records being made. The first was for the highest speed ever reached by a manned craft – Mach 6.72 or 7,273 km/h (4,519 mph) – while the second was for the highest altitude ever achieved, at 107.96 km (354,200 feet).

The X-15 program also employed mechanical techniques used in the later manned spaceflight programs, including reaction control system jets, space suits, horizon definition for navigation, and crucial reentry and landing data. However, by the early 60’s, NASA’s primary concern was winning the newly-declared “Space Race” with the Soviets by putting a man into orbit.

Project Mercury:
This began with the Project Mercury, a program that was taken over from the US Air Force and which ran from 1959 until 1963. Designed to send a man into space using existing rockets, the program quickly adopted the concept launching a ballistic capsules into orbit. The first seven astronauts, nicknamed the “Mercury Seven“, were selected from from the Navy, Air Force and Marine test pilot programs.

John Glenn crouches near Shepard's capsule, Freedom 7, along with technicians prior to launch. Credit: Ralph Morse/TIME & LIFE Pictures. Used by permission.
John Glenn crouches near Shepard’s capsule, Freedom 7, along with technicians prior to launch. Credit: Ralph Morse/TIME & LIFE Pictures

On May 5th, 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space aboard the Freedom 7 mission. John Glenn became the first American to be launched into orbit by an Atlas launch vehicle on February 20th, 1962, as part of Friendship 7. Glenn completed three orbits, and three more orbital flights were made, culminating in L. Gordon Cooper’s 22-orbit flight aboard Faith 7, which flew on May 15th and 16th, 1963.

Project Gemini:
Project Gemini, which began in 1961 and ran until 1966, aimed at developing support for Project Apollo (which also began in 1961). This involved the development of long-duration space missions, extravehicular activity (EVA), rendezvous and docking procedures, and precision Earth landing. By 1962, the program got moving with the development of a series of two-man spacecraft.

The first flight, Gemini 3, went up on March 23rd, 1965 and was flown by Gus Grissom and John Young. Nine missions followed in 1965 and 1966, with spaceflights lasting for nearly fourteen days while crews conducting docking and rendezvous operations, EVAs, and gathered medical data on the effects of weightlessness on humans.

Project Apollo:
And then there was the Project Apollo, which began in 1961 and ran until 1972.  Due to the Soviets maintaining a lead in the space race up until this point, President John F. Kennedy asked Congress on May 25th, 1961 to commit the federal government to a program to land a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s. With a price tag of $20 billion (or an estimated $205 billion in present-day US dollars), it was the most expensive space program in history.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin plant the US flag on the Lunar Surface during 1st human moonwalk in history 45 years ago on July 20, 1969 during Apollo 1l mission. Credit: NASA
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin plant the US flag on the Lunar Surface during the first human moonwalk in history, on July 20, 1969. Credit: NASA

The program relied on the use of Saturn rockets as launch vehicles, and spacecraft that were larger than either the Mercury or Gemini capsules – consisting of a command and service module (CSM) and a lunar landing module (LM). The program got off to a rocky start when, on January 27th, 1967, the Apollo 1 craft experienced an electrical fire during a test run. The fire destroyed the capsule and killed the crew of three, consisting of Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II, Roger B. Chaffee.

The second manned mission, Apollo 8, brought astronauts for the first time in a flight around the Moon in December of 1968. On the next two missions, docking maneuvers that were needed for the Moon landing were practiced. And finally, the long-awaited Moon landing was made with the Apollo 11 mission on July 20th, 1969. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the Moon while pilot Michael Collins observed.

Five subsequent Apollo missions also landed astronauts on the Moon, the last in December 1972. Throughout these six Apollo spaceflights, a total of twelve men walked on the Moon. These missions also returned a wealth of scientific data, not to mention 381.7 kilograms (842 lb) of lunar samples to Earth. The Moon landing marked the end of the space race, but Armstrong declared it a victory for “mankind” rather than just the US.

Skylab and the Space Shuttle Program:
After Project Apollo, NASA’s efforts turned towards the creation of an orbiting space station and the creation of reusable spacecraft. In the case of the former, this took the form of Skylab, America’s first and only independently-built space station. Conceived of in 1965, the station was constructed on Earth and launched on May 14th, 1973 atop the first two stages of a Saturn V rocket.

Skylab, America’s First manned Space Station. Photo taken by departing Skylab 4 crew in Feb. 1974. Credit: NASA
Skylab, America’s First manned Space Station. Photo taken by departing Skylab 4 crew in Feb. 1974. Credit: NASA

Skylab was damaged during its launch, losing its thermal protection and one electricity-generating solar panels. This necessitated the first crew to rendezvous with the station to conduct repairs. Two more crews followed, and the station was occupied for a total of 171 days during its history of service. This ended in 1979 with the downing of the station over the Indian Ocean and parts of southern Australia.

By the early 70s, a changing budget environment forced NASA to begin researching reusable spacecraft, which resulted in the Space Shuttle Program. Unlike previous programs, which involved small space capsules being launched on top of multistage rockets, this program centered on the use of vehicles that were launchable and (mostly) reusable.

Its major components were a spaceplane orbiter with an external fuel tank and two solid-fuel launch rockets at its side. The external tank, which was bigger than the spacecraft itself, was the only major component that was not reused. Six orbiters were constructed in total, named Space Shuttle Atlantis, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour and Enterprise.

Over the course of 135 missions, which ran from 1983 to 1998, the Space Shuttles performed many important tasks. These included carrying the Spacelab into orbit – a joint effort with the European Space Agency (ESA) – running supplies to Mir and the ISS (see below), and the launch and successful repair of the Hubble Space Telescope (which took place in 1990 and 1993, respectively).

Space Shuttle Columbia launching on its maiden voyage on April 12th, 1981. Credit: NASA
Space Shuttle Columbia launching on its maiden voyage on April 12th, 1981. Credit: NASA

The Shuttle program suffered two disasters during the course of its 15 years of service. The first was the Challenger disaster in 1986, while the second – the Columbia disaster – took place in 2003. Fourteen astronauts were lost, as well as the two shuttles. By 2011, the program was discontinued, the last mission ending on July 21st, 2011 with the landing of Space Shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center.

By 1993, NASA began collaborating with the Russians, the ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to create the International Space Station (ISS). Combining NASA’s Space Station Freedom project with the Soviet/Russian Mir-2 station, the European Columbus station, and the Japanese Kibo laboratory module, the project also built on the Russian-American Shuttle-Mir missions (1995-1998).

The ISS and Recent Projects:
With the retirement of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, crew members were delivered exclusively by Soyuz spacecraft. The Soyuz remains docked with the station while crews perform their six-month long missions, and then returns them to Earth. Until another US manned spacecraft is ready – which is NASA is busy developing – crew members will travel to and from the ISS exclusively aboard the Soyuz.

The International Space Station, photographed by the crew of STS-132 as they disembarked. Credit: NASA
The International Space Station, photographed by the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-132). Credit: NASA

Uncrewed cargo missions arrive regularly with the station, usually in the form of the Russian Progress spacecraft, but also from the ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) since 2008, the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) since 2009, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft since 2012, and the American Cygnus spacecraft since 2013.

The ISS has been continuously occupied for the past 15 years, having exceeded the previous record held by Mir; and has been visited by astronauts and cosmonauts from 15 different nations. The ISS program is expected to continue until at least 2020, but may be extended until 2028 or possibly longer, depending on the budget environment.

Future of NASA:
A few years ago, NASA celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Originally designed to ensure American supremacy in space, it has since adapted to changing conditions and political climates. It’s accomplishments have also been extensive, ranging from launching the first American artificial satellites into space for scientific and communications purposes, to sending probes to explore the planets of the Solar System.

But above all else, NASA’s greatest accomplishments have been in sending human beings into space, and being the agency that conducted the first manned missions to the Moon. In the coming years, NASA hopes to build on that reputation, bringing an asteroid closer to Earth so we can study it more closely, and sending manned missions to Mars.

Universe Today has many articles on NASA, including articles on its current administrators and the agency’s celebrating 50 years of spaceflight.

For more information, check out history of NASA and the history of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Astronomy Cast has an episode on NASA’s mission to Mars.

Source: NASA

America’s First Space Station: The NASA Skylab

Before there was the International Space Station, before there was Mir, there was Skylab. Established in 1973, and remaining in orbit until 1979, this orbital space station was American’s first long-duration orbital workshop, and the ancestor of all those that have followed.

Originally conceived of in 1969, the plans for the station were part of a general winding down that took place during the last years of the Space Race – which officially ran from 1955 to 1972. Having sent astronauts into orbit and achieved the dream of manned missions to the Moon, the purpose of Skylab was to achieve a lasting presence in space. Rather than simply “getting there first”, NASA was now concerned with staying there.

Planning:

The seeds of Skylab were planted as early as 1959, when Wernher von Braun – the head of the Development Operations Division at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency – proposed a mission that would use a multistage rocket to place men on the Moon. As part of this mission, the upper stage of the rocket would be deposited around the Earth to function as an orbital laboratory. Known as Horizon, these plans were eventually be seized upon by NASA, which was rapidly forming at the time.

A 1967 conceptual drawing of the Gemini B reentry capsule separating from the MOL at the end of a mission. Credit: NASA
A 1967 conceptual drawing of the Gemini B reentry capsule separating from the MOL at the end of a mission. Credit: NASA

Similarly, as of September 1963, the US Department of Defense (DoD) and NASA began collaborating on a manned facility known as the “Manned Orbital Laboratory” (MOL). The initial DoD plan called for a station that would be the same diameter as a Titan II upper stage, and which would primarily be intended for photo reconnaissance using large telescopes directed by a two-man crew.

As the head of the Marshall Space Flight Center during the 1960s, Von Braun became concerned that his employees would not have work beyond developing the Saturn rockets intended for the Apollo program. As a result, he began advocating for the creation of a space station using modified Apollo hardware – which included the S-II second stage of a Saturn V rocket.

Throughout 1965, several more proposals were considered that relied on the Saturn S-IVB stage to create a space station. As part of NASA’s The Orbital Workshop program, this proposal also called for sending a crew to man the station using a Apollo Command-Service Module (CSM) aboard a Saturn IB rocket.

 This artist's concept is a cutaway illustration of the Skylab with the Command/Service Module being docked to the Multiple Docking Adapter. Credit: NASA
This artist’s concept is a cutaway illustration of the Skylab with the Command/Service Module being docked to the Multiple Docking Adapter. Credit: NASA

The crew would dock with the station, vent the residual propellants from the S-IVB stage, fill the hydrogen tank with a breathable oxygen atmosphere, and then enter the tank and outfit it as a station. On August 8th, 1969, after years of development and workshops, the McDonnel Douglas Corporation received a contract to create an Orbital Workshop out of two existing S-IVB stages.

In February of 1970, the program was renamed “Skylab” as a result of a NASA contest. A Saturn V rocket that was originally produced for the Apollo program – before the cancellation of Apollo 18, 19, and 20 – was re-purposed and redesigned to carry the station into orbit.

Launch:

Skylab was launched on May 14th, 1973 on a mission that is sometimes referred to as Skylab 1 (or SL-1). Severe damage was sustained during the launch when the station’s meteoroid shield and one of the two solar panels tore off due to vibrations.

Since the station was designed to face the Sun in order to get as much power as possible, and the shield was ripped off, the station rose to a temperature of 52°C. As a result, scientists had to move the space station and effect repairs before astronauts could be dispatched to it.

Launch of the modified Saturn V rocket carrying the Skylab space station. Credit: NASA
Launch of the modified Saturn V rocket carrying the Skylab space station. Credit: NASA

Missions:

The first manned mission (designated Skylab 2, or SL-2) took place on May 25th, 1973, atop a Saturn IB and involved extensive repairs to the station. This mission last four weeks, and astronauts Charles Conrad, Jr., Paul J. Weitz, Joseph P. Kerwin were the crew members. During the mission, the crew conducted a number of experiments, including solar astronomy and medical studies, and three EVAs (extra-vehicular activities) were completed as well.

The second manned mission, also known as Skylab 3 (SL-3), was launched on July 28th, 1973. The crew consisted of Alan L. Bean, Jack R. Lousma, and Owen K. Garriott. The mission lasted 59 days and 11 hours, during which time the crew carried out additional repairs as well as performing scientific and medical experiments.

The third and final mission to the Skylab (Skylab 4, SL-4) was the longest, lasting 84 days and one hour. Gerald P. Carr, William R. Pogue, Edward G. Gibson were the crew, and in addition to performing various experiments, they also observed the Comet Kohoutek. The crew conducted three EVAs which lasted a total of 22 hours and 13 minutes.

Skylab in February 1974, pictured by the SL-4 crew as they departed the station to return to Earth. Credit: NASA
Skylab in February 1974, pictured by the SL-4 crew as they depart the station to return to Earth. Credit: NASA

Skylab was occupied a total of 171 days and orbited the Earth more than 2,476 times during the course of its service. Each Skylab mission set a record for the amount of time astronauts spent in space.

Decommissioning:

Though NASA hoped that the station would remain in orbit for ten years, by 1977, it became clear that it would not be able to maintain a stable orbit for that long. As a result, after SL-4, preparations were made to shut down all operations and de-orbit the station.

Skylab’s demise was an international media event, with merchandising of T-shirts and hats with bullseyes, wagering on the time and place of re-entry, and nightly news reports. In the hours before re-entry, ground controllers adjusted Skylab’s orientation to try to minimize the risk of re-entry on a populated area.

They aimed the station at a spot 1,300 km (810 miles) south southeast of Cape Town, South Africa, and re-entry began at approximately 16:37 UTC, July 11, 1979. The debris reached Earth on July 11th, 1979, raining down over the Indian Ocean and parts of Australia.

On May 13, NASA commemorated the 40th anniversary of Skylab’s liftoff with a special roundtable discussion broadcast live on NASA TV. The event took place at NASA’s Headquarters in Washington, DC, and participants included Skylab and current ISS astronauts and NASA human spaceflight managers.

While the station did not have the history of service that NASA initially hoped for, the development, deployment and crewed missions to Skylab were essential to the creation of the International Space Station, which began almost 20 years after Skylab came home.

We have many interesting articles on the Apollo program and space stations here at Universe Today. For example, here are some articles on Apollo 20 and the International Space Station.

You should also check out Skylab and NASA Skylab. Astronomy Cast has an episode on space elevators.

Source: NASA

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.

Watch All The Apollo Saturn V Rockets Blast Off At The Same Time

Editor’s note: We posted this yesterday only to find that the original video we used had been pulled. Now, we’ve reposted the article with a new and improved version of the video, thanks to Spacecraft Films.

To the moon! The goal people most remember from the Apollo program was setting foot on the surface of our closest neighbor. To get there required a heck of a lot of firepower, bundled in the Saturn V rocket. The video above gives you the unique treat of watching each rocket launch at the same time.

Some notes on the rockets you see:

  • Apollos 4 and 6 were uncrewed test flights.
  • Apollo 9 was an Earth-orbit flight to (principally) test the lunar module.
  • Apollo 8 and 10 were both flights around the moon (with no lunar landing).
  • Apollo 13 was originally scheduled to land on the moon but famously experienced a dangerous explosion that forced the astronauts to come back to Earth early — but safely.
  • Apollos 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17 safely made it to the moon’s surface and back.
  • Skylab’s launch was also uncrewed; the Saturn V was used in this case to send a space station into Earth’s orbit that was used by three crews in the 1970s.
  • You don’t see Apollo 7 pictured here because it did not use the Saturn V rocket; it instead used the Saturn IB. It was an Earth-orbiting flight and the first successful manned one of the Apollo program. (Apollo 1 was the first scheduled crew, but the three men died in a launch pad fire.)

And if this isn’t enough firepower for you, how about all 135 space shuttle launches at the same time?

Read more about the Saturn V at NASA and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

(h/t Sploid)

All Saturn V Launches At Once from Spacecraft Films on Vimeo.

Astronaut Bill Pogue, Dead At 84, Took Part In Longest Manned Mission Of His Time

As the International Space Station prepares to host its first one-year visit next year, it’s worth remembering that NASA didn’t just decide to send one of its astronauts into space that long suddenly. The decision to do that was built on years, nay, decades of experience of long-duration spaceflights and studies on how the human body changes, both in the American and Russian programs.

One of those more memorable excursions was NASA’s Skylab 4 in 1973-4, which Bill Pogue (reported dead yesterday at 84) took part in. In the mission’s 84 days — the longest manned excursion at the time — a lot happened. There was a dispute between ground control in the astronauts that some call a mutiny, but others disagree with. Also, the astronauts were tasked with observing a comet from orbit that was billed as the biggest one of the century, but showed up as a disappointing wash.

Although Skylab is not as well-known among the public today, it was NASA’s first space station and taught the agency a lot about working for the long run in space. In the moments after the station launched, a micrometeoroid shield intended to protect the station’s workshop tore away, exposing the station to harsh solar radiation. The first crew to arrive at Skylab in 1973 (called Skylab 2) had to do emergency fixes on the overheated station before they were able to use it.

Both Skylab 2 and 3 included veteran astronauts on its crews, but Skylab 4 was different. The three men launching to the station Nov. 16, 1973 were all space rookies (Jerry Carr, Ed Gibson, and Bill Pogue), although it should be noted they were sent after plenty of training on the ground and years of experience supporting other crews.  Their mission, however, got off to a bad start.

Skylab 4 NASA astronaut Bill Pogue (upside-down) with Jerry Carr. The mission ran from Nov. 16, 1973, to Feb. 8, 1974. Credit: NASA
Skylab 4 NASA astronaut Bill Pogue (upside-down) with Jerry Carr. The mission ran from Nov. 16, 1973, to Feb. 8, 1974. Credit: NASA

“The crew …  had problems during activation of the workshop that earlier crews had not faced,” reads a chapter of the NASA publication Skylab, Our First Space Station.

“One of its first tasks was to unload and stow within the spacecraft thousands of items needed for their lengthy manned period. The schedule for the activation sequence dictated lengthy work periods with a large variety of tasks to be performed. The crew soon found themselves tired and behind schedule. As the activation period progressed, the astronauts complained of being pushed too hard. Ground crews disagreed; they felt that the flight crew was not working long enough or hard enough.”

What happened next was what some termed a mutiny, and others a reasonable break in work task, as the astronauts took a day off. Another NASA publication, Lifting Aloft: Human Requirements for Extended Spaceflight, says the agency learned a valuable lesson about overprogramming astronauts on longer missions, but notes there were reports of the crew being hostile towards the ground nonetheless.

Skylab 4 commander Gerry Carr flies an astronaut maneuvering experiment in the Skylab space station in December 1973. Credit: NASA
Skylab 4 commander Gerry Carr flies an astronaut maneuvering experiment in the Skylab space station in December 1973. Credit: NASA

Once the crew members and ground control had a discussion about the situation, however, relations reportedly improved. And the crew did much before its Feb. 8, 1974 landing, exceeding its scheduled expectations. For example, they made observations of Comet Kohoutek, which was hyped by some publications such as Time as the “comet of the century” (a phrase that likely sounds familiar to bitter Comet ISON watchers of 2013.) The comet was not as bright as some observers hoped, but still bright enough from orbit for the crew to do visible and ultraviolet light observations.

The crew also reported back on the value of exercise in orbit. International Space Station astronauts typically do two hours a day; the Skylab astronauts did several types for 1.5 hours. Equipment they used included a bicycle ergometer and a treadmill. They did long-term observations of the Earth and the Sun (at a time when there were few space-based observations of our closest star.) Pogue also performed two spacewalks, accumulating 13 hours and 31 minutes of experience “outside.”

Pogue, a veteran of the Korean war and past USAF Thunderbird member, had extensive experience in both American, British and Czech aircraft before being selected as one of a group of 19 astronauts in April 1966, just before the Apollo moon program started. He was a member of the astronaut support crews for Apollos 7, 11 and 14 and was supposed to head to the moon himself on Apollo 19 before that flight was cancelled. Pogue left NASA in 1977, four years before the shuttle program began, and worked as an aerospace consultant.

Skylab: NASA Commemorates 40th Anniversary of America’s First Space Station – Photo Gallery/Broadcast

View of NASA’s Skylab Orbital Workshop in Earth orbit as photographed during departure of its last astronaut crew on Slylab 4 mission for the return home in Apollo capsule.
Credit: NASA
See photo gallery below
Watch the recorded NASA Skylab 40th Anniversary discussion on YouTube – below[/caption]

Skylab was America’s first space station. The massive orbital workshop was launched unmanned to Earth orbit 40 years ago on May 14, 1973 atop the last of NASA’s Saturn V rockets that successfully lofted American’s astronauts on the historic lunar landings of the Apollo-era.

Three manned Apollo crews comprising three astronauts each ultimately lived and worked and conducted groundbreaking science experiments aboard Skylab for a total of 171 days from May 1973 to February 1974. Skylab paved the way for long duration human spaceflight and the ISS (International Space Station)

On May 13, NASA commemorated the 40th anniversary of Skylab’s liftoff with a special roundtable discussion broadcast live on NASA TV. The event started at 2:30 PM EDT and originated from NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. Participants included Skylab and current ISS astronauts and NASA human spaceflight managers.

Watch the recorded NASA Skylab 40th Anniversary briefing on YouTube – below.

The Skylab project was hugely successful in accomplishing some 300 science experiments despite suffering a near death crisis in its first moments.

Shortly after blastoff of the Saturn V from Launch Complex 39A the station was severely crippled when launch vibrations completely ripped off one of the stations two side mounted power generating solar panels.

The micrometeoroid shield that protected the orbiting lab from intense solar heating was also torn away and lost. This caused the workshop’s internal temperatures to skyrocket to an uninhabitable temperature of 52 degrees Celsius (126 degrees F).

Furthermore, a piece of the shield had wrapped around the other solar panel which prevented its deployment, starving the station of desperately required electrical power.

View of crippled Skylab complex during ‘fly around’ by the first crew shows missing  micrometeoroid shield and stuck solar panel which luckily was not ripped off during launch. Credit: NASA
View of crippled Skylab complex during ‘fly around’ by the first crew shows missing micrometeoroid shield and stuck solar panel which luckily was not ripped off during launch. Credit: NASA

All nine astronauts that worked on Skylab were launched on the smaller Saturn 1B rocket from Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center.

The launch of the first crew was delayed by 10 days while teams of engineers at NASA devised a rescue plan to save the station. Engineers also ‘rolled’ Skylab to an attitude that minimized the unrelenting solar baking.

Owen Garriott Performs a Spacewalk During Skylab 3 Astronaut Owen Garriott performs a spacewalk at the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) of the Skylab space station cluster in Earth orbit, photographed with a hand-held 70mm Hasselblad camera. Garriott had just deployed the Skylab Particle Collection S149 Experiment. The experiment was mounted on one of the ATM solar panels. The purpose of the S149 experiment was to collect material from interplanetary dust particles on prepared surfaces suitable for studying their impact phenomena. Earlier during the spacewalk, Garriott assisted astronaut Jack Lousma, Skylab 3 pilot, in deploying the twin pole solar shield.  Credit: NASA
Owen Garriott Performs a Spacewalk During Skylab 3. Garriott performs a spacewalk at the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) of the Skylab space station cluster in Earth orbit, photographed with a hand-held 70mm Hasselblad camera. Garriott had just deployed the Skylab Particle Collection S149 Experiment. The experiment was mounted on one of the ATM solar panels. The purpose of the S149 experiment was to collect material from interplanetary dust particles on prepared surfaces suitable for studying their impact phenomena. Earlier during the spacewalk, Garriott assisted astronaut Jack Lousma, Skylab 3 pilot, in deploying the twin pole solar shield. Credit: NASA

The first crew aboard Skylab 2 launched on May 25, 1973 and successfully carried out three emergency spacewalks that salvaged the station and proved the value of humans in space. They freed the one remaining stuck solar panel and deployed a large fold out parasol sun shade through a science airlock that cooled the lab to a livable temperature of 23.8 degrees C (75 degrees F).

The Skylab 2 crew of Apollo 12 moon walker Charles Conrad, Jr., Paul J. Weitz, and Joseph P. Kerwin spent 28 days and 50 minutes aboard the complex.

The outpost became fully operational on June 4, 1973 allowing all three crews to fully carry out hundreds of wide ranging science experiments involving Earth observations and resources studies, solar astronomy and biomedical studies on human adaption to zero gravity.

The second crew launched on the Skylab 3 mission on July 28, 1973. They comprised Apollo 12 moon walker Alan L. Bean, Jack R. Lousma and Owen K. Garriott and spent 59 days and 11 hours aboard the orbiting outpost. They conducted three EVAs totaling 13 hours, 43 minutes and deployed a larger and more stable sun shade.

The 3rd and last crew launched on Skylab 4 on Nov. 16, 1973. Astronauts Gerald P. Carr, William R. Pogue, Edward G. Gibson spent 84 days in space. Their science observations included Comet Kohoutek. They conducted four EVAs totaling 22 hours, 13 minutes.

Skylab was the size of a 3 bedroom house and far more spacious then the tiny Apollo capsules. The complex was 86.3 ft (26.3 m) long and 24.3 ft (7.4 m) in diameter. It weighed 169,950 pounds.

“Skylab took the first step of Americans living in space and doing useful science above the atmosphere at wavelengths not possible on the ground and for long duration periods,” said astronaut Owen Garriot, science pilot, Skylab 3.

Skylab was also the first time student experiments flew into space – for example the spiders ‘Anita and Arabella’ – and later led to a many educational initiatives and programs and innovative ideas.

The Skylab project taught NASA many lessons in designing and operating the ISS, said NASA astronaut Kevin Ford who was the Commander of the recently completed Expedition 34.

NASA had hoped to revisit Skylab with Space Shuttle crews in the late 1970’s. But the massive lab’s orbit degraded faster than expected and Skylab prematurely plummeted back to Earth and disintegrated on July 11, 1979.

See a photo gallery of views from the Skylab missions herein.

Be sure to follow today’s (May 13) undocking of the ISS Expedition 35 crew (Commander ‘extraordinaire’ Chris Hadfield, Tom Marshburn and Roman Romanenko) and return to Earth tonight aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule.

The ISS is a fantastic measure of just have far we have come in space since Skylab – with the US and Russia peacefully cooperating to accomplish far more than each can do alone.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about NASA missions, Mars, Antares and Curiosity at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentation:

June 12: “Send your Name to Mars” and “Antares Rocket Launch from Virginia”; Franklin Institute and Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, Philadelphia, PA, 8 PM.

Skylab 3 crew photographs Skylab space station with dramatic Earth backdrop during rendezvous and docking maneuvers in 1973.  Credit: NASA
Skylab 3 crew photographs Skylab space station with dramatic Earth backdrop during rendezvous and docking maneuvers in 1973. Credit: NASA
Undergoing a Dental Exam in Space Skylab 2 commander Pete Conrad undergoes a dental examination by medical officer Joseph Kerwin in the Skylab Medical Facility. In the absence of an examination chair, Conrad simply rotated his body to an upside down position to facilitate the procedure. Credit: NASA
Undergoing a Dental Exam in Space Skylab 2 commander Pete Conrad undergoes a dental examination by medical officer Joseph Kerwin in the Skylab Medical Facility. In the absence of an examination chair, Conrad simply rotated his body to an upside down position to facilitate the procedure. Credit: NASA
Skylab program patch
Skylab program patch

Bizarre Video: China’s Tiangong 1 Space Lab Animation set to ‘America the Beautiful’ Soundtrack


The Guardian newspaper in England is reporting that China’s state run television, CCTV, and China’s space agency released a video animation of the just launched Tiangong 1 miniature space station showing extensive footage of rendezvous and docking maneuvers in Earth orbit that is inexplicably set to the tune of “America the Beautiful”, a patriotic hymn that many American’s regard as a second, unofficial national anthem. Watch the YouTube video above and decide yourself.

The Guardian writes; “While China’s leaders were celebrating the triumphant launch of Tiangong-1 space lab on Thursday (Sept 29) , viewers of state television footage [CCTV] were treated to a bizarre choice of soundtrack: America the Beautiful”.

Selecting “America the Beautiful’ for the Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace 1) launch sound track seems rather questionable, says the Guardian, and it’s hard to tell if this was choice was intentional or an error by the propaganda department

“Is this the work of an idealist seeking to usher in a new era of trans-Pacific co-operation, a nationalist who wants to colonise American culture as well as outer space, or simply a propaganda gaffe?” – wrote the Guardian

A CCTV official quoted by the Guardian could not offer any clarification.

“I don’t know how to answer your question,” Chen Zhansheng of the CCTV propaganda department said. “I cannot help you.”

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The CCTV website states that the animation was provided by the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center and provides a detailed description. Since the Guardian’s story, the animation has been deleted by CCTV.

The animation itself begins with a simulated launch of Tiangong-1 aboard the Long March 2F rocket and then shows the upcoming rendezvous and docking sequence with the Shenzhou-8 unmanned capsule that is set to launch in early November

Two days after blastoff of Shenzhou-8, it will complete China’s first rendezvous and docking in space. After about 12 days, the two spacecraft are due to uncouple.

China will then attempt another docking to gain more practice ahead of the launch of two manned Shenzhou capsules scheduled for 2012 (Shenzhou-9 and 10) with crews of two or three Chinese astronauts, one of whom may be a woman.

Check this action packed alternate version I found, in Chinese, which is set to different music and with even more extensive animation of the Tiangong 1/Shenzhou-8 joint mission.

One thing absolutely clear is that China is aggressively pushing forward with its manned space program, while the US space program retrenches due to continual budget cutbacks.

China plans to orbit a 60 ton, 3 module manned space station by 2020, about the time when the lifetime of the ISS may be coming to an end, unless the international partners agree to fund an extension of its orbital research activities.

The Chinese space station would be about the size of America’s first space station – Skylab.

In the meantime, officials at the Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center report that they continue adjusting the orbit of the 10 meter long Tiangong-1 space lab module.

Read Ken’s related features about Tiangong 1
China Blasts First Space Lab Tiangong 1 to Orbit
China set to ‘Leap Forward in Space’ as Tiangong 1 Rolls to Launch Pad

China set to ‘Leap Forward in Space’ as Tiangong 1 Rolls to Launch Pad

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China’s human spaceflight program is gearing up to take a highly significant “Leap forward in Space” after their “Tiangong 1” prototype space station was rolled out to the remote Gobi desert launch pad at the countries Jiuquan Satellite Launching Center in Gansu Province in anticipation of blastoff sometime this week.

Space officials from the Chinese Manned Space Engineering Office have now confirmed that liftoff of the 8.5 ton Tiangong 1 human rated module atop a Long March CZ-IIF booster rocket is slated to take place during a launch window that extends from Sept. 27 to Sept. 30. The launch was delayed a few days after the recent launch failure of a similar Chinese rocket, the Long March IIC.

China’s burgeoning space efforts come directly on the heels of the voluntary US shutdown of the Space Shuttle program, thereby dismantling all US capability to launch humans into space from American soil for several years until about 2014 at a minimum.

The US manned spaceflight capability gap will be stretched out even further if NASA’s budget for commercial space taxis and the newly proposed SLS launch system is cut by political leaders in Washington, DC.

The integrated Tiangong 1 spacecraft and CZ-2F launch vehicle combination is slowly rolling out of the VAB facility

On Sept. 20, the integrated Long March rocket and Tiangong module were wheeled out of China’s VAB while sitting on top of the Mobile Launch Platform and transferred to the launch gantry at Jiuguan.

The goal of the Tiangong 1 mission is to carry out China’s first human spaceflight related rendezvous and docking mission and to demonstrate that Chinese space engineers have mastered the complicated technology required for a successful outcome.

These skills are akin in complexity to NASA’s Gemini manned program of the 1960’s which paved the way for NASA’s Apollo missions and led directly to the first manned landing on the moon in 1969 by Apollo 11.

Chinas stated goal is to construct a 60 ton Skylab sized space station in earth orbit by 2020.

Check out this CCTV video for further details and imagery of the Chinese space hardware which shows the how China will expand the reach and influence of their space program.

View this Chinese video from NDTV for a glimpse at Chinas long range Space Station plans.

The 40 foot long Tiangong 1 space platform is unmanned and will serve as the docking target for China’s manned Shenzhou capsules in a series of stepping stone learning flights. It is solar powered and equipped to operate in a man-tended mode for short duration missions and in an unmanned mode over the long term.

The initial rendezvous and docking mission will be conducted by the Shenzhou 8 spacecraft, which will fly in an unmanned configuration for the first docking test. Shenzhou 8 is scheduled to soar to space before the end of 2011.

If successful, China plans to quickly follow up with the launch of two manned Shenzhou flights to dock at Tiangong 1 during 2012 – namely Shenzhou 9 & Shenzhou 10.

The multi astronaut chinese crews would float into Tiangong 1 and remain on board for a short duration period of a few days or weeks. The crew would conduct medical, space science and technology tests and experiments.

China’s first female astronaut may be selected to fly as a crew member on one of the two Shenzhou flights in 2012.

Meanwhile, all American astronauts will be completely dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule for trips to the International Space Station. Russia is still working to correct the third stage malfunction which doomed the recent Progress cargo resupply launch and put a halt to Soyuz launches.

Engineers and technicians are in the process of checking out all Tiangong 1 systems and preliminary weather reports from Chinese media appear favorable for launch.

Shenzhou 8 has also been delivered to the Jinquan launch complex for check out of all systems

Get set for China’s attempt at a ‘Space Spectacular’

The integrated Tiangong 1 spacecraft and CZ-2F combination is transferring to the launch site

Opportunity Surpasses 30 KM Driving and Snaps Skylab Crater in 3 D

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With her most recent drive of 482 feet (146.8 meters) on June 1, 2011 (Sol 2614), NASA’s Opportunity Mars Rover has zoomed past the unimaginable 30 kilometer (18,64 miles) mark in total odometry since safely landing on Mars nearly seven and one half years ago on Jan 24, 2004. That’s 50 times beyond the roughly quarter mile of roving distance initially forseen.

Opportunity is now 88 months into the original 3 month mission “warranty” planned by NASA and the rover team. That’s over 29 times beyond the original design lifetime and an achievement that no one on the rover teams ever expected to observe.

And Opportunity is still going strong, in good health and has abundant solar power as she continues driving on her ambitious overland trek across the martian plains of Meridiani Planum. She is heading to the giant Endeavour crater, some 22 km (14 miles) in diameter.

Opportunity snaps Skylab Crater in 3 D during approach to Endeavour Crater
This stereo view of Skylab Crater was captured by Opportunity on Mars on Sol 2594, or May 12, 2011, along the rovers route to giant Endeavour Crater. This young crater is about 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter.and was likely formed within the past 100,000 years. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

At this point Endeavour is barely 2 miles (3.5 km) away since Opportunity departed from Santa Maria Crater in March 2011. Landfall at Endeavour is expected sometime later this year.

Endeavour is a long awaited and long sought science target because it is loaded with phyllosilicate clay minerals. These clays have never before been studied and analyzed first hand on the red planets surface.

Opportunity snaps Skylab Crater in 2 D during approach to Endeavour Crater
This view of Skylab Crater was captured by Opportunity’s navigation camera on Mars on Sol 2594, or May 12, 2011, along the rovers route to giant Endeavour Crater. This young crater is about 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter. The blocks of material ejected from the crater-digging impact sit on top of the sand ripples near the crater. This suggests, from the estimated age of the area's sand ripples, that the crater was formed within the past 100,000 years. The dark sand inside the crater attests to the mobility of fine sand in the recent era in this Meridiani Planum region of Mars. The rover view spans 216 degrees from northwest on the right to south on the right. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Phyllosilicate clays formed in neutral watery environments, which are much more conducive to the formation of life compared to the highly acidic environments studied up to now by Spirit and Opportunity. NASA’s Curiosity rover is due to land on Mars in 2012 at a site the science team believes is rich in Phyllosilicates.

In recent weeks, Opportunity has passed by a series and small young craters as she speeds to Endeavour as fast as possible. One such crater is named “Skylab”, in honor of America’s first manned Space Station, launched in 1973.

Now whip out your 3 D glasses and check out NASA’s newly released stereo images of “Skylab” and another named “Freedom 7” in honor of Alan Shepard’s flight as the first American in space. Be sure to also view Opportunity’s dance steps in 3 D performed to aid backwards driving maneuvers on the Red planet

Freedom 7 Crater on Mars 50 Years after Freedom 7 Flight
Opportunity recorded this stereo view of a crater informally named Freedom 7 shortly before the 50th anniversary of the first American in space: astronaut Alan Shepard's flight in the Freedom 7 spacecraft on May 5, 1961. Opportunity took this image on Sol 2585 on Mars on May 2, 2011. The crater is about 25 meters (82 feet) in diameter. It is the largest of a cluster of about eight craters all formed just after an impactor broke apart in the Martian atmosphere perhaps 200,000 years ago. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Skylab” is about 9 meters (30 feet) in diameter. The positions of the scattered rocks relative to sand ripples suggest that Skylab is young for a Martian crater. Researchers estimate it was excavated by an impact within the past 100,000 years.

“Freedom 7” crater is about 25 meters (82 feet) in diameter. During her long overland expedition, Opportunity is examining many craters of diverse ages at distant locales to learn more about the past history of Mars and how impact craters have changed over time.

Opportunity was just positioned at a newly found rock outcrop named “Valdivia” and analyzing it with the robotic arm instruments including the Microscopic Imager and the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS).

Opportunity leaves dance step on Mars
A dance-step pattern is visible in the wheel tracks near the left edge of this scene recorded in stereo by the navigation camera during Sol 2554 on Mars (April 1, 2011). The pattern comes from use of a new technique for Opportunity to autonomously check for hazards in its way while driving backwards. For scale, the distance between the parallel tracks of the left and right wheels is about 1 meter (about 40 inches). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Skylab, America’s First manned Space Station
Photo taken by departing Skylab 4 crew in Feb. 1974. Credit: NASA