NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly Returns from a Historic Year in Space on Station

NASA astronaut and Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly and his Russian counterpart Mikhail Kornienko enjoy the cold fresh air back on Earth after their historic 340-day mission aboard the International Space Station.  Credits: NASA TV
NASA astronaut and Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly and his Russian counterpart Mikhail Kornienko enjoy the cold fresh air back on Earth after their historic 340-day mission aboard the International Space Station. Credits: NASA TV

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly and his Russian cohort Mikhail Kornienko successful returned to Earth late Tuesday night (March 1), after spending nearly a year in space aboard the space station on a mission to gauge the limits of human endurance in microgravity and blaze a path forward to eventual human expeditions to the Red Planet.

After boarding their Russian Soyuz capsule, Kelly and Kornienko along with the third member of their crew Russian cosmonaut Sergey Volkov safely landed in Kazakhstan at 11:26 p.m. EST (10:26 a.m. March 2 Kazakhstan time). Continue reading “NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly Returns from a Historic Year in Space on Station”

Gorgeous Views of Earth from Space Ring in New Year 2016 From the Space Station and Beyond

Earth from GOES East

Happy New Year 2016 from the International Space Station (ISS) and Beyond!

Behold Earth ! Courtesy of our Human and Robotic emissaries to the High Frontier we can ring in the New Year by reveling in gorgeous new views of our beautiful Home Planet taken from the space station and beyond. Continue reading “Gorgeous Views of Earth from Space Ring in New Year 2016 From the Space Station and Beyond”

Congressional Slashes to NASA Commercial Crew Force Bolden to ‘Buy Russian’ rather than ‘Buy American’

In the face of drastic funding cuts by the US Congress to NASA’s commercial crew program (CCP) aimed at restoring America’s indigenous launch capability to fly our astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is being forced to spend another half a billion dollars for seats on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft instead of astronaut transport ships built by American workers in American manufacturing facilities.

The end effect of significantly slashing NASA’s Fiscal 2016 commercial crew budget request by both the US Senate and the US House is to tell NASA to ‘Buy Russian’ rather than to ‘Buy American.’

The $490 million of US taxpayer dollars will pay for six astronaut seats on the Soyuz manned capsule in 2018 and 2019 – that are now required due to uncertainty over whether the pair of new crewed transporters being built by Boeing and SpaceX for NASA will actually be available in 2017 as planned.

Furthermore the average cost per seat under the new contract with Russia rises to $81.7 million compared to about $76 million for the most recent contract, an increase of about 7 percent.

In response to the Congressional CCP budget cuts, NASA Administrator Bolden sent a letter notifying Congressional lawmakers about the agency’s new contract modifications with the Russian space agency about future crewed flights to the space station.

“I am writing to inform you that NASA, once again, has modified its current contract with the Russian government to meet America’s requirements for crew transportation services. Under this contract modification, the cost of these services to the U.S. taxpayers will be approximately $490 million,” Bolden wrote in an Aug. 5 letter to the leaders of the House and Senate committees responsible for deciding NASA’s funding.

The budget situation is completely inexplicable given the relentless pressure from Congress, led be Sen. John McCain, on the Department of Defense and US aerospace firm United Launch Alliance (ULA) to stop purchasing and using the Russian-made RD-180 engines for the 100% reliable Atlas V rocket by 2019 – as a way to punish Russian’s President Vladimir Putin and his allies.

Because on the other hand, those same congressional ‘leaders’ clearly have no hesitation whatsoever in putting money into Putin’s allies pockets via the NASA commercial crew account – at the expense of jobs for American workers and while simultaneously potentially endangering the ISS as a hedge against possible Russian launch failures. Multiple Russian and American rockets have suffered launch failures over the past year.

Boeing and SpaceX were awarded contracts by NASA Administrator Bolden in September 2014 worth $6.8 Billion to complete the development and manufacture of their privately developed CST-100 and Crew Dragon astronaut transporters under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The purpose of CCP is to end our “sole reliance” on the Russian Soyuz capsule and launch US astronauts on US rockets and spaceships from US soil by 2017.

With CCP we would continue to work cooperatively with the Russians to everyone’s benefit – but not be totally dependent on them.

Under NASA’s CCtCAP contract, the first orbital flights of the new ‘space taxis’ launching our astronauts to the International Space Station had been slated to blastoff in 2017. But that schedule was entirely dependent on NASA’s ability to pay both aerospace companies as they made progress on completing the contacted milestones absolutely critical to achieving flight status.

Bolden had already notified Congress in February that the new contract modification would become necessary if Congress failed to fully fund the CCP program to enable the 2017 flights.

Since the forced retirement of NASA’s trio of shuttle orbiters in 2011, all American and ISS partner astronauts have been forced to hitch a ride on the Soyuz for flights to the ISS and back.

“Our plans to return launches to American soil make fiscal sense,” Bolden said recently. “It currently costs $76 million per astronaut to fly on a Russian spacecraft. On an American-owned spacecraft, the average cost will be $58 million per astronaut.”

Instead, the Obama Administrations 2016 request for commercial crew (CCP) amounting to $1.244 Billion was dealt another blow, and slashed to only $900 million and $1.0 Billion by the Senate and House committees respectively.

Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2017. Credit: NASA
Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2017. Credit: NASA

And this is just the latest in a lengthy string of cuts by Congress – which has not fully funded the Administration’s CCP funding requests, since its inception in 2010.

The budget significant budget slashes amounting to 50% or more by Congress, have already forced NASA to delay the first commercial crew flights of the private ‘space taxis’ from 2015 to 2017.

“Due to their continued reductions in the president’s funding requests for the agency’s Commercial Crew Program over the past several years, NASA was forced to extend its existing contract with the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) to transport American astronauts to the International Space Station. This contract modification is valued at about $490 million,” said NASA.

So the net effect of Congressional CCP cuts has been to prolong US sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz manned capsule at a cost to the US taxpayers of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Indeed, given the crisis in Ukraine and recent Russian launch failures, one might think the Congress would eagerly embrace wanting to reduce our total dependence on the Russians for human spaceflight.

“Unfortunately, for five years now, the Congress, while incrementally increasing annual funding, has not adequately funded the Commercial Crew Program to return human spaceflight launches to American soil this year, as planned,” Bolden’s letter explains.

“This has resulted in continued sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft as our crew transport vehicle for American and international partner crews to the ISS.”

“In 2010, I presented to Congress a plan to partner with American industry to return launches to the United States by 2015 if provided the requested level of funding.”

So if Congress had funded the commercial crew program, the US would have launched its first human crews on the CST-100 and crew Dragon to the ISS this year – 2015.

NASA has selected experienced astronauts Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Douglas Hurley and Sunita Williams to work closely with The Boeing Company and SpaceX to develop their crew transportation systems and provide crew transportation services to and from the International Space Station.  Credits: NASA
NASA has selected experienced astronauts Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Douglas Hurley and Sunita Williams to work closely with The Boeing Company and SpaceX to develop their crew transportation systems and provide crew transportation services to and from the International Space Station. Credits: NASA

Bolden also repeated his request to work with the leaders of Congress in the best interests of our country.

“I am asking that we put past disagreements behind us and focus our collective efforts on support for American industry – the Boeing Corporation and SpaceX – to complete construction and certification of their crew vehicles so that we can begin launching our crews from the Space Coast of Florida in 2017.”

Currently, both Boeing and SpaceX are on track to meet the 2017 objective – but only if the CCP funds are restored.

Otherwise the contracts will have to be renegotiated and progress will be severely reduced – all at added cost. Another instance of pennywise and pound foolish.

“Our Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contractors are on track today to provide certified crew transportation systems in 2017,” says Bolden.

“Reductions from the FY 2016 request for Commercial Crew proposed in the House and Senate FY 2016 Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies appropriations bills would result in NASA’s inability to fund several planned CCtCap milestones in FY 2016 and would likely result in funds running out for both contractors during the spring/summer of FY 2016.”

“If this occurs, the existing fixed-price CCtCap contracts may need to be renegotiated, likely resulting in further schedule slippage and increased cost.”

Overall, it’s just a terrible state of affairs for the future of US human spaceflight, as Congress once again places partisan politics ahead of the interests of the American people.

The fact is that the commercial crew space taxis from Boeing and SpaceX are the fastest, cheapest and most efficient pathway to get our astronaut crews to the Earth orbiting space station and back.

Common sense says we must restore our independent path to the ISS – safely and as quickly as possible.

SpaceX and Boeing are building the private crew Dragon and CST-100 spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil aboard Falcon 9 and Atlas V rockets (similar to these) to the International Space Station in 2017 - depending on funding from Congress. Credit:  Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX and Boeing are building the private crew Dragon and CST-100 spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil aboard Falcon 9 and Atlas V rockets (similar to these) to the International Space Station in 2017 – depending on funding from Congress. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

How Do Astronauts Avoid Debris?

So, just how do we keep our space stations, ships and astronauts from being riddled with holes from all of the space junk in orbit around Earth?

We revel in the terror grab bag of all the magical ways to get snuffed in space. Almost as much as we celebrate the giant brass backbones of the people who travel there.

We’ve already talked about all the scary ways that astronauts can die in space. My personal recurring “Hail Mary full of grace, please don’t let me die in space” nightmare is orbital debris.

We’re talking about a vast collection of spent rockets, dead satellites, flotsam, jetsam, lagan and derelict. It’s not a short list. NASA figures there are 21,000 bits of junk bigger than 10 cm, 500,000 particles between 1 and 10 cm, and more than 100 million smaller than 1 cm. Sound familiar, humans? This is our high tech, sci fi great Pacific garbage patch.

Sure, a tiny rivet or piece of scrap foil doesn’t sound very dangerous, but consider the fact that astronauts are orbiting the Earth at a velocity of about 28,000 km/h. And the Tang packets, uneaten dehydrated ice cream, and astronaut poops are also traveling at 28,000 km/h. Then think about what happens when they collide. Yikes… or yuck.

Here’s the International Space Station’s solar array. See that tiny hole? Embiggen and clarinosticate! That’s a tiny puncture hole made in the array by a piece of orbital crap.

The whole station is pummeled by tiny pieces of space program junk drawer contents. Back when the Space Shuttle was flying, NASA had to constantly replace their windows because of the damage they were experiencing from the orbital equivalent of Dennis the Menace hurling paint chips, fingernail clippings, and frozen scabs.

That’s just little pieces of paint. What can NASA do to keep Sandra Bullock safe from the larger, more dangerous chunks that could tear the station a new entry hatch?

For starters, NASA and the US Department of Defense are constantly tracking as much of the orbital debris that they can. They know the position of every piece of debris larger than a softball. Which I think, as far as careers go, would be grossly underestimated for its coolness and complexity at a cocktail party.

Artist's impression of debris in low Earth orbit. Credit: ESA
Artist’s impression of debris in low Earth orbit. Credit: ESA

“What do you do for a living?”
“Me, oh, I’m part of the program which tracks orbital debris to keep astronauts safe.”
“So…you track our space garbage?”
“Uh, actually, never mind, I’m an accountant.”

Furthermore, they’re tracking everything in low Earth orbit – where the astronauts fly – down to a size of 5 cm. That’s 21,000 discrete objects.

NASA then compares the movements of all these objects and compares it to the position of the Space Station. If there’s any risk of a collision, NASA takes preventative measures and moves the Space Station to avoid the debris.

The ISS has thrusters of its own, but it can also use the assistance of spacecraft which are docked to it at the time, such as a Russian Soyuz capsule.

NASA is ready to make these maneuvers at a moment’s notice if necessary, but often they’ll have a few days notice, and give the astronauts time to prepare. Plus, who doesn’t love a close call?

For example, in some alerts, the astronauts have gotten into their Soyuz escape craft, ready to abandon the Station if there’s a catastrophic impact. And if they have even less warning, the astronauts have to just hunker down in some of the Station’s more sturdy regions and wait out the debris flyby.

The Iridium constellation - a robust satellite network (Iridium)
The Iridium constellation – a robust satellite network (Iridium)

This isn’t speculation and overcautious nannying on NASA’s part. In 2009 an Iridium communications satellite was smashed by a dead Russian Kosmos-2251 military satellite. The collision destroyed both satellites instantly. As icing on this whirling, screaming metallic orbital-terror-cake, it added 2,000 new chunks of debris to the growing collection.

Most material was in a fairly low orbit, and much of it has already been slowed down by the Earth’s atmosphere and burned up.

This wasn’t the first time two star-crossed satellites with a love that could-not-be had a shrapnel fountain suicide pact, and I promise it won’t be the last. Each collision adds to the total amount of debris in orbit, and increases the risk of a run-away cascade of orbital collisions.

We should never underestimate the bravery and commitment of astronauts. They strap themselves to massive explosion tubes and weather the metal squalls of earth orbit in tiny steel life-rafts. So, would you be willing to risk all that debris for a chance to fly in orbit? Tell us in the comments below.

Weekly Space Hangout – June 12, 2015: Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassadors Program

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest: This week we welcome Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassadors Program Participants:
Michael Prokosch (Seeing Stars Blog, [email protected])
Tim Spuck ([email protected])
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein / briankoberlein.com)
Vivian White ([email protected]).

Guests:
Jolene Creighton (@jolene723 / fromquarkstoquasars.com)
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein / briankoberlein.com)
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – June 12, 2015: Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassadors Program”

Record Setting Italian Female Astronaut and ISS Crewmates Land in Sunny Kazakhstan

An international crew comprising a Russian cosmonaut, a US astronaut and an Italian astronaut who accomplished a record setting flight for time in space by a female, departed the International Space Station (ISS) earlier today, June 11, and safely landed in sunny and warm Kazakhstan tucked inside their Russia Soyuz ferry ship after a successful and extended 199-day mission devoted to science and station upgrades.

The multinational trio comprising Expedition 43 Commander Terry Virts of NASA, Flight Engineers Anton Shkaplerov of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and Samantha Cristoforetti of ESA (European Space Agency) undocked from the orbiting outposts Russian Rassvet module as scheduled in the Soyuz TMA-15M spaceship at 6:20 a.m. EDT while soaring some 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Mongolia.

A four-minute 40-second deorbit burn at 8:51 a.m EDT slowed the craft for the fiery reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

The crew touched down just a few hours after undocking at 9:44 a.m. EDT (7:44 p.m., Kazakh time), southeast of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan on the steppes of Kazakhstan, about an hour and a half before sundown in delightfully summer weather. Temperatures today were in the 80s, but they are ‘bone chilling’ in the winter months.

Expedition 43 Commander Terry Virts of NASA, Flight Engineers Anton Shkaplerov of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and Samantha Cristoforetti of ESA (European Space Agency) touched down at 9:44 a.m. EDT (7:44 p.m., Kazakh time), southeast of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan.  Credits: NASA TV
Expedition 43 Commander Terry Virts of NASA, Flight Engineers Anton Shkaplerov of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and Samantha Cristoforetti of ESA (European Space Agency) touched down at 9:44 a.m. EDT (7:44 p.m., Kazakh time), southeast of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan. Credits: NASA TV

The Expedition 43 flight was extended at the last minute due to the surprise launch failure of a Russian rocket carrying a station bound Progress resupply ship in late April.

The Progress 59 cargo vessel, also known as Progress M-27M, spun wildly out of control as it separated from the Soyuz-2.1A carrier rocket. The freighter and all its 2.5 tons of contents fpr the crew were destroyed during an uncontrolled plummet as its crashed back to Earth on May 8.

The Soyuz/Progress 59 failure had far reaching consequences and resulted in a postponement of virtually all Russian crew and cargo flights to the ISS for the remainder of 2015, as announced this week by Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency.

One result is that Cristoforetti now holds the single mission record for a female astronaut, of nearly 200 days.

Expedition 43 was extended by about a month in the wake of the launch failure of the Progress 59 cargo vessel, which quickly cascaded into an extended mission from its originally planned length of about 170 days to 199+ days.

The Soyuz is only certified to stay on orbit for 200 days. So the return home delayed as much as possible to minimize the time when the ISS reverts to only a three person crew – and consequently reduced time for research.

This past weekend on June 6, Cristoforetti surpassed the female astronaut record of 194 days, 18 hours and 2 minutes established by NASA astronaut Sunita Williams on a prior station flight back in 2007.

Cristoforetti, of the European Space Agency (ESA), is on her first ever space flight also counts as she also counts as Italy’s first female astronaut.

The station departure and parachute assisted soft landing was shown during a live webcast on NASA TV.

“The landing was on time and on target after over 199 days in space,” said NASA commentator Rob Navius.

“Everything went by the book for an on target touchdown. The crew is safely back on Earth!”

Flight Engineer Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency in Star Trek uniform as SpaceX Dragon arrives at the International Space Station on April 17, 2015. Credit: NASA
Flight Engineer Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency in Star Trek uniform as SpaceX Dragon arrives at the International Space Station on April 17, 2015. Credit: NASA

In the final stages of the return to Earth, the Soyuz descent module glided down safely using a single mammoth orange and white parachute, aided by braking rockets in the final moments just a few feet above ground.

The Soyuz landed upright, which eased the extraction of the crew. Russian recovery team members hoisted all three up and out from the cramped capsule.

Soyuz commander Anton Shkaplerov was hauled up first, followed by Samantha Cristoforetti and finally Terry Virts.

All three crewmembers were healthy and happy, each signaling their elation with a joyous ‘thumbs up.’

After preliminary medical checks, the crew were flown by helicopter to a staging base at Karaganda. From there they split up. Shkaplerov heads back to Moscow and Star City. Cristoforetti and Virts fly to Mission Control in Houston.

During their time aloft, the crew completed several critical spacewalks, technology demonstrations, and hundreds of scientific experiments spanning multiple disciplines, including human and plant biology,” according to NASA.

Among the research experiments conducted were “participation in the demonstration of new, cutting-edge technologies such as the Synthetic Muscle experiment, a test of a new polymer that contracts and expands similar to real muscle. This technology has the potential for future use on robots, enabling them to perform tasks that require considerable dexterity but are too dangerous to be performed by humans in space.”

“The crew engaged in a number of biological studies, including one investigation to better understand the risks of in-flight infections and another studying the effects microgravity has on bone health during long-duration spaceflight. The Micro-5 study used a small roundworm and a microbe that causes food poisoning in humans to study the risk of infectious diseases in space, which is critical for ensuring crew health, safety and performance during long-duration missions. The Osteo-4 study investigated bone loss in space, which has applications not only for astronauts on long-duration missions, but also for people on Earth affected by osteoporosis and other bone disorders.”

Three cargo flights also arrived at the ISS carrying many tons of essential supplies, research equipment, science experiments, gear, spare parts, food, water, clothing.

The resupply freighters included the Russian Progress in February 2015 as well as two SpaceX Dragon cargo ships on the CRS-5 and CRS-6 flights in January and April.

Expedition 43 commander Terry Virts of NASA, left, cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), center, and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti from European Space Agency (ESA) sit in chairs outside the Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft just minutes after they landed in a remote area near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on Thursday, June 11, 2015. Virtz, Shkaplerov, and Cristoforetti are returning after more than six months onboard the International Space Station where they served as members of the Expedition 42 and 43 crews. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
Expedition 43 commander Terry Virts of NASA, left, cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), center, and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti from European Space Agency (ESA) sit in chairs outside the Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft just minutes after they landed in a remote area near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on Thursday, June 11, 2015. Virts, Shkaplerov, and Cristoforetti are returning after more than six months onboard the International Space Station where they served as members of the Expedition 42 and 43 crews. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

With the return of Virts crew, the new Expedition 44 begins and comprises NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko, the two members of the first “ISS 1 Year Mission” as well as cosmonaut Gennady Padalka.

Padalka now assumes command of the station for a record setting fourth time. And he’ll soon be setting another record. In late June, he will break the all time record for cumulative time in space currently held by cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev of 803 days on six space flights.

When Padalka returns to Earth around September 10 in the Soyuz TMA-16M ship, that brought the 1 Year crew to the ISS, he will have been in space for a grand total of over 877 days over five flights.

The next cargo ferry flight involves NASA’s next contracted unmanned Dragon cargo mission by commercial provider SpaceX on the CRS-7 flight.

Dragon CRS-7 is now slated for liftoff on June 26. Watch for my onsite reports from KSC.

The Dragon will be carrying critical US equipment, known as the International Docking Adapter (IDA), enabling docking by the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing CST-100 astronaut transporters – due for first crewed launches in 2017.

The most recent unmanned Dragon cargo CRS-6 mission concluded with a Pacific Ocean splashdown on May 21.

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 STS-132 as they disembarked. Credit: NASA

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

Ken Kremer

Expedition 43 crews rests post landing  on Thursday, June 11, 2015, Terry Virts of NASA, comprising cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), and record setting Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti from European Space Agency (ESA).  Credit: NASA
Expedition 43 crews rests post landing on Thursday, June 11, 2015, Terry Virts of NASA, comprising cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), and record setting Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti from European Space Agency (ESA). Credit: NASA

Longest Woman Spaceflyer to Return as Russia Reshuffles Station Launches After Rocket Failure

The longest space mission in history by a female astronaut is now set to conclude on Thursday, following Russia’s confirmation of a significant reshuffling of the crew and cargo flight manifest to the International Space Station (ISS) for the remainder of 2015 – all in the wake of the unexpected Russian launch failure of a station bound Progress resupply ship in late April with far reaching consequences.

The record setting flight of approximately 200 days by Italian spaceflyer Samantha Cristoforetti, along with her two Expedition 43 crewmates, will come to an end on Thursday, June 11, when the trio are set to undock and depart the station aboard their Russian Soyuz crew capsule and return back to Earth a few hours later.

NASA TV coverage begins at 6 a.m. EDT on June 11.

Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, officially announced today, June 9, a revamped schedule changing the launch dates of several upcoming crewed launches this year to the Earth orbiting outpost.

Launch dates for the next three Progress cargo flights have also been adjusted.

The next three person ISS crew will now launch between July 23 to 25 on the Soyuz TMA-17M capsule from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The exact timing of the Expedition 44 launch using a Russian Soyuz-FG booster is yet to be determined.

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 STS-132 as they disembarked. Credit: NASA

Soon after the Progress mishap, the Expedition 43 mission was extended by about a month so as to minimize the period when the ISS is staffed by only a reduced crew of three people aboard – since the blastoff of the next crew was simultaneously delayed by Roscosmos by about two months from May to late July.

Indeed Cristoforetti’s endurance record only came about as a result of the very late mission extension ordered by Roscosmos, so the agency could investigate the root cause of the recent launch failure of the Russian Progress 59 freighter that spun wildly out of control soon after blastoff on April 28 on a Soyuz-2.1A carrier rocket.

Roscosmos determined that the Progress failure was caused by an “abnormal separation of the 3rd stage and the cargo vehicle” along with “associated frequency dynamic characteristics.”

The Expedition 43 crew comprising of Cristoforetti, NASA astronaut and current station commander Terry Virts, and Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov had been scheduled to head back home around May 13. The trio have been working and living aboard the complex since November 2014.

The 38-year old Cristoforetti actually broke the current space flight endurance record for a female astronaut during this past weekend on Saturday, June 6, when she eclipsed the record of 194 days, 18 hours and 2 minutes established by NASA astronaut Sunita Williams on a prior station flight back in 2007.

Cristoforetti, of the European Space Agency (ESA), also counts as Italy’s first female astronaut.

The Progress 59 cargo vessel, also known as Progress M-27M, along with all its 2.5 tons of contents were destroyed during an uncontrolled plummet back to Earth on May 8.

NASA astronaut Terry Virts (left) Commander of Expedition 43 on the International Space Station along with crewmates Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov (center) and ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti on May 6, 2015 perform a checkout of their Russian Soyuz spacesuits in preparation for the journey back to Earth - now set for June 11, 2015.  Credits: NASA
NASA astronaut Terry Virts (left) Commander of Expedition 43 on the International Space Station along with crewmates Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov (center) and ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti on May 6, 2015 perform a checkout of their Russian Soyuz spacesuits in preparation for the journey back to Earth – now set for June 11, 2015. Credits: NASA

Roscosmos announced that they are accelerating the planned launch of the next planned Progress 60 (or M-28M) from August 6 up to July 3 on a Soyuz-U carrier rocket, which is different from the problematic Soyuz-2.1A rocket.

Following the Soyuz crew launch in late July, the next Soyuz will blastoff on Sept. 1 for a 10 day taxi mission on the TMA-18M capsule with cosmonaut Sergei Volkov and ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen. After British opera singer Sarah Brightman withdrew from participating as a space tourist, a new third crew member will be named soon by Roscosmos.

The final crewed Soyuz of 2015 with the TMA-19M capsule has been postponed from Nov. 20 to Dec. 15.

Also in the mix is the launch of NASA’s next contracted unmanned Dragon cargo mission by commercial provider SpaceX on the CRS-7 flight. Dragon CRS-7 is now slated for liftoff on June 26. Watch for my onsite reports from KSC.

The most recent unmanned Dragon cargo CRS-6 mission concluded with a Pacific Ocean splashdown on May 21.

The Dragon will be carrying critical US equipment, known as the IDA, enabling docking by the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing CST-100 astronaut transporters – due for first crewed launches in 2017.

ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti enjoys a drink from the new ISSpresso machine. The espresso device allows crews to make tea, coffee, broth, or other hot beverages they might enjoy.  Credit: NASA
ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti enjoys a drink from the new ISSpresso machine. The espresso device allows crews to make tea, coffee, broth, or other hot beverages they might enjoy. Credit: NASA

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka will remain aboard the station after the Virts crew returns to begin Expedition 44.

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

Ken Kremer

Wayward Progress Destroyed During Fiery Plummet, ISS Crew Launches ‘Under Evaluation’

File photo of a Russian Progress cargo freighter. Credit: Roscosmos
Story updated with further details[/caption]

The spinning, out-of-control Russian Progress 59 cargo freighter met its undesired early demise when it fell from orbit early Friday, May 8, and was destroyed during the unplanned fiery plummet through the Earth’s atmosphere.

As a result of the loss of the unmanned Progress 59 spacecraft, which was bound for the International Space Station (ISS) on a routine resupply mission, the timelines of upcoming crew rotations and new launches are “under evaluation” – Universe Today learned according to Russian and American space sources.

The doomed Progress freighter “ceased to exist” after it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere 05.04 Moscow time on May 8, 2015 (10:04 p.m. EDT May 7) over the central Pacific Ocean,” according to an official statement from Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency.

The consequences of the failure might cause “postponements of upcoming station crew changes to June” and blastoffs “to July” according to Russian space industry and media sources.

The vessel, also known as Progress M-27M, burned up minutes later and any surviving pieces fell over the Pacific Ocean.

“Debris fell about 900 kilometers west of the Marquesas Islands in the central Pacific Ocean,” a space industry source told the Russian news agency TASS.

“Roscosmos plans to adjust the program of flights to the International Space Station (ISS) due to the recent accident involving the Progress M-27M spacecraft,” according to the TASS rocket and space industry source.

Roscosmos quickly established an investigation board to determine the cause of the Progress failure and any commonalities it might have with manned launches of the Soyuz rocket and capsule, and report back by 13 May.

“The results of investigation of the incident related to “Progress M-27M” will be presented no later than 13 May following the completion of the state commission,” Roscosmos stated.

Russian mission controllers lost control of the Progress 59 spacecraft shortly after its otherwise successful launch to the ISS on April 28 from the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan atop a Soyuz-2.1A carrier rocket.

Soon after detaching from the rockets third stage, it began to spin out of control at about 1.8 times per second, as seen in a video transmitted from the doomed ship.

After control could not be reestablished, all hope of docking with the ISS was abandoned by Roscosmos.

NASA officials said that the current ISS Expedition 43 six person crew is in no danger. The station has sufficient supplies to last until at least September, even if no other supplies arrive in the meantime.

“The spacecraft was not carrying any supplies critical for the United States Operating Segment (USOS) of the station, and the break up and reenty of the Progress posed no threat to the ISS crew,” NASA said in a statement.

“Both the Russian and USOS segments of the station continue to operate normally and are adequately supplied well beyond the next planned resupply flight.”

There is a stock of propellants onboard in the Russian segment that can be used for periodically required station reboosts.

According to TASS, “the cause of the accident with the Russian Progress M-27M spacecraft has not been established yet, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told journalists on Friday.”

“Not yet,” he said, answering a question on whether causes of the accident had been established.

File photo of a Russian Progress cargo freighter. Credit: Roscosmos
File photo of a Russian Progress cargo freighter. Credit: Roscosmos

Because the cause of Progress failure is not yet clear, the schedules for upcoming crew departures and launches to the ISS via Russian Soyuz rockets and capsules are “under evaluation,” according to sources.

There is a significant potential for a delay in the planned May 13 return to Earth of the three person crew international crew consisting of NASA astronaut and current station commander Terry Virts and flight engineers Samantha Cristoforetti of ESA (European Space Agency) and Anton Shkaplerov of Roscosmos, who have been aboard the complex since November 2014.

They comprise the current Expedition 43 crew, along with the recently arrived crew of NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka who launched onboard a Soyuz capsule on March 27.

Kelly and Kornienko comprise the first ever “1 Year ISS Crew.”

Virts and his crewmates were due to head back to Earth in their Soyuz capsule on May 13. According to Russian sources, their return trip may be postponed to about June 11 to 13.

“The return from orbit of the expedition which is currently there is suggested to be postponed from May 14 to June,” said a TASS source.

Their three person replacement crew on Expedition 44 were due to blastoff on the next planned manned Soyuz launch on May 26 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. This launch may now be delayed as well, to mid or late July.

“More time will be needed to check already manufactured rockets,” said a source. “A manned Soyuz launch may be made in the last ten days of July.”

“The proposal was forwarded by a Roscosmos working group and has not been approved yet,” reports TASS.

An official announcement by Roscosmos of any ISS schedule changes may come next week since the scheduled return of Virts crew is only days away.

Another potential change is that the launch of the next unmanned Progress 60 (M-28M), could potentially be moved up from August to July, hinging on the outcome of the state commission investigation.

To date flights of the Progress vehicle have been highly reliable. The last failure occurred in 2011, shortly after the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiters in July 2011. The loss of the Progress did cascade into a subsequent crew launch delay later in 2011.

"There's coffee in that nebula"... ehm, I mean... in that #Dragon.  Engineer Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency in Star Trek uniform as Dragon arrives at the International Space Station on April 17, 2015. Credit: NASA
“There’s coffee in that nebula”… ehm, I mean… in that #Dragon. Engineer Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency in Star Trek uniform as Dragon arrives at the International Space Station on April 17, 2015. Credit: NASA

The 7 ton Progress vehicle was loaded with 2.5 tons of supplies for the ISS and the six person Expedition 43 crew. Items included personal mail for the crew, scientific equipment, food, water, oxygen, gear and replaceable parts for the station’s life support systems.

The next SpaceX Falcon 9 launch carrying the CRS-7 Dragon cargo ship on a resupply mission for NASA to the ISS is slated for mid-June. The most recent SpaceX Dragon was launched on the CRS-6 mission on April 14, 2015.

At this time the SpaceX CRS-7 launch remains targeted for liftoff on June 19, 2015.

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT  on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Weekly Space Hangout – May 1, 2015: Prof. Coel Hellier, WASP & SuperWASP

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)
Special Guest: Prof. Coel Hellier, Professor of Astrophysics at Keele University, UK, to talk about WASP & SuperWASP.

Guests:
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – May 1, 2015: Prof. Coel Hellier, WASP & SuperWASP”

Year in Space Flight for Russian/American Crew Starts With Spectacular Night Launch and Station Docking

The first ever ‘One-Year Mission’ to the International Space Station (ISS) started with a bang today, March 27, with the spectacular night time launch of the Russian/American crew from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 3:42 p.m. EDT Friday (1:42 a.m., March 28 in Baikonur and culminated with a flawless docking this evening.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka launched aboard a Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft to the International Space Station precisely on time today on the Expedition 43 mission.

The crew rocketed to orbit from the same pad as Russia’s Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space.

Kelly and Kornienko will spend about a year living and working aboard the space station on the marathon mission. Padalka will remain on board for six months.

Streak shot of Expedition 43 Launch to the ISS on March 27 Eastern time, (March 28, 2015, Kazakh time)  from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with Scott Kelly, Mikhail Kornienko, and Gennady Padalka to start one-year ISS mission. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Streak shot of Expedition 43 Launch to the ISS on March 27 Eastern time, (March 28, 2015, Kazakh time) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with Scott Kelly, Mikhail Kornienko, and Gennady Padalka to start one-year ISS mission. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The goal is to use the massive orbiting outpost to provide critical knowledge to NASA and researchers hoping to better understand how the human body reacts and adapts to long-duration spaceflight and the harsh environment of space.

The pathfinding mission is about double the normal time of most expeditions to the Earth orbiting space station, which normally last four to six months.

The one-year mission is among the first concrete steps to start fulfilling NASA’s “Journey to Mars” objective of sending “Humans to Mars” in the 2030s.

“Scott Kelly’s mission is critical to advancing the administration’s plan to send humans on a journey to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in a statement.

“We’ll gain new, detailed insights on the ways long-duration spaceflight affects the human body.”

Year in Space Begins With Soyuz Launch.  Media photograph the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft as it launches to the ISS with Expedition 43 NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) onboard at 3:42 p.m. EDT Friday, March 27, 2015 (March 28 Kazakh time) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Year in Space Begins With Soyuz Launch. Media photograph the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft as it launches to the ISS with Expedition 43 NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) onboard at 3:42 p.m. EDT Friday, March 27, 2015 (March 28 Kazakh time) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

This evening the three man international crew successfully rendezvous and docked at the ISS at the Poisk module at 9:33 p.m. EDT – just four orbits and six hours after liftoff.

‘Contact and capture confirmed, 1 year crew has arrived,’ said the NASA launch commentator Don Huot. “The one-year crew has arrived.”

“Soyuz is firmly attached to the ISS.”

Soyuz spacecraft on final approach to dock with the ISS for #YearInSpace mission. Credit: NASA
Soyuz spacecraft on final approach to dock with the ISS for #YearInSpace mission. Credit: NASA

Docking took place about 253 kilometers off the western coast of Colombia, South America approximately 5 hours and 51 minutes after today’s flawless launch from Baikonur.

The crews are scheduled to open the hatches between the Soyuz and ISS at about 11:15 p.m. EDT/315 GMT this evening after conducting pressure, leak and safety checks.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly gives a thumbs-up from inside the Soyuz TMA-16M taking him and Expedition 43 crewmates Mikhail Kornienko, and Gennady Padalka of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) to the International Space Station after a successful launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.  Credit:  NASA
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly gives a thumbs-up from inside the Soyuz TMA-16M taking him and Expedition 43 crewmates Mikhail Kornienko, and Gennady Padalka of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) to the International Space Station after a successful launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: NASA

The arrival of Kelly, Kornienko and Padalka returns the massive orbiting outpost to its full six person crew complement.

The trio joins the current three person station crew comprising Expedition 43 commander Terry Virts of NASA, as well as flight engineers Samantha Cristoforetti of ESA (European Space Agency) and Anton Shkaplerov of Roscosmos, who have been aboard the complex since November 2014.

“Welcome aboard #Soyuz TMA-16M with Genna, Scott, and Misha- we just had a succesful docking,” tweeted Virts this evening post docking.

The 1 Year mission will provide baseline knowledge to NASA and its station partners – Roscosmos, ESA, CSA, JAXA – on how to prepare to send humans on lengthy deep space missions to Mars and other destinations in our Solar System.

A round-trip journey to Mars is likely to last three years or more! So we must determine how humans and their interactions can withstand the rigors of very long trips in space, completely independent of Earth.

Astronaut Scott Kelly will become the first American to live and work aboard the orbiting laboratory for a year-long mission and set a new American duration record.

Scott Kelly and Russian Cosmonauts Kornienko and Padalka are all veteran space fliers.

They have been in training for over two years since being selected in Nov. 2012.

No American has ever spent anywhere near a year in space. Four Russian cosmonauts – Valery Polyakov, Sergei Avdeyev, Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov – conducted long duration stays of about a year or more in space aboard the Mir Space Station in the 1980s and 1990s.

Kelly and Kornienko will stay aboard the ISS until March 3, 2016, when they return to Earth on the Soyuz TMA-18M after 342 days in space. Kelly’s combined total of 522 days in space, will enable him to surpass current U.S. record holder Mike Fincke’s mark of 382 days.

Padalka will return in September after a six month stint, making him the world’s most experienced spaceflyer with a combined five mission total of 878 days in space.

NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko comprise  the first ever ISS 1 Year Crew
NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko comprise the first ever ISS 1 Year Crew

They will conduct hundreds of science experiments focusing on at least 7 broad areas of investigation including medical, psychological and biomedical challenges faced by astronauts during long-duration space flight, as well as the long term effects of weightlessness and space radiation on the human body.

Another very unique science aspect of the mission involves comparative medical studies with Kelly’s identical twin brother, former NASA astronaut and shuttle commander Mark Kelly.

“They will participate in a number of comparative genetic studies, including the collection of blood samples as well as psychological and physical tests. This research will compare data from the genetically identical Kelly brothers to identify any subtle changes caused by spaceflight,” says NASA.

Scott Kelly is a veteran NASA Space Shuttle commander who has previously flown to space three times aboard both the Shuttle and Soyuz. He also served as a space station commander during a previous six-month stay onboard.

Good luck and Godspeed to Kelly, Kornienko and Padalka – starting humanity on the road to Mars !!

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

Ken Kremer

Expedition 43 crew members Mikhail Kornienko of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), top, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, center, and Gennady Padalka of Roscosmos wave farewell as they board the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft ahead of their launch to the International Space Station.  Credit:  NASA/Bill Ingalls
Expedition 43 crew members Mikhail Kornienko of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), top, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, center, and Gennady Padalka of Roscosmos wave farewell as they board the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft ahead of their launch to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls