Tag Archives: space

Practicing with an Iron Rocket

Rocket science isn’t easy. Rockets are basically complex systems of other complex systems that all have to work together perfectly. Also, they’re highly explosive. So creating a brand new rocket can take a while. It’s careful and methodical work.

Take SLS, or the Space Launch System. (Yeah, I know it’s a terrible name. That’s not under my control, though.) SLS is going to replace the retired Space Shuttle. It will loft humans and spacecraft into low earth orbit and beyond.

SLS was funded starting in late 2010 and it’s first uncrewed test flight called Artemis 1, as of this writing, is scheduled to launch in late 2020. A lot of smart people will argue about why it took so long and who is at fault. But a lot of that time is simply due to the fact that rocket science isn’t easy.

All that to say, by the time the actual rocket arrives at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida from the factory at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, there won’t really be any time to spare. All the equipment and facilities and personnel at KSC will need to be ready to support. So we’ve been testing and rehearsing and practicing.

NASA has even built an Iron Rocket called the SLS Core Stage Pathfinder to practice with and to verify and certify all of our facilities, our equipment, and our processes and personnel. It arrived recently onboard a barge … the same barge that will deliver the real core stage.

Since it’s arrival, we’ve performed and practiced several different types of operations with this Iron Rocket inside the giant Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). These pretty awesome 360 degree videos show us lifting it up inside the VAB and then lowering it down into its resting place on the mobile launcher. Unless you’re watching these videos with a Virtual Reality rig, just click and drag your mouse to change the point of view! It feels like you are right there inside the VAB with the workers!

Thanks for your interest!

Kurt

What was Kurt doing 25 years ago?

During the summer of 1994, I had recently graduated from college with my Electrical Engineering degree and I was now working full time at NASA/KSC in Florida. That summer I was spending time with other groups at KSC in an effort to learn more about the entire KSC organization. I was also working on a special project for my own group.

Here are the statuses that I submitted each week to let my boss know what I was doing and how I was doing. It’s kinda fun to look back 25 years and remember exactly what I was doing back then.

June 16, 1994

When I came to work on Monday, my supervisor, Gary Bassett explained to me what he wanted me to work on. He needed me to put all my efforts, at least initially, into getting our video lab back in working order. The new video-computer system has been in place for almost a year and has been very intermittent and unreliable since its initial installation. The system has many different components that need to work together, instead they seem to be fighting each other all the time.

I got the video-computer system’s ATVista card working so we could take photographs of the fathers and sons that came through the labs during KSC Son’s Day, which was Tuesday. I spent most of the week troubleshooting the video-computer system which stopped printing to the Kodak XL7700 printer since a new motherboard and SCSI card were installed a few weeks ago. I also got a computer desk and three workbenches moved into the lab and started setting up my new work area.

June 24, 1994

During the early part of this week, I got the video/computer system working again by installing new Twain drivers for the Kodak DCS-200 digital camera and by installing updated print drivers for the Kodak 7700 printer. A network startup problem was also corrected by changing the IRQ settings on the communication card. I’m in the process of troubleshooting a problem that presented itself in the RIO image design software.

This week I contacted someone at Johnson Space Center (JSC) who can fairly easily get an experiment flown on NASA’s KC-135 Zero-G simulation airplane. Gary and I are trying to make a decision between two different ATP projects. One would fly a fuse-blowing experiment on NASA’s KC-135 to find out if there’s a difference between fuses blowing at 1-G and zero-G.

The other project would entail getting a system working in which the engineer’s Failure Analysis Reports would get electronically published on the World Wide Web (WWW) system on the internet and also be easily found by searching the Wide-Area Information Servers (WAIS) database system which is also on the internet.

July 1, 1994

The RIO problem encountered last week was traced to a video synchronization inconsistency which was due to an incorrect connection on the RGB monitor. I attended the orientation session for the ATP Tours on Tuesday and got to meet all the other ATP’ers.

The Electronic Document (E-Doc) Project was chosen as my ATP project and Bill Dearing was chosen as my mentor. I started working on my project by becoming more familiar with the World Wide Web. I read a document titled ‘A Beginner’s Guide to HTML’ that helped me start writing HyperText Markup Language (HTML) files which can be read and displayed by www servers all around the world. I practiced writing documents and composed ‘Kurt’s Home Page’ which has many photos and subdocuments which are HyperText-linked to each other.

July 8, 1994

This week I was in charge of a burn-test in the lab. I worked with technicians and the job requester to get the test set up and running. We ran three burn-tests on a SpaceLab Terminal Junction Box by running excessive current through it to catch it on fire and observe the flame propagation. The tests went well.

On Thursday afternoon, I attended a WAIS meeting along with my supervisor and my mentor. We discussed ways that we might be able to get our Failure Analysis Reports searchable using the WAIS database and also viewable to someone who wanted to view them. I started some HTML documents on the Materials Science Labs so that we can get an MSL Home Page and corresponding sub-pages viewable on the WWW.

I am currently troubleshooting a file conversion problem which presented itself when we started getting pictures from our new digital still camera. This week I also searched the Web to find more documentation on the WWW and also HTML pages. I found a number of documents and downloaded them and am currently studying them. I’m also searching for more information on WAIS systems.

July 14, 1994

With the burn-test over with, I got a good chunk of the MSL Web pages completed this week. I scanned in images to try and decide on a standard for images on my Web pages. I also toyed around with a menu driven interface for accessing pages on the Web and did have some luck.

July 22, 1994

All week was spent in the ‘Introduction to C Programming’ Class.

July 29, 1994

This week was spent on a Diverse Work Assignment (DWA) with Jim Dumoulin and his Artificial Intelligence/Software Research group which is in the Information Systems Division of the Payload Management and Operations Directorate. He taught me about the Payload Data Management System (PDMS) and how it works to get the day to day information and to process a payload into one central computer system for every user to access.

Jim showed me the wonderful world of software development by fixing a few ‘bugs’ in the WinVN newsreader program which his group helped develop. He showed me how he gets information into his Web server and how he wrote PERL scripts to translate text into linked hypertext documents. By the end of the week, Jim helped me get my Web server up and running to serve documents to users on Center.

August 5, 1994

I finished my Individual Development Plan (IDP) early this week and acquired a PC-workstation from my supervisor to do my work on. I spent a few days getting the PC configured correctly and getting the software loaded and working properly.

I experimented this week with different screen capturing schemes so I can capture and print Mosaic screens. For presentations and meetings, I will print these screens on our Kodak XL7700 printer.

I also looked around the Web quite a bit to find out how different administrators are doing searches of their documents. I’m interested in how the other NASA centers are searching and serving documents to NASA centers and also to the public. I sent E-mail to some NASA people to find out some specifics about their current document search system. I’m awaiting a reply.

August 12, 1994

Earlier this week, I supported two ‘hot jobs’ in the lab by taking digital photographs and by getting them onto MSL’s anonymous FTP site. I spent a lot of time on the phone to Downey, CA and JSC helping people download files from our site.

This week was my week in Pete Clements’ Networks group. Pete and I couldn’t get together until Wednesday, however. I spent one day in the Network Control Center (NCC) with Steve DeWitt. I got an introduction to bridges and routers and got to modify access lists and work some trouble tickets. I spent Thursday and Friday in Bob Raymond’s group where they do hands-on hardware and software configuration of their network users.

I attended three different training sessions: two were for new PON Server Administrators and one was for new Network LAN Administrators. This was a very productive and educational week. I read the following material this week: Network and Electronic Mail User’s Guide; Handouts on Excelan Training Course

August 19, 1994

I spent this week in the Data Processing and Sofware Systems Section of the Digital Guidance and Control Branch in the Vehicle Engineering Directorate. Scott Chandler, the Section Chief, took me around to the different working areas of his group: LCC Firing Rooms, VAB Labs, and offices in the OSB.

I spent some time in Firing Room # 1 observing the loading of software onto the orbiter’s Mass Memory Units (MMU’s) and also the transitioning of the orbiter’s General Purpose Computers (GPC’s) from a ground testing configuration to a flight configuration. I also got a tour of the Kennedy Avionics Test Site (KATS) laboratory where they do off-line testing and configuration of GPC’s, displays and electronics, MDM’s and other hardware related to the DPS System. I attended a status meeting for second-level managers with Scott, and then spent some time in the Main Engine shop in the VAB to observe a main engine system power-up and valve test.

The mission scheduled to launch this week had a main engine abort on the pad and I went into Firing Room # 1 for a while to observe the pad close-outs of each system being performed. I also watched a MMU load / verify from the console in Firing Room # 4 . And finally, on Friday, I went back to the KATS lab to see a new MMU simulation computer being tested for applications in the lab.

I had some time in-between testing to read some material: DPS (Hardware and Systems Software) Training Manual; Design of an Anonymous FTP Site (LTRS); Zen and the Art of the Internet; XV User’s Guide

August 26, 1994

The first half of this week was spent with Bev Merrilles in the Personnel Offices. I attended a staff meeting with Bev after getting an overview of the Human Resources Management Directorate and their recent reorganization. I met all the personnel in the Training Section and spent a day with them. I also spent an afternoon with one of Marge Elrod’s personnel teams which are the heart of the personnel office. All actions get finalized through this office.

I spent another day with Ken Aguilar working on Special Programs and Labor Relations and attended a meeting with Chris Beidel concerning possible changes to the co-op program.

Thursday and Friday was spent in the ‘Effective Communications’ class in the training auditorium. .

September 1, 1994

I spent this week with Jose Garcia in the Electrical and Telecommunications Systems Division of the Vehicle Engineering Directorate. Most of my time was spent in Mike Kraus’s Electrical Systems Section. I got trained for crew cabin access and payload bay access by watching video courses but didn’t get the chance to enter either area this week.

I attended a Pyrotechnic Initiator Circuit ( PIC ) test in Firing Room # 4 where a problem presented itself and an IPR had to be written and the test was aborted. I spent a couple of days in the KATS Lab where the engineers were testing a new Engineering Main Events Controller (EMEC) by programming the UBIC computer to talk to it and read data back to tape.

I read ‘Learning Perl’ this week which is a UNIX based programming language. This programming experience will help me to automate some of the tedious tasks of keeping the Web server up to date.

September 9, 1994

Due to the Labor Day holiday and one sick day, I was only in the lab two days this week. I reformatted some of my old Weekly Notes that were done on Alis and gave Bill copies of all my Notes to date so he could turn them in for my 3-month evaluation which is due on Tuesday. I sent an MSL Weekly Note to Gary to sum up my work and advertise my Web Pages. I made an (ATP) IDP template and retyped my (ATP) IDP for Bill to turn in with my evaluation.

September 16, 1994

This week was spent with Larry Ellis who is the Deputy Director of the Launch & Landing Projects Division of the Shuttle Management & Operations Directorate. This gave me the opportunity to see first-hand what a Projects Office does.

We attended a project demonstration by the Mitre company which is a non-profit, non-competitive Systems Engineering & Research Organization which often does work for NASA, NOAA, EPA, and other government agencies. Mitre’s been studying NASA’s Shuttle Processing System and trying to improve and streamline it to save the government money and resources.

I spent a few days with Brian Harris who is the Chief of the LLP Integration Office. LLP reports directly to Brewster Shaw in the Space Shuttle Program Office in Houston. We sat in quite a few teleconferences this week which were headed up by Brewster Shaw who is an ex-astronaut. One telecon on Wednesday was between Mission Management Teams where each system manager talked about their problems that affected the mission currently in orbit.

Larry Ellis is the Environmental Officer for LLP and we attended many meetings dealing with environmental issues. On Thursday morning, we attended a monthly Dredging Project Meeting. In early 1997, the northern half of the river will be dredged again so as to prevent the External Tank Barge from running aground. Many expensive environmental surveys have to be studied and implemented to keep from impacting the environment.

Also on Thursday, I attended three Shuttle Program Planning Board teleconferences and a meeting to take care of some problems that occur when you upgrade the Space Shuttle Main Engine Combustion Chambers.

We spent quite a bit of time on Friday talking about the current problems with NASA’s Technology Transfer Program and discussing ways to improve the program without impacting NASA’s budget concerns.

Larry impressed me as a great ‘Idea Man’ and it was a terrific learning experience working beside him this week

September 23, 1994

I spent this week with Jim Sudermann who is the head of the Experiments Test Section of the Systems Engineering and Experiments Division of the Payload Flight Operations Directorate. Most of the week was spent in the Payload Checkout Unit Control Rooms on the third floor of the O&C Building which is where they simulate the SpaceLab computers and the orbiter itself for the experiments they’re processing.

I sat in on a demonstration of their new Data Logging and Retrieval System which was just delivered and set up. The last half of the week was spent preparing for Astro-II testing which started on Friday morning. Two very unique data buffer boxes were not working correctly. One was sent to a repair shop and the other one was being trouble-shot by CS-EED personnel. Progress was made in troubleshooting, but the other box was repaired in time to use it for Astro-II testing on Friday. I also watched a complete software load of the system.

September 30, 1994

I spent this week in Bill Helms’ laboratories in the EDL and LETF buildings. Mr. Helms is the Chief of the Instrumentation and Controls Systems Division of the Electronic Engineering Division of DE. He oversees the Transducer Lab, Data Acquisition Lab, Hazardous Gas Detection Lab, Optical & Acoustic Lab, Special Instrumentation Lab, Toxic Vapor Detection Lab, Contamination Monitoring & Control Lab, and the Control Systems Lab.

These offices have the unique authority to authorize the use of GSE in any area at KSC. They can take off-the-shelf items and qualify them for use after testing them. They sometimes systems-engineer different off-the-shelf items together into a package or build around an existing item to improve upon or make it work specifically for KSC’s needs. In special cases, they build items up from the component level because they’re so specialized that there’s nothing in industry that can be even partially used.

I spent about a day and a half in the Transducer Lab and the Data Acquisition Lab and another day and a half in the Special Instrumentation Lab, Optics Lab, and the Hazardous Gas Lab.

October 7, 1994

This week was spent with Charles Tucker who is Chief of the Data Systems group of the Communications Division in the Ground Engineering Directorate in Shuttle. This group is in charge of all the networking cables/fiber and the networking hardware like bridges/routers/hubs and they also handle the Network Control Center for Shuttle. They provide connectivity for about 1300 users.

I attended many status meetings on various projects and got extensive tours of some of the facilities this week. I spent quite a bit of time in the Control Distribution & Switching Center (CD&SC) and also the VAB repeater facility and I also saw the network center in the OSB. Most of their systems in Shuttle are premise wired where they run two data lines, phone lines, and cable TV lines to a box by each desk in the area.

I learned a lot about this premise wiring system this week, including the design process and the implementation of the design. I attended a lot of planning and scheduling meetings and design reviews for the Integrated Work Control System (IWCS) project.

October 14, 1994

Monday was a holiday. I attended Hazardous Waste Training earlier this week and also attended a NASA WebMaster’s ViTS meeting on Thursday.

I made an appointment with Shawn Riley and Richard Hall to go over the WAISifying process with some sample reports on the DE-VAX.

I got the photos from some of the sample reports scanned in this week and am struggling with WORD limitations that don’t allow me to paste all the images into the sample document. I got two of the five sample documents completed this week.

October 21, 1994

I was sick two days this week, but still managed to get photos scanned from another sample report and also get all my MSL Personnel pages automated with a Perl Script by finishing an MSL Personnel Database.

I spent more time trying to get pictures linked to documents as opposed to just pasting them there and ran into more trouble. Bill talked with the ULead people to try and straighten out some of these problems.

I spent quite a bit of time late in the week getting the video lab reconfigured for editing of tapes. This was done in preparation for a hot job which is supposed to come into the labs early next week

October 28, 1994

I fixed my sample page on the Web this week and added the PDF’s and PS’s for the four sample documents that were complete.

I browsed the LTRS system for documents and downloaded and read the following: Electronic Document Distribution:Design of the Anonymous FTP Langley Technical Report Server; World Wide Web Implementation of the Langley Technical Report Server; The World Wide Web & Technology Transfer at NASA Langley Research Center; A Comparison of Internet Resource Discovery Approaches; Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) Archive System.

I got my Web pages transferred to the Development Area on the DE-VAX and made sure there weren’t any obvious problems. I’m still waiting on Perl for the VAX so that I can test out my automated personnel page script.

I sent my ATP Project Plan to Steve Chance on Friday afternoon.

November 4, 1994

I finished up the last of five sample reports this week, but I had to resample the photographs to get them small enough for MS-Word to handle them. I copied postscript and PDF forms of the sample reports to a WAIS directory on the anonymous FTP site for retrieval by the WAIS lookup engine. I also prepared refer citations for each report to be sent to Langley Research Center and WAISified.

Shawn Riley got Perl running on the DEVAX and after some slight modifications, my script that makes all the personnel pages was running without problems.

November 10, 1994

I spent the first part of the week helping the Physical Testing group prepare for a chamber test on some temperature probes from the Mobile Launcher Platform.

I also downloaded and installed a bunch of software on the Macintosh to get it set up to test out our Web pages. I spent some time working with PowerPoint to become familiar with the program, so I could get started on my presentation next week.

I added some finishing dates to my ATP IDP and printed out all my Weekly Notes for my final evaluation which is due on Monday.

Michael Nelson at Langley received our refer citations late this week and WAISified them. Now our WAIS search demo is working from the MSL Web pages.

End

So that’s basically what I did at NASA for my first 5 months as a full time non-intern employee! And the rest is history! Thanks for your interest! Kurt

SpaceX and Blue Origin and Boeing! Oh My!

SpaceX and Blue Origin and Boeing!

Oh my!

All these rocket and spacecraft companies have been in the news so much lately!  It’s difficult to understand what exactly is going on!  Who is developing what?  And why?  And when will they launch!  Who is winning this new and modern space race?  This article is my attempt to summarize and organize what I see going on in the space business right now.

Disclaimer: I may work for NASA but that does NOT make me an official spokesperson for the agency.  Everything I say here on my personal blog is either information that I found publicly on the Internet or it is my personal opinion.  There are NO government or space company secrets here!  It’s even possible that some of what I say here might actually be incorrect!  

Rockets

Let’s start with the rocket business!  There’s so much going on lately with rocket development that it’s a little hard to keep track!

Space Launch System

Space Launch System, or SLS, is the big rocket that NASA is funding to send astronauts and payloads to exploration missions beyond low earth orbit.  Deep space is the phrase that NASA likes to use.  This SLS rocket is likely to send humans to Mars someday!  I just hope NASA comes up with a better name than SLS by then!

This rocket is under very heavy construction right now by several different contractors and the first test flight is planned to be in 2019.  The rocket’s design is based on Space Shuttle technologies like Solid Rocket Motors and Space Shuttle Main Engines.  The Solid Rocket Motors will be reused, just like they were during the Shuttle program.

Falcon 9

The Falcon 9 rocket is an operational rocket that was completely designed, and is currently being used, by SpaceX.  SpaceX is a company founded and run by billionaire, Elon Musk, and he is shaking up the rocket business with his unconventional ideas and methods.  He is charging customers way less than his competitors and seems to be stealing at least some business away from those other companies.

The Falcon 9 rocket design includes a first stage that can actively fly back to the launch site and land vertically under rocket power, just the same way it launched.  This reuse is expected to reduce total launch costs.  The Falcon 9 rocket has more than 30 flights under its belt, so it’s been making a big splash (that’s a bad rocket pun, by the way!) in the rocket business lately.

The Falcon 9 is currently carrying only cargo and satellites to space, but it is on track to soon be certified to carry humans.

Falcon Heavy

The Falcon Heavy is a big rocket that SpaceX is working on developing right now.  They are basically strapping three Falcon 9 rockets or boosters together and launching the entire stack.  It’s gonna be crazy.

The first test flight of a Falcon Heavy is scheduled for the summer of 2017, which is basically any time now.   They are working hard right now and are planning to launch very soon.  Their plan is to recover and reuse all three of the core stage rockets.  The outer two boosters will fly back and land on dry ground, while the core center booster will continue on and then fly down and land on a floating barge in the ocean.

The Falcon Heavy is planned to launch both crew and cargo into space for deep space exploration missions.

Delta IV

The Delta IV (4) is a heavy launcher workhorse for commercial and government customers.  This rocket comes in 5 different versions for customer flexibility and has been in operation since 2002.  Boeing makes most of the major components for this rocket, although they have combined forces with Lockheed Martin in the joint venture called United Launch Alliance (ULA).

The Delta IV is a completely expendable launch vehicle as no components were designed for reuse.

This rocket is not planned to ever be certified to carry human crews.

Atlas V

The Atlas V (5) is a medium sized launcher workhorse for commercial and government customers.  The rocket has 2 different payload diameter (fairing) sizes to choose from and anywhere from zero to 5 solid fuel boosters can be attached for additional power.  Like the Delta IV, the Atlas V also came online and first launched in 2002.  Lockheed Martin designed and created this rocket, although they have combined forces with Boeing in the joint venture called United Launch Alliance (ULA).

The Atlas V is a completely expendable launch vehicle as no components were designed for reuse.

The Atlas V is currently carrying only cargo and satellites to space, but it is on track to soon be certified to carry humans.

New Shepard

The New Shepard booster is a new rocket built by Blue Origin that is currently undergoing unmanned test flights.  It’s not a very big rocket as it is specifically designed to carry a few paying customers to the edge of space and back … a suborbital flight.

The New Shepard booster is designed to fly back to the launch pad and land vertically under rocket power and to be launched again, similar to SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

Blue Origin is owned by Amazon.com founder and billionaire, Jeff Bezos.  In 2017, Blue Origin began construction of a rocket factory right outside the gates of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, becoming the first rocket company to build their rockets directly at the launch site.

Other Rockets

ULA is working on a new large rocket called the Vulcan which is intended to replace both the Delta IV and the Atlas V.  It is planned to start test flights in 2019, although construction has not yet begun.

Blue Origin is planning a medium sized orbital rocket they are calling New Glenn.  It is planned to start test flights in 2020, although construction has not yet begun.

SpaceX has announced plans to eventually develop a super-heavy-lift rocket they are calling the Interplanetary Transport System, or ITS.  They were previously calling it the BFR, which stood for Big Freaking Rocket.  That’s the rated-G version of the name, anyways!  The first stage of ITS is planned to be powered by 42 engines!  It’s advertised to be able to haul more than twice the payload capacity of NASA’s SLS rocket to low earth orbit.  Elon’s plans for this huge rocket are basically Mars Colonization and he expects to be operational sometime in the 2020’s, although it’s too early to really give a date.

Spacecraft

Now let’s talk about the spacecraft business!  This is also a very busy season right now and it’s easy to get lost in it all!

Cargo Dragon

The Cargo Dragon capsule is an operational spacecraft that was completely designed, and is currently being used, by SpaceX.  It is being used to ferry cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).   The Cargo Dragon is currently launched into space on top of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, but could also be launched on top of the future Falcon Heavy rocket.   It is not certified to carry humans into space.

The Cargo Dragon was the first commercial spacecraft launched to orbit and successfully recovered, which happened in 2010.  It was also the first commercial spacecraft to successfully rendezvous and attach to the space station, which occurred in 2012.  After ferrying cargo to the space station, it is then loaded with return cargo and then it splashes down in the ocean under parachute control.  It’s designed to be reusable and the first reused capsule was flown to the space station in the summer of 2017.

During its first 5 years of ISS operations, the Cargo Dragon has successfully flown to the space station 11 times, with lots more flights on the schedule.

Orion

The Orion capsule is also called the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, or MCPV.  NASA loves their acronyms!  Orion is a NASA funded space capsule designed to take 4 astronauts out of low earth orbit into deep space missions.  Possibly to the moon.  Possibly even to Mars someday.  The Orion capsule is being developed by Lockheed Martin for NASA.

It is eventually planned to be launched on top of the NASA SLS rocket.  Although the first test flight for Orion was on top of a Delta IV Heavy rocket back in 2014.  The second unmanned test flight is scheduled for 2019 and the first manned flight is scheduled for 2021.

After reentry, the Orion capsule is designed to splash down in the ocean under parachute control.  It is designed to be reusable.

Crew Dragon

The Crew Dragon capsule, otherwise known as the Dragon 2 or Dragon V2 is designed and built by SpaceX and is planned to take 7 astronauts to the space station and return them home safely.

The Crew Dragon capsule is planned to launch on top of either the Falcon 9 or the Falcon Heavy rockets.  Upon returning to earth, the Crew Dragon capsule is expected to land vertically on dry ground under rocket power.  It is designed to be reusable.  This will be the first time that this type of capsule soft landing system has been attempted but it is expected to reduce both turnaround time and refurbishment costs.

It is scheduled to make an unmanned test flight in 2017 and its first manned flight is scheduled for 2018.

Starliner

The Starliner, or CST-100, capsule is being designed and built by Boeing for the purposes of launching 7 astronauts to the space station and back.  The Starliner competes directly with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and both were partially funded by NASA in order to give the U.S. multiple options for ferrying crews to the space station.

The Starliner is supposedly capable of being launched on many different launch vehicles.  The primary launch vehicle is the Atlas V, but it is apparently capable of also being launched on the Delta IV and the Falcon 9.  I’ll believe that when I see it, though.

The Starliner capsule is designed to return to earth under parachute control but will also have an airbag system that deploys to cushion the landing and allow it to land on dry ground rather than in the ocean which is expected to shorten turnaround time and reduce refurbishment costs.  It is designed to be reusable.  The first unmanned test flight is scheduled for 2018 and the first manned flight is also scheduled for that same year.

New Shepard Capsule

The New Shepard Crew Capsule is being designed and built by Blue Origin for the purpose of space tourism.  It will be capable of carrying 6 tourists to the edge of space and back.  The capsule will launch on top of the New Shepard booster in a 10 minute long suborbital or ballistic flight pattern.  It is designed to be reusable.

Blue Origin claims that there is no ground control and that all control is automated and onboard.  The capsule returns to earth under parachute control and lands on dry ground near the launch site.

Test flights with test passengers are planned for 2018 and commercial flights with paying passengers are supposed to start up that same year.

Dream Chaser

The Dream Chaser is a reusable spaceplane that is being designed and built by Sierra Nevada Corporation for the purpose of ferrying cargo to the space station and then landing on a conventional runway like a commercial airliner.  A future version might be capable of carrying 7 crew members to the space station and back.

The Dream Chaser is designed to launch vertically on top of an Atlas V or Falcon Heavy rocket.  It is designed to be reusable.

I can’t seem to find any references online that say when the Dream Chaser is planned to start test flights or operational flights.

Super Summary Tables!

Okay.  As much as I tried to summarize and simplify things, that was still quite a bit of information to digest.  So here are a couple of short summary tables that I threw together that should help put everything into perspective at a glance:

That’s it!

Okay, that should do it.  You are now armed with enough information to talk to your friends and family intelligently about what is going on in the space business right now!  Congrats!  Now go forth and distribute this new-found knowledge in any way that you find useful!

But remember that things change pretty quickly these days, so check back later for updates!  And if you see anything wrong in my article, please let me know!  I welcome all corrections and comments!

Thanks for your interest!

Kurt

Disclaimer: I may work for NASA but that does NOT make me an official spokesperson for the agency.  Everything I say here on my personal blog is either information that I found publicly on the Internet or it is my personal opinion.  There are NO government or space company secrets here!  It’s even possible that some of what I say here might actually be incorrect!  

NASA Tethered Satellite: Broken Tether Analysis

Here are a couple photos of me from 1996 wearing a NASA “bunny suit” while working the failure analysis of the broken tether on the Tethered Satellite System re-flight (TSS-1R) that had recently returned from orbit on Space Shuttle mission STS-75.  I was taking magnified photographs with a fancy high-tech digital SLR camera through an old-school benchtop microscope.

These photos were taken in the Operations & Checkout (O&C) Building hi-bay which is a clean-room environment up on the work platforms, because the workers are adjacent to flight hardware.  The blue bunny suits look kind of funny, but they help keep the flight hardware pristine and help keep our hair and our skin flakes from falling onto the flight hardware.

The Tethered Satellite System was a pretty interesting experiment.  The theory was that we could extend a long electrical wire while orbiting the earth and that long wire would cut through the earth’s magnetic field lines and generate electricity.  The tether on this experiment was nearly 13 miles long!  Wow!

This tether experiment first flew in 1992 on Space Shuttle mission STS-46, but had trouble deploying.  It deployed less than a thousand feet out from the orbiter before it jammed.  But it got a second chance and flew again in 1996.  The deployment during the re-flight mission went well and was nearly complete … about 95 percent complete … when the tether broke and the experiment was over.

The broken tether was reeled back in and was brought back to earth for analysis.  The task was to find out if the tether was mechanically broken, like from too much tension, or maybe from a micro-meteor impact.  Or whether the tether was broken due to an electrical arcing event, such as an over-current.

The final analysis showed that it was an electrical overload.  But the reason for the excess current was pretty interesting and took some detective work.  Around the outside of conductor was a clear Teflon insulation layer which is basically a plastic.  It’s similar to the white plastic insulation layer around the center wire in a coax cable.

It was determined that this plastic Teflon layer was “breached” and electrical arcing occured between the tether’s conductor and the gantry system that was deploying the tether.

One possible cause of the break in the insulation was “foreign object debris”, which is NASA-speak for something that does not belong there.  We take great efforts to keep flight hardware pristine and clean.  But if a loose wire or something stiff or sharp got into the cogs of the deployment mechanism and punctured the insulation, that could have caused the electrical short.

Another possible cause was a simple manufacturing defect and subsequent quality control miss.  Investigators showed that trapped air in the Nomex core could have leaked out through tiny pinholes in the plastic Teflon insulator and caused an electrical plasma arc due to the high voltages involved.  The experiment was generating about 3,500 volts and about half an amp of current when the failure occurred.

Even though the tether broke and the experiment could not be completed, it was a partial success and lots of data was collected during the deployment before the failure.  So it wasn’t a total loss.

Thanks for your interest!

Kurt

Kurt’s review of “The Martian” by Andy Weir

Oh. My. Gosh.

I love, love, love this book!

Okay, so I’m a nerdy NASA engineer. Of course I loved it.  But I know all you non-nerdy folks will also love this book.  And here’s why:

It’s interesting & engaging

It’s a survival story set in one of the harshest locations imaginable.  So many things can go wrong … and so many of them do go wrong.  Every step of the way.  It’s nearly constant edge of your seat entertainment.  Add in some NASA politics and a few personality conflicts and you’ve got yourself a real pager turner.

It’s funny.  No, it’s hilarious

The narrator … the astronaut who gets stranded on Mars … has a terrific sense of humor throughout the entire book.  He’s quite a character and his personality stays upbeat despite his less than ideal circumstances.  Much of the narration is of him logging his daily activities into a computer system in which he has no idea whether anyone will ever read or not.  He’s basically talking to himself for much of the book and it’s quite humorous.

It’s technical, but not in a bad way

There’s a constant stream of problem solving throughout the book.  But I don’t think it will make your eyes roll back in your head.  Most of the time the details are given in a way that the layperson can understand.  Sometimes the narrator even “dumbs” down the technical details for the reader.

It’s real

Well, mostly real.  This is science fiction, but it is not your typical far-fetched or far-futuristic science fiction.  Much of this story could occur today using technology that we actually use today or technology that we are developing and testing today for use on future Mars missions.  Most of the engineering solutions are also real and possible today using current technology.  There is very little hand-waving here.  And it is very satisfying.

Note: This book is not for kids.  The narrator … the astronaut who gets stranded on Mars … curses like a sailor throughout the entire book.

I highly recommend this book.  It’s a very interesting and engaging read that is difficult to put down.  It’s entertaining for engineers and non-engineers alike.

Click below to order the book for yourself.  You can buy it in paper or digital formats from Amazon, the most popular online store in the world!

Thanks for your interest.

Kurt