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NASA fends off tears with shuttle end in sight

Washington (AFP)
July 20, 2011

NASA astronauts and engineers fought off tears Wednesday as Atlantis made its final approach toward Earth, bringing an end to the 30-year shuttle program and closing a chapter in human spaceflight.

The shuttle was set to roll to a stop early Thursday, exactly 42 years after US astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to step foot on the Moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission.

Atlantis’s landing will end an era of US dominance in human space exploration, leaving Russia as the sole taxi to the International Space Station until a replacement US capsule can be built by private industry.

But NASA administrator Charles Bolden insisted that once the shuttle eases onto the runway at Kennedy Space Center at 5:56 am (0956 GMT) Thursday, any tears on the faces of NASA employees will reflect both sadness and joy.

“My number one job right now is to ensure that we safely get Atlantis and her crew on the runway tomorrow,” Bolden, a former astronaut, said on CNN.

“I will have tears of joy and tears of sadness at that time, but the tears of joy will be because we are already working with commercial companies to put cargo on the International Space Station as early as next year,” he said.

“We are working with other commercial companies to put American astronauts and our partner astronauts on the International Space Station in four or five years.”

Bolden has repeatedly brushed off critics who say the US space agency is in disarray, facing thousands of layoffs, an astronauts corps half the size it had 10 years ago and no human spaceflight program to replace the shuttle.

“We have just not done a good job of telling our story. NASA is very busy,” Bolden said. “The president said to us, 2025 for an asteroid and 2030 to Mars. We have a lot of work to do ahead.”

Meanwhile, the crew of four US astronauts aboard Atlantis savored their final day in orbit and NASA TV ran live images of the shuttle’s view of Earth after a successful mission to restock the ISS for a year with several tons of supplies and food.

Final inspections of the shuttle’s heat shield, which protects the spacecraft during its fiery transition into Earth’s atmosphere, were completed and NASA said the spacecraft looked to be in good shape for landing.

“The space shuttle has been with us at the heart and soul of the human spaceflight program for about 30 years, and it’s a little sad to see it go away,” commander Chris Ferguson said as the crew sat for a series of TV interviews.

“It’s going to be an emotional moment for a lot of people that dedicated their lives to the shuttle program for 30 years. But we’re going to try to keep it upbeat… We’re going to try to make it a celebration of the tremendous crowning achievements that have occurred.”

Over the course of the program, five NASA space shuttles — Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery and Endeavor — have comprised a fleet designed as the world’s first reusable space vehicles.

Besides the prototype Enterprise that never flew in space, only three have survived after Columbia and Challenger were destroyed in accidents that killed their crews.

At a time of US budget austerity, President Barack Obama has opted to end the program that has averaged about $450-500 million for each of its 135 missions.

He also canceled Constellation, a project that aimed to put US astronauts back on the Moon by 2020 at a cost of $97 billion.

Mission specialist Rex Walheim said he was optimistic about the future of the US space program, but acknowledged “we’re in a kind of a transition period, which is a little bit uncomfortable.”

NASA aims to turn over low-orbit space travel and space station servicing to commercial ventures, with a commercial launcher and capsule built by a private corporation in partnership with NASA ready to fly sometime after 2015.

Until the private sector fills the void, the world’s astronauts will rely on Russian Soyuz rockets for rides to the ISS.

NASA flight director Tony Ceccacci said his team was trying to stay focused on getting the shuttle home safely.

“Every time you feel something you have to remember that this thing is not over yet,” he told reporters.

“We have a motto in the mission control center that flight controllers don’t cry, so we are going to make sure that we keep to that.”

Source: Space-Travel.

Shuttle Atlantis heads home from space station

Washington (AFP)
July 19, 2011

The crew of Atlantis undocked Tuesday from the International Space Station, wrapping up the last visit by a US shuttle to the orbiting outpost and setting its sights on an emotional homecoming.

With a spectacular orbital sunrise illuminating a vessel in the sunset of its career, Atlantis maneuvered away from the ISS at 0628 GMT about 350 kilometers (217 miles) above the Pacific Ocean.

“Thanks so much for hosting us. It’s a great station, and it’s been an absolute pleasure,” Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson said of his crew’s eight-day stay at the ISS, closing the book on the storied relationship between the two iconic spacecraft.

“We’ll miss you guys. Godspeed,” space station flight engineer Ronald Garan called out as Atlantis floated away.

As the age of the shuttle — which has carried US astronauts into space longer than any other vessel — drew to a close after 37 dramatic rendezvous with the ISS, their crews Monday exchanged embraces and kisses before shutting the hatches separating them for a final time.

Astronauts placed an American flag that flew on the first shuttle mission in 1981 on the passageway separating the shuttle and the space station, to symbolize the end of one era of US spaceflight and the dawn of a new one.

“When this flag returns again someday to Earth by astronauts that came up on an American spacecraft, its journey will not end there,” said Ferguson.

“Its journey will continue, it will leave low-Earth orbit once again, perhaps to a lunar destination — perhaps to Mars.”

Atlantis blasted off July 8 with a four-member crew, lugging the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module and several tons of supplies to the ISS to help sustain the outpost for a year.

The shuttle is scheduled for a predawn touch-down Thursday at 5:56 am (0956 GMT) at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.

Emotions ran high during the undocking and its aftermath, with Atlantis accomplishing one final task after another, including a flyby of the ISS to document seldom-seen outer parts of the station, as it prepared for re-entry in two days’ time.

NASA flight director Dan Tani praised the work of “the magnificent machines that delivered, assembled and staffed our world-class laboratory in space.”

The warm words gave way to a focus on getting the shuttle crew home safely. By 10:30 am (1430 GMT) Tuesday, Atlantis had completed one last inspection of its protective heat shield, using the robotic arm to scan and photograph the wings’ leading edges, the nose cone and the shuttle’s underbelly.

With the conclusion of America’s vaunted shuttle program, the world’s astronauts will rely on Russian Soyuz rockets for rides to the ISS until a new US space craft — a commercial launcher and capsule built by a private corporation in partnership with NASA — is ready to fly sometime after 2015.

The end of the shuttle program means that opportunities for astronauts to embark on journeys to space will become much rarer.

“Of course it’s hard, because we dedicate our lives to fly in space. We are astronauts and it’s what we do for a living,” astronaut Steve Robinson, a veteran of four shuttle missions, earlier told AFP.

Over the course of the three-decade-long program, five NASA space shuttles — Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery and Endeavor — have comprised a fleet designed as the world’s first reusable space vehicles.

Besides the prototype Enterprise that never flew in space, only three have survived after Columbia and Challenger were destroyed in accidents that killed their crews.

At a time of US budget austerity, President Barack Obama has opted to end the program that has averaged about $450-500 million for each of its 135 missions.

Obama also canceled Constellation, a project that aimed to put US astronauts back on the Moon by 2020 at a cost of $97 billion.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden told US lawmakers last week that there would be opportunities in commercial space flight in the near future.

“We are not abandoning the human space flight. We have a big job to do of operating the ISS for the next nine years at least.”

Source: Space-Travel.

Final Space Shuttle Crew Says Last Goodbyes in Orbit

by Clara Moskowitz, Senior Writer
18 July 2011

HOUSTON — The last astronauts to fly on a space shuttle have boarded their spaceship for the return trip to Earth and closed its hatch on the International Space Station for the final time.

The four-astronaut crew of the space shuttle Atlantis’ STS-135 mission has wrapped up a delivery mission to the station to drop off spare hardware and new supplies to outfit the laboratory for the years ahead.

Now Atlantis’ astronauts will prepare their vehicle for one final trip down to Earth before the orbiter and its two sister shuttles are retired. Atlantis is due to land at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Thursday (July 21) at 5:57 a.m. EDT (0957 GMT).

National symbol

Atlantis’ four-astronaut crew, led by commander Chris Ferguson, said goodbye to their six space station counterparts in a farewell ceremony before boarding their ship. The crews closed the hatches separating the vehicles at 10:28 a.m. EDT (1428 GMT), while the spacecraft were flying about 240 miles (386 km) above Earth.

“I’d like to thank the commander of the International Space Station, AndreyBorisenko, for your hospitality,” Ferguson said before departing.”You’ve been absolutely fantastic to us. It’s been wonderful to be here with you. You have a wonderful home, you’re taking fantastic care of it.”

“It’s been an honor having you guys onboard,” space station flight engineer Ron Garan of NASA said. “It’s great being a part of this really important and historic mission.”

Before floating out of the station, the shuttle astronauts left behind an American flag that they had carried up to the station with them on Atlantis’ launch. But the flag’s history goes back further; it was also launched on the very first shuttle mission, the STS-1 flight of Columbia in 1981.

“Since we’ve been here we’ve prominently displayed the flag on the forward flight deck [of Atlantis],” Ferguson said. “It just symbolized what we are all here for.”

The shuttle astronauts will leave it behind to be hung inside the station’s Harmony node. But that’s not intended to be its final home. When a commercial American spacecraft is ready to replace the shuttle as a ferry to the orbiting outpost, the first crew to ride it will return that flag to Earth. Finally, the astronauts hope the same flag can be carried by U.S. spaceflyers when they finally embark on a mission beyond low-Earth orbit to the moon or Mars.

“This flag represents not just a symbol of our national pride and honor, but in this particular case it also represents a goal,” Ferguson said.

Packing up

The shuttle astronauts will perform final checks and get a good night’s sleep inside their orbiter before undocking from the space station early Tuesday (July 19) at 2:28 a.m. EDT (0628 GMT).

Before the final goodbye both crews completed the last of the packing to make sure all the new supplies were unloaded onto the space station and the shuttle was filled to capacity with trash and broken parts to be brought back to Earth. Much of this equipment was loaded into the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module, a storage container used to transport goods back and forth from orbit.

This morning Atlantis mission specialist Sandra Magnus and pilot Doug Hurley used a robotic arm to move the fully packed Raffaello from its temporary perch on the outside of the space station to the shuttle’s payload bay.

Savoring the experience

Atlantis is making the 135th flight of NASA’s 30-year space shuttle program. The orbiters are being retired to allow NASA to shift its focus to building spaceships to take humans beyond low-Earth orbit, ultimately to Mars.

While most shuttle workers are mainly focused on the job at hand, they are also aware of witnessing the end of an era, NASA officials have said.

“I actually had a dream last night that I was in Mission Control and looking at the downlink video,” flight director Chris Edelen said during a Sunday news briefing. “When I woke up, I realized, hey I really do need to savor these moments ’cause this will be the last time we’ll see a big winged vehicle like that docked to the station. It will definitely be something to tell your grandchildren about.”

Edelen said he reminded his flight controller team to stop and savor the experience.

After the shuttles are grounded, NASA will rely on Russian spacecraft to carry U.S. crews, until commercial American spaceships are ready to transport astronauts.

“Even though we’re losing the shuttle, we’re looking forward to seeing some new vehicles come up to the station,” Edelen said. “It’ll be an exciting time.”


Shuttle’s end opens new era, new legal issues in spaceflight

Lincoln NE (SPX)
Jul 18, 2011

The space shuttle’s final mission marks the end of an era, but also opens an unprecedented age of private and commercial spaceflight. This new era will require international collaboration to keep watch over the practice, a UNL professor and internationally renowned space law expert said this week.

Frans von der Dunk said that in the short term NASA will be dependent on other countries’ vehicles for manned spaceflights to the International Space Station. But in the long run this may be beneficial both for the United States and other countries.

“The result is a thorough stimulation of international cooperation, and the United States has still so much unique technology to offer that its dependence (on other countries) does not need to turn into a position of weakness,” von der Dunk said. “International cooperation is fundamental for any true further development of international law, regulation and practice in the space sector.”

Von der Dunk said the phasing out of the shuttle program, which launched its 135th and final flight last week, has prompted private entrepreneurs to invest in commercial spaceflight.

Some companies – like California-based SpaceX, an American space transport company founded by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk – are close to launching their first flights. Like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, all of these companies have critical U.S. involvement.

The legal implications for this new wave of commercial spaceflight are already becoming visible, von der Dunk said. The United States is leading the way in carefully developing a balanced regulatory regime for private commercial spaceflight on a national level, and also with considerable consultation with Europe.

“Soon, such questions will have to be addressed at a truly international level, where the same balanced approach between the interests of the operators in this infant industry to make things happen and the interests of the public at large regarding safety and security should somehow determine the details of such systems as well,” he said.

Another international legal ramification involves security – specifically, laws concerning export controls on “dual-use technologies,” which can be used for both civil and military purposes, von der Dunk said. A sensible approach to current U.S. policies on ITARs, or International Traffic in Arms Regulations, will be important in that realm.

ITARs, which are interpreted and enforced by the U.S. Department of State, safeguard national security and further foreign policy objectives through the control the export of defense-related articles and technologies.

“The gradual progress in making the current U.S. regime on ITARs increasingly more sensible, efficient and effective is a very important step both for allowing relevant U.S. technology to serve those developments – and therefore the U.S. industry – and for allowing a more globally coherent approach to the security issues involved,” von der Dunk said.

Source: Space-Travel.

Private space race heats up as US shuttle retires

by Jean-Louis Santini
Washington (AFP)
July 13, 2011

Private companies, aided by NASA’s cash and expertise in human space flight, are rushing to be the first to build a space capsule to replace the retiring US shuttle in the next few years.

With Atlantis wrapping up its final mission and the end of the 30-year US program just days away, NASA is pinning its hopes on commercial industry to build the next low-cost vehicle to take astronauts to low Earth orbit.

“We are transferring 50 years of human space flight experience from NASA to the private sector,” said Phil McAlister, acting director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA.

Faced with mounting criticism over its lack of a replacement for the shuttle, the US space agency insists it is focused on building a deep space vehicle while it “partners” with the private sector on a spacecraft to tote astronauts to familiar destinations like the International Space Station (ISS).

“We are bringing financial resources so we are going to invest in these systems, and we are also helping them technically,” McAlister said.

Earlier this year, the US space agency distributed nearly $270 million in seed money to four companies — Boeing, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin — to boost their bids to be first in the new space era.

President Barack Obama’s budget request for fiscal year 2012 includes $850 million for such efforts and would mark the third round of funding so far.

A host of former NASA astronauts have already joined the private sector as highly paid consultants to companies in the space race.

By the middle of the decade, NASA hopes that more than one option will be available to carry US astronauts to orbit.

“Competition is a key aspect of our strategy,” said McAlister. “We want very much to have competition, with multiple providers.”

NASA has sent astronauts to low Earth orbit at least 150 times over the past four decades, McAlister said.

Now, it is aiming for a space plan that would transport a total of eight astronauts, four at a time, aboard two flights per year to the ISS.

Boeing, which is working on the CTS-100 spacecraft, and SpaceX with its Dragon capsule, say they are ready for the challenge.

“We have laid out a viable program that does test flights in 2014 and will be ready to carry crew in 2015,” said John Elbon, vice president and program manager of commercial crew at Boeing.

“Of course it will be depending on the funding we will receive (from NASA) going forward between now and 2015,” he said, touting Boeing’s long history building spacecraft, including the first manned space capsules Mercury and Gemini, as well as Apollo, which took men to the moon.

Space tourism could also prove a lucrative side business, he said, with a company called Bigelow aerospace working on a space habitat module that could be leased to countries without a spaceflight program for short-term research.

Elbon declined to project a cost per seat, but said it would likely be competitive with what it currently costs to send an astronaut to the ISS on a Russian Soyuz capsule, or about $51 million per ticket.

When it comes to SpaceX, founded in 2002 by multimillionaire Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, the cost per seat could be as low as $20 million on its four-seat Dragon spacecraft.

“With NASA’s support, SpaceX will be ready to fly its first manned mission in 2014,” Musk said on SpaceX’s website.

SpaceX communications director Kirstin Grantham told AFP that it has “a tremendous advantage over other companies looking to carry astronauts, because our vehicles were designed from the start to carry astronauts and, unlike other companies, our vehicles have already flown.”

In December 2010, SpaceX became the first company to successfully send its own space capsule, the Dragon, into orbit and back.

The next step is for a fly-by of the ISS as part of a mission in which the Dragon will approach the orbiting station within six miles.

NASA may allow the company to also berth with the outpost as part of that same mission, scheduled to take place in 2011.

Source: Space-Travel.

Special American Meal Planned for Final Space Shuttle Crew

Houston TX (SPX)
Jul 13, 2011

Food scientists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston have prepared a special “All-American Meal” for the final space shuttle crew as the iconic American spacecraft makes its last voyage. The public is invited to prepare the meal on Earth and share it virtually with the astronauts aboard space shuttle Atlantis.

All are invited to share the “All-American Meal” with the crew on July 14.

“Since the crew is launching in July, we thought it would be fun to have a typical summer meal often enjoyed in our backyards with friends and family,” said Michele Perchonok, NASA food scientist and manager of the shuttle food system.

The crew’s American menu begins with crackers, brie cheese and sausage. The entree features grilled chicken, Southwestern corn and baked beans. The meal concludes with the quintessential American dessert-apple pie.

The shuttle will dock to the International Space Station to deliver supplies and equipment. The shuttle and station crews will have the American meal although the entrees will differ. The shuttle crew will have the chicken while the station crew will have barbeque brisket.

The crackers, brie cheese, sausage and apple pie are commercial off-the-shelf products that were repackaged for spaceflight. To assist in preparing the meal, click on the link below to view the recipes-what the food scientists call “formulations”-for the regular space food items that are on the menu:

Space food has come a long way since the early days of the space program. Currently, there are about 180 different types of food and beverage items available. The food items range from shrimp cocktail to seasoned scrambled eggs.

The food list includes freeze-dried items and thermostabilized foods, which are foods that have been processed with heat to destroy microorganisms and enzymes that can cause spoilage. Many of the food items come from commercial products that are turned into freeze-dried creations.

Other commercial products, especially natural form items such as nuts and crackers, are purchased and then repackaged for flight.

Source: Space-Travel.

Last spacewalk of US shuttle era ends

Washington (AFP)
July 12, 2011

Two US astronauts wrapped up the last spacewalk of the shuttle era Tuesday at the International Space Station, where Atlantis is docked on the final mission of the 30-year US program.

Americans Ron Garan and Mike Fossum, who were already aboard the ISS as part of the six-member international Expedition 28 crew when Atlantis arrived on Sunday, successfully completed their repair and maintenance tasks at the lab.

The main objective — of retrieving a failed ammonia pump from the orbiting outpost and placing it into the shuttle’s payload for return to Earth — was tackled early in the six hour, 31 minute spacewalk.

The duo then turned their efforts toward attaching a Robotic Refueling Module experiment to the lab. The joint US-Canadian project aims to test technologies for repairing and refueling satellites in space.

The Atlantis crew of four American astronauts helped support the spacewalk, which was choreographed by mission specialist Rex Walheim and formally ended at 3:53 pm (1953 GMT).

A total of 160 floating trips have been carried out by astronauts and cosmonauts to build the ISS over the past decade.

The last-ever spacewalk by astronauts from a US shuttle crew was completed on May 27 during Endeavor’s final visit to the orbiting outpost.

American astronauts Mike Fincke and Greg Chamitoff’s seven and a half hour trip helped move the global space tally past 1,000 hours of spacewalking to construct, maintain and repair the ISS.

The next spacewalk by US astronauts is not scheduled until the fall of 2012, NASA said.

Tuesday’s outing marked the 249th spacewalk by US astronauts in history, and brought the total time spent on spacewalk assembly and repair of the ISS to 1,009 hours and nine minutes, mission control in Houston said.

On Monday, NASA decided to extend Atlantis’s mission by a day, so the astronauts will now spend 13 days on their final journey to space before the US shuttle program closes down forever.

Atlantis’s key mission is to take advantage of the massive cargo space available one last time in order to restock the space station with a year’s worth of food and supplies.

The Atlantis crew began work on Monday with their six colleagues at the ISS to transfer nearly five tons of goods to the orbiting outpost and succeeded in unloading the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module.

Other supply ships from Europe, Japan and Russia will be able to stock the ISS when the shuttle program retires after Atlantis, but the space available on the shuttle is unparalleled.

The container is “packed with 9,403 pounds (4,265 kilograms) of spare parts, spare equipment, and other supplies — including 2,677 pounds (1,215 kilograms) of food — that will sustain space station operations for a year,” NASA said.

Over the coming days, the combined crew will be transferring items from the Raffaello to the station and moving more than 5,600 pounds (2,540 kilograms) of old station gear back into the module for the return to Earth.

“It is pretty much all hands on deck,” said flight director Jerry Jason. “It is going to be a very busy time period.”

Atlantis’s flight marks the end of an era for NASA, leaving Americans without their own vehicle for sending astronauts into space until private industry comes up with a new capsule, likely by 2015 at the earliest.

With the shuttle gone, only Russia’s three-seat Soyuz capsules will be capable of carrying astronauts to the ISS — at a cost of more than $50 million per seat.

With the extra day in space, Atlantis is now scheduled to land back on Earth July 21 at 5:56 am (0956 GMT), mission control in Houston said.

The four remaining US shuttles — Discovery, Endeavor, Atlantis and the prototype Enterprise — will be sent to museums across the country after the program ends.

Two shuttles were destroyed in flight: Challenger blew up in a post-takeoff explosion in 1986 and Columbia disintegrated during its return to Earth in 2003. The disasters killed 14 crew members.

Source: Space-Travel.

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