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COMMENTARY: I finally saw a launch…and it was incredible

A ULA Atlas V 541 lifts off, carrying the next-generation GOES-R weather satellite. Credit: Curt Godwin

A ULA Atlas V 541 lifts off, carrying the next-generation GOES-R weather satellite. Credit: Curt Godwin

I have seen a huge 5-segment solid rocket booster perform a full duration burn in the desert of Utah at Orbital ATK’s facility. Pro tip: if NASA tells you to not look at the flame, then do NOT look at the flame.

I’ve watched the incredible RS-25 engine static fired in a test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Twice.

I’ve been on top – ON TOP! – of the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center (KSC)… within touching distance of a satellite at Ball Aerospace in Boulder… in United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Denver Operations Support Center (DOSC) and in their Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center (ASOC) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS). These are not easy places to access.

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GOES-R successfully launched on ULA Atlas V

The Atlas V 541 carrying GOES-R lifts off at 6:42pm EST. Credit: Curt Godwin

The Atlas V 541 carrying GOES-R lifts off at 6:42pm EST. Credit: Curt Godwin

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — The launch window extended for an hour, and United Launch Alliance (ULA) needed every minute of it. After resolving multiple issues, the Atlas V rocketed into the black on a mission to send the most advanced weather satellite, GOES-R, into geostationary orbit.

The first issue that cropped up turned out to be a false-positive indicator on the launch vehicle. ULA’s frustrations didn’t end there, however. The Eastern Range also encountered an issue, which delayed the liftoff time to the very end of the window. Finally, under nearly perfect conditions, the Atlas V 541 with GOES-R lifted off at 6:42 p.m. EST (23:42 GMT) from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The workhorse of ULAs stable of launch vehicles, the Atlas V for this mission was set up in its 541 configuration: this includes a 5-meter payload fairing, four supplemental solid rocket boosters, and a single-engined Centaur stage.

It was the fourth launch of this configuration of the Atlas V, with the most notable payload being the Mars Science Laboratory – otherwise known as Curiosity – which took to the skies in November 2011.

Much more in my full piece at SpaceFlight Insider

NASA’s GRAIL sheds light on Moon’s geology

GRAIL measured the gravity around the Orientale basin. Colors represent the measurement of gravitational acceleration in units of “gals“. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

GRAIL measured the gravity around the Orientale basin. Colors represent the measurement of gravitational acceleration in units of “gals“. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What does a 3.8 billion-year-old crater have in common with data from a pair of spacecraft that crashed into the Moon nearly four years ago? Both are helping to provide clues about the geology of Earth’s natural satellite.

Though the Moon may be Earth’s nearest neighbor in space, that doesn’t mean it has long since given up its secrets. NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) twin spacecraft orbited the Moon for nearly a year, collecting a wealth of gravitational field data, before impacting the Moon’s surface on December 17, 2012.

Researchers have been poring over the data collected from 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) above the enormous Mare Orientale impact basin, and have published two papers in the journal Science this week – one focusing on understanding the structures of large impacts, and the other detailing how Orientale formed and applying that information to create simulations accurately portraying the formation of the basin.

Of particular interest was the structure of the crater itself. With smaller impacts, “classic” bowl-shaped craters are formed. However, larger collisions create a markedly different formation – wide, flat basins, often with multiple walls or rings. It had been theorized that the rings in Orientale were remnants of the initial impact.

Read much more in my full piece at SpaceFlight Insider

Commercial Crew: It was never about saving money

"Going my way?" NASA's astronauts have had to hitch a ride with the Russians since the cancellation of the Shuttle program in 2011. Credit: William Neff/The Plain Dealer

“Going my way?” NASA’s astronauts have been forced to hitch a ride with the Russians since the cancellation of the Shuttle program in 2011. Credit: William Neff/The Plain Dealer

The Bear knows how to play Monopoly

The last time NASA had to pony up for astronauts to hitch a ride to the International Space Station (ISS) with the Russians on their venerable Soyuz spacecraft, they paid — on average — nearly $82 million per seat, for a total of six seats. That’s $490 million to get six astronauts to the ISS.

Think about that for a moment: almost half a billion dollars to ferry six people to the ISS. It would appear that our formerly communist rivals learned that capitalism can sometimes be a very profitable thing – Soyuz seats have increased 384 percent in 10 years. Having no competition allows Russia to increase prices with relative impunity.

To be fair, that amount does cover more than just taxi service to the orbiting outpost — launch services and flight training are also included in that “low, low” price. However, that’s still a heck of a lot of money to be sending to a government that may be actively operating against American institutions.

Oh, and there are those little incidents in Syria and Crimea, too. It would seem as if it’s not the best idea to rely upon “The Bear” for any longer than is necessary.

Thankfully, since 2010, NASA has been working with private companies as part of their Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program, with the goal of accelerating development of commercial space capabilities and returning human launches to US soil. Read More →

Orbital ATK’s S.S. Alan Poindexter arrives at the ISS

Orbital ATK's S.S. Alan Poindexter, designated OA-5, arrives at the International Space Station on Sept. 23, 2016. Credit: NASA

Orbital ATK’s S.S. Alan Poindexter, designated OA-5, arrives at the International Space Station on Sept. 23, 2016. Credit: NASA

Nearly a week after its launch, Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft berthed with the International Space Station (ISS) on Sunday, October 23, 2016, at 10:53 a.m. EDT (14:53 GMT), 250 miles (402 kilometers) above the Indian Ocean, and is attached to the nadir (Earth-facing) port on the station’s Unity module.

The S.S. Alan Poindexter, designated OA-5 under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services 1 (CRS-1) contract, delivered 5,300 pounds (2,400 kilograms) of cargo to the orbiting outpost and marks the third flight of the enhanced iteration of the uncrewed cargo vessel, and the first on the redesigned Antares medium-class launch vehicle.

Read more in my full piece on SpaceFlight Insider.

How much wind load did the Vehicle Assembly Building withstand during Hurricane Matthew?

The setting sun illuminating the side of the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building. Credit: Curt Godwin

The setting sun illuminating the side of the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building. Credit: Curt Godwin

Let me start by stating, in no uncertain terms, that I am not a structural engineer. I am also not a genius (hush, peanut gallery). I didn’t even stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night. So, super smart brainiac-types, you can sheath your slide rules and programmable calculators — I know that I might not have this exactly right.

What I am, however, is a person who took some publicly-announced information, and plugged it into some formulas meant to determine wind loads on various structures. Yay, spreadsheets!

If you read my piece about how Kennedy Space Center (KSC) fared after being battered by Hurricane Matthew, then you’ll know that both KSC Center Director Bob Cabana and KSC Damage Assessment and Recovery Team Chief Bob Holl stated that Hurricane Matthew’s winds at ground level were 75 knots, and a blustery 118 knots above 100 feet (30.48 meters).

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NASA’s JPL hopes to improve nuclear batteries used on spacecraft

DOE contractor guides the removal of the cask protecting Curiosity's MMRTG. Credit: NASA

DOE contractor guides the removal of the cask protecting Curiosity’s MMRTG. Credit: NASA

Radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) have been the power source for many of the most ambitious exploration missions in NASA’s history, powering spacecraft in areas too remote, or too impractical, for solar panels to provide sufficient electricity. A new development to this power-generating workhorse may soon substantially improve the capabilities of the RTG, possibly benefiting both interplanetary missions and daily life here on Earth.

In an Oct. 13, 2016, releaseNASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) outlined the potential to increase the efficiency of the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG), and make it hardier in the process.

“NASA needs reliable long-term power systems to advance exploration of the Solar System,” said Jean-Pierre Fleurial, supervisor for the thermal energy conversion research and advancement group at JPL.

To that end, JPL engineers look to make use of a class of materials known as skutterudites. These minerals…

Read more in my full article at SpaceFlight Insider –>

Damage from Hurricane Matthew is far less than feared at Kennedy Space Center

NASA's Kennedy Space Center sustained less damage than feared. The new headquarters building fared well, as the the VAB (background). Credit: NASA

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center sustained less damage than feared. The new headquarters building fared well, as the the VAB (background). Credit: NASA

Many feared the worst for NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in the early morning hours of Oct. 7, 2016, as Hurricane Matthew lashed the Cape Canaveral area with wind speeds up to 135.8 mph (218.5 km/h). Though expected to make landfall as a Category 4 storm, Matthew remained offshore slightly weakened to Category 3, sparing KSC from the full fury of the Atlantic basin storm.

On Oct. 12, 2016, KSC Director Bob Cabana and Damage Assessment and Recovery Team (DART) Chief Bob Holl briefed the media about how the center fared after its brush with the storm.

Both Cabana and Holl described winds of 75 knots (86.31 mph / 138.9 km/h) at ground level, and 118 knots (135.8 mph / 218.5 km/h) above 100 feet (30.48 meters). The eye of Hurricane Matthew wobbled more than 20 miles (32.2 kilometers) offshore on its journey up the Florida coast and did not make landfall at the Cape, as was feared.

Read more in my piece for SpaceFlight Insider –>

President Obama maintains Mars as NASA’s focus

NASA's Journey to Mars was reaffirmed in an op/ed piece issued by President Obama on Oct. 11, 2016. Image credit: NASA

NASA’s Journey to Mars was reaffirmed in an op/ed piece issued by President Obama on Oct. 11, 2016. Image credit: NASA

In an opinion piece written for CNN Oct. 11, 2016, President Barack Obama reiterated his support for NASA’s Journey to Mars. Under current plans, the U.S. space agency hopes to send astronauts to the Red Planet in the next 15–20 years.

“We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.”

Indeed, the President had initially outlined a plan for the space agency in 2010, directing NASA to build a new heavy-lift rocket, designed to carry crew to Mars in the mid-2030s. As such, today’s announcement from Obama wasn’t particularly noteworthy in its content; however, it did serve to reaffirm the President’s vision for the nation’s space program.

Read more in my full piece at SpaceFlight Insider.

Interesting details emerge regarding NASA’s involvement with Red Dragon

Rough mission profile of SpaceX's notional Red Dragon mission. Credit: SpaceX

Rough mission profile of SpaceX’s notional Red Dragon mission. Credit: SpaceX

In NASA’s weekly Future In-Space Operations (FISO) teleconference, Phil McAlister — NASA’s Director of Commercial Spaceflight Development — discussed the agency’s involvement with SpaceX on the company’s Red Dragon mission, tentatively scheduled for May 2018.

First, a little history

SpaceX surprised the world when it announced the mission on April 27, 2016, by proposing to launch an uncrewed Dragon v2 capsule — dubbed ‘Red Dragon’ in reference to its destination — to Mars in 2018 and land the capsule on the surface of the planet. Though NASA has been successful in landing craft and rovers on the Red Planet, the heaviest has been Curiosity. However, NASA needs to be able to do more than that.

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