Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Look Out Below

An artist's concept of the Terrestrial Return Vehicle. Image source: Intuitive Machines.

Popular Science posted an article October 17 about a company called Intuitive Machines which hopes to develop what the magazine called a “UPS-Style Shipping Service” for the International Space Station.

Except there’s one little snag when it comes to conducting experiments on the ISS: It’s kind of far away. Getting critical samples from the station to Earth can be a lengthy process, and researchers usually have to wait anywhere from six months to a year before samples can make the trip to laboratories on the ground. These long waits can be risky, as live biological samples have a perishable lifespan and often need to be reviewed quickly before they degrade.

Well now, private spaceflight company Intuitive Machines has a solution to this problem. In cooperation with NASA, the company is developing the Terrestrial Return Vehicle (TRV), a spacecraft that can deliver experiment samples from station to Earth in less than 24 hours. Think of it as same-day shipping for the ISS. Such a short sample return time opens up more opportunities for research on the ISS that could never have been done before.

“Those experiment samples are left stranded on board until we can get a whole vehicle up there packed with 5,000 pounds of return cargo,” Steve Altemus, president of Intuitive Machines, tells Popular Science. “In our paradigm, we have opportunities to come home every single day, bringing critical samples home when they’re needed.”

According to the company's web site:

Intuitive Machines in cooperation with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been selected by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to develop a Terrestrial Return Vehicle (TRV) that will enable on demand, rapid return of experiments from the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory. Through this commercial service, Intuitive Machines will enable researchers to regularly and quickly return small samples and components from the ISS to Earth ... As part of this new venture Intuitive Machines is responsible for the overall design and certification of the return vehicle, as well as terrestrial payload return services for its customers. CASIS will provide integration onto a commercial launch vehicle for access to the ISS, as well as on-orbit flight operations services.

The Popular Science articles states a TRV will be “about the size of a bag of golf clubs.”

After it enters the Earth’s atmosphere, the TRV will release a super sonic drogue parachute to slow down its descent. Then, at about 25,000 feet, it will deploy a parafoil, allowing it to steer more easily to its landing site — a test range in the Utah desert. In total, the TRV’s return trip to Earth will take a mere six hours, which is comparable to how fast the Shuttle used to come home from the ISS.

In this artist's concept, the TRV ejects from the Japanese Experiment Module Kibo on the ISS. Image source: Intuitive Machines.

According to the company, the first TRV will be launched in 2016, presumably aboard either a SpaceX Dragon or Orbital Sciences Cygnus vehicle.

It's a neat idea, but immediately a few safety concerns come to mind.

Presumably the TRV will have some sort of hypergolic fuels on board to steer it into the atmosphere. Hypergolic propellants spontaneously ignite when in contact with each other, eliminating the need for an ignition source. The Space Shuttle had 44 Reaction Control System (RCS) jets that used hypergolic fuels to maneuver while in orbit.

Launching a hypergolic-fueled TRV inside a Dragon or Cygnus means that essentially the cargo craft is carrying a bomb on board.

In the early days of the Space Shuttle program, the orbiter was used to launch satellites from its payload bay despite the presence of fuel on the payload. The 1990 Augustine Commission report titled “Report of the Advisory Committee On the Future of the U.S. Space Program” stated that “in hindsight” it was “inappropriate in the case of Challenger to risk the lives of seven astronauts and nearly one-fourth of NASA's launch assets to place in orbit a communications satellite.”

Aside from the ignition potential, a leak of a toxic propellant would also be of concern, for no other reason than contamination of other experiments aboard.

Even though people won't be aboard the Dragon or Cygnus, I have to wonder how other ISS customers will feel about these “bombs” being aboard. The risk management people are going to have a field day.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Camping in Space

Click the arrow to watch the Alyssa Carson interview on CBS This Morning.

Huntsville's Space Camp was founded in 1982, according to its web site, “to inspire and motivate young people from around the world to join the ranks of space pioneers who persevere to push the boundaries of human exploration.”

I became aware of the program in 1986 when, less than five months after the Challenger accident, a movie called SpaceCamp was released in theatres. The movie is a bit silly, but at its core was the message that, give a positive direction early in life, youth can make a contribution to the future of humanity.

I was 29 when the film was released, too young for the kiddie corps, but found out they also offered adult programs. I attended Space Camp's adult program in November 1986, then returned in 1989 and 1994. During the 1994 visit, my peers voted me the Right Stuff award, which sits here on my desk.

I credit Space Camp with helping to start me on the journey that brought me from California to here on the Space Coast, where I'm now part of the third generation of human spaceflight.

That third generation might include Alyssa Carson, a 13-year old from Louisiana who puts my Space Camp record to shame.

According to her web site, Alyssa has been to the Hunstville Space Camp twelve times, as well as the Space Camps in Canada and Turkey, and the Sally Ride Camp.

Her call sign “Blueberry” was given her at Space Camp due to her diminutive size and the blue Space Camp flight suit she wears.

(My powder blue Space Camp flight suit from 1986 still hangs in the closet, but alas it no longer fits ... Let's see if yours fits when you're 58, Alyssa.)

In recent weeks, Alyssa has become a media sensation, including appearances on CBS This Morning and Al Jazeera America. She has also given a TedX talk, in Kalamata, Greece. She says her goal is to be on a human spaceflight to Mars.

Click the arrow to watch Alyssa Carson's TedX talk in Kalamata, Greece on June 7, 2014. Video source: trebprod YouTube channel.

You can follow her exploits on Twitter at @NASABlueberry1.

Another Space Camp alumna is Abigail Harrison, who goes by Astronaut Abby. Her web site is and you can follow her on Twitter at @AstronautAbby. She's four years older than Alyssa. Abby has also been invited to give a TedX lecture.

Click the arrow to watch Abigail Harrison's TedX talk in Tampa on October 25, 2013. Video source: TEDx Talks YouTube channel.

Space Camp alumni are changing the world. The Space Camp Hall of Fame includes Samantha Cristoforetti, scheduled to launch to the International Space Station on Expedition 42 on November 23. Samantha attended Space Camp at age 18.

When SpaceX launched its first Dragon demonstration flight ot the International Space Station on May 22, 2012, a Space Camp alumna was standing in the front row of the employees watching outside Mission Control. Watch for the Space Camp T-shirt.

SpaceX employees watch the Falcon 9 launch the Dragon COTS demonstration flight on May 22, 2012. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

The Space Camp web site credits Dr. Wernher von Braun for the original Space Camp idea. Von Braun “reasoned there should be an experience for young people who were excited about space.” He passed away in 1977, but Space Camp began five years later.

Maybe, one day, we'll see a Space Camp on Mars. Led by Blueberry and Astronaut Abby.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Retro Saturday: Атомный флагман (Atomic Flagship)

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: Archival Video YouTube channel.

Something a little different for your Retro Saturday.

Атомный флагман (Atomic Flagship) is a 1959 Soviet documentary about the atomic-powered ice-breaker, Ленин (Lenin). The film runs about 21 minutes. It's narrated with an English-language voiceover.

According to Wikipedia, Lenin was “both the world's first nuclear-powered surface ship and the first nuclear-powered civilian vessel. Lenin entered operation in 1959 and worked clearing sea routes for cargo ships along Russia's northern coast. She was officially decommissioned in 1989. She was subsequently converted to a museum ship and is now permanently based at Murmansk.”

I don't think this quite qualifies as a propaganda film, but it has all the trappings. A great classical orchestra and sophisticated cinematography. It also would have made a great target for Mystery Science Theater 3000.

X-37B Returns to Earth

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: 30th Space Wing, Vandenberg AFB YouTube channel.

As reported by NBC News and other media outlets, the X-37B landed yesterday at Vandenberg AFB after nearly two years in space.

Boeing built two of these vehicles for the U.S. Air Force. This one launched December 11, 2012 from Cape Canaveral's Pad 41 for its second flight.

The orbiters will land in the future at Kennedy Space Center's former Shuttle runway. Two former orbiter hangars are being refurbished near the Vehicle Assembly Building to house the vehicles.

James Dean of Florida Today writes this morning that, “The Air Force said it is preparing to launch a fourth X-37B mission from the Cape next year.”

Friday, October 17, 2014

One Hot Video

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: Video YouTube channel.

NASA's Space Technology Launch Directorate released today infrared footage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 first-stage re-lighting its engine to steer back towards a theoretical landing site.

The booster's landing legs weren't installed for the September 21 launch of the Dragon cargo supply flight to the International Space Station, but it was an opportunity to put the stage through its paces.

According to the NASA press release:

NASA equipped two aircraft with advanced instrumentation to document re-entry of the rocket's first stage. The first stage is the part of the rocket that is ignited at launch and burns through the rocket's ascent until it runs out of propellant, at which point it is discarded from the second stage and returns to Earth. During its return, or descent, NASA captured quality infrared and high definition images and monitored changes in the smoke plume as the engines were turned on and off.

NASA's interest in the flight was potential technology for a Mars mission.

“Because the technologies required to land large payloads on Mars are significantly different than those used here on Earth, investment in these technologies is critical,” said Robert Braun, principal investigator for NASA's Propulsive Descent Technologies (PDT) project and professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. “This is the first high-fidelity data set of a rocket system firing into its direction of travel while traveling at supersonic speeds in Mars-relevant conditions. Analysis of this unique data set will enable system engineers to extract important lessons for the application and infusion of supersonic retro-propulsion into future NASA missions.”