Saturday, November 29, 2014

Retro Saturday: Project Centaur Report January-June 1965

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

If you like watching rockets blow up, this film is for you.

The Atlas-Centaur was a General Dynamics Convair Division Atlas booster topped with a Centaur upper stage developed by the same company. The Centaur would be used to propel payloads into orbit and beyond.

Launch Complex 36 at today's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station was built specifically for the Atlas-Centaur. Pad 36A was completed by the U.S. Air Force, then the complex was transferred to NASA which essentially completed Pad 36B but left it inactive. NASA intended to use Atlas-Centaur for the Surveyor program that would place robotic vehicles on the Moon to test landing procedures for the astronauts that would follow by the end of the 1960s.

Pad 36B would come in handy when the Atlas-Centaur AC-5 test launch on March 2, 1965 blew up two seconds after liftoff. While 36A was being repaired, NASA activated 36B to continue the program.

This week's Retro Saturday film is a semi-annual report on the Atlas-Centaur program for NASA by General Dynamics. It begins with the AC-5 explosion and the investigation. The footage might remind you of the Orbital Sciences Antares explosion on October 28, 2014 at NASA Wallops.

If you're familiar with CCAFS today, you can see glimpses of locations that no longer exist, such as the old house once at the lighthouse site.

LC-36 was last used for a launch in 2005. The service towers were demolished in 2007. The complex today is leased to Space Florida which hopes to lease the pads to commercial launch companies.

The General Dynamics Convair Division was sold in 1994 to McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed. Its Atlas-Centaur film collection was donated by Lockheed Martin and United Launch Alliance to the San Diego Air and Space Museum, which posted it on YouTube. The audio is fairly poor due to the original condition as uploaded by SDASM.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Different Perspective

Click the arrow to watch the video on YouTube.

Back in April 2010, a friend invited me to watch the STS-131 launch with orbiter Discovery from the Kennedy Space Center press site across the Vehicle Assembly Building. The press site is about 3 ½ miles from Pad 39A.

Discovery launched at 6:21 AM on April 5, 2010. I used my camcorder to film the experience, not just the launch but what goes on nearby. You never see that on television.

In this video, you'll hear the launch commentary over the public address system, you'll see the Close Out Crew arrive after placing the astronauts aboard the orbiter, and you'll hear the ambient chatter.

At about the 5:20 mark, you'll see the International Space Station transit the Moon. Since the ISS is the orbiter's destination, of course Discovery has to launch when the station is flying overhead so they're on the same orbit.

At the 6:35 mark, you'll hear the T-minus five minute call. From that point, the video is continuous all the way through launch until the orbiter is a star on the horizon.

Be sure to crank up your speakers at the 11:30 mark to fully experience the sound of the launch.

Before the launch, I asked the gentleman in front of me not to stand in front of my camcorder. He assured me he'd comply, but he did it anyway as Discovery cleared the tower. After the launch, he turned to me and said, “Did I ruin your shot?” I replied, “Yes, but it's too late now.”

At the end of the video, you'll see up close KSC's black security helicopter after it lands on the helipad outside the VAB.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Clock Runs Out

November 23, 2014 ... The last intact day for the countdown clock. Image credit:

After 45 years of service, NASA has dismantled the iconic countdown clock at the Kennedy Space Center press site.

According to, the clock does not appear in archival footage until the Apollo 12 launch in November 1969.

According to Popular Mechanics:

It's easy to see the retirement of the 26 foot wide clock — which premiered at the Apollo 12 moon landing launch in 1969 — as yet another sign of the changing times. With the cancellation of the space shuttle program, the clock's last countdown was actually for a SpaceX resupply mission to the International Space Station.

But resist the temptation to wax nostalgic. NASA is spending $280,000 on a new, modern upgrade — which was direly needed. Not only was the clock falling into disarray, but repairs were becoming prohibitively expensive for the clock's antiquated technology (keep in mind, the clock was still using 40 watt bulbs for its digital display).

The clock eventually will go on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, although a location is yet to be determined. KSCVC will assume the burden of maintaining the aged technology, or replacing it with new electronics to simulate the old countdown.

A May 2013 NASA video documenting the countdown clock.

Below are NASA media photos of the clock being dismantled on November 24.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Top This

The Orion EFT-1 capsule and abort tower atop a Boeing Delta IV Heavy at the Cape's Launch Complex 37. Image source: United Launch Alliance.

United Launch Alliance today released a photo of the Orion capsule atop its Delta IV Heavy at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It's scheduled to launch December 4 on an uncrewed test flight.

NASA today issued a press release on the Orion launch and mission operations teams conducting a dress rehearsal.

The flight controllers who will launch and operate Orion during its Dec. 4 flight test are conducting a mission dress rehearsal today to make sure they have the plans for the 4 ½-hour flight down solid and to refine any areas. The teams, which communicate across several NASA centers and facilities at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and around the country, will be able to practice contingency scenarios as well in case they are needed for Orion’s flight test. NASA will work closely with Orion builder Lockheed Martin and United Launch Alliance — which operates the Delta IV Heavy rocket — throughout the flight.

An artist's concept of the Orion separating from the Boeing Common Booster Core. Image source: NASA.

Fit to Print

ISS Commander Barry Wilmore holds up the first object made in space with additive manufacturing or 3-D printing. Image source: NASA.

An historic first for human spaceflight was performed today when the first 3-D printer in space replicated its own label.

According to the NASA press release:

NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore, Expedition 42 commander aboard the International Space Station, installed the printer on Nov. 17 and conducted the first calibration test print. Based on the test print results, the ground control team sent commands to realign the printer and printed a second calibration test on Nov. 20. These tests verified that the printer was ready for manufacturing operations. On Nov. 24, ground controllers sent the printer the command to make the first printed part: a faceplate of the extruder’s casing. This demonstrated that the printer can make replacement parts for itself. The 3-D printer uses a process formally known as additive manufacturing to heat a relatively low-temperature plastic filament and extrude it one layer at a time to build the part defined in the design file sent to the machine.

On the morning of Nov. 25, Wilmore removed the part from the printer and inspected it. Part adhesion on the tray was stronger than anticipated, which could mean layer bonding is different in microgravity, a question the team will investigate as future parts are printed. Wilmore installed a new print tray, and the ground team sent a command to fine-tune the printer alignment and printed a third calibration coupon. When Wilmore removes the calibration coupon, the ground team will be able to command the printer to make a second object. The ground team makes precise adjustments before every print, and the results from this first print are contributing to a better understanding about the parameters to use when 3-D printing on the space station.

California-based Made in Space manufactured the printer, which was delivered in September by the SpaceX Dragon CRS-4 cargo delivery flight.

Made in Space issued this press release today:

“When the first human fashioned a tool from a rock, it couldn’t have been conceived that one day we’d be replicating the same fundamental idea in space,” said Aaron Kemmer, CEO of Made In Space, Inc. “We look at the operation of the 3D printer as a transformative moment, not just for space development, but for the capability of our species to live away from Earth.”

NASA’s 3-D Printing Project Manager Niki Werkheiser discusses the installation of the 3-D printer on the ISS. Video source: ReelNASA YouTube channel.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Retro Saturday: Computer for Apollo

Click the arrow to watch the documentary. Video source: alijanlondon YouTube channel.

What do you get when nerds have their own TV series? This week's Retro Saturday!

MIT Science Reporter was a public television series on WGBH in Boston in the 1950s and 1960s. To quote from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology museum web site:

In the early days of Boston public broadcasting, MIT was a main supporter of WGBH, whose Channel 2 television effort began in space rented from the Institute near the current Stratton Student Center. MIT and WGBH jointly produced MIT Science Reporter, a pioneering effort to ask scientists and engineers to explain their work to a general audience on television. The program, hosted by deep-voiced MIT science reporter John Fitch ('52), offered lengthy but easily understood interviews that represented a broad range of subjects. Shot with very few takes, the programs required intensive planning. Candid correspondence between WGBH and MIT indicates that some of the “talent” (aka the faculty) were more adept than others at giving a good interview. The goal was to increase public understanding of science and technology not only through broadcasts of the program, but also through a special lending library that made 16mm film copies available to schools and libraries across the nation.

This episode, “Computer for Apollo,” is about ... well, just what the title suggests. According to the MIT museum web site:

This 1965 “Science Reporter” television program features the Apollo guidance computer and navigation equipment, which involve less than 60 lbs of microcircuits and memory cores. Scientists and engineers Eldon Hall, Ramon Alonzo and Albert Hopkins (of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory) and Jack Poundstone (Raytheon Space Division in Waltham MA) explain and demonstrate key features of the instruments, and detail project challenges such as controlling the trajectory of the spacecraft, the operation of the onboard telescope, and the computer construction and its memory. The program was presented by MIT in association with WGBH-TV Boston, and hosted by MIT reporter John Fitch; it was produced for NASA. MIT Museum Collections.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

To Be or Not To Be

Carl Sagan lectures in December 1988 at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. Video source; The Book Archive YouTube channel. You may be subjected to an ad first.

The USA Today editorial board published an opinion column on November 10 which seemed to conclude that the recent Orbital Sciences and Virgin Galactic accidents prove that humans should no longer go into space, because it's too dangerous and costly. Robots can do it cheaper and more safely.

The editorial begins by dismissing NewSpace commercial enterprises, claiming they rely on “thermal rocketry” which is too expensive, and that they rely too much on tax dollars. But then they conclude that “the most exciting things to come from private enterprise, just as from NASA, are likely to involve putting machines in space, not humans.”

The USA Today editorial is so confused that the authors don't even understand the difference between a thermal rocket, which would be a nuclear or solar powered vehicle, and a chemical rocket, which is today's common propulsion such as used on Antares and SpaceShipTwo.

Some commercial enterprises, such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR, receive no tax dollars. They're 100% funded by private investors, although some day the government might be a customer.

Setting aside the article's rhetorical muddle, it seemed intended to provoke yet another round in the endless debate over the value of human spaceflight versus robotics.

The European Space Agency made history on November 12, 2014 when the Rosetta mission's Philae lander settled on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

The first image from the surface of a comet, released November 13. Image source: European Space Agency.

The comet is 319 million miles from Earth, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

No human lives were risked.

The cost was 1.4 billion euros, or about $1.7 billion, a pittance compared to the cost of a human mission. At a June 25 hearing of the House Science Committee, the co-chairs of a team that delivered a report called Pathways to Exploration estimated that a human spaceflight to Mars could cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and might not be achieved until the 2050s.

But the Philae mission ended prematurely. The lander's harpoons failed to fire, so the lander bounced around the surface, settling a kilometer from its intended site. The result was that the solar panels were unable to fully recharge. ESA reported the primary science mission was completed before Philae went into hibernation mode, but much more work had been planned.

It takes about a half-hour for a signal to travel between Rosetta and Earth, meaning an hour for a problem to be reported and a fixing command to be received.

What if Rosetta had a human operator who was able to navigate Philae in real time? Might the problems have been avoided? Would a human presence have been worth the additional expense and risk?

Twenty-six years ago, astronomer and science populist Carl Sagan delivered a lecture at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute in which he ridiculed any scientific justification for human spaceflight.

This lecture was a little less than three years after the Challenger accident. The Space Shuttle had resumed flights only three months earlier. President Ronald Reagan had proposed Space Station Freedom in January 1984, but that project was nowhere close to completion; in fact, the House of Representatives came within one vote of cancelling the Space Station in June 1993.

Sagan claimed that, “Other things being equal, robotic spacecraft costs tens of times less than a comparable manned mission.” He also complained that it had been ten years since a planetary spacecraft mission had been launched. “The United States has opted out of planetary exploration,” he declared.

Planetary Society co-founders Bruce Murray, Carl Sagan and Louis Friedman. Image source: KPCC-FM.

Being an astronomer, Sagan of course had his own interests. His co-founding The Planetary Society in 1980 was intended to “demonstrate — simply by its existence — that the public strongly supported planetary exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life and to wave that fact in the faces of politicians and policy makers around the world,” according to their web site.

Other space advocacy groups existed, such as the National Space Institute and the L5 Society; the latter in particular was founded to promote human space settlement. (The two would merge in 1987.) Why another?

Sagan's activism could be perceived as capitalizing on his popularity to steer limited government space dollars away from human spaceflight to robotic planetary science. In a December 1980 essay published in The Planetary Report, Sagan wrote that “a vigorous program of unmanned planetary exploration would cost about a tenth of a percent of the federal budget; the Voyager spacecraft, when they are finished with their explorations, will have cost about a penny a world for every inhabitant of the planet Earth.”

During his December 1988 GWU lecture, Sagan was far more strident in dismissing human spaceflight.

There is nothing in robotic exploration of the planets, in great astronomical observatories in Earth orbit, in instruments in Earth orbit monitoring the health of our global environment, that requires people. It is much more cost-effective, and in some cases much more reliable, to use robots than humans. Nevertheless, NASA is strongly oriented towards manned and womaned spaceflight. As all ongoing bureaucracies, it probably needs a reason to continue flying people.

Sagan recounted the origins of the 1960s human lunar spaceflight program. “Apollo was a political program,” he said, not a scientific program. “Programs of that magntitude are driven by political, not scientific, reasons.”

In Sagan's view, during the post-Apollo era, “NASA has been left to design its own justification, and when any bureaucracy is left to do that, it does what all bureaucracies do — it attempts to preserve the jobs of everybody who’s employed at that particular moment, and you get a very interesting pastiche of unrelated programs.”

At the time of this speech, Mikhail Gorbachev had just become chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, consolidating his rule of the Soviet Union. His policies of glasnost and perestroika were opening his nation to the West, and eventually led to the downfall of the Soviet empire.

Sagan, for decades a peace activist, foresaw using NASA again as a political tool to help end the Cold War.

I maintain that there is no good justification for us spending badly needed funds on a human mission to Mars other than the political goal of international cooperation with specific attention to improving relations on a long-term basis with the Soviet Union ...

There’s lots of terrific science — geology, meteorology, seismometry, possibly biology to keep scientists happy. But I stress, you could do all that with robots. The reason for sending people there has to be political.

Six years later, Sagan published Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.

The title in itself was rather surprising, because for much of the last fifteen years he'd seemed to dismiss a human future in space, other than political.

(Click the image to view at a larger size.) According to The Planetary Society web site, “This image of Earth is one of 60 frames taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft on February 14, 1990 from a distance of more than 6 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane. In the image the Earth is a mere point of light, a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size. Our planet was caught in the center of one of the scattered light rays resulting from taking the image so close to the Sun.”

What may have changed his thinking was the “Pale Blue Dot” image taken at his suggestion by Voyager 1 on February 14, 1990. It showed that “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.”

Sagan wrote on page 171:

When you pack your bags for a big trip, you never know what's in store for you. The Apollo astronauts on their way to and from the Moon photographed their home planet. It was a natural thing to do, but it had consequences that few foresaw. For the first time, the inhabitants of Earth could see their world from above — the whole Earth, the Earth in color; the Earth as an exquisite spinning white and blue ball set against the vast darkness of space. Those images helped awaken our slumbering planetary consciousness. They provide incontestable evidence that we all share the same vulnerable planet. They remind us of what is important and what is not. They were the harbingers of Voyager's pale blue dot.

Those images could have been made by robots. But for Sagan, the fact that humans did it in his view created a consciousness for our species that we have a communal responsibility to protect our homeworld.

In the chapter “Scaling Heaven,” Sagan repeats his earlier arguments about government-sponsored human spaceflight being largely political. “Governments do not spend these vast sums just for science, or merely to explore. They need another purpose, and it must make real political sense.”

It's not enough to go to Mars because some of us have dreamt of doing so since childhood, or because it seems to us the obvious long-term exploratory goal for the human species. If we're talking about spending this much money, we must justify the expense.

Sagan wrote that “Human spaceflight in general — to say nothing of expeditions to Mars — would be much more readily supportable if, as in the fifteenth-century arguments of Columbus and Henry the Navigator, there were a profit lure.” But the dawn of the NewSpace era of commercial spaceflight was nearly twenty years in his future. In his time, attempts to commercialize space failed, due to the absence of visionary entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Bob Bigelow, and no Lori Garver willing to challenge a hidebound NASA bureaucracy protecting its turf.

Bigelow Aerospace founder Bob Bigelow meets on February 4, 2011 with NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. Image source:

On page 218, Sagan proposes what sounds a lot like today's NASA Asteroid Initiative:

The notion that rare materials might be available elsewhere is tempered by the fact that freightage is high. There may, for all we know, be oceans of petroleum on Titan, but transporting it to Earth will be expensive. Platinum-group metals may be abundant in certain asteroids. If we could move these asteroids into orbit around the Earth, perhaps we could conveniently mine them.

If Carl lived today, I have to wonder if he would embrace the NewSpace movement.

In my opinion, space exploration isn't a human/robotic either/or question.

Robots are a tool for humans to use as humans see fit.

Voyager, Rosetta, the Mars Curiosity rover, and other robotic missions are simply tools humans created to help them explore.

But they don't mean that humans will never follow.

They prepare the way.

If robotic technology had existed in the 15th Century, would the Spanish monarchy have sent robots instead of people in an effort to find a shorter trade route to the East Indies?


But what would those robots do when they encountered an unexpected land mass with peoples of unknown origin?

Sailing in commercially contracted vessels, Columbus used his expertise with trade winds to cross the Atlantic. He and his crews were learning how to navigate using the technology available at the time.

And that's what humanity does today on the International Space Station.

Just as did the explorers of 500 years ago, we use the technology available at the time to prepare the way for humans — not to prepare the way for the technology.

Communication signals travel at the speed of light, but that cosmic speed limit also limits our ability to remotely control robotic craft.

It takes a little over a second for signals to travel between Earth and the Moon.

But with Mars, it would be different. Depending on the positions of the planets, a signal could take anywhere from three to twenty-two minutes.

A signal one-way to Rosetta is about a half-hour.

Humans can't possibly remote-control a robot with that kind of time-delay. All they could do is program the robot with artificial intelligence and hope for the best.

So having a human nearby, perhaps manipulating the robot from the safe environment of a mother ship, could improve a mission's chances of success.

But to populate the solar system with humans means bringing down the cost while maintaining safety. That was the idea behind the birth ten years ago of NASA's commerical space programs — to build “a robust space industry” that would “become a national treasure.”

The solution for commercialization of space exploration is for NASA to help humans do what they've always done — develop and use the tools at their disposal in search of the “profit lure.”

A January 2013 Deep Space Industries promotional film.

An October 2014 Planetary Resources promotional film.

Two U.S. companies are already paving the way for commercial asteroid mining, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries. A third company, Asteroid Initiatives, describes itself as an asteroid prospecting company “dedicated to leveraging the technology developed for cubesats, chipsats, and solar sails to dramatically lower the cost of asteroid exploration, making prospecting for resource exploitation and mining commercially feasible. Before you can do asteroid mining, you have to do asteroid prospecting.”

Is this much different from the technologies evolved during the California Gold Rush of the mid-19th Century?

It's no surprise that on November 13 Deep Space Industries added a mining entreprenur to its board of directors. To quote from the press release:

“Space resources is a fast-moving investment frontier and I really like DSI’s focus on using materials that are already out there,” said new Board member, Julian Malnic. “Deep Space Industries is not just an innovator in its industry, it is pioneering it. Using asteroid materials must be the primary basis for any serious development of space. I think DSI is very well positioned to do this.”

The crews on the International Space Station are learning how humanity can live “off the land” when literally there is no land.

Robotic cargo ships deliver supplies every few weeks. Machines recycle urine and sweat into drinking water. Plants are grown in microgravity. A NASA humanoid robot is aboard learning how to walk, and soon may be joined by a Russian counterpart.

On November 17, the first 3-D printer was installed. Mike Snyder, Lead Engineer for manufacturer Made in Space, said in the press release:

This experiment has been an advantageous first stepping stone to the future ability to manufacture a large portion of materials and equipment in space that has been traditionally launched from Earth surface, which will completely change our methods of exploration.

When settlers crossed the Old West, they stayed in or near forts. The forts of 21st Century expansion into the solar system will be the Bigelow Aerospace expandable habitats.

Computer animation of the Bigelow BEAM docking at the ISS. Video source: Video YouTube channel.

In 2015, a test version of the habitats will be sent to the ISS for a two-year test. Called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), it will be folded inside the trunk of SpaceX Dragon CRS-8, attached to an ISS docking port using a Canadian robot arm, and then inflated.

We have the people, the tools, the resources and the profit lure.

Now it's time for history to repeat itself.

When Carl Sagan's Cosmos series aired in 1980, he led his viewers through the wonders of the universe on a mythical vessel called the Spaceship of the Imagination.

At a time when Carl opposed human spaceflight in favor of robotic craft, he was on TV leading us on a great exploration aboard a machine where a person controlled the bridge.

Perhaps it took the Pale Blue Dot for him to realize the contradiction.

If Carl were still with us, I would ask him if he might rethink his position on human spaceflight if NASA focused its talents on the “profit lure” with the Asteroid Initiative, the ISS, NewSpace partnerships and robotic spacecraft scouting the way.

In an era where planetary science still fights for scraps with other underfunded NASA programs, perhaps he'd conclude that NewSpace will awaken a new wonder in the nature of our universe — in the finest tradition of Cosmos.

Carl Sagan on the bridge of the Spaceship of the Imagination. Image source:

Scum and Villainy

Click here to watch Part 1 of the “Star Wars Holiday Special.” You've been warned. Video source: jonas knochelmann YouTube channel.

Thirty-six years ago tonight, the Star Wars franchise was horribly scarred forever.

CBS aired the Star Wars Holiday Special. It aired ironically on the Saturday night before Thanksgiving, an early turkey for families across the North American continent.

It was so bad that it never aired again. George Lucas swore it would never again see the light of day. Carrie Fisher jokes that she plays it at parties when she wants people to leave.

Bootlegs have circulated on VHS for decades, so it's not surprising that the special finally surfaced on YouTube with a multi-generation copy.

An entire web site, The Star Wars Holiday Special, is dedicated to documenting this cinematic horror.

The special has been uploaded to YouTube in seven segments. Above is Part 1. You can find the links for the rest on YouTube if you're a masochist.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Retro Saturday: Project Mercury

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: wdtvlive42 YouTube channel.

Yet another Mercury program for your Retro Saturday ... This is a 1960 film simply entitled Project Mercury.

The film is mostly about the training the astronauts were doing that year. Although the flights had yet to begin, most of the emphasis is on Atlas orbital flights, not the earlier suborbital flights on Redstone.

At about the ten-minute mark, you'll see a simulation of a capsule sinking due to a missing hatch. One wonders if Gus Grissom recalled this after the Liberty Bell 7 splashdown.

At around the 13-minute mark, you'll see the Mercury Mission Control at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Look for a young (compared to Apollo days) flight director Christopher Kraft.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

NTSB: Pilot Unaware Wings Had Been Unlocked

The National Transporation Safety Board released an update yesterday on its Virgin Galactic investigation.

Surviving pilot Peter Siebold told investigators he was unaware that co-pilot Michael Alsbury had unlocked the feathered wings of SpaceShipTwo.

Unlocking the wings does not deploy them, but the procedure is not to unlock the wings until the motor shuts down at 1.4G. Premature deployment of the wings would cause extreme instability, which was proven by the incident.

Although the publicly released evidence to this point increasingly suggests co-pilot error, at the same time it also suggests a design flaw that allowed the wings to deploy even though the command wasn't given.

Here is the complete press release.

The National Transportation Safety Board issued an investigative update today into the crash of SpaceShip Two on Oct. 31, 2014, in Mojave, Calif.

  • The on-scene portion of the investigation into the crash of Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, a test flight conducted by Scaled Composites, has concluded and all NTSB investigators have returned to Washington, DC.
  • The SpaceShipTwo wreckage has been recovered and is being stored in a secure location for follow-on examination.
  • The NTSB operations and human performance investigators interviewed the surviving pilot on Friday. According to the pilot, he was unaware that the feather system had been unlocked early by the copilot. His description of the vehicle motion was consistent with other data sources in the investigation. He stated that he was extracted from the vehicle as a result of the break-up sequence and unbuckled from his seat at some point before the parachute deployed automatically.
  • Recorded information from telemetry, non-volatile memory, and videos are being processed and validated to assist the investigative groups.
  • An investigative group to further evaluate the vehicle and ground based videos will convene next week at the NTSB Recorders Laboratory in Washington, D.C.
  • The systems group continues to review available data for the vehicle's systems (flight controls, displays, environmental control, etc.). The group is also reviewing design data for the feather system components and the systems safety documentation.
  • The vehicle performance group continues to examine the aerodynamic and inertial forces that acted on the vehicle during the launch.

The investigation is ongoing. Any future updates will be issued as events warrant. Follow the investigation on Twitter at @ntsb, on our website at, or sign up to receive ntsb news releases.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Rosetta on a Stone

Click the arrow to watch a summary of the Rosetta mission. Video source: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory YouTube channel.

It may have landed once.

It may have landed twice.

But it did land.

Will it stay put? We don't know yet.

Anyway, ESA's Rosetta probe today successfully placed its Philae lander on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

Initial reports suggest the harpoons that were to have secured the lander to the surface failed to fire, but ice screws may be holding it in place.

A photo of the comet taken by Philae three kilometers from the surface. Image source: European Space Agency.

One commercial asteroid mining company, Asteroid Initiatives, suggests this technology could be used by its industry.

During the landing, I couldn't help but wonder what Carl Sagan would think about this mission if he were alive. I'm sure he'd be overjoyed, for the science but also for the technological achievement.

In that Saganesque theme, ESA released this computer generated imagery of the Rosetta landing due a musical score by Vangelis, who did the score for the original Cosmos in 1980.

Click the arrow to watch “Philae's Journey” with music by Vangelis. Video source: European Space Agency, ESA YouTube channel.

UPDATE November 13, 2014ESA released the first image taken by Philae on the comet's surface.

Orion Roll

Click the arrow to watch the rollout. Video source: NASAKennedy YouTube channel.

NASA rolled over Orion last night from the Launch Abort System Facility to the Boeing Delta IV Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The winding road provided for photo opportunities outside the Vehicle Assembly Building and Launch Complex 39B, where the next Orion is planned to launch atop the Space Launch System by the end of 2018.

During the days of Gemini and Apollo, capsules launching from the Cape left the Industrial Area headed eastbound across NASA Causeway to the Air Force Station's Industrial Area. I asked why Orion wasn't following the same route and got this answer.

Orion after arriving at Launch Complex 37. Image source: NASA.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Report: Pilot Error Responsible for SpaceShipTwo Loss

A Wall Street Journal report claims that the SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise co-pilot unlocked the feathered wing deploy mechanism without being commanded to do so by the pilot.

(If the WSJ pay wall blocks you from seeing the entire article, use Google to search the headline, “Commander of Virgin Galactic Craft Didn’t Order Tail Surfaces Unlocked Before Crash.” That usually circumvents the pay wall.)

The co-pilot of the Virgin Galactic LLC rocket ship that crashed during a test flight last week unlocked movable tail surfaces earlier in the flight than normal without being instructed to do so by the craft’s commander, according to people familiar with the investigation ...

The latest information buttresses the theory that [Michael] Alsbury acted unilaterally to unlock the tail surfaces, contrary to normal timing and procedures the two aviators discussed during a briefing before the accident. A second lever is used to actually deploy the feathering system, which is designed to slow the craft as it returns from space and to set it up for a safe glide back to Earth.

The article reports that pilot Peter Siebold still hastn't been interviewed by the National Transportation Safety Board investigators due to his physical condition. According to the article, Mr. Siebold remains on heavy painkillers, and the NTSB wants to wait until his medications are reduced.

Despite early Internet rumors blaming a new motor design for the accident, the article states, “The motor performed as expected, these people said, including shutting down once sensors detected problems with the flight.”

I will note that the article's co-author, Andy Pasztor, has a reputation for writing inaccurate articles about NewSpace companies.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

ZGSI Goes to Market

On November 3 I wrote about Zero Gravity Solutions Inc. had begun filling commercial orders for its product BAM-FX™, an agricultural nutrient delivery system originally developed for growing food crops in space vehicles on deep space missions.

ZGSI issued a new press release November 5 announcing that “has completed the regulatory requirements necessary to commence the sale and distribution of the Company’s first commercial product, BAM-FX in seven states.”

As part of the rollout of BAM-FX in key agricultural markets, initially in North America, Mexico, Chile and select international markets, the Company is now establishing a master dealer and distributor network.

“In order to accelerate utilization of our new BAM-FX technology for the agricultural industry, we are concentrating on those crops for which our data has shown increased yield and economic benefits by using BAM-FX,” stated Glenn Stinebaugh, CEO of BAM Agricultural Solutions, Inc.

The seven states in which the Company has finalized the regulatory requirements to commence sales and distribution of BAM-FX are: Utah, Idaho, Iowa, Maryland, Delaware, Nevada, Arizona; California, Texas and Florida are pending.

I'm looking forward to finding BAM-FX on the shelf at my local Home Depot ...

Retro Saturday: Mercury Control Center

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

This week's Retro Saturday is not an old film, but a film about an old subject.

According to the Kennedy Space Center history web site, the Mercury Mission Control Center building was constructed between 1956 and 1958. It was originally known as Receiver Building 3. Designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it included a large roof for telemetry equipment and a data processing area. Two small additions were made to Receiver Building 3 in 1959 and the facility became known as the Mercury Control Center.

For more information about the history of the structure, click here to download a PDF of a 2010 historical engineering record.

The film was “stretched” from standard dimensions to widescreen by someone, so that's why it looks a bit distorted.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Book Review: "Infinite Worlds"

“Infinite Worlds” was released by Simon & Schuster on October 28, 2014.

What would you think if an astronaut asked you for advice?

That was the “beginning of a beautiful friendship,” to quote the final line from Casablanca, between photographer Michael Soluri and the crew of STS-125 Atlantis.

Having established a track record photographing launches going back to Apollo 16, Soluri approached NASA with the idea of documenting those working on the final Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission — not just the crew, but the thousands of workers behind the scenes who go unseen by the public.

Any professional photographer knows that light is everything when it comes to shooting imagery. You need to know its properties, its behaviors, how its presence or absence can affect the results of your work.

When Soluri presented his portfolio to the crew, he asked astronaut Mike Massimino, “What is the quality of light really like in space?”

Massimino replied, “Could you teach us to take better photographs of our trip to space? To better communicate our experiences and tell our story?”

A Michael Soluri image of astronaut Mike Massimino.

And so began a “beautiful friendship” between Soluri and the STS-15 crew that resulted in Infinite Worlds: The People and Places of Space Exploration, released on November 4, 2014 by Simon & Schuster.

The publisher sent me a copy and asked me to write a review.

Infinite Worlds nominally follows the STS-125 mission, although it strays off into tangential subjects from time to time.

As with all coffee table books, its raison d'être is to display Soluri's artistry.

I was particularly intrigued by his use of black-and-white for many images, because the deliberate choice not to use color film gives the artist the ability to play with shades of gray, with shadow and light, or the absence of light.

An example of this is in Soluri's essay “Time and Distance” at the end of the book, where he shows a spontaneous black-and-white image he shot of his shadow and those of other photographers as they waited for the Apollo 16 crew to exit the Operations and Checkout building. “Needing something to pass the time,” he writes, “I started photographing my shadow to give context to a significant place and moment in time.”

Having been a professional photographer myself, I know that boredom can be a stimulant for a photographer's fertile mind.

Michael Soluri's monochromatic image of STS-125 astronaut John Grunsfeld.

Soluri's artwork is on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit.

Some of the monochromatic images in the book appear in color at the exhibit, so either he chose to desaturate color images, or used two different media in photographing his images.

Infinite Worlds begins with a foreword by John Glenn, who was the first person to take a sunrise picture in space, during his Friendship 7 flight in February 1962. Glenn used a hand-held camera; Soluri writes that Glenn had to “buy an over-the-counter camera for his mission.”

John Glenn's orbital sunrise image taken on Friendship 7, February 20, 1962. Image source: The Ohio State University Knowledge Bank.

The book has four chapters spanning about 300 pages.

The chapter titles are “On Earth,” “On Orbit Around Earth,” “On Capturing Ancient Light” and “On the End of One Era and the Beginning of the Next.” Chapter 4 is the shortest chapter, with only two essays.

The book's essays are written by a diverse choice of authors — astronauts, astronomers, program managers, trainers, Shuttle maintenance workers and more.

Certain names appear throughout the essays, in particular Frank Cepollina, who was Deputy Associate Director of the Hubble Space Telescope office at the Goddard Space Flight Center. At age 78, Cepollina is still with NASA's Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office at Goddard.

Cepollina has his own essay, but his name appears throughout the book, as revered as the fictional version of Gene Kranz in the movie Apollo 13.

As with nearly all the essayists, Cepollina writes how a childhood exposure to aviation inspired him to a career in aerospace.

The source of inspiration seems to vary based on the author's age. With Cepollina, it was World War II-era bombers. With other writers, the inspiration came from TV shows such as Sky King or Star Trek. Several cite the Apollo moon missions.

A Michael Soluri image of Frank Cepollina.

If you're looking for all the references in the book to Cepollina, they're not easy to find. The book lacks an index.

I also found frustrating the absence of captions on many photos. For those of us intimately familiar with Shuttle, we can figure out most of the subject matter. For everyone else, it's art, but of what may be left to the reader's imagination.

A few of the essayists exploited their opportunity to express their political beliefs about the end of the Space Shuttle program, which I found to be inappropriate.

The three who did so had one common trait — they worked at Kennedy Space Center.

Their ignoring the reasons why Shuttle was cancelled reminded me of what the Columbia Accident Investigation Board wrote in its final report about the NASA culture:

External criticism and doubt, rather than spurring NASA to change for the better, instead reinforced the will to “impose the party line vision on the environment, not to reconsider it,” according to one authority on organizational behavior. This in turn led to “flawed decision making, self deception, introversion and a diminished curiosity about the world outside the perfect place.” The NASA human space flight culture the Board found during its investigation manifested many of these characteristics, in particular a self-confidence about NASA possessing unique knowledge about how to safely launch people into space.

The book in general, and these three essayists in particular, leave the reader with the false impression that the U.S. human spaceflight program is over, which it most certainly is not.

Two of the essaysists assert that Congress should just give NASA a whole lot of guaranteed funding over a long period of time and then be left alone to do as it will. In my opinion, this reflects not only a cluelessness about the political process, but a fundamental disrespect for the American taxpayer who funds their work and the representatives elected to oversee them. I'm just as guilty of bashing Congress as anyone — and the bashing is well-deserved — but at the same time it seems to me that if you expect the government to provide you with a lifetime job, you should respect the right of those people to oversee what you do.

All the essays document the incredible complexity of Shuttle, and the endless hours of training necessary to make it safe to fly.

A Michael Soluri image of the Space Shuttle with Atlantis on the launch pad. Image source: NPR.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded:

Although an engineering marvel that enables a wide-variety of on-orbit operations, including the assembly of the International Space Station, the Shuttle has few of the mission capabilities that NASA originally promised. It cannot be launched on demand, does not recoup its costs, no longer carries national security payloads, and is not cost-effective enough, not allowed by law, to carry commercial satellites. Despite efforts to improve its safety, the Shuttle remains a complex and risky system that remains central to U.S. ambitions in space. Columbia's failure to return home is a harsh reminder that the Space Shuttle is a developmental vehicle that operates not in routine flight but in the realm of dangerous exploration.

It was that “complex and risky” nature of Shuttle that led NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe to cancel the final Hubble servicing mission because it was considered to be too dangerous. Michael Griffin, his successor, reversed that decision, which led to the STS-125 flight.

The incredible talents of those writing for this book did what they could to make Shuttle safe, but for me it was like doing everything they could to assure a square peg could fit in a round hole. That was the “engineering marvel” of Shuttle, and of the extraordinary people who made Shuttle fly.

At a retail price of $40, Infinite Worlds isn't for everyone.

It serves best as a keepsake for those who worked on Shuttle, for those intimately familiar with the program, and for those who wish to study the art of monochrome photography.

As a historical document, it's both a visual and written insight into the thousands of people who worked on Shuttle, and on Hubble. But it should also be noted that a few of the essays stray off into political opinion, leaving behind historical accuracy.

Infinite Worlds is available through the Simon & Schuster web site or other online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

For more of Michael Soluri's monochromatic artistry, check out this July 2011 NPR article, “Then And Now: The Labor Of American Human Space Flight.”

T-Minus One Month for Orion

Click the arrow to watch the media event. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

NASA held a media briefing yesterday to discuss the upcoming launch of the Orion Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) atop a Boeing Delta IV on December 4.

According to a NASA press release, Orion leaves Kennedy Space Center's industrial area on Monday November 10 for transport over to Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

EFT-1 is an uncrewed test flight, sending Orion 3,600 miles from the Earth on a two-orbit mission before it returns to a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

Warp Speed

Click the arrow to watch Dr. White's presentation to the NASA Ames Research Director’s Colloquium on August 12, 2014. Video source: NASA Ames Reseach Center YouTube channel.

Is a warp drive possible?

Possible, yes.

Feasible ... Not so much.

Harold “Sonny” White is the Advanced Propulsion Team Lead for the NASA Engineering Directorate. Based at Johnson Space Center, his speciality is advanced and exotic propulsion projects.

In 2011, he released a paper at the 100 Year Starship Symposium titled Warp Field Mechanics 101 which explored the known and theoretical physics necessary to travel at warp speed.

A sequel paper was released in 2013, titled Warp Field Mechanics 102: Energy Optimization.

White's research has earned him notoreity in popular media as the man figuring how to make the Star Trek warp drive work.

An artist's concept of Matt Jeffries' 1960s idea for the Starship Enterprise. Image source: Mark Rademaker.

In the above video, Dr. White shows an early 1960s concept for the Starship U.S.S. Enterprise designed by aviation artist Matt Jeffries, as envisioned by digital artist Mark Rademaker. White states that Jeffries' rejected design actually has some of the correct physics to make warp speed work, such as the rings around a central spacecraft.

A child recently asked me, “How close is NASA to warp drive?” The answer is “Not very,” but someone at NASA is thinking about it, demonstrating that Star Trek continues to inspire a half-century after its debut on American television.

Water Boys

Click the arrow to watch. Video source: NASA's Marshall Center YouTube channel.

The International Space Station was envisioned as humanity's permanent microgravity research platform. Materials may behave differently in microgravity than on Earth.

A simple demonstration of that is with water. The above video, posted November 3 on the Marshall Space Center YouTube channel, shows how surface tension becomes a dominant property when gravity is absent.

To quote from Wikipedia:

The cohesive forces among liquid molecules are responsible for the phenomenon of surface tension. In the bulk of the liquid, each molecule is pulled equally in every direction by neighboring liquid molecules, resulting in a net force of zero. The molecules at the surface do not have other molecules on all sides of them and therefore are pulled inwards. This creates some internal pressure and forces liquid surfaces to contract to the minimal area.

Surface tension is responsible for the shape of liquid droplets. Although easily deformed, droplets of water tend to be pulled into a spherical shape by the cohesive forces of the surface layer. In the absence of other forces, including gravity, drops of virtually all liquids would be approximately spherical. The spherical shape minimizes the necessary “wall tension” of the surface layer according to Laplace's law.

In the NASA video, U.S. astronauts Steve Swanson and Reid Wiseman are joined by ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst to demonstrate the properties of surface tension — by inserting a GoPro camera into a blob of water.

Boys will be boys.

If you have red-blue 3D stereoscopic glasses, click here to watch the video in 3D.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Orbital: до свидания to Russian Engines

An Orbital Sciences Antares rocket with two AJ-26 engines rolls out in October 2012. Image source: NASA via Wikipedia.

One week after its Antares rocket was destroyed on launch, Orbital Sciences issued the below press release today announcing it will retire the AJ-26 engines in favor of a new design.

The engines were modified Russian NK-33 engines originally built for a Soviet moon program around 1970.

The press release cites preliminary analysis that “points to a probable turbopump-related failure in one of the two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 stage one main engines. As a result, the use of these engines for the Antares vehicle likely will be discontinued.”

Until the new design is ready, Orbital will attempt to fulfill its commercial cargo contract using another unidentified booster. The obvious candidates are a SpaceX Falcon 9, a Lockheed Martin Atlas V or a Boeing Delta IV. Another possibility is to go international, perhaps with an Ariane V.

UPDATE November 5, 2014 7:00 PM EST — Here is the audio of this morning's teleconference with Orbital Sciences chairman and CEO David Thompson.

Click the arrow to listen to the teleconference.

Orbital Announces Go-Forward Plan for NASA's Commercial Resupply Services Program and the Company's Antares Launch Vehicle
— Revised Approach Will Maintain Required ISS Cargo Deliveries in 2015 and 2016 —
— Accelerated Propulsion System Upgrade of Antares to be Implemented at Wallops —

(Dulles, VA 5 November 2014) – Orbital Sciences Corporation (NYSE: ORB), one of the world’s leading space technology companies, today announced comprehensive plans to fulfill its contract commitments under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program as well as to accelerate an upgrade of the Antares medium-class launcher’s main propulsion system. Under the new approach and in line with Orbital’s existing CRS contract, all remaining cargo will be delivered to the International Space Station (ISS) by the end of 2016. There will be no cost increase to NASA and only minor adjustments will be needed to the cargo manifest in the near term.

Orbital’s Antares launch failure Accident Investigation Board (AIB) is making good progress in determining the primary cause of last week’s failure. A preliminary review of telemetry and video data has been conducted and substantial debris from the Antares rocket and its Cygnus payload has been collected and examined. While the work of the AIB continues, preliminary evidence and analysis conducted to date points to a probable turbopump-related failure in one of the two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 stage one main engines. As a result, the use of these engines for the Antares vehicle likely will be discontinued.

To maintain the CRS program’s critical ISS supply line, Orbital plans an early introduction of its previously selected Antares propulsion system upgrade in 2016. This will be preceded by one or two non-Antares launches of the company’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the ISS in 2015-2016, employing the spacecraft’s compatibility with various launch vehicles and its flexibility to accommodate heavier cargo loads as launcher capacity permits. In addition, the company expects repairs to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) launch complex at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility to be undertaken quickly, allowing launch operations to continue at Wallops Island with the upgraded Antares beginning in 2016.

“Orbital is taking decisive action to fulfill our commitments to NASA in support of safe and productive operations of the Space Station. While last week’s Antares failure was very disappointing to all of us, the company is already implementing a contingency plan to overcome this setback. We intend to move forward safely but also expeditiously to put our CRS cargo program back on track and to accelerate the introduction of our upgraded Antares rocket,” said Mr. David W. Thompson, Orbital’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer.

“Exact financial impacts to Orbital will depend on which of several specific options for near-term launches is selected, but they are not expected to be material on an annual basis in 2015. In all cases, no significant adverse effects are projected in 2016 or future years, in part because the cost of the Antares propulsion system upgrade was already part of our internal investment plan during that time,” he added.

“We very much appreciate the tremendous support Orbital has received from NASA and Virginia’s MARS commercial spaceport team over the last seven years on our Antares rocket and CRS cargo programs. We look forward to working closely with them to quickly recover from last week’s setback,” Thompson concluded.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

NTSB Updates SpaceShipTwo Loss

Click the arrow to watch the briefing. Video source: NTSBgov YouTube channel.

The National Transportation Safety Board held its final regularly scheduled press briefing Monday afternoon to discuss their investigation into the loss of Virgin Galactic's ShipShipTwo VSS Enterprise.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

The National Transportation Safety Board confirmed Monday night that the copilot who died in the fatal crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo prematurely unlocked the spacecraft's aerodynamic controls.

After some confusion, acting chairman Christopher Hart clarified that 39-year-old Michael Alsbury, who died in Friday's crash, was in the right seat. He flipped a switch to unlock a lever that may have caused the spacecraft's tail to rise and create drag — an action known as “feathering.”

That action occurred moments before SpaceShipTwo "disintegrated," according to the NTSB.

SpaceShipTwo is designed and built by Scaled Composites for Virgin Galactic. If the NTSB concludes that the vehicle design led to pilot error, then Scaled would be responsible for the redesign, not Virgin.

Although Virgin has its own pilots, both pilots at the controls Friday worked for Scaled.

According to a Washington Post report:

Employees at Scaled Composites, the firm that designed the space plane, on Friday were able to watch video camera feeds from inside the cockpit and outside the spaceship during its flight.

“There are dozens of reasons why mistakes like this one could be made,” said another Scaled test pilot.

That pilot went on to explain that there was a rule that anyone flying the spaceship could not re-configure the vehicle without the verbal acknowledgment of both pilot and co-pilot. It is unclear whether that protocol was followed. Normally, the co-pilot would announce when Mach 1.4 had been reached — the proper speed to unlock the feather. The pilot would acknowledge and command the co-pilot to unlock the feather. Once the feather was unlocked, the co-pilot would announce the maneuver had been completed.

A number of sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the company has forbidden interviews with the media, described seeing Alsbury unlock the feather and then appear to realize there was an error, moving quickly as if he was trying to shut off the motor, but it was too late.

These sources said that within the company, there is a growing recognition that Alsbury, the co-pilot, unlocked the feather early, although it is not clear why. Colleagues say Alsbury was one of the sharpest test pilots on the team, with more than 1,600 hours of flight experience in more than nine different aircraft.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Planting Roots in Space

Click the arrow to watch a July 2013 ZGSI promotional video. Video source: ZEROGSI YouTube channel.

About a year ago I wrote about Zero Gravity Solutions Inc., a NewSpace company based in Boca Raton using the International Space Station to develop microgravity agricultural solutions.

Their web site's home page features an image of the ISS with the caption, “This is our lab, 354km above the Earth.”

Last month on October 9, ZGSI issued a press release announcing their subsidiary BAM Agricultural Solutions “has commenced manufacturing, sales and revenue generation through the receipt of commercial-quantity orders for the Company's first agricultural product, BAM-FX. Zero Gravity Life Sciences will continue ongoing research and development work in conjunction with NASA and other institutions.”

According to their web site:

ZGSI's BAM-FX™ technology brings agriculture to a new era through a patented, nutrient delivery system platform technology that allows plants to systemically absorb almost any mineral from the soil, improving survivability and nutritive value. This groundbreaking new technology was originally developed by ZGSI founder and Chief Science Officer John W. Kennedy for growing food crops in space vehicles designed for deep space human missions, but has been found to have potentially far reaching applications also here on Earth.

Another ZGSI technology, Directed Selection™, “is a proprietary technology designed to use the unique conditions of near-zero gravity in low earth orbit to create plants with beneficial traits of great value to humanity.”

ZGSI's IP, derived from six research flights aboard the International Space Station (ISS), predicts that plant and animal stem cells exposed to prolonged microgravity in space can be endowed with new characteristics of great benefit to mankind. This Directed Selection technology was conceived by co-founder of ZGSI, John W. Kennedy, as a means to harness the natural genetic capacity present in the genome of the plant. Like all living things, plants include in their DNA a host of stress and immune responses, developed over the evolutionary history of the plant species. The stress response systems of plants include a native immune system, response to cold, drought or degrees of osmoprotection (salt-tolerance). Directed Selection uses the natural adaptation capacity of the plant, “activated” by microgravity in space, to direct plants toward valuable attributes, and the beneficial traits in the plant are achieved without Genetic Modification.

NTSB: Pilot Unlocked Feathers Early

Click the arrow to watch the November 2, 2014 update. Video source: NTSBgov YouTube channel.

Ever since the SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise broke up over the Mojave desert Friday, self-declared experts on Twitter and space advocacy sites have bashed Virgin Galactic and its founder Richard Branson for what they claimed was a fundamentally unsafe motor design they believed caused the accident.

Now that the real experts are on the scene, those sitting in their armchairs are being proven wrong.

At a media briefing late yesterday, NTSB acting chariman Christopher Hart said that the vehicle's engines and tanks have been found intact.

NTSB investigators did find evidence that one of the pilots unlocked the vehicle's feather wings prematurely.

An artist's concept shows that SpaceShipTwo "feathers after rocket burn." Click the image to view at full size. Image source: Virgin Galactic.

According to Aviation Week:

The NTSB-led investigation team probing the cause of the Oct. 31 crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo says two seconds before beginning to break-up in midair, the vehicle's two moveable tail booms unexpectedly began to deploy into a “feathering” position.

Revealing the findings, NTSB chairman Christopher Hart says camera footage and telemetry show that around nine seconds after ignition of the hybrid rocket the mechanism that controls the stowage of the moving tails moved from 'lock' to 'unlock.' Hart adds that as the vehicle accelerated through about Mach 1, the co-pilot was seen to move the locking handle. Normal procedure is to unlock the feathers after Mach 1.4 so that aerodynamic forces do not prematurely extend the mechanism.

In normal operations the feathering device is designed to be activated outside of the sensible atmosphere before the vehicle begins its descent. In addition to the locking mechanism, the feathering device requires the activation of a second handle. The feather system acts like a shuttlecock and was originally conceived by Scaled Composite designer Burt Rutan as a carefree re-entry method for recovery of SpaceShipOne. The feathering system was deliberately deployed supersonically as a part of earlier powered flight tests of SS2. However in each previous deployment, activation either occurred in thinner air at higher altitudes, or during unpowered flights at much slower speeds than the ill-fated flight on Oct 31.

Hart stressed that the finding is “a statement of fact rather than a statement of cause.” There is no evidence yet that a pilot activated the second handle.

CNN reported:

During feathering, two pieces on the back of the vehicle — the “feathers” — lift up perpendicular to the spaceship, making the vehicle look like it's arching its back as it descends.

But on Friday, “the feather lock-unlock lever was moved by the co-pilot from the locked position to the unlocked position” prematurely, the National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday night.

On top of that, the feathers aren't supposed to move until a separate feathering handle is activated. No one adjusted that handle; yet the feathers were still deployed, NTSB acting chairman Christopher Hart said.

But Hart stressed it was unclear whether pilot error, mechanical problems or a host of other possibilities caused the spacecraft to break apart in the air.

These latest findings are a reminder that the investigative process should always be respected. The uninformed should not jump to conclusions based on media or other amateur punditry.

UPDATE November 3, 2014 10:00 AM EST — Here is raw video from a tail camera of the SpaceShipTwo powered test flight on September 5, 2013. The word “unlocking” is spoken at the 37-second mark in the footage.

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

Sunday, November 2, 2014

TMRO on Orbital, Virgin Galactic

Click the arrow to watch the TMRO episode on YouTube.

The weekly webcast program TMRO features interviews with eyewitnesses to the Virgin Galactic and Orbital Sciences losses earlier this week. Well worth your time to watch.

NTSB Investigates SpaceShipTwo Loss

The National Transportation Safety Board began its investigation Saturday of the loss of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise.

According to the Los Angeles Times:

Christopher Hart, acting NTSB chairman, said the wreckage of SpaceShipTwo was spread over five miles in the Mojave Desert, suggesting an “in-flight break up.”

After the first day of the investigation, Hart said NTSB officials have also determined that the breakup and subsequent crash were filmed by at least six on-board cameras, a camera at Edwards Air Force Base and cameras on a "chase aircraft" that was following SpaceShipTwo's test flight from Mojave.

“Because it was a test flight it was heavily documented in a way that we don’t normally see in accidents,” Hart said.

It could take up to a year for investigators to determine the cause of the crash. NTSB officials will remain in Mojave for at least seven days.

Earlier in the day, authorities identified the craft's two test pilots as Michael Alsbury, 39, who was found dead at the crash site with the main fuselage, and Peter Siebold, 43, who suffered a shoulder injury.

The NTSB has been posting video of the investigation on their YouTube channel.

Click the arrow to watch the first media briefing on November 1. Video source: NTSBgov YouTube channel.

Click the arrow to watch B-roll footage of NTSB investigators visiting the debris field on November 1. Video source: NTSBgov YouTube channel.

Click the arrow to watch the second media briefing on November 1. Video source: NTSBgov YouTube channel.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

An Unexpected Lesson

Click the arrow to watch the Al Jazeera America report.

Many experiments were lost when the Orbital Sciences Orb-3 mission was destroyed October 28.

This Al Jazeera America report tells of four teenage girls, Iraqi refugees, from Wilkinson Middle School in Madison Heights, Michigan who lost their experiment flying on Cygnus.

According to the Detroit Free Press, the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education which sponsored the experiment hopes to fly it again on the SpaceX Dragon CRS-5 in December that will launch from Cape Canaveral.

Retro Saturday: Project Mercury Report (1959)

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

This week's Retro Saturday is a quarterly report prepared by NASA in late 1959 to brief Congress about Project Mercury.

The Mercury program pre-dated the creation of NASA on October 1, 1958. The military had considered various human spaceflight programs, but none were given much priority until after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957.

The year 1958 saw the United States government decide to create a civilian space agency based on the existing National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. The old NACA was combined with several civilian space programs from the Defense Department to create NASA.

Project Mercury was approved on October 7, 1958, and publicly announced December 17, 1958.

The quarterly reports began a year later. I haven't been able to find much information on them, other than apparently there were a series of these produced for Congress in the next few years.