Atlantis – And Then There Were None

Atlantis Reentry
Atlantis Reentry as seen from the International Space Station
Image Credit: NASA

Atlantis Cockpit View of Dawn and Kennedy Space Center
Atlantis Cockpit View of Kennedy Space Center
Image Credit: NASA TV

Atlantis Approach to the Runway
Atlantis Approach to the Runway
Image Credit: NASA TV

Atlantis Touchdown
Atlantis Touchdown at Kennedy Space Center
Image Credit: NASA TV

Atlantis and Crew
Atlantis, Astronaut Crew, and Ground Crew.
Image Credit: NASA

Official landing times:

Mission Elapsed Times (MET):

Main Gear Touchdown: MET 12/18:27:56 – 9:57:00 am UTC
Nose Gear Touchdown: MET 12/18:28:16 – 9:57:20 am UTC
Wheel Stop: MET 12/18:28:50 – 9:57:54 am UTC

High resolution images of Atlantis are now on

Craters on Vesta

Vesta Craters
Craters on Vesta
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft obtained this image of the protoplanet Vesta with its framing camera on July 18, 2011. It was taken from a distance of about 10,500 kilometers. The smallest detail visible is about 2.0 km.

In August, Dawn will begin sending images from its high resolution camera.

NASA Job Fair Planned in Cape Canaveral, July 26 2011

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and Brevard Workforce are partnering to host a job fair with private sector companies and federal employers from across the country on July 26. The Space Coast Job Fair and Hands-on Training Event takes place at 11 a.m. EDT at the Radisson Resort at the Port, 8701 Astronaut Blvd., Cape Canaveral, Florida. More than 45 employers are expected to take part in the event.

NASA has been working with local, state and federal officials to provide future planning support and placement for non-civil servant contractors who work to support the Space Shuttle Program, which will end next month. In addition to this event, NASA’s Human Resources Office has hosted workshops, seminars and other events to help prepare employees for future opportunities. For more information about Kennedy’s work force support efforts, visit:

The National Space Society and Space Frontier Foundation also maintain directories of space companies. Visit these to find future job openings:

Mission to Asteroid Itokawa – The Seven Year Voyage

ISDC conference report by Dave Fischer

Professor Jun’ichiro Kawaguchi presented the history and results of the Hayabusa program, formally known as MUSES-C. Kawaguchi Professor Kawaguchi is the Program Manager for the MUSES-C program at the Lunar and Planetary Exploration Program Group at JAXA.

The spacecraft was launched on 9 May 2003. It was primarily an engineering demonstration project, with the following objectives:

  • 1. Interplanetary cruise via ion engines as the primary propulsion system
  • 2. Autonomous navigation and guidance using optical measurements
  • 3. Sample collection from an asteroid surface under micro gravity
  • 4. Direct reentry for the sample recovery capsule from interplanetary orbit
  • 5. Combination of low thrust and gravity assist for interplanetary missions

The spacecraft was relatively small with dimensions of 1.0m x 1.6m x 1.1m. It weighed a total of 510 kg, of which 380 kg was the spacecraft, instruments and engines, 70 kg of chemical fuel for thrusters and 60 kg of Xenon for the ion propulsion system. The engine was composed of four chambers, each of which developed seven (7) millinewtons of thrust with an isp of 3,000 seconds.

Professor Kawaguchi noted that the mission mostly entailed overcoming obstacles. He presented the following time line illustrating the issues encountered and solved:

  • 2004 Fall – Largest solar flare ever of class X25.
  • 2005 August – One Reaction wheel lost.
  • Arrival at Itokawa.
  • 2005 October – Second Reaction Wheel lost.
  • 2005 November – Fuel leak after the second touchdown.
  • 2005 December – Gas eruption tumbled the space craft. Contact was lost for seven weeks.
  • 2005 December – Functioning of the chemical engines was lost. Battery went dead.
  • 2006 January – Restoration of attitude control with Xenon cold gas.
  • 2006 – Refurbish operation. New attitude control established via Solar Radiation Torque. Charged the battery.
  • 2007 January – Closing of the capsule lid succeeded.
  • 2007 – First half of the ion engine delta-v burn completed.
  • 2009 March – April – Second half of the ion engine delta-v burn completed.
  • 2009 November – Ion engine emergency stop due to “End of Life”.
  • 2009 November – New ion engine configuration worked
  • 2010 June 13 – Final four burns and Re-entry and Recovery of the Capsule.

One of the major accomplishments of the Hayabusa mission was the demonstration of the navigation capabilities of the instruments related to surface detection and ranging. To this end, three markers were deployed as references in order to help zero out horizontal velocity. Using observations by the spacecraft for navigation, positioning improved by 1000%. Horizontal velocity was controlled to within one (1) centimeter per second (cm/s) and position was determined within 10 meters.

The goal was to land on the central (relatively) smooth portion of the asteroid. Eventually, Hayabusa touched down within 500 meters of the original target selected at the beginning of the mission.

One of the major achievements using the navigation system was the placement of the markers, followed by the return to one of them a week later. This was shown by the photographs taken of Itokawa and the navigation markers by the camera aboard Hayabusa:

White Navigation Marker placed 20 November 2005
Shadow of Hayabusa upon Autonomous Return on 26 November 2005.
Image Credit: JAXA

Professor Kawaguchi then discussed the scientific results from the mission. Initial observations from the return capsule did not show much. Eventually, about 1500 particles from Itokawa were recovered. All were smaller than 100 micrometers. Researchers across Japan took 52 of these particles and applied a range of microanalytical techniques – XRD, XRF, UMT, FIB, TEM, SEM, EPMA and SIMS. This alphabet soup clearly showed that Itokawa was a space-weathered ordinary LL chondrite asteroid. [Note: the results were presented at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas, from 7 – 11 March 2011]

Professor Kawaguchi also commented that a follow on mission – Hayabusa 2 – is in the works for the 2014 timeframe.

Endeavour Docked with the International Space Station

NASA has released images of Endeavour and the ISS.

They were taken by Paolo Nespoli from TMA-20 as the Russian spacecraft departed on 23 May.

Endeavour and ISS
Space Shuttle Endeavour Docked with the International Space Station
Image Credit: NASA / Paolo Nespoli

ISDC 2011 – Flight System Development Forum

ISDC conference report by Dave Fischer

This is the first of two articles about the NASA Heavy Lift Vehicle program mandated by Congress.

Dan Dumbacher, Director of Engineering (NASA HQ)
Todd May, Associate Director, Technical (NASA MSFC)
Garry Lyles, Associate Director for Technical Management (NASA MSFC)

Dan Dumbacher introduced the panel by noting that NASA has been tasked with development of the next Heavy Lift Vehicle, and the folks at the Marshall Space Flight Center would like to get on with the job of building the next launch vehicle.

However, NASA’s budget is constrained by the current economy, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Indeed, it is likely to decrease somewhat over time.

The primary challenges in the confusing state of affairs revolve around the constituencies, as it always does in a political environment. The NASA Reauthorization Act of 2010, the 2011 budget from the administration, and the language of the compromise budget resolution for NASA in the summer of 2011 have all contributed to the muddled state of affairs.

The current manned programs include the International Space Station and Commercial Cargo and Crew. The new beyond-low-Earth-orbit program will require new infrastructure, a new launch vehicle, a new spacecraft (such as the Orion – Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle), and ground support.

Todd May comes from the International Space Station project, certainly the most ambitious and complex international project ever conducted. Todd reviewed the results of the 13 heavy lift proposals received from industry. There is no magic rocket. However, cost was heavily influenced by NASA management and oversight practices as well as flight rate.

Garry Lyles then gave a detailed description of the work done over the past year on the heavy lift vehicle. Interestingly, he noted that he had spent time at a conference of building architects. They taught him that design beauty grew out of the requirements of the building, and that operational simplicity grew out of internal complexity.

He chose to test the concept of machine beauty with the Requirements Analysis Cycle (RAC). Three teams were created. One was devoted to Lox/H2, the second to Lox/RP and the third could choose either combination, but would focus on a lean manufacturing philosophy. Their results would be folded into the first two teams within the first half of the cycle. The final instructions to the teams were to be innovative and have fun.

The teams conducted several thousand parametric studies. One result was that many combinations would satisfy the physical requirements. By the end of the studies, the primary drivers of affordability, however, turned out to be lean systems engineering, stable requirements and simple organization. Reduction in development time was critical. Private industry knew that first to market with reduced cycle time meant lower people costs, which are a major component of overall costs. The subject of how NASA’s program might relate to Falcon Heavy was not addressed.

Difficult changes will be required from the traditional risk-averse NASA culture in order to accomplish these goals. It is going to be hard for NASA to adapt and adopt the key practices:

1. The machine will be complex, but the operation must be simple
2. Adjust the design in order to simplify the manufacturing process
3. Requirements must be early and stable
4. There must be margin in performance
5. Cycle time must be as quick as possible, but no quicker
6. Streamline the oversight of contractors

Without these cultural changes, it will be impossible for NASA to accomplish the heavy lift task in front of it.

ISDC 2011 Video Presentations

Presentations from the 2011 NSS International Space Development Conference in Huntsville, Alabama.

Jeff Greason

Jeff Greason, President of XCOR Aerospace. Keynote Address at the Awards Banquet: A Settlement Strategy for NASA. This talk is widely regarded as a major statement in the field of space policy. 42 minute video.

Robert Bigelow

Robert Bigelow, President of Bigelow Aerospace, dedicated to developing next-generation crewed space complexes to revolutionize space commerce and open up the final frontier, and recipient of the 2011 NSS Space Pioneer Award for Space Development. Keynote Address at the Governors’ Gala. 32 minute video.

Owen and Richard Garriott

Owen and Richard Garriott. Father and son astronauts. Owen Garriott spent 60 days aboard Skylab in 1973 and 10 days aboard the Space Shuttle in Spacelab-1 in 1983. His son Richard Garriott is a video game developer and entrepreneur who funded his own 12-day trip flying on Soyuz to the International Space Station in 2008. 42 minute video.

Adam Harris

Adam Harris: SpaceX and the Future. Adam Harris is Vice President for Government Affairs, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). SpaceX President Elon Musk is recipient of the 2011 National Space Society Space Pioneer Award for Business Entrepreneur. 24 minute video.

ISDC Awards

NSS Awards Ceremony: 2011 ISDC Awards Ceremony in Huntsville, Alabama, May 21, 2011. 43 minute video.

Constructing Cislunar Infrastructure – ISDC 2011

ISDC conference report by Dave Fischer

If those who think Mars is sufficiently hard to get to and remain to settle are correct, or those who think that it would be a terrible mistake to go to Mars and return leaving only flags and footprints are correct, then we are, in fact, not going to Mars anytime soon.  So where are we going?  And why are we going?

The current Flexible Path suggests that the manned exploration of an asteroid is a reasonable goal.  It avoids the problems of deep gravity wells, and does create launch vehicles and spacecraft.  However, as critics point out, this merely repeats the standard process of throwing away everything except the manned return capsule.  What might be done to create a permanent space faring infrastructure?

Why we are going is settlement.  That is the conclusion from reading policy statements, both formal and informal, from the past 10 years.  Beginning with the Vision for Space Exploration statement in 2004, up through the 2010 statement by the Obama administration, these policy statements all point toward the unspoken word, “settlement”.  Permanent occupation of space that exploits the economic resources available is the goal.  Now, what are the initial strategic steps, and what are the tactics to implement them.

At the International Space Development Conference (ISDC 2011), two proposals were made that result in permanent cislunar infrastructure: one by Dr. Paul Spudis and one by Stephen D. Covey.

Dr. Spudis advocated the conservative approach.  During Friday’s luncheon, Dr. Spudis presented “Can We Afford to Return to the Moon” (see the paper in the NSS Lunar Library by Spudis and Lavoie Mission and Implementation of an Affordable Lunar Return – pdf)

Spudis and Lavoie argue that over a period of roughly 16 years, employing a series of 31 missions, that a robotically built water mining operation at the South Pole of the moon, later employing humans living at the base to repair and maintain the equipment, would yield the following:

1.  Commercially valuable water for use as Lox/H2 fuel on the Moon and within cislunar space, sufficient to sustain the operation, with excess available for sale.

2.  Reusable Landers and Rovers.

3.  Permanent human occupation of the Moon.

4.  Routine access to all space assets within Cislunar space, including communications, GPS, weather, remote sensing and strategic monitoring satellites.

In essence, we create a “transcontinental railroad” with permanent settlements at various points between the Earth and the Moon.  The critical element is that this can be accomplished with the $7 Billion annual budget likely to be given NASA for the foreseeable future.  The projected cost of a Flexible Path mission to an asteroid has been estimated at $80 Billion, while the Cislunar project would cost $77 Billion.

The second proposal is far more radical: “Asteroid Capture for Space Solar Power”.  Here, Stephen D. Covey argued for a purely commercial venture to capture the asteroid 99942 Apophis, mine it for metals, silicon and oxygen, build Solar Power Satellites (SPS) and sell the power to utility companies on Earth.  An initial capital base of $30 Billion would be required.  But by the end of the sixth or seventh year of operation the enterprise would be at break even, and eventually generate $20 Billion per year in revenue.

At the end of eight years, 15 Solar Power Satellites would be in operation generating $20 Billion per year in revenue.  And only 10% of the asteroid would have been processed.  A total of 150 SPSs could be manufactured before another asteroid was needed.

The end result of this initial eight-year plan would be:

1.  A fully shielded (3 meters of slag from the mining operation) habitat for 8,000 people.

2.  Space based factory capable of producing 8 SPSs per year.

3.  Space infrastructure created by commercial space companies to support the operations.

4.  3-4% of Earth’s electrical needs supplied by Space based Solar Power

At the end of production, with 150 Satellites in operation, more than a third of Earth’s electrical needs would be supplied by Space Based Solar Power.

And who is to suggest that we cannot do both of these ventures at the same time?

SpaceShip Two – First Feathered Flight

SpaceShip Two “Feathered”
Image Credit: Clay Center Observatory

Om 4 May 2011, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two completed its third test flight in twelve days, and this one was special. For the first time, Virgin Galactic’s rocket plane deployed its twin tail sections in the position designed to allow it to softly return to the Earth’s atmosphere from the vacuum of space. Virgin Galactic noted:

After a 45 minute climb to the desired altitude of 51,500 feet, SS2 was released cleanly from VMS Eve and established a stable glide profile before deploying, for the first time, its re-entry or “feathered” configuration by rotating the tail section of the vehicle upwards to a 65 degree angle to the fuselage. It remained in this configuration with the vehicle’s body at a level pitch for approximately 1 minute and 15 seconds whilst descending, almost vertically, at around 15,500 feet per minute, slowed by the powerful shuttlecock-like drag created by the raised tail section. At around 33,500 feet the pilots reconfigured the spaceship to its normal glide mode and executed a smooth runway touch down, approximately 11 minutes and 5 seconds after its release from VMS Eve.

The feathered configuration is used during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere from the 100 km height obtained by the sub-orbital spaceship. The configuration is very stable during the free fall, which means the pilot has a hands-free re-entry. High drag combined with the light weight of the spacecraft means the skin temperature remains low.