Tag Archives: ISS

Budget constraints and technical challenges delay commercial crew

A NASA inspector general report released today cites both budget constraints imposed by Congress as well as technical challenges that will delay the first commercial manned mission to ISS until 2018.

When the commercial crew program began, NASA hoped to have routine flights by 2015, but that slipped in large part due to congressional underfunding in the early years. OIG noted today that its 2013 report found that adequate funding was the major challenge for the program. Congress has warmed up to the program, however, and now is approving the full President’s request so funding is not the issue it once was. Technical challenges now are the major hurdle according to today’s report.

The companies’ systems must be certified by NASA before beginning routine flights to ISS. Boeing anticipates receiving certification in January 2018 with its first certified flight in spring 2018, and SpaceX is working toward late 2017 for its first certified mission, the OIG report says. But it is skeptical: “Notwithstanding the contractors’ optimism, based on the information we gathered during our audit, we believe it unlikely that either Boeing or SpaceX will achieve certified, crewed flight to the ISS until late 2018.”

The report has been written prior to yesterday’s Falcon 9 launchpad failure, which will certainly impact the schedule negatively.

Essentially, the report claims that the program was delayed initially by about two to three years because of the refusal of Congress to fund it fully. The delays to come will be instead because of the technical challenges. While I tend to agree with this assessment, I also note that government reports like this are often designed to generate more funds for the agencies involved, not find a better way to do things. If we are not diligent and hard-nosed about how we fund this program I worry that with time commercial crew will become corrupted by the government’s sloppy and inefficient way of doing things, and become as bloated as Orion and SLS. This is one of the reasons I never complained when Congress short funded the program previously, as it forced the companies involved to keep their costs down.

DNA sequencing successfully done on ISS

Researchers have now confirmed that a new lightweight DNA sequencer has been successfully tested on ISS.

Using a hand-held, USB-powered sequencing device called the MinION, astronaut Kate Rubins, PhD, sequenced samples of mouse, bacteria and virus DNA. This portable sequencing technology could eventually help diagnose sick astronauts, monitor space station food, water, and environment for microbes, and identify extraterrestrial life forms.

As part of a collaboration with NASA on the Biomolecular Sequencer project, Earth-bound researchers – a bicoastal team at UCSF and Weill Cornell Medical College – analyzed the sequencing data from space and compared it to identical samples sequenced on the ground. The analysis would tell whether the journey to space and conditions aboard the space station affected the sequencing results.

…[An] analysis of the space and Earth data found comparable results. “We essentially got equivalent data, and it’s of very high quality, probably within the top 20 percent of nanopore runs that we do routinely here on Earth,” Chiu said.

The press release makes a big deal about how this new equipment will be beneficial for research in space, but I am betting that its creators are as much if not more interested in the profits they will make selling it to customers on Earth, where its portability will make a very useful and beneficial to Earth-bound patients and researchers.

Dragon splashes down

The competition heats up: SpaceX’s most recently launched Dragon capsule today returned to Earth and was successfully recovered.

The Dragon is the only spacecraft flying today that can return large amounts of cargo to Earth.

Among the cargo brought back from space Friday were a dozen mice from a Japanese science experiment — the first brought home alive in a Dragon. Samples from mice euthanized as part of an experiment by pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly also were on board. Results were returned from an experiment that studied the behavior of heart cells in microgravity, and from research into the composition of microbes in the human digestive system, NASA said. Findings from both could help keep astronauts healthy during deep space exploration missions.

Russia reveals its proposed new cargo spacecraft

Government vaporware: In an effort to save money Russian engineers have designed a new cargo spacecraft to replace the Progress freighter.

Faced with latest economic problems, and the need to reduce the number of Progress cargo launches, Russia’s space agency Roskosmos made plans to cut the permanent crew of ISS cosmonauts from three to two people. However the full international crew on the ISS is supposed to include six people with half of it reserved for Russia.

To resolve this supply problem, Roskosmos ordered RKK Energia, its key contractor responsible for human spaceflight, to prepare a preliminary design of a bigger cargo ship by the end of this month. Engineers quickly put together this proposal that would combine off-the-shelf hardware with new technology. … The most important new feature of the proposed cargo ship will be the six-tank cluster to carry more than 1.8 tons of propellant to the station. It will simultaneously serve as a tanker for the space station while also feeding the ship’s own propulsion system. As a result, the new design provides significant mass savings in comparison to the current Progress ships, which need two separate sets of tanks for refueling and maneuvering.

The main engine for the new cargo ship will be borrowed from an existing satellite. Meanwhile, 28 small thrusters for orbit correction and maneuvering will be copied practically unchanged from the Progress.

They hope to fly this new freighter by 2020. I’m willing to bet anyone that this won’t happen.

Russia’s space station faces funding problems

The Russian space station replacement for ISS, dubbed the Russian Orbital Station (ROS), faces serious budget problems that might delay its launch.

Plans for the post-ISS Russian Orbital Station, ROS, are in limbo, as the nation’s space program has faced budget cuts in 2016. Although the industry has now completed formulating the overall design of the future station, the cash-strapped Roskosmos was yet to approve the formal technical assignment for the development of ROS as of June 2016. The addendum to the Federal Contract, which would fund further development work on the project, has not been issued either.

The ROS project stalled despite being formally approved by three strategy documents governing the current Russian space program: The 10-year Federal Space Program from 2016 to 2025, known as FKP-2025; The Strategy for Russian Piloted Space Flight until 2035 and the Concept of the Russian Piloted Space Flight.

The article also provides a nice overview of how Russia hopes to assembly ROS, partly from new modules and partly from modules they will detach from ISS. The article also made this key point:

According to the current ROS concept, the new Russian station will have a truly unlimited life span, thanks to the possibility to replace any of its modules. (It is practically impossible with the current ISS architecture.) The new Russian station is also designed to operate either as a permanently inhabited outpost or as a periodically visited facility. Russian strategists also hope that the new station will inherit the international nature of the ISS project.

I think Russia is beginning to see the operation of Earth orbital space stations as a profitable niche they can occupy. They know how to do it and already have the technology on hand, and can do it at very affordable prices. Whether they can afford it themselves, however, remains an open question.

Russia considers reducing its ISS crew

In the heat of competition: Russia is considering reducing its ISS crew from three to two.

“Plans to reduce the crew stem from the fact that less cargo ships are sent to the ISS and from the necessity to boost the efficiency of the program,” the newspaper quotes Krikalev. Apart from that, it will make it possible to lower expenses on the space station’s maintenance.

They haven’t yet made a decision. I suspect that the real reason they are considering this idea is because it will free up a seat on the Soyuz spacecraft that they can then sell to tourists, something they have been unable to do since the station got large enough for the full crew of six and the U.S. became dependent on them for crew ferrying.. By only sending two Russians astronauts up with each Soyuz launch they will then have a free seat for short tourist flights, which had been quite lucrative for them.

Orbital ATK delays Antares-Cygnus launch until September

In the heat of competition: Orbital ATK has once again pushed back the launch of the first upgraded Antares rocket since its launch failure in October 2014, this time until September.

Due to a variety of interrelated factors, including the company’s continuing processing, inspection and testing of the flight vehicle at Wallops Island, and NASA’s scheduling of crew activities on the International Space Station in preparation for upcoming cargo and crew launches, Orbital ATK is currently working with NASA to target a window in the second half of September for the launch of the OA-5 mission. A more specific launch date will be identified in the coming weeks.

This press release suggests that all is well, and that the delay is mostly because of scheduling issues with NASA and ISS. However, it is also very vague, which suggests to me that the company has been also working through the results of the static fire test they did in May and might have needed more time to work out the kinks..

Reused Dragon cargo capsule to ISS within a year

The competition heats up: SpaceX hopes to launch a previously flown Dragon capsule to ISS sometime with the next year.

This fall, SpaceX plans to refly one of its landed Falcon 9 rockets for the first time — and a Dragon capsule should make history by launching on a repeat ISS resupply mission shortly thereafter, a NASA official and a SpaceX representative said during a postlaunch news conference Monday. “I think we’re looking at SpaceX-11,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA’s deputy manager of ISS utilization, referring to the 11th resupply mission the company will fly with Dragon and the Falcon 9. (Monday’s launch kicked off SpaceX-9.)

I had been wondering when SpaceX would try to reuse a Dragon, and had assumed the reason it hadn’t happened yet was partly because of NASA reluctance combined with the delays connected with the launch failure last year. Either way, it appears that NASA is now on board and that the company is beginning to gear up for that first reflight.

Mother, Father, Sister, Brother – The Sound of Philadelphia

An evening pause: This instrumental music, used as the theme music for the 1970s television show, Soul Train, has only one significant vocal line: “People all over the world!” I think the visuals used here, of Earth taken from the International Space Station, make that line seem especially appropriate.

Hat tip James Stephens.

July 12, 2016 Zimmerman/Batchelor podcast

Embedded below the fold. I spent a large portion of the podcast talking about the medical problems caused by long-term weightlessness, and how it might limit our ability to send humans to other planets. We also touched on the possible consequences to space policy should Donald Trump pick Newt Gingrich as his VP.
» Read more

Toilet failure on U.S. segment of ISS

According to this report, the American-built toilet on the U.S. part of ISS has broken down.

The story has few details, and is based on anonymous sources. Nonetheless, I suspect it is true, as the American toilet has had problems in the past, was originally designed for easy transport up and down from ISS on the space shuttle, and is thus difficult to repair in space.

Vision problems from weightlessness

This article provides an excellent review of the vision problems caused by long term exposure to weightlessness, including the efforts to study the problem on Earth.

Bottom line:

Before a human trip to Mars — a journey of six-to-nine months that NASA says it wants to achieve by the 2030s — researchers agree that VIIP [the name given to this problem] must be understood much better. VIIP could be the first sign of greater dangers to the human body from microgravity. “We’re seeing the visual and neural, ophthalmic manifestations of it,” Barratt said. “I’m fairly certain this is a bit more global than that.”

Richard Williams, the chief health and medical officer at NASA, agrees that what we do not know about VIIP still poses the biggest threat. Ironically, one of the only ways to get more knowledge is spend more time in microgravity. “The longer we stay in space, the more we’re going to learn,” Williams said.

Upgraded Soyuz capsule launches three astronauts to ISS

The competition heats up: An upgraded manned capsule, dubbed Soyuz-MS, successfully reached orbit today, carrying a new three person crew to ISS.

As part of the vehicle’s checkout during its first manned flight they have decided to fly it on the older two-day rendezvous approach rather than the fast six hour route.

A Russian space station spun off from ISS?

The competition heats up: Energia, Russia’s main contractor for building its part of ISS, has proposed a plan to separate the Russian modules from ISS, once they are finally launched, to create a new and solely Russian space station.

According to RKK Energia, the prime Russian contractor on the ISS, the new outpost would begin with the separation of the Nauka [Russia’s ISS science module, long delayed] from the rest of the old station in mid-2020s. By that time, Nauka should have two even newer modules in tow. One would be the so-called Node Module, a tinker-toy-like component that could connect to six other modules, crew ships, cargo tankers, structural elements, you name it. The Node Module is already in RKK Energia’s garage and ready to go within a few months after the Nauka.

Next would be the new Science and Power Module (NEM) which, as it name implies, will finally give cosmonauts a state-of-the-art science lab and a pair of large solar arrays, making the Russian segment fully independent from the rest of the ISS in terms of power, communications, and other resources. The launch of NEM, currently promised as early as 2019, would set the stage for these three components to leave the ISS to form ROS.

Russia has always given itself the option to do this, designing its part of the station in a way that would allow it to stand alone.

SpaceX’s first stage teaches them how to land on Mars

The competition heats up: This update on the status of SpaceX’s manned Dragon capsule also provides this interesting detail about the engineering knowledge gained from the company’s effort to vertically land its Falcon 9 first stages:

The company is also using the propulsive landings as a way to practically and physically test landing systems in a near-Mars atmospheric environment. “Earth’s upper atmosphere is also a really good analogue for Mars’ atmosphere,” noted [Garrett Reisman, Director of Space Operations]. “When you get up high enough, the density and consistency of the atmosphere is very similar to what you face during Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) on Mars. So every time we land, we take one of these rockets and we perform hypersonic retrograde propulsion, the data from which we’re sharing with JPL because it’s the first time this has ever been demonstrated on a major scale.”

To this end, Reisman pointed out that the Falcon 9 first stage landings are really serving as test beds for the EDL systems of eventual Mars missions. “Every time you see one of those rockets coming back, not only is it enabling a whole new paradigm for launching things into space, but it’s also bringing us one step closer to Mars.

As for Dragon, it now appears the company wants to do a full unmanned demo flight to and from ISS before it performs its launch abort test. They will then follow this with a manned demo mission to ISS. All three flights are planned for 2017.

Kelly describes medical issues from weightlessness

In prepared remarks to a congressional subcommittee today, astronaut Scott Kelly described the medical problems he has experienced since returning from his 340 day mission on ISS.

Kelly claimed in these remarks that weightlessness caused permanent effects (which this news article decides to emphasize), but I think that might be an overstatement. None of the specific problems he experienced appear to be permanent ones, and in my interviews with Russian astronauts who stayed even longer on Mir they noted no permanent effects. One did say however that the recovery time tended to match the mission time, so that if you spent a year in space it took a year to completely recover. Kelly has only been back about three months, so his recovery is certainly not over yet.

Update: Kelly’s remarks were part of a hearing promoting legislation that would give astronauts lifetime medical coverage from the government. Thus, there is a bit of lobbying going on here.

Cygnus to depart ISS, then start a fire

A fire in space: Orbital ATK’s Cygnus capsule is scheduled to leave ISS on Tuesday, when shortly thereafter it will begin a controlled fire experiment.

“Saffire-I provides a new way to study a realistic fire on a spacecraft. This hasn’t been possible in the past because the risks for performing such studies on crewed spacecraft are too high. Instruments on the returning Cygnus will measure flame growth, oxygen use and more. Results could determine microgravity flammability limits for several spacecraft materials, help to validate NASA’s material selection criteria, and help scientists understand how microgravity and limited oxygen affect flame size. The investigation is crucial for the safety of current and future space missions. – See more at: http://www.space.com/17933-nasa-television-webcasts-live-space-tv.html#sthash.2DjFjJqY.dpuf

The departure is scheduled for 9 am (eastern), and will aired live by NASA.

Boeing begins assembling second Starliner manned capsule

The competition heats up: With the arrival of the major capsule components to Boeing’s Florida facility the company has begun assembly of its second Starliner manned capsule.

Following closely behind the joining of the two major hull components for the Structural Test Article (STA) of the CST-100 Starliner, Boeing and NASA are marking the arrival of the upper dome, one half of the Starliner pressure vessel, for the second Starliner module. The three components will undergo separate outfitting operations in the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) where wiring lines, avionics and other systems will be installed and tested before the pieces are connected to form a complete Starliner.

This second Starliner module is known to Boeing as Spacecraft 1. Once completed inside C3PF, Starliner Spacecraft 1 will be outfitted with electrical and fluid systems before engineers will attach the outer thermal protection shielding and the base heat shield that will eventually protect crewmembers during re-entry. Starliner Spacecraft 1 will be used in the pad abort test to validate that the launch abort system will be able to lift astronauts away from danger in the event of an emergency during launch.

The article provides good detail about the upcoming Starliner test schedule.

Russia delays next manned Soyuz flight

Russia has confirmed previous reports and has officially delayed the next manned Soyuz launch to ISS from June 24 to July 7.

They remain vague about the issue causing the delay, this time only saying they want more time to test software. Previous reports suggested the issue was with the capsule’s control thrusters.

Meanwhile, no word on whether they have figured out why the upper stage on the previous Soyuz rocket launch shut down prematurely.

Astronauts enter privately built BEAM module

Led by American Jeff Williams, two astronauts opened the hatch and entered Bigelow’s BEAM inflatable module on ISS today.

Williams officially opened the hatch at 08:47 UTC. Along with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka, Williams entered BEAM for the first time to collect an air sample and begin downloading data from sensors on the dynamics of BEAM’s expansion. The astronaut reported that the interior of BEAM looks “pristine”. However, he added the temperature was on the cool side – with Houston adding they recorded 44F as the temperature at bulkhead – but no condensation was visible. He then took air samples, as is the procedure for entering a new module.

They will install interior sensors over the next two days, and then shut the hatch. The module will then remain closed for most of its planned two year stay on ISS to test its operation in space.

The article also includes some nice details about the possible uses of Bigelow’s much larger B330 modules, two of which are under construction right now.

Manned Soyuz launch delayed

More Russian quality control issues? The next manned launch to ISS has been delayed for a week because of an issue with the capsule’s control thrusters.

The article is lacking in any details, though it appears that the Soyuz capsule’s system for controlling its roll is the source of the problem. This issue, on top of the fact that the most recent Soyuz rocket launch last week had an unexplained premature engine shutdown, should make everyone a bit nervous about the reliability and safety of the Russian manned system.

NASA to try module expansion again on Saturday

NASA will try again on Saturday to expand the privately built BEAM module on ISS.

They think the reason the module didn’t inflate as planned the first time is because it has been packed ready for launch for more than fifteen months, ten months longer than originally planned.

That extra time in a tight squeeze might explain why the first inflation attempt didn’t go as planned. BEAM’s Kevlar-like fabric “layers have a memory to them,” Lisa Kauke, BEAM deputy program manager at Bigelow Aerospace, said during today’s teleconference. “The longer they’re packed, the more they’re compressed, and then it takes a little while for the shape to return.” This interpretation is bolstered by the fact that BEAM continued to expand overnight Thursday into Friday morning, even though no more air was being pumped in, Crusan said.

Bigelow’s ISS module expansion halted

Engineers called a halt today to the expansion of Bigelow’s BEAM module on ISS when the procedure did not go as planned.

Originally, the plan was to use air from tanks located inside BEAM to inflate these bladders, however analysis showed that this could cause expansion to occur too fast and potentially place damagingly high loads on the ISS in the process, so instead the air will be supplied from the station in a more controlled manner. It was not actually known precisely how the inflation dynamics would occur, as it has only ever been done twice before (Genesis I and II), neither of which were viewable from external cameras such as those found on the ISS.

This proved to be a learning curve, as after two hours of adding a few seconds of air into the module, only the width expanded, as opposed to the length. Mission controllers decided it would be best to defer operations for the day to allow them to evaluate the next steps.

First manned Starliner flight delayed

Boeing has revealed that the first manned flight of Starliner will be delayed until 2018.

This delay for Boeing is not really a surprise. Unlike SpaceX, the company had done very little actual development work on the capsule before winning its contract from NASA. They therefore have a lot more to do to become flight worthy. My one worry is their contract. If the contract is fixed price, as with the original cargo contracts awarded SpaceX and Orbital ATK, Boeing will have no incentive to delay, as they won’t be paid anything until they achieve specific milestones and will get no additional monies to cover the added costs of the delay. If the contract is cost-plus, however, NASA’s traditional contract system used for SLS, Orion, and almost every other boondoggle since the 1960s, then Boeing will be paid regardless of the delay, and NASA will also be on the hook for paying the additional delay costs, thus giving Boeing an incentive to slow walk the construction.

I think the contract was fixed-price, but am not sure. Anyone out there have an answer?

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