Leak hunt continues on ISS

Two stories today indicate that the search for the elusive source of the slow leak on ISS is continuing.

The problem is that the two stories appear to have no overlap, making it hard to figure out what is planned and why.

The first story describes how engineers, based on the first isolation test, now think the leak must be coming from one of two modules:

…the ones the crew didn’t test because they were inside them while monitoring the rest of the station. One is the Zvezda Service Module, which provides life support for the station’s Russian side. The other is the Poisk Mini-Research Module 2, which serves as a port for docking spaceships and a place where crew members prepare for spacewalks.

The second story, from the Russian press, does not mention this detail. All it says is that the astronauts are going to once again isolate themselves in “the Russian segment” so the rest of the station can be tested for leaks. Since the two modules in question are both in that Russian segment, it is unclear where the astronauts will be isolated, especially since Zvezda is also where the Soyuz descent capsule is docked and if sealed from astronaut access it also seals them from their lifeboat.

It could be that the plan is to do another test of the American side of the station, then do these two Russian modules after the arrival of the next manned Dragon mission in a little less than a month. Dragon can then replace Soyuz as a lifeboat, allowing a test of Zvezda.

Regardless, the leak is a slow one, and is not yet life-threatening. That the leak rate has recently increased however requires action to find and fix it.

Axiom, SpaceX, and NASA finalizing first wholly private manned mission

Capitalism in space: Axiom, SpaceX, and NASA are close to finalizing the deal for the first wholly private manned mission to ISS, tentatively set for October 2021.

One of the topics Axiom is negotiating with NASA involves how much insight the space agency will have into the private astronaut mission. While the Axiom missions will be managed by commercial companies, the AX-1 flight will fly with a reusable Crew Dragon spacecraft that will carry NASA astronauts on other missions. “There’s a certain amount of insight (NASA) would like on our flight, on a commercial flight,” [Axiom official] Suffredini said Friday. “So that is one aspect of that process. We’re using a vehicle that is going to be re-flown, and NASA will certify the re-flights because they want to do re-flights.”

Axiom and SpaceX will also have to confirm a schedule with NASA for the AX-1 mission to dock with the space station. The orbiting research complex has a busy schedule of arriving and departing crew and cargo vehicles, and managers also have slot in spacecraft dockings amid spacewalks, experiments, and other critical operations.

NASA also oversees safety of the space station with the program’s international partners.

The private companies however will in the end be responsible for the flight.

There have been rumors that the passengers on this flight will be Tom Cruise and his film director, though this is not confirmed. Also, these same arrangements will be used for the tentative 2023 private flight of the winner of a proposed reality television show dubbed Space Hero.

UAE to train astronauts at NASA

The United Arab Emirates has signed an agreement with NASA to train its two future astronauts to ISS.

UAE astronauts Hazzaa AlMansoori and Sultan AlNeyadi have already begun their training at Nasa’s Johnson Space Center in Houston starting Monday, Salem AlMarri, head of the UAE Astronaut Programme, at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), said during a media briefing. AlMansoori and AlNeyadi had earlier trained at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Moscow, in September 2018 as part of their preparation for their launch to the ISS.

The two men will be launched to ISS by Russia using its Soyuz rocket and capsule. However, the UAE is smart to get them training in the U.S., as they need to work with U.S. mission control and U.S. systems on ISS. Moreover, I expect the UAE might wish to buy tickets eventually on either Dragon or Starliner, and this training lays the groundwork for that possibility.

Reality show to fly contestant to ISS

Capitalism in space: A new reality show, dubbed Space Hero, will have audiences watch contestants compete to be a passenger on a private capsule, likely SpaceX’s Dragon, and fly to ISS for ten days.

The selected group of contestants will undergo extensive training and face challenges testing their physical, mental and emotional strength, qualities that are essential for an astronaut in space. I hear the idea is for the culmination of the competition to be in a an episode broadcast live around the world where viewers from different countries can vote for the contestant they want to see going to space. The show will then chronicle the winner’s takeoff; their stay at the ISS for 10 days alongside professional astronauts traveling at 17,000 mph, orbiting the Earth 16 times a day; and end with their return to Earth. The Space Hero company is currently in discussions with NASA for a potential partnership on STEM initiatives onboard the ISS.

The trip of the Space Hero winner is expected be on a SpaceX Dragon rocket though a launch provider is yet to be officially selected. Space Hero, billed as the first space media company, is working with Axiom Space, manufacturer of the world’s first privately funded commercial space station — a module for the ISS where the private astronauts can stay — and full-service human spaceflight mission provider.

The project seems more viable and realistic than previous such attempts, aided by the fact that tickets can now be purchased on a private and operational manned capsule.

NASA/Boeing set summer ’21 for first manned Starliner mission

Capitalism in space: NASA and Boeing have tentatively scheduled the launch of the first manned Starliner mission to ISS for the summer of 2021.

Boeing Co said on Tuesday it aims to redo its unmanned Starliner crew capsule flight test to the International Space Station (ISS) in December or January, depending on when it completes software and test hardware production development.

If the test mission is successful, Boeing and NASA will fly Starliner’s first crewed mission in summer 2021, with a post-certification mission roughly scheduled for the following winter, the company added.

Everything of course depends on the success of the unmanned demo flight. If the capsule has any further problems, as it did on its first unmanned demo flight, the manned flight will likely be delayed again.

Tests this weekend to pinpoint slow leak on ISS

The astronauts this weekend will shut all the hatches between different modules on ISS so that ground controllers can try to pinpoint the location of a long term slow air leak.

This leak was first spotted in September 2019, when there were “indications of a slight increase above the standard air leak rate,” NASA said in the statement. “Because of routine station operations like spacewalks and spacecraft arrivals and departures, it took time to gather enough data to characterize those measurements. That rate has slightly increased, so the teams are working a plan to isolate, identify and potentially repair the source.”

While the leak rate is higher than usual, it is still within specifications for the station and poses no immediate danger to the crew, NASA officials emphasized. Astronauts also deal with leak simulations during training for their stays on the space station, which typically are about six months long.

The weekend test will allow them to identify where the leak is located. They will then be better able to find it, and mitigate it.

Nauka finally arrives at launch site, thirteen years late

Russia’s Nauka module for ISS has finally arrived at its launch site at Baikonur, Kazakhstan, to be prepared for its launch, now scheduled for April 2021.

After its arrival and fitting-out, Nauka will become the primary laboratory module on the Russian segment. Currently, Russia has two small laboratory modules – Rassvet and Poisk – both of which will be dwarfed by Nauka. Additionally, Nauka will take the title of the heaviest Russian module on the Station, at 24.2 tons. Zvezda currently holds this honor, at 20.3 tons.

The module is thirteen years later than first planned and has been under construction for more than a quarter century.

NASA targets October 23rd for next manned Dragon flight

Capitalism in space: NASA and SpaceX yesterday announced that they have now set October 23rd as the earliest launch date for next manned Dragon flight.

The mission will carry Crew Dragon commander Michael Hopkins, pilot Victor Glover, and mission specialist Shannon Walker, all of NASA, along with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) mission specialist Soichi Noguchi for a six-month science mission aboard the orbiting laboratory following launch from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

They had previously said they were aiming for a late September launch, but this extra delay allows them to better coordinate with other traffic to and from ISS, while also giving them an extra month to review the data from the first manned flight, just completed.

Endeavour at Cape, being prepped for next flight

Capitalism in space: Endeavour, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule that was the first to fly two astronauts to ISS, has now arrived at the company’s facility at Cape Canaveral, where it will be inspected, refurbished, and prepped for its next manned flight in the the spring of 2021.

SpaceX teams at Cape Canaveral will remove the exterior panels from the Crew Dragon spacecraft, and begin inspections to assess how the spacecraft weathered its 64-day space mission, according to Benji Reed, SpaceX’s director of crew mission management. “We want to make sure that we kind of dig deep and understand everything that’s gone on with this vehicle, make sure we’re really ready to go, and then do some of the aspects of the refurbishment,” Reed said. “There are some things that we will replace, some things that are standardly replaced, some things that we want to upgrade based on lessons learned, or that were already planned in work.”

SpaceX will still need to build a new trunk for each Crew Dragon mission. The trunk is an unpressurized module mounted to the rear of the Crew Dragon capsule, providing electrical power with solar arrays, and radiators to maintain steady temperatures inside the spaceship.

I guarantee the company will use what it learns in this inspection to improve later Dragon manned capsules. Right now they plan on from 5 to 10 flights per capsule. Since their contract right now only calls for six flights, that likely means the company only needs to build at most three to cover this NASA contract. However, NASA is certain to extend that contract, since six flights will only cover about two to three years, and ISS will be manned longer than that. Moreover, SpaceX has at least two tourist flights booked, so that calls for additional capsules as well.

Either way, we must shift our thinking. These might only be Dragon capsules, but they each get a name because each will fly more than once. It is thus appropriate to use that name instead of just calling them Dragon.

Russia to ship Nauka to Baikonur launch site August 10

Russia now plans to ship its Nauka ISS module to Baikonur on August 10th, three days later than previously planned, where it will begin the final nine months of preparations for launch.

“The stage of electrical tests takes about six months together with preparations because there is a large number of systems. Scheduled operational measures take another three months from this moment to the launch. This involves direct preparations for the launch together with the provision of microbiological protection, fueling and other operations,” he explained.

Nauka will provide the Russians a second toilet on ISS, plus produce oxygen and water (from urine) for six astronauts. It will also become the cabin for a third Russian-flown astronaut, either tourist or professional.

Nauka is a quarter century in the making, its construction having started in 1995. As a government-run project, that pace matches well with SLS, Orion, the James Webb Space Telescope, and many other big government projects not related to space. The goal isn’t to accomplish anything really but to create the justification for fake jobs that can last a lifetime.

Endeavour safely splashes down

Splashdown of Endeavour

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s Endeavour Dragon capsule has successfully splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico, returning two humans back to Earth safely after completing the first two month long manned commercial space mission.

If you go to the live stream to watch recovery operations, note that the boats and ships and persons involved are all property and employees of SpaceX. This is entirely an operation of the private company. The government is not involved, other than NASA’s justified monitoring as SpaceX’s customer.

One cool tidbit for the future. Endeavour is scheduled to fly again, in the spring of 2021. On that flight will be Megan McArthur, the wife of astronaut Bob Behnken, and she will likely sit in the same place he did on his flight.

Russians sign deal to fly two tourists to ISS

Capitalism in space: Now that their Soyuz capsule is no longer required to fly NASA astronauts to ISS, the Russians have spare seats, and have now signed a deal with Space Adventures to fly two tourists to ISS in late 2021.

They will announce the tourist’s names later this year.

Space Adventures also has a deal with SpaceX to fly two tourists on a Dragon capsule on a week-plus long orbital mission (not docking with ISS). SpaceX also has a deal with the space station company Axiom to fly tourists to ISS. Next year could thus see two or three tourist flights to space.

Isn’t competition wonderful?

Manned Dragon return on August 2nd threatened by weather

Capitalism in space: The splashdown of SpaceX’s first manned Dragon capsule Endeavour on August 2nd is now threatened by weather.

Isaias officially became a named tropical storm on Wednesday night, when its wind speeds exceeded 39 mph. The storm could affect several landing areas just as Endeavour is supposed to reenter Earth’s atmosphere, deploy its parachutes, and splash into the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico.

Three of the seven landing zones that SpaceX and NASA prescribed for the test mission, called Demo-2, lie within the “cone of probability” for the storm’s path. Those splashdown sites are located off the coasts of Cape Canaveral, Daytona, and Jacksonville, according to NASA. A July 30 map shows NASA and SpaceX’s landing zones for the Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission amid the estimated path and conditions of Tropical Storm Isaias. The outer-edge green shows a 5-10% chance of sustained tropical storm-force winds. Google Earth; NOAA; NASA; Business Insider

Depending on how large the storm grows and how nasty weather conditions become, mission managers may scrub the undocking and landing attempt. Steep waves, rain, lightning, low clouds, poor visibility (for helicopters to fly the astronauts from a SpaceX recovery boat back to land), or even winds stronger than about 10 mph can trigger a “no-go” decision.

At the moment they are go for undocking on August 1st and splashdown the next day, but that could change depending on how the weather changes.

NASA announces third Dragon flight crew

NASA today announced four-person Dragon flight crew for that spacecraft’s third flight in the spring, the second official operational flight.

NASA astronauts Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough will join JAXA’s Akihiko Hoshide and ESA’s Thomas Pesquet on that flight, which will follow Crew-1 currently scheduled for sometime in late September after Demo-2 concludes. This is a regular mission, meaning the crew will be staffing the International Space Station for an extended period – six months for this stretch, sharing the orbital research platform with three astronauts who will be using a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to make the trip.

Pesquet will be the first European to fly on Dragon. McArthur however is more interesting, in that this will be her first spaceflight in more than a decade. She had previously flown only once before, in 2009 on the last Hubble repair mission. She is also the wife of Bob Behnken, who is on ISS right now having flown on the first Dragon manned mission now preparing for its return to Earth on August 2nd.

The long gap in flights was certainly due to the shuttle’s retirement. Why she didn’t fly on a Soyuz is a question some reporter should ask her at some point.

Dragon update for the ongoing and next mission

Two stories today provide an update of the overall schedule and status of SpaceX’s manned Dragon capsule, both now and into the future.

First, they are preparing for the return of Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley from ISS on August 2nd. Prior to return they will use the station’s robot arm to inspect the capsule’s heat shield to make sure it did not sustain any damage during its two months in space. Such inspections will be standard procedure on future flights, something NASA did not do on shuttle flights until after the Columbia failure.

It is unlikely there is any damage, but making this inspection is plain common sense. If the heat shield has been damaged, the astronauts can stay on board ISS until the next Dragon arrives, which can then bring them home.

Second, NASA and SpaceX have worked out a tentative schedule for that next Dragon manned launch, now set for sometime in late September. The agency wants a bit of time to review the full results of the first demo mission before flying a second.

Based on all that has happened so far, it now appears unlikely that the agency will find anything that prevents that late September flight.

NASA: Dragon crew will return to Earth August 2nd

Capitalism in space: Assuming that the weather cooperates, NASA has now set August 2nd as the date the manned Dragon capsule will return to Earth with its two man crew.

Assuming good weather and a smooth final few weeks on the International Space Station, astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are scheduled to undock from the orbiting research outpost Aug. 1 and return to Earth the next day to wrap up a 64-day test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine confirmed the target dates for the Crew Dragon’s undocking and splashdown in a tweet Friday. A few hours after departing the space station, the Crew Dragon will fire its Draco thrusters for a braking burn and re-enter the atmosphere, targeting a parachute-assisted splashdown at sea. “Splashdown is targeted for Aug. 2,” he tweeted. “Weather will drive the actual date. Stay tuned.”

Note that the recovery operations, as has been the case with everything else on this flight, will be run entirely by SpaceX and its employees. NASA’s only real role is that of a customer and observer, though obviously agency officials are taking a hands-on part in determining the landing date.

Russia’s next module for ISS passes tests

At last! Russia’s long-delayed next module for ISS, dubbed Nauka, has finally passed its vacuum chamber tests and is now scheduled for shipment to the launch site on July 21 to 23.

Construction of Nauka began in 1995, a quarter of a century ago. For comparison, in the last quarter of the 20th century Russia launched Salyut 1, Salyut 3, Salyut 4, Salyut 5, Salyut 6, Salyut 7, Mir, and its first five modules for ISS. All told those launches involved building and putting into orbit 18 different modules, with 14 comparable to Nauka in size and mass, all built and launched in about the same amount of time it has taken Russia to build Nauka alone.

At this pace it will take centuries for Russia to build its next space station, no less get to the Moon or Mars.

Sierra Nevada starts installing thermal tiles on Tenacity

Capitalism in space: Sierra Nevada has received and started to install the thermal protection tiles for its first Dream Chaser reusable mini-shuttle, dubbed Tenacity.

The Thermal Protection System (TPS) tiles are one of the major hardware components used on Dream Chaser and cover nearly the entire craft to protect it from the heat of the sun and the plasma regime during atmospheric reentry. The tiles can withstand the scorching heat of 1,650°C (3,000°F) and prevent the vehicle from being destroyed during reentry.

Dream Chaser has approximately 2,000 TPS tile compared to the 24,000 tiles used on the Space Shuttle. Dream Chaser is about 1/4 the size of a Shuttle Orbiter. The tiles on Dream Chaser utilize a room temperature vulcanizing (RTV) silicone to keep the tiles bonded to the vehicle at all times. The silicone can withstand high temperatures, making it ideal for use. Each of the tiles is tested by a mechanism that pulls on each one, helping avoid issues of the tiles falling off, which happened early in the Space Shuttle Program.

The company notes that the vehicle remains on schedule for a 2021 launch on a ULA Vulcan rocket.

Dragon capsule on ISS doing better than expected

Capitalism in space: The first manned Dragon capsule, presently docked to ISS, is doing better than expected according to NASA officials, who have also now set August 2nd as their target date for the return to Earth.

Tests of the solar panels and the capsule’s power systems have so far been “better than expected.” Besides these tests, they still have one other major in-orbit test.

On July 4, the space station crew will perform a habitability test with the craft, with four astronauts climbing into the capsule and practicing everyday activities like sleeping, hygiene tasks, as well as emergency procedures to see what it will be like for future crewed missions. On Demo-2, only two astronauts were on board for the trip but regular flights will carry at least four people, so this test will help inform astronauts on those future trips.

Axiom hires European company to help build private ISS module

Capitalism in space: Axiom has hired the European company Thales Alenia, to build the habitation module of its commercial space station that will initially attach to ISS.

Axiom’s station modules will form a new section of ISS that will be able to operate independently, so that when ISS is decommissioned it can detach and remain operational in space.

That Axiom did not choose either Boeing (which I think built most of NASA’s ISS modules) or Northrop Grumman (which has been pushing an upgraded version of its Cygnus capsule as future station modules) is intriguing. I suspect with Boeing cost was the major reason, as Boeing’s modules are generally far too expensive. There also might be questions about that company’s quality control.

Why Northrop Grumman lost out however is unclear. Its Cygnus design is relatively inexpensive, and has clearly demonstrated that it works very reliably. obvious. Thales Alenia makes that Cygnus module for Northrop Grumman, so why buy it from the U.S. company when you can get it from the builder. (Thanks to reader Doug Booker for pointing out this obvious fact, one I had forgotten.)

Either way, this contract award gets us one step closer to truly private operations in space. Eventually competing private stations such as Axiom’s will replace government stations like ISS. That will in turn certainly lower costs and and increase innovation, which in turn will accelerate the development of the engineering required to build practical interplanetary spaceships.

This of course assumes we remain a free nation. Right now I have strong doubts.

NASA aiming for late July/early August Dragon crew return

According to statements made by NASA officials today, the agency is now targeting a late July to early August return date for the first manned Dragon.

Bob Behnken, one of the two Dragon astronauts, will likely do two spacewalks while on ISS to replace batteries on the stations main truss. In addition, they will do a number of tests of Dragon to check out its in-space long term operation.

Mission controllers planned to place the Dragon capsule into a hibernation mode, then wake up the ship’s systems to verify the spacecraft can perform its role as a quick-response lifeboat to scurry astronauts back to Earth in the event of an emergency. Mission managers are also checking data to monitor the status of the solar arrays.

It appears however that the biggest factor for determining the launch date will be weather conditions in the Gulf of Mexico. If they are good in late July mission managers might decide to return the astronauts earlier to take advantage of those conditions.

The next Dragon manned flight, carrying four astronauts, is planned in late August, thus giving NASA time to do a full assessment of this first demo flight before its launch.

Dragon docks with ISS; astronauts reveal its name is Endeavour

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s first manned Dragon capsule successfully docked today with ISS.

A few hours after launch the two American astronauts, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, also revealed that they had named the capsule “Endeavour.”

I know this is really old news from late last night and early this morning, but I was out on a cave trip (taking a work break to have some fun underground for the first time in three months). I post it for completion. I also know that the live stream of these events was active here all day for my readers to follow things, as they happened.

Prepare for even more increasing space excitement in the coming years. The Trump administration increasingly is shifting NASA’s gears to have private companies build its spaceships and rockets and science instruments. The more they do this, the less expensive and the more capabilities we shall have as a nation. This success will be a challenge for other nations to match, which in turn will raise the stakes and increase the competition, the excitement, and the action in space.

Yes, the 20s I hope are going to roar, at least in space.

SpaceX’s first manned Dragon launch scrubbed due to weather

UPDATE: They were forced to scrub at T-16:54 because of weather. They will try again in three days on May 30th, at 3:22 pm (Eastern). I will post the live stream here on Behind the Black late Friday night.

Original post:
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I have embedded below SpaceX’s live stream of the first manned Dragon mission, set to launch at 4:33 pm (Eastern). The stream begins at about 12:15 pm (Eastern). Feel free to watch as the day unfolds. Sadly, it is being managed by NASA, not SpaceX, and thus is filled with a lot of the agency’s fake hype.

I have also set it to remain at the top of the page until after the launch, or if it is scrubbed.

On a side note, NASA is now aiming for an August 30 launch of SpaceX’s next manned Dragon mission, the first official operational flight.

Below the fold I am also posting images captured, with some commentary.


» Read more

Almost lost: The flag that SpaceX astronauts will claim on ISS

The American flag that flew on the first and last shuttle mission and was left on ISS for the next crew flown on an American spacecraft to claim apparently went missing during the decade since the last American shuttle flight, and took several weeks of searching in 2018 for astronauts to find it.

“We looked and looked and looked,” said Tingle. “I talked to my fellow astronauts that were on board the ISS and everybody had a little bit of a different memory on where it could be or where it might be. So we spent probably three or four weeks just kind of scouring in our spare time, trying to find it.”

They did find it, and now it awaits the arrival of the two-person crew of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, set to launch on May 27th, the first Americans to launch from American soil on an American rocket in an American spacecraft in almost a decade.

More important: This will be the first flight of any Americans on a private rocket and spacecraft, built and owned by a private commercial company instead of the government. For the capitalistic and free United States, it marks the end of a half century of a government-run Soviet-style space program and a return to capitalism and freedom.

Japan launches HTV cargo ship to ISS

Japan today successfully launched to ISS the last of its first generation HTV cargo ships.

This was the ninth such cargo ship launched by Japan. The mission was also the last launch of Mitsubishi’s H-2B rocket, Japan’s most powerful. It is being replaced with the H-3 rocket, which they hope to fly for the first time before the end of this year. They also hope that the H3 will be cheaper to operate, and will allow Mitsubishi to garner some commercial business with it, something they failed entirely to do with the H-2B.

This was also Japan’s second launch in 2020, which means they remain outside the leaders in the 2020 launch race:

8 China
6 SpaceX
6 Russia
3 ULA

The U.S. continues to lead China 11 to 8 in the national rankings.

NASA signs deal with Russians for one Soyuz seat to ISS

Citing a need to provide some back-up in case there are more delays getting the American manned capsules being built by SpaceX and Boeing into operation, NASA yesterday announced that it has signed a deal with Roscosmos to buy one seat on the October Soyuz launch to ISS.

The statement did not disclose the value of the deal, but NASA spokesman Josh Finch told SpaceNews the agreement is valued at $90.25 million. That includes the seat on the Soyuz spacecraft and various training, pre-launch and post-landing services. In addition, Finch said that NASA will compensate Roscosmos for bumping a Russian cosmonaut off that Soyuz mission by flying an unspecified amount of Russian cargo to the station on NASA commercial cargo spacecraft.

I wonder if there are other political reasons behind this deal, besides insuring American access to ISS. $90 million is a lot of money to the Russians, and considering their impending loss of income from NASA (with us no longer buying Soyuz seats in the future) as well as their loss of most of their commercial launch business, it could be that NASA managers wanted to shore up Roscosmos’s financial situation. Remember, at NASA there are many who swear a greater loyalty to space operations from all countries, even at the expense of the United States.

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