Category Archives: Spaceflight

Soyuz Launch System at ESA-Spaceport

The Russian Soyuz launch system is now also operating from the European space launch facilities in French Guyana. To the Russians, this location offers a number of advantages.

Located close to the equator, the ESA spaceport can make better use of the Earth’s rotational speed, which is higher at the equator and translates into fuel savings (or performance gains). Secondly, Russia’s main launch sites were built during Soviet times and are now located outside of Russia. (As a result, Russia has been pressured into paying high rent for its continued use of the facilities). And finally, western lawmakers have been lobbied to impose export restrictions on the number of Western satellites shipped for launching from Soviet successor states and China. Although these restrictions and tariffs have been somewhat relaxed lately, commercial launches from the ESA spaceport might avoid the issue altogether.

What ESA and Arianespace stand to gain from the agreement with Russia is not completely clear to me. Certainly, Soyuz will compete against Europe’s Ariane 5 in some aspects. On the other hand, there can be no question that more competition and the removal of artificial trade barriers will be good for spaceflight in general. Perhaps the market will grow so fast that in the end, everyone gets to benefit.

Here is a fascinating time lapse video showing how the Soyuz system works. (It is very different to Western systems).


For a larger version of this video, click this link.

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Thoughts On Today’s Progress Crash

(Updated 08/31, 2011).

In a tweet, astronaut Leroy Chiao (@AstroDude) called today’s crash of the Russian cargo transport to the ISS a “big damn deal”. My take: no, it aint. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

Just launch another one. (Better yet: always have at least another one on standby, preferably at a different launch site).

I know I am simplifying, but: the loss of Progress M-12M (44P) is the first loss after 43 successful supply flights to the ISS, and after a total of 134 successful flights of this vehicle. Nobody was hurt in the crash, and the launch complex and gantry remain fully intact. A failure rate of under 1% should be acceptable for unmanned ships. Even with occasional misfirings like this, a disposable launcher is still a lot cheaper than the shuttle.

To me, this demonstrates why unmanned transports remain the way to go. Had this been a manned shuttle, an accident would have meant a disastrous loss of life. And the shuttle fleet would have been grounded once again. Years would have to go by for the accident to be fully investigated, and for design and procedural changes to be worked out and implemented. Employing astronauts as cargo truck drivers was an absurd idea to begin with. (Wernher von Braun knew this before the shuttle was even flight ready — I wish NASA had listened).

By contrast, an unmanned supply ship is basically a throwaway device anyhow. Yes, it’s not nice to have rocket parts falling down somewhere. This can seriously spoil the day if you happen to be at the impact site. But flight routes and launch facilities can be chosen to minimize the risk of someone actually getting hurt. Basically, one can write off the vehicle as a loss and launch another one.

However Chiao is completely right about it being a huge blunder to rely on only one vehicle for ISS cargo. NASA made another mistake here. Delta IV and Atlas V should have been purposed for cargo flights a long time ago, but those vested in the shuttle project always understood how to derail such proposals. (Interestingly, the military made the right decision by abandoning the shuttle a long time ago; the military space program has completely switched to reliable throw-away rockets instead).

Fortunately, ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (launched on European Ariane V) is practically ready to assume full operations. The ATV happens to have three times the cargo capacity of Russia’s Progress.

And let’s not forget SpaceX. Its second test launch of the Dragon capsule is scheduled for November. Things went so well the first time around that the second flight has already been is expected to be cleared to go to the ISS.

This is all great news. We all know what happens when there is competition.

Still, the Progess crash spells potential trouble for the ISS. The reason points to another NASA blunder. For safety reasons, Soyuz capsules must remain docked to the ISS at all times. This is so that astronauts can evacuate in an emergency. But these capsules are only certified to remain reliable for 200 days, after which they must be used or replaced. Because the Soyuz launch vehicle (which also launches Progress supply ships) is now suspended pending the investigation, no new Soyuz ships can be launched at the moment. This means that the ISS may have to be evacuated, because the scheduled Soyuz replacements are disturbed.

Why is this a NASA blunder? Because NASA has failed to come up with an alternate return capsule before the shuttle’s retirement. (Projects have been in the works, but faced delay after delay as NASA was concentrating on keeping the shuttles spaceworthy. There were also proposals for emergency return vehicles, which could have been launched via shuttle or by disposable rockets, but NASA decided not to proceed with these programs).

So we arrive at the current status: No way for people to fly to the ISS or back at this time, except on Russian Soyuz vehicles! And these are grounded at the moment.

Update 2011-09-06:
It now appears that should the ISS really have to be evacuated, the SpaceX flight to the ISS might
have to be postponed, since docking Dragon with an unmanned station is not an option. Instead, an approach and flyby at the unmanned ISS would be conceivable, but SpaceX considers this to be a waste of time and money.

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Last Shuttle Launch: Good-bye, Childhood Friends. Time To Grow Up.

I remember watching the first space shuttle launch on TV. I was still a boy living at my parents’ house. The date was April 12, 1981 — and I was very excited.

I was holding my breath during liftoff. After Columbia had reached orbit and the TV station switched back to its normal programming, I stepped outside into our backyard. It was a warm and beautiful spring day, a blue sky broken up by gorgeous cumulus clouds.

Somewhere up there, I imagined, John Young and Robert Crippen would soon pass overhead. These guys were the epitome of coolness. For many years thereafter, I dreamed of being an astronaut or a top engineer launching rockets and spaceships to faraway places.

Today I was watching the shuttle’s last launch. No longer on TV, but via NASA’s media stream on the Internet. Imagine that! While the shuttle has hardly changed in three decades, the world has moved on profoundly.

Let’s face the truth. The shuttle demonstrated what was possible 30 years ago. If this still impresses you, I hope you are not working in today’s space program.

Cellphone inventor Marty Cooper introduced the mobile phone before the first shuttle flight. Are you impressed with it?

At its first launch, there was no World Wide Web. No live streaming. No digital social networks connecting people from all over the world. Hardly anyone had a computer. There were no cellphones, no digital cameras, no digital music downloads. No Internet chats and no video calls. You could not carry your entire music library with you. Or tens of thousands of images.

You could not simply pull up information when you needed it. I remember being fascinated with my first digital watch at about the same time. A miraculous new invention, the Compact Disc was introduced to the public in the same year.

The hipsters using this computer before the shuttle's first flight must now be approaching retirement age. (I have a $20 watch with more computing power -- but shuttle operations did not get any cheaper).

For my generation, the most inspiring technological breakthroughs did not come from the space program, and certainly not from the space shuttle. Most of my generation looks at it as a 30-year old curiosity frozen in pre-historic times. Way before laptops and iPods. (The dark ages).

We will forever disagree on the question whether the shuttle was worthwhile or not. Personally, I don’t think so. I am not saying that the shuttle program lacked achievements — far from it. But I lament the greater achievements which would have been possible instead, for the same expense.

The program’s achilles heel wasn’t so much its cost in cash, but its cost on NASA culture. The complexity of the system, and its dangerous nature. This petrified NASA. Locked the agency and its subcontractors on an iron-clad course, which over the years became impossible to change. On this course, tens of thousands of highly qualified (and influential) people around the country built their entire careers. Many never did anything else — nor did they have to. Even today, it will be quite impossible to convince these armies of people that there may be better was of doing things.



I maintain that the biggest technological mistake the U.S. ever made with respect to space exploration was the sudden discontinuation of the Saturn system. Continued development of new Saturn variants (Wernher von Braun‘s team had plenty of ideas for this) would have achieved much more than the shuttle ever did.

Wernher von Braun posing at the business end of the 1st stage of Saturn V. He knew all along that the shuttle concept NASA settled on was not a suitable replacement for the Saturn rockets. Von Braun's reservations and warnings were dismissed. Click to enlarge.

With the Saturn V, the space station, in its current configuration, would have been technically possible 20 years ago. If the U.S. had followed another crucial recommendation of von Braun’s team (the development of nuclear propulsion for deep space missions), we could have people on Mars right now.

We often hear that the Saturn system had become unaffordable after the moon landings. This argument amounts to circular logic. The only reasons why Saturn was discontinued: to free up funds for the shuttle’s development — and because of internal politics.

I strongly suspect that von Braun (and his Huntsville team) had become too powerful and influential for some people’s taste and personal ambitions. I will say it out loud: After the success of Apollo, von Braun was shafted. (For the complete story, see Michael J. Neufeld’s biography, Von Braun, Dreamer of Space / Engineer of War, ISBN978-0-307-26292-9).

NASA estimates that each shuttle launch costs about $450 million. However, Roger A. Pielke, Jr. has calculated that the Space Shuttle program has cost about $170 billion (2008 dollars) through early 2008. This works out to an average cost per flight of about US$1.5 billion.[1]

By comparison, a Saturn V launch would cost about $1.1 billion in today’s money.[2]

The difference? The shuttle can lift a payload of 24,400 kg into low Earth orbit. But one Saturn V could haul 118,000 kg. In other words, one Saturn V can launch the same mass as five shuttle flights! (Even more would have been possible with the future Saturn variants von Braun had on the drawing board).

Imagine the kind of space telescopes, Mars rovers and space stations that would have been possible with the Saturn rockets instead of the shuttle!

Today, of course, is the shuttle’s last hurrah, and we should not spoil the party. Even to me, the shuttle feels a bit like a childhood friend. The people who worked on it deserve respect.

After Columbia has safely returned to Earth, the orbiters should land at museums. And we, having long outgrown our childhood friends, should finally launch into the future.

Perhaps we should start by re-reading the papers Wernher von Braun’s team presented back then. Back in the dark ages.

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SOFIA: Flying High For Astronomy

I am rather excited about SOFIA, the airborne infrared telescope which is now flying its first scientific missions. I am hoping to do a lot of coverage on it in the future.

The program is a collaboration between NASA and the German aerospace agency, DLR. Much cheaper and more flexible than an infrared space telescope, it it hoped that the research flights will continue for 20 years or more.

I recently attended an in-depth press briefing at the Dryden Flight Research Center at U.S. Air Force Plant 42, where the aircraft is now based.

Among those present were NASA’s SOFIA Program Manager Robert R. Meyer, DLR’s Program Manager Alois Himmes, the Director of the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB David D. McBride, Associate Center Director at NASA/Ames Steve Zornetzer, Director of Science at Ames Michael Bicay, SOFIA Project Scientist Pamela Marcum, Cornell University astronomer Terry Herter, Division Head for Submillimeter Technology at the Max-Planck Institut for Radioastronomie Rolf Güssen and Science Mission and Operations Director Erick Young.

Looking at the SOFIA aircraft from within its hangar at the Dryden facility at Air Force Plant 42. The door revealing the infrared telescope is open. Photo: Reinhard Kargl. Click to enlarge.

Telescope Assembly and SI Integration Manager Thomas Keiling probably got a sunburn while patiently explaining his "baby" to everyone wanting to know details. Photo: Reinhard Kargl. Click to enlarge.

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Goodbye Curiosity

While spending a day at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory last week, I had a chance to say “good-bye” to NASA’s upcoming Mars rover, Curiosity (aka Mars Science Laboratory). Next week, the rover and its descent platform will be crated and driven by truck to a nearby March Air Reserve Base. From there, it will travel by cargo plane to Cape Canaveral in Florida for launch.

In this image, the spacecraft is undergoing final checks. (The rover can be seen on the left. Nearby on the right is its unique “Sky Crane”, a rocket propelled, floating landing platform from which the rover will rappel down to the surface of Mars).

Mars Science Laboratory ("Curiosity") being checked before it leaves for the launch pad. Photo: Reinhard Kargl, 2011

Here is JPL’s control room. From here, communication with all of JPL’s unmanned spacecraft is maintained around the clock.

JPL Operations Control Center. Photo: Reinhard Kargl, 2011. Click to enlarge.

I am very excited about this mission and hope everything goes well. It is very complex for sure. Here is a simulation of how it is supposed to work:


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Reporting Live From NASA/JPL

NASA has invited me to spend the entire day of Monday, June 6 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA’s center for unmanned spaceflight).

All day long, I will be visiting the facilities where NASA’s unmanned spacecraft are designed, built and controlled. I will be chatting with engineers and scientists about upcoming missions and advances. Among other spacecraft, I will see the upcoming Mars Rover “Curiosity”, saying final good-byes before it is sent to Cape Canaveral for launch.

Throughout the day, I will be reporting live via Twitter (and other social media). Please follow my feed! (in English)

or (in German)

Twitter is a new medium which now has over 200 million users. Twitter messages (called “Tweets”) are brief messages of 140 characters or less. (This means they can be received on cellphones — but also on the worldwide web).

Although they are brief, “Tweets” may contain links to photographs, videos, articles, online posts or other material of interest.

You do not need a Twitter account to read the messages on your computer. But it would be helpful if you have one. (It does not cost anything). Having a Twitter account enables you to selectively and automatically follow updates from individuals, institutes and organizations, and it also allows you to “talk back”.

Hoping to see you in cyberspace!

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Alan Shepard In Space!

50 years ago this month, Alan Shepard became the first American to fly into space.

Although the intensely celebrated accomplishment was technically much less challenging than that of Yuri Gagarin’s earlier flight, it was the event for which America had been waiting. (Gagarin’s flight orbited the Earth, while Shepard’s capsule stayed only on a 15-minute, ballistic trajectory).

Shepard, a U.S. Navy aviator and test pilot, was one of America’s original 7 “Space Heores”. Besides Project Mercury, Shepard also flew on Gemini, and later in 1969, he commanded Apollo 14 and landed on the moon.

Shepard died from leukemia in 1998, in Pebble Beach, California.

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