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History > 2009 > USA > Space (I)




Discovery Lifts Off for Space Station


August 29, 2009
The New York Times


KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Lighting up the midnight sky, the space shuttle Discovery finally thundered to life late Friday after three launch delays and rocketed away on a 13-day mission to deliver critical supplies and equipment to the International Space Station.

Running four days late because of bad weather and trouble with a hydrogen valve in the shuttle’s engine compartment, Discovery’s two solid-fuel boosters ignited with a crackling roar at 11:59 p.m., instantly pushing the spacecraft away from launch pad 39A atop twin torrents of 5,000-degree flame.

Wheeling about to line up on a northeasterly trajectory, Discovery arced away on a course paralleling the East Coast, putting on a spectacular late night sky show for area residents and tourists.

Two minutes after liftoff, the shuttle’s boosters fell away, their 1.1 million-pound loads of solid propellant exhausted, and Discovery continued toward orbit under the power of its three main engines, looking like a brilliant star as it dropped toward the horizon.

Six and a half minutes later, with the shuttle traveling faster than 17,000 m.p.h. — more than 84 football fields a second — the powerful engines shut down and Discovery separated from its nearly empty external tank, safely slipping into its planned preliminary orbit.

Over the next two days, the shuttle commander, Col. Frederick W. Sturckow of the Marines, and the pilot, Kevin A. Ford, a retired Air Force colonel, plan to carry out a series of rocket firings to catch up with the space station, setting the stage for docking around 9 p.m. Sunday.

Colonel Sturckow, Colonel Ford and their crewmates — José M. Hernandez, John D. Olivas, retired Army Col. Patrick G. Forrester, Christer Fuglesang of the European Space Agency and Nicole P. Stott, who will join the space station crew as a flight engineer — plan to deliver 7.5 tons of supplies, science gear and life support equipment to the laboratory complex.

Along with installing a new 1,800-pound ammonia coolant system tank, the astronauts will deliver two research racks, a freezer for experiment samples, a new carbon dioxide removal system, a crew sleep station and a new treadmill named after the comedian Stephen Colbert.

Ms. Stott, a shuttle engineer who joined the astronaut corps in 2000, will replace Col. Timothy L. Kopra of the Army, who traveled to the station last month aboard the shuttle Endeavour. Colonel Kopra will return to Earth aboard the shuttle.

Discovery was cleared for takeoff last week after NASA managers concluded that the foam insulation on the ship’s external tank was solidly attached and up to the rigors of launching.

During the previous shuttle flight, in July, an unusual amount of insulation fell away from the central section of Endeavour’s external tank. While the orbiter’s fragile heat shield suffered no major impact damage, NASA managers ordered extensive testing to make sure Discovery’s tank was safe to launch.

In live television views from a camera mounted on the side of the huge tank, the foam appeared to perform as expected during Discovery’s climb toward space.

But it will take several days for engineers to fully assess the health of the shuttle’s heat shield based on ground-based imagery, data from inspections in orbit and photos shot during final approach to the space station. The 8-inch-wide liquid hydrogen valve that delayed Discovery twice earlier this week worked normally during fueling earlier Friday.

Three spacewalks are planned during Discovery’s visit before it undocks on Sept. 8 and lands back at the Kennedy Space Center two days later.

    Discovery Lifts Off for Space Station, NYT, 29.8.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/29/science/space/29shuttle.html






Behind Moon Travel Goal,

Big Talk and Little Money


August 25, 2009
The New York Times


Forty years after it first landed men on the Moon, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has little chance of repeating that accomplishment by the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11.

Maybe not even by the 60th.

Five years after NASA was given a goal of returning to the Moon by 2020, the agency is arriving at an uncomfortable realization — that the American human spaceflight program might not accomplish anything new anytime soon.

“Unless the president is willing to step up and take a bold step like President Kennedy did, the manned spaceflight program is going to go in the ditch,” said Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida.

NASA’s current plan is to retire the space shuttles by September of next year after completing construction of the International Space Station, then rely on Russian rockets until a next-generation rocket, the Ares I, is ready in March 2015. The agency would then retire and dispose of the space station in 2016 and use the freed-up money to develop the heavy-lift Ares V rocket, a lunar lander and the technology for building a Moon settlement.

That plan grew out of the “vision for space exploration” that President George W. Bush announced in January 2004, a year after the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its seven astronauts. But in his budget requests, President Bush never asked for as much money as the Moon vision called for, and Congress, despite bipartisan expressions of support for the program, never added the money. President Obama’s budget request for the next fiscal year, which starts in October, outlined further cuts in 2011 and beyond.

In the last couple of months, a blue-ribbon panel convened by the Obama administration reached two points of broad consensus. One was that it made little sense to spend 10 years building the space station and then throw it away after only 5 years of operation. The second was at that at present financing levels, about $100 billion for human spaceflight in the decade from 2010 to 2020, the current program was, in the panel’s words, “not executable.”

In fact, NASA might not reach the Moon’s surface even by 2030, the panel concluded. Extending the life of the space station diverted even more money from the Moon efforts. Meeting the current goal of getting back to the Moon by 2020 might require an additional $50 billion.

No alternative plan fits the budget, either, the panel said. “Our view is that it will be difficult with the current budget to do anything that’s terribly inspiring in the human spaceflight area,” Norman Augustine, a former chief executive of Lockheed Martin and the panel’s chairman, said during its last public meeting on Aug. 12.

Now almost everything about NASA’s human spaceflight endeavors is again in question — the rockets, the budget, the schedule, the destination — and another overhaul could follow.

The changes could be radical: scuttling the Ares I rocket that NASA has spent $3 billion developing over the past four years and turning some or all of the space transportation business to private companies. Yet the review has attracted little attention beyond space enthusiasts and politicians with perhaps more parochial concerns — thousands of jobs in the electoral tipping point of Florida, for instance.

“I think that a lot of people care about space a little bit,” said Bob Werb, chairman of the Space Frontier Foundation, an organization that advocates the settlement of space. “But it’s only a key issue for a small percentage of the population. It’s been stated that the support for space is a mile wide and an inch deep, and there’s a lot of truth to that.”

A Web site set up for the panel received only 1,500 comments as of the end of July. The question, “What do you find most compelling about NASA’s human space flight activities and why?” generated just 147 responses.

“The American people have no idea what’s going on,” said Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Democrat of Arizona and chairwoman of the House subcommittee on space and aeronautics. “The average American does not know the shuttle will go away at the end of 2010.”

So far, getting out of the human spaceflight business entirely does not appear to be under consideration.

As a presidential candidate last year, Mr. Obama said he supported the goal of returning to the Moon by 2020. Since becoming president, he has repeatedly said he wants NASA to be inspiring, but not what he thinks an inspiring mission would be.

With the arrival of the panel’s final report, now expected in mid-September, Mr. Obama will have to make some key decisions and describe his vision for NASA.

The first decision is a stark one: whether to increase the money for the human space program to at least $130 billion over the next decade, the level the panel said would be needed, or to pull back the grander ambitions and keep astronauts to low-Earth orbit for the next couple of decades.

“That is not a choice the White House wanted,” Ms. Giffords said.

As requested, the panel will offer several options for the administration to consider, not one particular recommendation, and all of the options include compromises like bypassing landing on the Moon and focusing on long-duration space flights, at least initially. That would save the cost of developing a lunar lander and habitat, but Ms. Giffords, for one, said she did not find that plan exciting and doubted that her constituents would either.

In addition to deciding where to go, the administration has to decide how to get there. The simplest option would be to continue the current program, but at a slower pace to fit the available financing, reaching the Moon by about 2025.

Or Mr. Obama could decide that now is the moment to kick-start the nascent commercial space business. NASA is already counting on private companies to bring up cargo to the space station after the retirement of the shuttles, but another possibility might be canceling the Ares I and turning over all transportation to and from low-Earth orbit to private enterprise.

But it is also unclear whether Congress would go along with wholesale changes. Ms. Giffords said she still supported NASA’s current program and was reluctant to throw away its work. A test firing of the first stage of an Ares I engine will take place this week in Utah, and a flight test of a prototype is scheduled later in the year.

“It will cost more money,” she said. “It will take more time if we decide to shift gears and use another vehicle.”

    Behind Moon Travel Goal, Big Talk and Little Money, NYT, 25.8.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/25/science/space/25nasa.html






Hydrogen Leak Halts Shuttle Launch


June 14, 2009
The New York Times


KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Saturday’s launching of the space shuttle Endeavour was called off because of a hydrogen leak similar to one that delayed a space shuttle launching in March.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration had been planning liftoff for 7:17 a.m.

During fueling of the liquid hydrogen, sensors detected a hydrogen leak at the valve next to the external tank, creating a potential flammability problem. The launch was called off at 12:26 a.m.

A similar leak occurred during the launch countdown for the shuttle Discovery in March. “It was eerily the same,” said Michael D. Leinbach, the shuttle launch director, during a news conference early Saturday morning.

Replacing the seals around the valve delayed the Discovery launching by four days, and the Endeavour launching will also be delayed by at least four days.

Mission managers had originally said that if the Endeavour could not lift off by Monday, launching would be pushed back to July, because of the scheduled launching of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter on Wednesday.

Michael P. Moses, chairman of the mission management team, said there would be discussions with the managers of the orbiter mission to see if both launches could fit into a small launch window in the coming week. “We’re going to have those negotiations,” he said.

If the orbiter lifted off as scheduled, the shuttle could possibly lift off on June 20. The need to prepare the launch area between the launchings prevents an attempt sooner.

Alternately, the shuttle could aim for Wednesday, pushing back the orbiter launch to June 20. “Nothing is a foregone decision,” Mr. Moses said.

The orbiter has only a four-day window to squeeze onto a trajectory to the moon. Its next launch window would be two weeks later.

If the Endeavour cannot launch by June 20, the mission must be pushed back to July 11, because of temperature constraints related to the orbit of the International Space Station.

The Endeavour will bring up the final pieces to complete a Japanese laboratory on the space station. The mission is scheduled to last 16 days, and is only the second time that a shuttle mission has been planned to last that long.

    Hydrogen Leak Halts Shuttle Launch, NYT, 14.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/14/science/space/14shuttle.html?hp






Bad Weather Delays Shuttle Landing


May 23, 2009
The New York Times


Bad weather caused mission controllers to call off any attempt to land the space shuttle Atlantis in Florida on Friday.

The Atlantis will have another four chances to land Saturday, either at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida or at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The first chance comes at 9:16 am in Florida.

The mission controllers will also consider White Sands, N.M., where the shuttle Columbia once landed in 1982.

The commander of Atlantis, Scott Altman and his crew of Gregory Johnson, Michael Good, John Grunsfeld, Michael Massimino, Andrew Feustel and Megan McArthur are trying to come home from a successful 11-day mission to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. They have enough power and other provisions on board to stay in space until Monday.

The shuttle Endeavour, which has been standing by ready to launch if Atlantis needed rescuing in space, was released from its standby status to begin getting ready for a June flight to the International Space Station.

In five spacewalks, the Atlantis crew, breathed new life into the Hubble Space Telescope, installing new instruments, gyroscopes and batteries and repairing two other instruments that had died. The telescope engineers have pronounced the mission a complete success. Despite low-tech frustrations like stuck bolts, everything worked.

The only disappointment relates to a camera that the astronauts opened and rewired in orbit. The repairs were aimed at restoring the capacity of the Advanced Camera for Surveys to record wide-field images, but the engineers were hoping that power from the wide-field circuit would find its way to a high-resolution circuit and restore that capability as well. But a short-circuit that precipitated the camera’s demise two years ago simply drained that power away.

“So it was doomed from the beginning,” David Leckrone, Hubble’s project scientist, of the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said of the high-resolution repair.

In a space-age first, the astronauts also appeared by way of a video link in front of a Senate appropriations subcommittee on space, whose chairwoman is Barbara A. Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, a space and Hubble supporter.

John Grunsfeld, who made three spacewalks during the mission, told Senator Mikulski and her colleagues that there was hardly a classroom in America that did not have a poster with some Hubble picture in it.

“Hubble has struck a fundamental chord in human hearts and minds around the world,” he said.

    Bad Weather Delays Shuttle Landing, NYT, 23.5.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/23/science/space/23shuttle.html?hp






After a Yank,

‘Surgery’ on Hubble Optics


May 18, 2009
The New York Times


Just give it a whack. Sometimes, it seems, even in the highest of high-tech circles, there is no substitute for good old brute force.

The question aboard the space shuttle Atlantis on Sunday was whether Michael J. Massimino would rock a handrail on the Hubble Space Telescope back and forth to fatigue a stripped bolt that was stubbornly holding it, or just give the rail a big yank to break it and the bolt off.

Beyond the rail were 111 screws. Beyond the screws were the internal electronics of the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, the intended object of “brain surgery” on the fourth of five days of spacewalks meant to repair and upgrade the telescope.

The spectrograph, which has been used to measure the masses of giant black holes in galactic centers and identify the constituents in the atmosphere of a planet orbiting another star, shut down in 2004 because of a short circuit in its power supply. It was not designed to be opened up and worked on in space.

Nevertheless, for the last three years, engineers and astronauts had been preparing a procedure to break into the instrument, capture all the screws and fix the power supply.

But first the spacewalkers, Dr. Massimino and Col. Michael T. Good of the Air Force, had to get the handrail off.

It was the third of four spacewalks in this mission, the last to the 19-year-old telescope, to be stymied by low-tech problems like bad bolts. Meanwhile, trickier jobs, like the repair on Saturday of the Advanced Camera for Surveys, have gone smoothly.

Three of the handrail bolts came off easily, but Dr. Massimino could not get traction with his drill on the fourth bolt head. After fussing with the bolt and then retrieving a sharper drill bit from the airlock, he asked, “What’s Plan C?”

After a review of the yanking procedures led by Scott D. Altman, the shuttle’s commander, Dr. Massimino said he would probably rock the rail back and forth once and then go for broke. As it happened, the shuttle passed out of television range of mission control and an interplanetary audience.

“It’s off,” Dr. Massimino reported.

Adam Riess, a heavy Hubble user at the Space Telescope Science Institute and Johns Hopkins University who was watching on NASA TV, wrote in an e-mail message: “We always joke that they wait until they are out of TV view to use the hammers and crowbars.” He added, “I guess they really do!”

The astronauts struggled to get back to their script, and they finally completed the repair about two hours behind schedule. Informed that the spectrograph had passed an initial “aliveness test,” whoops and cheers could be heard from the Atlantis crew.

There was slightly different news from the ground about the camera repair done on Saturday; engineers reported after overnight tests that it was not quite as successful as they had hoped. The on-orbit work restored the camera’s ability to take wide-field images but so far has failed to restore its ability to take high-resolution pictures.

Because the wide-field channel of the advanced camera is overwhelmingly the favorite of astronomers, the mission engineers still consider the operation a huge success.

Dr. Riess, who has used the advanced camera to study the so-called dark energy that seems to be accelerating the expansion of the universe, said, “I would consider it an unmitigated success if we do get only the wide-field channel back online.”

    After a Yank, ‘Surgery’ on Hubble Optics, NYT, 18.5.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/18/science/space/18hubble.html?hpw






Astronauts Replace Hubble’s Camera


May 15, 2009
The New York Times


It took all of astronaut Andrew Feustel’s experience as a mechanic and an old Jaguar restorer to fit the Hubble Space Telescope with a new set of eyeballs Thursday.

The first task of a five-day set of repair and maintenance spacewalks was to install a new camera, the Wide-Field Camera 3, on Hubble. But to get it in, astronauts had to first remove the old camera by unscrewing a seven-foot-long bolt known as the “A” latch, which was last moved in 1993 on the first Hubble servicing mission.

At first, the latch did not want to move. For about an hour, Dr. Feustel, working on the end of the robot arm, tried a variety of computer-controlled wrenches and settings.

Finally, mission controllers gave him permission to apply as much muscle grease as he wanted, even if the balky bolt broke. If that happened the old camera, which has performed flawlessly for almost 16 years, would have to stay in the telescope and the new $126 million camera would have to go home — not a great start to the servicing mission.

But the bolt finally budged and then turned freely. “Woo hoo, it’s moving out,” Dr. Feustel said.

“That’s been there for 16 years,” said John Grunsfeld, a mission specialist.

“And it didn’t want to come out,” Dr. Feustel replied.

“It decided to be a recalcitrant teenager,” Dr. Grunsfeld added.

An hour later, as Atlantis was sailing over the southwest Pacific, Dr. Feustel was sliding the new camera into the telescope and latching it down.

Among the new camera’s features is the ability to record images in the normally invisible ultraviolet and near-infrared wavelength bands of the electromagnetic spectrum, as well as in visible light. The infrared capability extends Hubble’s reach into the past because the expansion of the universe stretches the wavelengths of light from distant galaxies to longer, redder wavelengths.

During the remaining hours of Thursday’s spacewalk, the astronauts planned to replace a router and instrument command box that failed last fall and was running on a backup channel. The new router will restore a vital redundancy to Hubble’s operations.

The astronauts began their long-awaited service call at 9 a.m. Eastern time.

“Oh, this is fantastic, you’re gonna love it, Drew,” Dr. Grunsfeld said as he slithered out of the airlock and into the cargo bay of the shuttle.

He was followed about seven minutes later by Dr. Feustel, who is making his first spacewalk. He pronounced the experience fantastic, and set off learning to move around in the cargo bay. Dr. Grunsfeld, a veteran astronaut, was embarking on his sixth spacewalk, all of them devoted to working on Hubble.

This is the fifth and last of the servicing missions that have repaired, refurbished and reinvented the venerable telescope over the years.

    Astronauts Replace Hubble’s Camera, NYT, 15.5.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/15/science/space/15hubble.html?hp






Shuttle Discovery

Lifts Off for Space Station


March 16, 2009
The New York Times


KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — After a month of delays, the space shuttle Discovery and its crew of seven had a spectacularly uneventful liftoff on Sunday evening, rising into a cool, clear Florida twilight en route to the International Space Station.

The Discovery is carrying a last set of solar arrays for the space station and a replacement part for a water recycling system, needed to transform urine into drinkable water. NASA would like the recycling system fully functional before the station crew is expanded to six members from three, a move planned for late May.

The mission is commanded by Col. Lee J. Archambault of the Air Force. Also aboard are Cmdr. Dominic A. Antonelli of the Navy as pilot and Joseph M. Acaba, Richard R. Arnold II, John L. Phillips, Steven R. Swanson and Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency as mission specialists.

Except for a few minor issues — technicians had to go to the launching pad to manually adjust helium pressure in a system that prevents ice formation, and a fruit bat rested on the external tank for several hours — the countdown proceeded smoothly to launching at 7:43 p.m.

The plume of smoke left behind by the shuttle as it rose into the sky was an unusual kaleidoscope of color. The bottom was the gray of dusk, the middle reflected the orange hues of sunset and the top was bright white as the spacecraft rose high into daylight.

With clear skies, the spent solid rocket boosters could be clearly seen descending toward the Atlantic Ocean, and the orbiter itself was still visible from the launching site seven minutes after liftoff as it passed the New York and New Jersey coast.

“I’ve seen a lot of launches,” said Michael D. Leinbach, the shuttle launching director. “This was the most visibly beautiful launch I’ve ever seen.”

There was no recurrence of the hydrogen leak that foiled the launching attempt on Wednesday. Engineers were not able to identify definitively the cause of the leak, which occurred in a system that relieves excess pressure from the tank, but replacing the seals and other components solved the problem.

The Discovery is to dock Tuesday at the space station. Because it needs to undock by March 25 to make room for a Soyuz spacecraft that is scheduled to be launched a day later, astronauts will have time for only three of the four spacewalks originally scheduled.

Only the first, to install a 31,000-pound truss and solar wings, is considered essential. The others consist of “get ahead” tasks that can be passed off to the space station crew if necessary.

Despite the truncated schedule, the Discovery’s crew is expected to accomplish the main tasks of the mission: installing the truss and solar wings, providing the replacement part for the water recycling system, and delivering Mr. Wakata, who will join the crew of the space station. Sandra H. Magnus, currently on the station, will return to Earth on the Discovery.

Shuttle Discovery Lifts Off for Space Station,