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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Space, in the News

Going Back to Space: ATK 's Liberty rocket

ATK's Liberty rocket and capsule program.

With the end of the shuttle and the Space Transportation System (STS), it seemed to some outsiders that ATK would no longer have a market for those large 4-segment Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB's) that propelled the shuttle orbiters into space. Also not boding well for the company was the cancellation of the Constellation program and the Ares rocket system after only one test of the Ares 1-X. But you can't keep a good team down. ATK has bounced back as a major competitor in the CCD race to space.
Comparing the commercial rockets under development or already available. "A" is the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, still under development. "B" is the Liberty rocket.

ATK has joined forces with key companies to put together the Liberty commercial crew transportation system. With ATK providing a 5-segment SRB first stage, the makers of the Arianne rocket, Astrium, providing the liquid-fueled second stage, and now Lockheed Martin providing support for ATK's Liberty capsule, all the components are together.
Computer illustration of Liberty on crawler/tower moving to the pad. The Liberty is almost as tall as a Saturn rocket, but a great deal less expensive!

Because much of the hardware of the rocket is already tested and flown, it remains to ATK to assemble the package and flight test it and attain a human-rated approval. The toughest part of the process will be quickly developing a crew capsule. And ATK has that in hand, as well. Between 2007 and 2010, ATK had built a composite-structure capsule for a NASA program to reduce risk in transporting humans to space. Now ATK will modify the capsule to fully comply with safety and engineering requirements.
Component-ready Liberty. SRB's from the shuttle, liquid-fuel stage from the Arianne. Capsule by ATK with Lockheed support.

ATK also has the most ambitious schedule of the companies racing to provide commercial crew service. According to their plans, the first unmanned mission will launch in 2014, with the first crewed spaceflight in 2015. This would place ATK a year ahead of SpaceX Dragonrider, and several years ahead of NASA's SLS/Orion system.
5-segment SRB first stage testing in Utah.

ATK is finishing testing of the SRB first stage in the Utah test facility. They are also working on the launch abort system that could save the crew capsule in an emergency on the pad or during launch. As you can see from the picture below, progress is moving at a rapid pace on the Liberty capsule.
Engineers preparing the composite-structure spacecraft.

Barring any unforeseen difficulties in testing, my money would be on ATK to be fairly close to its schedule projections. The project is led by former astronaut Kent Rominger and the ATK team is experienced in building space technology systems. Keep an eye out for more news from ATK as their systems get ready for launch.

All images for this blog post are credited to ATK.


Going Back to Space: SpaceX Makes History

The Falcon 9 rocket with Dragon cargo spacecraft.

Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, builds the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon cargo spacecraft. They are the first among the private companies to build and launch an orbiting spacecraft. It could be said that Boeing, Lockheed, and other companies were first to build the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Shuttles but those who totally government operations. On December 9, 2010, SpaceX became the first privately funded company to launch, orbit, and recover their spacecraft.
SpaceX launch facility at Cape Canaveral.

Launched from LC-40 (from which NASA had launched all the Titan-3 and Titan-4 rockets from 1965 to 2005), the Falcon 9 rocket successfully placed the Dragon test spacecraft into an orbit 179 miles high. The Dragon made two successful orbits and then re-entered the atmosphere for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, being recovered within 20 minutes of touchdown.
COTS Demo Flight 1 blasts off.

The flight fulfilled many of the milestones required by the NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract (COTS). Additionally, after the Dragon spacecraft separated, the second stage was reignited and moved to a higher orbit of 6,800 miles, proving the system could reach higher orbits. SpaceX now prepares for further milestones in the contract with NASA.
Dragon perched on the Flacon 9, on pad LC-40 right now.

SpaceX plans to accomplish a major feat this weekend. In the early hours of Saturday morning, another Falcon-9 rocket will lift off with another Dragon capsule. This time, the capsule is full of supplies for the International Space Station. This mission is expected to fulfil the COTS demo fllights 2 and 3 together. The Dragon spacecraft will be guided to make a near pass of the ISS, and on a subsequent orbit, to approach the ISS within reach of the station's robotic arms. Astronauts of Expedition 30 will use the arms to grapple the Dragon and dock it to one of the hatches. 
Computer graphic of Dragon about to be grappled by ISS.

We're all fingers crossed hoping the best for this mission. Should everything go well, SpaceX will be well on its way to providing regular cargo servicing of the ISS. There's an additional bonus for NASA to use the Dragon: It is the only cargo spacecraft capable of returning items from the ISS to the Earth. Both the ATV of Europe and the Progress of Russia routinely burn up in a re-entry.
Falcon-Heavy at the pad. Computer image.

SpaceX is not stopping with cargo delivery. They are well on their way to launching humans to space. Company founder Elon Musk has a vision to take his rockets all the way to Mars, eventually. To get moving on that path, the company's engineers are designing the Falcon-Heavy, which will be capable of lifting much larger payloads into orbit and beyond. More significantly, SpaceX is building a human-rated version of the Dragon capsule.
Inside DragonRider.

The crewed variant of the Dragon capsule will be called the DragonRider. As you can see in the picture above, it can hold up to 7 astronauts or a combination of personnel and cargo. SpaceX is currently building the first test capsules under the CCD program, which we talked about in an earlier blog. The company is also testing a launch abort system, and expects to fly the DragonRider by 2016.

All photos for this blog post are credited to SpaceX.


Going Back to Space: Riding with Russians

Russian Soyuz TMA-04M mission blasts off.

On Monday night the Russian Baikonur Cosmodrome reverberated with the roar of the Soyuz rocket blasting off to the ISS. On board mission TMA-04M was the second part of the Expedition 31 crew: Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin, with NASA astronaut Joe Acaba. The liftoff was performed successfully and the Soyuz capsule is now in orbit on course for docking with the International Space Station on Thursday.
Flying with Joe Acaba is a Smokey the Bear stuffed toy. Credit: U.S. Forest Service.

With the end of the Space Transportation System (STS) or Shuttle program, NASA relies on the Russian space agency to transport our astronauts back and forth from the ISS. With America's further reliance on the venerable Soyuz rocket system, the Russian government and space agency are seeking greater control over the ISS and the activities there. In addition, the Russians did not fail to grasp at a business opportunity: the cost of a seat on the Soyuz for the Americans jumped by at least 40%.
Astronaut Joe Acaba rides the Soyuz to low Earth orbit.
The Soyuz rocket has been a staple of the Russian space program for several decades. With its first unmanned flight in 1966, both the Soyuz spacecraft and the Soyuz rocket have become an icon of the Russian space effort. Like the shuttle, it has not been without its failures. The first cosmonaut on Soyuz 1, and the three-man crew of Soyuz 11, died during re-entry accidents. However, with the vast number of Soyuz flights succeeding, the Soyuz has become the safest space transportation system. It is also one of the most cost-effective. Because it has been built so many times, the cost has been managed to low levels, an achievement admired by many Americans.
Soyuz TMA-06 in orbit.
Russia currently flies a three-person crew on the Soyuz, and astronauts and other nation cosmonauts must train at the Russian space agency and learn the Russian language to participate in flights. An additional Soyuz spacecraft is kept at the ISS as an emergency escape craft. Russia has also built a cargo version of the capsule. The unmanned cargo version is called the Progress, the manned versions are the current TMA designation. This current manned version was revised from the earlier TM version when it was realized that taller astronauts would need extra room on the Soyuz. The TMA version has been flying since 2003.
Progress M-52, unmanned cargo version. Once supplies are emptied from the Progress aboard the ISS, space station garbage and unwanted equipment is stored aboard. When it undocks, ground controllers guide it to a fiery re-entry, burning it up over an ocean.

Over the last couple of years there have been some anxious moments between NASA and Russia as there have been some glitches and landing difficulties with the Soyuz spacecraft and other Russian rockets. While those problems are fixed, many Americans feel the Soyuz system is old. Even the Russians must be feeling the age of the design, as they have proposed a new design called the Prospective Piloted Transport System, which will carry up to six occupants.
Overall though, NASA is resigned to carry on our human space program at present by using whatever ride the Russians can provide. Right now there is no alternative. And perhaps that's what bugs Americans the most. With proper planning, we should have had a replacement by now.
 
by Mark Daymont
Space Center Educator
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