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Monday, October 14, 2013

Goodbye Scott Carpenter. NASA Out of Business? The Imaginarium

Space and Science News

Farewell, Scott Carpenter

Astronaut Carpenter after recovery from splashdown on mission MA-7.

Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter died this week at age 88. He had recently suffered a stroke and although it was thought he would recover, his health worsened. He is most famously remembered for his Mercury space flight on May 24, 1962 in the Space capsule Aurora 7 (MA-7). The second American to orbit the Earth, he flew for just under 5 hours testing the spacecraft and helping to identify the mysterious "fireflies" reported by John Glenn on mission MA-6 (for which Carpenter was the backup pilot).

Test pilot Carpenter with the F-106B.

Carpenter became a Navy pilot after WW2, eventually flying Navy surveillance aircraft during the Korean War. After the war, he became a Navy test pilot until his appointment as one of the "Mercury Seven" original astronaut selection. 

Liftoff of the MA-7 Mercury-Atlas rocket from Launch Complex LC-14, Cape Canaveral, Florida.

There was a bit of controversy from Carpenter's Mercury mission. DUe to a problem with the Pitch Horizon Scanner, maneuvering the capsule required extra work and Carpenter had to cope with a manual re-entry situation. Because of the PHS problem and fuel waste, Carpenter's spacecraft overshot the selected landing point by 250 miles. Mission Control Director Chris Kraft blamed Carpenter for the problem although NASA later identified it. Carpenter was kept off flight assignments though. He took a leave of absence for a short assignment with the SEALAB underwater base station project, and before he came back to a NASA assignment he was involved in a Motorbike accident. The injury to his arm was never properly corrected and he was grounded from flying. He continued to work with NASA though, training astronauts using the underwater training simulators. He continued to be a vocal proponent of the space program until even very recently. He later founded Sea Sciences Inc., developing programs for using our oceanic resources and protecting the ocean environment.

Official NASA Portrait. 

I'm very fortunate to have Scott Carpenter's autograph. I'm proud of his commitment to human spaceflight and his willingness to be vocal when things have not gone right with our government's handling of the space program. With his passing, John Glenn now becomes the last survivor of the Mercury Space Program, more than 50 years after its completion.

NASA Shutdown, Space Still Open

Government shutdown? Well, kind of.

Political maneuverings in our nation's capital have resulted in a "government shutdown." The mainstream media is awash in dire threats of layoffs, harm to the economy, senior citizens in danger, and essential services taken off line. NASA, as a government agency, is part of the shutdown. So what does that mean for space operations? According to NASA's information releases, "During a shutdown, most NASA operations would cease and most employees would be furloughed, with the exception of operations and personnel needed to protect life and property." Like the FAA and TSA, mission control in Houston will continue to function and assist the Expedition 37 crew aboard the ISS, and essential satellites and communications systems will continue to operate. According to Jeff Faust of SpacePolitics, several hundred employees remain on duty, though there is some worry that should the shutdown be prolonged, launch dates could be affected. He notes that the Kennedy Visitor Center in FLorida will remain open, as it is run by a private industry, although the parts of the tour that enter NASA facilities will be closed.

And that brings up an important point. It may have started small, but there is a growing effort to bring space operations out of government administration and placed into the hands of private enterprise. With that note, we can look at a couple of important milestones this week.

Falcon Improved lifts off from Vandenberg. Credit: SpaceX.

Private space ventures like SpaceX continue to operate. Just last Sunday, SpaceX launched the Falcon 9.1 rocket from the Vandenberg AFB in California. The new rocket features engines that are less expensive to manufacture and greater performance. This launch was used to place a Canadian technology test satellite into orbit. As the US military will not be affected by the government shutdown (except for private contractors), military launch facilities remain open and military space assets continue to operate. SpaceX is working on other launch facilities. They are creating a new launch pad in Texas, and are in negotiations with NASA to lease the older Pad 39 B site which was used for Apollo and Shuttle operations but is no longer needed.

Proton launch from Baikonur. Credit: RIA Novosti.

And don't forget, America is just one player in the space game. International space operations continue as normal. On Monday, Russia launched a new Proton-M rocket for the first time since July's failure. The troubled system has some worried that difficulties could endanger the launch of the new Russian module to the ISS. The July Proton failure resulted in the loss of three Glonass GPS satellites, and was quickly followed by news of a scandal in the program. It was also determined that the crash was due to the faulty upside-down placement of three sensors in the rocket. This Monday's launch placed a communications satellite.

It's not likely that the NASA shutdown will last very long, as both political parties in Washington will be searching for a way out of the mess. Let's hope all goes well and no disasters occur during the "slowdown."

Posted by Mark Daymont
Farpoint Educator

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