Wednesday, 31 August 2011

A twist of fate

No one would have dared predict that the first Russian rocket to be launched to the International Space Station (ISS) following the retirement of the US Space Shuttle this summer would be doomed to failure.

It is an ironic turn of events that means for the time being the ISS is currently flying with no means of replacing the astronauts and cosmonauts working on the recently completed orbiting outpost.

At the very least last week’s Russian rocket failure will likely delay the first post-Shuttle era launch of new crew members to the Station. And at worst it could mean a complete withdrawal of all crew before the year’s end if Russia is unable to resume manned flights of its Soyuz rocket.

Despite the delivery of important logistics by the final Space Shuttle mission in July, safety concerns with landing Soyuz capsules in the middle of winter could force the Space Station to fly unmanned beginning in November, according to Michael Suffredini, NASA's ISS programme manager.

Investigations started immediately into why the upper stage of a Soyuz-U booster carrying an unmanned Russian Progress supply ship malfunctioned and shut down five minutes and 20 seconds after launch from Baikonur in Kazakhstan.

Some 2.9 tons of supplies and equipment for the Space Station were lost as the Progress M-12M/44P spacecraft crashed back to Earth during what was ironically the first launch to the orbiting complex since the Space Shuttle was retired in July.

The supply train to the ISS is critical for supporting a full-time crew of six but for now the Station remains in good shape thanks to the deliveries by Atlantis in July.

The Soyuz-U upper stage is virtually identical to the third stage used by Russia’s manned Soyuz spacecraft, which was targeted to launch again on 22 September.

With two Soyuz crew launches and two Progress deliveries scheduled before the end of 2011, the failure is certain to disrupt plans to ferry new crews and cargo shipments to the ISS.

Three current crew members — Expedition 28 commander Andrey Borisenko, Alexander Samokutyaev and Ronald Garan — will have their return to Earth, which was scheduled for 8 September, postponed for several weeks to keep six people at the ISS for as long as possible.

But Garan and his two cosmonaut colleagues could only extend their stay until late October when they would have to return to Earth. The Soyuz spacecraft they will fly home in has an orbital life due to ‘expire’ around 22 October - which means the ship is certified by engineering teams as safe for the return flight to Earth until that date.

A departure at that point would leave just three people on the ISS until Soyuz launches can resume. A crew of three can maintain the outpost but science and research work would suffer.

The other half of the Station's six-person crew — NASA flight engineer Michael Fossum, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov and Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa — are supposed to return home on 16 November.

"The November crew has a little different issue," Suffredini said this week. "If we're not launching by then and we have to de-man the Space Station, we pretty much have to do that probably by about the middle of November."

That crew's Soyuz capsule, named Soyuz TMA-02M, blasted off June 7 and would need to land in late December or early January.

"One of our requirements is to land in daylight, and it has to be an hour from sunset or sunrise," Suffredini said. "On 19 November we reach that cutoff and we go dark."

The next daylight landing window opens in late December, but NASA and Russian officials will then be concerned about extreme winter weather conditions in the Soyuz landing zone on the steppes of Kazakhstan.

"The weather is severe out there in the winter time," Suffredini said. "So from a search and rescue standpoint, that's probably something we don't want to do. Even if it's within our requirements, we probably don't want to be landing two hours before sunset. If we had any problem at all, we would be searching for the crew in a blowing snow storm in the middle of night."

The Soyuz-U rocket has a good safety record over the past four decades of operations — 745 successful launches and 21 failures — and this is the first time there has been such a failure since construction of the Space Station started a decade ago.

With the United States' Shuttle fleet retirement last month, Russian Soyuz spacecraft are currently the only vehicles capable of flying astronauts to and from the Space Station. NASA is investing in the development of commercial ‘private’ space taxis, but those craft remain in development stage and are not estimated to be ready before 2015 or 2016.

Ken Kremer, who has reported on all of the last Space Shuttle flights to the ISS in recent years for Spaceflight magazine, said the loss of the Russian Progress highlighted the "utter folly" of the Shuttle programme shutdown.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Close encounters

For some time NASA has been working hard to counter the notion that the end of the Space Shuttle era means the end of US human spaceflight. And there are commercial companies waiting in the wings.

At Kennedy Space Center just before the launch of Atlantis in July several companies were taking advantage of the large media presence to showcase their proposed spacecraft and rockets of the future.

In one air conditioned ‘tent’ Lockheed Martin displayed a test model of its Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle that may one day take Americans to destinations beyond the Space Station – like the asteroids and Mars.

Next door, Boeing showcased its CST-100 capsule concept, one of the ‘crew taxis' NASA eventually hopes to hire to get its astronauts to and from orbit by mid-decade.

And Elon Musk's SpaceX company threw open its doors on the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station where it has a rocket integration hanger and launch pad. From here it flies its Falcon rocket – the next test flight is planned for this autumn – and ‘Dragon Rider' capsule, another commercial answer to America's astronaut taxi dilemma.

Whilst these companies are all pursuing the more ‘traditional’ route into orbit others, like the US Air Force and the Colorado-based Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), are convinced the future is still in winged reusable spacecraft. SNC's mini-shuttle called Dream Chaser could be launched for the first time in 2015.

Many argue that these new spacecraft represent a more affordable, commercial and even more exciting approach to future human spaceflight.

Not surprisingly NASA administrator, Charlie Bolden, himself a former Shuttle astronaut, is convinced that human spaceflight has a bright future. "You'll hear me say that over and over and over again. The future is incredible and you're witnessing the first steps NASA is taking to create that future right now," he told the gathered media.

As a clear signal of its intention to crank up the momentum wherever possible NASA this week gave SpaceX approval to launch its next Falcon 9 on 30 November — followed nine days later by the Dragon capsule berthing at the International Space Station (ISS).

During the tour of its facilities in July, SpaceX was keen to show us that its has been hard at work preparing for this next flight — a mission designed to demonstrate that a privately-developed space transportation system can deliver cargo to and from the Space Station.

NASA has now agreed in principle to allow SpaceX to combine all of the tests and demonstration activities originally proposed as two separate missions into one time-saving flight.

After catching the ISS and coming alongside, the capsule will be grappled by the Station's Canadian-built robot arm and transferred to a docking port. It will likely stay at the ISS for a few weeks, delivering some non-essential cargo in its pressurised cabin before returning to Earth via a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

This next mission represents a huge milestone — not only for SpaceX but also for NASA and the US space programme. When the astronauts stationed on the ISS open the hatch and enter the Dragon spacecraft for the first time, it will mark the beginning of a new era in space travel.

SpaceX was keen to show us the workings of the launch pad where it has made significant upgrades over the summer to streamline the countdown. New liquid oxygen (LOX) pumps, for example, will reduce previous loading time from 90 minutes to under 30, inching the company closer to its long term goal of Falcon 9 going from hangar to liftoff in under an hour.

We also saw the first stage of the 15-story Falcon 9 — the rocket that is now due to blast off 30 November — lying on its side in the integration hanger at Cape Canaveral's Complex 40. It had arrived in April, followed by the launcher's second stage in July.

Company officials, however, were nervous when it came to photography, particularly where the rocket engines were concerned. We were forbidden to take close-ups that showed the engines in detail, though no objections were raised to the ‘space paparazi’ scrambling on their backs underneath the first stage to capture shots of the SpaceX logo!

Also proudly on show, this time in a tent in the grounds of the SpaceX launch control centre close to Port Canaveral, was the burnt and battered Dragon capsule that was successfully flown into orbit and parachuted back to Earth last December. Here you could closely inspect and almost touch something that had orbited Earth less than a year before.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Mighty machines

The Space Shuttles Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis are now all in various stages of preparation as part of their transformation from mighty flying machines to museum exhibits.

Back in July when I watched Discovery rolled out from the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) to the giant Vehicle Assembly Building to make room for some work on Atlantis it looked in a sorry state. Engines and the large tail pods had been removed from the rear, as had the flight avionics from the nose cone and thruster jets.

For their new lives in museums these parts will be rebuilt and simulated - so although each spaceship will look as though they could one day fly again into Earth orbit this will never be possible.

It was in April that NASA announced the new permanent homes for the retired spacecraft - Shuttle Enterprise, the first orbiter built for testing but not to fly in space, will move from the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York.

The Udvar-Hazy Center will become the new home for Discovery, which retired after completing its 39th mission in March. Endeavour will go to the California Science Center in Los Angeles and Atlantis will be displayed at the KSC Visitor’s Complex in Florida.

Yesterday, meanwhile, NASA engineers had the opportunity to play with their toys another time as Discovery and Endeavour were rolled out to switch places.

Discovery, which was temporarily being stored in the VAB, switched places with Endeavour, which has been undergoing decommissioning in OPF-1.

Both Shuttles stopped briefly outside for a ‘nose-to-nose’ photo opportunity, captured in the pictures below by NASA photographer Frankie Martin flying overhead in a helicopter. After the brief pause Discovery (at right) was rolled into OPF-1 and Endeavour into the VAB.

Space Shuttle flying days are over and their fate is now similar to some of the other mighty beasts of the past - the great railway locomotives of the steam age, many of which have now been in retirement for decades.

I spent a day at the UK’s National Railway Museum in the city of York this week viewing at some of these engineering marvels up close. Each of these rail transport legends - ranging from Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ looked pristine and ready to fire up.

It was a timely visit as the world record-holding Mallard loco (LNER class A4 locomotive 4468) had returned for display in York for the summer holidays.

Mallard holds the world speed record for steam traction on rail, travelling at 126 mph on 3 July 1938. She was designed by Sir Nigel Gresley, who thought of the name 'Mallard' while feeding ducks at Salisbury Hall. Sadly, like the Space Shuttles, she is beyond mechanical repair and can no longer ‘fly’ again.

With over 100 locomotives and nearly 200 other items of rolling stock on show, the National Railway museum tells the story of railways from the early 19th century to the present day.

Some of the engines can still be fired up, and for those who need a fix of the real steam and smoke experience there’s a working engine near some of the outside displays, towing children and adults up and down a short piece of track in a guard’s truck.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Tunnel vision

Travel through the Alps in Switzerland or Austria and you get used to long road tunnels cutting through the spectacular mountain scenery.

One country not famed for such tunnels is the UK as we hardly have the kind of ‘big’ scenery to warrant them. But don’t despair - a new 1.1 mile long tunnel has just opened south west of the M25 on the A3 road linking London to Portsmouth.

This is the latest development on a stretch of the A3 that has seen a number of major improvements over the years to alleviate bottlenecks.

The first came in the 1980s when a dual carriage way was hacked between the chalk downland adjacent to Butser Hill, part of the South Downs way a few miles south of Petersfield.

In the late 1990s came the long awaited Petersfield by-pass relieving time-consuming and an often bumper to bumper trek through this pleasant Hampshire market town.

The Lighthouse Keeper and his family first started travelling up and down the A3 between the M25 and Portsmouth in 1990 after moving to the south coast from the Fens of Lincolnshire.

Like many a commuter or holiday-maker travelling to this part of the south coast we were often caught in long delays as traffic snaked towards Hindhead and round the Devil’s Punch Bowl beauty spot.

Our latest foray to Portsmouth at the weekend hit the jackpot as far as road travel was concerned, the new £371 million Hindhead Tunnel having just been officially opened after a four-and-a-half year construction project.

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond MP (pictured) described the new tunnel as "a cutting-edge road scheme that has surpassed expectations" when he cut the ribbon the previous Wednesday before dashing out of the way to let the traffic stream through.

Construction began on the twin-bore tunnel in January 2007. It is one of the longest in England and is part of a four mile bypass of the Surrey village of Hindhead.

Seven safe crossing points have been built over or under the new road, most of them specifically for pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders.

The tunnel, which will be used by an estimated 30,000 vehicles a day, runs under the bowl which is a large hollow of dry, sandy heath, to the east of Hindhead.

As the ground conditions in the area are predominantly sandstone, the twin tunnel bores had to be constructed using a sprayed concrete lining to prevent them caving in.

Traffic safety features include the UK's first radar-based incident detection system and 100 percent CCTV coverage.

The project has already won awards for its innovation and its safety record, and it’s nice to note that it has also been delivered within budget and on schedule.

In the final phase of the project work will soon begin on returning the old A3 to nature, reuniting the Devil's Punchbowl with Hindhead Common for the first time in almost 200 years.

Hammond’s press statement issued for the opening described traffic as being held up at the Hindhead crossroads "for years".

For those of us who sat in the queues it always seemed like years at the time though was probably closer to 20 or 30 minutes. But even that will be a great saving on those journeys to and from the south coast.