After years of iterating designs on the drawing board, hard work on the factory floor, and combating the naysayers and haters, the Crew Dragon, the first private orbital spacecraft (Virgin Galactic’s bird is a suborbital craft, and yes, the Orion also had an unmanned test flight as the first government-commissioned craft since the space shuttle) will launch from Kennedy Space Center in the United States in the early morning hours of Saturday, the 2nd of March. Continue Reading
I thought I’d share a humorous little anecdote that is probably indicative of what the average American knows about our legacy in space. Before I do that, though, allow me to set the scene.
Today begins a week on the calendar which reminds us that going into the black is never something to be taken for granted. On this date in 1967, a flash fire in the command module during a test on the launch pad claimed the lives of Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. Tomorrow, January 28, will mark the 33rd anniversary of the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger, which exploded 73 seconds after launch with the loss of her entire crew: Dick Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe. And Friday, February 1, will mark the anniversary of the 2003 loss of Space Shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members: Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon.
Over the years, I have written fairly extensively about these events and the astronauts whose lives they claimed, since I believe very strongly that it is indeed a rough road that leads to the stars, and if we do not continue to dare to push farther into the black, then these brave, extraordinary men and women will have died in vain. If you’d like to read any of my previous posts, just search the January and February archives on this site.
This year, however, I’d like to discuss, however briefly, this week of somber anniversaries within the context of our larger mission here at Take Back the Sky, which is to convince Elon Musk’s commercial space company SpaceX to name its first Crew Dragon after Serenity, the ship in Joss Whedon’s sci-fi television series Firefly and subsequent motion picture Serenity.
While it is true that we want SpaceX to name the first Crew Dragon Serenity after a ship from science-fiction, in much the same fashion that the first space shuttle was named Enterprise after the starship from Star Trek and SpaceX’s workhorse booster rocket the Falcon 9 was named after the Millenium Falcon of Star Wars fame, there is more to the name Serenity than a reference to a space western with a cult following, and at times like this, that becomes apparent.
If you google the noun “serenity,” you will find that it means “a state of being calm, peaceful and untroubled.” The word itself suggests balance and harmony, with no hint of turmoil or conflict. This is, of course, precisely the state of being we hope the late astronauts of the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia have now found. Though the phrase “rest in peace” may have become almost cliché in this era of social media tweets and soundbites, when I hear the word “serenity,” I can’t help but be reminded of the words of Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist for the Canadian rock group Rush, who wrote in the song Presto, “I am made from the dust of the stars, and the oceans flow in my veins” or the words of the English poet Sarah Williams, who wrote, “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” I believe that if the next spaceship to carry US astronauts into space from American soil were to bear the name Serenity, its name would, among other things, serve as a living, working memorial to the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice to further our understanding of the stars. And as the first privately built, privately owned spaceship to carry US astronauts into space as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, it would send a message that we not only hope they are at peace, but that we, the people, fully intend to carry on their mission– that they can rest knowing we have the watch now.
SpaceX completed its static fire of the Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon on January 24, and the ship’s unmanned demonstration flight is expected to take place next month. If you agree with me that Serenity would be a good name for the Crew Dragon, to honor those astronauts we’ve lost or for any reason, now is the time to write a letter or postcard to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk and SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell to let them know you want to see the ship bear that name. You can find the address for SpaceX as well as some tips for contacting them on the “Take Action” page of this site.
And whether you choose to contact SpaceX or not, don’t forget to say a prayer, light a candle, lift a glass or do whatever you personally find to be appropriate this week to honor the memory of the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia.
Ad astra, per aspera.
“Take my love, take my land, take me where I cannot stand. I don’t care, I’m still free. You can’t take the sky from me. Take me out to the black, tell ’em I ain’t comin’ back. Burn the land and boil the sea, you can’t take the sky from me. There’s no place I can be, since I found serenity. You can’t take the sky from me.”– Joss Whedon, The Ballad of Serenity
If we didn’t know better, we’d think SpaceX is celebrating Hanukkah in grand style. After all, it seems like they’re lighting a very big candle every day now!
With today’s launch of the SSO-A SmallSat Express, which was originally scheduled to launch from Vandenberg AFB in California on November 19, SpaceX is now on the verge of back-to-back launches on two consecutive days from two opposite coasts. That’s because the 16th resupply mission to the International Space Station as part of the Commercial Resupply Services contract that SpaceX has with NASA is scheduled to lift off from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday, December 4 at 1:38 PM EST (18:38 UTC).
At this time the weather appears to be favorable for the mission, which will have an instantaneous launch window. The Falcon 9 booster that will be used for this mission is a brand new Block 5 rocket. Its first stage will land at Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) at Cape Canaveral.
The Falcon 9 will carry a Dragon spacecraft loaded with 5,673 lbs. (2,573 kg) of supplies, scientific research equipment, experimental hardware and scientific investigations (a.k.a. experiments) that will aid the crews of Expeditions 57 and 58 in their work aboard the ISS. The timing of the launch is especially interesting since the Expedition 58 crew also launched earlier today aboard a Soyuz rocket. If all goes well, they will be aboard the ISS in time to assist the crew of Expedition 57 with the capture and unloading of the Dragon when it arrives at the station on December 6. Operating the Canadarm2 to grapple the Dragon and guide it to the station will be Expedition 57 Commander Alexander Gerst of Germany, who will surely feel like he’s receiving the biggest St. Nikolaus’ Day gift ever!
The Dragon is expected to remain berthed at the ISS for approximately five weeks. After the crew unpacks its current cargo and loads it full of completed experiments and other materials that are to be sent back to Earth, it will undock (if everything remains on schedule) on January 13, 2019, at which time it will return to Earth and splash down for recovery in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja, California.
Peace, love and rockets…
This is the second half of Jeff’s two-part coverage of the NASA SOCIAL press event for the ICON atmospheric probe. As a disclosure, Jeff is employed by the Lockheed-Martin corporation, the original makers of the L-1011 Stargazer aircraft now operated by Northrop-Grumman mentioned in this article, though his employment is completely unrelated to said craft.
After the unexpectedly cathartic visit to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and a lunch break, we were shuttled to the NASA press facilities overlooking the launch complexes.
Left: Approaching the NASA Press Briefing Room and television studio. Right: The view from the building of one of the former space shuttle launch pads.
We took our seats, and finally got down to business for the real reason we were here. We were addressed and were free to ask questions of:
- Tim Dunn, Director of NASA’s Launch Services Program (left, in the blue shirt), who has the responsibility of selecting commercially available rockets like the Pegasus that are best suited to take given payloads into space.
- Brian Baldwin, representing Northrop-Grumman, who briefed us on the current situation with the payload. Originally meant to launch from Kwajalein Atoll last year, the most recent delay that precluded us from seeing it go today was some “fishy” readings from the satellite’s own telemetry sensors collected during the ferry flight to Kennedy. It was decided to try again the next week after having another look at it (“working three separate issues, that’s all I can say,” he said) to make sure nothing was damaged in transit.
They also gave us an idea of the unique challenge involved with the launch. The Pegasus XL is a rocket that is actually dropped from high altitude by a heavily modified Lockheed L1011 (christened Stargazer) before igniting the engines and arching upwards towards space to deploy its payload in a lower orbit. In order for the launch to succeed, Stargazer’s crew must drop the vehicle in a “drop box” measuring only 10 by 40 km — a narrow window to hit at cruising speeds.
Once it makes it out into the Black, just what does ICON do? The Ionospheric Connection Explorer uses a series of instruments to study the interaction between Earth’s high-altitude weather systems and “space weather” phenomena in the ionosphere — which has a profound impact on the performance of satellites and spacecraft, and may well be the difference in just how many bars or “G’s” your smartphone’s network enjoys. After a one-week “shakedown” in orbit, it’ll start powering up sensors built by UT Dallas, UC Berkeley, and the US Naval Research Laboratory, calibrating itself using the light of three full moons. Following that, it’ll commence it’s two-year mission to advance our understanding of space weather.
After the briefing, our next stop, if you’ll believe it, was mission control — not the same one that’s used for crewed missions, mind you, but still the actual command and control stations used by NASA and partners for commercial launches, be it underslung Pegasus launches, or SpaceX Crew Resupply Services (CRS) launches aboard Falcon 9’s.
These particular control rooms are within the Cape Canaveral United States Air Force Base, where photography is restricted, though we were assured that we were in the clear for the interior of the building.
Oddly enough, the control rooms used by the actual engineers, while lacking in decor, enjoy better workstations than management, with multiple curved-display monitors. “Just don’t tell our bosses,” said our guide.
After that was the main event, when they bused us out to the “skid strip” to see Stargazer itself on the runway with ICON loaded in the Pegasus XL on the underside. Unfortunately, as it is a restricted Air Force Base, we weren’t allowed to take any photos, so I’m afraid all I can give you here is stock photos from Google as I try my best to describe the tour of the craft.
For a plane sitting on the runway, it had a lot of activity buzzing around it — though I suppose a live solid-fuel rocket isn’t something one can just set aside and neglect. Much like the photo above of a previous mission, air conditioning trucks and generators must continually pipe in a steady flow of cool nitrogen gas into the payload compartment of the Pegasus in order to maintain the original, clean-room sterility of the spacecraft.
The plane itself, the L-1011, is largely unknown to the public, because in its day, it lost out to its competitor, a modest aircraft you may have heard of called the 747. This particular one was purchased from a Canadian airline that was retiring it (“for less than a Tesla,” they kept saying, though they declined to comment on just which model they meant). There’re only a few remaining in the world, and even fewer pilots qualified to fly it — which may be why Stargazer’s part-time flight crew were some of the coolest customers I’d met at the Cape. Gregarious as your favorite uncle, and just as comfortable in their blue flight suits as Jimmy Buffett in a Hawaiian shirt.
The plane requires a crew of three, as it was one of the last modern airplanes to require a flight engineer instead of having a fully automated system as the 747 did (no doubt part of why one is still with us and the other nearly extinct). Each of the three men took groups of us through their ship, starting at the cockpit — where yours truly assumed the captain’s seat, because of course, and placed my hand on the Big Red Button because that’s what you do if you have a pulse.
Behind the flight cabin were the instrument stations where workers were performing maintenance on workstations that would monitor and relay the Pegasus’ telemetry among the few rows of remaining seats. Most of the seats, insulation, and even toilets were torn out of the craft during its modification to reduce its weight and free up greater capacity for the payload that was attached beneath our feet — it turns out that the L-1011 wasn’t selected just because it was cheap, but because it sports a very unique airframe structure unlike any other passenger jetliner, and was the only in existence that had a strong enough underside to carry a rocket.
After shaking hands and saying our goodbyes, it was time to get back on the bus and return to our cars and normal, boring lives. It gave me time to reflect as I watched the palm trees and occasional bald eagle nests pass by. After 2011, I’d grown accustomed to “the new normal,” and come to accept that NASA and the Cape may never know its former glory again, with the exception of a few bright, rising stars such as SpaceX and Blue Origin. I couldn’t be more happy to be proven wrong, and to have my “faith” in it all restored, if you will. Heck, it gets me thinking that there may yet be hope that I’ll get to live the dream and work out here someday.
Very, very special thanks to @NASASOCIAL for inviting us to this press event.
Take Back the Sky’s own Jeff Cunningham was recently invited to a NASA press event centered around the launch of the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) spacecraft aboard an air-launched Pegasus XL rocket. In this series of posts, he’ll share his behind-the-scenes tour of NASA’s latest and greatest projects going on at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Continue Reading
Ni-hao, y’all — Jeff here, Rocket-Scientist-in-Residence here at Take Back the Sky. I’ve been offline for some time now tending to a newly arrived future Browncoat. Last week, NASA finally announced the assignments of which astronauts will be assigned to which flights aboard which independently made American spacecraft. I’m rather surprised that no one is commenting on what’s right there in the open for everyone to see, so I thought I’d offer my two cents here. Continue Reading