Working In Microgravity


A couple of the astronauts aboard the International Space Station took a walk outside today. Dangerous work. As New York Magazine reports:

An Italian astronaut, Luca Parmitano, nearly drowned during the station’s last spacewalk in July after water began pooling in her helmet.

This time they were outside removing a 780 pound pump. That’s 780 pounds on Earth. In microgravity it hardly has any weight at all.

Please, don’t stop reading now.

Weight doesn’t really matter!

Microgravity makes it easier for the astronauts to move something, but that object still exerts force. Force is important. If your hand gets smashed by a hammer, it’s not the hammer’s weight that does the damage. It’s the force!

A little math coming up, but I’ll explain. Don’t panic.

The formula for force is F = ma, or force equals mass times acceleration. See what’s not there? Weight.

What is there is “mass.” Even in microgravity the pump’s mass is unchanged.

So, this pump that currently won’t register on a scale can smash your bones to bits! And, of course, with microgravity it’s easier to get the pump moving.

The astronauts will be back out in a few days to replace the bad pump with a spare. It’s another spacewalk fraught with peril and danger. Extremely physical work performed by major league nerds.

If you’ve read my blog any length of time you know I’m not a big supporter of the manned space program. However, that doesn’t stop me from appreciating how difficult and dangerous work in orbit is.

It’s Just Not Practical

800px-STS-134_International_Space_Station_after_undockingPeople talk about travel to distant planets and space exploration. It’s so heroic. So romantic.

It’s not going to happen.

No, really. No one alive today will ever live on, or travel to, another planet. Sorry.

The challenges are astounding. Earthlings aren’t readily adaptable to living off planet. We can’t even live on most of the Earth!

At 10,000 feet above sea level our breathing is already labored. We can’t live very far below ground either.

We can’t live in the sea. We can’t live where it’s too hot or cold. We can’t live where it’s too dry or too wet.

This comes to mind because the International Space Station is experiencing plumbing problems.

Earlier Wednesday, the pump module on one of the space station’s two external cooling loops automatically shut down when it reached pre-set temperature limits. These loops circulate ammonia outside the station to keep both internal and external equipment cool. The flight control teams worked to get the cooling loop back up and running, and they suspect a flow control valve actually inside the pump module itself might not be functioning correctly. – NASA

800px-8_July_2011_ElektronKeeping the temperature constant is integral to astronauts living up there. There are currently six aboard.

It is all we can do, we being a dysfunctional international consortium of governments that runs the space station, to keep a handful of scientists safely in orbit 257’ish miles up.

Going to a planet is much, much more complicated. Farther away–distance and time. More hostile environment. We’re nowhere near ready to solve these problems.

Up on the ISS there’s hope a cooling solution will be found. Since this is an external problem, repairing it will probably require a trip, or two, or more, outside.

As amazing as astronauts making repairs on their space station while in orbit is, going to a distant planet is orders of magnitude more difficult and more expensive.

It’s just not practical and it never will be.

Lucky Timing

We’ll be leaving from Jacksonville, FL and cruising to the Bahamas… as the shuttle takes off!

I have “use it or lose it” which must go within the next few weeks, so in spite of being off much of 2009 already, I’ll be taking another week. With a few free Southwest passes in the drawer and cold weather still dominating Connecticut we’re heading for a short cruise.

This was one of those what’s available decisions. We needed something that matched up on dates, available flights and price. We didn’t want to spend a lot.

We’ll be leaving from Jacksonville, FL and cruising to the Bahamas… as the shuttle takes off!

Date: Feb. 22 *

Mission: STS-119

Launch Vehicle: Space Shuttle Discovery

Launch Site: Kennedy Space Center – Launch Pad 39A

Launch Time: TBD

Description: Space shuttle Discovery launching on assembly flight 15A, will deliver the fourth starboard truss segment to the International Space Station.

These flights to the ISS head northeast at launch. Most of the non-ISS flights headed south of east. I’m not sure how close we’ll be, but I’m hoping the cruise line keeps us close enough to watch. When you’re launching a roman candle the size of a large office building you don’t have to be right on top of it to get a glimpse.

Something Isn’t Right In Space

So what the hell is going on? Why would we jeopardize our low Earth orbiting fleet (which doesn’t include most weather, communications and TV satellites, but does include the International Space Station, Space Shuttle, GPS, mapping and spy satellites) in an act we’ve already condemned when executed by others?

Back in January I wrote about the US spy satellite that will soon come crashing to the Earth. Sure, it’s got all sorts of scary chemistry (specifically hydrazine) on board, but there’s nothing to worry about, right?

Last week most of the experts were poo pooing the danger this satellite’s fiery reentry would bring. Satellites… even big satellites… come down all the time. That’s what they said until Thursday.

All of a sudden we want to shoot this school bus sized piece of space junk down. Shades of Bruce Willis!

From the Chicago Tribune:

Speaking to reporters, Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff , and James Jeffrey, the deputy national security adviser, said the Navy’s window of opportunity to strike the satellite before it enters the Earth’s atmosphere begins in the next three or four days. Cartwright said the window would likely remain open for seven or eight days.

If the satellite is not intercepted, it is expected to enter the atmosphere in late February or early March.

“This has no aerodynamic properties,” Cartwright said of the satellite. “Once it hits the atmosphere, it tumbles, it breaks apart. It is very unpredictable and next to impossible to engage. So what we’re trying to do here is catch it just prior to the last minute, so it’s absolutely low as possible, outside the atmosphere, so that the debris comes down as quickly as possible.”

A satellite is one lone object. Shoot it down and you get thousands, maybe tens of thousands of tiny objects, all unguided and some likely to remain in orbit for a long time. At orbital speed, even a small object with little mass is destructive.

Back in 1996, after the space shuttle had shifted its course to avoid a dead satellite, the New York times published this:

Dr. Donald J. Kessler, NASA’s senior scientist for orbital debris studies at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in an interview that space junk was a growing problem threatening the safety of spacecraft and astronauts. The Air Force tracks more than 7,000 pieces of debris larger than a baseball, including old rocket parts, outmoded satellites, discarded tools, remnants of explosions, and other odds and ends moving in orbit at more than 17,000 miles per hour. And researchers estimate there are more than 150,000 smaller objects that also pose a danger of collision.

“It’s common for space shuttles to show evidence of frequent hits, but nothing catastrophic has happened,” Dr. Kessler said. “We are now getting good international cooperation to control space debris, but it will continue to be a problem for a long time and we have to take precautions.”

Illustrating how real the problem is, Dr. Kessler said astronauts servicing the Hubble Space Telescope found a half-inch hole punched through its main antenna. And after a flight of the shuttle Columbia last October, engineers found a similar-sized crater in a cargo bay door caused by the impact of a tiny piece of solder, he said.

Here’s the operative sentence: “We are now getting good international cooperation to control space debris.” In other words, space debris is bad and everyone should stop creating it.

In fact, last January, after the Chinese blasted one of their own satellites out of orbit, the US Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva said:

…the January 11 event created hundreds of pieces of large orbital debris, the majority of which will stay in orbit for more than 100 years. A much larger number of smaller, but still hazardous, pieces of debris were also created.

The United States is concerned about the increased risk to human spaceflight and space infrastructure as a result of this action, a risk that is shared by all space-faring nations. The United States and many other nations have satellites in space in conformity with international agreements that provide for their national security, and foreign policy and economic interests.

So what the hell is going on? Why would we jeopardize our low Earth orbiting fleet (which doesn’t include most weather, communications and TV satellites, but does include the International Space Station, Space Shuttle, GPS, mapping and spy satellites) in an act we’ve already condemned when executed by others?

Is there something that vile or that secret in this spy satellite? Are we looking for a little target practice to show everyone we’re every bit as capable as the Chinese? I don’t know.

My “educated amateur” space knowledge says, something doesn’t seem right… something doesn’t smell right… something doesn’t add up.

There are missing pieces to this story I neither possess nor understand. I sure hope someone else does, and they are free to speak.

About The Shuttle

I’ve beaten this dead horse a dozen times… but in case you’re a new reader, the Space Shuttle scares me. I don’t think we (currently) need to risk people’s lives to explore space. On top of that, much of the mission of the Space Shuttle and International Space Station is worthless.

Yesterday, NASA revealed a little problem with some thermal insulation.

A NASA spokesman said the gap appears to be the result of an unusual fold in the blanket.

“We’ve landed safely with damage (in the same area) that’s similar or worse,” Kyle Herring said. “I don’t think concern is the right word; there’s no urgency with the situation.”

There’s no doubt, this story is being played down in Houston. NASA placed the news halfway through the last of seven paragraphs in today’s press release:

The robotic arm cameras took a closer look at an area of insulation blanket on the port orbital maneuvering system pod that pulled away from adjacent thermal tiles. Engineers are analyzing the imagery. Olivas took additional photographs of the area this morning.

NASA seems assured. The insulation shouldn’t be a problem. This has happened before.

That, of course, is what was said by NASA when a ‘small’ piece of insulation broke off and hit the shuttle during Columbia’s launch. The very same thing had happened before.

Columbia disintegrated as it plunged into the Earth’s atmosphere in preparation for landing. Seven astronauts were killed and the space program put on hold.

I’m not saying NASA’s characterization is wrong. However, they probably know less than they’re letting on.

This insulation protects a surface that ‘only’ warms to around 1,000&#186 Fahrenheit – much less heat than Columbia’s ruptured skin faced. Is it critical to the aerodynamics of the shuttle as it hurtles back toward Earth? Only NASA knows… or, by later today, only NASA will have an educated guess.

With all their detailed checks and rechecks, how the hell could this happen?

The shuttle is extremely complex and inherently dangerous. The more times we fly the fleet, the more problems we’ll face. The shuttle fleet has gotten old. Atlantis (flying now) was delivered in 1985.

It’s been 46 years since Americans first sent a man to space. It’s time the government stepped away. Space exploration demands the kind of creative thinking and agility NASA can no longer provide.

This is not the kind of business government is suited to run.

To The Moon

There’s a big buzz today over NASA’s announcement yesterday that they plan to send men back to the moon – in essence establishing a colony with a permanent presence.

I’ve railed against the shuttle program and manned space flight in general, yet my initial reaction to this isn’t negative.

Certainly, I’m skeptical. Long ago NASA lost ‘the right stuff’ they had when we sent Apollo to the Moon. Our shuttle program is a foolish embarrassment, with little upside. Our greatest scientific breakthroughs have come from unmanned missions.

And, as my former producer at Inside Space, Dave Brody, said – NASA’s budget for everything else has pretty much been cut to the bone. There’s not much else they’re funded to do. They probably only have enough money to study, not build, a moon program.

Here’s one reason for skepticism, from NASA’s “Why the Moon?” page.

Six lunar exploration themes evolved from the recent Global Exploration Strategy discussions. NASA engaged the global space community to develop the themes by asking the question, “Why should we return to the Moon?”

If you think a governmental bureaucracy is inefficient, hold onto your hats for a multi-government bureaucracy!

Use the International Space Station as an example. While we play nice, attempting to build the station, Russia sells tourist flights! My sense is, in the spirit of cooperation or to hide the terrible partnership we forged, we’re subsidizing them.

I’ve looked through the objectives reached by the Global Exploration Strategy discussions. Couldn’t most of these be done better without people?

A notable exception is, “Understand the impact of extreme isolation on individual psychological health and group dynamics.” That one goal might be scary enough to keep people here on Earth.

Not every NASA proposal makes it off the drawing board. This is a big ticket item, and I’m unsure if Congress is willing to make the monetary commitment necessary.

Like I said, I’m not dead set against it, just skeptical.

Blogger’s note: The rendering at the top is from NASA. Here’s a larger version. I’m astounded they posted it, because it’s flawed in a way NASA should have spotted immediately.

On the Moon, with no atmosphere, shadows are pure black. Same thing in space. There are illuminated areas and there is total darkness. There is no mid ground.

Our ‘grayed’ shadows on Earth are caused by atmospheric scattering. There’s no lunar atmosphere, hence no scattering on the Moon.

A Spot In The Sun

It looks like a speck of dust on the surface of the sun. But this spectacular picture shows the space shuttle Atlantis alongside the International Space Station (ISS) silhouetted as they orbit the earth. Here’s the full size original picture (warning – it’s huge).

As a photographer, my question is, how did they mask out the Sun’s incredible brilliance to still catch detail of the shuttle and ISS? Digital cameras (possibly film cameras too) just don’t have that kind of dynamic range (difference between brightest brights and darkest darks).

Blogger’s addendum: Here’s more technical info on how the picture was taken: Image of the solar transit of the International Space Station (ISS) and Space Shuttle Atlantis (50 minutes after undocking from the ISS, before return to Earth), taken from the area of Mamers (Normandie, France) on september 17th 2006 at 13h 38min 50s UT. Takahashi TOA-150 refractor (diameter 150mm, final focal 2300mm), Baader helioscope and Canon 5D. Exposure of 1/8000s at 50 ISO, extracted from a series of 14 images (3 images/s) started 2s before the predicted time.

The photographer’s website is here.

Click here for the full photo.

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The Shuttle Flies Tomorrow

The Space Shuttle is scheduled to takeoff tomorrow, headed toward the International Space Station. Right now, the most likely reason for it not to fly would be weather.

At first glance, Florida doesn’t seem like the perfect place for a spaceport. There are thunderstorms much of the year. Shuttles and thunderstorms don’t play well together.

There are also hurricanes and tropical storms. It is oppressively humid, making it difficult to work outside in the summer.

It’s not a siting accident. There are reasons to launch from the Cape. Being closer to the equator is the prime consideration. If you’re near 0&#176, the Earth’s spin is a great help getting you into orbit. Launching from Cape Canaveral adds 915 mph of speed versus launching from the North Pole! That extra speed means less fuel which means more ability to carry a payload.

Since shuttles launch to the east (counter to the Earth’s rotation), Florida also means you launch over water, not land. I don’t have to explain that advantage, do I?

I wish they weren’t launching tomorrow. In fact, I wish they weren’t launching at all.

When you see coverage over this weekend, listen carefully. Listen beyond the talk of safety and explosions. See if you hear anything about what valuable will be going on that makes this trip worthwhile, or makes the International Space Station worthwhile. My guess is, you won’t.

I could take the risk if there was also reward. Right now, it’s closer to a governmentally sanctioned extreme sport.


The space shuttle will not fly today:

From NASA: NASA has scrubbed the launch of Discovery because of a problem with a fuel tank sensor designed to protect the Shuttle’s engines by shutting them down if fuel runs low.

I haven’t heard yet how deep within the bowels this sensor is buried. I do know they’ll have to untank before they start.

Whenever they get this fixed, the daily launch window will continue to be very small – only about 10 minutes. The shuttle will be trying to catch up to the International Space Station and the time they’re in proper alignment is brief.

Trouble With The Shuttle

Earlier this evening, a well connected friend sent me an instant message with bad news from NASA. A window cover on the shuttle had fallen, striking the shuttle’s protective tiles.

At the moment, NASA says they can fix everything in plenty of time to launch tomorrow. Get out the duct tape.

Isn’t this the real problem with the shuttle program in a nutshell? The Columbia tragedy was also an incident they felt they could work through. A piece of frozen foam… lighweight foam… hit the shuttle. “Harmless,” was the conventional NASA wisdom.

But no one really knows. These are all just calculated guesses. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re not.

I play in a lot of no limit poker tournaments on line. There’s an analogy here. I can go with the odds and win a dozen showdowns, all-in hands. But, if I lose one – just one – I’m done.

It’s the same with the shuttle. Guess right 99 times, but if you’re wrong on number 100 you’re 100% wrong, not 1%.

Overall, there is little room for error. In some specific cases, it could be argued, there is no room for error.

So, again I get on my soap box to say, “Don’t fly.”

And, again, I’ve looked to see what this mission is accomplishing. Other than servicing the International Space Station, it will be 13 days of not much.

Sure, there will be safety procedures examined and quantified, but that wouldn’t be necessary if we didn’t insist on men in space. In fact, neither would the ISS servicing.

I will be watching tomorrow at 3:51 PM and hoping for a safe journey. I will even attempt to see the shuttle while it passes over Connecticut during some of its orbits&#185. I just won’t be convinced it’s a worthwhile risk or use of our money.

&#185 – In servicing the International Space Station, the shuttle uses an orbit that brings it closer to the poles than in ‘standard’ missions. It will get as high as 51&#176 north and south latitude.

Our Place In Space

I wrote earlier today about the setback for Rover Opportunity. It is stuck in some sand as it scoots around the surface of Mars. It has now been operating nearly a year beyond its expected Martian lifetime. It owes us nothing at this point.

Those in charge feel confident it will extricate itself. Good luck. I hope they’re right.

Also today, NASA announced they were pushing back the next launch of the space shuttle. What was scheduled for May will now go off during the summer.

The problem relates to ice. Much of the propellant for the shuttle is incredibly cold and any exposed area of its plumbing or tanks will cause ice to form, even on a warm Florida day. If the ice breaks off… Well, you remember what happened on the last shuttle flight.

The shuttle program started in the early 70s. It was a good idea at the time, but 30+ years later, it’s obvious we need to go a new way.

The shuttle is bulky, expensive, labor intensive and extremely dangerous. Close your eyes for a second and think how your car differs from the one you drove in the 1970s. We are flying a 1970s shuttle fleet.

The shuttle program was predicated on many promises, such as advances in pharmaceuticals, metallurgy and the like. In reality, shuttle related progress in those field has been minimal.

Certainly there have been benefits, like communications satellites, integrated circuits and computer chips. Today, it seems like the shuttle is without a real mission. The International Space Station, one of the reasons for continuing shuttle flights, is doing less than the shuttle did!

On the other hand, our two robotic Martian missions have been astounding successes. They have lasted longer than expected&#185. More importantly, they are doing real science on a real mission.

We can take chances… even get stuck in the Martian sand, because no lives are at risk.

We are using robotics more and more to replace humans, especially in dangerous situations. Unmanned drone airplanes fly recon over Iraq (and probably other places our military doesn’t admit to). Even portions of the New York City subway system are scheduled to be operated robotically.

The state-of-the-art in robotics is well beyond anything imagined in the early 70s. Yes, NASA gets some credit for that. But now it’s time to take advantage of that technological edge and move our space program into the 21st Century.

There might be a time in the future when men, again, will be necessary for space exploration. They aren’t now. Another space disaster would be devastating to our nation. Along with the human toll, that bit of national vanity must be considered.

It’s time to ditch the shuttle and start flying smarter.

&#185 – I suspect, based on past experience, that NASA timelines are always conservative, making every success look that more successful.

Building a Better Space Program

There’s something about me that’s always surprised my co-workers. They know I’m tuned in to the Space Program and, through my work hosting Inside Space on The SciFi Channel, got to see lots of neat hardware and meet some very bright people. They assume that means I’m a fan of what NASA does.

I am not.

NASA is populated with very dedicated people (and has one of the best websites on the net), but the idea of a bureaucracy leading us into the great unknown is wrong in so many ways. By definition, a bureaucracy wants to take the safe, well marked path to the future. That’s how you end up with a vehicle like the Space Shuttle, which costs a fortune and does hardly anything.

To me, the Columbia Disaster was no real surprise. NASA had stretched very old technology thin… dodging enough bullets that they felt bulletproof. The fact that the mission Columbia was on was a ‘nothing’ trip to space with minimal science, makes it all the more tragic.

The International Space Station is another ‘white elephant.’ What has it accomplished? Even our Russian partners take advantage of us by selling seats on their missions to the ISS to get cash. You can feel NASA seething, but they are incapable of complaining, lest they point out the devil’s pact they made to keep the project going.

Enough NASA bashing.

It’s likely that the current real center of space innovation is with the private companies working toward the X-Prize.

The ANSARI X PRIZE is a $10,000,000 prize to jump start the space tourism industry through competition between the most talented entrepreneurs and rocket experts in the world. The $10 Million cash prize will be awarded to the first team that:

* Privately finances, builds & launches a spaceship, able to carry three people to 100 kilometers (62.5 miles)

* Returns safely to Earth

* Repeats the launch with the same ship within 2 weeks

The ANSARI X PRIZE competition follows in the footsteps of more than 100 aviation incentive prizes offered between 1905 and 1935 which created today’s multi billion dollar air transport industry.

When Lindbergh flew the Atlantic (taking off from the current site of a mall on Long Island), he was competing for a similar award, the the $25,000 Orteig prize. So, there is a precedent for this sort of thing working.

Yesterday, one of the teams working toward the X-Prize made a giant step into space. Carried airborne by a conventional jet, SpaceShipOne separated and then climbed to 40 miles on its own power.

Launch conditions were 46,000 feet and 120 knots. Motor light off occurred 10 seconds after release and the vehicle boosted smoothly to 150,000 feet and Mach 2.5. Subsequent coast to apogee of 211,400 feet. During a portion of the boost, the flight director display was inoperative, however the pilot continued the planned trajectory referencing the external horizon. Reaction control authority was as predicted and the vehicle recovered in feather experiencing 1.9M and 3.5G

Sending People Into Space

Today is the 1st anniversary of the Columbia disaster. No one knew, as the Shuttle was climbing from the pad, the die had been cast. Even scarier – if we would have known at that point, nothing could have been done.

There is no doubt the astronauts who fly the Shuttle and International Space Station, and before them the earlier crews, know the dangers they face. Do we?

It should have come as no surprise that astronauts died a year ago. Leaving our atmosphere is inherently dangerous. There are thousands of critical components and systems, any one of which could shape the same outcome. NASA has had plenty of close calls before.

It has been my opinion, and it seems to be born out by what I’ve read, that NASA has taken a less than rigorous attitude toward full safety. The conditions they allowed the astronauts to fly to aboard the Soviet MIR were shocking, to say the least. Of course we’ve all read that NASA experts played down fears about the very foam collision that was the Shuttle’s undoing.

We will fix the foam, and the wings and anything else that’s been made obvious by the events of February 1, 2003, but the changes will only marginally improve the safety of the crew. There are still those thousands of parts and systems. As long as men fly in space, there will be danger and there will be death.

This is a profession so dangerous that you can get killed just practicing – as we found out with Apollo One.

It’s time we, as a nation, took a look at the facts, and made a decision. Is what we’re doing in space worth jeopardizing human lives? I say no.

Look back at Columbia. It was a ‘junk science’ mission. There was little of any scientific import on board. Our other major manned program, the International Space Station, isn’t much better. Even if it weren’t crippled by a caretaker crew, it would be accomplishing few things worth writing home about.

Why are we doing this? Is it a matter of pride? In this day and age there’s a better way to explore – robotically. We are proving, on Mars, with Stardust and other missions , that robots can accomplish the same, or more, than man. And, it’s being done at a significant savings, with little human danger.

Don’t underestimate the cost. My producer at SciFi used to say that if, somehow, the Shuttle’s payload bay was mysteriously filled with gold while in orbit, the mission would still lose money!

The time to change our attitude is now. If the goal is to explore space, let’s do it the right way – so there can be worthwhile science and exploration. As it stands now, the space program is crippled by the fear of further disaster… and there will be further disaster. It’s only a matter of time.