Curiosity Makes It

Stardate – 66062.4

After eight years of planning and eight months of interplanetary travel, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory pulled off a touchdown of Super Bowl proportions, all by itself.

The spacecraft plunged through Mars’ atmosphere, fired up a rocket-powered platform and lowered the car-sized, 1-ton Curiosity rover to its landing spot in 96-mile-wide (154-kilometer-wide) Gale Crater. Then the platform flew off to its own crash landing, while Curiosity sent out a text message basically saying, “I made it!”

That message was relayed by the orbiting Mars Odyssey satellite back to Earth. A radio telescope in Australia picked up the message and sent it here to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. When the blips of data appeared on the screens at JPL’s mission control, the room erupted in cheers and hugs.

Because of the light-travel time between Mars and Earth, throngs of scientists and engineers — along with millions who were monitoring the action via television and the Internet — celebrated Curiosity’s landing 14 minutes after it actually occurred.

Even the engineers who drew up the unprecedented plan for the landing admitted that it looked crazy. But the plan actually worked.

The touchdown marked a $2.5 billion triumph for what Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters, called “the Super Bowl of planetary exploration.” Curiosity’s primary mission is scheduled to last one full Martian year, or almost two Earth years — but scientists hope the nuclear-powered rover will keep going for years longer than that.

Curiosity is the biggest and most capable robotic laboratory ever sent to another celestial body: Its 10 scientific instruments are designed to study the chemistry of Mars’ rocks, soil and atmosphere and determine whether the Red Planet had the right stuff to be habitable in ancient times.

The rover’s prime target is a 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) mountain inside the crater, known as Aeolis Mons or Mount Sharp. The mountain’s layers of rock could preserve billions of years’ worth of geological history, shedding light on the planet’s transition from its warmer, wetter past to its current cold, dry climate.

Some scientists think Curiosity could even detect the signs of present-day life, although NASA doesn’t go that far.

Risky descent

The final phase of the Mars Science Laboratory’s journey from Earth to Mars relied on technologies that had never been tried before in outer space — which is why it was called the “seven minutes of terror.”

Seven minutes before landing, Mars Science Laboratory threw off its cruise stage and began its plunge through the planet’s atmosphere at a speed of 13,200 mph (5,900 meters per second). It jettisoned two solid-tungsten weights, shifting the spacecraft’s balance to become more like a wing. Small thrusters fired to put the craft through a series of “S” turns to adjust the trajectory.

The heat shield weathered temperatures ranging up to 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit (2,100 degrees Celsius). At an altitude of about 7 miles (11 kilometers), the spacecraft deployed its parachute, even while it was traveling at supersonic speeds.

First the heat shield dropped away. Then the parachute and the back shell flew off, leaving behind the rover and its rocket-powered “sky crane.”

The sky crane handled the final phase of the slowdown by firing eight retro rockets. It descended to a height of about 65 feet (20 meters) and lowered the rover to the surface on the end of three cables. When the rover hit the ground, the cables were cut loose, and the sky crane blasted itself away from the landing site.

Adam Steltzner, the engineer in charge of drawing up the landing plan, said 79 explosive devices had to go off in just the right sequence — otherwise, the landing would have almost certainly failed.

NASA went with the seemingly crazy system because the 1-ton Curiosity is the heaviest payload ever delivered to the Martian surface. That weight is too heavy for the airbag-cushioned system that was used for previous Mars rovers, and too unstable to put on a lander with legs, Steltzner said.

Before the landing, Steltzner said he and his team were “rationally confident” and “emotionally terrified.”

Running a relay

When Curiosity touched down, it was out of Earth’s direct line of sight, so three orbiting probes — NASA’s Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, as well as the European Space Agency’s Mars Express — monitored the data being sent out by the spacecraft. However, only Odyssey was capable of relaying the data back immediately, using what’s called a “bent pipe” communication mode.

The telemetry was picked up by a radio telescope in Canberra, Australia, that’s part of NASA’s Deep Space Network, and relayed to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Mission controllers had broken out their jars of good-luck peanuts and anxiously awaited the arrival of the signal at the appointed time, 10:31 p.m. PT Sunday (1:31 a.m. ET Monday).

TV cameras monitored the action as the data came in — allowing the whole world to see the wave of relief and celebration roll through the room. More than a dozen VIPs were among those watching from JPL’s campus in Pasadena.

The guest list included Black Eyed Peas musician Will.I.Am and actors Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura on the original “Star Trek”), Morgan Freeman (from “Deep Impact” and “Through the Wormhole”), Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher on “Star Trek: Next Generation”) and June Lockhart (from “Lost in Space” and “Lassie).

A New End - SpaceX Falcon 9 Comes Home

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Space Exploration Technologies’ unmanned Dragon capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on Thursday, completing a pioneering mission for commercial firms seeking a major role in space travel.

Riding beneath three parachutes, the bell-shaped capsule ended a nine-day spaceflight with a splashdown about 560 miles west of Baja California at 11:42 a.m. EDT.

Dragon, built and flown by Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, was the first privately owned spacecraft to reach the $100 billion International Space Station, which flies about 240 miles above Earth.

“Everything passed with flying colors so far,” said NASA mission commentator Josh Byerly.

The United States has been without its own transportation to the station, a project of 15 nations, since its space shuttles were retired last year.

Rather than build and operate a government-owned replacement, NASA is investing in companies such as SpaceX, with the aim of buying rides for its cargo – and eventually astronauts – on commercial vehicles, a far cheaper alternative.

The successful trial run is expected to clear SpaceX to begin working on its 12-flight, $1.6 billion NASA contract to fly cargo to the station.

A second commercial freighter, built by Orbital Sciences Corp, is expected to debut this year. Orbital has a similar contract valued at $1.9 billion to deliver space station cargo.


In Thursday’s operation, astronauts used the station’s 58-foot long (17.7-meter) robotic crane to detach the Dragon capsule from its berthing port at 4:07 a.m. EDT as the spacecraft soared around Earth at 17,500 miles per hour (28,164 kilometers per hour).

Dragon was released about ninety minutes later to begin its trip back home.

SpaceX successfully recovered a Dragon capsule from orbit during a previous test flight in December 2010.

“We’ve done it once, but it’s still a very challenging phase of flight,” SpaceX mission director John Couluris told reporters before the splashdown.

“The ability to get to (the) space station on our first time, to not only rendezvous but then to berth, transfer cargo and depart safely are major mission objectives. We would call that mission alone a success,” Couluris said.

Recovery ships owned by American Marine Corp of Los Angeles were standing by to pick up the capsule and bring it back to the Port of Los Angeles, a trip that should take two days.

Dragon will then be taken to a SpaceX processing facility in McGregor, Texas, where it will be unloaded and inspected.

The company’s next test will be to determine if it can speedily return some equipment from the station to NASA within 48 hours, a practice run for ferrying home precious scientific samples when Dragon begins regular cargo hauls.

The rest of the 1,300 lbs (590 kg) of gear returning on Dragon is expected to be sent to NASA within two weeks, said flight director Holly Ridings.

European, Japanese and Russian cargo ships now flying to the station only make one-way trips, leaving Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which are used to transport crew and have little room for cargo, as the only vehicles now flying that return to Earth.


A New Beginning - SpaceX Falcon 9 Heads To ISS

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SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket roared to life before dawn at Cape Canaveral, Fla., and blasted into space on a column of fire that lit the night sky for miles around.

The nine-engine rocket lifted off at 3:44 a.m. EDT carrying a cone-shaped space capsule that’s set to berth with the International Space Station later this week.

SpaceX, formally known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., is the first private company to ever embark on such a mission. Up until now, sending a spacecraft to the space station has been a feat that has only been accomplished by four of the world’s wealthiest and most technologically advanced governments: the United States, Russia, Japan and the European Union.

The launch marked a major milestone in efforts to shift spacecraft development — long dominated by governments and large, entrenched aerospace firms — to privately funded firms like SpaceX that so far have been funding their ventures largely on their own.

About 10 minutes into the spaceflight, SpaceX confirmed that its gleaming, white Falcon 9 rocket had lifted the unmanned Dragon space capsule into orbit. The craft is now making its way to the space station for docking — which is no guarantee because of the tremendous difficulties involved — but could happen as early as Friday.

SpaceX’s much-anticipated mission is considered the first test of NASA’s plan to outsource space missions to privately funded companies now that its fleet of space shuttles is retired.

The Hawthorne-based company intends to prove to NASA that its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule are ready to take on the task of hauling cargo — and eventually astronauts — for the space agency.

Even though the current mission is classified as a test flight, the Dragon capsule is carrying about half a ton of food and other supplies for the crew aboard the station.

The company, with about 1,800 employees, already has a $1.6-billion contract to haul cargo in 12 flights to the space station for NASA. If the current mission is successful, SpaceX will begin fulfilling the contract later this year.

SpaceX was founded in 2002 by Los Angeles billionaire Elon Musk. The company makes its Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket at a sprawling facility in Hawthorne that once was used to assemble fuselage sections for Boeing 747s.



A Hard Landing

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Surviving Members Of Project Mercury Mark 50 Years

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John Glenn joined the proud, surviving veterans of NASA’s Project Mercury on Saturday in celebrating the 50th anniversary of his historic orbital flight.

The first American to orbit the Earth thanked the approximately 125 retired Mercury workers, now in their 70s and 80s, who gathered with their spouses at Kennedy Space Center to swap stories, pose for pictures and take a bow.

“There are a lot more bald heads and gray heads in that group than others, but those are the people who did lay the foundation,” the 90-year-old Glenn said at an evening ceremony attended by NASA officials, politicians, astronauts and hundreds of others.

“We may be up on the point of that thing and get a lot of the attention, and we had ticker-tape parades and all that sort of thing. But the people who made it work … you’re the ones who deserve the accolade. So give yourselves a great big ovation,” Glenn said, leading the crowd in applause.

Glenn and fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter, 86, spent nearly an hour before the ceremony being photographed with the retirees, posing for individual pictures in front of a black curtain with a model of a Mercury-Atlas rocket. Glenn and Carpenter are the lone survivors of NASA’s original Mercury 7 astronauts.

Earlier in the day, the Mercury brigade traveled by bus to Launch Complex 14. That’s the pad from which Glenn rocketed away on Feb. 20, 1962.

Some retirees were in wheelchairs, while others used walkers or canes. Most walked, some more surely than others. But they all beamed with pride as they took pictures of the abandoned pad and of each other, and went into the blockhouse to see the old Mercury photos on display and to reminisce.

As retired engineer Norm Beckel Jr. rode to the pad Saturday, he recalled being seated in the blockhouse right beside Carpenter as the astronaut called out to Glenn right before liftoff, “Godspeed John Glenn.”

But there’s more to the story.

“Before he said that, he said, ‘Remember, John, this was built by the low bidder,’” Beckel, 81, told The Associated Press.

The Mercury-Atlas rocket shook the domed bunker-like structure, although no one inside could hear the roar because of the thick walls.

“Nothing was said by anybody until they said, ‘He’s in orbit,’ and then the place erupted,” Beckel recalled.

Beckel and Jerry Roberts, 78, a retired engineer who also was in the blockhouse that historic morning, said almost all the workers back then were in their 20s and fresh out of college. The managers were in their 30s. “I don’t know if I’d trust a 20-year-old today,” Beckel said.

“They don’t know it, but we would have worked for nothing,” said Roberts, who spends the winter in Florida.

Bob Schepp, 77, who like Beckel traveled from St. Louis, Mo., for the reunion, was reminded by the old launch equipment of how rudimentary everything was back then.

“I wonder how we ever managed to launch anything in space with that kind of stuff,” Schepp said. “Everything is so digital now. But we were pioneers, and we made it all work.”

The Mercury team included women, about 20 of whom gathered for the anniversary festivities. One pulled aside an AP reporter to make sure she knew women were part of the team.

“Most of the women here are wives,” said Lucy Simon Rakov, 74. But not her.

“We weren’t secretaries. We were mathematicians,” said Rakov, a pioneering computer programmer who traveled from Boston for the reunion.

Patricia Palombo, 74, also a computer programmer, said working on Project Mercury proved to be the most significant thing she’s done in her career.

Glenn’s flight was the turning point that put America on a winning path that ultimately led to the moon.

“It’s been downhill from here,” Palombo said with a laugh. She lives near Washington, D.C.

Roberts praised the wives who endured the hardships back then. He recalled how he and his colleagues worked 16- and 18-hour days, seven days a week, especially after the Soviet Union grabbed the prize of first spaceman with Yuri Gagarin in 1961. Gagarin reached orbit on his mission; another Soviet cosmonaut also rocketed into orbit before Glenn’s voyage.

Many marriages ended in divorce because of the excessive workload, Roberts noted. Turning to his wife, Sandra, he said proudly, “This gal’s been with me for 57 years.”

“Not that many,” she told him. “We’re going to be 55.”

“Fifty-five. That’s right, that’s right,” Roberts muttered.

“Golly, gosh, when you get old, you forget about numbers,” Schepp piped up.

NASA’s celebration of Glenn’s three-orbit, five-hour flight aboard the Friendship 7 capsule began Friday at Cape Canaveral. The festivities move to Columbus, Ohio, on Monday, the actual anniversary. Glenn will be honored at a gala at Ohio State University; its school of public affairs bears his name.

His wife of 68 years, Annie, who turned 92 Friday, and their two children are accompanying him to all the festivities.

Glenn served in the U.S. Senate for 24 years, representing his home state of Ohio. He ran for president in 1984. He returned to space in 1998 aboard shuttle Discovery, becoming the oldest spaceman ever at age 77.

Carpenter told the crowd Saturday that he’s still waiting for his first shuttle ride, drawing a big laugh.

The Mercury 7 astronauts were immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book about the space program, “The Right Stuff,” which was later made into a movie.

Although Wolfe suggested the nation will never see another hero of Glenn’s stature, Carpenter noted, “Maybe one day before too long the great hero John Glenn himself may be replaced by another national hero who represents the command of a Mars crew returned safely.”

“John, thank you for your heroic effort and all of you for your heroic effort,” Carpenter told the Mercury old-timers. “But we stand here waiting to be outdone.”

NASA Announces Design For New Deep Space Heavy Lift Exploration System

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NASA has selected the design of a new Space Launch System that will take the agency’s astronauts farther into space than ever before, create high-quality jobs here at home, and provide the cornerstone for America’s future human space exploration efforts.

This new heavy-lift rocket-in combination with a crew capsule already under development, increased support for the commercialization of astronaut travel to low Earth orbit, an extension of activities on the International Space Station until at least 2020, and a fresh focus on new technologies-is key to implementing the plan laid out by President Obama and Congress in the bipartisan 2010 NASA Authorization Act, which the president signed last year. The booster will be America’s most powerful since the Saturn V rocket that carried Apollo astronauts to the moon and will launch humans to places no one has gone before.

“This launch system will create good-paying American jobs, ensure continued U.S. leadership in space, and inspire millions around the world,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. “President Obama challenged us to be bold and dream big, and that’s exactly what we are doing at NASA. While I was proud to fly on the space shuttle, tomorrow’s explorers will now dream of one day walking on Mars.”

This launch vehicle decision is the culmination of a months-long, comprehensive review of potential designs to ensure the nation gets a rocket that is not only powerful but also evolvable so it can be adapted to different missions as opportunities arise and new technologies are developed.

“Having settled on a new and powerful heavy-lift launch architecture, NASA can now move ahead with building that rocket and the next-generation vehicles and technologies needed for an ambitious program of crewed missions in deep space,” said John P. Holdren, assistant to the President for Science and Technology. “I’m excited about NASA’s new path forward and about its promise for continuing American leadership in human space exploration.”

The SLS will carry human crews beyond low Earth orbit in a capsule named the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. The rocket will use a liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuel system, where RS-25D/E engines will provide the core propulsion and the J2X engine is planned for use in the upper stage. There will be a competition to develop the boosters based on performance requirements.

The decision to go with the same fuel system for the core and the upper stage was based on a NASA analysis demonstrating that use of common components can reduce costs and increase flexibility. The heavy-lift rocket’s early flights will be capable of lifting 70-100 metric tons before evolving to a lift capacity of 130 metric tons.

The early developmental flights may take advantage of existing solid boosters and other existing hardware. These flights will enable NASA to reduce developmental risk, drive innovation within the agency and private industry, and accomplish early exploration objectives.

“NASA has been making steady progress toward realizing the president’s goal of deep space exploration, while doing so in a more affordable way,” NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said. “We have been driving down the costs on the Space Launch System and Orion contracts by adopting new ways of doing business and project hundreds of millions of dollars of savings each year.”

NASA elected to initiate a competition for the booster stage based on performance parameters rather than on the type of propellant because of the need for flexibility. The specific acquisition strategy for procuring the core stage, booster stage, and upper stage is being developed and will be announced at a later time.

STS-135 Launch

GIF Launch Of STS-135

STS-135 Belongs To The Ages

Star Trek Type Poster of STS 135 Crew

STS-135 Roll-Out

STS-134 Belongs To The Ages

Star Trek Poster of STS 134 Crew