July 15, 2009

NASA to junk space station in 2016

Posted: 10:33 AM ET

After a decade of costly construction, the International Space Station is nearing completion. But NASA won't have long to enjoy the achievement.

According to an article from the Washington Post, NASA space station program manager Michael T. Suffredini raised eyebrows when, at a public hearing last month, he declared flatly that NASA plans to de-orbit the station in 2016.

That means the $100 billion research facility, which has been circling Earth since 1998, will ultimately burst into flames as it reenters the Earth's atmosphere and crashes into the Pacific Ocean.

Budget constraints and the lack of a shuttle program, which is set to retire in 2010, may have persuaded NASA to end the space station program.

The Washington Post explains:

The rap on the space station has always been that it was built primarily to give the space shuttle somewhere to go. Now, with the shuttle being retired at the end of 2010, the station is on the spot. U.S. astronauts will be able to reach the station only by getting rides on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft.

There is no official lobbying to extend the mission, but NASA's plans have met with criticism. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) argues, "If we've spent a hundred billion dollars, I don't think we want to shut it down in 2015."

While speaking to a panel charged by the Obama administration with reviewing the entire human spaceflight program, Nelson affirmed, "My opinion is it would be a travesty to de-orbit this thing... If we get rid of this darned thing in 2015, we're going to cede our leadership in human exploration."

What do you feel should be done with the International Space Station? Does the initial $100 billion investment justify extending the program, or should we simply cut our losses and look toward a new future of space exploration?

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Filed under: Astronomy • International Space Station • NASA • science • Space

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June 2, 2008

See the Shuttle and Space Station from your backyard

Posted: 09:54 AM ET

Let's say you see a star where there wasn't one five minutes ago.  And it's moving.   And it's definitely not a plane.  

You may be looking at the International Space Station, or, after its docking today (Monday), the Space Shuttle and ISS together.

NASA operates a site that can show you the location of the two  - and when you might be able to catch a fleeting glimpse of them from your own yard:  Just add clear skies, darkness, and a relative absence of bright city lights

The ISS Viewing Schedule comes with an applet where you can enter your location or ZIP code, and you'll get the time and date of when to look, along with the location in the sky of where to look.    The next one for my home outside Atlanta is June 3 at 10:51pm.


Peter Dykstra   Executive Producer   CNN Science and Tech

Filed under: International Space Station • NASA • Space

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May 30, 2008

Shuttle - all systems "go" for launch

Posted: 11:56 AM ET

The launch control team says everything everything is looking good for lift-off of the shuttle Discovery Saturday afternoon at 5:02pm. They are working no issues of note with orbiter, and the weather is looking great - 80% go for launch.

Shuttle Discovery. Source: NASA

Here's a quick look at the milestones of this flight:
-123rd shuttle flight
-35th flight of Discovery
-26th shuttle mission to the ISS
-98th post-Challenger mission
-10th post-Columbia mission
-11 flights (including this one) remaining in the shuttle program

The main goal of this mission is to take up the primary component of the Japanese Kibo laboratory to the station. They will also switch out ISS crew members (Greg Chamitoff goes up, Garrett Reisman comes home), and do some additional troubleshooting of the balky starboard rotary joint that has the solar arrays on that side of the station pretty much in a lock-down position.

All that aside, the headline grabber in this run-up to launch is the broken toilet on the ISS. A replacement part has been rushed to the Kennedy Space Center (in a diplomatic pouch, no less!) and has been stowed in the Discovery's cargo bay for emergency delivery to orbit. Basically the liquid waste collection system on the toilet is not functioning properly, and the astronauts are having to go through a time-consuming manual "flush" procedure multiple times a day. Hopefully, the new part will work and the crew can put this all behind them. In order to equip the station to transition from a three to six person crew, a second potty will be going up to the ISS on the shuttle in the near future.

Miles O'Brien will be reporting live from the Kennedy Space Station in Florida for the launch. He'll be joined by astronaut Doug Wheelock. Please join us!

–Kate Tobin, Senior Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: International Space Station • NASA

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May 21, 2008

Mission to Mars, Shuttle launch mark a busy week in space

Posted: 12:37 PM ET

On Sunday, a few hours after the checkered flag signals the winner of the Indianapolis 500, a much, much longer trip will conclude: After a nine-month, roundabout 422 million mile journey from Earth, NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander will take aim at a site near the Martian North Pole.

Source: NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona

And like the fans at Indy, everyone will be waiting to see if there's a wreck.

Phoenix will enter the Martian atmosphere at 12,500 miles an hour. After deploying parachutes and firing thrusters, and at a speed of about 5.4 miles an hour, it will touch down at about 7:38pm Eastern Time. Or so NASA hopes. Mars landing craft have a roughly 50-50 success rate since the twin Viking landers touched down 32 years ago. With a communications delay of about 15 minutes, we'll get our first info on the landing status at 7:53pm ET.

CNN's Miles O'Brien will cover the landing live in a special hour broadcast beginning at 7pm ET. CNN International will carry the broadcast worldwide, featuring Miles's international counterpart, Kilometers O'Brien (sorry, it's an old joke around here......).

Later in the evening, around the 10pm hour, we hope to show the first images from Phoenix. Unlike the spectacularly successful Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, Phoenix is not a mobile craft. It's a digger.

Equipped with a small backhoe, Phoenix will dig into the Martian tundra in search of evidence of water, or other clues of past life on the Red Planet. Its predecessor in Martian Polar research, the Mars Polar Lander, was lost on landing in 1999.

Miles and CNN producers Kate Tobin and Alex Walker will broadcast the hour from NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, mission control for the landing. They'll blog here to keep you updated - including after that tense moment at 7:53pm, when we learn whether a team of scientists and engineers will see years of work turn into a smashing success, or a smashup.

Next Saturday, the space scene shifts to the Kennedy Space Center, where the Shuttle Discovery is set to launch at 5:02pm ET on a mission to install a Japanese-built lab on the International Space Station, and to swap out ISS crew members. Miles will be live from KSC for the launch as well.

-Peter Dykstra, Executive Producer, CNN Science & Tech

Filed under: Astrobiology • European Space Agency • International Space Station • Mars • NASA • Space

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May 8, 2008

Waiting to Exhale

Posted: 03:16 PM ET

Imagine the anticipation of a countdown before rocket engines roar to life.  Smoke billows, and it's three G's and eight-and-a-half minutes to space.

After you slip the surly bonds, you float over to the window and gaze wide-eyed at the majesty of Planet Earth.  Perhaps you'd spot the Great Wall of China, or even a big hurricane.  I'd have Bowie's "Ground Control to Major Tom" playing on my iPod.

Spaceflight tickles the imagination.  It's the stuff of heroes and explorers.  We remain in awe of the cosmos, and amazed at each incremental step toward the infinite.

Source: NASA

Now take a look at this photo.  The folks at Johnson Space Center in Houston sent this picture to me today.  Not exactly what you imagine while reading Jules Verne or Arthur Clarke.  It might be the NASA equivalent of witnessing hot dogs in the making.

You're looking at a test chamber scaled to be the size of the Orion crew capsule.  Orion, of course, is NASA's next-gen exploration vehicle.  It will carry crew and cargo to the space station and on to the moon.

The umbrella name for the entire program is Constellation, and the space agency is hoping to launch the first manned mission by 2015.

The chamber is the size of a walk-in closet – about 570 cubic feet – and the people sitting inside are volunteers recruited to test a lunar breathing system called CAMRAS.  (NASA likes its acronyms!)  It stands for Carbon-dioxide and Moisture Removal Amine Swing-bed.  Go figure.

But imagine sitting for eight hours in this thing with five other people you just met?  Twenty-three volunteers did just that for a series of tests over a three-week period last month.  The point: to breathe and sweat.  Sounds like the perfect job for an executive producer!

Seriously though, NASA has to measure the amount of moisture and carbon dioxide absorbed by the system so Orion crews can breathe easily and live comfortably in space.  Volunteers were asked to sleep, eat and exercise in the chamber.  Some test sessions lasted a few hours and others were overnight.

CAMRAS uses very little energy.  An organic compound called amine absorbs the CO2 and water vapor from the cabin.  And when the system vents the waste overboard, the vacuum of space regenerates the amine. Think of the venting as wringing out a dirty sponge.

For more on the test and NASA's Constellation Program, visit

- Alex Walker, Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: International Space Station • Moon • NASA • Space

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April 24, 2008

The Brightest Spots on Earth

Posted: 10:57 AM ET

NASA's remarkable Earth Observatory site has posted a series of photos taken from the International Space station. These pics, taken from a camera designed by former ISS astronaut Don Pettit during his stay aboard the Station in 2002-2003, show some of the brightest spots on the planet.

Jiddah and the Muslim Holy City of Mecca as seen at night from the International Space Station. Source: NASA

Tokyo, the U.S. East Coast, the major cities of the U. K. and Ireland, the Loop in Chicago, and the brightly-lit docks of Long Beach, CA are among the bright spot. But NASA awards the dubious distinction of the Brightest Spot on Earth to the Las Vegas Strip. Why am I not surprised?

But (you knew this line was coming) what's lit in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas.

Light Pollution is an aesthetic problem. If you live in an urban area, chances are it's been a while since you've seen a star-filled sky, a planet, or a meteor. But so much of our outdoor lighting is pointed up toward the sky - where it does no good - that light pollution has a direct link to what goes into your lungs.

The International Dark-Sky Association, a two-decade-old, Tucson-based nonprofit, has petitioned the US EPA to recognize light pollution as an "official" pollutant. They estimate that Americans spend several billion dollars a year, and generate an extra 38 million tons of carbon dioxide, in addition to the other pollutants associated with generating power, through wasteful lighting pointed at the heavens.

IDA advocates a switch to more efficient lighting: The kind that directs the light toward the things that need to be lit. Not only would it be one more little piece in the puzzle for reducing global warming, but it might make you see stars.

–Peter Dykstra Executive Producer CNN Science and Tech

Filed under: environment • International Space Station • NASA • Space

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April 22, 2008

Moscow, we have a problem...

Posted: 04:37 PM ET

Actually, neither Soyuz commander Yuri Malenchenko nor Expedition 16 Commander Peggy Whitson uttered those words as their spacecraft plunged through the atmosphere toward a rougher-than-expected landing in Kazakhstan last weekend.

Expedition 16 Commander Peggy Whitson arrives at Chkalovsky airport, Star City along with Flight Engineer and Soyuz Commander Yuri Malenchenko and South Korean space tourist So-yeon Yi. They returned to Earth on April 19, 2008 to complete 192 days in space for Whitson and Malenchenko and 11 days in orbit for Yi. Source: NASA/Bill Ingalls

But details are beginning to trickle out suggesting they DID have several problems, though exactly what went wrong and how serious it was is still unclear. NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations Bill Gerstenmaier held a teleconference with reporters Tuesday afternoon to share what he does know about the incident.

Malenchenko, Whitson and South Korean space tourist So-yeon Yi were returning to Earth from the International Space Station on Saturday when some sort of malfunction triggered a so-called "ballistic" re-entry scenario. The spacecraft re-entered at a much steeper angle than planned, bringing it down a couple hundred miles short of its target landing zone near the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The crew members inside were subjected to far more extreme G forces than normal during the drop through the atmosphere – approximately eight 8 G's for up to two minutes. There were Russian media reports of 10.5 to 11 G's at peak, but Gerstenmaier was unable to confirm that.

There is some evidence to suggest that one or more pyrotechnic bolts that hold the crew cabin to the instrumentation/propulsion section didn't "blow" as designed at the appropriate point in the descent. Those two sections need to separate so that the crew cabin's heat shield is properly oriented during the hottest, most fiery parts of atmospheric reentry. Crew members reported abnormal levels of buffeting and jostling during decent, and there are anecdotal reports by people who saw the spacecraft on the ground that it was more singed than usual. The hypothetical worst case scenario in this case would be that the unshielded parts of the Soyuz would be exposed to searing hot temperatures for too long and they could burn through. This obviously didn't happen, and there is no evidence so far to suggest it was even close. But after a breached heat shield brought down the shuttle Columbia back in 2003, NASA is very aware of the potential for disaster.

Yuri Malenchenko smelled smoke in the cockpit near the end of the flight, shortly after the parachutes deployed. He switched off the display panel for a time, and the burning smell went away.

Russian mission control was out of contact with the spacecraft for a significant period of time, and communications were not reestablished until after the crew climbed out of the downed spacecraft and Malenchenko called in on a satellite phone. There is more anecdotal evidence suggesting the communications antenna burned off during the descent, though Gerstenmaier was keeping an open mind as to whether or not there could be other explanations for the loss of comm.

And making the whole situation even more worrisome: this is the second time in a row that some of these anomalies have happened. The ballistic reentry and the crew cabin separation problem both occurred last fall when the Expedition 15 cosmonauts returned to Earth. An investigation fingered a shorted out cable as the culprit in the ballistic reentry. Malenchenko and Whitson inspected that cable in their Soyuz prior to deorbiting, and it appeared fine.

ROSCOSMOS, the Russian space agency, is appointing a commission to investigate what when wrong with this latest landing, and how it relates it to the Expedition 15 malfunctions. Gerstenmaier says NASA has full confidence that the Russians grasp the seriousness of getting to the root cause of what's going on.

But this is clearly another headache for the folks at NASA, who will be relying on the Soyuz to ferry crews to and from the International Space Station for years to come, especially after the space shuttle fleet is retired at the end of 2010.

The next astronaut slated to fly aboard a Soyuz is Expedition 18 Commander Mike Fincke, in the fall of this year. NASA hopes to hear the results of the Russian investigation in a few months, and decide by August or September if the problem has been diagnosed and fixed.

–Kate Tobin, Sr. Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: International Space Station • NASA • Space • Space Tourism

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April 8, 2008

New station crew and a space tourist rocket into orbit

Posted: 10:23 AM ET

A new space station crew blasted into space through clear blue skies today from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Soyuz spacecraft carried Expedition 17 crew members Sergei Volkov, who will be the new station Commander, and Flight Engineer Oleg Kononenko. They were joined by South Korean space tourist So-yeon Yi, who at age 29 is the youngest woman ever to fly in space. Volkov is the son of veteran cosmonaut Alexander Volkov.

Source: NASA TV

Unlike NASA, Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, provides live TV pictures of the crew in the cockpit during the ascent into space. So-yeon Yi could be seen with a broad smile on her face, repeatedly giving the "thumbs-up" sign to the camera.

Once in space, it takes the Soyuz a couple of days to "catch up" to the International Space Station, so docking will not happen until Thursday.

Meanwhile, Expedition 16 crew members Peggy Whitson and Yuri Malenchenko are preparing to wrap up their six-month tour of duty and will return to Earth with So-yeon Yi in the Soyuz on April 19. Expedition 16 Flight Engineer Garrett Reisman will remain in orbit and become part of the Expedition 17 crew. Commander Whitson was the first female station Commander and oversaw one of the busiest periods to date in space station assembly.

The Expedition 17 crew is expecting visitors in early June when astronauts aboard the space shuttle Discovery come calling to deliver and install another piece of the Japanese Kibo Module to the station. After that, things will quiet down for a while in terms of station assembly, while the shuttle program turns its attention to flying the final Hubble servicing mission, currently targeted for October.

–Kate Tobin, Senior Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: International Space Station • NASA • Space • Space Tourism

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March 28, 2008

Showtime for "Jules Verne"

Posted: 01:15 PM ET

If all goes as planned, the new European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) will dock with the International Space Station next week. It's a task that has flight controllers at NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Russian Space Agency hugely excited, and nervous. Up until now, the only vehicles to dock with the ISS have been the space shuttle and the Russian Progress and Soyuz spacecrafts. All of them have long and mostly reliable track records in orbit.

Source: ESA

As the guys in Monty Python would say, "now for something completely different."

Christened "Jules Verne," this ATV is the first of five that will resupply the International Space Station at a rate of one every year and a half or so. It launched to space on March 8, but has been essentially parked in orbit for the duration of the space shuttle Endeavour's assembly mission to the ISS.

Before ESA gives the final "go" for docking, flight controllers will put the spacecraft through a series of tests to make sure all the onboard systems are working properly. A malfunction close to the station could spell disaster.

On Monday, flight controllers will practice maneuvering the spacecraft within 36 feet of the station, to work out any kinks before executing the actual docking on Thursday. The main objective is to test the close range sensors and the guidance and navigation systems. The station crew will also call for an "abort" to make sure they can successfully call off a docking in the event something goes wrong. Closest approach should happen about 12:45pm ET.

If all checks out as planned, the docking will happen at 10:40am ET on Thursday. "Jules Verne" will latch onto the Russian Zvezda Service Module, where it will remain for about six months. After it is unloaded, it will be repacked with trash and eventually directed on a "death dive" into the atmosphere, burning up over the Pacific Ocean.

When I mentioned that last fact in a previous blog entry, we got a tidal wave of outraged comments about the waste and inefficiency of discarding the hardware in such a manner. For the record, currently there are two ways to "take out the trash" on the ISS. The Russian Progress resupply vehicles are used in the way described above. Additionally, some "trash" is returned to Earth by the space shuttle. Much of what they take the trouble to bring back is broken equipment that they want to either refurbish for future use, or take apart to figure out why it broke and how to modify the design to make it more durable in the future.

If you want to watch the "Jules Verne" demo day/docking day events, check out NASA TV.

–Kate Tobin, Sr. Producer, CNN Science & Technology


Filed under: European Space Agency • International Space Station • NASA • Space

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