Friday, April 18, 2014

SpaceX Dragon launches on resupply flight to space station

Falcon 9 lifts-off Friday from Cape Canaveral to resupply space station. (SpaceX)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A commercial spacecraft loaded with supplies departed America's Space Coast on Friday en route to the International Space Station and it's six person crew.

The Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) Dragon cargo craft is loaded with nearly 5,000 pounds of supplies including water, oxygen, food and equipment for the earth orbiting laboratory.

"Everything looks great with the ascent phase of the mission," SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk confirmed from his company's mission control in Hawthorne, California after launch. "Everything is good on the Dragon front."

The Dragon capsule, riding a top the company's Falcon 9 rocket, lifted-off from it's ocean side launch pad and into an overcast Florida sky at 3:25:22 p.m. EDT, the opening of a one second launch window.

The Falcon's 855,000 pounds of thrust created a 300-foot golden flame pushing the rocket higher as it moved out over the Atlantic waters.

The space station's crew watched the SpaceX television feed of the lift-off as it happened 260 miles above.

Monday's launch marked the third of twelve planned flights by SpaceX in a nearly $1.5 billion contract deal with NASA.

The successful SpaceX launch comes four days after the commercial company signed a twenty-year land lease with NASA for use of the historic launch pad 39-A. SpaceX plans to launch manned spacecraft to the space station from the formed Apollo and space shuttle pad as early as 2017.

On Easter Sunday, the Dragon craft will rendezvous and close to within 20 feet of the orbiting outpost before being grappled by the station's 57-foot long Canadian robotic arm at 7:14 a.m.

Station commander and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata and NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio will operate the robotic arm from the station's pressurized 360-degree field of view inside the cupola module.

Just over two hours after the capture, the station's crew will dock Dragon to the earth facing port of the station's Harmony module.

Over the next month, astronauts will unload the resupply craft's 2.3 tons of supplies, and later load Dragon with completed science experiments and trash for it's return to earth sometime in late-May.

Falcon's launch occurred after a five week delay caused by a contamination problem with the payloads section aboard Dragon, and the failure of an Cape Canaveral radar designed to track the rocket in flight.

A launch attempt last Monday was also scrubbed due a hydrogen leak on the rocket's first stage.

NASA is preparing for a spacewalk on Wednesday by astronauts Mastracchio and Steve Swanson to replace a failed station back-up computer known as a multiplexer/ demultiplexer with a spare now located in the station's airlock.

The spacewalk is expected to begin at 9:20 a.m. and last nearly three hours.

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

American-Russian crew safely dock to space station

Soyuz closes in for a successful docking with space station. (NASA)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- An American and two Russians docked their spacecraft to the International Space Station on Thursday beginning a six month voyage aboard the orbiting laboratory.

The Russian Soyuz TMA-12M craft arrived at it's port-of-call two days later than planned after a thruster firing failed to work hours after lift-off from Baikonur Cosmodrome on March 26 (Moscow time).

Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsuv and Oleg Artemyev, and NASA astronaut Steven Swanson docked with the station's Poisk module at 7:58 p.m. EDT, as they flew over southern Brazil.

"A flawless approach, a flawless docking... the trio has arrived at the International Space Station," said NASA spokesperson Rob Navis from inside Mission Control near Houston.

The space trio now join Japan's first space station commander Koichi Wakata, and flight engineers American Rick Mastracchio and Russian Mikhail Tyurin as the complete Expedition 39 crew.

The delayed docking has been attributed to a failed Soyuz thruster firing which kept the spacecraft from moving closer to it's target at an exact time during it's orbit.

Russian Mission Control remains unsure as to why they received a failure message at the time of the thruster jet firing.

The two space crews began chatting an hour prior to docking as the Soyuz approached from 23 km below the space station.

"We have a visual on the station!" exclaimed Soyuz commander Skvortsuv as they soared 260 miles above the western Pacific Ocean.

The orbital ballet saw the Soyuz fire it's thrusters in a series of burns which brought the craft to the proper alignment for the slow approach.

"You can see the thrusters did some work here," Skvortsuv commented moments after a successful burn brought their Soyuz even closer a few minutes later.

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Soyuz thruster problem delays space station docking to Thursday

New space crew fight a thruster problem en route to space station. (NASA)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- An issue with a spacecraft thruster firing has kept an American and two Russians from docking to the International Space Station on Wednesday as planned.

NASA astronaut Steven Swanson and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsuv and Oleg Artemyev aboard a Soyuz TMA-12M spacecraft were supposed to dock with their new home in space just six hours after launch.

They will now stay aloft on orbit for another two days before attempting a docking to the station the March 28.

"Everything is scrapped! We are done for the day," Russian mission control exclaimed to the crew of three aboard the space station prior to the start of their sleep. "It's a chaotic situation now."

NASA has now said that docking will now take place at 7:58 p.m. EDT, on Thursday.
Ninety minutes later, the two space crews will open the hatches and shake hands.
"We don't exactly know what has happened," Moscow radioed the Soyuz crew an hour later. "You will have to be in flight for two days."

What Moscow does know is as the Soyuz began it's DV3 (Delta/Velocity #3) burn maneuver at 7:48 p.m., Russian Mission Control received a failure message. The burn would have increased it's speed by 10.1 meters per second.

Another burn planned for a half-hour later never occurred.

A two day docking schedule had been the normal routine by both NASA space shuttles and Russian Soyuz vehicles until last year. This flight would have been only the fifth planned fast-trek docking to the station.

NASA controllers are now working with Moscow's flight control team to share several ground stations across the Western Hemisphere to allow the Soyuz crew to communicate with Moscow.

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)

Joint American-Russian crew begin space station voyage

A Russian Soyuz lifts-off with a crew of three to space station. (NASA)
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- An American and two Russians lifted-off into the predawn night sky over Kazakhstan on Wednesday beginning a fast voyage to arrive at their new home on the ocean of space.

The crew is scheduled to dock with the International Space Station nearly six hours after launch.

NASA astronaut Steven Swanson and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsuv and Oleg Artemyev will spend nearly six months living and working aboard the orbiting laboratory before returning to earth in September.

Stacked fifty meters high a top their Soyuz FG rocket, the crew awaited the jolt of launch by exchanging comments with Russian mission control and listening to both classical and current music which echoed inside their craft during the final hour.

As the countdown clock reached zero, the Soyuz core engine ignited followed by it's four rocket boosters at 5:17:23 p.m. EDT (3:17 a.m. local time on Wednesday), accelerating the spacecraft on an easterly track.

The co-operative mission begins amid growing tensions between the two countries over the annexation of Crimea by Russia. The United States and Russia have both placed sanctions on the others leaders.

Western allies, including space station partners Canada and England, charge that the annexation is illegal, however Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed last Tuesday the Black Sea region is under Russian control and no longer apart of the Ukraine.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden confirmed recently that political tensions between the U.S. and Russia will not have an ill-will effect as the crew works 260 miles above the planet.

NASA astronaut Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger expressed to this aerospace journalist on Monday her thoughts on how the turbulent situation on the ground plays out aboard the station.

"Quite frankly, the Russians are our friends when we are on orbit," Lindenburger said. "Our countries make political decisions we don't agree with, but when we (the international partners) are on orbit, we are colleges and we are friends and we work together, and that is how we are dealing with it right now."

As the rocket rose from it's launch pad at Baikonur Cosmodrome, a 300-foot golden flame illuminated the black night if only for a few seconds.

Nine minutes later, the Soyuz craft arrived on orbit as it separated from the rocket's upper stage to start a nearly four earth orbit chase of the station.

The Soyuz TMA-12M spacecraft is expected to dock to the space station's Poisk module at about 11:05 p.m. EDT, as the two crafts pass over Russian ground stations.

Watching from inside the orbiting laboratory will be Japan's first space station commander Koichi Wakata, and flight engineers American Rick Mastracchio and Russian Mikhail Tyurin.

The hatches are expected to open an hour later after the two crews establish that the Soyuz is completely docked with a good seal.

The newly united crew of six will begin a busy week on Monday as they prepare for Wednesday's grapple and docking of the commercial SpaceX cargo craft known as Dragon.

Loaded with 4,600 pounds of fresh supplies and hardware, Dragon is poised atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral for it's planned Sunday evening launch. Dragon's five second launch window is targeted for 10:50 p.m.

Swanson, a father of three and a four time spacewalker, will serve as the space station's commander beginning on May 13, as Wakata and his crew depart the outpost in their own Soyuz for the trip home.

A two time space shuttle astronaut, Swanson's last trip to station was exactly five years ago as his crew delivered the starboard truss segment, a set of solar arrays and batteries to increase the lab's power.

"Steve's been training for two and a half years for this mission," Metcalf-Lindenburger said. "He has also had some shuttle flights so this should really be a good experience to have Steve on orbit. He's a great space walker and he'll lead with great confidence."

During Swanson's tenure as commander, the International Space Station will mark a milestone on July 11 as it celebrates the 5000th consecutive day in which it has been manned by a crew.

The occasion will be marked by the station's crew in a brief ceremony recognizing the special milestone.

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Blue Angels airshow attendees to number 15M across America

The Blue Angels arrive at their jets on March 15 in El Centro, CA.

PENSACOLA, Fla. -- The U.S. Navy expects nearly fifteen million visitors will attend airshows across America to witness the aerobatic performances of the Blue Angels during 2014.

The Navy's Flight Demonstration Squadron began their new season in storied fashion as the team's six pilots arrived dressed in their throwback gold flight uniforms and boarded their FA-18C Hornets in El Centro, California on Saturday.

The inaugural demonstration saw an estimated 35,000 witness the Blues' forty minute performance over the city which hosts the team for six weeks during their intensive winter training.

The squadron will perform their next shows in California, Texas and Florida.

"By publicly demonstrating the skills and abilities of naval aviators, the team's goal is to inspire young men and women not just to purse a career in naval aviation or the military, but to aspire to excellence in all areas of their lives," said Blue Angels spokesperson Chief Russell Tafuri.

Angel 6 opposing solo pilot Lt. Mark Tedrow is excitied about the new season.

"It's pretty incredible being part of the solo routine for the Blue Angels," Lt. Tedrow said to this aerospace reporter. "Number five and number six pilots demonstrate the maximum performance capabilities of the FA-18. We're the ones that wow the crowd with some of the amazing maneuvers."

Tedrow added, "We fly our jets at just below the speed of sound, and pull between 7 and 8 G's during the demonstration. It's hard to describe to the person who has never felt G-forces before, but actually they're pretty painful but good at the same time."

This year will mark the Blue Angels 68th year performing to public crowds.

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Tellus Museum to display space shuttle Columbia's nose cap

Shuttle Columbia's nose cap prepares for it's display near Atlanta. (Atkeison)

ATLANTA -- The nose cap of America's first space shuttle will go on public display next week at the Tellus Science Museum in Cartersville.

The gray nose section was flown as part of Columbia during eleven of her twenty-eight missions, and was removed only a few years before her ill-fated 2003 flight which saw the spacecraft break apart during atmospheric re-entry.

The four-foot wide oval nose cap will become the only reflown section of Columbia to be placed on public display.

"It's pretty even grey in color except it does have some black scorch marks on the top of the nose cap as evidence of its re-entry," Tellus Museum's Curator Julian Gray said on Monday during a behind-the-scenes visit of the space flown artifact.

"We are working on the graphics and the base is already made for it as we put it behind acrylic because we want to protect it," Gray added as he peered over the turtle shell-like nose.

The nose cap's light green bulkhead assembly which was attached to the shuttle body is also included in the display.

The NASA Historical Artifacts Program donated Columbia's nose to Tellus, and the museum plans to have it on display in it's expanding space flight section on March 14.

"To have such an important piece of Columbia from her flying days on display is a fitting tribute to this vehicle and all the men and women who worked on her during her illustrious career," said Dr. Don Thomas, a four time shuttle astronaut and author of the new book Orbit of Discovery.

Manufactured by the Vought Corporation in Dallas, the nose cap was installed on Columbia in 1984 during her 18-month long maintenance period in Palmdale, California.

The specially flown nose was part of a NASA experiment known as Shuttle Entry Air Data System (SEADS), and was based out of Langley Research Center. SEADS looked at the air pressure surrounding a space shuttle's nose section from an altitude of 300,000 feet through touchdown.

Fourteen sensor holes in the reinforced carbon carbon coated nose cap lined up in a cross and recorded measurements of Columbia as she plunged through the earth's atmosphere. The NASA experiment was activated minutes prior to the shuttle's deorbit burn.

During reentry, the orbiter's nose reached temperatures of near 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit.

Columbia first flew with her scientific nose in January 1986 during mission STS-61C. Eleven flights later, it was used for the final time during STS-65 in July 1994.

In fact, the 61C mission emblem design was based in part on the SEADS experiment. "It may be the only shuttle patch based on aerodynamics," Columbia's pilot Charles Bolden stated in 2011.

 Thomas, a member of Columbia's crew on that 1994 flight, says he looks forward to visiting Tellus soon to view the display.

"As the first shuttle to fly, and the first on which I rode to space, Columbia will be remembered for all the incredible missions she and her crews successfully accomplished," Thomas stated to this aerospace reporter on Monday.

In all, the displayed shuttle nose section traveled 48.4 million miles through space during it's combined 117 days in earth orbit.

The shuttle program came to an end in 2011, and Columbia's sister ships Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour were placed on public display at museums across the United States.

For many space flight insiders, the artifact will serve as a tribute to her memory.

Columbia, in one small way, has a found a home in a museum.

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)

Friday, February 21, 2014

Twenty-fifth Delta IV launches Block IIF GPS satellite

A Delta IV rocket lifts-off from Cape Canaveral on February 20. (ULA)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Updated) -- A new Global Positing System satellite was placed into orbit on Thursday evening to expand location services for both the Air Force and commercial users.

Concerns over solar radiation trends at the opening of the 19 minute launch window forced the launch team to extend the countdown's hold until the final minutes of the window.

Loaded with a platform of new technologies, GPS-IIF-5 satellite will replace an aging GPS spacecraft launched in 1997 and includes the recently upgraded L5 signal for commercial and civil aircraft.

America's GPS operates with twenty-four satellites in six different regions of the globe, with four each plotting exact locations. The new block IIF satellites use the newer L5 civil signal in the Aeronautical Radio Navigation Services frequency of 1176.45 MHz.

The United Launch Alliance's Delta IV-Medium lifted-off at 8:59:00 p.m. EST, at the close of the launch window, beginning the Delta IV program's 25th flight.

The Delta's core booster engine ignited a few seconds prior to T-zero, followed by the ignition of it's twin solid rocket boosters at the moment of lift-off.

"I am pleased with the outcome of today's launch," stated the director of the Space and Missile Systems Center's Global Positioning Systems Directorate Col. Bill Cooley. "The new capabilities provided by the IIF satellites will improve operations, sustainment and overall GPS service for the warfighter, international, commercial and civil communities."

Darkness briefly turned to day as the 206-foot rocket arose from it's seaside launch pad a top 1.25 million pounds of thrust and into the night skies over Cape Canaveral.

Nearly 100 seconds into it's silver flight, the Delta IV twin SRB's had exhausted it's fuel and cleanly separated.

It's cryo fueled first stage's core engine then shut down minutes later and separated as the rocket soared southeasterly toward the central Atlantic Ocean.

The GPS-IIF-5 satellite will also offer the U.S. military's M-code service during it's planned 12 year life.

"The modernized capabilities that are coming on board with the successful launch of GPS IIF-5 will support the worldwide GPS community for years to come," Cooley added following the satellite's deployment.

Spacecraft separation from the Delta's upper stage occurred at 12:32:05 a.m. on Friday, as it arrived in a planned operational altitude of 12,712.6 miles over the Sea of Japan.
The spacecraft will undergo several weeks of testing prior to becoming operational, the Air Force stated.

The Air Force will continue to add replacement GPS satellites as IIF-6 is scheduled to lift-off in May, followed by IIF-7 this summer.

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Georgia's Museum of Aviation showcases history of flight

A USAF Thunderbird stands poised in a hanger at Museum of Aviation. (Atkeison)

WARNER ROBINS, Ga -- A massive museum of aviation featuring aircraft and artifacts from the early days of flight through today are on display on the grounds of Robins, AFB in central Georgia.

History echoes through the museum's halls featuring aircraft flown during World War II, Korea and the Vietnam War, and includes related historic artifacts and exhibits located in four aircraft hanger buildings and on static display outdoors.

"It's Fantastic!" states Museum of Aviation guest Gene Milton, who along with his family, visited last week on their way home to Tampa. "There is so much here to see... we've been here for nearly three hours."

The U.S. Air Force museum is home to popular static displays of military aircraft including the Thunderbirds F-16A "Fighting Falcon", and artifacts representing Georgia's active role in aviation spanning nine decades.

The museum is also home to the NASA Regional Educator Resource Center in which teachers work in a classroom session to discover new areas of STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) education. The NASA office is also a gateway to briefing materials for Georgia teachers.

Several static displays located upon the 51 acre aviation museum feature the P-40N Warhawk and an SR-71 Blackbird on the museum's list of stunning aircraft.

Several departments offer visitors an insiders glance of American soldiers in mock-ups of select operations during World War II.

"There's an eerie feeling as you watch and listen to the paratroopers as they prepare to take part in the D-Day invasion," Milton added. "My son and I enjoyed the historic enactment aboard the plane."

Only one aircraft from a country other than the United States sits inside one hanger of the museum.

A 1950's built MiG-17 which soared for the Bulgarian Air Force has called Georgia home for two decades. As the Vietnam War raged, American fighter pilots downed sixty-one MiG-17's between 1965 to 1968.

The museum is also home to the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame.

On display in the museum's Century of Flight Hanger, the Hall of Fame was created in 1989 "to promote and encourage the growth and public support of aviation within the state of Georgia by honoring aviation leaders," the GAHoF states.

The Tuskegee Airman exhibit located in the Scott Exhibit Hanger recently expanded to allow one to take a trip back to 1942 to witness America's first black pilots squadron train for combat missions.

The Tuskegee pilots trained at Morton Field in Alabama during World War II, and eventually saw combat in the air as their planes arrived in the European theater.

As they fought discrimination in the barracks, these Red Tail pilots eventually rose to the occasion to shoot down over 100 axis aircraft before the war's conclusion.

The museum also features an aviation themed cafe high above in the observation deck and a gift shop souvenirs .

Georgia's largest aviation museum is free to the public and open 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday thru Sunday and closed for major holidays. The center is located at GA Hwy 247 and Russell Parkway, in Warner Robins.

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Europe's mighty Ariane rocket launches two satellites

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A European Ariane 5 thundered off it's seaside launch pad at the edge of the Amazon jungle on Thursday to deliver a direct-to-home broadcast satellite and a defense spacecraft to orbit.

The launcher soared into the rainy skies of Kourou, French Guiana following a one hour delay due to thunderstorms in the area.

Ariane's two satellites, one designed for Italy and France's homeland security and one which will expand the use of high definition broadcasts to homes across most of the eastern hemisphere, successfully separated from it's launcher thirty minutes after launch.

The Asia Broadcast Satellite or ABS-2, which rode to orbit at the top of the two satellite stack, separated first from the launcher to begin a planned 15 year life providing video and telecommunication for Asia, North Africa and Middle East.

Built by Space Systems Loral, ABS-2 will operate in geostationary orbit using a combined 89 Ka-Band, Ku-Band and C-Band transponders.

“ABS-2 is a very advanced satellite that has the capability to improve the human experience by providing services for 60 percent of the world’s population,” John Celli, president of SS/L stated recently.

Minutes later, the Athena-Fidus advanced relay platform was released, and over the next week will be positioned into a fixed geostationary orbit. Athena-Fidus will provide global coverage as a communications relay between the Homeland Securities of both Italy and France and their armed forces.

The development of the Access on THeaters for European allied forces NAtions -- French Italian Dual Use Satellite, or Athena-Fidus, is sponsored by both the French and Italian space agencies.

Rain showers, which fell upon the launch site in the hours leading up to lift-off, did not delay the rocket's super cold fuel loading as the launch team remained in a go condition.

The countdown reached zero at the start of a two hour launch window as the Ariane's core engine ignited followed seconds later by it's twin solid rocket boosters at 4:30:07 p.m. EST, pushing 10,200 kg of payload toward orbit.

Half a minute later, the massive rocket disappeared into a low cloud layer.

The 166-foot-tall Ariane arced out over the mid Atlantic Ocean and into sunset as it's rate of speed and altitude increased above the light rain and clouds.

Just over two minutes into the 72nd Ariane 5 mission, the twin solid rocket boosters separated on time as the main center engine continued to burn.

The launch contrail was captured in dramatic fashion by NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio, one of six crew members, working and living 260 miles above earth aboard the International Space Station.
Mastracchio had posted unique launch image on his Twitter feed even before the two satellites were released.

Ariane's upper stage engine then burned for several minutes pushing the two spacecraft into a higher orbit. ABS-2 was then released at 4:57 p.m. followed by Athena-Fidus five minutes later.

The next Ariane 5 launch, the second of fourteen planned in 2014, is currently planned for March 7 on a mission to deploy two communications satellites.

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Blue Angels maintenance teams prepare for 2014 season

PENSACOLA, Fla. -- As the U.S. Navy Blue Angels gear up for this year's air shows, a group of unsung heroes will place their job dedication and professionalism on the line prior to each aircraft's departure.

The pilots of the U.S. Navy's elite Flight Demonstration Squadron are the first to say that the aerobatic jets they fly really belong to the mechanics and technicians who keep them operational each day.

They maintain the existing aircraft with new parts at their home at Naval Air Station Pensacola, while testing new aircraft systems prior to and during an air show to keep the high performance aircraft reliable.

The maintenance and supply teams are made up of nearly a hundred enlisted men and women of the Navy and Marines who bring special job qualities to maintain the aircraft.

Seven F/A-18 Hornet jets, each painted with a high gloss blue and yellow paint job, and a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, affectionately known as "Fat Albert", will take to the skies for each air show during the 2014 season.

As the Gulf breeze blew across on the flight line, this aerospace reporter spoke with two of the Navy's most experienced engineers about the demands of their jobs -- both at home and away.
"I take care of that aircraft, making sure that everything is good for it's pilot," Aviation Ordinance First Class Eli Lang, the crew chief for the Angel 7 jet, said with a smile of pride. "My job details engine tune-up operations, check the flight control instruments and check though the pre- and post-flight inspections of the aircraft on a day-to-day basis."

Blue Angels Aviation Electrician Tyler Nuhfer said, "When you pull an all nighter to get the plane ready for the next day, it's a very big sense of accomplishment. When you get that jet off for an air show it's a really great feeling."

As the Hornets are put through the routines above, on the ground, the maintenance crews observe with binoculars and later record post-flight analysis to ensure the jets are performing as expected.
AE1 Nuhfer explained, "No air show has been cancelled due to a maintenance issue since the Blue Angels began in 1946. That's a huge bragging right we have on the enlisted side, keeping the aircraft in the air."

The Blue Angels will return to the air show circuit March 15 following a year off due to the government's 2013 sequestration. Today, the maintenance crews are preparing for the eight month season by working long hours as the Hornets are put through a strict practice schedule at their winter home at the Naval Air Facility at El Centro in southern California.

During this time, the Blue Angels team will work as one as the pilots practice for their first air show of 2014 at El Centro. The six Hornets will practice the speeds and maneuvers of each demonstration timed by the tick of the clock.

It's this dedication to detail which keeps the entire team ready during performance week.
"This is a good experience for anybody to have to come together from across the naval fleet to work together," AO1 Lang said.

The maintenance team are veterans who served aboard aircraft carriers for multiple years before volunteering to serve with the Blues.

2014 will see the team travel to show sites in Hawaii, California, Tennessee and Washington to name a few. The team will also perform a traditional fly over during the Naval Academy graduation ceremony in May.

"When we go to an air show, we take about forty team members with us," Nuhfer explained. "We arrive a day early to get everything set up as far as support equipment, and learn what hanger will we work out of and then the pilots fly in. We are there to support them until the air show starts."

Each 56-foot long Hornet carries 11,000 pounds of fuel to stay aloft for a nearly 45 minute performance.

The aircraft also endures untold stress during parts of the aerobatic performance as they pull up to 7G's (seven times one gravity). One demonstration has the jets soar upside down at over 400 m.p.h while only eighteen inches apart from another Hornet.

Although the jets can soar past the speed of sound, the Blue Angels keep their aircraft from going super sonic over land as not to crack windows of homes or cars on the ground.

A long time aviation electrician, Nuhfer discussed his role with the Blues, "The whole F/A-18 is practically fly by wire. Anything that has a wire going to it, we fix."

"Flight controls are not cables going to your surfaces but it's wires that go to a sensor that tells a computer to move a surface. Anything from the fuel, to flight controls, air speed, everything is wired and keeps us busy," Nuhfer continued. "We have the oldest jets in the Navy, some are 20 to 30 year old jets, that makes the wires that much older and that much easier to break."

As you listen to both Lang and Nuhfer talk about their jobs, one can hear the pride in their voices as they discuss just how they prepare each jet to go dazzle the crowds.

Nuhfer calls it an honor to work with the Blue Angels, and one of the last traditions still around in the Navy.

Lang echoed the sentiments of the team by saying, "We did our job to make these aircraft get in the air for the American public see what we have here, and it's satisfying to see the smiles on the children's faces as they utter 'Ooh and Aah's' during each show."

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

New Apollo exhibit features second largest moon rock

ATLANTA -- A piece of the second largest moon rock ever collected has taken center stage in a new exhibit which pays tribute to NASA's heralded Apollo moon missions at the Tellus Science Museum.

The Cartersville museum's new exhibit includes a real lunar module engine and an Apollo Rock Hammer similar to ones used by the Apollo astronauts as they explored the moon's surface over forty years ago.

It is the five ounce piece of the moon which has caused the biggest draw of crowds to the exhibit.

Cut from the largest rock collected during Apollo 15, the rock was named "Great Scott" after being plucked from the moon's surface on August 1, 1971 by NASA astronaut and mission commander David Scott.

"Great Scott" measured 10.2 inches in length and weighed in at just over 21 pounds as it sat upon the moon's surface on the north section of Hadley Rille. Once Apollo 15's crew returned to earth, the light grey lunar sample was numbered 15555.

Created from a lava flow over three billion years ago, the sample is made up of olivine basalt, and sits inside a nitrogen filled glass display case so that it does not come in contact with the earth's environment.

As Scott and lunar module pilot Jim Irwin explored the moon during their third moonwalk, Scott located the rock, and struggled a bit to lift it up from the surface -- not due to it's weight but due to it's size and the use of one pressurized gloved hand.

The moon's 1/6th gravity gave the rock a weight of only 3.3 pounds. Scott eventually got a hold of "Great Scott" resting it on his right thigh as he moon hopped over to the lunar rover and placed it on board.

NASA has listed "Great Scott" as the second largest moon rock ever recovered during the six lunar landings.

The lunar module engine, on loan from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, was test fired by the space agency in Mississippi in preparation for the moon landings beginning in 1969.

Adjacent to the Apollo exhibit at Tellus is a new massive gallery featuring several incredible NASA images of the planets and galaxies entitled "From the Earth to the Solar System".

To purchase tickets, call Tellus at 770-606-5700. Schulman adds that over the phone ticket purchases will end on Friday at 5:00 p.m.

Located northwest of Atlanta off of exit 293 and I-75 in Cartersville, the museum is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The center is closed on July 4th, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Years Day.

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Book Review: 'Orbit of Discovery' salutes the Buckeye astronauts

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Ring up one well deserved thumbs up for the Buckeye State.

A new book by NASA astronaut Don A. Thomas chronicles a group of Ohioans who paved the way in aviation and space, and includes an up close look at his own flight aboard space shuttle Discovery.

A four-time space shuttle astronaut, Thomas describes the story first hand as his all-Ohio flight crew overcame a troublesome woodpecker to fly one of the space agency's "more important" missions in Orbit of Discovery: The All-Ohio Space Shuttle Mission.

The 1995 shuttle mission was set to become America's 100th human space flight, however an unexpected delay by nature forced an interesting turn of events resulting in a humorous outcome.

"I wanted to share this story because I always thought STS-70 was a cool story -- it's the woodpecker flight, it's the all-Ohio mission," Thomas recounted to this aerospace journalist at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum in Dulles, Virginia. "It wasn't the sexiest mission in the world. We didn't fix Hubble (Telescope), we didn't build the space station. We deployed a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) that replaced the one lost on Challenger so I thought this was an important mission."

As the astronaut and I stood next to NASA's third space worthy orbiter, Thomas pointed out the symbolism above as he pointed to the massive TDRS mock-up hanging high above Discovery in the Smithsonian hanger and exclaimed, "This was our STS-70 mission -- Discovery with TDRS high above her."

Published by the University of Akron (OH) Ringtaw Books, the 400-page hardbound book takes you into the mind of a veteran astronaut as he describes his time as an astronaut training for the STS-70 mission. Thomas also narrates his flight aboard the space shuttle with interesting details and fun anecdotes.

The Cleveland native discusses his crew's disappointment as their flight to deploy the huge communications satellite is delayed by a Northern Flicker Woodpecker who single handily held up the mission by pecking over 200 holes into their space shuttle's massive external fuel tank.

The book's candid discussion on how a wayward woodpecker forced Discovery back to the assembly building for necessary repairs sets the stage for some comedic flare by mission control once they arrived on orbit and deployed TDRS G.

Co-written by journalist Mike Bartell, Orbit of Discovery gives the average reader an insightful look into Thomas' feelings and thoughts as he describes the dramatic lift-off, and includes the pros and cons on what floating in microgravity feels like.

"When I flew on STS-70, it was my second mission and the first time I launched up on the flight deck," Thomas recalled during our interview. "To be on the flight deck, I had a small mirror on my knee and I could look out the window and into the (launch pad) flame pit."

Thomas continued, "To watch the engines start up, and to watch with such violence the flame and smoke shooting out of the flame pit... here I am about 150-feet above watching it and I think my jaw dropped, and I thought, 'Look at what's going on back there'."

I asked Don if he thought all the woodpecker humor became too cheesy. "Not too cheesy, we all enjoyed it on the crew," he said. "We got a big laugh out of it. We weren't too embarrassed by it and we decided to embrace it. Once we deployed the satellite, it was open season on woodpeckers and the jokes just flowed afterwards."

The book notes with statistics the Ohio astronauts of yesteryear through the current ones flying today. Ohio Senator John Glenn, America's first human to orbit earth, takes to pen to illustrate a beautifully written foreword giving great insight into the state's historic aviators.

Among the 26 notable Ohio astronauts included are: Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot upon the moon; Dr. Judy Resnik, America's second woman in space and the first female to fly aboard Discovery; and Dr. Sunny Williams who holds the most time in space by an Ohioan, 322 days, and the most time spacewalking by a female, nearly 51 hours.

Orbit of Discovery is set to arrive in book stores in time for the holidays, and just days ahead of the 110th anniversary of the first powered airplane flight.

The book also gives a tip of the hat to the two Ohio brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, who left their home in Dayton, Ohio in 1902 for the winds at Kitty Hawk. The pair later soared into the history books on December 17, 1903.

Loaded with thirty-two pages of colorful images, including NASA and private crew photographs, Orbit of Discovery is a treasure chest of incredible memories giving the reader an insiders track on what it took to fly aboard humankind's greatest flying machine ever built.

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)

Friday, December 06, 2013

Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit showcases her storied career

 CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Space shuttle Atlantis, a newly retired spacecraft with a combined 306 days in earth orbit, today rests high above the center ring inside a new $100 million facility spotlighting the enormous work of NASA space shuttle program.

Located at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Center the Atlantis Exhibit showcases it's star attraction poised high above the ground floor and tilted 43.21 degrees in the 90,000 square-foot building.

The unusual tilt is in a countdown fashion allowing visitors to view her underside from the ground level while providing a look inside her payload bay from the top level. Her fifty-foot robotic arm rests parked over the bay giving visitors a true perspective of her working in earth orbit.

Surrounded by the latest in shuttle flight simulators and a full scale mock-up of the Hubble Space Telescope, Atlantis is now retired following the completion of thirty-three space flights between 1985 thru 2011.

Visitors to the new facility begin with a twelve minute theatrical style movie filmed especially for the space center. The high quality feature introduces the public to the origins of the space shuttle program including the detailed work needed to achieve that successful first flight in 1981.

The exhibit has attracted the attention of former astronauts and NASA engineers.

"Watching the video presentation on the space shuttle, I stood there in awe of everything that was accomplished in the thirty year history of the program," four-time space shuttle astronaut Don A. Thomas said with a smile to this aerospace reporter. "Then seeing Atlantis up close in all her glory brought a tear to my eye. Atlantis is there still in orbit, high above earth just as most astronauts would prefer to remember her."

Illuminated in purple light, visitors receive their first glimpse of the majestic orbiter as the movie screen lifts upward reveling Atlantis pointed in their direction.

"I felt extremely proud to have had the incredible opportunity to have flown on the shuttle", said Thomas whose new book Orbit of Discovery is due out this month and chronicles his space shuttle missions. "It's an absolutely stunning exhibit which took my breath away, and brought back a flood of memories about my own four flights."

The exhibit's June 29 grand opening marked the final chapter of America's space shuttle fleet as Atlantis became the last of the three surviving orbiters to move into museum retirement.

Adjacent to the orbiter is the full scale mock up of the space telescope in which Atlantis made the final servicing trip to in 2009. Detailed history and a brief movie accompanies the telescope's own exhibit.

"Amazing!" exclaimed Thomas Howell, a native of nearby Palm Beach on vacation with his wife Debbie. "It's awesome how we can stand here so close to this telescope and a real space shuttle, too. Atlantis is so large."

The Atlantis Exhibit is included in the visitor center's admission price; and is open seven days a week excluding major holidays.

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. He covered numerous missions by Atlantis from Kennedy Space Center. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

U.S. Navy Blue Angels look forward to 2014 season

PENSACOLA, Fla -- As the sunshine and blue sky lay above the warm waves on Pensacola Beach, a pair of high performance jets soar high over the northern gulf waters in a aerobatic display which captures the attention of the sunbathers below.

The twin U.S. Navy jets quickly break away in a planned maneuver and begin to soar higher into the cloudless sky. Suddenly, the jets ignite a white smoke trail which begins to trace their aerobatic flight path of twin circles.

The United States Navy's elite Flight Demonstration Squadron is known to the public as the Blue Angels. The team's blue and gold jets are a familiar sight and sound along the sugar sand beaches along the northern Gulf Coast just a few miles from their home at the Naval Air Station Pensacola.

The team's public demonstration flights is the Navy's most popular recruiting tool to attract interested young adults into a career with the military. One of those young adults is a pilot today with the Angels.

For many on Pensacola Beach, the sight of the unexpected air show above is in reality only a low level practice flight by two of the six Blue Angels.

A typical week may find all six Blue Angels in flight as they practice flying wing tip to wing tip, just eighteen inches apart; and perfecting a stunning performance which has two of the jets speed toward each other before each jet breaks into a left and right hand 180-degree turn.

This year, however, the Blue Angels' F/A-18 Hornet jets were ordered to stay home. Their practice hours limited to only eleven hours a month.

2013 marked a year of major budget cuts in the U.S. military, cuts which grounded the team from performing at any of their planned air shows during their annual March to November season.

For the first time in sixty years, the Blue Angels were not allowed to perform at any of the planned thirty-five airshows across North America.

This aerospace journalist soared with Angels pilot Lt. Mark Tedrow in 2012 in Angel 7 jet, a two seater F/A-18D Hornet, and experienced nearly every maneuver these incredible pilots endure during an air show performance.

This year would have marked Tedrow's first year as Angel 6, one of two solos performing fast paced, highly intense flight demonstrations along with Angel 5.

As the aerobatic pair take center stage over an airshow runway, Angels 1, 2, 3 and 4 are typically lining up in a formation to soar high above as 5 and 6 finish.

As Lt. Tedrow and I stood on the flight line at the Blue Angels home base this week, we began to discuss about this season, and what inspired him to join this elite flight squadron.

Charles Atkeison: Lt. Tedrow, take us in the cockpit with you and explain what it's like to soar with your team.

Lt. Mark Tedrow: "It's really hard to describe for people who have not done it before, luckily you have so you what the feelings and sensations are like... it's pretty incredible being part of the solo routine for the Blue Angels, number five and number six because unlike the one thru four pilots, we demonstrate the maximum performance capabilities of the FA-18. We're the ones that wow the crowd with some of the amazing maneuvers, we fly our jets at just below the speed of sound and pull between 7 and 8 G's, during the demonstration. It's hard to describe to the person who has never felt G-forces before, but actually pretty painful but good at the same time because you know you're max performing the aircraft and it's definitely a crowd pleaser.

It's incredible to go through what we go through."

Atkeison: With the Angels grounded due to the sequester, how do you continue to practice and stay prepared for a hoped 2014 season?

Lt. Tedrow: "We've been flying locally here since we got shutdown. We fly two to three times a week and we do basic maneuvers. We have a local working area out over the (Gulf) water there that we go and practice some of the airshow maneuvers that we do, so that's the way we stay proficient as we're waiting to hear about the 2014 season.

Are we flying as much as we normally would if we were doing a season this year? No. Are we proficient to do a demo tomorrow? No. But, we defiantly are keeping are skills sharp so that we will be able to fly a demo in '14. The knowledge is there all we have to do is sharpen our skill set with a bunch of practicing before we pick-up and fly during the 2014 season."

Atkeison: Blue Angel 1 is your "Boss" and is flown by commander Thomas Frosch. Run through with me a few of his speech techniques he uses to keep your team's mental edge prepared.

Lt. Tedrow: "I would not want to be in his shoes especially this season. He has done a phenomenal job and I do not know how everyday he comes to work - he's so optimistic. And, that is what he has passed on to us.

Throughout the weeks and the months we kinda hear different things, different stories, from 'Hey, we're gonna have a 2014 season' or 'Hey, we're gonna be flying in the Fall.' It's back and forth, up and down, we get different information, but throughout the entire process, he has been nothing but optimistic about what we're going to be doing in the future and the mission of this team in 2014.

The Boss always is optimistic 'Hey, we're still the Blue Angels... we have a mission to accomplish and it's still looking good for 2014". So, he's been great throughout, and without him, I don't what we would've done."

Atkeison: O.K., let's back up a few years... you grew up outside of Pittsburgh. What lead you into a career with the U.S. Navy and later, the Blue Angels?

Lt. Tedrow: "Growing up in Pittsburgh, we didn't have much of a Navy presence, and I didn't have many family members that were in the military. In that area, sports are a big deal - especially high school football - so I grew up playing a lot of football games. In high school, I was luck enough to be recruited by United States Naval Academy.

It kinda sparked my interest... I showed up to the Naval Academy and I started playing football there, and the first year I was there the Blue Angels performed at graduation and I had never seen them before. I said, 'Wow, that is one of the coolest things I've ever seen in my life. I'd love to do that one day'.

I went thru the four years at the academy. I was lucky enough I selected naval aviation, went through flight school and selected jets. I did a few combat deployments to Afghanistan and worked my way through the fleet... I was lucky enough to get picked up, so here I am living that dream that I had since I was eighteen years old, and I'm super lucky to be here, and I'm honored to be a part of the team."

Atkeison: So what's it like to perform a carrier landing? What's the sensation versus maybe an Angels flight?

Lt. Tedrow: "It's a lot different. What sets naval aviators apart from the rest of the aviators throughout the world is the ability to land on aircraft carriers and ships. It's one of the unique skill sets we bring to aviation, it's one of the hardest things that we do. So to learn it is a lot of pressure, it's a lot of stress. It's very hard briefs and debriefs to get to the point where you're ready to land on the aircraft carrier.

I'll tell you first hand, the first time I landed on the aircraft carrier was in one of those jets right there, a T-45, and It was the most terrifying experience of my life. You're coming around the corner and all you see is this ship. Aircraft carriers are huge, but from the sky at 500 to 800 feet, they look tiny, they look like a postage stamp. You're coming around the corner in the landing pattern thinking to yourself, 'There's no way I'm gonna land this thing'.

To land is the most abrupt stop and landing you can ever image going from 140 m.p.h. to 0 m.p.h. in about two seconds, so that's pretty incredible. And the take-off is even more incredible to go from 0 m.p.h. to 140 m.p.h. in a about a second and a half is pretty phenomenal as well. I think I screamed the first time I got launched from the carrier in a T-45 cause their so little and light. It's one of the hardest things we do.

I'm lucky to be apart of naval aviation."

As it stands for now, Tedrow and his Blues team are due to travel out to their winter base at the Naval Air Facility El Centro, California the first week of January for three months of intense training.

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter and on Instagram @BlueAngels_7.)

Friday, April 26, 2013

'Meteorite Men' uncover new clues in Universe formation

ATLANTA -- The sun rises over the Australian outback and over an isolated desert.

The area marks the location for the likely discovery of several historic space rocks which survived the plunge through earth's atmosphere long ago.

A real treasure to geologists and astronomers alike, these rocks are known as meteorites and they hold the clues into the creation of our universe several billion years ago.

As the wind gusts over the untouched desert, the whirl of metal detectors grows stronger as two long time meteorite experts patiently search for one space rock which broke apart as it impacted earth's southern hemisphere decades ago.

As professional meteorite hunters Geoffrey Natkin and Steve Arnold detect several possible iron rich stony materials buried deep below, and begin to dig towards their treasure. The internal makeup of each rock will give scientists a look into what new minerals are out there.

Their findings will also rewrite what scientists had believed happened during the impact, not only of our solar system but our universe.

These meteorite men will spend the next several days researching the region until they have exhausted their search for the debris from a single meteorite.

Steve and Geoff are the Meteorite Men, an award winning show on The Science Channel which continues to draw a huge following across the globe.

Both men share host duties of the entertaining weekly television show as they investigate the world's known impact sites.

This aerospace reporter spent the day being schooled by the wise-cracking duo as they toured and spoke with guests at the Tellus Science Museum near Atlanta.

My first topic went directly to the famous Russian meteorite on February 15, as I asked the pair to share their thoughts on the widely video recorded shock wave and impact at Chelyabinsk.

"Biggest thing ever!", Geoff said with a laugh.

Steve immediately steps in, "We really don't know how big it is until all the snow melts and how much gets picked up. This one didn't make any craters and there are tens of thousands of pieces."

Steve then hinted that "there's a slight chance there could be something television related with us going over there to (Chelyabinsk)."

Geoff found a strong interest in the historic value the recent meteorite gave the planet, "Major firsts, Chelyabinsk, first time there's ever been major damage to modern civilization documented by a meteorite fall. This is serious damage to modern human infrastructure by a meteorite."

In his strong British tone, Geoff explained how serious Chelyabinsk could have been, "It's time for the world to wake up and take the threat of near earth objects seriously. This should be a wake up call for the whole world. (Chelyabinsk) was nothing, that was a pin drop compared to what could happen, and if the fall had come in at a slightly different angle and all those meteorites had smashed into all those buildings, we could have seen ten times the injuries."

Steve added even stronger words, "If that rock was an iron, same size but iron, it would have killed everybody within five kilometers, and it would have burned like a hundred miles of forest. It is a very serious situation."

Geoff recently worked with NASA Edge television show about Near Earth Objects as they filmed an episode at the famous Meteor Crater in Arizona.

"If you need any more of a warning about what NEO's can do, stand on the rim of Meteor Crater and you will go, 'Yes, we should do something about this problem'," Geoff said with a nod.

Geoffrey is also owner of Aerolite Meteorites, a popular Internet business specializing in sales of rare and colorful meteorites. Steve, meanwhile, is owner of a retail business near his Huntsville, Arkansas home known as Arnold Meteorites.

As Meteorite Men's popularity grows with new fans, the show is facing it's final season unless it's hosts can discover a new format.

"We can't continue to do the show exactly the way it's been done," Geoff explains. "If we want to make new shows, we need to reboot it. We need to look at some new ideas perhaps we could do more historic stories and meteorite legends, and maybe investigate meteorite craters."

"In the format that everyone's been used too, it's reached the end of it's limit," Steve adds.

As viewers tune in for the funny banter and cool location shoots, the show has also led to the discovery of unknown space rocks in the homes of several viewers. The show continues to educate on just how to look for and recognize a meteorite.

"Yes, we love the adventure, we love the hunt, but we also love the science", Geoff states of his multi season show. "We hope we've contributed something positive to the science of meteoritics."

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)
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