Monday, June 30, 2014

NASA’s LDSD has test flight parachute failure

     The first major flight test for NASA’s Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) occurred today, Saturday, June 28 from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii. Though there were technical issues with a malfunctioning parachute, the test’s primary components were successfully deployed.
     LDSD is testing new technologies in preparation for future NASA missions to Mars, and requires more than wind tunnel tests in order to be fully developed. This vehicle uses the largest supersonic parachute ever deployed, and needs to be flown at high speeds and in an atmosphere similar to Mars which is only one percent as dense as Earth’s atmosphere (the Martian atmosphere is actually less than one percent of Earth’s and is comprised primarily of carbon dioxide).
     To achieve this, LDSD was lifted for several hours into the upper atmosphere to a height of approximately 120,000 feet (36,600 meters) by a large helium balloon. After this height was successfully reached LDSD was dropped from the balloon and a Star-48 solid rocket booster fired LDSD to an altitude of about 180,000 feet (54,900 meters) accelerating it to speeds of Mach 4 or 3,040 miles per hour.
     Achieving this high altitude and supersonic flight were the primary mission objectives for this phase of the project. According to NASA – both were achieved successfully. In addition, this test added the deployment of two air-braking systems, the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD) and Supersonic Disk Sail Parachute.
     Though the donut-shaped inflatable, SIAD, deployed correctly, there was apparently a problem with the mammoth parachute designed to carry LDSD to a safe water landing. The latest update from NASA says the vehicle has landed in the Pacific Ocean off of Hawaii, but it’s unclear if damage occurred as a result of the malfunctioning parachute.
     These two breaking elements are not officially going to be tested until next year, but will still provide valuable data to engineers, that will determine their effectiveness and fix issues that may have occurred during this test.
     LDSD’s overall goal is testing technologies that will land future robotic and manned missions on Mars. These missions will have heavier payloads and other elements that current planetary landing-technology can’t handle. NASA has been landing on Mars since the Viking Program in 1976, and most recently completed an ambitious Mars landing known as the “seven minutes of terror” for the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity in 2012. NASA has had to deal with these seven minutes since it began landing rovers on the surface of the Red Planet since the 1990s.
     The LDSD project is part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) which develops new technologies needed to handle current and future missions. Working on LDSD is a cooperative effort led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), along with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility and support from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii.

     More information will be provided to the media about today’s test flight during a teleconference tomorrow. Stay connected with for more updates on the LDSD project.
By James Tutten

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Boeing warns employees about potential layoffs

     The Boeing Company has reportedly sent out notifications to more than 200 of their employees who work for the company in Texas  and Florida. These potential layoffs may occur if Boeing is not awarded NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract. The announcement as to which of the companies competing under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program will be tapped to moved forward under CCtCap will be made in the coming months.
     “It’s just a standard way … to minimize potential business impact,” said John Mulholland, Boeing Commercial Crew program manager, in the original report.
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is one of a growing number of NASA-sponsored initiatives to encourage the commercial sector to provide services that at one point were only the purview of the space agency. This open competition, supported by NASA funding, is designed to have private companies develop a new spacecraft that will be used for transporting cargo and crew members to the International Space Station (ISS) no-earlier-than 2017.
     CCDev began its first phase in 2010, with five companies receiving funds to develop possible spacecraft, including Boeing. The CCtCap phase is set to be awarded in the next few months by NASA. This will allow companies to move forward with final developmental activities and ultimately might lead to the return of manned spaceflights from U.S. soil.
     The notice Boeing gave to it’s employees covers potential downsizing that can come from the suspension of their Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 spacecraft development if the company isn’t selected for CCtCap. This notice is mandated by U.S. law by the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN), that was passed by congress in 1988. It states that a 60-day advanced notice must be giving to employees by their employer about potential layoffs.
     If Boeing isn’t selected then cuts to their employees can go into effect, but if Boeing is selected by NASA to continue, the company has the option to disregard the WARN notice and move forward with CST-100’s development. also reported on claims that Boeing will expand employment in Florida by 75 new jobs if they are selected by NASA.
     The report also mentions that the CCtCap decision could also impact construction by United Launch Alliance (ULA) on a crew access tower at Launch Complex 41. Work on ULA’s tower should begin around September of this year and would focus on ULA’s agreement to provide launch services to Boeing’s CST-100 and Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spacecraft, with both spacecrafts potentially being launched by ULA’s Atlas V rocket.
     The three private companies and their spacecrafts, looking to be NASA’s go-to crew launch service provider, are Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) Dragon, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser, and Boeing’s CST-100. In total, NASA has spent more than $1.5 billion in contract awards for companies working on CCP including $362 million to Sierra Nevada, $544.6 million to SpaceX, with Boeing receiving the lion share of these awards at $621 million.

Source: Irene Klotz and

By James Tutten

(Above image credit: Boeing / Rob Bulmahn)

(Published at on June 26, 2014.)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Company plans for crewed Moon mission by 2017

     Space jet-setters hitching a ride to visit the Moon may not be science fiction much longer. A private company specializing in space tourism, Space Adventures, announced last week that two unnamed customers have paid deposits to fly on the first ever private mission to the Moon.

     Both of the individuals looking to fly on this proposed circumlunar voyage will need to contribute $150 million, which will go towards major modifications to the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, according to the original story published by and Now that investors have been procured by the company, the next phase for Space Adventures is talking with Soyuz engineers to confirm the work needed to prepare for this mission.

(Video produced by Space Adventures)

     “We’re basically taking the same Soyuz that flies to the space station, making a few modifications to allow it go around the far aside of the moon, and adding an extra habitation module to make it more comfortable for the passengers,” said Space Adventures president, Tom Shelley, in the original story.

     This mission would involve the two private individuals and a Cosmonaut commander to fly up to the International Space Station (ISS) for a few days, then re-board the Soyuz capsule and dock with a specially manufactured orbiting Lunar Module consisting of a habitation module and propulsion stage. This vehicle would then rocket its way to within 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the Lunar surface and complete a single flyby maneuver before returning to Earth.

     The total estimated time for this mission would be around 17 days, and would be the first time any individual has left low-Earth orbit (LEO) since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

     Though much work is needed to prepare the Soyuz spacecraft for this mission, and the would-be space pioneers will have to pass physical examinations before being allowed into orbit and beyond, Space Adventures has estimated that this mission could commence as early as the end of 2017.

The Soyuz booster ready for launch to ISS. Photo Credit NASA
     “We are exploring all possible avenues of cooperation with them, and we can do this — circle the moon in 2017 to 2018 on Soyuz. Technically it is possible,” said Vitaly Lopota, CEO of Energia, in a report by Russia’s Interfax news agency.

     Space Adventures has already worked directly with the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) for over 13 years, sending eight space tourists into orbit including former Microsoft executive, Charles Simony, who has flown on two different missions. Another space tourism mission in the works will involve send an internationally-known opera singer from Britain, Sarah Brightman, to the ISS in late 2015.

     Space tourists that are looking to fly to the International Space Station can purchase a seat from Space Adventures for around $52 million. This is around $18 million less than the $70 million price tag that Russia is currently charging U.S. astronauts flying to the orbiting laboratory aboard the Soyuz. 

     Commercial spaceflight companies like Space Adventures, and Virgin Galactic have stated that the high-cost seats purchased by enterprising individuals now will help develop technology and lower costs for seats in the future. This proposed first private mission to the Moon is another representation of the increasing influence of corporations and private citizens in the post-shuttle era of human spaceflight.

By James Tutten

(Above photo provided by NASA)

(Published at on June 21, 2014.)

Friday, June 20, 2014

Crewmembers complete 180th spacewalk for ISS

     The 180th spacewalk or extra-vehicular activity (EVA) in support of the International Space Station (ISS), and the first for the Expedition 40 crew, was successfully completed yesterday (June 19) by Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev. This 7 hour and 23 minute excursion saw the installation of new equipment for the ISS along with work on several ongoing scientific experiments.

     All of the work for this EVA took place around the Russian-made Zvezda Service Module, which contains the primary life support systems for the ISS.

     The main technical facet of this EVA involved the installation of a communications system antenna to Zvezda’s conical section, the area which connects the modules large and small segments. This installation took a few hours to complete and involved cable connections, removing protective coverings from components, and documentation of the cosmonaut’s work with photography.

     The cosmonauts then worked on the hardware relocation of the Obstanovka experiment, which studies the magnetic environments and levels of plasma energy around the ISS. This ongoing experiment is studying the density of electromagnetic, electrostatic and magnetic fields  in low-Earth orbit (LEO), and looking for any effects that a electromagnetic environment (EVE) can impose on large spacecraft.

     Work was then performed on two Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s experiments involving the acquisition of space environment data. The Micro-Particle Capturer (MPAC) device, which collects orbiting micro-particles by trapping them on gold plates located underneath silica-aerogel, and the Space Environment Exposure Device (SEED) that exposes material to the high energy radiation, temperature fluctuations, and other conditions found in LEO, to study potential weakening and degradation on tested material.

     Preparing the Zvezda module for future work was the final component to this EVA, which involved the relocation of a payload cargo boom allowing for succeeding payload attachments to be manipulated when necessary. The last EVA performed for the ISS was completed by astronauts Steve Swanson and Rick Mastracchio on April 23, when they installed a replacement Multiplexer/Demultiplexer backup computer on the S0 truss that had experienced an unforeseen failure.

By James Tutten

(Above photo provided by ESA)

(Published at on June 20, 2014.)

The Orlan spacesuit of Russian Cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov used for the June 19 spacewalk. Photo Credit: NASA

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

NASA selects experiments for Virgin Galactic flight

     NASA’s Flight Opportunities program has selected 12 experimentation payloads to take part in their space research flight aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) will be one of the organizations to take advantage of studying a little-known region of suborbital “sky” that borders between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.

     APL’s experiment will involve the use of an Electromagnetic Field Measurements instrument, which is designed to study and categorize changes that occur within a spacecraft’s internal electromagnetic field. Earth’s geomagnetic field, which is created by the motion of molten iron alloys in its outer core, creates a protective region around our planet that shields our planetary surface and upper atmosphere from the damaging effects of streaming charged particles from the Sun and other forms of cosmic radiation.

     “This data will enable future payloads designed to make scientific observations of Earth’s magnetic field to cancel out interference from the spacecraft,” said APL’s H. Todd Smith, the Electromagnetic Field Measurements principal investigator, in a statement released by APL. “Ultimately, our payload will serve as an integration platform for future scientific research and instrument development activities.”

     The primary advantage gained from experimentation in this suborbital region, located 50 miles above ground, is found within the privately-funded spacecraft. SpaceShipTwo is designed to be reusable and launched into microgravity for a 90-minute flight at a far reduced cost when compared to typical orbital missions. The craft will utilize a high-capacity internal environment and be flown at a height that is in between aircraft and high-altitude balloon elevations, and low-Earth-orbit (LEO) the International Space Station operates.

     Some of the other research payloads on this flight will include technological experiments on components for 3D printers designed to operate in space, a prototype orbiting fuel depot for long duration space missions, a newly designed cryogenic fuel pump system, and more.

     “Virgin Galactic is thrilled to be working with NASA and researchers at such a range of prestigious institutions, and we look forward to flying these research payloads into space,” said Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides, in a statement released by Virgin Galactic. “Our vision for Virgin Galactic is to increase access to space, not just for individuals to experience spaceflight, but to advance humanity by driving significant technological advancement and research. We are proud to have NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate as a customer and to be able to facilitate their important work.”

     APL is planning to launch three other experiments under NASA’s Flight Opportunities program in the future. To prepare for the research in this field, APL held meetings last year to look for potential developmental projects utilizing this type of commercial-built launch vehicle. Though none of the flights have a confirmed launch date, progress is steadily being made in the development and testing of Virgin Galactic’s spacecrafts.

     Virgin Galactic, which is owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS, has an ultimate goal of becoming the world’s first commercial spaceline. Over 700 investors have shown interest in purchasing tickets on future Virgin Galactic flights at $250,000 a seat. The company states they have accepted more than $80 million in deposits that have been used to fund the development of flight vehicles, which are currently in their final testing phase.

     Though there is currently no scheduled launches for space tourists or research projects, increasing interest by private citizens, NASA and other organizations, continue to select the company for a variety of the space agency’s efforts.

By James Tutten

(Above photo provided by Virgin Galactic)

(Published at on June 11, 2014.)

APL's Electromagnetic Fields Measurement instrument. Photo Credit: APL

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Rich humor highlights 'The Cripple of Inishmann'

ORLANDO — Wickedly funny Irish storytelling was presented with loveable charm for the Central Florida premiere of “The Cripple of Inishmaan” by Martin McDonagh presented by Valencia College Theater. This dark and delightful play, which is currently on Broadway and nominated for six Tony Awards, features the tale of a young lad trying to make his dreams come true despite having a life full of adversity. 

“It’s awful, and I say that with the best of intentions,” said John DiDonna, the play’s director and Valencia College theater department chair. “It’s meant to be awful, these people are every relative that we despise having at Thanksgiving dinner, but yet we love dearly.” 

This play takes place in 1934 on a small rural island off the west coast of Ireland, where everyone knows one another and equally share their uneventful lives. Most days go by with little action, until word gets around that filmmakers from Hollywood are coming to shoot a major motion picture on a neighboring island, which sparks the interest of some of the townsfolk including the play’s troubled protagonist. 

This young handicapped boy named Billy Claven is loveable and ambitious, though he has every reason to be bitter in life. He was born sick and seemingly abandoned by his parents as a baby, and has grown to become the island’s outcast because of his physical differences. Though he is loved by his adopted aunts whom he isn't related, he is also constantly belittled and dismissed by the other islanders who refer to him as “Cripple Billy.” 

“It’s really dark but that’s what makes it so awesome,” said Sam Corrie, who portrays Claven. “It’s a comedy, but there’s so many serious moments that you feel sorry for the characters.” Corrie does an excellent job playing this challenging and complex role that requires him to show Claven’s physical abnormalities in conjunction with his keen mind and warm heart. 

Another key role in this production is the town gossip named JohnnyPateenMike, who commands the stage with a driving comic force thanks to the passionate performance of Tommy Liles. “I try to just imagine a complete and total busybody who is more concerned about being able to gossip than anybodies feelings at all,” said Liles. JohnnyPateenMike becomes a central character due to his constant meddling and uproarious interactions with his “drunken mammy,” who is wonderfully played by Kathleen Lindsey-Moulds. 

Two of Claven’s closest friends on the island are bickering siblings that couldn't be more different. Helen McCormick is a beautiful young lady who is rude and crude, with a foul mouth that doesn't quit, and her brother Bartley is sweet, shy and willfully unashamed about sharing his passions in life with others.

 Valencia theater student Phillip Edwards, who plays Bartley, gives a phenomenal comic performance for this production. When asked about his motivation for this character Edwards said “I went and watched my younger brother and my younger sister, I kinda picked up a little from them, and I try to just incorporate it into the show.” His exchanges with Helen, including a wild scene involving a basket of eggs during the opening of the second act, became another grand addition to the brilliantly scripted comedy sprinkled throughout this play. 

Even during the saddest moments of “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” the play doesn't lose its heart and connection to the characters thanks to the talented cast, and their enjoyable and endearing Irish brogue tone that enhances the comedy of every line preformed. Theatergoers that pay close attention will be treated to classic Irish storytelling, like the different versions of the sad story involving Billy's parents, until you reach the end and learn the final truth. 

Performances of “The Cripple of Inishmaan” are playing Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. until June 15 in the Black Box Theater at Valencia’s East Campus located at 701 N. Econlockhatchee Trail, Orlando. Tickets are $12 for general admission and $10 for students, faculty, staff, alumni and senior citizens, and can be purchased by calling  407-582-2900 or visiting

By James Tutten

Friday, June 6, 2014

Political tensions jeopardize ULA's Atlas V rocket

     U.S. government officials are continuing to voice their disapproval with Russia’s actions in the Crimea and the eastern border of Ukraine with a new legislative proposal to end the United State’s reliance on Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines. If approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama, this provision added to the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act could have a negative impact on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V  launch vehicle, and create a greater emphasis on developing a replacement for the RD-180.

     “Mr. Putin’s Russia is giving us some problems,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) in the statement released on May 22. “So we put $100 million in the defense bill to develop a state-of-the-art rocket engine to make sure that we have assured access to space for our astronauts as well as our military space payloads.”

     Nelson, a longtime advocate for NASA as well as an astronaut, took part in the Senate Armed Services Committee that addressed this concern over the use of Russian-made rocket engines used to launch U.S. national security satellites into orbit. A new move by Washington lawmakers and military officials now looks to begin a transition away from RD-180 engines and work towards finding an U.S.-made replacement.

     Amid escalating political tensions over the last few months came a statement by Russian deputy prime minister of space and defense, Dmitry Rogozin, claiming that Russia will no longer sell RD-180 engines to the U.S. Along with other threats that Russia has plans to end its program launching U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) by 2020 and not allowing GPS stations within Russia. These statements only exacerbated the inflamed situation between the two nations and their future cooperation in space.

     There have also been recent legal actions hindering the use of RD-180s that resulted from a temporary restriction on engine purchases because of a lawsuit filed by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) against the U.S. Air Force over a non-bid contract awarded to ULA for military payload launches for the Air Force. ULA’s $11 billion deal with the Air Force consists of 28 launches of navigation and intelligence satellites over the next five years, 20 of which are planned to be taken into orbit atop Atlas V rockets powered by RD-180 engines.

     Moreover accusation have recently been made by SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk over alleged backroom dealing involving ULA and Air Force officials resulting in contracts awarded to ULA. ULA’s reliance of RD-180 engines became a factor used by SpaceX to cast doubt on ULA to be reliable for launching military payloads over the coming years if their supply of RD-180s can’t be secure.

     President and CEO of ULA, Michael Gass, addressed the concerns over the reliability of U.S. government  launches in the near future at a Senate hearing on the National Security Space Launch Program last month by stating ULA currently has more than two years of safety stock in RD-180 engines available and has other products that can handle the national security launches that are contracted if needed.

     Committees looking at the issue in Washington D.C. have already passed legislation and allocated funds to begin the development of a suitable replacement for the RD-180 engine. It is hoped that this new engine will be ready to be built in the U.S. by 2019. Estimates by industry professionals range around $1 billion for the development and manufacturing of this new engine with only basic concepts currently being disclosed, including this new liquid-fueled rocket be comparable in power to the RD-180 which generates 860,000 pounds of thrust at sea level.

By James Tutten

(Above photo provided by NASA)

(Published at on June 6, 2014.)

Duel RD-180 rocket engines lift a United Launch Alliance Atlas V into orbit from NASA's KSC. Photo Credit: NASA

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Spitzer may face deactivation from lack of funding

     Ongoing budget constraints for NASA may lead to the end of the Spitzer Space Telescope (SST) program, even though the satellite is already operating at a reduced budget and is currently the best space-based infrared observatory in operation. Project managers working with Spitzer will have to look for alternative means to keep its mission alive or face deactivation due to lack of funding.

     Based on an original report published in Scientific American, this move to cut funding for Spitzer is designed to help cover the cost of other space-based telescope missions. The Hubble Space Telescope launched in 1990 and the Chandra X-ray Observatory launched in 1999, will both remained funded through at least 2016, along with Kepler, Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) and the Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission.

     About half of NASA’s budget for astrophysics is dedicated to the highly anticipated James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the multi-billion dollar successor to both Hubble and Spitzer. The original story states, “In 2014, for example, the total astrophysics division funding was about $1.3 billion, of which $658 million went to JWST. Spitzer received $16.5 million this year, and was requesting even less for 2015, but NASA still judged even that amount to be too costly.”

     “To me it’s really sad that this country can’t find just a few million bucks more to throw into this to keep these things active and running as they should be,” said senior review panel chair Ben R. Oppenheimer, in the original report in Scientific American.

     JWST will be the most advanced infrared telescope when it becomes operational after its planned launch in 2018. The field of infrared observation is a highly coveted field of study in astronomy, and a loss of Spitzer in the near future could eventually lead to years of setbacks for astronomers.

     Spitzer was launched from Cape Canaveral in 2003, with an originally planned mission length lasting between two and five years. The satellite was launched with three primary instruments; the Infrared Array Camera (IRAC), Infrared Spectrograph (IRS), and Multiband Imaging Photometer for Spitzer (MIPS). The liquid helium coolant needed to maintain the cold temperatures required to properly operate these instruments became fully depleted in 2009. This signified an end to Spitzer’s primary mission, but the spacecraft still continues to operate and collect data in a limited capacity looking at shorter wavelength bands categorized under the Spitzer Warm Mission.

     “Since its cooling reservoir of cryogenic helium ran dry in 2009, the infrared telescope has been using only one of its three instruments. Spitzer’s 2014 budget is about $16.5 million, and it will have to make do with less in the future now that the 2014 Astrophysics Senior Review has recommended ending the mission by Sept. 30, 2015,” said George Helou, deputy director of the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

     The report also mentions that practically every mission is facing some form of budget constraints due to an overall lack of funding by Congress. One example being a majority of “guest observer” programs, which paid for scientists working outside of individual missions to submit proposals for future observational points of interest or any number of ideas for enhanced research.

     Another mission that seemed destined to end due to technical problems, the Kepler Space Telescope, gained a second chance at life and will benefit from this newly reworked budget. After Kepler suffered problems last year with two of its four reaction wheels that control its movement, researchers have been looking for a solution to continue operating the spacecraft. A new plan to use radiation pressure from the sun to balance the craft by pointing at the Earth’s plane of orbit has been devised, and the continued funding for two years for Kepler’s new mission called K2 has been approved.

By James Tutten

(Above photo provided by NASA / JPL-Caltech)

(Published at on June 3, 2014.)

The Spitzer telescope after CTA-spacecraft integration. Photo Credit: NASA

Image of the Flame Nebula taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Photo Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

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