The end of January / beginning of February is a time of pause and reflection for the American space programme and NASA. A span of five days, spread across a 36-year period, mark the three greatest tragedies of US human space flight, and so this period is always marked as a time of remembrance.
I’ve marked these three events – the Apollo 1 fire of January 27th, 1967, the Challenger disaster of January 28th, 1986 and the loss of the Columbia on February 1st, 2003 – in past Space Sunday updates. However, January 27th, 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, which claimed the lives of Command Pilot Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward H. White II, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee in just 16 seconds. To mark it, and the start of NASA’s period of remembrance, the US space agency unveiled a new Apollo 1 tribute in its visitor complex at the Apollo/Saturn V Centre.
Grissom, White (the first American to walk in space during the Gemini 4 mission in 1965), and rookie Chaffee were participating in a “plugs out” test of the Apollo Command module intended to determine whether the vehicle was fit to fly at a time when many in NASA – Grissom included – felt it was not (Grissom had once famously hung a lemon in the Command Module simulator during training to signify his dissatisfaction with the state of the vehicle’s development).
It should have been a routine launch pad test of the vehicle the crew were due to fly in the first crewed test of Apollo in the run-up to a lunar landing. Instead, a spark from faulty wiring combusted the oxygen-rich atmosphere, causing a flash fire. This, aided by the many flammable materials used in the construction of the vehicle caused the air pressure inside the vehicle to rapidly rise, sealing the cabin’s inward opening hatch so that the crew could not open it themselves.
The deaths of these three men ultimately made Apollo – and the US space programme itself – far safer for those going into orbit. Flammable materials were all but eliminated from designs wherever possible; the atmosphere used within vehicles was altered so as not to be oxygen-rich, reducing the risk of fires rapidly building up and spreading; exit hatches were all changed so they would open outward, and the mechanisms for opening them either from within or without a vehicles were designed to be as simple and direct as possible.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the fire, NASA has placed the most significant part of the Apollo 1 vehicle – the hatch – on public display, with the full blessings of the surviving members of the astronaut’s families. It is a belated addition to similar exhibits of both the Challenger and Columbia accidents were placed on public display over 18 months ago in order to more fully commemorate those incidents.
All three disasters are commemorated at the Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Centre. However, while both Challenger and Columbia are also marked by memorials at America’s Arlington National Cemetery, no similar memorial currently exists for Apollo 1 (although Grissom and Caffee are interred there – White is interred at the West Point Cemetery). So, as a further mark of the 50th anniversary of the fire, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) has re-introduced a bill to Congress to have an Apollo 1 memorial established at Arlington.
Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia, together with a loss of life which occurred during the Soviet manned space programme, serve as a reminder to all of us that space exploration is still a dangerous undertaking, despite all of the “shit sleeve” images we see of people working aboard the International Space Station. But then, all acts of expanding the human frontier carry with them inherent risks and the potential for loss of life.
This doesn’t mean we should shirk such activities or retreat from them; the rewards are simply too great, not only in terms of our potential to learn and grow and ensure our continuance as a species, but also to out ability to mature as a species and reach beyond the petty nationalisms and narrow-minded thinking which plague so much of what happens in the world today.
NASA’s official Day of Remembrance will be held on Tuesday, January 31st, 2017. With it comes the opportunity to not only look back to the sad events of January 27th, 2967, January 28th, 1986 and February 1st, 2003, but also to look forward to what might yet be achieved for all of human kind. Which is why I’m once again quoting Francis “Dick” Scobee, Commander of Challenger mission STS-51L, lost on that cold January morning in 1986.
Opportunity’s 13th Anniversary
January 24th, 2017 marked another space anniversary: that of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, which reached 13 years of active exploration of Mars on that day.
Launched on July 7, 2003, Opportunity – officially called MER-B – arrived in Meridiani Planum on January 25, 2004, three weeks after its twin Spirit (MER-A) touched down on the other side of the planet. While contact was lost with Spirit on March 22nd, 2010 after it had become stuck in a sand trap the previous year (and the mission was officially ended on May 25th, 2011), Opportunity has been the little rover which kept on going.
Since arriving on Mars, Opportunity has covered a total distance of 43.87 kilometres (27.26 mi) over 4,623 sols, or Martian Days, exploring several points of interest along the way. Currently, the rover is exploring the region around Endeavour crater, an impact crater about 22 km (14 mi) in diameter, and which Opportunity first reached in August 2011, after a drive lasting almost exactly three years, having departed the smaller Victoria crater (730 m / 2,372 ft in diameter) in August 2008, after spending two years exploring that location.
Solar powered, it had been anticipated that both Opportunity and Spirit would succumb to failing batteries as a result of dust build-up on the large, flat surfaces of their solar arrays preventing them from adequately recharging the battery systems. However, the arrays appear to get periodically “cleaned”, most likely due to Martian dust devils – small vortexes of turbulent air – intercepting the rovers, sweeping away the dust.
For Opportunity, this has meant energy production through the solar arrays has remained around 400-500 watt-hours per day for the January 2013 through January 2017 period, with summers “highs” of over 600 watt-hours. While much lower than the original 900 watt hours of energy the arrays could produce when Opportunity first arrived on Mars, this still leaves the rover in a healthy condition.
There are, however, signs of ageing elsewhere. At the end of 2014, Opportunity was suffering from “amnesia”, in which telemetry and other data wasn’t being written to non-volatile memory, probably due to a fault in one of the rover’s seven memory banks. Initially, Opportunity was instructed to ignore the faulty module, but the “amnesia” issues persisted, eventually leading to rover to periodically reset itself with reason. In May 2015, Opportunity was ordered to cease using the non-volatile memory and run itself in RAM-only mode, which is itself a risk.
Opportunity has, for the last few years, been overlooked in favour of its big cousin, Curiosity, so it’s good to set aside time to wish the little rover that keeps on going another happy anniversary.
Legislation To Have NASA Developed Strategic Plan for Human Spaceflight
New legislation is being introduced into Congress which, if enacted, would require NASA to develop a detailed strategic plan for human spaceflight, encompassing missions to the Moon, Mars and elsewhere.
The Mapping A New and Innovative Focus on our Exploration STrategy (MANIFEST) for Human Spaceflight Act, is intended to build upon a 2014 National Academies report on human space exploration pathways, to get NASA to be more precise about how it intends to achieve things like a human mission to Mars in the 2030s, which thus far have been high on ideals, low in pragmatic steps.
Under the terms of the act, NASA will be required to submit an interim report to the National Academies 90 days after the bill is enacted, outlining priorities and goals, encompassing Earth orbit operations, missions in cis-lunar space and to the Moon, and missions to Mars. The agency would then have a year in which the flesh out the report into strategic plan which would then be subject to revision every five years, according to progress made / evolving needs and requirements.
A solid roadmap – potentially including opportunities for private sector involvement and support – is seen as vital if NASA is to move itself beyond the realm of low Earth orbit operations. However, such directives haven’t always achieved the desired results, largely through the fault of NASA itself. As such, it will be interesting to see how things go, should the new bill be enacted.
Coming Soon: First Private Space Station – With a NASA Assist?
Work has started on establishing the world’s first private commercial space station, a complex that would serve a global community of sovereign and private astronauts. If all goes according to plan, the first element of the new space station – called Axiom, after the consortium developing it – could be in Earth orbit by 2020, attached to the International Space Station.
Axiom International plan to bring about a “historic shift” in low-Earth orbit space operations, moving activities away from the realm of government-funded agencies, and instead offering facilities aboard the new space station for a range of revenue generating activities including materials processing, pharmaceutical production, on-orbit manufacturing using 3D printing technologies, etc., as well as acting as a waystation for missions – private and governmental – elsewhere into the solar system.
The new station would commence in 2020 with a new module being added to the International Space Station – something NASA has agreed to in principle. The module would take up a single docking port on the station, but provide an additional three which could be leveraged by Axiom and NASA.
The module would remain attached to the ISS through until 2024 – the current date at which ISS operations me cease – and then be detached to allow the ISS to be de-orbited, the Axiom module then become the hub of an entirely new, privately owned space station run by the consortium. If ISS operations are extended to 2028, as might be the case, the module will remain attached to the station, but might be used as the hub for further Axiom modules, prior to being detached from the ISS when the latter does reach the end of its operational life.
Axiom also plans to start flying fee-paying astronauts to the ISS in 2019. These astronauts, drawn from interested industries, will undergoing the same training as NASA and international government astronauts to work aboard the ISS and operate its systems. In addition, the company plans to leverage capabilities such as the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and Dragon 2 space taxis to fly personnel to their own station once ISS operations cease, and also use space tourism, with private citizens paying to spend time aboard the station, as an additional means of generating revenue.
Axiom isn’t the only company pursuing the potential of orbital facilities for private enterprise. Bigelow Aerospace, for example, is developing “inflatable” modules which could be used to develop a low-cost orbital facility, and a prototype unit, called BEAM is currently attached to the ISS, where it is being evaluated.
Boeing Unveils New Space Suit
Boeing has unveiled the advanced new lightweight spacesuits astronauts will sport as passengers aboard the company’s CST-100 Starliner space taxi during flights to and from and the International Space Station.
The new suits are not intended to replace the EVA suits used by crews aboard the space station when performing space walks; it is purely intended for use in Starliner flights in order to keep crew persons alive in the event of a failure in the vehicle’s primary lief support system.
They are a major departure from the familiar orange flight suits worn by shuttle crews. Weighing half as much as those, the new suits are designed to offer superior functionality, comfort and protection for astronauts when crewed Starliner flights to the space station begin, possibly in 2018. In particular, they feature a number of innovations in design, including:
- Helmet and visor are incorporated into the suit instead of detachable. The suit’s hood-like soft helmet sports a wide polycarbonate visor offering the wearer better peripheral vision.
- Interactive gloves that allow the wearer to use the capsule’s touch screen systems with ease and confidence.
- Vents that allow wearer to be cooler, while allowing the suit to pressurise correctly, together with innovative cooling layers within the suit fabric.
- Integrated communications headset system.
The first test for the new suit will come in 2018, during the first 2-man crew qualification flight test of a Starliner vehicle. This will depart Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V booster.