'Horrendous Gas Mileage': 20 Years Since the STS-81 Mission to Mir (Part 1)

Mir, as viewed from Atlantis on STS-81. The orange-colored Docking Module (DM), at the end of the Kristall module, is visible at the right of the image. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Mir, as viewed from Atlantis on STS-81. The orange-colored Docking Module (DM), at the end of the Kristall module, is visible at the right of the image. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Two decades ago, this week, America’s Space Shuttle Program began living up to its billing as a vehicle for delivering experiments, equipment, people, and supplies to an Earth-orbiting space station. In the small hours of 12 January 1997, Atlantis roared into the darkened skies of the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, on a 10-day voyage to exchange long-duration U.S. astronauts aboard Russia’s Mir outpost and transport upwards of 6,100 pounds (2,800 kg) of logistics in a pressurized Spacehab double module. During STS-81, astronaut Jerry Linenger was dropped off at Mir for a four-month increment, whilst John Blaha returned to Earth after his own extended stay in space. In the meantime, the “core” shuttle crew of Commander Mike Baker, Pilot Brent Jett, and Mission Specialists Jeff Wisoff, John Grunsfeld, and Marsha Ivins and Mir’s own crew of Commander Valeri Korzun and Flight Engineer Aleksandr Kaleri supported one of the most complex and ambitious joint flights ever attempted.

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Whitson Becomes World's Oldest Female Spacewalker, as EVA-38 Replaces Aging Space Station Batteries

Peggy Whitson heads out of the Quest airlock to tie Sunita Williams' record for the greatest number of spacewalks by a woman. Photo Credit: NASA/Thomas Pesquet/Twitter

Peggy Whitson heads out of the Quest airlock to tie Sunita Williams’ record for the greatest number of spacewalks by a woman. Photo Credit: NASA/Thomas Pesquet/Twitter

Two U.S. astronauts, including the oldest woman ever to participate in an Extravehicular Activity (EVA), triumphantly concluded a six-hour and 32-minute spacewalk outside the International Space Station (ISS) earlier today. Expedition 50 Commander Shane Kimbrough and Flight Engineer Peggy Whitson breezed through the task of installing three new adapter plates and hooked up electrical connectors for a trio of new lithium-ion (Li-Ion) batteries on the starboard-side S-4 segment of the station’s Integrated Truss Structure (ITS). Their work heralds the start of a two-year campaign of EVAs and robotics, which will see 48 aging nickel-hydrogen batteries on the port and starboard trusses replaced with 24 smaller, but higher-performing, lithium-ion ones. Working around an hour ahead of the timeline, Kimbrough and Whitson were also able to complete several “get-ahead” tasks, including a photographic survey of the station’s Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-2).

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Commercial Crew Heads for Regular Missions, Despite First Piloted Flights NET 2018

NASA's Commercial Crew Program will deliver U.S. astronauts into low-Earth orbit, from U.S. soil, and aboard a U.S. spacecraft, for the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle era. Image Credit: NASA

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program will deliver U.S. astronauts into low-Earth orbit, from U.S. soil, and aboard a U.S. spacecraft, for the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle era. Image Credit: NASA

This week’s announcement by NASA of eight additional crew-rotation missions to the International Space Station (ISS)—four each by Commercial Crew transportation Capability (CCtCap) partners Boeing and SpaceX—now secures the maximum number of contracted flights available to them. When the two companies were chosen in September 2014, after a multi-phase selection campaign, the terms of the combined $6.8 billion contract called for uncrewed and piloted test flights of their respective spacecraft to the ISS, followed by “at least two, and as many as six” operational Post-Certification Missions (PCMs) to deliver and exchange long-duration crew members to the orbital outpost. Boeing and SpaceX have now received the full complement of six operational missions apiece and, according to NASA, this recent award enables them to plan for all aspects of the flights and fulfil ISS transportation needs through 2024.

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Lucy and Psyche: NASA Selects Two New Asteroid Missions for Launch in 2020s

Artist's conception of the two new missions announced - Lucy flying by the Trojan asteroid Eurybates and Psyche,the first mission to the metal world 16 Psyche. Image Credit: SwRI/SSL/Peter Rubin

Artist’s conception of the two new missions announced: Lucy, flying by the Trojan asteroid Eurybates, and Psyche, the first mission to the metal world 16 Psyche. Image Credit: SwRI/SSL/Peter Rubin

NASA has chosen two new missions to explore the Solar System; it was announced today during a media teleconference. The missions are part of NASA’s Discovery Program, and after the competing proposals had been narrowed down to five contenders, the final two winners were announced. Both missions, called Lucy and Psyche, will visit asteroids which have never been seen up close: multiple Trojan asteroids which share Jupiter’s orbit and the unusual metal asteroid 16 Psyche. These missions will study such objects which are relics left over from the early beginnings of the Solar System, providing new clues as to how the planets and other bodies formed. Two other mission proposals to return to Venus did not make the cut, unfortunately.

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SpaceX Closes AMOS-6 Investigation, Aims to Launch 10 Satellites Next Sunday

The first ten IridiumNEXT satellites are stacked and encapsulated in the Falcon 9 fairing for a Jan. 8 launch attempt from Vandenberg AFB, CA. Photo Credit: Iridium

The first ten IridiumNEXT satellites are stacked and encapsulated in the Falcon 9 fairing for a Jan. 8 launch attempt from Vandenberg AFB, Calif. Photo Credit: Iridium

SpaceX is aiming to return their workhorse Falcon-9 rocket to flight next Sunday with a fleet of 10 Iridium NEXT satellites (launch is still pending FAA approval). The mission, currently scheduled to lift-off on Jan. 8 at 10:28 a.m. Pacific Time from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., will mark SpaceX’s 30th Falcon-9 and the first launch for SpaceX since a Sept. 1 explosion took out their rocket, Cape Canaveral launch complex, and their customer’s AMOS-6 satellite.

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'Asking Forgiveness': Celebrating the New Year in Space (Part 2)

Members of the Expedition 42 crew celebrate New Years Eve on the International Space Station (ISS) on 31 December 2014/1 January 2015. Photo Credit: Terry Virts / NASA (@AstroTerry via Twitter)

Members of the Expedition 42 crew celebrate New Years Eve on the International Space Station (ISS) on 31 December 2014/1 January 2015. Photo Credit: Terry Virts / NASA (@AstroTerry via Twitter)

Last night, six pairs of eyes were glued to the windows of the International Space Station (ISS), straining to catch a first glimpse of fireworks around the world, as humanity bade farewell to 2016 and ushered in 2017. As described in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, Expedition 50 Commander Shane Kimbrough of NASA and his crewmates—Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov, Andrei Borisenko, and Oleg Novitsky, together with U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson and the first French national to celebrate the New Year in space, Thomas Pesquet—observed the transition in quiet fashion. For 17 consecutive years, men and women from the United States and Russia, Japan and Italy, the Netherlands and Canada, the United Kingdom, and now France have witnessed the turnover from 31 December to 1 January through the ISS windows.

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'A Clockwork Not of Earthly Pace': Celebrating the New Year in Space (Part 1)

Tonight, six spacefarers from three sovereign nations will observe the transition from 2016 into 2017 from the International Space Station (ISS). Photo Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly/Twitter

Tonight, six spacefarers from three sovereign nations will observe the transition from 2016 into 2017 from the International Space Station (ISS). Photo Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly/Twitter

With a naval officer in command of the International Space Station (ISS), it might have seemed obvious that New Year’s Day 2001 would carry a corresponding nautical tradition. Expedition 1 Commander Bill Shepherd of NASA and his Russian crewmates, Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko, rang in the start of what would turn out to be one of the United States’ darkest years with private family conferences and an awareness that a busy few weeks lay ahead. The infant station had just received its first massive set of power-producing solar arrays and in mid-January it was expected that the STS-98 shuttle crew would deliver the Destiny lab.

Spending New Year in orbit is nothing new; since the voyage of Skylab 4 in 1973-74, the transition has been celebrated by Americans and Russians, Japanese and Italians, Dutchmen and Canadians, and, last year, also by a Briton. And the 2017 New Year sees a Frenchman, for the first time, in orbit to witness the festivities. All have passed the time quietly, watching the Home Planet for a glimpse of fireworks and marveling at the accomplishments of one year and sharing hope for the promise of the next.

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Ancient Water World: Tectonics on Pluto's Moon Charon Point to Frozen Subsurface Ocean

Charon (upper left) and Pluto as seen by New Horizons on July 14, 2015. Photo Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Charon (upper left) and Pluto as seen by New Horizons on July 14, 2015. Photo Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Charon is Pluto’s largest moon and, despite being so cold and remote from the Sun, has been revealed to be a fascinating and active world, just like Pluto itself. Residing in the far outskirts of the Solar System, it had been expected that Charon—and Pluto for that matter—would be little more than frozen, dead worlds. But just like the rest of the Solar System, there were surprises waiting to be found. Thanks to the New Horizons spacecraft, we got our first close-up views of the Pluto system in July 2015. It soon became evident that not only were Pluto and Charon geologically active in the ancient past, but they perhaps still are in some ways even now. One of the most surprising findings was both Pluto and Charon likely had subsurface water oceans; while it is thought that Pluto’s is probably still liquid, Charon’s is likely completely frozen, and now additional evidence for its existence has been published by researchers.

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'Collateral Damage Toll': Celebrating Christmas Away from the Home Planet (Part 2)

Expedition 26 crew members Scott Kelly (top) Paolo Nespoli (left) and Catherine 'Cady' Coleman bale out of their sleep stations in the Harmony node on Christmas morning in 2010 to celebrate the big day. Photo Credit: NASA

Expedition 26 crew members Scott Kelly (top) Paolo Nespoli (left) and Catherine “Cady” Coleman bale out of their sleep stations in the Harmony node on Christmas morning in 2010 to celebrate the big day. Photo Credit: NASA

As we observe the traditional date of Christ’s birth, spare a thought for the five men and one woman from a trio of sovereign nations, who are presently in orbit, 250 miles (400 km) above Earth, aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Expedition 50 Commander Shane Kimbrough is presently joined by Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov, Andrei Borisenko, and Oleg Novitsky, together with Frenchman Thomas Pesquet and the first woman to record as many as two Christmases away from the Home Planet, former NASA Chief Astronaut Peggy Whitson. As outlined in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, numerous Americans, Russians, Germans, Swiss, French, Japanese, Italian, Dutch, Canadian, and British spacefarers have celebrated the holidays further from their loved ones than any other human beings. In fact, Christmas has been welcomed both from low-Earth orbit and from the vicinity of the Moon, first observed by the crew of Apollo 8 in December 1968.

Celebrating Christmas in orbit has become commonplace since the arrival of the first permanent ISS crew in the fall of 2000. For the last 17 consecutive Christmases, 29 Americans, and 32 Russians have spent the holidays aboard the space station—several of them on more than one occasion—as well as two Japanese, two Italians, a Dutchman, a Canadian, and a Briton. For all of them, the sense of separation from family and loved ones is particularly strong.

Continue reading ‘Collateral Damage Toll’: Celebrating Christmas Away from the Home Planet (Part 2)

'All of You on the Good Earth': Celebrating Christmas Away from the Home Planet (Part 1)

With a fire unavailable, the Christmas stockings of consecutive International Space Station (ISS) crews have been hung by the hatch. With care, of course. Photo Credit: NASA

With a fire unavailable, the Christmas stockings of consecutive International Space Station (ISS) crews have been hung by the hatch—with care, of course. Photo Credit: NASA

For the first time, a woman will record as many as two Christmases spent away from the Home Planet tomorrow (Sunday), whilst orbiting Earth aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Veteran astronaut Peggy Whitson—who is presently a few weeks into a six-month increment which will also see her become the first female spacefarer to command the ISS twice—will be joined by only the second French national to celebrate the holidays in low-Earth orbit, as well as three Russian crewmates and Expedition 50 Commander Shane Kimbrough. Tomorrow’s festivities will mark the 17th continuous year that Christmas has been observed aboard the ISS, although the traditional date of Jesus’ birth has been celebrated many times in space over almost a half-century.

Continue reading ‘All of You on the Good Earth’: Celebrating Christmas Away from the Home Planet (Part 1)