'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.

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'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.

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Curiosity Continues Journey After Drill Problems, Finishes Another Year of Scientific Discovery

A "self-portrait" of Curiosity beside one of the dunes in the Bagnold Dunes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

A “self-portrait” of Curiosity beside one of the dunes in the Bagnold Dunes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The Curiosity rover has now resumed its journey toward Mount Sharp after experiencing some delays due to a faulty drill mechanism. The rover conducted a short drive over the past weekend toward a new location with “plenty of science targets to choose from.” Being on the road again is of course a relief to mission engineers and scientists, although the problems with the drill are still being diagnosed. As has come to be expected, Curiosity again made some exciting science observations in 2016, which continue to show that this region on Mars was once a lot more habitable in the ancient past, and perhaps bringing us closer to answering the question of whether life ever actually did exist there.

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60th ULA Atlas V Delivers EchoStar-XIX Communications Satellite to Orbit in Year-End Mission

Powered by its single RD-180 first-stage engine and three solid-fueled boosters, the Atlas V 431 springs away from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at the Cape at 2:13 p.m. EST on Sunday, 18 December. Photo Credit: John Kraus/AmericaSpace

Powered by its single RD-180 first-stage engine and three solid-fueled boosters, the Atlas V 431 springs away from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at the Cape at 2:13 p.m. EST on Sunday, 18 December. Photo Credit: John Kraus/AmericaSpace

Only weeks after passing its 10th anniversary of operations, and just over a year since its 100th mission, United Launch Alliance (ULA) has triumphantly concluded its 12th and final flight of 2016. The Centennial, Colo.-based launch services provider successfully launched its workhorse Atlas V booster—flying for the 60th time as a ULA vehicle and its 68th mission in total—from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., at 2:13 p.m. EST Sunday, 18 December. Primary payload for the mission was EchoStar-XIX, the largest and most capable high-speed broadband internet communications satellite yet placed into orbit. Within 32 minutes of liftoff, the 13,900-pound (6,300-kg) payload had been delivered into a looping elliptical orbit, from where it will be maneuvered over the next several days to a circular Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO). Poignantly, ULA’s coverage of today’s launch ended with a tribute to the late Mercury astronaut John Glenn, who flew aboard an Atlas in February 1962 and who died earlier this month.

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'All Sorts of Planning Problems': 50 Years Since Apollo Took Steps to the Moon (Part 2)

Apollo 8 in December 1968 marked the first occasion on which humans had departed Earth's gravitational "well", entered cislunar space and traveled to the Moon. The flight design originated from the "E-mission" of Apollo 3. Photo Credit: NASA

Apollo 8 in December 1968 marked the first occasion on which humans had departed Earth’s gravitational “well,” entered cislunar space, and traveled to the Moon. The flight design originated from the “E-mission” of Apollo 3. Photo Credit: NASA

Fifty years ago, this week—just three days before Christmas 1966—NASA announced the names of a group of astronauts who would begin the final stages of America’s bold goal of planting bootprints on the Moon before the end of the decade. Crews were already deep in training for prime and backup positions on the Apollo-Saturn (AS)-204 mission, also known as “Apollo 1,” which would put the Command and Service Module (CSM) of the United States’ newest piloted spacecraft through its paces in low-Earth orbit in spring 1967. And with the announcements of the Apollo 2 and Apollo 3 prime and backup crews on 22 December 1966, NASA identified the men who might someday travel to lunar orbit and walk the Moon’s barren surface. Those crews, and the missions they would go on to perform later in their careers, would enjoy ringside seats for the most audacious exploration effort ever undertaken in human history.

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'The Next Mission in the Schedule': 50 Years Since Apollo Took Steps to the Moon (Part 1)

Targeting a launch as early as August 1967, the Apollo 2 crew of (from left) Rusty Schweickart, Dave Scott and Jim McDivitt would have performed the inaugural test of the combined command, service and lunar modules in low-Earth orbit. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Targeting a launch as early as August 1967, the Apollo 2 crew of (from left) Rusty Schweickart, Dave Scott, and Jim McDivitt would have performed the inaugural test of the combined command, service, and lunar modules in low-Earth orbit. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Nearly five decades have passed since astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee lost their lives aboard Apollo 1, during a “plugs-out” ground test atop their Saturn IB booster at Cape Kennedy’s Pad 34. In just a few terrible moments on the evening of 27 January 1967, America’s hopes of landing a man on the Moon before the end of the decade were significantly pushed to the right, and it would be almost two years before astronauts journeyed into orbit aboard an Apollo spacecraft. In view of the tragedy which engulfed Apollo, it is remarkable that the United States recovered in such a short period of time to secure the national goal of bootprints on the lunar surface in July 1969.

However, in the weeks before Apollo 1, NASA looked earnestly ahead to 1967, which might have been quite different from a year of tragedy. A few days prior to Christmas 1966—in fact, 50 years ago, this week—12 astronauts were named to support a pair of critical Apollo missions which would have brought the lunar goal closer. As outlined in a previous AmericaSpace history article, a short-lived Apollo 2 flight had already been canceled and the “new” Apollo 2 and 3 would instead evaluate the upgraded Block II Command and Service Module (CSM), together with the first Lunar Module (LM), in low-Earth orbit, as well as traveling to a record apogee of 4,000 miles (6,400 km) above the Home Planet.

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Uncommon Rocket, Uncommon Payload: ULA Ready for Sunday Launch of EchoStar-XIX

The EchoStar-XIX satellite, pictured during construction and testing. Photo Credit: Hughes Network Systems/Twitter

The EchoStar-XIX satellite, pictured during construction and testing. Photo Credit: Hughes Network Systems/Twitter

Over the last decade, United Launch Alliance (ULA) has earned a strong reputation for reliability and schedule adherence, with 114 Delta II, Atlas V, and Delta IV missions successfully completed between 14 December 2006 and last week’s flight of the latest Wideband Global Satcom (WGS-8). Although the bulk of customers for the Centennial, Colo.-based launch services company have been the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the Air Force, numerous other missions devoted to studies of our own world and other worlds have also been conducted. However, this weekend, ULA will launch an uncommon mission on two fronts: for it will fly a rarely-used version of its highly reliable Atlas V booster and will deliver—for only the fourth time in its history—a commercial communications satellite into Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). And not just any satellite: for EchoStar-XIX will represent the largest and most capable high-speed broadband internet ever placed into orbit.

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Orbital ATK Launches 43rd Pegasus with Fleet of CYGNSS Hurricane Satellites off Florida

The view of Orbital ATK's L-1011 Stargazer and Pegasus XL rocket (underneath), as seen from the F-18 jet used to provide live coverage of the launch carrying NASA's Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS). Flying the F-18 was NASA Test Pilot Troy Asher, with NASA Videographer Lori Losey backseat. Photo Credit: NASA / Lori Losey

The view of Orbital ATK’s L-1011 Stargazer and Pegasus XL rocket (underneath), as seen from the F/A-18B jet used to provide live coverage of the launch carrying NASA’s Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS). Flying the F-18 was NASA Test Pilot Troy Asher, with NASA Videographer Lori Losey backseat. Photo Credit: NASA / Lori Losey

This morning, 126 miles off the coast of Daytona Beach, Fla., Orbital ATK’s modified L-1011 aircraft, nicknamed Stargazer, successfully deployed their air-launched Pegasus XL rocket with a fleet of eight microsatellites to low-Earth orbit for NASA’s Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) mission. Departing the “Skid Strip” runway at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the world’s only still operational L-1011 flew to the drop zone and deployed the three-stage Pegasus, the world’s first commercial rocket, from 39,000 feet at 8:37 a.m. EST.

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More Evidence from Curiosity Rover for Ancient Habitability and Widespread Organics on Mars

View of the path ahead for the Curiosity rover, looking toward the foothills of Mount Sharp. The various sedimentary layers on the mountain are a geological record of different environmental conditions in the past. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

View of the path ahead for the Curiosity rover, looking toward the foothills of Mount Sharp. The various sedimentary layers on the mountain are a geological record of different environmental conditions in the past. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA held another press briefing yesterday about the latest findings from the Curiosity rover on Mars, detailing new evidence that this former lake environment was once quite hospitable for possible life. The findings were announced from the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. In a related development, there is also new evidence from Curiosity that organics have not only been definitively found by the rover, but that they may be more widespread on Mars than previously thought.

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Leading Planetary Scientists Discuss Prospect of Missions to Uranus and Neptune

Uranus and Neptune: the Solar System's unique ice giant planets, of which we only got brief glimpses during the Voyager 2 flybys in the 1980's, beckon for further, more detailed exploration. Image Credit: NASA

Uranus and Neptune: the Solar System’s unique ice giant planets, of which we only got brief glimpses during the Voyager 2 flybys in the 1980s, beckon for further, more detailed exploration. Image Credit: NASA

Last year’s historic close flyby of Pluto by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft put the outer Solar System firmly back in the spotlight, providing both scientists and the general public with ground-breaking and revolutionary discoveries about the far-off little world in the outer reaches of the Sun’s planetary family. And with more than two dozen other spacecraft scattered throughout the rest of the Solar System, planetary exploration has been keeping apace. Nevertheless, despite all this activity this long list of active space missions has two glaring omissions: Uranus and Neptune.

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