A New Vehicle: Remembering Atlantis' STS-101 Mission, 20 Years On

Jim Voss manipulates the Russian-built Strela (“Arrow”) cargo crane during STS-101. Photo Credit: NASA

As the United States readies itself for the launch of an entirely new space vehicle next week—the long-awaited voyage of the Demo-2 Crew Dragon, carrying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken—today also marks 20 years since a (virtually) brand-new spacecraft roared aloft on a mission to kickstart the assembly the International Space Station (ISS) and prepare it for its first human visitors. By 19 May 2000, shuttle Atlantis had been on the ground for more than two years, undergoing over a hundred modifications, including the installation of the Multifunction Electronic Display System (MEDS) to upgrade her vintage 1970s-era flight deck instrumentation with a more modern flat-panel “glass cockpit”. It was no accident, then, that as this good-as-new ship rose from Earth at 6:11 a.m. EDT for her 21st mission, she was heralded as “a Space Shuttle for the 21st century”.



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Starlink Mission Slips to NET June; Demo-2 Next Up for SpaceX

SpaceX’s next launch promises to be its most momentous so far: the launch of humans into space aboard a U.S. spacecraft, atop a U.S. rocket, and from U.S. soil, for the first time since July 2011. Photo Credit: NASA

Poor weather at the start of the weekend and uncertainty about Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) landing conditions in the Atlantic Ocean have put paid to SpaceX’s efforts to get its next batch of 60 Starlink internet communications satellites into low-Earth orbit. Originally scheduled for Sunday, the mission initially slipped to Monday, then Tuesday, following the delay of United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V, due to concerns about an evolving tropical depression off the Florida coastline.

But with Demo-2—the maiden voyage of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon with astronauts aboard—scheduled for Wednesday, 27 May, SpaceX has decided that insufficient time exists for the ASDS to safely recover the B1049 Falcon 9 booster core from Starlink, return it to Port Canaveral, then about-turn in enough time to also pick up the returning B1058 core from Demo-2. As such, the next launch from the Space Coast will be arguably the most momentous of SpaceX’s career: the return of U.S. human spaceflight aboard a U.S. spacecraft, atop a U.S. rocket and from U.S. soil for the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle era in July 2011.



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Mighty Atlas Launches Secretive X-37B Spaceplane for US Space Force

Atlas V lifts off from Cape Canaveral with the X-37B OTV spaceplane on the USSF-7 mission. Credit: ULA

Following a one-day scrub on Saturday, United Launch Alliance (ULA) successfully despatched its third Atlas V of the year early Sunday, 17 May, to deliver the highly secretive X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) mini-shuttle into low-Earth orbit on behalf of the U.S. Space Force. Liftoff of the Atlas V 501 heavylifter occurred right on time at 9:14 a.m. EDT from historic Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

However, in a noticeable departure from its previous 2020 missions to launch Solar Orbiter in February and the last Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellite (AEHF-6) in late March, today’s ascent parameters were cloaked in secrecy. Ascent updates ended shortly after the payload fairing had been jettisoned and Booster Engine Cutoff (BECO) confirmed. It remains to be seen how long the X-37B—which flew five times between April 2010 and October 2019, with individual mission durations getting progressively longer from 224 days on its maiden voyage to 780 days at the end of its most recent flight—will remain aloft this time around.



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Atlas V & Falcon 9 Set to Launch X-37B & Starlink Missions This Weekend

The “America Strong” livery hangs in pride of place as the Atlas V for Saturday’s USSF-7 mission arrives at the pad early Thursday, 14 May. The America Strong banner is dedicated to the memory of COVID-19 victims and as a tribute to first-responders, front-line workers and healthcare personnel. Photo Credit: ULA

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V heavylifter stands ready to kick off a weekend of back-to-back launches Saturday morning, when it delivers the sixth X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) mini-shuttle into low-Earth orbit for the USSF-7 mission on behalf of the U.S. Space Force. And if all goes well, SpaceX will send its frequently-flown B1049 Falcon 9 core on the fifth launch of its career in the small hours of Sunday morning—just 19.5 hours later—to boost another 60 Starlink low-orbiting internet communications satellites aloft. However, with weather conditions expected to be around 40-percent-favorable on Saturday, rising to 80-percent-favorable on Sunday, it remains to be seen if the ULA and SpaceX launch teams can “thread the needle” and fly both missions on schedule.



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Cygnus Departs Space Station; 2 Weeks of SAFFIRE Experiments Planned

Characterized by its large, fan-shaped solar arrays, the NG-13 Cygnus arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) on 18 February and is wrapping up a three-month stay. Photo Credit: NASA

After 86 days in orbit, Northrop Grumman Corp.’s NG-13 Cygnus resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) entered its homestretch on Monday, 11 May, when ground controllers robotically detached the spacecraft from the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Unity node and released it into space. Launched last 15 February, the Cygnus—which is named in honor of Air Force Major Robert H. Lawrence, the first African-American selected for astronaut training—arrived at the ISS three days later and was robotically berthed at Unity nadir on 18 February. It delivered close to 8,000 pounds (3,600 kg) of experiments, payloads and supplies to the orbital outpost.

With today’s departure, Cygnus will continue in a free-flying autonomous state for the next couple of weeks, ahead of a destructive dive into the atmosphere on 29 May.



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Atlas Rocket Stacked for May 16 Launch with X-37B Spaceplane

The X-37B mini-shuttle (left) has flown five missions since April 2010. Its sixth flight, which kicks off NET Saturday, 16 May, promises to be its most ambitious yet. At right, the Common Core Booster (CCB) is raised to the vertical in the doorway of the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41. Photo Credit: USSF/ULA

United Launch Alliance (ULA) has completed another significant step towards its next mission from the Space Coast, as a 197-foot-tall (60-meter) Atlas V booster now stands fully stacked and primed for its opening launch attempt in ten days’ time. Late last month, a “streamlined two-day process” completed the assembly of the giant rocket in the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. And earlier today (Wednesday, 6 May), the two-piece, “bisector” payload fairing—containing the Boeing-built X-37B mini-shuttle—was installed atop the booster.



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'Light This Candle': Remembering America's First Astronaut, OTD in 1961

One of the few grainy images of Shepard, acquired during his brief moments of weightlessness. Photo Credit: NASA

“A damn fine month,” actor Morgan Freeman’s character Ellis “Red” Redding remarked in the movie Shawshank Redemption and, indeed, for America’s space program, the month of May—newly dawned—has long been a historic one for off-the-planet U.S. achievements. Fifty-nine years ago today, on 5 May 1961, the nation saw Alan Shepard become the first American to voyage into space; a short suborbital “hop”, in which he ascended 116.5 miles (187.5 km) in the tiny Freedom 7 capsule, rising from Cape Canaveral and splashing down 15 minutes later in the Atlantic Ocean.

Other missions launched this month in history include the most recent manned flight on an Atlas booster, the Apollo 10 dress rehearsal for Neil Armstrong’s historic lunar landing, the salvation of Skylab, the first International Space Station (ISS) docking mission, the maiden and swansong voyages of shuttle Endeavour and the last Hubble Space Telescope (HST) servicing call. And in three weeks’ time, more history will be set when the Demo-2 mission sees U.S. astronauts ride a U.S. spacecraft, atop a U.S. rocket, and from U.S. soil, for the first time in nearly nine years.



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First Dream Chaser Gets its Wings and a New Name, 'Tenacity'

Bad luck, it is said, follows on the heels of a ship with no name. And Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) has finally dispelled the specter of misfortune by officially naming its Dream Chaser vehicle as “Tenacity”. The spacecraft—which bears more than a passing resemblance to a scaled-down version of the now-retired Space Shuttle—was selected by NASA in January 2016 for the second-round Commercial Resupply Services (CRS2) contract to regularly restock the International Space Station (ISS).

“Tenacity is in SNC’s DNA,” said company president Eren Ozmen. “Every critical moment in SNC’s history of innovation has called for tenacity in overcoming challenges in order to support and protect explorers and heroes. As the nation faces this current challenge, we want this vehicle to be a beacon of hope that American ingenuity, and tenacity, will bring brighter days ahead.”



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NASA Orders 18 More RS-25 Engines for SLS Moon Rocket, at $1.79 Billion

The first SLS rocket for NASA’s Artemis moon missions rolls out of its assembly facility. Photo: NASA

With four years to go before human bootprints again dot the dusty surface of the Moon, NASA has awarded a contract worth $1.79 billion to Sacramento, Calif.-headquartered Aerojet Rocketdyne to fabricate 18 additional RS-25 engines for the mammoth Space Launch System (SLS). This powerful engine propelled 135 Space Shuttle flights off the launch pad between April 1981 and July 2011, and its next mission will provide the muscle for the SLS, which is currently targeted for its maiden voyage next year.

Friday’s agreement brings the RS-25 contract between NASA and Aerojet Rocketdyne to almost $3.5 billion, and could support as many as six SLS flights by 2029.



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NASA, SpaceX Preview First Crewed Dragon Mission, Set for May 27 Launch

The first crewed SpaceX launch for NASA is set to launch on the Demo-2 mission on May 27 from Kennedy Space Center in FL. Photos: NASA / SpaceX

The man who piloted the final Space Shuttle mission and a former chief of NASA’s astronaut corps are ready to buckle aboard a Crew Dragon later this month to begin the first space voyage by U.S. citizens in a U.S.-built spacecraft, launched atop a U.S.-built rocket, and from U.S. soil, in almost nine years. Retired Marine Corps Col. Doug Hurley and Air Force Col. Bob Behnken—both of whom are also married to fellow astronauts—will rise from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida no earlier than 4:32 p.m. EDT Wednesday, 27 May.

NASA’s desire to keep the International Space Station (ISS) at a reduced crew of three for as short a period as possible led to plans to extend Hurley and Behnken’s flight to a longer duration. Its exact length has yet to be determined, although the specific Crew Dragon being used for the so-called “Demo-2” mission can remain aloft for up to 120 days, producing a return to Earth as late as the August-September timeframe.



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