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June 17, 2007

Growing Up to Be Astronauts

HDTV and the NASA channel on cable brought yesterday’s spacewalk right into my living room. I watched with curiosity and anticipation as Danny Olivas zoomed his helmet camera in on the piece of thermal blanket that he had been assigned to staple and pin back into place. He tucked the blanket into place, and then got out the stapler. I had pictured a staple gun, but this surgical stapler was about the size of his thumb! It got away from him once, bouncing away on its tether until he corralled it again. After the staples came the “hat pins” that he wove through the blanket and poked into the tiles.

Then Danny helped Jim Reilly with the installation of hardware on the outside of the Destiny Lab to allow hookup of a new system to reclaim oxygen from waste water. This involved lining up a metal plate so the bolts would line up properly with the holes. Those of us who have struggled with “some assembly required” shelving are very familiar with this kind of problem! When the two of them finished that task, they tackled the retraction of the stubborn P6 solar arrays. Using a tool dubbed “the hockey stick” they “fluffed” the blankets, allowing the crew inside to command them to fold into the boxes little by little. Though it was a drawn-out and somewhat tedious task, JR said that he considered the view from out there the most memorable of his life.

I hope some kids out on summer break witnessed these stellar repairmen in action. Maybe some of them will be inspired to pursue becoming astronauts themselves one day. Spacewalker Danny Olivas was inspired after a family vacation when he was 7. He told the Houston Chronicle that his father, who worked on rocket propulsion systems, took him on a tour of Johnson Space Center where he examined an old rocket engine. A telescope his parents found at a garage sale sealed the future astronaut’s fate. He got a degree in mechanical engineering from UT-El Paso, a masters’ degree from UH, and a doctorate from Rice. He then went to work at JSC on spacesuit design, and later as an engineer at JPL in California. He was selected as an astronaut in 1998.

Jim Reilly also became an astronaut in 1998. “I was one of those kids that followed every mission, every flight NASA ever flew,” he told reporter Mark Carreau.

Sunday’s spacewalkers, Pat Forrester and Steve Swanson, didn’t consider careers in space until they had graduated from college. Forrester followed his father’s footsteps and attended West Point, where he got an engineering degree. He became interested in flying, earned a masters’ degree in aeronautical engineering, and then went to the Navy’s test pilot school. It was there that he thought of becoming an astronaut. He first got a job with NASA at JSC doing software and robotic work, and was selected as an astronaut in 1996.

Swanny thought about a career in space while he was at grad school in computer science at Florida Atlantic University. Like Forrester, he first took a job at NASA JSC, and then was selected as an astronaut in 1998, the same year as Olivas and Reilly and also Pilot “Bru” Archambault. The new Expedition 15 crewmember, Clay Anderson, also first took a job with NASA at JSC, and then became an astronaut in 1998. Do you see a pattern here?! (Major in engineering, learn to fly, accept a job with NASA, then apply to become an astronaut.)

Would you or your child like to "grow up" to explore Mars? Maybe you should consider a family vacation to Johnson Space Center, or a trip to Space Camp or to see a Space Shuttle launch or land! A telescope makes a great gift, and don’t forget to stock up on space books for summer reading (see NSS’s Reading Space for recommendations) for yourself and the kids.

Sunday’s spacewalk starts around 2 PM Central Time. The hatches between the ISS and Shuttle will be closed on Monday night at 5:23 PM, with undocking Tuesday at 9:40 AM, and landing on Thursday at 12:52 CDT. Expedition 15 mission continues into the fall with a schedule full of activities. Space offers plenty of opportunities for inspiration!

Marianne Dyson

Posted by m_dyson at 03:40 AM

June 15, 2007

Creative Problem Solving

“Things don’t always go as planned,” Commander Sturckow noted during an onboard press conference yesterday. The damage to the shuttle’s thermal protection, the recalcitrant P6 solar array that won’t fold up nicely, and the failure of the Russian computers that has caused attitude control issues are all on the list of challenges that the STS-117 and ISS Expedition 15 crews face this week in space.

The shuttle damage will hopefully be repaired during today’s spacewalk. Bru will maneuver Danny Olivas on the end of the shuttle’s robotic arm out to the work site on the port (left) side of the tail. JR will be out there to assist Danny if needed.

Mission Control’s “team 4” (teams 1-3 are traditionally ascent, orbit, and entry) put together the creative repair procedure that uses surgical staples and a suit-repair sewing kit. The decision to do the repair during EVA 3 was made on Wednesday, giving the crew only one day to go over the procedure and practice it. Bru used an onboard laptop to practice the arm movements, and Danny put his suit gloves on and stapled and stitched some blocks of foam together. Amazing! Imagine giving a couple of pillow forms to two six-year-olds, donning thick garden gloves and a motorcycle helmet, and laying on the floor with a staple gun. Could you staple the pillow forms together as the kids wiggle and squirm around above you, simulating the freefall environment? How about using a needle and thread?!

If that task weren’t hard enough, imagine doing it inside a 727 with the world (including all the major networks, your family, and those of the other crewmembers) watching and knowing that if you mess it up, you and all the passengers on board might die during landing!

Oh, and while you’re at it, try to ignore that once-in-a-lifetime show the colorful planet Earth is putting on in the background. As Swanny said during the Thursday conference, the view can be “overwhelming.” But he managed to get his work done. “You have to stop and take a look at it, and then get back to your task.”

The crew know what is at stake, and are enthusiastically meeting the challenges. When I tuned in last night at midnight, I was surprised to see Suni had not gone to bed yet—she was up troubleshooting the computer problem. The problem began when the new solar array was connected, so mission control in Moscow suspects that somehow electrical signals are being misinterpreted or otherwise interfering with the computers. All the different connections had to be checked one by one, and Suni cheerfully took on the task, gathering frequency readings with a handheld device.

This computer problem is potentially as serious, or even more so, than the shuttle repair because without the computers, the space station can’t control its attitude. Usually, gyroscopes steer and steady the station. But the gyros sometimes get overloaded like they did earlier this week during the addition of the new solar wing. During those times, and when it is necessary to maneuver out of the way of orbital debris, the thrusters are needed. The shuttle’s thrusters are being used as a backup system currently, but Atlantis has a limited amount of fuel to use for this purpose. Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for spaceflight, told the Houston Chronicle that “There is an extremely remote chance this problem would lead us to abandon the station.” He added, “We’re a long way from that scenario.” Let’s hope that remains true!

And then there is the P6 array. This array sticks out to the starboard side. (It is scheduled to be moved to the port side on a later flight which is why it is named P6, for Port number 6.) It has been providing power to the station since 1999, and is apparently resisting having its job taken over by the new S3/S4 array. It has been shut down, and must be retracted so that the S3/S4 array can spin around the Y axis (to track the Sun) without running into it. Repeated attempts to get it folded back into its box failed yesterday. The crew commanded the mast to retract, then extend, wiggling it like you might shake a map to get the creases back in the right places. The array is about half-way retracted now. The crew suggested to Mission Control that based on the success clearing some of the problems during EVA2, that if they had some spacewalkers out there, they could “unstick” the guide wires and be done in about an hour and a half. Mission Control concurred, and added this task to the next spacewalk.

With all these additional tasks added to EVA3, EVA4 will be necessary to finish all the tasks originally planned for the spacewalk. The original schedule was for the shuttle to leave the station Sunday and land on Tuesday. Now the plan is to do another spacewalk on Sunday, leave on Tuesday and land next Thursday, June 21. But if anything goes wrong with the repair, or the Russian computer issue is not solved, that could change.

Dealing with changing circumstances in a challenging environment: that’s what spaceflight is all about. It’s exciting, dangerous, and also inspirational. As Bru noted during the conference, kids in middle and high school today will be the ones exploring the Moon and Mars. And Commander Sturkcow wisely pointed out that solving problems like they are doing on this mission is just the kind of experience that the crew and ground teams need to prepare for those trips.

With training in science and engineering, experience working in difficult environments, creative problem solving, and courage to face the unexpected, there is no limit to what humans can accomplish in space.

Ad astra!

Marianne Dyson

Posted by m_dyson at 12:36 PM

June 14, 2007

ISS Computer Glitch

In the news this morning is the failure of two Russian computers on the space station, possibly related to the installation of the new solar panels in the present mission. This has meant loss of control of the Russian thrusters that control station orientation, and loss of the oxygen generators, among other components. The computers on the US side are still operational, and there's backup oxygen for a while. But there is talk about temporarily abandoning the station; we hope that won't be necessary, and wish space and ground crews well in diagnosing and fixing the problem quickly.

More info on the problem from

Posted by apsmith at 09:40 AM | Comments (0)

June 12, 2007

Congressional Space Blitz Success!

The Space Exploration Alliance Blitz on Congress has been a big success. Roughly 25 members from the National Space Society and other space organizations gathered to promote space, holding meetings with nearly 100 Congressional offices!

The efforts were rewarded on Monday night with positive budget news for NASA. The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Space put out a budget that was $280 million more than the President's request. While this is only the start of the process, Blitzers can be proud that their efforts have been making a big difference.

Posted by george_whitesides at 04:42 PM

June 11, 2007

Astronaut Names

The docking went great today, and we were all relieved to see that the space station robots followed the instructions of their human masters and safely moved the 35,000-pound cargo from the shuttle to the station. I tuned in to the air-ground loop and listened to Suni (short for Sunita) and “Bru,” a nickname for Pilot Lee Archambault, relaying information about their robotic handiwork. I also heard that “JR” and Danny were preparing equipment for their spacewalk tomorrow, Clay had moved over to the ISS, and “CJ” was going over the shuttle navigation updates with the ground.

“JR” is obviously Jim Reilly, but “CJ”? No astronaut onboard the Shuttle or station has those initials.

Then I remembered that this was explained at the crew press conference back in February. “CJ” is an unlikely nickname for Shuttle Commander Frederick “Rick” Sturckow. How do you get “CJ” out of Sturckow?

It’s a military thing.

In the Marines, Sturckow (who holds the rank of colonel) had a squadron commander who was referred to as “Caustic.” Apparently, the young Sturckow looked like this man (he must have been a handsome guy!), and thus Sturckow became “Caustic Junior” or “CJ” for short.

As for Archambault, when we reporters first heard him called “Brew” during the press conference, we naturally assumed that this nickname had something to do with the Air Force Colonel’s after-hours social activities. The February press conference came just after the unfortunate Lisa Nowak incident involving her affair with Shuttle Pilot “Billy O.” (Do all shuttle pilots require a nickname?) The crew had already fielded a lot of questions about how they handle job stress. So Archambualt, realizing the obvious conclusion we were all jumping to about someone with a nickname “Brew,” did not let us leave without at least a cursory explanation. He told us that the correct spelling is Bru, not Brew, and that the letters stand for Bomb Rack Unit. With a shy smile, he added that the nickname was associated with a bad experience during a military training exercise and had something to do with an inadvertent loss of a bomb!

Someday, perhaps we’ll be fortunate enough to hear the whole story, maybe even over a “brew!”

The only other astronaut on this crew with a nickname is Steve Swanson, who is called “Swanny.” It would be most fitting if he were from Florida because “The Swanee River” is the state song, but the handsome 46-year old is from Syracuse New York, though he considers Steamboat Springs, Colorado his hometown. He did get his master’s degree (in computer science) from Florida Atlantic University. So maybe when he and Pat are out on their spacewalk Wednesday, passing over Florida, he may look down and hum, “Way down upon de Swanee Ribber, Far, far away, Dere's wha my heart is turning ebber, Dere's wha de old folks stay.” [from]

“Old folks” as in those of us stuck on the ground wishing we were able to travel into space “far, far away!”

But at least we have some fantastic technology in cameras and downlinks and the Internet and cable TV to give us “old folks” a virtual front seat on the action. We won’t have to miss the first EVA on Monday with JR and Danny. To see the airlock egress, get online or tune in your TV around 2:15 PM CDT (in case they get ahead of the timeline). They are supposed be back in the airlock by 9 PM. Their job is to connect a bunch of cables, release launch restraints (these have been troublesome on previous flights), and install the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint (SARJ) drive lock assemblies. As I mentioned in the last blog, the “zenith” utilities work around 4 PM may be especially worth watching.

JR is the lead spacewalker, having done three previous EVAs on an earlier assembly mission. He told the Houston Chronicle, “Knowing this is probably my last flight, I’ll just kind of try to remember everything because I really did not on the first two. I really want to just sit back and pay attention to everything that is going on—try to remember everything I possibly can.” I hope he has time to pause once in a while and take in the view.

And I hope all of you also get a chance to pause during your busy workdays and nights and take in the view. Try to remember the names of the crew—the people who are risking their lives to build a human outpost in space:

STS crew; CJ, Bru, JR, Danny, Pat, Swanny, Suni; and Exp 15 crew; Fyodor, Oleg, and Clay.

Thanks. We appreciate all that you are doing for us.

Marianne Dyson

Posted by m_dyson at 02:10 AM

June 09, 2007

Space Worth Watching

NASA manager Wayne Hale called the launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis today, “Outstanding and magnificent.” As another manager said, “it was a great day for NASA.”

I know I’m not alone in being very glad that I got to watch this “magnificent” launch live. My cable carries the NASA channel, so I enjoyed listening to the flight control loop chatter as much as seeing the shuttle through the eyes of the many cameras mounted on Atlantis itself.

There are only 14 more shuttle launches in the works (including one to Hubble and 2 contingency flights) before the shuttle is retired in 2010. I plan to see all of these historic launches to our first international outpost in space, and hopefully, experience at least one more in person.

I also plan to view at least the highlights of each assembly mission. For STS-117, I don’t want to miss seeing the shuttle arm handoff the 35,000-pound solar array box to the station arm. The crew may make it look easy, but wow: stop and think about what all is involved in that transfer! And I especially don’t want to miss seeing the new solar array wing unfolded in all its golden glory.

Everyone I know is overwhelmed with work and family and volunteer activities—it is summer, after all--but if we can’t watch the entire STS-117 flight, we can at least pause in our routines, like many of us did for the launch today, and experience a few of the most spectacular moments live. To help you plan when to set your alarms and pop-open your browsers or set on your various TV recorders, I’ve compiled a schedule below of what I consider the most interesting things to watch.

The crew schedule is posted (in Eastern Time) at: STS is the shuttle crew of 7 that includes Clay Anderson who will replace Sunni Williams on the Expedition 15 crew. The ISS crew goes to sleep a half hour before the STS crew most days, but they get up together. This is because the ISS crews get 8.5 hours of “down” time, and the STS crew only gets 8.

Generally, the STS crew gets up with the ISS crew every day at 8:38 AM central time. The three planned spacewalks will be in the afternoons and early evenings. The crews go to bed around midnight.

Note: FD stands for flight day.

FD 2 Saturday

The shuttle will be enroute and doing inspections of the tiles and checkout of the space suits. Not much to watch.

FD3 Sunday
3:19 PM. The shuttle docks to the station, with the hatches opening more than an hour later, at 4:38 PM. There will be a welcoming ceremony. This is your chance to see what Commander Rick “CJ” Sturckov and Pilot Lee “Bru” Archambault and the new ISS crewmember, Clay Anderson, look like. The cameras will be focused outside on the spacewalkers for most of the rest of the mission.

The robots are going to steal the show on Sunday, though! The shuttle arm (controlled by Pilot “Bru”) will grapple (meaning the end effector will wrap around the doorknob-shaped grapple fixture) and lift the S3/S4 (Starboard, third and fourth segment) truss out of the payload bay. Then the station arm (controlled by Sunni) will take it and “park” it “overnight.” NASA has not said how much parking costs in this “satellite” lot!

Spacewalkers Jim ”JR” Reilly and Danny Olivas will “camp out” in the Quest airlock at 10.2 psi pressure (compared with 14 psi sea level normal). The lower pressure will help to purge some of the nitrogen from their bodies, reducing the time spent “prebreathing” oxygen before getting in the low-pressure space suits in the morning.

12:08 AM, bedtime for the ISS crew. 12:38 CDT for the STS crew.

FD4 Monday

10:38 AM CDT. The station robotic arm will install the S3/S4 on the S1 truss. This might be worth watching!

2:28 PM –8:53 PM EVA 1 with Reilly and Olivas. Their job is to connect a bunch of cables, release launch restraints (these have been troublesome on previous flights), and install the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint (SARJ) drive lock assemblies. The SARJ is the part that makes the arrays able to twirl around and track the Sun. The views of the station and Earth are sure to be breathtaking whenever you tune in, but the “zenith” utilities work around 4 PM may be especially cool. Zenith is the “top” of the station, the side farthest from Earth, and thus offers the most amazing look “down.”

FD5 Tuesday
11:28 to 12:58 PM is when the two masts (like the mast of a sail on a ship) will be deployed to 49 and then to 100 percent. Try not to miss this!

Pat Forrester and Steve “Swanny” Swanson will camp in the Quest airlock overnight at 10.2 psi pressure.

FD6 Wednesday

10:23 AM Mission Control will attempt (a sign they expect to have some trouble) to retract the old P6 starboard array. This is the array that is sticking “up” like a tree and provided power for station before the new port wing was added and connected in December. The December crew retracted the other half of that set of arrays, the one that went out over the port side. This half now must be retracted so the new array will be able to swing around and not run into it. On a future flight, the P6 will be moved to the port side truss.

1:38 PM to 8:03 PM EVA2 with Forrester and Swanson. Their job is to release SARJ locks and deploy the braces in preparation for its initial rotation. Let the technical chatter wash over you and think about what it would be like to be doing that job out there in space, building a space station with your own human hands. How can they stay focused on all that tiring and technical and dangerous work of a spacewalk with the gorgeous Earth shining below them!

FD 7 Thursday

This day the STS crew gets up a half hour earlier, at 8:08 AM. They have to shift early in preparation for landing day.

This is a rest day. The main thing on tap for this day is the retraction of the P6 array if it didn’t get done already.

Bedtime 12:08 AM. Reilly and Olivas will sleep in the Quest again.

FD 8 Friday

1:08 PM to 7:33 PM EVA3, Reilly and Olivas. Their main job is to install an external hydrogen vent valve on the Destiny lab for the new oxygen generation system.

FD 9 Saturday

9:58 AM The station arm will demonstrate its gymnastic abilities as it is moved from the truss to Destiny in what is called a “walkoff.” Watch it flip end-over-end!

5:53 PM Crew news conference with the ISS and STS crews. This is followed by the farewell ceremony. Watch for Sunni to get a bit teary-eyed as she leaves her home in space for the past six months! (Remember, tears don’t run down your face in freefall: they stick to your eyes.)

7:08 PM They seal the hatches, but do not undock until the next day.

FD 10 Sunday

11:16 AM Undocking. There will be some fancy flying for the cameras: they’re checking for meteorite damage. The crew shift their bedtime an hour earlier.

FD 11 Monday

Deorbit preparations (dress rehearsal for entry).
2:58 PM News conference.

FD12 Tuesday

5:38 AM crew wakeup.

12:45 PM. Deorbit burn (that slows them down).
1:47 PM Landing at Kennedy Space Center. If you’re there, listen for the sonic booms!

I hope this schedule is helpful to you all. Check back here during the week for some further translation of acronyms and various comments on the mission activities.

Marianne Dyson

Posted by m_dyson at 01:44 AM


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