Flying Atlantis to Orbiting Peace

Fifteen years ago today — January 12, 1997 — the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched from the Kennedy Space Center to dock with the Mir (“peace”) space station.

(Shuttle Atlantis rolling out to the pad from the VAB [December 1996]. NASA image.)

Mission STS-81 astronauts Michael A. Baker, Brent W. Jett, Jr., John M. Grunsfeld, Marsha S. Ivins, Peter J. K. Wisoff, and Jerry M. Linenger docked with the Russian station; Linenger stayed behind, while Atlantis brought home astronaut John Blaha after his 4-month stay.

On a belated space history note, 45 years ago yesterday — January 11, 1967 — the Intelsat II F-2 communications satellite launched from Cape Canaveral on a Delta rocket. It was positioned over the Pacific as the first fully-operational Intelsat II platform.

F-2 was the first Intelsat II satellite over the Pacific because its predecessor, F-1, did not reach its intended orbit. F-1’s “apogee engine thrust terminated approximately 4 seconds after ignition,” stranding the spacecraft in the wrong orbit.

Interestingly, an apogee engine malfunction nearly caused the loss of the USAF’s Advanced Extreme High Frequency (AEHF) satellite after its launch in July 2010. AEHF operators and engineers figured out an innovative orbit-raising sequence that rescued the spacecraft and put it in the proper operating position last October. Well done!

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Redstone — 70 Years of History, Much of it in Space

Seventy years ago today — October 6, 1941 — the U.S. Army activated the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama.

(Redstone Arsenal building 7101, with Redstone missile in front. U.S. Army image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Redstone Arsenal was originally built to produce chemical ammunition for use in World War II, which it did very well. Then, in the postwar years, that experience with handling dangerous chemicals made Redstone a natural place to experiment with rockets and rocket propellants and eventually to be the home for the Army’s Aviation and Missile Research, Development, and Engineering Center; Army Space and Missile Defense Command; and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Of course, I can’t mention Redstone Arsenal without mentioning the online magazine Redstone Science Fiction, the third issue of which included my story “Memorial at Copernicus.”

Also on this date, 30 years ago in 1981, the Solar Mesosphere Explorer launched from Vandenberg AFB, California, on a Delta rocket. SME was built to “investigate the processes that create and destroy ozone in the Earth’s mesosphere and upper stratosphere,” and operated until December 1988. The small experimental UoSAT (Oscar 9) satellite, built by the University of Surrey, launched as a dual payload on the same Delta rocket.

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Ten Years Ago Today, I Was NOT in the Pentagon …

… although I was supposed to be.

I had been in the Pentagon on September 10, 2001, after all, and was scheduled to go back the next day.

I’d spent part of September 10 in the Secretary of Defense Executive Support Center, monitoring the progress of a strategic command & control exercise. My presence there was strictly ancillary: I’d recently rotated back from my assignment at Thule Air Base, Greenland, and my training at the Defense Technology Security Administration had not started, so I was tagging along with friends and checking on what my old unit at Offutt AFB was doing.

On the morning of September 11, I reported first to DTSA — in our quiet civilian office building in Alexandria — and told them I was headed back to the Pentagon to monitor the exercise for another day. No, they said, you can’t go over this morning because you have an in-processing appointment to meet the Colonel upstairs.

So I didn’t go to the Pentagon that day. Instead, I saw the events unfold on a fuzzy TV picture (one of our engineers had jury-rigged an antenna onto a TV that was usually used only for showing videos). When I went to my appointment upstairs, I stood at the window and looked at the column of smoke rising above the hill to the north of our building.

I was several miles and seemingly several worlds away from what was happening.

Trouble was, my wife knew I was supposed to be in the Pentagon … and I didn’t call home for several hours. (In some respects, I’m still apologizing for that oversight.) Not that much would’ve changed for me, had I been in the building. I would’ve evacuated with everyone else, and from my friend’s reports they weren’t even in a good position to be of much help. So, not much of a 9/11 story from me.

Almost five years later, when time came for me to retire, we held my retirement ceremony in the 9/11 Memorial Chapel.

(Stained glass and altar in the Pentagon’s 9/11 Memorial Chapel.)

Knowing what that part of the building had gone through, and what that room meant, made my retirement rather poignant.

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From the Land of the Rising Sun, a Satellite to Study the Sun

Twenty years ago today — August 30, 1991 — the Yohkoh solar astronomy satellite launched from Kagoshima Space Center, Japan.

(Artist’s conception of the Yohkoh spacecraft. NASA image.)

Yohkoh was originally named “Solar-A,” and was a joint venture between Japan, Great Britain, and the US. “Yohkoh” means “sunlight” in English.

The Yohkoh mission lasted a decade, until an anomaly ended the satellite’s life. According to this Marshall Space Flight Center page,

Yohkoh suffered a spacecraft failure in December 2001 that has put an end to this mission. During the solar eclipse of December 14th the spacecraft lost pointing and the batteries discharged. The spacecraft operators were unable to command the satellite to point toward the sun.

If you have a child interested in such things — or if you yourself have a childlike interest in such things — you can build your own model Yohkoh satellite, using actual satellite blueprints.

And in other space history, on this date 50 years ago the U.S. launched Discoverer-29 on a Thor rocket out of Vandenberg AFB. According to this Wikipedia page, Discoverer-29 was the first of the KH-3 series of reconnaissance satellites launched by the NRO in the Corona program.

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My First Air Force Orders

Pawing around in the filing cabinet, I found my Extended Active Duty Order, dated 25 years ago today: August 12, 1986.

(US Air Force seal. Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The orders assigned me to the Air Force Rocket Propulsion Laboratory (Air Force Systems Command), Edwards AFB, California.

In officialspeak, Block 12 of the orders told me exactly what to do:

Effective date of duty is on or after 9 Sep 86. On or after this date, individual will proceed and report not earlier than 0800 and not later than 2400 hours on 15 Sep 86 to the 24 hour arrival point, Edwards AFB CA.

And thus, the stage was set for the adventure …

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Military Shuttle Mission, Space Tourist, and Two Satellites Join the 'A-Train'

First things first, the military mission: 20 years ago today — April 28, 1991 — the Space Shuttle Discovery launched on a dedicated DoD mission.

(Auroral image taken during the STS-39 mission. NASA image.)

The STS-39 crew — Michael L. Coats, L. Blaine Hammond, Guion S. Bluford, Gregory S. Harbaugh, Richard J. Hieb, Donald R. McMonagle, and Charles Lacy Veach — completed a combination of classified and unclassified mission objectives during their week in space.

On this same date a decade later — April 28, 2001 — the first “space tourist,” U.S. businessman Dennis Tito, rode aboard the Soyuz-TM-32 mission with cosmonauts Talgat A. Musabayev and Yuri M. Baturin. Their mission launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome and docked with the International Space Station. I love the description of Tito in the linked write-up as “not a professional astronaut.”

And just 5 years ago today, the CloudSat and CALIPSO* meteorological satellites launched from Vandenberg AFB on a Delta-II rocket. They launched into the same orbit as the Aqua, PARASOL, and Aura satellites to join the A-Train of observational craft that pass overhead one right after the other.

*CALIPSO = Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation, a U.S. and French collaborative spacecraft

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Blowups Happen

Having nothing to do with the short story of the same name, and with apologies therefore to Robert A. Heinlein …

Twenty-five years ago today — April 18, 1986 — Titan-34D-9 blew up during launch at Vandenberg AFB.

(Titan-34D-9 exploding. USAF image from the linked Space Review article.)

This Space Review article shows several close-up images of the explosion, including the one above, while this Photobucket page shows several photos taken from farther away.

I found it interesting to peruse the accident investigation report. I recognized several names of people on the investigation board.

This doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that should make the space history files, except for this personal connection: as a direct result of this mishap, the Air Force chose to conduct a full-scale nozzle-down test firing of a Titan-34D solid rocket motor at the AF Rocket Propulsion Laboratory at Edwards AFB. My first assignment was to the AFRPL as a bioenvironmental engineer, and that test program — the “return to flight” for the Titan-34D — was one of the biggest projects I worked on while I was there.

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Two 'Gray Man' Space History Connections

Fifteen years ago today — March 22, 1996 — the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched from the Kennedy Space Center on a mission to Russia’s Mir space station.

(STS-76 launch. NASA image.)

Shuttle mission STS-76 was the third Shuttle-Mir docking mission, and carried astronauts Kevin P. Chilton, Richard A. Searfoss, Linda M. Godwin, Michael R. Clifford, Ronald M. Sega, and Shannon W. Lucid. Lucid stayed aboard Mir when the rest of the crew returned to Earth.

What’s the Gray Man connection to STS-76? When Dr. Sega became the Under Secretary of the Air Force, I worked for him until my retirement. In fact, he presided over my retirement ceremony:

(Two-time Shuttle astronaut Dr. Ron Sega, Under Secretary of the Air Force, presents Gray with a letter of appreciation from the Chief of Staff. USAF image.)

The second Gray Man space history connection comes from another launch, 5 years ago today: a Pegasus-XL rocket carried three microsatellites (ST5-A, -B, and -C) to orbit as part of NASA’s New Millennium Program. As I’ve mentioned before, when I was stationed at the AF Rocket Propulsion Laboratory at Edwards AFB many years before, I was on the Flight Readiness Review Committee for the first-ever Pegasus launch.

It looks ever more doubtful that I’ll get to fly in space, but it was nice to be at least marginally associated with the space program during my career.

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Satellite Radio in Space History

Ten years ago today — March 18, 2001 — XM-Radio launched its first satellite.

(XM-2 launch. Sea Launch photo. Click to enlarge.)

Known as XM-2, or XM “Rock”, the spacecraft was launched by Sea Launch from the converted oil well platform “Odyssey.” A few weeks later, in May of 2001, another Sea Launch Zenit-3SL rocket launched XM-1, nicknamed XM “Roll”. Today, the XM portion of SiriusXM Radio uses similar spacecraft known as “Rhythm” and “Blues.”

A few years after this launch, I got to go out on a Sea Launch mission as one of the space technology security monitors for the Defense Technology Security Adminsitration. As I’ve said before, it was one of the most interesting temporary duty assignments of my Air Force career.

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With yesterday’s landing, the Space Shuttle Discovery itself moves into the realm of space history.

(Shuttle Discovery in orbit. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons. Click to enlarge.)

Yours truly worked two Discovery landings when I was stationed at Edwards AFB. Even though my duty station was across the lakebed at the AF Rocket Propulsion Laboratory, I got to be part of the AF Flight Test Center shuttle recovery team, and was part of the contingency convoy for the landings of STS-33 and STS-31. Quite a thrill for a space-happy young officer!

An era is ending … I hope the next era will be even more spectacular.

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