NATO SATCOM, Four Decades Past

Forty years ago today — March 20, 1970 — the NATO-1 communications satellite was launched from Cape Canaveral on a Delta launch vehicle. Placed in geosynchronous orbit over the Atlantic Ocean, the satellite provided secure, reliable communications support to North Atlantic Treaty Organization leaders.


With this entry, I’m testing the delayed posting feature: I wrote it on the 19th for posting on the 20th. We’ll see how well it works….

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X-Series Flight Testing Continues at Eddie's Airplane Patch

Forty years ago today — March 19, 1970 — USAF test pilot Major Jerauld R. Gentry made the first powered flight in the X-24A lifting body.

(X-24A with rocket engine ignited after being dropped from the B-52 carrier aircraft. NASA image.)

The same B-52 used in the X-15 program (and later in the Pegasus program*) carried the X-24A to about 40,000 ft (13,860 m) altitude, where it was dropped and its rocket engine took the rest of the way through its flight profile. It then glided to a landing on the dry lakebed at Edwards AFB.

Over the life of the program, the X-24A made 28 powered flights, reaching a maximum speed of 1,036 mph (1,667 km/hr) and a maximum altitude of 71,407 ft (21,765 m). According to the project description on this page, NASA later used the X-24A’s shape as the basic profile for the X-38 Crew Return Vehicle demonstrator.

*Full disclosure: When I was stationed at Edwards (1986-90), I was on the Flight Readiness Review committee for the first Pegasus launch from that same B-52.

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Atlantis in Orbit

Twenty years ago, in 1990, the Space Shuttle Atlantis was in orbit on mission STS-36. It had launched on the Department of Defense mission on February 28, during a classified launch window.

(Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, taken from Atlantis on STS-36. NASA image.)

Astronauts John O. Creighton, John H. Casper, David C. Hilmers, Richard M. Mullane, and Pierre J. Thuot deployed a classified payload shortly after reaching orbit, and landed at Edwards Air Force Base on March 4th.

(Personal note: We were still at Edwards AFB at the time, but I don’t remember if I saw that landing. I was not on the recovery team for it.)

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Gemini Testing

No, it’s not testing twins or the veracity of astrological predictions: 45 years ago today — January 19, 1965 — a Titan-II rocket launched from Cape Canaveral in the second suborbital, unmanned test of the Titan launch vehicle and the Gemini spacecraft.

(Gemini-2 capsule, displayed at the Air Force Space & Missile Museum. Public domain image from Wikipedia. Click to enlarge.)

The Wikipedia entry on the Gemini-2 test flight includes some interesting facts:

  • The vehicle was used as a pathfinder for Gemini flight crew preparation
  • Shortly after launch, the mission control center lost power because the network television equipment overloaded the electrical system
  • The Gemini-2 reentry module was refurbished and launched on a Titan IIIC on November 3, 1966, as a test flight for the USAF’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory program


Out of curiosity, what do you think of these occasional space history items? I’ve had fun posting them, but I wonder if anyone else cares. If you like them, or if you don’t, let me know with a comment, an e-mail, or a note on Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn.

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Space History Just-in-Time Pickup: Shuttle Retrieves LDEF

Twenty years ago today — January 11, 1990 — Space Shuttle Columbia retrieved the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) as one of the key objectives of mission STS-32.

(STS-32 mission patch. NASA image. Click to enlarge.)

Columbia had launched on January 9th from the Kennedy Space Center, carrying astronauts Daniel C. Brandenstein, James D. Wetherbee, Bonnie J.Dunbar, Marsha S. Ivins, and G. David Low. The astronauts deployed the defense communications satellite Syncom IV-5 shortly after achieving orbit, then maneuvered the shuttle for the rendezvous with the LDEF.

(Long Duration Exposure Facility at the end of the shuttle’s manipulator arm. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons.)

According to this LDEF archive site,

NASA’s Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) was designed to provide long-term data on the space environment and its effects on space systems and operations….

LDEF had a nearly cylindrical structure, and its 57 experiments were mounted in 86 trays about its periphery and on the two ends. The spacecraft measured 30 feet by 14 feet and weighed ~21,500 pounds with mounted experiments, and remains one of the largest Shuttle-deployed payloads….

LDEF was deployed in orbit on April 7, 1984 by the Shuttle Challenger. The nearly circular orbit was at an altitude of 275 nautical miles and an inclination of 28.4 degrees…. LDEF remained in space for ~5.7 years and completed 32,422 Earth orbits…. It experienced one-half of a solar cycle, as it was deployed during a solar minimum and retrieved at a solar maximum.

And what made its recover “just-in-time” was the fact that it was about to fall from the sky.

… By the time LDEF was retrieved, its orbit had decayed to ~175 nautical miles and was a little more than one month away from reentering the Earth’s atmosphere.

Shuttle Columbia landed with the LDEF on January 20, 1990 at Edwards Air Force Base — where yours truly was again part of the USAF shuttle recovery team. Another good mission, another chance to dream.

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Report from the NASA Industry-Education Forum

Today I had the opportunity to attend a great meeting: the NASA Industry-Education Forum, held at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. It was an invitation-only event, for which I was actually an alternate in place of the Director of the North Carolina Space Grant; however, I feel as if I contributed a little bit to the proceedings.

The meeting started exceedingly well. We were greeted by the NASA Administrator, astronaut and Retired Marine Major General Charlie Bolden, who let us know that he considered it very important to NASA’s efforts to grow the nation’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) capabilities. Had I realized he was going to attend, I could’ve looked up his bio; then, when I introduced myself, I could’ve pointed out that I was on the Air Force Flight Test Center recovery team for his STS-31 shuttle mission that landed at Edwards Air Force Base, and also that one of his mission specialists on STS-60, Dr. Ron Sega, was one of the Under Secretaries of the Air Force for whom I wrote speeches. Ah, missed opportunities.

Following the introductions — including astronaut and International Space Station Expedition-3 Commander (and retired Navy Captain) Frank Culbertson and famed science correspondent Miles O’Brien — the meeting continued with a series of briefings on NASA’s education efforts, successful student programs such as the “Getaway Special” payloads that have flown on many shuttle flights, and the nationwide Space Grant program. It was good to note in the briefing about NASA’s University Research Centers that the centers at North Carolina A&T and North Carolina Central University were both included.

The meeting split up into four working groups, each with about ten people, that met over lunch to consider three topics: how we can inspire young people to pursue STEM education and careers, how we can retain these young people in STEM courses of study after they’ve begun, and how we can help graduates find (and succeed in) aerospace jobs. Our working group had a very wide-ranging discussion that could have continued for long after our time was up. When we all came back together, each group presented their results; our NASA hosts are collecting and collating all of our ideas for distribution to the larger group.

Next on the agenda was a panel of four “early career” aerospace professionals, each of whom had been assisted by NASA at some point in their educational career (e.g., by fellowships, scholarships, internships, etc.). Finally, the meeting ended with a collection of action items, most of which were taken by the NASA education staff, though some had industry and industry association elements.

I had gone into the meeting with an idea that I had gotten from a member of the Codex writers’ group: specifically, that of making a space documentary suitable for a very young audience, as opposed to the usual space documentaries that seem to appeal more to my generation. My working group did not take to the idea with the enthusiasm I had hoped, so I didn’t pitch it to the larger group.

However, one thing in the larger group was that new social networking technologies represent an opportunity to reach young people with exciting information about the aerospace world and their opportunities in it. And even though very few people read my blog, I like to think that my occasional space history items would qualify — so that made me feel pretty good.

All in all, a terrific meeting, and I was happy to represent the NC Aerospace Initiative. (And I even got to plug Baen Books in my working group!)

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Space History: Military Space Mission, and My Role In It

Twenty years ago yesterday — November 22, 1989 — astronauts Frederick D. Gregory, John E. Blaha, Kathyrn C. Thornton, F. Story Musgrave, and Manley L Carter, Jr., lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center aboard Space Shuttle Discovery on mission STS-33.*

(STS-33 mission patch. NASA image. Click to enlarge.)

STS-33 was a classified Department of Defense mission, and one of the four shuttle missions I worked as part of the Air Force Flight Test Center’s Space Shuttle Recovery Team. Edwards AFB was the “abort once-around” recovery site, so we were in place (at the fire department) several hours before the launch in case the shuttle had to land right after liftoff. We also stayed on standby the entire time the shuttle was in orbit. And since this shuttle landed at Edwards AFB on November 27, we rolled out to meet the vehicle, parked right off the nose of the orbiter while NASA checked it out and the crew disembarked, and escorted the shuttle down the flightline to NASA-Dryden.

That was a fun job….

*Editor’s note: One NASA site had this launch listed for November 23, but it looks as if that was wrong. I think that may be when the crew actually deployed the classified satellite.

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World Speed Record: 7,000 MPH

Five years ago today — November 16, 2004 — the X-43A hypersonic test vehicle broke the world speed record.

(X-43A initial velocity was provided by a Pegasus rocket. NASA image.)

Its scramjet engine accelerated it to mach 9.6, nearly 7,000 miles per hour. The record it broke was its own, of mach 6.8 (nearly 5,000 mph), set on a March 2004 flight.

Of personal interest to me, a Pegasus rocket dropped from NASA’s B-52 provided the initial thrust to get the X-43A up to the flight regime where the scramjet engine would work.

(X-43A, Pegasus, and B-52 mothership. The X-43A is the small dark vehicle covering the words “U.S. Air Force.” NASA image.)

That gives me a personal, though indirect, connection to the flight: I was on the Flight Readiness Review Committee for the very first Pegasus launch when I was stationed at Edwards AFB.

Yes, I had a most fascinating Air Force career. (Fascinating to me, anyway.)

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Strategic Space Symposium, Day Two

(Abbreviated from the full entry in the Space Warfare Forum.)

The second day of the 2009 Strategic Space Symposium was just as good as the first, and in some ways better. Highlights:

  • NGA Director VADM Robert Murrett, discussed NGA’s partial reliance on commercial satellites like GeoEye
  • I found myself slowly becoming an ORS convert, as the vision explained was different from the old “rapid space reconstruction” idea
  • I was pleased to learn that the ORS program will probably call for launching stored spacecraft before they become obsolete, which will be important for developing and sustaining a viable industrial base
  • I began to think that ORS might better be called ODS: “operationally deployable space” instead of “operationally responsive space”
  • The “Industry Perspectives” panel discussed how disruptive unstable funding can be to the aerospace supply chain, and how changing a system’s requirements usually dooms all efforts to complete acquisition programs on time and under budget
  • I was pleasantly surprised by the mild industry response to an ITAR question: maybe industry’s usual negative reaction is not to the idea behind the ITAR but rather to specific items on the USML and the MCTL (some items could probably be removed from the lists, if doing so doesn’t jeopardize national security)
  • The luncheon speakers gave excellent presentations on the warfighters’ perspective on space systems and space support, but I was surprised that neither of them mentioned the recent Chinese statement about developing offensive and defensive space capabilities

As on day one, I had some great conversations with company representatives and old Air Force colleagues, so for me the symposium ended as well as it began. Well done!

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My Day at the Strategic Space Symposium

Coming to Omaha for the 2009 Strategic Space Symposium seemed like a good time to revive the Space Warfare Forum, so yesterday I posted a long report about day one at the symposium.

I made some good contacts with company representatives and saw some of my old colleagues, so it was a good day at the symposium. Highlights:

  • The symposium is extremely well-run (in large part by one of my former students): good facilities, exhibits, and speakers
  • NE Governor Heineman mentioned their “Nebraska Advantage” program to bring military contractors to the state … I’ll investigate it when I get back to NC
  • USSTRATCOM Commander, General Kevin Chilton, outlined his “wish list” of space capabilities … one key item was improved space situational awareness, which could be a real opportunity for some ambitious technology companies
  • The combatant commands agreed on the importance of space systems and space support to their operations
  • I’m going to start distinguishing between macro-targeting (looking at large areas, for strategic purposes) and micro-targeting (looking at smaller, precise targets for tactical purposes)
  • The NRO plans to reinvigorate their science and technology efforts, which should spawn some new opportunities for industry
  • Building any kind of Operationally Responsive Space capability will require a new business model for acquisition, which also means lots of potential for contractors throughout the supply chain

Here’s hoping day 2 will be as good, or better!

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