Making the ISS More International

Five years ago today — March 11, 2008 — the Space Shuttle Endeavour launched from the Kennedy Space Center on a mission to the International Space Station.

(Astronaut Richard Linnehan on the first spacewalk of STS-123. NASA image.)

The STS-123 crew included U.S. astronauts Dominic L. Gorie, Gregory H. Johnson, Robert L. Behnken, Michael J.Foreman, and Richard M. Linnehan, and Japanese astronaut Takao Doi. The mission transported astronaut Garrett E. Reisman to the ISS and brought French astronaut Leopold Eyharts back to Earth.

The mission also delivered the first piece of Japan’s Kibo research laboratory, and a new Canadian robotic arm known as “Dextre,” both of which were successfully attached to the ISS. In all, STS-123 spent a little over 2 weeks in space before landing back at KSC on March 26th.

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‘Jules Verne’ Reaches Space

Five years ago today — March 9, 2008 — the European Space Agency launched an Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou carrying the Jules Verne cargo vehicle to the International Space Station.

(ISS crewmembers pose for a portrait inside the Jules Verne ATV with an original Jules Verne manuscript and a 19th century Jules Verne book. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Jules Verne, also known as Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) 1,

remained a “free-flyer” until the undocking of STS 123 on 27 March. It successfully demonstrated the ability to reach ISS within 3.5 km with the help of GPS transmissions, and, in another attempt, to reach within 11 m with the help of laser ranging. These demonstrations earned the approval by the ISS managers to make an actual docking with the Zvezda module of the ISS on 03 April 2008.

The cargo vessel remained docked to the ISS for six months; then, filled with garbage from the station, it undocked and deorbited. It burned up in the atmosphere on September 29, 2008.

Of particular note to me (and presumably to my geeky and writerly friends), the ATV carried an original Jules Verne manuscript into space. That¬†speaks highly of ESA’s confidence in the craft and the Ariane launch vehicle.

For more information, here’s a NASA fact sheet and the Wikipedia entry on the ATV program. And this ESA page has a video of the launch.

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The Evolution of Launch Capability: 3 Decades, 3 Launches

Today’s space history entry provides a glimpse of how space launch operations improved in the first 20 years of the space age.

First, 55 years ago today — March 5, 1958 — we attempted to launch the Explorer 2 satellite from Cape Canaveral on a Jupiter C rocket. The vehicle lifted off without incident (which some in the industry might consider a launch success), but its upper stage failed and the satellite did not reach orbit.

(Explorer 2 launch. US Army image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Ten years later, on March 5, 1968, the small scientific satellite SOLRAD 9 launched aboard a Scout vehicle from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. SOLRAD 9 was also known as Explorer 37, and it operated successfully until 1974.

And then 10 years later still — on this date in 1978 — Landsat 3 launched atop a Delta rocket out of Vandenberg AFB, with the Oscar 8 amateur radio satellite along for the ride.

So, on this date in space history we had three launch attempts, each a decade removed from another, from three different launch bases, resulting chronologically in a failed mission, a successful mission, and a successful multi-satellite mission. That seems like progress.

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First International Space Flight, and a Precursor

Thirty-five years ago today — March 2, 1978 — the Soyuz 28 mission launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on a flight to the Salyut-6 space station. Soyuz 28 rates as the first space mission with an international crew by virtue of the fact that Soviet cosmonaut Alexei A. Gubarev was joined by Czech (i.e., of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic) cosmonaut Vladimir Remek.

Ten years earlier — on March 2, 1968 — the USSR had launched the unmanned Zond 4 mission from Baikonur atop a Proton K. Previous Zond spacecraft had been planetary probes, but Zond 4 was designed as a manned capsule, though this test flight did not include occupants.

(Zond spacecraft atop Proton upper stage, in Baikonur assembly building. Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The mission included a couple of interesting elements:

The trajectory away from the Moon was probably unintentional (although some claims were made that it was aimed away from the Moon to avoid complications of lunar gravity). The spacecraft supposedly could not be sent towards the Moon because of a malfunction in the attitude control system. On Earth, cosmonauts Popovich and Sevastyanov communicated from an isolated bunker with Yevpatoriya Flight Control Center in the Ukraine via a relay on board the spacecraft to simulate communications between cosmonauts in space and the ground controllers on Earth.

The Zond series of launches continued, but did not include any manned missions.

Sometimes it’s remarkable how short a time it took for manned spaceflight to become almost routine. But who knows how long it will be before it’s routine enough for the rest of us to enjoy?

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Pegasus Carries Student Satellite to Orbit

Fifteen years ago today — February 25, 1998 — a Pegasus XL rocket launched a student-built satellite to track variations in nitric oxide pollutants in the atmosphere.

(Student Nitric Oxide Explorer integrated on the Pegasus launch vehicle. University of Colorado LASP image.)

The Student Nitric Oxide Explorer (SNOE) was built by University of Colorado students, under a program managed by the Universities Space Research Association.

Flying out of Vandenberg AFB, the Pegasus XL was dropped from its L-1011 carrier aircraft and propelled SNOE and the Broadband Advanced Technology Satellite (also known as BATSAT and later as Teledesic 1) into orbit.

The SNOE mission lasted nearly 6 years; the satellite de-orbited in December 2003. You can learn more about SNOE at this University of Colorado Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics page .

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Japanese X-Ray Telescope, and a Satellite’s Destruction

Twenty years ago today — February 20, 1993 — Japan launched the Asuka x-ray observatory from Uchinoura Space Center atop an M-3SII rocket.

(Representation of Asuka satellite. JAXA image.)

Asuka, also known as ASTRO-D before launch and ASCA afterward, was a joint mission in which NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology both provided spacecraft components in exchange for observation time with the orbiting telescope. The spacecraft operated normally for over seven years; however,

A solar flare on 14 July 2000 caused heating and expansion of the upper atmosphere, which increased the drag and external torque on ASCA. The attitude was perturbed, so the solar panels lost lock on the Sun, resulting in discharge of the batteries. ASCA reentered the atmosphere on March 2, 2001.

This date in space history is also marked by another satellite’s destruction, but this time it was deliberate: 5 years ago today, the guided-missile-cruiser USS Lake Erie launched a missile to intercept a disabled reconnaissance satellite. You can read contemporary news reports at Spy Satellite’s Downing Shows a New U.S. Weapon Capability and Navy says missile smashed wayward satellite.

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Testing Arthur C. Clarke’s Satellite Idea: Syncom 1

The blessing of Saint Valentine be upon you and yours! Now, on to space history …

Fifty years ago today — February 14, 1963 — a Thor Delta rocket out of Cape Canaveral launched Syncom 1, the first attempt to test Arthur C. Clarke’s idea about global communications from synchronous orbit.

Syncom 1. NASA image.

(Syncom 1. NASA image.)


Syncom 1 (short for “synchronous communications”) was intended to go into the 24-hour orbit proposed by Clarke to be used for relay satellites. It was expected to have an approximately 30-degree orbital inclination, and initial contact with the satellite was made while it was in its initial elliptical orbit; however,

About 5 hours after launch the apogee motor was commanded to fire to place the satellite into a near-synchronous orbit. At about the time the motor completed its 20 second burn all contact was lost. NASA officials assumed that “the satellite’s spin axis was misaligned at the time of the apogee motor firing. Because of this they have been unable to determine whether the satellite is damaged.” Attempts were made to communicate with the spacecraft but contact was never re-established.

The first truly geosynchronous communications tests would have to wait a few more months.

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Naval Communications and Surveillance

Two separate launches on this date in space history, five years apart. First, 35 years ago today — February 9, 1978 — an Atlas-Centaur launched from Cape Canaveral carrying FLTSATCOM 1 (Fleet Satellite Communications One).

FLTSATCOM satellite. USAF image from Wikimedia Commons.
(FLTSATCOM satellite. USAF image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The FLTSATCOM system provided world-wide UHF communications for aircraft, ships, and submarines, with shore-to-fleet broadcast and beyond-line-of-sight capability. A few of its channels were used for emergency action messages and other communications with Strategic Air Command aircraft, the E-3A airborne warning and control (AWACS) aircraft, and so forth.

Five years later, on this date in 1983, an Atlas F launch vehicle out of Vandenberg AFB carried the latest Navy Ocean Surveillance Satellite (NOSS) to orbit. According to the National Space Science Data Center page,

It placed a cluster of one primary satellite and three smaller sub-satellites (that trailed along at distances of several hundred kilometers) into low polar orbit. This satellite array determined the location of radio and radars transmitters, using triangulation, and the identity of naval units, by analysis of the operating frequencies and transmission patterns.

The Space Review published an overview of the NOSS system in 2009, and this 2004 article notes that the formation-flying system may have been responsible for a number of UFO sightings. According to this recent Florida Today article, “None of the U.S. NOSS triplets remain in formation,” and the similar Chinese Yaogan 9A, 9B and 9C satellites “are the only intact example in orbit today.”

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Columbus Rides Atlantis to Orbit

Five years ago today — February 7, 2008 — the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched from the Kennedy Space Center on a mission to the International Space Station.

A view of the Columbus laboratory (top right) from STS 122, after the shuttle undocked from the ISS. NASA image.

STS 122 ¬†astronauts Stanley G. Love, Stephen N. Frick, Alan G. Poindexter, Leland D. Melvin, and Rex J. Walheim, with European Space Agency astronauts Hans Schlegel and Leopold Eyharts, spent almost two weeks in space. They installed the ESA’s Columbus laboratory on the ISS, along with several other pieces of equipment.

When they departed the space station, Eyharts stayed behind as the Flight Engineer while US astronaut Daniel Tani returned to Earth on the shuttle.

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The First U.S. Satellite: Explorer 1

Fifty-five years ago today — January 31, 1958 — a Jupiter C launch vehicle carried the first successful U.S. satellite into orbit from Cape Canaveral.

(Explorer 1. NASA image.)

Explorer 1 launched late in the day — at 10:48 p.m. EST, or 03:48 Universal Time on February 1st — and was actually the Jupiter C rocket’s fourth stage. The rocket itself was a combination of a Redstone rocket that was the Jupiter’s first stage, and three sets of Sergeant solid rocket motors: eleven in the Jupiter’s second stage, three in the third, and one that drove the fourth stage satellite.

Explorer 1 carried a Geiger-Mueller detector to sense cosmic rays, and

was the first spacecraft to successfully detect the durably trapped radiation in the Earth’s magnetosphere, dubbed the Van Allen Radiation Belt (after the principal investigator of the cosmic ray experiment on Explorer 1, James A. Van Allen). Later missions (in both the Explorer and Pioneer series) were to expand on the knowledge and extent of these zones of radiation and were the foundation of modern magnetospheric studies.

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