America’s newest crew capsule rockets toward space station

The Crew Dragon capsule was released into space onboard of SpaceX Falcon rocket Saturday. (AFP)
Updated 02 March 2019
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America’s newest crew capsule rockets toward space station

  • The capsule holds one passenger – a test dummy
  • SpaceX plan to board people on the capsule later this year

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida: America’s newest capsule for astronauts rocketed Saturday toward the International Space Station on a high-stakes test flight by SpaceX.

The only passenger was a life-size test dummy, named Ripley after the lead character in the “Alien” movies. SpaceX needs to nail the debut of its crew Dragon capsule before putting people on board later this year.

This latest, flashiest Dragon is on a fast track to reach the space station Sunday morning, just 27 hours after liftoff.

It will spend five days docked to the orbiting outpost, before making a retro-style splashdown in the Atlantic next Friday — all vital training for the next space demo, possibly this summer, when two astronauts strap in.

“This is critically important ... We’re on the precipice of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil again for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. He got a special tour of the pad on the eve of launch, by SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk.

An estimated 5,000 NASA and contractor employees, tourists and journalists gathered in the wee hours at Kennedy Space Center with the SpaceX launch team, as the Falcon 9 rocket blasted off before dawn from the same spot where Apollo moon rockets and space shuttles once soared. Across the country at SpaceX Mission Control in Hawthorne, California, company employees went wild, cheering every step of the way until the capsule successfully reached orbit.

Looking on from Kennedy’s Launch Control were the two NASA astronauts who will strap in as early as July for the second space demo, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken. It’s been eight years since Hurley and three other astronauts flew the last space shuttle mission, and human launches from Florida ceased.

NASA turned to private companies, SpaceX and Boeing, and has provided them $8 billion to build and operate crew capsules to ferry astronauts to and from the space station. Now Russian rockets are the only way to get astronauts to the 250-mile-high outpost. Soyuz tickets have skyrocketed over the years; NASA currently pays $82 million per seat.

Boeing aims to conduct the first test flight of its Starliner capsule in April, with astronauts on board possibly in August.

Bridenstine said he’s confident that astronauts will soar on a Dragon or Starliner — or both — by year’s end. But he stressed there’s no rush.

“We are not in a space race,” he said. “That race is over. We went to the moon and we won. It’s done. Now we’re in a position where we can take our time and make sure we get it right.”

SpaceX already has made 16 trips to the space station using cargo Dragons. The white crew Dragon is slightly bigger — 8 meters tip to tip — and considerably fancier and safer.

It features four seats, three windows, touch-screen computer displays and life-support equipment, as well as eight abort engines to pull the capsule to safety in the event of a launch emergency. Solar cells are mounted on the spacecraft for electrical power, as opposed to the protruding solar wings on cargo Dragons.

“It’s an incredibly sleek looking vehicle from the inside and it’s very easy to operate,” Hurley told reporters just hours before liftoff. He marvels at how the Dragon has just 30 buttons and touch screens, compared with the space shuttle cockpit’s 2,000 switches and circuit breakers.

For the test, the Ripley dummy was strapped into the far left seat, wearing the company’s snappy white spacesuit. The other seats were empty, save for a small plush toy resembling Earth that was free to float upon reaching zero-gravity. “Super high tech zero-g indicator added just before launch!” Musk tweeted. True to his word, the toy rose weightlessly above the seat once the capsule was in orbit.

As many as seven astronauts could squeeze in, although four will be the norm once flights get going, allowing for a little cargo room. About 200 kilograms of supplies are going up on this flight.

The capsule is designed to dock and undock automatically with the space station. Cargo Dragon must be maneuvered with the station’s robot arm.

Like Ripley, the capsule is rigged with sensors. Engineers will be carefully watching sound, vibration and other stresses on the spacecraft, while monitoring the life-support, communication and propulsion systems. Some of the equipment needs more work — possibly even redesign — before serving human passengers.

“We’re going to learn a ton from this mission,” said NASA’s commercial crew program manager, Kathy Lueders.

Flight operations team members — some of them new to this — also need the six-day trial run, according to Kennedy Space Center’s director, Robert Cabana.

The objective is to make the next demo flight, with Hurley and Behnken, as safe as possible. The more immediate goal is to avoid harming the space station and its three occupants: an American, Canadian and Russian.

Despite SpaceX’s success at recovering and reusing its rockets, NASA is insisting on brand new boosters from SpaceX for the crew capsule flights. The first-stage booster used Saturday landed on a floating platform in the Atlantic, following liftoff. SpaceX plans to recycle the newly flying capsule for a high-altitude abort test this spring, along with a booster launched and retrieved a week ago.


What happened to the Apollo goodwill moon rocks?

Updated 16 June 2019
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What happened to the Apollo goodwill moon rocks?

  • Some of the gifts have either gone missing, were stolen or destroyed over the decades

HOUSTON, Texas: US President Richard Nixon gave moon rocks collected by Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 astronauts to 135 countries around the world and the 50 US states as a token of American goodwill.
While some hold pride of place in museums and scientific institutions, many others are unaccounted for — they have either gone missing, were stolen or even destroyed over the decades.
The list below recounts the stories of some of the missing moon rocks and others that were lost and later found.
It is compiled from research done by Joseph Gutheinz Jr, a retired NASA special agent known as the “Moon Rock Hunter,” his students, and collectSPACE, a website which specializes in space history.

• Both the Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 moon rocks presented to perpetually war-wracked Afghanistan have vanished.

• One of the moon rocks destined for Cyprus was never delivered due to the July 1974 Turkish invasion of the island and the assassination of the US ambassador the following month.
It was given to NASA years later by the son of a US diplomat but has not been handed over to Cyprus.

Joseph Gutheinz, an attorney known as the "Moon Rock Hunter," displays meteorite fragments in his office on May 22, 2019 in Friendswood, Texas. (AFP / Loren Elliot)



• Honduras’s Apollo 17 moon rock was recovered by Gutheinz and Bob Cregger, a US Postal Service agent, in a 1998 undercover sting operation baptized “Operation Lunar Eclipse.”
It had been sold to a Florida businessman, Alan Rosen, for $50,000 by a Honduran army colonel. Rosen tried to sell the rock to Gutheinz for $5 million. It was seized and eventually returned to Honduras.

• Ireland’s Apollo 11 moon rock was on display in Dublin’s Dunsink Observatory, which was destroyed in a 1977 fire. Debris from the observatory — including the moon rock — ended up in the Finglas landfill.

• The Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 moon rocks given to then Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi have vanished.

• Malta’s Apollo 17 moon rock was stolen from a museum in May 2004. It has not been found.

• Nicaragua’s Apollo 17 moon rock was allegedly sold to someone in the Middle East for $5-10 million. Its Apollo 11 moon rock ended up with a Las Vegas casino owner, who displayed it for a time in his Moon Rock Cafe. Bob Stupak’s estate turned it over to NASA when he died. It has since been returned to Nicaragua.

• Romania’s Apollo 11 moon rock is on display in a museum in Bucharest. Romania’s Apollo 17 moon rock is believed to have been sold by the estate of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was executed along with his wife, Elena, on Christmas Day 1989.


Spain’s Apollo 17 moon rock is on display in Madrid’s Naval Museum after being donated by the family of Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, who was assassinated by the Basque separatist group ETA in 1973.
Spain’s Apollo 11 moon rock is missing and is believed to be in the hands of the family of former dictator Francisco Franco.
cl/sst