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.


WWWorries? Inventor of Web laments coming-of-age woes

Updated 12 March 2019
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WWWorries? Inventor of Web laments coming-of-age woes

  • Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN as a software engineer when he invented the hypertext-transfer protocol
  • He hopes countries can make the web available to more citizens

GENEVA: The inventor of the World Wide Web knows his revolutionary innovation is coming of age, and doesn’t always like what he sees: state-sponsored hacking, online harassment, hate speech and misinformation among the ills of its “digital adolescence.”
Tim Berners-Lee issued a cri-de-coeur letter and spoke to a few reporters Monday on the eve of the 30-year anniversary of his first paper with an outline of what would become the web — a first step toward transforming countless lives and the global economy.
The European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, plans to host Berners-Lee and other web aficionados on Tuesday. “We’re celebrating, but we’re also very concerned,” Berners-Lee said.
Late last year, a key threshold was crossed — roughly half the world has gotten online. Today some 2 billion websites exist.
The anniversary offers “an opportunity to reflect on how far we have yet to go,” Berners-Lee said, calling the “fight” for the web “one of the most important causes of our time.”
He is convinced the online population will continue to grow, but says accessibility issues continue to beset much of the world.
“Look at the 50 percent who are on the web, and it’s not so pretty for them,” he said. “They are all stepping back suddenly horrified after the Trump and Brexit elections realizing that this web thing that they thought was so cool has actually not necessarily been serving humanity very well.”
The anniversary is also a nod to the innovative, collaborative and open-source mindset at the Geneva-based CERN, where physicists smash particles together to unlock secrets of science and the universe.
As a young English software engineer, Berners-Lee came up with the idea for hypertext-transfer protocol — the “http” that adorns web addresses — and other building blocks for the web while working at CERN in March 1989. Some trace the actual start of the web to 1990, when he released the first web browser.
Berners-Lee reminisced about how he was really out to get disparate computer systems to talk to one another, and resolve the “burning frustration” over a “lack of interoperability” of documentation from disparate computing systems used at CERN in the late 1980s.
Now, the hope of his World Wide Web Foundation is to enlist governments, companies, and citizens to take a greater role in shaping the web for good under principles laid out in its “Contract for the Web.”
Under the contract’s sweeping, broad ambition, governments are supposed to make sure everyone can connect to the Internet, to keep it available and to respect privacy. Companies are to make the Internet affordable, respect privacy and develop technology that will put people — and the “public good” — first. Citizens are to create and to cooperate and respect “civil discourse,” among other things.
To Berners-Lee, the web is a “mirror of humanity” where “you will see good and bad.”
“The Contract for the Web recognizes that whether humanity, in fact, is constructive or not actually depends on the way you write the code of the social network,” he said.
Some tough regulation may be necessary in some places, in others not, Berners-Lee said.
On one issue, he’s insistent: “Net neutrality — strong regulation,” Berners-Lee said, hammering a fist on the table. He was alluding to a principle that anyone with an Internet connection should have equal access to video, music, email, photos, social networks, maps and other online material.
Berners-Lee said the web has created opportunity, made lives easier and given the marginalized a voice, but “it has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit.”
Ultimately, his “Contract” proposal is not about “quick fixes,” but a process for shifting people’s relationship with the online world, he said.
“It’s our journey from digital adolescence to a more mature, responsible and inclusive future,” he wrote.