Making History, Again

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SjjRN6KAoi0[/embedyt]

Ask anybody what an astronaut does, and they’ll talk about going on space missions. And, to be sure, that is part of being an astronaut. A rather cool part of being an astronaut.

But, strictly on time spent, it’s also the smallest major part of the job. Back in the Space Shuttle Program, astronauts would spend years on the job of which only weeks were spent in space. If that sounds like it would be frustrating, you have to remember two things: 1) The going-into-space part is really amazing. 2) The not-going-into-space part is also really amazing.

While they’re not in space, astronauts spend a substantial amount of time training, which can range from simulating spaceflight on the ground to traveling the world meeting scientists behind cutting-edge research. They also get to work closely with the NASA team on a variety of different projects, including the development of future space vehicles and systems.

When space shuttle commander Hoot Gibson was selected as an astronaut in 1978, NASA was still three years away from the shuttle’s first launch. Years before he first flew the shuttle, he got to be involved in its development and see it being built. He had a front-row seat for the genesis of the future of American spaceflight, and got to be part of making it happen.

The work we’re doing today on Space Launch System (SLS) in many ways resembles the space shuttle work that Gibson and his classmates got to witness almost 40 years ago. In some ways, it very strongly resembles it – for example, we’re once again testing RS-25 engines at the same facility they did back then, albeit with numerous upgrades over the years.

I’ve had the opportunity to hear Hoot Gibson talk about his shuttle experiences, and to share about the work we’re doing today. As someone who grew up during the shuttle era and a student of its history, it’s an incredible honor that we get to carry forward that legacy with SLS, and to write the next chapter of this history.

In this video, Gibson looks back to the days of the shuttle and forward to the future of exploration. And as we continue to work toward that future, we hope you’ll join us on the journey.

Next Time: Mars: Gateway to the Solar System

Join in the conversation: Visit our Facebook page to comment on the post about this blog. We’d love to hear your feedback!


David Hitt works in the strategic communications office of NASA’s Space Launch System Program. He began working in NASA Education at Marshall Space Flight Center in 2002, and is the author of two books on spaceflight history.

 

Four Lessons in Four Years

Way back in 2011, when the world’s attention was on the end of the space shuttle program, a small group of engineers was tasked with planning what would come next. NASA revealed the answer on Sept. 14 of that year in the form of Space Launch System (SLS) – which would be the most powerful rocket in history and would allow astronauts to travel beyond Earth orbit for the first time since Apollo.

In the four years since, we’ve made substantial progress, going from an early concept into manufacturing, testing, and even flying our first hardware on Orion’s Exploration Flight Test-1 in December 2014.

In honor of the fourth anniversary of that announcement, here are four things we’ve learned in four years. (With a big thanks to former SLS Program Manager and now Marshall Space Flight Center Deputy Director Todd May, who helped with this list.)

Atlantis makes the final landing of the space shuttle program
Atlantis’ final landing four years ago marked the ending of one era. It also marked a beginning of the next.

1) Change Is Hard. It’s Also Necessary.

The space shuttle was pretty amazing. A lot of people were sorry to see it go, myself included. I was born a week after the last Apollo capsule landed, so I grew up with the shuttle. I played with space shuttle toys as a little kid. It was “my” spaceship. I was sorry to see it go. I know an engineer who not only worked on the first shuttle flight, he was the last person to go inside its external tank before launch. He worked every shuttle mission from first to last. He also was sorry to see it go.

Change is hard. It’s also necessary. The space shuttle allowed NASA to do some amazing things in Earth orbit, but we were limited on how far we could go. To get to Mars and beyond, we needed something new, and the shuttle program was complex enough that we couldn’t do both at the same time for very long. With the International Space Station, and the work our commercial partners are doing with cargo and crew transportation, we can still do amazing things in Earth orbit without the shuttle.

Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t days I don’t fondly recall the past. I’m just more excited about the future.

And that’s been good to remember as we move forward. Even within the program, there’s been change. Leaders and coworkers have moved into new positions, some of them outside the program. They’re missed, but we keep moving forward. As we’ve matured the design of the vehicle, we’ve made changes, which sometimes means details we are attached to give way to something better. The only constant is change.

Close-up of the SLS propulsion systems during launch
If there were such thing as a “more cowbell” philosophy or rocketry, this would be it. Everything that made the space shuttle so powerful and reliable, but more.

2) There’s the Baby, and the Bathwater. You Have to Know the Difference

When we stopped flying the shuttle, we understood the capability gap we would have to send our own astronauts into space, which was far from ideal. Moving forward, we will look to avoid these kinds of gaps so as to not lose critical workforce skills and capabilities. Sometimes, gaps like these are necessary, and in our case, it was necessary to strengthen the future of our space program. As we work toward sending humans back into deep space, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

At least, not entirely.

As I talked about back in the Designing A Rocket In Six Easy Steps post, when we were choosing the design of SLS, we realized that there were advantages to using hardware from the shuttle program to give us a head start in developing a new rocket. And not purely because they were already available, but because they were the result of extensive, hard work. The shuttle solid rocket boosters were the most powerful ever flown. The RS-25 engines are paragons of reliability and efficiency. If we’d started from scratch designing a new engine to replace them, not only would it have taken us longer and cost us more, but at the end of the process, we would most likely have come out with something very much like the RS-25. Since NASA already invented the RS-25 once, it doesn’t make sense to invent it again.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t reinvent it – take what’s already been done and innovate to make it better. Another thing we’ve learned over the course of this program is that while using “heritage hardware” can be easier than starting over, it can also be harder. SLS is not the shuttle. They have enough similarity that they can both use the RS-25 – to wit, they’re both really big things that use large quantities of hydrogen fuel to make large quantities of fire in order to go up. The similarities stop there. SLS is taller, which means the fuel goes into the engine at a higher pressure. SLS has more engines and they’re closer to the boosters than on shuttle, which means the outside of the engines gets hotter. SLS is designed for deep space, which means we have to get more power out of the engines and boosters. All of those things, and more, mean that we even if we can fly the same engines on SLS that we did on shuttle, we can’t fly them the same way.

And so, even more than we anticipated, we’re having to take some of these systems and modify them and upgrade them and test them.

Still worth it? Totally.

Artist’s concept of SLS flying through clouds
Look how gracefully SLS soars through the clouds in this awesome picture. In reality, it’s not as easy as it looks.

3) You Can’t Cheat Gravity, but You Can Beat It

When talking about space flight, people will sometimes talk about “cheating gravity.” They see a rocket gracefully and majestically rising off a pad and through the sky and into space, and talk like somehow gravity no longer applies to it.

There are some laws you can’t break and some rules you can’t cheat, and gravity is pretty high on that list. We don’t cheat gravity; we beat gravity.

Every second of a launch, gravity is still acting on a rocket just as surely as it’s holding you to the planet’s surface right now; the biggest difference being that the rocket weighs millions of pounds more than you do. In order to rise into space, the rocket has to create and sustain a force greater than gravity, and not tear itself apart in the process.

Getting off the planet is the opposite of entropy. Entropy is the easy way out for all things; left to their own devices, things will fall apart. We are doing just the opposite — we are putting things together and bending them to our will using chemistry, physics, math and engineering.

It’s been said a fair bit recently that space is hard. Well, space is hard. John F. Kennedy told the nation as much more than half a century ago – “We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Make a list of what we’ve learned over the past four years, and even those who have been in this industry for years will say that this is hard. And because it’s hard, we work hard. It’s a challenge, and one we have to be steadfast every day in rising to meet.

Graphic showing missions managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
See all that? Those are missions managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight

4) NASA Is Alive and Well

In the wake of the retirement of the space shuttle, there seemed to be a perception in the public that not only was the space shuttle going away, but human space flight was going away, that NASA was going away.

So, technically, we knew this wasn’t true. Again, while the public was watching the shuttle stop flying, we were planning a Mars rocket, which, really, is pretty not dead. But as we would go out into public to talk to people about what we were doing, particularly in those early years, we would hear it a lot – “I thought NASA was dead.” And hearing that reminded us just how true it isn’t.

Hearing it became a reminder of the resiliency, dedication and talent of our workforce. They had heard the same thing about NASA. They have faced numerous challenges along the way. And yet they have poured themselves into this new program, and have done incredible work. Many of these people worked on shuttle, some of them even worked on Saturn. And yet they come to work every day to ensure that this current project is their masterpiece.

Hearing it also became a reminder of the fact that we are living at the cusp of a golden age of space. The idea that NASA is out of the human spaceflight business misses one of our most amazing accomplishments – most school students today don’t remember a time when there was not an American astronaut in orbit. For every second of every day of the last 15 years, NASA astronauts and our partners from other nations have been living and working in orbit about the International Space Station. Not only does the work they do pave the way for future exploration of deep space, teaching us more about how the human body adapts to long-term exposure to microgravity, but those same lessons, and many others gained aboard the space station, also improve life here on Earth. The International Space Station is not only NASA’s outpost on the space frontier, it’s a research laboratory available for the nation’s use, and at any time numerous experiments are being conducted in a variety of fields. NASA’s support of the International Space Station is also paving the way for commercial development of Earth orbit, making space ever more accessible.

And NASA is doing far more than that; our reach literally extends from one end of the solar system to the other, and beyond. Since this program started, NASA’s reach has spanned the solar system, from MESSENGER at Mercury to New Horizons at Pluto. We’ve landed Curiosity on Mars, and InSight is about to head that way. Juno is speeding toward Jupiter. We’re revealing the mysteries of Ceres. The Voyager probes launched 40 years ago still send back signals from a region of space where the influence of our sun is overpowered by the collective strength of other stars. Hubble continues to reveal the beauty and secrets of far reaches of space while Kepler discovers new planets around distant stars, and work is well underway on the large next-generation James Webb Space Telescope that will unveil the first luminous glows of the beginnings of the universe. Satellites orbiting our home planet help with crop growth around the world. Closer to home, we’re working to make air transportation safer and more efficient. Work we’re doing today means that in the next three years, three different new American crew vehicles are scheduled to be flying from Kennedy Space Center.

And those are just some highlights of what we’re doing.

NASA’s not dead. We’re just getting started.

Nine astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station in September 2015
Early this month, nine crew members, from five countries, were aboard the International Space Station at the same time, including NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Roscosmos cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, who just passed the halfway point of a year-long stay in space.

Next Time: Throwing Martians

Join in the conversation: Visit our Facebook page to comment on the post about this blog. We’d love to hear your feedback!


David Hitt works in the strategic communications office of NASA’s Space Launch System Program. He began working in NASA Education at Marshall Space Flight Center in 2002, and is the author of two books on spaceflight history.

 

The Journey to Mars!

A graphic showing an astronaut above the Mars horizon with a rover on the surface
NASA’s Journey to Mars is not simply a human exploration mission; it will bring together much of the best of what NASA does.

How do you get to Mars? You build a rocket, and go.

OK, it’s actually a bit more complex than that. A lot more complex, really. But that’s still a vitally important step. We’ll come back to why in a minute.

First, let’s talk about that “complex” part.

Mars is hard. Really hard.

To start with, Mars is far, far away. At its closest, it can come within 34 million miles of Earth, but that’s a once-in-millennia approach. Usually, if the distance gets within the low 50s, that’s really close. At farthest, Mars is about 250 million miles away. Distance means it takes time to get there.

As you travel that distance, there’s a giant ball of gas in the center of the solar system that really wants to kill you. Once you leave Earth, you’re being constantly bombarded with radiation from our own sun and distant stars.

Then there’s the fact that, if you wanted to design a planet that would be hard for humans to land on, Mars would be a good start. The atmosphere is thick enough to combine with the gravity to make an Apollo-style powered descent difficult, but it’s too thin to make a Shuttle-style glide or Orion-like parachutes easy.

Once you make it past the distance, through the radiation, and to the surface, Mars is still inhospitable. Back in 1972, following a detailed survey of planetary conditions, noted Mars expert Elton John summarized that it ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids, and for the moment that’s not a bad assessment.

All of these challenges are substantial. All of these challenges can be overcome.

A graphic explaining NASA’s three-phase Journey to Mars through Earth Reliant, Proving Ground and Earth Independent phases
Not only is NASA’s Journey to Mars the most ambitious mission the agency has undertaken, it will consist of a series of stepping stones that will also be some of the most ambitious missions we’ve ever flown.

NASA’s Journey to Mars is a holistic approach to solving those challenges, to landing humans on Mars, and to answering key scientific questions about Mars, its environment, its history and its habitability.

This Journey is not something NASA is planning to do; it’s something we are doing, right now, in numerous ways, combining the best of our experiences and abilities in a variety of fields.

  • Robotic explorers are today orbiting the planet and driving across its surface, teaching us more about the conditions there in order to answer those scientific questions and help us prepare for human exploration.
  • Astronauts aboard the International Space Station are conducting research regarding living in space for the long durations a Mars mission will require, learning more about how to maintain both equipment and the human body during the journey.
  • Scientists and engineers are working to mature the advanced technologies that will be needed to solve the complex challenges like radiation protection and entry through the Martian atmosphere.
  • We are also building the robust systems that we need to carry out the trip. The Exploration Flight Test-1 of the Orion crew vehicle in December 2014 was a major milestone, and the first flight of Space Launch System will be another. Later will come in-space propulsion systems, deep-space habitats, and more.
A photo of a rover wheel track on Mars that resembles a human footprint
An important thing to keep in mind when talking about Mars exploration is that we’re already there. This “footprint” photo was captured by the Spirit rover of a track left by one of its wheels, and is a good reminder that our robot explorers are already taking “first steps” on the Journey to Mars.

We’re still in the early phases of the Journey, when our human spaceflight is still “Earth-Dependent,” relying on the supply line and other benefits that come from proximity to our home planet.

Soon, we will begin a series of increasingly ambitious “Proving Ground” missions, traveling farther into space and testing new systems and capabilities.

Finally, when we’ve demonstrated we can be “Earth-Independent,” we’ll be Mars-ready. It will be time to take the next giant leap – possibly first into Mars orbit or the Martian moons, and ultimately to take our first steps on the surface of another planet.

Which brings us back to how you get to Mars – You build a rocket, and go.

All of those challenges will ultimately be solved with hardware – habitats to live in on the long journey, shielding to protect from radiation, supersonic decelerators to descend through the Martian atmosphere, advanced life support for living on the surface, and much more. There will be a lot of that hardware, and some of it will be truly massive. And none of it does any good sitting on the surface of the Earth. If you want to get to Mars, you have to be able to put all of that into space. And that’s where Space Launch System comes in. You have to build a rocket. A big one.

An artist’s depiction of an astronaut and rover on Mars’ moon Phobos
A mission to one of Mars’ moons could potentially provide an opportunity for meaningful scientific work while the final Mars entry, descent and landing systems are still being completed.

And none of it matters unless you do it. Wernher von Braun went on Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland television program in the 1950s to talk about going to Mars, and much time has been spent talking about going to Mars in the decades since, by NASA, other countries, technical societies, industry, and others. You have to talk about Mars, you have to plan, before you can go, but talking and planning alone won’t get you there. You have to do something.

Today NASA is doing something in a way that neither we nor anyone have before. NASA’s Journey to Mars is unique in that it is the first and so far only time that any organization has actually begun building systems designed for human exploration of Mars. We have a long way to go, but we’re taking the first steps.

How do you get to Mars?

You build a rocket.

And go.

Next Time: Four Lessons In Four Years

Join in the conversation: Visit our Facebook page to comment on the post about this blog. We’d love to hear your feedback!


David Hitt works in the strategic communications office of NASA’s Space Launch System Program. He began working in NASA Education at Marshall Space Flight Center in 2002, and is the author of two books on spaceflight history.

Fourth and Very Very Very Long

A graphic showing that SLS would stretch almost from one end of a football field to the other
Comparing space to football is a grand tradition that may well have been started by John F. Kennedy himself, who compared going to the moon with Rice playing Texas in his ‘We Choose to Go to the Moon’ speech. If it’s good enough for JFK, it’s good enough for me.

Ah, September. That wonderful time of year when the air becomes cooler, leaves begin to turn color, and every discussion is required by law to include football metaphors. You certainly won’t see me intentionally grounding such a great opportunity, so let’s talk about what it means to “go long” in human spaceflight.

The first launch of SLS will send the Orion spacecraft into a large lunar orbit beyond the moon. But, really, how does that compare to previous human spaceflight missions? Let’s use a comparison to a football field to find out.

In real life, a football field, from the back end of one end zone to the other, is just slightly longer than the 322-feet-tall SLS. But for the sake of this metaphor, we’re going to scale the distance Orion will reach at its farthest point on Exploration Mission-1 to the length of that field. Imagine you’re standing at the very end of the end zone of an American football field. In the distance, at the far end of the other end zone, 120 yards away, is the farthest point Orion will reach on EM-1. Are you imagining it? Good.

First play, we’re tossing from the back edge of our end zone to the International Space Station. Complete! We’re well on our way! Well, sort of. This doesn’t quite get you out of your own end zone. In fact, at about 230 miles — roughly the driving distance between New York and Washington, DC — you’ve only gained about three and a half inches on our field.

A graphic showing the International Space Station near the end of a football field
The vast majority of time Americans have spent in space has been around the altitude of the International Space Station, but it’s just the beginning of this journey.

For second down, we’re going to be a bit more aggressive. Back in 1966, almost 50 years ago, two astronauts, Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon, set an Earth orbit altitude record of 854 miles on the Gemini 11 mission – the farthest humans have been without heading to the moon. But even when Gordon takes the ball, you’ve only covered a total of one foot.

Third down, aiming farther still. The altitude record reached on Gemini 11 is less than a third of the altitude Orion reached on its first spaceflight, Exploration Flight Test-1, in December 2014. Using that altitude, 3,600 miles, for our next play, we’ll be just over one percent of the way to our goal, at a total of four feet and eight inches from where we started.

It’s now fourth down, and we’re still at the back of our own end zone. For an even longer distance, we’ll use the distance the International Space Station travels during one orbit of the Earth – 26,250 miles. This play gives us our first down, and also put us out of the end zone by almost four feet.

A graphic showing a map of the Earth outside the end zone of a football field
Technically, orbital mechanics means that the physics of two Robonauts both in the same orbit around the Earth throwing a football any substantial distance between them wouldn’t actually be possible. (Besides, wouldn’t it have been easier to throw it the other direction?)

Sticking with Earth orbit distances is getting us nowhere. We’ve got to be even more aggressive. A long Hail Mary throw sends the ball to the far end of the field, where it’s caught … by Neil Armstrong on the moon! The crowd goes wild! TOUCHD… Wait… What? That’s still only at the other eight-yard line? Oh, well. Let’s keep going.

A graphic showing an Apollo astronaut catching a football near the opposite end zone of a football field
For the record, that picture’s not really Neil Armstrong. Also, the football wasn’t really in this picture.

You look toward the end zone, and there’s astronaut Jim Lovell of Apollo 13! He’s open, and you make the pass. On their emergency free-return trajectory around the moon on Apollo 13, Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert traveled farther from Earth than anyone has ever been, almost 249,000 miles out. But although Lovell went around the moon on two different Apollo missions, he was never able to touch down, and, unfortunately, he doesn’t now, either. Even the human distance record from Earth is short of the end zone, by three and a half yards.

Back in formation, the quarterback steps back, fires to Orion, caught in the very back of the end zone for a 23 and a half yard gain from where Lovell had it! TOUCHDOWN! On EM-1, Orion will travel about 10 percent farther into space than Apollo ever did. Not bad for a first test flight.

A graphic showing Orion at the opposite end zone of a football field
TOUCHDOWN ORION!

And, from there it gets interesting. Since this was just the first possession, you’d better not let that arm get tired – on our field, the trip to Mars will be about a 77,000 yard pass. Now, THAT is going long.

Next Time: The Journey to Mars

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