Apollo’s PLSS And The Science Of Keeping Humans Alive In Space

Ever since humans came up with the bright idea to explore parts of the Earth which were significantly less hospitable to human life than the plains of Africa where humankind evolved, there’s been a constant pressure to better protect ourselves against the elements to keep our bodies comfortable. Those first tests of a new frontier required little more than a warm set of clothes. Over the course of millennia, challenging those frontiers became more and more difficult. In the modern age we set our sights on altitude and space, where a warm set of clothes won’t do much to protect you.

With the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the heating up of the space race between the US and USSR, many firsts had to be accomplished with minimal time for testing and refinement. From developing 1945’s then state-of-the-art V-2 sounding rockets into something capable of launching people to the moon and beyond, to finding out what would be required to keep people alive in Earth orbit and on the Moon. Let’s take a look at what was required to make this technological marvel happen, and develop the Portable Life Support System — an essential component of those space suits that kept astronauts so comfortable they were able to crack jokes while standing on the surface of the Moon.

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An (Almost) Free Apollo-Era Rocket

According to recent news reports, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville Alabama wants to give away a piece of history — an engineering test article of a Saturn I Block I booster. The catch? You’ll need to pay to haul it off, which will cost about $250,000. According to C|Net, the offer appears to be for museums and schools, but it’s likely that price tag would probably scare most private buyers off anyway.

On the other hand, if you are a museum, library, school, or university, you can score cheap or free NASA stuff using their GSAXcess portal. In general, you do have to pay shipping. For example, a flexible thermal blanket from the shuttle costs $37.28. A heat tile runs about $25.

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India Launched A Moon Orbiter, Lander, And Rover All In One Shot With Chandrayaan-2

On July 22nd, India launched an ambitious mission to simultaneously deliver an orbiter, lander, and rover to the Moon. Launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on a domestically-built GSLV Mk III rocket, Chandrayaan-2 is expected to enter lunar orbit on August 20th. If everything goes well, the mission’s lander module will touch down on September 7th.

Attempting a multifaceted mission of this nature is a bold move, but the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) does have the benefit of experience. The Chandrayaan-1 mission, launched in 2008, spent nearly a year operating in lunar orbit. That mission also included the so-called Moon Impact Probe (MIP), which deliberately crashed into the surface near the Shackleton crater. The MIP wasn’t designed to survive the impact, but it still secured India a position on the short list of countries that have placed an object on the lunar surface.

If the lander component of Chandrayaan-2, named Vikram after Indian space pioneer Vikram Sarabhai, can safely touch down on the lunar surface it will be a historic accomplishment for the ISRO. To date, the only countries to perform a controlled landing on the Moon are the Soviet Union, the United States, and China. Earlier in the year, it seemed Israel would secure its position as the fourth country to perform the feat with their Beresheet spacecraft, but a last second fault caused the craft to crash into the surface. The loss of Beresheet, while unfortunate, has given India an unexpected chance to take the coveted fourth position despite Israel’s head start.

We have a few months before the big event, but so far, everything has gone according to plan for Chandrayaan-2. As we await word that the spacecraft has successfully entered orbit around the Moon, let’s take a closer look at how this ambitious mission is supposed to work.

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The Death Of A Weather Satellite As Seen By SDR

What is this world coming to when a weather satellite that was designed for a two-year mission starts to fail 21 years after launch? I mean, really — where’s the pride these days?

All kidding aside, it seems like NOAA-15, a satellite launched in 1998 to monitor surface temperatures and other meteorologic and climatologic parameters, has recently started showing its age. This is the way of things, and generally the decommissioning of a satellite is of little note to the general public, except possibly when it deorbits in a spectacular but brief display across the sky.

But NOAA-15 and her sister satellites have a keen following among a community of enthusiasts who spend their time teasing signals from them as they whiz overhead, using homemade antennas and cheap SDR receivers. It was these hobbyists who were among the first to notice NOAA-15’s woes, and over the past weeks they’ve been busy alternately lamenting and celebrating as the satellite’s signals come and go. Their on-again, off-again romance with the satellite is worth a look, as is the what exactly is going wrong with this bird in the first place.

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Holey Moley: Fixing The Mars InSight Mole

In the early 1990s, NASA experienced a sea change in the way it approached space exploration. Gone were the days when all their programs would be massive projects with audacious goals. The bulk of NASA’s projects would fall under the Discovery Project and hew to the mantra “faster, better, cheaper,” with narrowly focused goals and smaller budgets, with as much reuse of equipment as possible.

The idea for what would become the Mars InSight mission first appeared in 2010 and was designed to explore Mars in ways no prior mission had. Where Viking had scratched the surface in the 1970s looking for chemical signs of life and the rovers of the Explorer program had wandered about exploring surface geology, InSight was tasked with looking much, much deeper into the Red Planet.

Sadly, InSight’s primary means of looking at what lies beneath the regolith of Mars is currently stuck a few centimeters below the surface. NASA and JPL engineers are working on a fix, and while it’s far from certain that that they’ll succeed, things have started to look up for InSight lately. Here’s a quick look at what the problem is, and a potential solution that might get the mission back on track.

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Recreating Space Cameras

[Cole Price] describes himself as a photographer and a space nerd. We’ll give that to him since his web site clearly shows a love of cameras and a love of the NASA programs from the 1960s. [Cole] has painstakingly made replicas of cameras used in the space program including a Hasselblad 500C used on a Mercury flight and another Hasselblad used during Apollo 11. His work is on display in several venues — for example, the 500C is in the Carl Zeiss headquarters building.

[Cole’s] only made a detailed post about 500C and a teaser about the Apollo 11 camera. However, there’s a lot of detail about what NASA — and an RCA technician named [Red Williams] — did to get the camera space-ready.

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Why Spacecraft Of The Future Will Be Extruded

It’s been fifty years since man first landed on the Moon, but despite all the incredible advancements in technology since Armstrong made that iconic first small step, we’ve yet to reach any farther into deep space than we did during the Apollo program. The giant leap that many assumed would naturally follow the Moon landing, such as a manned flyby of Venus, never came. We’ve been stuck in low Earth orbit (LEO) ever since, with a return to deep space perpetually promised to be just a few years away.

Falcon Heavy Payload Fairing

But why? The short answer is, of course, that space travel is monstrously expensive. It’s also dangerous and complex, but those issues pale in comparison to the mind-boggling bill that would be incurred by any nation that dares to send humans more than a few hundred kilometers above the surface of the Earth. If we’re going to have any chance of getting off this rock, the cost of putting a kilogram into orbit needs to get dramatically cheaper.

Luckily, we’re finally starting to see some positive development on that front. Commercial launch providers are currently slashing the cost of putting a payload into space. In its heyday, the Space Shuttle could carry 27,500 kg (60,600 lb) to LEO, at a cost of approximately $500 million per launch. Today, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy can put 63,800 kg (140,700 lb) into the same orbit for less than $100 million. It’s still not pocket change, but you wouldn’t be completely out of line to call it revolutionary, either.

Unfortunately there’s a catch. The rockets being produced by SpaceX and other commercial companies are relatively small. The Falcon Heavy might be able to lift more than twice the mass as the Space Shuttle, but it has considerably less internal volume. That wouldn’t be a problem if we were trying to hurl lead blocks into space, but any spacecraft designed for human occupants will by necessity be fairly large and contain a considerable amount of empty space. As an example, the largest module of the International Space Station would be too long to physically fit inside the Falcon Heavy fairing, and yet it had a mass of only 15,900 kg (35,100 lb) at liftoff.

To maximize the capabilities of volume constrained boosters, there needs to be a paradigm shift in how we approach the design and construction of crewed spacecraft. Especially ones intended for long-duration missions. As it so happens, exciting research is being conducted to do exactly that. Rather than sending an assembled spacecraft into orbit, the hope is that we can eventually just send the raw materials and print it in space.

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