As ISS Enters Its Final Years, Politics Take Center Stage

There was a time when the idea of an international space station would have been seen as little more than fantasy. After all, the human spaceflight programs of the United States and the Soviet Union were started largely as a Cold War race to see which country would be the first to weaponize low Earth orbit and secure what military strategists believed would be the ultimate high ground. Those early rockets, not so far removed from intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), were fueled as much by competition as they were kerosene and liquid oxygen.

Space Shuttle docked to Mir space station in 1995.
Atlantis docked to Mir in 1995.

Luckily, cooler heads prevailed. The Soviet Almaz space stations might have carried a 23 mm cannon adapted from tail-gun of the Tu-22 bomber to ward off any American vehicles that got too close, but the weapon was never fired in anger. Eventually, the two countries even saw the advantage of working together. In 1975, a joint mission saw the final Apollo capsule dock with a Soyuz by way of a special adapter designed to make up for the dissimilar docking hardware used on the two spacecraft.

Relations further improved following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, with America’s Space Shuttle making nine trips to the Russian Mir space station between 1995 and 1997. A new era of cooperation had begun between the world’s preeminent space-fairing countries, and with the engineering lessons learned during the Shuttle-Mir program, engineers from both space agencies began laying the groundwork for what would eventually become the International Space Station.

Unfortunately after more than twenty years of continuous US and Russian occupation of the ISS, it seems like the cracks are finally starting to form in this tentative scientific alliance. With accusations flying over who should take the blame for a series of serious mishaps aboard the orbiting laboratory, the outlook for future international collaboration in Earth orbit and beyond hasn’t been this poor since the height of the Cold War.

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An Amiga computer at NASA

Retrotechtacular: Amiga Pips The PC For Mission-Critical Computing At NASA

In 1986, a group of NASA engineers faced a difficult choice in solving their data processing woes: continue tolerating the poor performance of PC architecture, or pony up the cash for exotic workstations. It turns out that the Commodore Amiga was an intriguing third choice, except for the fact that, paradoxically, it didn’t cost enough. Oh, and Apple wanted nothing to do with any of it.

Steeped in history, NASA’s Hangar AE is a hub for launch vehicle telemetry and other mission communications, primarily during prelaunch phases for launches at Cape Canaveral. Throughout the late 20th century, Hangar AE supported NASA launch vehicles in all shapes and sizes, from the Atlas-Centaur evolutions to the mighty Titan family. It even supported user data from the Space Shuttle program. Telemetry from these missions was processed at Hangar AE before being sent out to other NASA boffins, and even transmitted worldwide to other participating space agencies.

Coming down from decades of astronomical levels of funding, the 1980s was all about tightening the belt, and NASA needed budget solutions that didn’t skimp on mission safety. The Commodore Amiga turned out to be the right choice for processing launch vehicle telemetry. And so it was still, when cameras from the Amiga Atlanta group were granted permission to film inside Hangar AE.

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No Hole In One: Perseverance Strikes Out On First Mars Core Attempt

There’s a military adage that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. While we haven’t gone to war with Mars, at least not yet, it does seem to be a place where the best-laid scientific plans are tested in the extreme. And the apparent failure of Perseverance to retrieve its first Martian core sample is yet another example of just how hard it is to perform geotechnical operations on another planet.

To be sure, a lot about the first sampling operation went right, an especially notable feat in that the entire process is autonomous. And as we’ve previously detailed, the process is not simple, involving three separate robotic elements that have to coordinate their operations perfectly. Telemetry indicates that the percussive drill on the end of the 2.1 m robotic arm was able to use its hollow coring bit to drill into the rock of Jezero crater, and that the sample tube inside the coring bit was successfully twisted to break off the core sample.

But what was supposed to happen next — jamming of the small core sample inside the sample tube — appears not to have happened. This was assessed by handing the sample tube off to the Sample Handling Arm in the belly of Perseverance, where a small probe is used to see how much material was recovered — none, in this case. NASA/JPL engineers then began a search for the problem. Engineering cameras didn’t reveal the core sample on the Martian surface, meaning the sample handling robots didn’t drop it. The core sample wasn’t in the borehole either, which would have meant the camming mechanism designed to retain the core didn’t work. The borehole, though, looked suspicious — it appears not to be deep enough, as if the core sample crumbled to dust and packed into the bottom of the hole.

If this proves to be the cause of the failure, it will be yet another example of Martian regolith not behaving as expected. For InSight, this discovery was a death knell to a large part of its science program. Thankfully, Perseverance can pick up and move to better rock, which is exactly what it will be doing in September. They still have 42 unused sample tubes to go, so here’s to better luck next time.

[Featured images: NASA/JPL-Caltech]

This Group Of Women Tried To Break Into Astronaut Program In 1960s; One Just Made It

When Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk reached the boundary of space aboard the first crewed flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule earlier today, it marked the end of a journey she started 60 years ago. In 1961 she became the youngest member of what would later become known as the “Mercury 13”, a group of accomplished female aviators that volunteered to be put through the same physical and mental qualification tests that NASA’s Mercury astronauts went through. But the promising experiment was cut short by the space agency’s rigid requirements for potential astronauts, and what John Glenn referred to in his testimony to the Committee on Science and Astronautics as the “social order” of America at the time.

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As Chinese Wheels Touch Martian Soil And Indian Astronauts Walk Towards The Launch Pad, Can We Hope For Another Space Race?

If you were born in the 1960s or early 1970s, the chances are that somewhere in your childhood ambitions lay a desire to be an astronaut or cosmonaut. Once Yuri Gagarin had circled the Earth and Neil Armstrong had walked upon the Moon, millions of kids imagined that they too would one day climb into a space capsule and join that elite band of intrepid explorers. Anything seems possible when you are a five-year-old, but of course the reality remains that only the very fewest of us ever made it to space.

Did You Once Dream Of The Stars?

The Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in Finland in 1961. Arto Jousi, Public domain.
The Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in Finland in 1961. Arto Jousi, Public domain.

The picture may be a little different for the youth of a few decades later though, did kids in the ’90s dream of the stars? Probably not. So what changed as Shuttle and Mir crews were passing overhead?

The answer is that the Space Race between the USA and Soviet Union which had dominated extra-terrestrial exploration from the 1950s to the ’70s had by then cooled down, and impressive though the building of the International Space Station was, it lacked the ability to electrify the public in the way that Sputnik, Vostok, or Apollo had. It was immensely cool to people like us, but the general public were distracted by other things and their political leaders were no longer ready to approve money-no-object budgets. We’d done space, and aside from the occasional bright spot in the form of space telescopes or rovers trundling across Mars, that was it. The hit TV comedy series The Big Bang Theory even had a storyline that found comedy in one of its characters serving on a mission to the ISS and being completely ignored on his return.

A few years ago a Chinese friend at my then-hackerspace was genuinely surprised that I knew the name of Yang Liwei, the Shenzhou 5 astronaut and the first person launched by his country into space. He’s a national hero in China but not so much on the rainy edge of Europe, where the Chinese space programme for all its progress at the time about a decade after Yang’s mission had yet to make a splash beyond a few space watchers and enthusiasts in hackerspaces. But this might be beginning to change.

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ISS Gets Roll-Out Solar Panels In Post-Shuttle Fix

Astronauts are currently installing the first of six new solar arrays on the International Space Station (ISS), in a bid to bolster the reduced power generation capability of the original panels which have now been in space for over twenty years. But without the Space Shuttle to haul them into orbit, developing direct replacements for the Stations iconic 34 meter (112 foot) solar “wings” simply wasn’t an option. So NASA has turned to next-generation solar arrays that roll out like a tape measure and are light and compact enough for the SpaceX Dragon to carry them into orbit.

Space Shuttle Atlantis carrying part of the ISS truss.

Considering how integral the Space Shuttle was to its assembly, it’s hardly a surprise that no major modules have been added to the ISS since the fleet of winged spacecraft was retired in 2011. The few small elements that have been installed, such as the new International Docking Adapters and the Nanoracks “Bishop” airlock, have had to fit into the rear unpressurized compartment of the Dragon capsule. While a considerable limitation, NASA had planned for this eventuality, with principle construction of the ISS always intended to conclude upon the retirement of the Shuttle.

But the International Space Station was never supposed to last as long as it has, and some components are starting to show their age. The original solar panels are now more than five years beyond their fifteen year service life, and while they’re still producing sufficient power to keep the Station running in its current configuration, their operational efficiency has dropped considerably with age. So in January NASA announced an ambitious timeline for performing upgrades the space agency believes are necessary to keep up with the ever-increasing energy demands of the orbiting laboratory.

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Apollo Shift Register Is Discrete

We’re unabashed fans of [Ken Shirriff] here at Hackaday, and his latest post about an Apollo-era transistorized shift register doesn’t disappoint. Of course, nowadays a 16-bit shift register is nothing special. But in 1965, this piece of Apollo test hardware weighed five pounds and likely cost at least one engineer’s salary in the day, if not more.

The incredible complexity of the the Apollo spacecraft required NASA to develop a sophisticated digital system that would allow remote operators to execute tests and examine results from control rooms miles away from the launch pad.

This “Computer Buffer Unit” was used to hold commands for the main computer since a remote operator could not use the DSKY to enter commands directly. Externally the box looks like a piece of military hardware, and on the inside has six circuit boards stacked like the pages of a book. To combat Florida’s notoriously damp conditions, the enclosure included a desiccant bag and a way to fill the device with nitrogen. A humidity indicator warned when it was time to change the bag.

There is a lot more in the post, so if you are interested in unusual construction techniques that were probably the precursor to integrated circuits, diode transistor logic, or just think old space hardware is cool, you’ll enjoy a peek inside this unusual piece of gear. Be sure to check out some of [Ken]’s previous examinations, fromĀ tiny circuits to big computers.