Archive for December, 2015

Soyuz arrives at station 50 years after first space rendezvous by Gemini

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015

December 15, 2015 – Fifty years ago, two spacecraft met in orbit, achieving the world’s first rendezvous between two piloted vehicles.

On Tuesday (Dec. 15), two more spacecraft did the same, but as a matter of course, underscoring the progress made in the past half century of human spaceflight.

At 11:33 a.m. CST (1733 GMT), just about six hours after it launched, Russia’s Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft pulled up alongside the International Space Station, bringing a three member crew to the orbiting outpost. It was the 45th time a Soyuz had caught up with the space station and the tenth expedited rendezvous after orbiting the Earth four times.

The space capsule to space station meeting coincided with the 50th anniversary of the first-ever rendezvous between NASA’s Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 spacecraft. That feat, on Dec. 15, 1965, marked the first time the United States had surpassed the former Soviet Union in the Cold War space race that drove that era of space exploration.

Enlarge and view video in a new pop-up window. (Smithsonian)
More importantly, it demonstrated a crucial skill needed to land astronauts on the moon just four years later, as well as all that came after, including operating the space station to this day.

“It has really been an evolutionary path for us,” said NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, a flight engineer on the Soyuz TMA-19M crew, reflecting on the anniversary in a preflight press briefing held at the launch site on Monday. “I think all of us look at those predecessors as our heroes, just as they are to many people in the American and international public.”

Historical happenstance

Originally, Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 weren’t intended to meet in orbit. The Gemini 6 mission was tasked with catching up with an unmanned target, while, separately, Gemini 7 was to demonstrate that astronauts could spend two weeks in space, the maximum length for a mission to the moon.

Gemini 7 still achieved its intended 14-day goal, but after Gemini 6 lost its mark, a spent Agena rocket upper stage, in a launch failure, the flight was quickly re-planned, such that the pair of two-man space capsules would attempt the first rendezvous.

The Gemini 7 spacecraft as photographed by the Gemini 6 crew on Dec. 15, 1965 during the first space rendezvous. (NASA)
Gemini 7 launched Dec. 4, 1965 with crew members Frank Borman and Jim Lovell on board.

Eleven days later, Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford lifted off on Gemini 6. (The successful launch came three days later than scheduled after a tail plug designed to separate from the Titan II rocket at liftoff fell off prematurely, resulting in a last second engine cutoff during the first launch attempt on Dec. 12.)

Three hours and 15 minutes after safely reaching orbit, the radar on Gemini 6 made contact with Gemini 7 as the two capsules were still 270 miles (435 kilometers) apart. Soon thereafter, Schirra radioed a Tally-ho, making voice contact with Borman.

“We’re looking for you,” the Gemini 6 command pilot said. “Hang on, we’ll be up there shortly.”

Though the Soviet Union had twice launched simultaneous pairs of manned Vostok spacecraft in 1962 and 1963, the cosmonauts only achieved radio contact, coming no closer than several miles of each other.

The Gemini 6 spacecraft as photographed by the Gemini 7 crew on Dec. 15, 1965, including a “Beat Army” sign in the window. (NASA)
By comparison, Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 moved within one foot (0.3 meters) of each other, close enough that the two crews could read the “Beat Army” and “Beat Navy” signs they held up in their respective windows.

“We’re flying in formation with [Gemini] 7,” Schirra radioed. “Everything is go here.”

“Looks like the flag and the letters are seared as much at launch as they are when you come back at re-entry,” said Lovell, describing the markings on the side of the Gemini 6 spacecraft.

The two capsules flew together in orbit for about five hours before Gemini 6 fired thrusters to back away from Gemini 7 and begin the return home the following day.

Same premise, different skills

Fifty years later, the crew of Soyuz TMA-19M were letting their on board software handle flying the rendezvous to the International Space Station, when the automated approach was aborted. The crew then took over manual control.

Separated by 50 years, the crew patches for Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 and Soyuz TMA-19M and ISS Expedition 46. (NASA/Roscosmos)
“It is designed to automatically occur all the way through hooks latching, which is a great thing,” Kopra said during an interview with collectSPACE this past September. “But [the crew] is trained so that if things happen where we can no longer have the automatic mode, we can download and go to manual.”

This is Kopra’s second rendezvous with the space station, after a earlier flight in 2009 when he launched and landed on the now-retired space shuttle.

“In general, in principle, it is the same,” he said, describing the differences in flying the rendezvous on the shuttle and on the Soyuz. “The approach rate and the mechanics of it are different hand controller skills. The big picture is it’s the same process, but when you get down to individual skills it is a lot different.”

Now docked to the space station, Kopra, along with crew mates Yuri Malenchenko of Roscosmos and Tim Peake of the European Space Agency (ESA), are set to live on orbit for the next six months.

Buzz at the 50th anniversary of the first Rendezvous

Tuesday, December 15th, 2015

Buzz Aldrin will be at the 50th Anniversary of the Historic World’s First Rendezvous in Space, highlighting the Gemini VI-A and Gemini VII Missions
And a celebration of the Gemini Program
held at the Oklahoma Historic Center on December 16, 2015.

Young boy is over the moon after meeting Buzz Aldrin

Friday, December 11th, 2015

Morning Express’ meteorologist Bob Van Dillen jumped at the chance to choose a charity for #GivingExpress. As a father, Bob loves making his kids smile and the Make-A-Wish Foundation was an easy choice to be the charity he wanted to share with the HLN audience.

Make-A-Wish works to make wishes come true for kids with life-threatening medical conditions. They believe that granting these wishes will not only create a day of happiness for the child and their family, but it can also be a game-changer by giving these children new hope and a renewed spirit to beat their illnesses and achieve even more dreams.

The spotlight wish that Bob shares with us is a great example of this. Ethan Jogola has cystic fibrosis, a life-threatening pulmonary condition. But Ethan is thinking more about the stars he sees through his telescope. Make-A-Wish brought Ethan and his family to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex where they were greeted by a very special tour guide — Buzz Aldrin!

Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, was more than happy to spend the day with young Ethan. Aldrin’s ShareSpace Foundation is focused on helping children become excited for science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) and to cultivate this curiosity into a lifelong engagement in innovation. Ethan’s passion for space is exactly what the ShareSpace Foundation is trying to foster, and it even got Aldrin excited as he and Ethan talked about the recent discoveries on Mars and the need for future astronauts.

So it was perfect that their day concluded with a private NASA screening of the movie “The Martian,” which was also attended by a few of the stars of the film. Ethan was all smiles, sharing his plans to be an astronaut one day and help get us to the red planet!

The Make-A-Wish Foundation grants more than 14,000 wishes in the U.S. every year. However, Make-A-Wish says there are an estimated 27,000 children each year who are diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition and may be eligible for a wish. To learn how you can help make more wishes come true, visit

The Smithsonian is 3-D scanning Apollo 11 to share with the digital generation

Thursday, December 10th, 2015

For almost 40 years, the Apollo 11 command module has rested behind a plastic shield in the National Air and Space Museum.

Now visitors may not have to journey to Washington, D.C., to see inside the craft that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins traveled in during their historic trip to the moon and back. This week, the Smithsonian has begun to 3D scan the vessel to develop a digital tour that anyone with an Internet connection could take.

“We recognize that it has enormous significance — cultural significance as well as engineering and technical significance,” said Allan A. Needell, who curates the Smithsonian’s Apollo collection. “The challenge is how to translate the experience of an object for a new generation who doesn’t have a personal familiarity with it.”

The Smithsonian’s digitization team is working with the 3-D design company Autodesk to capture photos and laser scans of the inside and exterior of the command module. They’ll then mash the images and 3-D scans together for a colorful 3-D representation of the spacecraft.

Here’s a early look at what the 3-D scanning has captured. (Screenshot via Smithsonian Institution)
All parties involved call it their most challenging project yet, given the craft’s small size — no one can climb inside to capture images — and its titanium surfaces, which do not accurately reflect the lasers used to map the craft. There are also structural beams inside the spacecraft that block the laser, depending on the angle it is shooting at. Lighting is also a challenge. On Monday morning, one team member shined a flashlight through a window to help illuminate the cabin.

Eventually the plan is for students — or anyone — to be able to download a digital representation of the spacecraft and 3-D print a small replica. While all details of the project aren’t final, there’s talk of potentially using virtual reality to let someone put on a headset and be immersed in the experience of the cabin.

Smithsonian and Autodesk employees conduct a 3-D scan of the spacecraft. (Matt McFarland/The Washington Post)
“We have an opportunity to basically present to them an experience which is visually almost identical to if you were allowed to go in and lie down on one of those seats,” Needell said.

The team scanning the command module is clogging their hard drives with data from a handful of cameras and a $200,000 laser scanner. Following four days of scanning this week, they’ll be spending two months sifting through it all. In February, they plan to revisit the module and do more scanning.

This is a convenient time to do the scanning because the museum is developing a new gallery based around the command module. It will open by the end of the decade, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing — July 20, 2019.

The team is using cameras and laser scanners to capture every crevice in the spacecraft. Here we see its exterior. (Matt McFarland/The Washington Post)

Contenders: Writers on Writers The Martian

Thursday, December 10th, 2015

Screenplay by Drew Goddard, based on the novel by Andy Weir

By Buzz Aldrin

I saw the future in my viewing of Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” an entertaining, exciting and thought-provoking science “fiction” film. The challenge ahead is to transform that fiction into fact.

I was very impressed with the script’s realism, admittedly played a little over the top in certain places for drama and suspense purposes. It showcases what any sound plan for sending humans to Mars must deal with: radiation; Martian whirl-winds of sand; the need to create all the necessities of life, down to oxygen and food; the vast distance from Earth that plays havoc with speedy back-and-forth communications and the resulting loneliness and isolation; and both the individualism and the teamwork required to overcome serious trouble on another planet.

In my mind, there’s another comforting and compelling fact about “The Martian.” It is not a saga of aggression and combat like “Star Wars.” Nor does it imagine travel to Mars beginning centuries from now. It is set just a few years from now and portrays international cooperation — a mission drawing upon the talents and competence of numerous nations. That is the blueprint for success in reaching the Red Planet, then nurturing an ever-increasing human presence there. In short, survive and thrive.

On my travels, I constantly meet future Martians: young adventurers hungry for space exploration. Indeed, there are 10-year-olds today that in 2030 will be getting ready for travel to Mars. I sense that many of those intrepid explorers were impelled to plant their feet on Mars because they read and watched “The Martian.”

Buzz Aldrin, best known for his Apollo 11 moonwalk, is co-author (with Leonard David) of “Mission to Mars – My Vision for Space Exploration,” published in 2013 by the National Geographic Society, and the new children’s book, “Welcome to Mars: Making a Home on the Red Planet,” (with Marianne Dyson).