Tag Archive: visiting vehicles

After NASA retired its shuttle fleet in 2011, it left the United States without a domestic way to transport astronauts and cargo into space.  The International Space Station (ISS), of course, is up there 24-7, and funded until 2020.  It may even operate until 2028, but that dream can only continue with the continued transport of people and cargo to the ISS.  Right now for humans,  our only source for transportation is the Russian Soyuz.  Russia,  Japan and Europe were able to help us transfer cargo via ProgressHTV and ATV respectively.  But, until Dragon’s successful mission in May this year (2012), no cargo vehicles could return a significant volume of payloads to Earth.  Of course it doesn’t have the payload capacity of shuttle, but it is certainly a step in the right direction since Progress, HTV, and ATV all burn up on re-entry, and Soyuz has an extremely limited payload capacity.

Dragon is the first commercial vehicle in history to successfully attach to the ISS, and is a great leap in getting the United States a foot hold in manned space flight again.  Previously, only government entities had ever accomplished such a mission.  SpaceX is working to get a crewed version of Dragon, which would carry up to seven astronauts to the ISS, and potentially deep space destinations such as Mars.  Their target launch price for crewed flights is roughly estimated at $20,000,000 per seat, which is a significant contrast with the current Soyuz launch cost of $63,000,000 per seat.  Plus, this keeps that money here in the United States rather than investing overseas.  Dragon is expecting to begin flying people to space within the next few years.

So what else is coming for the future of U.S. space flight?  A lot actually.  There are at least 10 new vehicles in the makings, and most of them are commercial ventures though not all of them will go to the ISS.  One of the vehicles expected to start this year is XCOR’s Lynx.  The Lynx is a two passenger suborbital vehicle that will take humans and payloads on a half-hour flight and then return to the takeoff runway.  The Lynx can take off and return to Earth up to four times a day, and at ~$95,000 per seat it is relatively cost effective.  It can reach a suborbital alttude up to 100 km (330,000 feet).

Virgin Galactic’s has plans for its own two passenger suborbital spaceflight vehicle, known as SpaceShip Two.  While the Lynx uses its own rocket propulsion system to get to and from space, SpaceShip Two will be carried by a mothership known as WhiteKnightTwo.  At a cost of $200,000 for a seat, Shapeship Two will reach altitudes of about 100km (330,000 feet).  Virgin Galactic expects to begin commercial operations in 2013 or 2014.

Dream Chaser is Sierra Nevada Corporation’s suborbital spacecraft.  It will carry seven astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit, and will launch vertically atop a rocket but land on a runway like an airplane. Dream Chaser’s primary mission will be to dock with the International Space Station and carry both crew and cargo safely into space and back to Earth.  This space plane is expected be ready to begin operations as early as 2016.

Stratolaunch Systems is working on an air launch system to launch rockets into space from a carrier plane that would be the biggest aircraft in history.  The carrier craft will have a wingspan of 385 feet (117 meters), and initially plans to send cargo and satellites into space.  Test flights are planned to start in 2015, with real launches in 2016.  Eventually, they hope to launch astronauts into space as well.

Bigelow Aerospace has a unique outlook on the future of space flight, and is working to design and build private expandable space stations using their inflatable technology.  In 2006 and 2007, Bigelow launched orbiting prototypes Genesis I and Genesis II and will eventually launch a module to expand the capabilities of the ISS.  They already have partnerships with Boeing and SpaceX to transport passengers and from Bigelow’s “space hotels.”   Of course the term space hotel is only a loose label that got applied since Bigelow’s founder is also in the apartment business.  Planned clientele is actually slated to include governmental and corporate entities interested in building an astronaut program or performing microgravity research.

Blue Origin is developing both suborbital (New Shepard) and orbital space craft (The Space Vehicle), and expects to contract with NASA to transport astronauts to and from the ISS.  These vehicles plan use reusable booster rockets, first perfecting them with their suborbital program and then moving on further into their orbital space program.  The Space Vehicle should be ready to begin commercial operations between 2016 and 2018.

Bigger and more established companies such as Boeing are keeping their foot in the door as well.  The CST-100 will carry up to 7 passengers  to and from the ISS and low Earth orbit.   Each capsule is designed to make up to 10 space flights, and operations are expected to begin in 2016.

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People are often surprised when I tell them that I work for NASA.  “Didn’t they cancel NASA?”  “Oh… they still have jobs?”  “What do you do without the space shuttle?”  Well, no we didn’t cancel NASA, yes they still have jobs, and there’s this other multi-billion dollar project in the manned space flight program known as the International Space Station, aka the “ISS”.  The ISS is the largest, most complex international systems engineering project ever constructed by mankind.  It includes partnerships from the United StatesRussiaCanadaJapan, and Europe.  Construction of this project began in 1998. It  is currently funded until 2020, and may operate until 2028.  There’s a lot of good info about it here on wikipedia.  There is also a pretty cool app in development about it with an interactive website.

Wow, you mean there’s this big space ship floating up there 24-7 and I didn’t know about it?

Yes.  It just doesn’t get as much hype as projects like the Shuttle cause hey, let’s face it, it’s really cool when things go boom and blast off into space on a big ball of fire.  Plus there’s less of an impending sense of doom for the news casters to focus on when reporting, too.  Bet you didn’t know China has a space station up there either.  Or a manned space vehicle for that matter.  In fact, they just launched a crew of 3 along with their first female astronaut to Tiangong 1 just yesterday, June 16th 2012.  They’re slated to arrive at the Tiangong 1 station Monday June 18th with a fully automated docking system.

So what do you do at NASA?

Well, I’m actually a flight controller.  I work under the call sign PLUTO, which stands for Plug-in Port Utilization Officer (notice that when you google that you can easily get 20,000 different versions of what the acronym stands for.  I promise this is the right one).  The name PLUTO is inherited from the flight controller’s original role, which was to maintain and coordinate changes to the U.S. segment of the electrical Plug-in Plan (PiP). The PiP is the tracking of portable electronic equipment, making sure equipment connected is compatible and does not violate constraints, and will not overdraw the power source. Along with this, PLUTO is responsible for maintaining the OPSLAN (Operations Local Area Network) and the JSL (Joint Station LAN). PLUTO has remote desktop administration and monitoring capability to the network from the ground, which includes remote desktop commanding for ROBONAUT activities. (You can actually find some photos of me on Robonaut’s home page if you look hard enough ;)) The PLUTO is also responsible for certain Station Developmental Test Objectives, or SDTOs during the mission, such as programming the Wireless Instrumentation System (WIS).  (Gee that looks just like what came out of Wikipedia!  Well, I wrote the entry, so I can copy it :P)

I wouldn’t recommend trusting everything you google about the OPSLAN and the JSL if you guys plan to look that stuff up.  I see an awful lot of outdated resources out there referencing REALLY old technology and control documents.  While we don’t have the latest and greatest stuff up there, it’s not as bad as some of those websites lead you to believe.  So why aren’t we using the latest greatest toys if we’re supposed to be so cutting edge?  Well, NASA has to prioritize and scrutinize to get the best bang for the buck.  When everything you fly has to be tested and modified to handle a weightless, radioactive environment, it’s a lot more expensive to buy new stuff.  For example, computer RAM is extremely susceptible to radiation bombardment.  And, imagine non-captured screws getting lost and floating around where they could damage electrical equipment or injure astronauts.  Additionally, many laptops these days have drop protection which, when an impact seems imminent, the laptop’s hard drive stops writing data and the read/write head is retracted.  That doesn’t help much when your laptop is in a constant state of free fall.  Neither do iPad accelerometers.  But hey, we still get to do tomorrow’s science today, even if it’s with a lot of yesterday’s technology.

In September, I’ll be moving over to start life as an Integration Systems Engineer (ISE, pronounced “ice”).  ISE is a specialist position that functions as the systems liaison between ISS and visiting vehicles that are berthed to the U.S. side of ISS. This includes HTVDragon, and Cygnus.  Here’s an interview by one of my coworkers that provides a pretty good overview of what I’ll be doing.  He talks about the first Dragon mission to the international space station.  SpaceX‘s Dragon is the first vehicle from NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, and is working on becoming a man-rated space vehicle in the near future.

These of course are not the only vehicles docking with the ISS.  Russia has two vehicles, Progress and Soyuz.  Progress is a cargo vehicle, and Soyuz flies 3 astronauts/cosmonauts at a time.  Presently, Soyuz is the only way to get people back and forth to the ISS, and depending on the number of crew, 1-2 Soyuz (3-6 crew) stay docked to the ISS at all times as “life boats” for them to return home in.  ATV is ESA’s cargo vehicle.  Note that Dragon and Soyuz are the only space vehicles that return to Earth intact.  The rest burn up on re-entry, and act as ISS trash disposal when they’re undocked.

What kind of science does the international space station do?

Well, the ISS is basically a big orbiting laboratory filled with everybody’s favorite lab rats, known as astronauts and cosmonauts.  There is a lot of research going on in medicine, education, physics, technology, biology and biotechnology, chemistry, robotics, earth and life sciences, and more.  You can learn a bit more about the different research and experiments we have going on at NASA’s homepage.  Did you know we have mice in space?

I hope this has been educational for you all!

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