Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Station Crew Back to Work After Soyuz Move

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Following the relocation of a Soyuz spacecraft Monday, the Expedition 24 crew of the International Space Station focused on systems maintenance and science experiments Tuesday, as well as on orientation activities for the three newest crew members.

Commander Alexander Skvortsov and Flight Engineers Tracy Caldwell Dyson, Doug Wheelock, Mikhail Kornienko, Fyodor Yurchikhin and Shannon Walker got a late start on the day, as they adjust their sleep schedules back to normal following Monday’s relocation of the Soyuz TMA-19 spacecraft. Yurchikhin, Wheelock and Walker undocked their Soyuz spacecraft from the aft end of the Zvezda service module at 3:13 pm. EDT on Monday and docked it to its new location on the recently installed Rassvet module 25 minutes later.

Kornienko began his workday Tuesday photographing the docking cone of the Rassvet module to document any scuffmarks left by the docking with Soyuz TMA-19. He also performed maintenance on the life-support system located in Zvezda and conducted an audit of items plugged into power outlets throughout the Russian segment of the station.

As the newest Expedition 24 crew members, Yurchikhin, Wheelock and Walker spent part of Tuesday on activities to help them adjust to living and working in the weightless environment of the station. The three flight engineers, along with Skvortsov, practiced procedures to quickly secure the station and board their Soyuz spacecraft in the event of an emergency. Along with familiarization activities with the incumbent crew, all new crew members also have an hour set aside daily during their first two weeks to study the station’s layout on their own.

Caldwell Dyson worked with the Coarsening in Solid-Liquid Mixtures-2 experiment, which studies the way that particles of tin suspended in a molten tin/lead mixture increase in size – a process known as coarsening – without the influence of the Earth’s gravity. This work has direct applications to metal alloy manufacturing on Earth, including materials critical for aerospace applications.

Additionally, Caldwell Dyson assisted flight controllers with a check out of new software for the station’s 58-foot robotic arm, Canadarm2, throughout the afternoon.

Meanwhile, Walker participated in several experiments studying the effects of long-duration spaceflight on astronauts. As part of one such investigation, known as Pro K, scientists will monitor Walker’s diet during the mission to learn whether a decreased ratio of animal protein to potassium will lead to decreased loss of bone mineral. Researchers anticipate that this study will lead to a better definition of the nutritional requirements of future space travelers and may offer a method of counteracting bone loss with virtually no risk of side effects.

At the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the next Russian supply ship bound for the orbital outpost stands ready for its launch Wednesday at 11:35 a.m. ISS Progress 38 will deliver almost 2,000 pounds of propellant, 110 pounds of oxygen, 220 pounds of water and 2,667 pounds of equipment and supplies when it arrives at the station Friday.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Space shuttle missions likely to be postponed: NASA

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The two final US space shuttle missions before the shuttle program is phased out will likely be postponed, a NASA spokesperson told AFP.

"It's not official yet but it's very likely," said Allard Beutel, media services chief at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"The decision will be officially announced July 1st," he said.

The US space shuttles are being retired after President Barack Obama opted not to fund a successor program, deciding instead to encourage private spacecraft development.

The final two shuttle missions are both to the orbiting International Space Station (ISS).

The shuttle Discovery's flight to the ISS, scheduled for September 16, will likely be moved to October 29 at 2144 GMT, while the final flight of the shuttle Endeavour, currently scheduled for late November, will likely be postponed to February 28, 2011, Beutel said.

The French Higher Education Minister Valerie Pecresse, who met NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on a visit to the United States this week, told AFP that she has been invited to the next shuttle launch on October 29.

The Endeavour's mission was already postponed from its original July 29 launch date to replace a part on the 1.5-billion-dollar Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer due for ISS delivery -- the device will delve into the mysterious dark matter thought to permeate the universe.

The Discovery mission will deliver replacement parts for the Italian-made Pressurized Multipurpose Module (PMM) Leonardo, which will be permanently attached to the ISS.

The postponement of Discovery's mission to October 29 put it too close to Endeavour's first rescheduled launch date in November and the sun's disadvantageous position in following weeks forced the mission to be pushed back to February, NASA said.

Endeavour's end-of-the-year launch would also have clashed with space launches by Japan and Russia during that time, the agency added.

Once the shuttle program ends, the United States will rely on Russia's Soyuz rockets to carry its astronauts to the space station until a commercial US launcher can be developed. That is scheduled for 2015.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Would-be astronauts eye future

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Young dreamers still arrive at Purdue University's "cradle of astronauts" with hopes of following in the footsteps of Neil Armstrong, Gus Grissom and David Wolf.

Inspired by 30 years of breath-taking space shuttle launches and astronauts walking in space, students have been driven to join Purdue's elite group of 22 astronauts and thousands of lesser-known engineers who have played vital roles in shuttle missions.

But those dreams could be dashed, or delayed, by the government's decision to permanently retire the shuttle program and leave the future of American space travel in limbo for what some fear could be years.

"There is no replacement for the space shuttle, and the people that worked on that program are going to have no place to go," said Dan Kolenz, a senior in Purdue's aeronautics and astronautics program. "These people will either lose their jobs or they will be relocated to a different workplace, which in the end will make it harder for people like me to get a job in the industry."

President Barack Obama plans to move forward with the development of a new space vehicle, relying on private industry to do the heavy lifting of designing and testing the system, providing hope for many other students who aren't looking to fly a shuttle but are looking for jobs as engineers, researchers and designers -- even if those jobs won't be found at NASA.

Purdue, which has about 600 students in its space-based program, says the end of the shuttle program will not cause it to change its current curriculum. But the university will continue to broaden its appeal to students, including a new generation of those who already see their futures in the private sector.

'An opportunity'

"You can look at this as an opportunity. We've been seeing a lot of our graduates opting for private companies like SpaceX," said professor Marc Williams, referring to the California-based company that has been chosen by NASA to develop a rocket and spacecraft to resupply the International Space Station in 2011.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Shuttle swan song delayed to 2011

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Managers of NASA's space shuttle program are seeking a shift in the launch schedule that would delay the fleet's final launch until February 2011 at the earliest.

The schedule shift would have the shuttle Discovery to lift off on Oct. 29 instead of Sept. 16, and schedule Endeavour's flight for no earlier than Feb. 28, 2011, rather than in November as previously scheduled. Managers asked for the shift this afternoon in a "Change of Launch" request issued to all invoved in those two flights, according to Jay Barbree, NBC News' Cape Canaveral correspondent.

Discovery is to deliver the Italian-built Leonardo logistics module to the International Space Station and install it as a permanent addition to the complex. Endeavour will bring up the $1.5 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, an international physics experiment.

"These two flights will be the last for the space shuttle fleet unless a plan to launch space shuttle Atlantis on a full-up supply run a year from now is approved," Barbree says.

NASA is already getting Atlantis ready as a backup rescue shuttle in case something goes wrong during Endeavour's mission. Assuming that Atlantis isn't needed for an unprecedented rescue, NASA has been talking about using that shuttle and a minimal crew to deliver more supplies to the station in mid-2011. Members of Congress are likely to be amenable to that plan.

NASA public affairs officials said they could not comment on Barbree's report but noted that schedule changes have been under discussion for weeks. The factors that could contribute to a delay include the need to retrofit the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer for a longer stint on the space station, the potential for a space traffic jam involving Russian or Japanese supply craft, and the limited number of opportunities for launch due to unfavorable sun angles.

NASASpaceflight.com has been following the discussions over the space agency's shuttle manifest like a hawk, and we'll pass along any further information about the shuttle schedule as it becomes available.

Update for 6:30 p.m. ET: Space.com quotes Mike Curie, a spokesman at NASA Headquarters in Washington, as saying that the request for the schedule shift is still being reviewed, and that a final decision will be made July 1. "They just need a little bit more time to get some of the spare hardware ready to fly" on Discovery this fall, Curie said. He said such a delay could have a domino effect on Endeavour's later mission because of the turnaround time required between launches, plus the launch limitations in the timeframe between November and February.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Veteran astronaut begs NASA to keep space shuttle

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Veteran astronaut John Glenn today questioned the decision to retire the space shuttle fleet and rely on Russia to take astronauts to the International Space Station. "We have a vehicle here, why throw it away? It's working well," the first American to orbit Earth said.

He said he was against paying the Russians $55.8m (about £38m) a person to fly to the station.

"Being, in effect, under control of Russia for our space programme just doesn't sit right with me and I don't think it sits well with the American people," said Glenn, 88, a former senator who rode the shuttle into orbit in 1998 at the age of 77.

Glenn said little if any money would be saved by cancelling the shuttle program, considering all the millions of dollars going to Russia for rocket rides. At least two shuttle flights a year could keep the station going and the workforce employed, until something new came along, he said.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Russian, US astronauts dock with ISS: official

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A Russian space ship carrying a Russian cosmonaut and two US astronauts on Friday docked successfully with the International Space Station, mission control officials said.

The Soyuz-FG rocket, which blasted off Wednesday for the ISS, carried Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and US astronauts Shannon Walker and Douglas Wheelock who opened the airlocks some two hours after docking.

The Vesti-24 television channel showed the new arrivals heartily hugging the station's current crew and smiling.

The team is expected to conduct several scientific tests, unload three Progress shuttles, and assemble an experimental satellite, space officials said earlier.

The astronauts would also maintain an Internet blog and an email mailbox to supply information on the station and space as a whole.

The mission is the last launch by a Soyuz rocket to the ISS before the US space shuttle program is mothballed later this year, leaving the burden of travel to the ISS entirely on Russian spacecraft.

Russia's space agency Roskosmos decided to increase production of Soyuz spacecraft from four to five a year, the chief of the company's pilot program Alexei Krasnov said Friday.

"There are plans on making a fifth ship (every year), we will definitely move in that direction, and I think there will be funding for this ship, so there is reason to speak of it," Krasnov told reporters as quoted by the Interfax news agency.

Despite losing the shuttles Columbia and Challenger in a pair of disasters the programme was considered a resounding success and soon took on the lion's share of responsibility for transporting US astronauts.

A successor to the space shuttle is scheduled to take off no earlier than 2015.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Houston's First Hometown Astronaut Joins "Expedition 24"

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Two U.S. astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan.

They're making the two-day journey to the International Space Station, where they'll become a part of what's called "Expedition 24", the latest group living and working aboard the station as it orbits 354 kilometers above Earth.

The crew, shown here in Russia during training for their trip in space, includes Shannon Walker, Houston's first hometown astronaut.

Walker's arrival will mark the first time the station's crew has two women.

This team will work on the relocation of scientific modules attached to the station, make spacewalks and conduct scientific experiments.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

NASA's Astronauts — Da! Good Job From Baikonur Cosmodrome

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The Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying three new Expedition 24 flight engineers bound for the International Space Station lifted off at 5:35 p.m. EDT Tuesday.

As the launch of the Soyuz TMA-19 lit up the pre-dawn skies around the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, NASA astronauts Doug Wheelock and Shannon Walker and Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin began the two-day journey to catch up with the space station currently orbiting 220 statute miles above the Earth.

The station’s newest flight engineers will begin a five-and-a-half month tour of duty after docking with the station’s Zvezda service module at 6:25 p.m. Thursday. Fellow Expedition 24 crewmates Commander Alexander Skvortsov and Flight Engineers Mikhail Kornienko and Tracy Caldwell Dyson will welcome them aboard the orbiting complex when the hatches open around 10 p.m.

In September Wheelock, Walker and Yurchikhin will become the Expedition 25 crew when Skvortsov, Kornienko and Caldwell Dyson return home in the Soyuz TMA-18 spacecraft that brought them to the station April 4.

U.S. Army Col. Wheelock, 50, is making his second trip into space. As an STS-120 mission specialist aboard space shuttle Discovery in 2007, he traveled to the station and conducted three spacewalks.

Walker, 45, is a graduate of Rice University and the first native Houstonian to be named an astronaut. This is her first spaceflight.

Yurchikhin, 51, is making his third trip into space and his second long-duration stay aboard the station. He flew aboard space shuttle Atlantis on the STS-112 mission to the station in October 2002. He also spent six months aboard the station in 2007 as commander of Expedition 15.

Wheelock, Walker and Soyuz commander Yurchikhin are scheduled to dock with their new home at 5:25 p.m. Thursday, June 17. They will join Expedition 24 crewmates Tracy Caldwell Dyson, a NASA astronaut, and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov, the station commander, and Mikhail Kornienko aboard the orbiting laboratory.

On Thursday, coverage of the Soyuz docking will begin on NASA Television at 5 p.m. NASA TV will return at 9 p.m. for coverage of the hatches opening and the welcoming ceremony aboard the station.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

New Soyuz Mission Launches June 15

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Three astronauts are set for launch today to the International Space Station (ISS). Three crew, which will complete Expedition 24 aboard the orbital facility, will take off at 5:35 pm EDT (2135 GMT), from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan. They will fly to orbit aboard the Soyuz TMA-19 spacecraft, which is operated by the Russian Federal Space Agency (RosCosmos). The three fliers come from both NASA and RosCosmos, and they are bound to bring the total number of inhabitants on the ISS back to six, Space reports.

Due to time line differences, the spacecraft will actually be taking off on June 16, at 1:35 local time. The crew will be spending the next two days in Earth's orbit, on a course that will catch up with the ISS in about 48 hours. Veteran Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin will be joined in this mission by NASA astronauts Douglas Wheelock and Shannon Walker. The latter flies on the 47th anniversary of the first launch of a woman into space. In 1963, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova took to orbit aboard a Vostok 3KA spacecraft, during the Vostok 6 mission. She is now retired.

“It's an honor to launch on her date, as well,” Walker said before the launch. Looking ahead, the schedule Mission Controls in Russia and the United States set up for Expedition 24 is very complex. The crew needs to perform a series of spacewalks to take care of and maintain the $100 billion station. Additionally, they have to host the final two shuttle missions, flown aboard Discovery and Endeavor, in September and November, respectively. During their six-month stay, several automated cargo ships will also have to be attached to the ISS, unloaded, reloaded with waste materials, and then undocked.

Speaking in a pre-flight interview about the challenges ahead for NASA, Wheelock said that “It's a big change in our program […] but change is not always bad. It's actually bittersweet to see the shuttle go but it's really an exciting time as well. We're also going to be the first increment to really go to full utilization of the space station as an orbiting laboratory.” This month will be very full for the station crew. In addition to getting used to each other, astronauts will also have to take care of an incoming Progress resupply capsule, which is due to launch at the end of June.

Friday, June 11, 2010

World Cup Mania Reaches Outer Space

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World cup soccer mania has launched off planet Earth and reached astronauts living on the International Space Station.

The three spaceflyers currently on the orbiting lab will join millions of soccer fans on Earth cheering on the teams competing in the 2010 FIFA World Cup tournament, set to begin Friday in Johannesburg, South Africa.

"We get together every evening for dinner and sit around the TV," said American astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson of NASA, on the typical routine at the station. "I bet you there will be some cheering around the table as we get World Cup soccer sent up to us."

Caldwell Dyson lives on the space station with two Russian cosmonauts, including commander Alexander Skvortsov – who lists soccer as one of his main interests in life in his biography. And the station crew plans to take advantage of their special viewpoint on the games.

"We can see the great country that the sport's being celebrated and played in," Caldwell Dyson said. "I think that there's a few that would like to be able to see the games in person up here."

Caldwell Dyson played with some miniature soccer balls in her weightless environment, head-butting one on a NASA video. Yet she maintained that her crewmates were the real soccer experts.

"I'm not much of a soccer player," she said. "We do have a captain of the soccer team in Star City, Russia on board with us."

Caldwell Dyson, Skvortsov and fellow Expedition 24 crewmate Mikhail Kornienko are in the middle of a six-month mission on the space station.

They are awaiting the arrival of three more station residents next week, with the Russian Soyuz TMA-19 spacecraft set to launch on Tuesday at 5:35 p.m. EDT (2135 GMT) from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The spaceship will deliver NASA astronauts Doug Wheelock and Shannon Walker, and Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, who are each planning to begin a long-term stay.

Yurchikhin is a veteran cosmonaut who did not always want to fly in space. In fact, as a child he once thought his future could lead him to the World Cup one day.

"I wanted to be goalkeeper in soccer," Yurchikhin said in a NASA interview. But the position of cosmonaut, he added, has also been a longtime dream.

Yurchikhin, Wheelock and Walker plan to dock at the orbiting lab on Thursday.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

NASA will launch your name and photo into outer space for free

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NASA is collecting digital photos and names from the public to launch on the two final space shuttle missions.

You may not be able to squeeze your whole body onto NASA's last two space shuttle missions in history, but your face can go – at no charge. All it takes is a digital photo and a few clicks of the mouse.

NASA is collecting digital photos and names from the public to launch on the two final space shuttle missions scheduled before the famed reusable space planes retire for good. The photographs and names can be uploaded to a new website under the "Face in Space" program.

"The Space Shuttle Program belongs to the public, and we are excited when we can provide an opportunity for people to share the adventure of our missions," NASA's space shuttle program chief John Shannon said in a statement. "This website will allow you to be a part of history and participate as we complete our final

NASA's next shuttle mission is slated to launch on Sept. 16 aboard Discovery, the oldest space shuttle in the three-orbiter fleet. That mission will deliver a robot assistant (called Robonaut 2) to the International Space Station along with a cargo pod refitted to serve as a permanent closet for the orbiting lab.

The U.S. space agency's final shuttle flight will be onboard Endeavour, the fleet's youngest spaceship. That mission is set to launch no earlier than Nov. 27 to deliver a $1.5 billion astrophysics instrument to hunt for antimatter galaxies and other phenomena in universe.

So far, NASA has launched 132 space shuttle missions since the fleet first began flying in April 1981. The most recent mission, the STS-132 mission last month, marked the 32nd and final mission for the space shuttle Atlantis.

NASA is retiring its space shuttle program after nearly 30 years to make way for a more ambitious plan of sending astronauts to visit an asteroid by 2025 and then move on to Mars.

The space agency plans to rely on commercial spaceships and rockets to launch American astronauts and cargo missions to the space station once the shuttle fleet retires. U.S. President Barack Obama has called for the cancellation of NASA's initially planned post-shuttle program Constellation, which aimed to send astronauts back to the moon.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

NASA offers to take your face into space

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Want to feel a part of the last space shuttle missions? NASA will give you an honorary presence on one of the final two flights to the International Space Station. Upload a head shot to their website, choose your mission, and they'll put your face in space.

The method of transport for the images isn't clear, but judging from previous efforts, odds are they'll be digital. The Stardust mission carried a million names written to a microchip to comet Wild 2 and the Cassini orbiter took 616,400 signatures recorded on a DVD to Saturn.

Even with photos of about 2 centimetres square, the 16,089 participants (at the time of writing) would add up to 58 sheets of A4 paper, printed on both sides.

Nevertheless, your pixels can fly with Discovery on 16 September or Endeavour in November this year. Once the shuttle returns to Earth, you can come back to the Face in Space site to get a flight certificate - signed by none other than the mission commander.

If you can't wait for your face to go to space, NASA is also still offering you the opportunity to "space your face" using a virtual dancing astronaut on a website it launched last year.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

NASA wants to send your face into space

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MOST of us will never make it into space, but NASA has offered to send photos of intergalactic dreamers into orbit for free.

People can upload a photo of their face, or provide their name, at faceinspace.nasa.gov.

The data will be launched into space on one of the American space agency's two remaining space shuttle missions to the International Space Station later this year.

Once the missions return, participants can print a commemorative Flight Certificate signed by the Mission Commander as a quirky souvenir.

Participants will also be able to follow the mission's status, see photos and follow the commander and crew on Twitter or Facebook.

Only two more shuttle launches remain — one in September for Discovery and the final blastoff for Endeavor in November — before the curtain falls on this era of human space flight.

The US will then rely on Russia to take astronauts to the station aboard three-seater Soyuz spacecraft until a new fleet of commercial space taxis is operational.

US President Barack Obama effectively abandoned in February plans laid down by his predecessor George W. Bush to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020 — and perhaps on to Mars — with a new generation of rocket and spacecraft.

Nonetheless, Mr Obama set a bold new course in April for the future of US space travel, laying out a vision to send American astronauts into Mars orbit within the next three decades.

Constrained by soaring deficits, Mr Obama submitted a budget to Congress that encouraged NASA to focus instead on developing commercial transport alternatives to ferry astronauts to the space station after the shuttle program ends.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Falcon 9 rockets into space in dramatic maiden flight

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Powered by 10 engines and the vision of an Internet entrepreneur, an untried Falcon 9 rocket blasted off Friday and successfully boosted a dummy payload into orbit on a maiden voyage intended to help pave the way for commercial missions to the International Space Station.

In a major milestone for the commercial launch industry, the two-stage Falcon 9's nine first-stage Merlin engines, fueled by liquid oxygen and RP-1 kerosene rocket fuel, roared to life at 2:45 p.m. EDT.

After computer checks to verify engine performance, four hydraulic hold-down clamps pulled away and the 157-foot-tall Falcon 9, riding atop a torrent of orange flame, climbed away from launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Liftoff came 3 hours and 45 minutes into a four-hour launch window because of tests conducted on the rocket's self-destruct system, a sailboat in the off-shore danger zone, and a last-second abort because of a higher-than-expected pressure reading with one of the engines.

Engineers with the Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, recycled the countdown to the T-minus 15-minute mark and decided to try again after concluding the engine was in good shape. This time, the countdown proceeded to zero without incident.

The initial stages of the ascent appeared normal as the rocket climbed straight up and then arced away to the northeast on a trajectory tilted 34.5 degrees to the equator.

Cameras mounted on the rocket provided spectacular views looking back toward Earth, showing shutdown and separation of the spent first stage and ignition of the second stage's single Merlin engine, its nozzle glowing bright orange from the heat of the exhaust. The second stage began an initially slow roll midway through the burn that became more and more pronounced as the rocket climbed.

By the time the second stage engine shut down, the roll was more rapid than is typically seen with large rockets. But in an evening teleconference with reporters, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said the second stage engine shut down on time, putting the rocket's dummy payload, a structural test article representing the company's planned Dragon space station cargo module, into its intended 155-mile-high orbit.

"When the rocket achieved orbit, there was tremendous relief and elation at SpaceX," Musk said. "People have really put so much blood, sweat, and tears into Falcon 9 and bringing that to launch...Things were extremely tense here, everybody was glued to the monitors looking at the data streams and the video as I was. And then just a huge elation and relief that it reached orbit and we achieved 100 percent of the objectives on the mission."

Musk said the second stage rolled more than expected and that engineers would look into the issue to make sure it was not an indicator of a more serious problem. But he said the roll did not affect the rocket's overall performance.

"This has really been a fantastic day," he said. "We put our Falcon 9 rocket [in] orbit, it achieved a near bull's-eye on the target. We would have been excited even to have the first stage work, or get some of the way through the second stage burn. As I said before, it would be a great day if we got to orbit. And thankfully, it has been a great day."

He said the successful launching "bodes very well" for President Obama's proposed shift in national space priorities, turning launches to low-Earth orbit over to the private sector while NASA focuses on deep space exploration.

"It really helps vindicate the approach that he's taking and it shows that a small, new company like SpaceX can make a real difference," Musk said. "We look forward to the (next Falcon 9) launch that's going to come up soon when we will be carrying an active version of our Dragon spacecraft, getting to the space station next year, and hopefully launching astronauts as well as soon as possible."

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden congratulated Musk on the flight, saying the accomplishment "is an important milestone in the commercial transportation effort and puts the company a step closer to providing cargo services to the International Space Station."

"This launch of the Falcon 9 gives us even more confidence that a resupply vehicle will be available after the space shuttle fleet is retired," Bolden said.

SpaceX is building the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo modules to deliver supplies to the International Space Station and to bring equipment and experiment samples back to Earth. The initial test flight Friday was funded by SpaceX, but the company plans three subsequent test flights under a Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS, contract with NASA.

Following the demonstration flights, SpaceX hopes to begin space station resupply missions under a $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Service contract covering 12 fights.

Orbital Sciences also is developing an unmanned cargo craft under NASA's COTS/CRS program that is expected to fly next year. But SpaceX has generated most of the commercial space publicity in the wake of the Obama administration's proposed shift to commercial rockets for station resupply and, eventually, crew transport to low-Earth orbit.

Musk said the success of the first Falcon 9 launch gave the company a "huge boost of confidence, really."

"We're really at the dawn of a new era," he said. "You had the sort of Apollo era, the space shuttle era--and those were government eras. And the government will continue to play a significant role in the future. But I think what you're really seeing is the rise of commercial as well, in many ways a partnership with government.

"I don't think we could have gotten this far without NASA," he said. "But this heralds a point at which space becomes a combined commercial and government endeavor, with commercial playing an increasingly significant role."

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Russian Spacecraft Lands Safely After Trip to Space Station

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A Russian Soyuz spacecraft landed safely in Kazakhstan late Tuesday to return a cosmonaut and two astronauts back home from the International Space Station after nearly six months in space.

The Soyuz TMA-17 spacecraft touched down on at about 11:25 a.m. EDT on the central steppes of Kazakhstan in Central Asia with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov and two crewmates – one each from the United States and Japan – onboard. It was 9:25 a.m. Wednesday local time at the landing site.

Recovery crews reported that the Soyuz capsule had tilted on its side after landing, which has happened before, but overall it was a smooth landing, NASA officials said.

"Bye-bye station!" Kotov said as the Soyuz carrying him and two crewmates departed the orbiting lab, revealing the huge space station ahead. "Beautiful view."

He is returning to Earth with American astronaut Timothy "T.J." Creamer of NASA and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi. The three men made up half of the space station's full six-person crew and had lived aboard the orbiting laboratory since mid-December.

"Oh! I forgot something. Can we go back?" Creamer joked as the Soyuz moved ever-farther away from the station. His crewmates laughed. [Photos: March's Snowy Soyuz landing Goodbye space station.

The Soyuz TMA-17 landed just hours after undocking from the space station at 8:04 p.m. EDT as both spacecraft flew 215 miles above Mongolia. Kotov said the undocking went extremely smoothly.

"Strap in tight guys," said station crewmate Tracy Caldwell Dyson, an American astronaut representing NASA who stayed behind on the station with two other cosmonauts to start the Expedition 24 increment. There were hugs all around as the two crews parted.

Dyson warned the three men returning to Earth not to stick their tongues out during the Soyuz's jarring landing. She and her remaining crewmates are in the middle of their own six-month mission.

During their 163 days in space, Kotov and his crewmates hosted three visiting NASA space shuttle missions. Those flights delivered a new NASA room, seven-window observation deck, and vital spare parts and supplies.

The most recent visit by NASA's shuttle Atlantis in May delivered a new $200 million Russian research module called Rassvet (which means "Dawn" in Russian).

On Monday, Kotov officially turned control of the space station over to its new Expedition 24 commander Alexander Skvortsov.

"Good luck, guys," Skvortsov told the spaceflyers as they left the station. "Have a soft landing."

Last week, Creamer said that after more than five months on the space station, he's eagerly looking forward to returning to Earth and seeing his friends and family again. And while Creamer admitted that he will miss the camaraderie of his crew and the view of Earth from space, there are some creature comforts that cannot be recreated in weightlessness.

"Specifically, I'd really like to drink something not from a straw and have food stay on the plate for a change," he said. New crew takes charge With Kotov and his crewmates back on Earth, Skvortsov and his crew will get started the station's Expedition 24 mission.

Skvortsov arrived at the space station in early April with Caldwell Dyson and fellow Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko. The spaceflyers initially joined the Expedition 23 crew and will now remain behind to await the arrival of three new crewmembers slated to launch from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome on June 15.

That Soyuz TMA-19 spacecraft will launch with veteran Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and American astronauts Douglas Wheelock and Shannon Walker on a new six-month mission that will also span several station expedition crews.