This week in space: Happy 50th anniversary, Walter Cunningham

When a Soyuz spacecraft is docked at the ISS, it’s only allowed to remain on station about 200 days. Just the harsh conditions of space, from the heating and cooling cycles to the radiation and micrometeorite strikes, can definitely degrade components over time, and that 200 day limit is the rated lifetime for the MS-09. December was already cutting it close, and the current Soyuz will run out the clock in January.

In theory, there’s no reason it can’t remain longer. In theory. But it does eventually have to carry human beings back to Earth, and as this week demonstrated, no matter how many times people have come and gone from the ISS, space launches (and landings) are still subject to failure. If the investigation into the Soyuz booster failure produces answers quickly, and the next launch gets back on schedule within a few weeks, it’s possible that Soyuz might still be used for a return in January. Or February. Much beyond that, and the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft currently at the ISS is going to have to depart, no matter what’s going on back on the ground.

The interesting thing at that point would be whether it would depart with some or all of the crew. The ISS has been continuously manned since November of 2000, and no one is anxious to be the first to break that streak. Seeing an empty ISS might also be taken by some as an invitation to leave it that way. 

The Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft docked to the ISS has already been the subject of controversy. A small leak detected in early September was first thought to be the result of a micrometeorite impact, but that was later ruled out. The hole instead appears to be the result of human error, where someone punctured the craft with either a drill or sharp object and attempted to cover the mistake. Most reports have suggested that the mistake was made by a technician in assembling the craft, but Russian media has supported a conspiracy theory that American Auñón-Chancellor punctured the craft, either to make Russia “look bad” or because she was “homesick” (though putting a hole in the one craft that could get anyone home seems like a bad move if that’s the problem).

There are two Commercial Crew programs underway in the United States — Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. But while one or both of them might manage an unmanned launch within the time frame of the Soyuz MS-09’s remaining life, it would take some radical rethinking at NASA before either of those craft would be available to help the astronauts. In fact, if Russia feels that there’s a real problem that needs to be addressed before launching another Soyuz, then it’s almost certain the ISS will be left empty. Because unless another Soyuz can be docked there to act as a lifeboat, no one is going to leave the crew on board with no “lifeboat” in case of a failure on the station. SpaceX first unmanned launch of Crew Dragon was recently moved from November, to December, then to January.

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Apollo 7 Anniversary

We’re in that period where the 50th anniversary notes are going to come fast and furious. This week saw the fiftieth anniversary of the launch of Apollo 7.

It’s one of those flights that doesn’t get a lot of write up in the history books. But it should. After the pre-launch fire on Apollo 1 killed Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, the entire project to put a man on the moon was in deep trouble. Manned Apollo flights were suspended for 20 months while the Command Module was reevaluated, the pure oxygen environment was swapped out for more air-like mix, and safety systems were improved. 

The mission that Apollo 7 eventually flew in October, 1968 was essentially the flight that Apollo 1 would have made the previous year — the first flight of the Saturn booster (in this case a Saturn 1B, not a full Saturn V) and the first flight of the Apollo command module and service module hardware. 

Walter “Wally” Schirra, Donn Eisele, and Walter Cunningham sayed in orbit for 11 days, putting Apollo through its paces, and testing the systems that would be needed for the lunar trip. Everything went well, and Apollo 7 was a genuine “shakedown” for both the hardware and software — though the flight may be best remembered because Schirra developed a sinus infection and by the end of the long flight got pretty snippy with the inflexible demands and schedules of ground controllers.

On October 22, they were back safely on the ground. But here’s what’s really, really amazing about the 50th anniversary of Apollo 7. The really big day? The 50th anniversary of the moon landing? That’s coming up next summer. That means that everything that happened from the first launch of a Saturn booster, to Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface, took place in just ten months.

Look at this schedule

  • October 11, 1968 — Apollo 7, first manned flight of the Saturn 1B booster, first manned flight of Apollo hardware
  • December 12, 1968 — Apollo 8, first manned flight of the Saturn V booster, first human beings to leave Earth orbit, first flight around the moon
  • March 3, 1969 — Apollo 9, first in-space test of the lunar lander and full Apollo spacecraft “stack”
  • May 18, 1969 — Apollo 10, Lunar lander tested in orbit around the moon, flown to within 8 miles of lunar surface
  • July 16, 1969 — Apollo 11

Audacity. That’s what that is. That’s people who have been given a deadline of “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” and were damned determined to meet that deadline.

Of the three men on Apollo 7, Walter Cunningham is still with us. He headed up the Skylab program, America’s first space station, and is currently a consultant for the Back to Space initiative. He is 86.

Happy anniversary, Walter.

SpaceNewsAir Force awards launch vehicle development contracts to Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, ULA

The Launch Service Agreements are for the development of Blue Origin’s New Glenn, Northrop Grumman’s OmegA and ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rockets. The awards are part of cost-sharing arrangements — known as Other Transaction Authority agreements — that the Air Force is signing with the three companies to ensure it has multiple competitors for future launch contracts. The Air Force has committed through 2024 a total of $500 million in OTA funds for Blue Origin, $792 million for Northrop Grumman and $967 million for ULA. SpaceX previously received an LSA award but did not make the cut this time. However, SpaceX remains eligible to bid on future Air Force launch contracts, Pentagon officials said.

While SpaceX is still a major carrier of defense satellites, not getting a cut of this contract is a surprise — and has to be a painful one, considering where SpaceX is in the development of the BFR / BFS system. Meanwhile, this is a great boost for Blue Origin’s New Glenn and for the two more traditional launch systems: Vulcan and Omega. Omega was a system under development at Orbital ATK, which was purchased earlier this year by Northrop. It’s gotten less attention on this page than the other launchers so … see video.

Space.Com: Inspector general shows NASA’s SLS over budget and behind … again

It’ll cost several billion dollars more than originally planned to get NASA’s huge Space Launch System (SLS) rocket off the ground, and that already-delayed first flight will probably end up being pushed back yet again, a new report by the agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) finds.

NASA is counting on the two-stage SLS to launch astronauts toward deep-space destinations such as the moon and Mars. The giant rocket will also aid planetary exploration, helping robotic spacecraft reach distant targets in much less time than has hitherto been possible, agency officials have said.

See that Apollo schedule up there? This is not like that.

Upcoming launches

October 17 — Atlas 5 | AEHF 4
ULA Atlas 5 carrying the fourth in a series of “extremely high frequency” satellites for secure military communications. Delayed from October 4.

October 19 — Ariane 5 | BepiColombo
Arianespace booster carrying an ESA / JAXA joint mission. BepiColombo is just the third probe ever directed at the planet Mercury. Delayed from October 5.  

October 26 — Pegasus XL | ICON
The small, air-launched Pegasus XL rocket carrying a NASA satellite to study the ionosphere. Delayed from October 6 … so yes, this schedule really does look like a repeat of the start of the month.

October 29 — H-2A |GOSAT 2
Japanese H-2A rocket carrying a Japanese satellite to monitor greenhouse gases.

October 30 — Soyuz FG | Progress
This is another Soyuz booster scheduled to carry an unmanned Progress cargo ship to the ISS. At the moment, this flight hasn’t moved in the schedule. Expect it to move.

China is expected to launch at least two satellites in October, but dates are unclear. 

The long-delayed next flight of Rocket Lab’s Electron booster is now scheduled for November.

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