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Paul Richards took one look at the first Space Shuttle launch and thought, "That's my ride."

NASA Goddard engineer Paul Richards in 2001, spaking to the media about his upcoming flight on the Space Shuttle mission STS-102.

NASA Goddard engineer Paul Richards in 2001, speaking to the media about his upcoming flight on the Space Shuttle mission STS-102.

What did the Space Shuttle program mean to you?

NASA engineer Paul Richards knew from the moment he saw the first one roar off the pad in 1981.

“The first launch was 1981. I was a junior in high school. I wanted to be an astronaut since I was 5 years old. So as soon as I saw that first Shuttle launch, my thoughts were, ‘That’s my ride. I’m going up on that thing.'”

And he did — once — in 2001. It changed his life.

Yesterday, Richards was one of the speakers at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center who recalled their experiences and contributions to the U.S. Space Transportation System, a.k.a., the Space Shuttle. Richards, currently Observatory Manager of the GOES-R satellite program at Goddard, flew in space in 2001 on the STS-102 mission to the International Space Station.

The video below, about 15 minutes long, contains the portion of Richards talk where he walks through his changing “perspectives” on the Shuttle, starting with that first launch in 1981: hearing of the Challenger accident while in college; coming to Goddard and using the Shuttle to launch payloads; getting to know the astronauts; becoming an astronaut; watching friends and colleagues die in the 2003 Columbia accident. And finally, yesterday, watching the final Shuttle land.

Richards was candid, honest, and humble in his storytelling. It seems to me that he and others like him are one of the most precious legacies of the Shuttle era — the NASA people who did great things and took great risks to be true to their belief in the redeeming adventure of human spaceflight.

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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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Fill'er up! Animation of NASA's robotic refueling mission

June 29, 2011 1 comment
Take me to your (out of fuel) satellite!

Take me to your (out of fuel) satellite!


Next week’s final launch of the space shuttle Atlantic will be bittersweet for all of us at NASA and for space fans the world over. It will be the end of something very, very big in many people’s lives, and in the life of the United States space program. Something to be proud of; something to mourn. STS-135 is an end and a beginning. I suspect there won’t be a dry eye in the house around here when she goes into orbit.

But for our part, Goddard’s going out in style. The shuttle Atlantis will deliver to the International Space Station a package of gear developed here in a fury of activity and inspiration and hard work over the past 18 months. It’s called the Robotic Refueling mission.

Tools and supporting gear bolted to the space station will, later in the year, allow astronauts operators using the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (SPDM/Dextre) to explore an utterly new technology to repair or refuel satellites in orbit.

[Many thanks to NASA’s Alex Janas for clarifying how the tools will be used on orbit, and by whom. Dextre, the space station’s two-armed Canadian robotic “handyman,” will manipulate the tools developed at Goddard. Operations will be entirely remote controlled by collaborating teams of flight controllers at Goddard Space Flight Center, Johnson Space Center, Marshall Space Flight Center,  and the Canadian Space Agency’s control center in Quebec.]

The animation below says it all: NASA at its best: It seems-like-science-fiction-but-it’s-not.

On Tuesday last, gogblog tagged along on a media tour of the robotic refueling mission, led by veteran Goddard public affairs stalwart Dewayne A. Washington.

We met the brains and muscle behind the mission at the Building 7-10-15-29 complex, where many a great mission has been developed and tested. More details and photos in future posts……



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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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What does a Shuttle launch really look from the public viewing area?

March 3, 2011 3 comments






My friend Jarrett Cohen, a science writer at Goddard, was one of the lucky NASA employees to receive a chance to see the final liftoff of space shuttle Discovery on Thursday, February 24. While he was there, he shot this footage. After seeing so many videos of past launches using telephoto lenses, it was sort of interesting to see what it REALLY looks like. And even from a distance, it’s still a glorious sight.

And to compliment the glory, here is the launch set to a performance by the U.S. Air Force Band of “Mars, Bringer of War,” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Enjoy.

Here is Jarrett recalling the launch:

I have wanted to attend a space shuttle launch for some time. With STS-133 being the last launch of Discovery–a shuttle with such a great history–I put in for a car pass despite the tough odds of getting one. Out of several hundred Goddard employees who applied, I was fortunate to be randomly chosen for one of fewer than 60 passes available.

Many of us flew down to Florida for what turned out to be three unsuccessful launch attempts in early November. Although the timing was challenging, I decided to return for the February 24 launch attempt. A group of us who know each other from the NASA Center for Climate Simulation (NCCS), along with family and friends, drove together in two vans and arrived about 4 hours before launch time.

It was beautiful weather for a launch, and we had a clear view of the launch pad from the Kennedy Space Center Causeway seven miles way. A computer problem with the range safety system almost led to another postponement. Cheers went up when we heard the announcer say that launch was a go, and Discovery made the launch window with a few seconds to spare. As captured on my digital camera (using no zoom), the shuttle slowly emerges from a cloud of smoke and accelerates through the sky to reach several thousand miles per hour within seconds. It was a remarkable combination of speed and grace.

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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.


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Gogblog vodcast #2: Watch an Atlas 5 launch of a military satellite from Goddard's Flight Dynamics Facility

September 27, 2010 1 comment

One recent Saturday in August, I woke at 4:30 a.m., rubbed my eyes in the early morning darkness, and headed for Goddard Space Flight Center to watch the launch of an Atlas 5. The rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, carrying a military communications satellite into high geosynchronous orbit.

My perch: the Flight Dynamics Facility, which I described in an earlier post about FDF’s support of Shuttle and Space Station missions.

The FDF operations area is a large room packed with computer workstations. The mission of the FDF is to provide precise pointing coordinates to enable ground stations and satellites to track launch vehicles like the Atlas V into space. FDF also pitches in to track the Shuttle orbiter and the Space Station in low-Earth orbit to maintain links to the ground.

This video, with voiceover by FDF junior systems engineer Jason Laing, explains some of the major events in the launch of the Atlas V:

http://www.youtube.com/v/XRKWewWDP_E?fs=1&hl=en_US

Today the Atlas will carry the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite, the first of three. The system will provide secure global military communications between ground, sea, and air.

Start of show: I got in at around 6 a.m. and met the lead engineer for this launch, Syed Hasan. Bleary-eyed but alert, he got in at 12:30 a.m. to begin check-outs of the computer and communications systems. By Syed’s side for the launch: James Cappellari. A nearly 50-year veteran of NASA, Cappellari helped to develop and implement the Space Network. I deposited the obligatory bucket of donut-like objects in the FDF break room and got ready for “start of show.”

Start of show in the FDF is 10 minutes before launch, which today is slated for 7:07 a.m. At start of show, a TDRS satellite hovering above the U.S. East Coast will start tracking the Atlas right on the pad. Today it is TDRS 10, but TDRS 4 is also available for East Coast launches.

artist concept of the AEHF satellite

The AEHF satellite

FDF’s partner in this and other launches is the White Sands Complex in New Mexico, which controls the satellites comprising NASA’s Space Network. Eight TDRS satellites currently provide global tracking, communications, and data links for manned and unmanned spacecraft. When rockets phone home, it is often via the TDRS network.

About the time I arrived at FDF, Syed sent something to White Sands called an autothroughput test vector. This tests the system that would allow FDF to send pointing data directly to the TDRS satellites during launch, bypassing White Sands.

But that would only happen if the satellites drifted off their targets and needed to be repointed. Throughout the launch the ELV (expendable launch vehicle) team at FDF watches to make sure the satellites are pointing at the rocket and able to track it accurately. FDF supports 10 to 15 ELV launches per year.

The rocket “talks” to the ground via data links, so accurate pointing is important. During Space Station missions, accurate pointing of TDRS’ high bandwidth antennas allows astronauts and cosmonauts to wave hello to us earthlings via video downlink. Scientific spacecraft also use TDRS to pipe data to the surface on a regular basis. Without accurate pointing of the TDRS satellites, NASA’s operations in low-earth orbit would be much more limited.

photo of Syed Hasan and James Cappellari

Syed Hasan (left) and James Cappellari

As lead engineer on the ELV team today, Syed runs some FDF software called acquisition data generator, which he would use to create and send a pointing correction vector during launch, if needed. Rows of numbers on his monitor allows Syed to keep an eye on the actual “beam angles” of the TDRS antennas indicating what direction they point.

But FDF now has another tool in their kit for making sure the Space Network is on target. It’s called the SN Beams Display, and it was developed by FDF engineers with a combination of commercial and in-house software code. Today, FDF’s John Bez is manning the SN Beams.

The SN Beams creates a live view of the spacecraft from pad to orbit as well as the TDRS “beams.” Each beam is a cone of space, rendered in green or white, that indicates the position and coverage of the antenna. When a launch vehicle or satellite leaves the beam, it is out of range to that particular satellite, and another in the network must pick up the tracking — sort of like relay racers passing the baton.

During launches, the SN Beams provides visual clues to the FDF about the difference between where each satellite is supposed to be pointing (green), based on pre-calculated pointing data, and where the satellites are actually pointing (white).

Two other members of the team, Eric Smith and Jason Laing, are on hand to check the position of the launch vehicle at several key stages of the launch based on actual telemetry data from the rocket. For this they use two terminals running the “LRP” software, for Launch Reentry Processor. If the craft is not where it’s supposed to be, it might be necessary to adjust the pointing data for the TDRS satellites.

Here is a video of the launch of the AEHF rocket! This is video from the launch contractor, ULA:

http://www.youtube.com/v/eqymxhJCEU0&hl=en_US&feature=player_embedded&version=3

Atlas away! The magic moment finally comes at 7:07 a.m., when the Russian-made RD-180 main engine roars to life, supplemented by four solid rocket boosters strapped onto the first stage.

10…9…8…7… you know the rest. There is something about a countdown that is thrilling. It’s a high-stakes game when you launch a multi-billion dollar satellite. There is little room for error.

The early events happen quickly.

At 1:40 into the launch the SRBs cut out; 16 seconds later they jettison. The SN Beams shows this in detail, as three little cartoon SRBs pop off the Atlas V booster and fall into the video game Atlantic Ocean. The live feed from Florida just shows the brilliant plume of the rocket receding into the blue sky.

At 3:27 the faring on the front of the Atlas pops open like two clamshells, exposing the satellite mounted to the top of a Centaur second-stage booster. The main engine is still burning.

At 4:17 the main engine shuts down, an event FDF people call MECO (“mee-koe”), for main engine cut-off. After a short coast, the second stage “Centaur” fires up.

photo of engineers in FDF during atlas launch

Light that candle!

At 14:08, the Centaur shuts off and the vehicle coasts for almost 8 minutes. Then, at 22:17, it fires up again for about 5 minutes to accelerate the satellite into the higher geosynchronous orbit. The Centaur will cut out and finally release the AEHF satellite 51 minutes into the launch.

Two hours after launch, it’s “end of show” for the FDF. At this point, FDF no longer has responsibility for supplying pointing data to White Sands. However, they continue to monitor for some time, just in case their services are needed.

Big fat planet: I have to say, watching this all on the SN Beams was a real surprise to me, because it shows just how huge Earth is and how puny even the mighty Atlas V is in comparison. After the rocket had been blasting away furiously for almost five minutes, it was still barely over the Atlantic Ocean, heading east.

At 10 minutes, the launch vehicle was screaming through the atmosphere at more than 15,000 mph, the Centaur was still firing. After 20 minutes, the craft was barely over West Africa. At the moment the satellite was released, 51 minutes into the launch, it hadn’t completed a single orbit yet.

This tells you that Earth is BIG and massive. Escaping its gravity to a geosynchronous altitude of 22,500 miles requires a lot of fuel and a lot of time.

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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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Gogblog's Excellent Atlas 5 Launch Adventure

I just got home from Goddard Space Flight Center, where I was “embedded” this morning — starting at 6 am! — at the Flight Dynamics Facility. This morning, the FDF helped to launch a massive Atlas 5 rocket carrying a military communications satellite into orbit. It was so cool! Our people do the calculations to allow NASA’s orbiting tracking satellite network to follow the Atlas from launch to orbit. Recently I wrote about their work supporting Space Shuttle launches.

At the FDF, you watch the whole thing in a 3-D computer animation environment as well as live on webcam. Here is the moment of launch, looking over the shoulders of the two of the FDF engineers who ran the show.

light that candle!

light that candle!



I don’t know about you, but when they hit that final “10…9…8…7…” there is something thrilling about it, like the moment when gamblers go “all in” with every chip they have and there’s no turning back. In this case, a million pounds of rocket, fuel, and satellite sit balanced perfectly on the pad and someone punches that final red button….. (ok, maybe it’s a final mouse click)

Anyway, days like this I feel like I have the coolest job in the world.

Soon I’ll post a full account of Gogblog’s Excellent Atlas 5 Launch Adventure, including exclusive video and animation of the launch.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________ OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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Gogblog Vodcast #1: Here's what a Shuttle launch looks like at Goddard's Flight Dynamics Facility

August 5, 2010 6 comments

For the past three decades, whenever NASA launched a space shuttle, people at Goddard Space Flight Center’s Flight Dynamics Facility (FDF) have played a critical role, quietly in the background. Their mission: to provide precise pointing coordinates to allow antennas on the ground and in space to track the orbiter as it blasts into orbit and circles Earth.

The computer animation below gives you a feel for what a launch looks like from the FDF. (Click the image and a Quicktime movie should open up in a new window and start playing.) The voice-over narration was kindly provided by FDF junior systems engineer Jason Laing.


shuttle_launch_still

CLICK the image above to see the Shuttle launch movie!
Download the animation as a .m4v file you can play with iTunes
Download the high-resolution 47 Mb Quicktime movie version


The animation shows the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) system picking up the orbiter in flight and tracking it. FDF engineers created the animation using software they developed themselves as well as a commercial package called Satellite Toolkit, or STK.

As the orbiter circles Earth, TDRS satellites “hand over” tracking responsibility from one satellite to the next. TDRS 4, in geosynchronous orbit over the U.S. East Coast, picks up the shuttle over Florida during launch.

FDF engineer Jason Laing at his station

FDF engineer Jason Laing at his station

The tracking satellite’s antenna, as you can see in the visualization, has a relatively narrow beam width. The antennas swivel on gimbals so they can follow the orbiter. As one satellite loses its line of site, the next one locks on to the target.

The FDF also provides support for International Space Station (ISS) missions. The last 20 seconds of the visualization shows one TDRS handing over tracking of the International Space Station to the next satellite. High-bandwidth channels on TDRS satellites allow us to watch the astronauts on TV. The TDRS satellites have different antennas for different jobs.

But without the FDF’s support, the satellites wouldn’t know where to point. In future posts, we’ll take a closer look at the amazing technology that whirs and buzzes behind the scenes to allow human spaceflight to happen.

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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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