Category Archives: Organisations


International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG)

Many people will never have heard of ISECG, and this won’t exactly change any time soon as the organisation isn’t focused on delivering its message to the public at large. The International Space Exploration Coordination Group is a multilateral effort by (at date of writing) 13 space agencies* to chart future space exploration goals in what they call a Global Exploration Roadmap whose goal is to reduce duplication in what most nations agree will be an endeavor too costly for any nation acting alone.

“The ISECG is a voluntary, non-binding international coordination mechanism through which individual agencies may exchange information regarding interests, objectives, and plans in space exploration with the goal of strengthening both individual exploration programs as well as the collective effort.”

The organisation will organise a number of workshops during the course of 2014 and after talking about challenges like cost reduction (space agencies can learn something from the likes of SpaceX here), keeping astronauts healthy and productive during space exploration missions and what’s left to be done to enable a human mission to the surface of Mars.

There’s an interesting paper titled “Benefits Stemming from Space Exploration” which outlines by a number of space agencies the benefits of space exploration to society for those who are interested in reading more about it.

Perhaps a bit dry for some, but definitely an initiative that can only be applauded when we all benefit from it. No reason to invent the wheel a dozen times over right?

* The following space agencies are ISECG members (in alphabetical order): ASI (Italy), CNES (France), CNSA (China), CSA (Canada), CSIRO (Australia), DLR (Germany), ESA (European Space Agency), ISRO (India), JAXA (Japan), KARI (Republic of Korea), NASA (United States of America), NSAU (Ukraine), Roscosmos (Russia), UKSA (United Kingdom).

Kirobo on the ISS

Robot Astronauts: Kirobo & Mirata

Japan has always been at the forefront of robotics, driven by the need to prepare itself for an ever more aging population that is looking for ways to support itself. So it comes as no surprise that when we talk about Robot Astronauts, the pioneers are Japanese… Meet Kirobo and Mirata.!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/japan-robonaut.jpg

What makes these two little robots so special is that at about 34 cm tall and weighing only about a kilo, their Japanese language flows in a natural humanlike by any standard, learning as they go along. They can recognise faces and record video, and pretty much have a normal unscripted conversation as demonstrated in the many videos on their YouTube channel where Kirobo is talking with Commander Wakata – Japan’s veteran Astronaut – aboard the International Space Station. The main goal of these experiments in zero-gravity which they were designed to navigate in is to see how well robots and humans can interact, with a view to having robot astronauts assist on future space missions. Mirata, Kirobo’s identical twin in the meantime stayed on Earth as backup similar to how it would work with a human astronaut.

The Japanese surely believe that humans and robots one day will coexist. Kirobo, its name derived from the Japanese word for hope, and robot – is definitely an exciting step forward so who knows… Below the video, you can find the transcript in English – Enjoy!

Kibo Robot Project


0:04 A truly magnificent project of national policy calibre.

The world needs to know Japan’s real ability.


0:16 Summer of 2013

0:42 The robot astronaut sets out on a journey

0:47 Kibo Robot Project

0:53 Tsukuba Space Center

Sound test

0:54 The hope of Japan’s technological strength

0:55 Environment test

0:57 EMC test

0:59 Connection test

1:01 Man: This will take some time.

1:02 Robot:  Good work everyone!

1:05 Robot: I am a robot astronaut.

1:08  The hope for our children’s future and the hope of a future where humans and robot coexist rest on its little back

1:20 International space station

1:22 Zero gravity test

1:22 International space station.  Hope.  In the Japanese experiment module, a conversation experiment with Astronaut Wakata is carried out.

1:27 Robot: Hello!

1:33: Man: We’re counting on you.

1:35: Robot: No problem.  I’m a robot after all.

1:46: Kibo Robot project

1:49: This summer, our adventure with the robot astronaut begins.

Today In History – November 20

Today In History – December 21

NASA‘s second manned mission launched exactly 45 years ago, in 1968. Apollo 8, its crew being made up of Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders, was the first manned mission orbiting the Moon. A pivotal milestone in U.S. President JFK’s plans to have a man walk on the surface of the Moon before the end of the decade (which was accomplished with Apollo 11 only seven months later), it took the crew three days to travel there. They orbited it ten times (each orbit taking around two hours) and came as close as 70 miles from its surface, before setting on a course for Earth. It was also the first time manned mission using the enormous Saturn V rocket as you can see in below’s video.

Nearly two decades later, another notable event took place… On December 21, 1987, three Soviet cosmonauts started their record-long space trip on board the Mir space station. Captain Vladimir Titov, Onboard Engineer Musa Manarov and researcher Anatoly Levchenko were taken to the Mir by the Soyuz TM-4 space craft. While Levchenko returned earlier, both Titov and Manarov spent just shy of 366 days (365 days, 22 hours and 39 minutes) onboard of the Mir space station. It was only upon the couple’s return that they were informed of Levchenko’s passing away in the meantime. Titov was later awarded the Order of Lenin, and the Golden Star Order for successfully completing the mission he was in command of.


JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency)

Japan is known for numerous things: sushi, samurai, advanced robotics, manga and a rapidly aging population to name but a few. Maybe not as well known abroad as NASA or ESA, Japan also has its own aerospace agency called JAXA, which in its current form is still very young. Its veteran astronaut – Koichi Wakata – is currently on board the International Space Station (not his first time either) and you can follow what he is up to on his Twitter account @Astro_Wakata.

JAXA, short for Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, was born in October 2003, in a merger of the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), the National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan (NAL) and the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA) to create efficiency in numbers, combining forces on anything from basic research to developement and administration. This year, on its 10th anniversary, the organization’s slogan became “Explore to Realize” aiming at the fact that they want to “build a safe and prosperous society” with their research and achievements. Not in the least, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster which the country is still recovering from and will be for many years to come, one of the agency’s top priorities is to establish a system for natural disaster management.

Another of JAXA’s goals is to revive its aircraft manufacturing industry while promoting the space industry as Japan’s key industry of the future. And as the most easterly country in Asia, JAXA will be thinking about creating hypersonic aircraft which can cross the Pacific Ocean in 2 hours at speeds of Mach 5. But Japan wouldn’t be Japan without some cutting-edge robot thrown into the mix right, whether it’s in anime or space…

Kirobo’s first words were “On August 21, 2013, a robot took one small step toward a brighter future for all,” and like all good astronauts even Kirobo (the word “kirobo” itself is a portmanteau of “kibō” (希望), which means “hope” in Japanese, and the word “robo” (ロボ), used as a generic short word for any robot) had a backup on Earth in the form of its twin robot Mirata.

Japan’s space program of course goes back a lot further than 2003 (the country’s first satellite – named OHSUMI – was put into orbit in February of 1970) but looking at recent developments, their new Epsilon rocket program seems to herald the dawn of a new era for Japan’s space industry. In a country which has had its fair share of bad luck in recent years, a new type of rocket that would only need 8 people at the launch site opposed to the 150 people from earlier launches, saving millions on every launch can only be a good thing, but more on that another time. Sayonara!

Constructing the ISS

Today In History – November 20

Fifteen years ago to the day, man began arguably the most challenging construction project in the history of the species: the International Space Station. Sure, you have CERN’s Large Hadron Collider which got constructed to look for several theorized particles including the Higgs particle and test theories around particle and high-energy physics. But for all that is marvelous about this enormous undertaking, that project was still on Earth – more precisely deep under the ground on Swiss and French territory – while the I.S.S. was assembled in space. Coincidently, both projects’ construction started in 1998 but the LHC took three years less to reach completion, in 2008. We covered the build of the station a while back in case you misssed it.


US Air Force X-37B

We all know that bureaucracy can lead to overcomplicated situations. If you’ve never heard of UNOOSA then rest assured you will not be the only one. The acronym stands for United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, it’s history can be traced back to the late fifties and early sixties. How does this relate to the X-37B? Well, the UNOOSA created *prepare yourself* the Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, which has been accepted by the United Nations General Assembly. You can read the content in its entirety here but the short summary would be that all space exploration will be done with good intentions and is equally open to all States that comply with international law… basically, don’t be the classroom bully shaking down or beating up the other kids.

So, interesting then that the US airforce is developing its own military shuttle, the highly secretive X-37B. Fully automated, launched atop a Boeing Atlas-V rocket and able to stay in orbit for months at a time, there don’t seem to be many actual facts about its purpose floating about. Commanded by the 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron, 21st Space Wing, of the Air Force Space Command in Colorado, its official mission is “to provide resilient and cost-effective Space and Cyberspace capabilities for the Joint Force and the Nation.” Several times smaller than the retired Space Shuttles of which its aerodynamic design was derived, the project started in 1999 when NASA selected Boeing Integrated Defense Systems to design and develop an orbital vehicle. It was built by the California branch of Boeing’s Phantom Works whose primary focus is developing advanced military products and technologies, many of them highly classified. Five years later, the operation was  transferred from NASA to DARPA and became shrouded in mystery.

The Air Force stated it will “demonstrate various experiments and allow satellite sensors, subsystems, components, and associated technology to be transported into space and back”, which could mean absolutely anything. Surely it will only be a matter of time before the public will start asking questions en masse – until someone else leaks a bundle of cables disclosing everything of course.

Space Shuttle Discovery on lift off

The Space Shuttle (1981 – 2011) – Part 3

Following from Hubble’s story in part two, the year is 1995 and in June of that year space shuttle Atlantis lifts off. It’s mission: to dock with MIR, the Russian space station that by some is seen as the predecessor to the International Space Station. This event led to what was at the time the largest spacecraft ever in orbit, with a total mass of almost 225 tons (around half a million pounds). The following five days saw joint U.S.-Russian operations including biomedical investigations, and transfer of equipment to and from Mir. The lessons learned from this and the following 10 orbiter flights to MIR would later pave the way for the ISS, a station operated by multiple partners.

In October of 1998 John Glenn, America’s first orbiting astronaut (in 1962) made history again by going up with the shuttle Discovery. This made him not only the oldest person to fly in space by serving as a payload specialist at the age of 77, but he also became the only person ever to have flown in both the Mercury and Shuttle programmes. The nine-day mission supported a variety of research, with Glenn spending most of his time in space participating in investigations on the aging process. As the effects of spaceflight on the human body show parallels to the natural changes that take place as a person ages, Glenn’s experiments were designed to test how his body responded to the microgravity environment.

The new millenium unfortunately saw another dark year for space flight. In January of 2003, space shuttle Columbia lifted off on a 17-day science mission featuring numerous microgravity experiments. Upon reentry however, Columbia suffered from a catastrophic failure due to a breach that occured during launch. As it turned out, falling foam from the external tank struck the reinforced carbon panels on the underside of the left wing due to which the heat shielding was compromised, and hot gases encountered on re-entry penetrated the hole and tore Columbia apart. The orbiter including its seven crewmembers were lost approximately 15 minutes before Columbia was scheduled to touch down at Kennedy Space Center. The loss underlined once again the vulnerabilities of the space shuttle. Again the fleet got grounded, and this time it led to President George W Bush announcing in January of 2004 that “In 2010, the space shuttle, after nearly 30 years of duty, will be retired from service.”

Stay tuned for the history of the programme’s retirement. Until next time!

Space Shuttle Discovery

The Space Shuttle (1981 – 2011) – Part 2

The ill-fated Challenger, the second space shuttle to be built was the first to conduct a spacewalk. Unfortunately 3 years later in January of 1986, disaster struck when a seal on a rocket booster failed, leading to the shuttle’s destruction 72 seconds into its mission. It was a disaster on many levels for NASA, because not only did it lose seven astronauts and a very expensive shuttle that day but the event showed the world that this was a dangerous business to be in. On this particular launch, media attention was at an all time high, because of the presence of crew member Christa McAulliffe, who was to be the first teacher in space.

The tragedy led to a 32-months hiatus in the shuttle program, and President Ronald Reagan setting up the Rogers Commission, which was to investigate the accident. Not only that, but the Air Force decided to launch its classified military satellites using the Titan IV rockets instead.

The program bounced back however, and saw several highlights in a row in between the launch of a range of science probes and telescopes… in May of 1989, Magellan was the first planetary mission to be launched by an orbiter, despatched to Venus to make a radar map of its surface. Even more important as it would turn out was the launch of the Hubble space telescope (HST) in April of 1990 – the two would have an ongoing affair for quite some time as it turned out because the HST would need quite some maintenance.

However, looking at the results of what Hubble gave us, no one could argue with its importance in NASA’s history. The most important of those re-visits was made by Endeavour, the shuttle which was built to replace Challenger using structural spare parts originally intended for the other orbiters. In December 1993, the shuttle carried up the equipment that would correct Hubble’s flawed vision. The telescope became one of the best showcases for the shuttle as it transformed our knowledge of the cosmos by showing us the most dazzling places in the universe like we had never seen them before.

Stay tuned for part 3 where we take it away starting from the Mir missions!

The Space Shuttle

The Space Shuttle (1981 – 2011) – Part 1

Nearly 2 years ago, NASA retired its fleet of space shuttles, which started operating 30 years before. Several companies have thrown their hat in the ring to be its successor in different ways, so let us have a look back at the program that gave us the Magellan spacecraft, the Hubble telescope, and the International Space Station to name a few.

It was in the late sixties that the Space Transportation System program was devised, as a means of reducing the cost of spaceflight by introducing a reusable spacecraft. The final agreed design would feature three main components: the orbiter (the reusable spaceplane most people refer to as the shuttle), a disposable external tank and two reusable solid-fuel rocket boosters. The contract to build this triumph of human engineering would end up going to North American Aviation (later  becoming part of Rockwell International, which now is a part of Boeing). When the prototype shuttle Enterprise (named after the Star Trek ship of the same name flown by Captain James T. Kirk) was ready it started a series of tests, the first of which were ground-based and then from 1977 included multiple flights to analyze the behaviour and characteristics of the orbiter.


It was humanity’s first reusable spacecraft, pushing the boundaries of technology while requiring the tremendous effort of a vast workforce that showed an unwavering commitment to mission success. Looking back on it now, the shuttles carried people into orbit repeatedly, launched, recovered and repaired satellites, conducted cutting-edge research and built the largest structure in space, the International Space Station. It would be hard to imagine a NASA history without them.

File:OV-101 first flight.jpg


When the first space shuttle Columbia launched in April of 1981 flown by astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen, these two men truly boldly went where no man had gone before as they took off in a craft that had not first been sent on an unmanned test mission.

When Challenger, the second shuttle became operational in April of 1983, NASA now had a fleet of reusable spaceplanes. They would indeed change the way we humans would live and work in space. Large payloads could now be taken into or retreived from orbit, which opened a world of new possibilities. As the years advanced, three more shuttles joined the program: Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour but more on that next time, so be sure to check in again soon!