Tag Archives: International Space Station

Orbital's Antarest rocket

Orbital Sciences Corporation

Orbital Sciences Corporation (registered on the New York Stock Exchange as ORB, though commonly referred to as Orbital) is an American company which specializes in the manufacturing and launch of small- and medium-class space and rocket systems. Their client base includes the likes of the US Department of Defense and NASA. A pretty sizeable company, counting around 3800 employees of which half are engineers and scientists, Orbital was founded in 1982. The company conducted their 500th mission back in 2006 already and are currently projected to do more than a billion dollars in annual revenue.

Analysing the company very top-level, it consists of three segments. Launch Vehicles is where they develop rockets and engines of all sorts for different purposes, military and civilian. Satellite and Space Systems is where their geosynchronous Earth orbit communication satellites and other space-based communications service come from. Perhaps the most interesting – definitely for our focus here – is the Advanced Space Program where they besides developing small and medium class satellites for national security space systems also keep themselves busy with working on projects for human space flight and planetary exploration.

Orbital is involved with two prominent NASA programs: the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS)/Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) programs and the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). More on those another time but the long story short, NASA started using private companies (both SpaceX and Orbital are contracted) recently for cost-effective supply missions to and from the International Space Station and low-Earth orbit. The Obama Administration is looking to expand this approach with partnerships to send NASA astronauts to the space station as soon as 2017.

Orbital launched its new Antares® rocket (a two-stage launch vehicle) for the first time in 2013 – see above for a fascinating time lapse video of its preparation for launch – and its Cygnus™ cargo logistics spacecraft is next scheduled to travel to the ISS mid December. They are pretty active on social media, and it is definitely worth checking out their YouTube channel as well where you can find gems like below’s highlights of their Cygnus demo mission – electronic dance tunes included. Definitely a company we will be following closely!

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.

Space Walk at the ISS

Building the International Space Station (ISS)

In part two of our coverage of the ISS (you can check out previous coverage here), we will take a closer look at how the station was actually built. With over a dozen countries involved, and so many different components (159 had been installed as of June 2011) that would make up this marvel of space architecture and international cooperation, things could never have been easy. The assembly of the International Space Station began in November 1998 when an autonomous Russian Proton rocket delivered Zarya into space, the backbone module of what would become the ISS, providing propulsion, attitude control, communications and electrical power but lacking long-term life support functions. Two weeks later NASA attached its first module, called Unity – this module then allowed the Space Shuttle to dock to the space station – to Zarya, and assembly was now truly underway.

It was to be another two years before the station would have a module for permanent habitation attached, when in July 2000 Zvezda was launch. This Russian module added sleeping quarters, a toilet and kitchen, oxygen generators, exercise equipment, plus a whole array of  communications amongst other things and it soon took over computer command control from Zarya. The first resident crew arrived in November of that same year in a Soyuz capsule at a time when MIR was being decommissioned and in the two years following, assembly milestones included the larger solar arrays, the primary US research facility Destiny and the station’s main robot arm Canadarm2. Then the unfortunate happened, as Space Shuttle Columbia blew up, putting the entire Space Shuttle programme and further expansion of the ISS at risk, but luckily assembly continued in 2005 as the investigation was concluded and modifications to the Shuttles were made.

In the years following, the station expanded rapidly with more truss segments and solar arrays being added, being able to support a growing number of modules including Harmony (also known as Node 2) which by itself expanded the station’s internal space by 20%, the European laboratory Columbus, and JAXA’s Kibō which was not only Japan’s first manned experiment facility, but is also the largest laboratory on the International Space Station. Early 2010 a third node, Tranquility, got added alongside Cupola, ESA‘s observatory module which you can partly see in Chris Hadfield‘s music video “Is Somebody Singing” as he looks out of its seven windows while playing the guitar. Space Shuttle Discovery’s last mission was to bring module Leonardo to the station, and by June 2011 a total of 15 modules made up the ISS.

Originally planned to have been finished by 2004/2005, it took till 2011 for it to be officially finished. However development is still ongoing in 2013 without the Space Shuttle programme and while there is already talk about decommissioning the station, new modules and components are still being added. If you want to know more, be sure to not miss this Discovery Channel documentary, and this handy infographic. Upon completion the station will have a mass in excess of 400 tonnes and if you look carefully into the nightsky, you might see those lucky few astronauts orbiting around 400 kilometers above you.

Chris Hadfield

Chris Hadfield (1959)

They say that some events inspire a generation… Well, let us go back in time to July 1969 when millions were glued to their TVs and radios during the Apollo moon landing. Amongst them, a 9-year old boy called Chris Hadfield. Forward the clock to 2012 and this boy had already become the first Canadian to walk in space. And he was about to make the history books…

Hadfield, who in 1992 was accepted into the Canadian astronaut program by the Canadia Space Agency (CSA), first flew into space as a mission specialist in November 1995, visiting Mir in the process (the ISS would not exist yet for another few years). Six years later he would fly again on STS-100 and visited the International Space Station (ISS). And in December of last year, Hadfield set of on his third and what was to be his final mission, when he flew aboard Soyuz to, and in March this year took command of the International Space Station, the place he would call home for the next five months. We can only wonder if NASA and CSA realised at the time what an impact this man would have upon their reputation. The organisations became world news, not because of anything but Hadfield‘s personality. Check out the Canadian Space Agency’s YouTube channel, and it will be clear that they were firmly behind this all the way with most recent videos all promoting their most precious asset in space.

So here you have an astronaut, veteran test pilot of over 70 different aircraft, who flew combat missions for NORAD, suddenly becoming an internet sensation because of the way he interacted with the people below him on planet Earth. As he started to take pictures of Earth and tweet them, he quickly gathered several hundreds of thousands of followers who were all amazed by these stunning photographs. While in space Hadfield also appeared in several interviews including one with William Shatner, and science shows talking about how astronauts sleep, what happens when you cry in space and even an episode where kids picked the topic, of which you can see the result in the below ‘wash cloth’ episode:

Pure marketing genius, and surely few could have pulled it off like Hadfield did. It proved that helping to run dozens of scientific experiments dealing with the impact of low gravity on human biology is one thing, but getting an entire new generation of kids glued to their monitors and mobile screens (TV is so 20th century?) might pay off more than anyone could currently predict. The video that made world news he released just before leaving the ISS in May this year. It is Hadfield’s version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, which at the current count already has an astonishing 16.3 million views! Absolutely incredible, and the man’s singing talents are ok, but a lesser known video which we wouldn’t want to hold from you was released in February of this year and is titled I.S.S. – this time it did not stand for “International Space Station” but for “Is Somebody Singing”. In the catchy tune, Hadfield collaborated with Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies and the Wexford Gleeks:

Soon after Hadfield came back to Earth, he announced his retirement, quoting a promise to his wife 30 years ago which he was making good on. And so, this larger than life character who put the Canadian Space Agency firmly on the map, will bow out next week Wednesday 3 July to make way for the next generation to step forward.

We wish you all the best commander!

Dennis Tito - the first space tourist

Dennis Tito (1940)

Dennis Tito is, while not the first non-astronaut in space, definitely the first space tourist. Self-funded with the capital he built up through his company Wilshire Associates (investment management since 1972), you wouldn’t exactly class him as the average neighbour living around the corner. With a Bachelor of Science in Astronautics and Aeronautics from NYU and a Master of Science in Engineering Science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Tito was already well on his way to achieving his 40-year goal. On top of that, he is also a former scientist of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Being a pioneer is rarely easy, and often very expensive and the same goes for Tito. His milestone adventure set the New York born engineer and entrepreneur back $20 million. A small sum if you compare it to the value of the international clientele his company represents ($12.5 trillion) but definitely not even in the same ballpark as the flights Virgin Galactic, XCor Aerospace and others will offer in coming year (around the $100k-$250k mark seems to be the benchmark – given those flights won’t offer you to stay in orbit on board the ISS). Tito however did do it in 2001, over a decade before any of these companies would achieve flying humans into space on a commercial space flight. And he didn’t have an easy ride – NASA refused to take him up, or even train him on the grounds that he was not a trained astronaut… so the Russians trained him for 900 hours and facilitated the trip. Ten years before that, in 1991, he looked into going up into space on a trip to Moscow. Unfortunately his ticket became void in disastrous fashion, when the MIR space station fell uncontrollably from the sky that year.

It was space tourism company Space Adventures who brokered for Tito to join the Soyuz TM-32 mission in April 2001 and he ended up staying in orbit – most of that on board the International Space Station – for nearly 8 days. As we saw with later space tourists, he did several scientific experiments while doing his 128 orbits around the Earth. Not resting there, in January 2013 Tito founded the Inspiration Mars Foundation. Its mission: “launch a manned mission to flyby Mars in 2018“. That trip would take 501 days taking into account the shortest route possible with today’s technology – although it would probably take a considerable amount of training for the astronauts selected to withstand the psychological and physical rigors of that journey.

In an interview with the BBC 10 years after his achievement he said:

“I often thought that if I did spend my last penny, I could live on social security for the rest of my life and still be happy, because I’d achieved what I wanted to achieve. It was a sense of completeness – from then on, everything is a bonus. And the last 10 years, everything since then, has been just extra. And I think I am one of the happiest humans alive because of that.”

Start saving for the pursuit of happiness…


International Space Station

The International Space Station (ISS)

By far the most known man-made object in space must be the International Space Station, or ISS. As large as a football field, with some patience and knowing where to look (check here for its current position) you could even spot it with the naked eye. The best chance to see it would be the hours before sunrise or after sunset, when the ISS is sunlit but the ground and sky are dark. Not only is it a behemoth of a construction, it was also astronomically expensive. If you look at the modules alone, you are talking around the 60 to 70 billion dollar mark… including transportation to and from (shuttle flights at $1.4 billion each for example) and other partners’ budget, it would be closer to $150 billion dollars. That’s $150,000,000,000!  A sum even Bill Gates, often quoted to be the richest man on the planet, couldn’t afford.

The Space Station is much more than an expensive construction for those few lucky astronauts though. As a collaboration of 15 nations working together to create a world-class, state-of-the-art orbiting research facility it provided the facilities to inspire a generation with science shows and genuine mini-concerts, provided tons of research data already and is probably the greatest ever human feat of international cooperation. In fact, you can check for yourself what the inhabitants are currently up to here (including sound)!

NASA‘s ISS website is pretty comprehensive – it even tells you who’s on the station right now, and who will be on the next mission for instance. But let’s not forget that it wouldn’t have been possible to build the station without the funding and technical input and resources of the European Space Agency (or ESA, which is comprised of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom), the Russian Federal Space Agency (commonly referred to as Roscosmos, i.e. Russia), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) – this last one only having been established in 1989! All these nations’ organisations came together in January 1998 to sign the Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) which basically lays out who owns which modules, the station usage by the participant nations, and responsibilities for resupplying the whole mission.

Next time, we will check how the station was actually built. And perhaps you’ll see the ISS flying by next time you look up but better pay attention cause at 28,000 km per hour, it circles the Earth every 90 minutes. Stay tuned!