Another week without an orbital launch, though it was not without notable space events, as early Tuesday, the space station received the cargo-laden Soyuz MS-14 capsule following a dramatic docking port swap for Soyuz MS-13.
On Monday, the same three astronauts that rode up in MS-13 piled back into the vessel and flew it around the ISS, to ensure MS-14’s robotic docking system could target the perfectly functioning KURS beacon at the end of the Zvezda module. Though the blinky autodock on Poisk had foiled FEDOR the Robot, the humans had no trouble docking manually.
The United States Space Command, which first operated 1985-2002, resumed 29 Aug 2019. President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Secretary of Defense Esper joined Gen. John “Jay” Raymond and CMSgt. Roger Towberman in a brief ceremony at the Rose Garden of the White House, about 2020 UT.
After a brief speech from the President, the Defense Secretary signed an order establishing the United States Space Command. Raymond presented the President with a commemorative plaque, and Towberman unfurled the new flag for the Unified Combatant Command.
United States Space Command is presently headquartered with its major component, Air Force Space Command, at Peterson AFB, Colorado. Midwest locations that will participate in the new command include Offutt AFB, Nebraska and Cavalier AFS, North Dakota.
The inaugural flight departed General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee at 1631 UT and landed at Gerald Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids at 1655 UT. The 24-minute flight reached a maximum altitude of 5200m and speed of 222 m/s.
The new Midwest Express will fly from Milwaukee to Grand Rapids, Omaha, and Cincinnati. Reservations are not yet open, though an August 6 press release from the airline stated that revenue service will begin by the end of 2019. In the meantime, Elite Airways has returned the plane to charter flight service.
Anticipation was running high today, building since it was first announced that the SpaceX Starship – which passed a tethered lift test in July – was finally to break free of the Earth. It did.
It was a glorious show – a hiss of gas, half like an oboe, half like a shoe being scraped against concrete, then two puffs of vapour, billowing pearly white into the sunny Texas afternoon. A shower of snowy condensate as the engine cracks to life. An orange beam of methalox pierces the grey shroud. Finally, the stainless steel behemoth shook free of gravity, lifting like the Wonkavator over the sandy spits of Boca Chica Beach, kicking up a tan cloud of dust and sand.
The ship soon found itself over the horizon of the high-altitude webcam SpaceX mounted to capture the feat, backlit by the sky, with the ocean lapping the shore just metres to the east as Starship gracefully hurled 150 metres into the air.
Reaching its apogee just after 30 seconds of flight, Starship gingerly tilted over toward its target landing pad, the familiar circle with a SpaceX “X” in the centre, just metres away from the launchpad, and carefully came to a soft landing thereupon, kicking up considerably much less sand on landing than on liftoff.
The test is a major milestone for the SpaceX Starship program, which will be fêted in a major press event sometime in September, after a few more features are tacked on to the vessel.
The success follows a more mundane moment earlier in the day, the return of SpaceX CRS-18 to Earth, which splashed down in the Pacific filled with over 1000 kg of returned science payloads, after Christina Koch detached it from the ISS at 1459 UT.
A first and a last just today – at 0338 UT on 22 August, the Soyuz-2.1a rocket was tested sending up a Soyuz capsule along with a new launch escape system. For safety reasons, Soyuz MS-14 sent no crew except FEDOR the robot, a human-piloted haptic android equally capable of gingerly holding a pop can or squeezing off a round at the gun range.
Delta IV Medium saw its last mission – a GPS satellite – going up at 1306 UT. This rounds out the D4M program, though D4H has several more launches even as the United Launch Alliance moves toward its newer Vulcan rocket.
Earlier in the week, there were three more launches:
17 Aug 2019 0411 – Jiuquan Smart Dragon 1 (first launch!) 18 Aug 2019 1203 – Xichang LM3B (satellite deployment failure) 18 Aug 2019 1212 – Māhia Electron
On the rocky seashore of Santa Catalina Island, California, astronauts Drew Feustel, Norishige Kanai, and Thomas Pesquet are conducting a week of undersea analog training. NEEMO NXT is training them for lunar excursions, with a submersible “rover” and “spacewalks” in simulated lunar gravity using a partially-buoyant diving suit. Uniquely for the NEEMO program, this effort does not involve overnight stays in an aquatic laboratory – the trainees get to breathe fresh air each night. The NXT mission is hosted by the University of Southern California Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.
Meanwhile, Nick Hague and Andrew Morgan set out for ISS EVA218 on 21 Aug 2019 at 1148 UT to install a PMA-to-IDA docking adapter. A twenty-year-old space station will develop logistics problems over time. Oddly enough, one of those problems is what shape the doors should be.
Today, there are three different types of docking ports on the ISS. Not long ago, there were four. The work today finally eliminated the old Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA), which dates back to Shuttle-Mir. An adapter unit converted the last open PMA port to the International Docking Adapter (IDA) hatch design.
In addition to the newer IDA, the older-style Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM) is still available. Russian Progress and Soyuz spacecraft will continue to use the separate SSVP docking system.
No space launches this week, though Vector Launch suddenly shut down, and Virgin Galactic flew VSS Eve 12 August 2019 to participate in a media event 15 August at Spaceport America, as operations ramp up to punch the first of around 600 prepaid tickets within the next several months.
Flores was pursuing a PhD in astrophysics, and had special expertise using supercomputers to perform kinematic simulations of galaxies using the Feedback In Realistic Environments (FIRE) method, first working with Jorge Moreno at CalPoly Pomona, and then over summer 2017 with Claude-André Faucher-Giguère at Northwestern University in Chicago. Flores’s work was featured in the Council on Undergraduate Research’s 2018 “Posters on the Hill” event at the United States Capitol, and had earned a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.
Speaking specifically about culture, Parmitano talked about sharing food, stories, music, and movies with fellow astronauts, but concluded, “In the end, when you talk about culture, culture is knowledge, and we on the Space Station, we create knowledge. Our job is to do science, we perform up to 120 hours of science in a week. We’ve all kinds of experiments – human experiments, physiology, biology, physics, engineering – and that is all going down for the benefit of Earth, and what more culture could you expect than that?”
Also at the 2019 Stockholm Culture Festival, ESA featured an orchestral-multimedia event, a collaboration between composer Ilan Eshker and astronaut Tim Peake, called Space Station Earth.
The United Launch Alliance carried the AEHF-5 commsat to GTO with an Atlas 5 launch 08 Aug 2019 1013 UT. The launch was briefly delayed for 0944 due to a thrust vectoring concern with the RD-180 main engine.