A wild ride of a week on the frontier with a Shuttle returning to earth, launches galore and the first step in Mir's rehabilitation. Highlights include:
After a bonus day in orbit because of fog at the Florida landing site, the Shuttle Discovery returned to Kennedy Space Center at 7:07 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, August 19. The Shuttle spent twelve days in orbit on a science mission observing Earth's atmosphere and testing a new Japanese robot arm. The next time the new robot arm will be used will be on the International Space Station. Within the cargo bay of the Shuttle was the CRISTAS-SPAS observatory which flew free for nine days before being recaptured by the Shuttle. The mission also conducted telescopic observations of the comet Hale-Bopp (NASA; Flatoday).
Atlantis is on the launch pad undergoing ball seal and helium signature leak checks. The payload bay doors were recently closed in preparation for loading hypergolic reactants. Solid-rocket-booster hydraulic testing is complete and SRB close-outs are now in work. The Orbiter Midbody Umbilical Unit will be mated Aug. 29 and the Spacehab payload will be transferred to the pad on Sept. 3. Three science experiments will be removed from the September flight to allow an extra astronaut, David Wolf, to fly to Mir. Wolf was added to the mission when it was determined that Wendy Lawrence, who was originally slated to replace Mike Foale on Mir, would not fit in available Russian EVA suits. Because room is also needed for Russian oxygen canisters, batteries and spacewalk tools, three Get-Away Special payloads will be removed from the shuttle payload bay (NASA; SN).
On Monday, August 18, shortly before a second attempt at docking the Progress supply vehicle to the station complex, the main computer for the Mir station went off line. The Progress was successfully docked manually. However, as a result of the failure of the information exchange module in the station's main computer, the station lost sun-lock and solar power. While this is the first such power outage experienced by the Mir 24 crew, it is the third for astronaut Mike Foale. Systems were quickly powered down to conserve the limited battery power. Since the Progress was docked to the station, the crew could use it to both manually reestablish orientation on the sun and to begin the process of recharging systems and bringing the station back to life. By Tuesday morning, a faulty component was replaced and the station's main computer was back on line. Because new batteries were delivered with the Mir 24 crew, the recovery was more rapid than previous power outages. The station's various environmental systems were back on line on Wednesday as batteries recharged. The activation of the remaining 10 gyrodynes eliminated the need to use Progress thrusters to orient the station. Later, the engines of the Progress will be used to correct the station's orbit (Flatoday; NBC; ABC; NASA).
Because of the station power failure the scheduled internal space walk was delayed from Wednesday, Aug 20 to Friday, Aug 22. Pavel Vinogradov and Anatoly Solovyev donned the bulky Russian space suits while Mike Foale was stationed in the Soyuz capsule in case of emergency. The walk was initially delayed due to problems sealing a hatch in the transfer node. Then one of the gloves of Vinogradov developed a leak. The transfer node was repressurized and a spare replacement glove was substituted. Rookie spacewalker Pavel Vinogradov was given the honor of connecting the eleven cables while Commander Solovyev, the world's most experienced space walker, assisted. Six of the cables were quickly attached to the recently-installed special drogue section in the Spektr hatch. The seventh cable proved difficult, but it too was connected after a short rest break. The remaining cables were then attached, completing the primary mission in half the time expected. With the remaining time, the pair of cosmonauts explored the interior of the Spektr lab in hopes of locating the leak. They also recovered a log book, data disks, equipment and some personal items of Mike Foale's. While predictions had indicated that the lab may have been filled with floating glass, and other hazardous substances, the cosmonauts found only a few floating white crystals that probably were from Foale's shampoo. The interior appeared normal with some pumps and fans continuing to operate despite the vacuum created by the leak. The four-hour walk is expected to restore the station to 60 - 90% of its pre-accident power capability. An external space walk by Anatoly Solovyev and probably Mike Foale is scheduled for early September to install hand rails and inspect the damage on the Spektr module (Flatoday; NBC; ABC).
Prior to the space walk, Vladimir Petrov, a Russian deputy finance minister was quoted as saying that it was time to retire Mir and end financing the station in 1998. In response, Valery Ryumin, who heads cooperation with NASA, referred to such a statement as "nonsense." Since Mir is one of the few Russian programs actually generating money from foreign guests on the station and recently from shooting an Israeli TV commercial, cutting it from the Russian budget would make little sense. For multi-million dollar fees, guest cosmonauts from the ESA are routinely brought aboard the station during crew transfers. NASA has paid big bucks and provided much-needed transport and support to maintain a series of astronauts on Mir for over a year and a half. Recently, for an undisclosed fee, the now-earthside Mir 23 crew filmed a Tnuva milk commercial for Israeli television. Despite the generation of much-needed cash, it will be the upcoming Russian fiscal 1998 budget that will tell the true tale Mir's funding future (Flatoday; NBC).
Flying under the Boeing banner for the first time, a Boeing Delta 2 was launched from Vandenberg AFB Space Launch Complex 2 at 8:38 p.m. EDT August 20. The rocket, carrying five Iridium satellites, was delayed from its August 17 launch when a Motorola ground station in Chandler, Arizona experienced technical problems. The satellites were released between 62 and 85 minutes after launch. Iridium now has twennty two of its planned sixty six satellites in orbit. This is the fifth successful Delta 2 launch this year; three of them carried Iridium satellites. The next Delta launch is slated for August 25 from Cape Canaveral (SN; Flatoday).
The launch of a Long March 3B rocket was scrubbed two consecutive days for reasons relating to weather. The rocket carrying the Agila 2 satellite was finally launched on August 19. The Agila 2 was built by Space Systems/Loral and will be positioned at 144 degrees east to serve the Asian Pacific with 24 Ku-band transponders. Launch was from the Xichang Satellite Launching Center in southwest China. This is the second public launch of the Long March 3B. The first launch of the rocket in February of 1996 failed. There is some indication that the rocket was used in a secret military launch earlier this year (Flatoday).
Having survived jamming itself between two rocks and tilting itself up into an auto-stop position, on August 18, the rover was freed and ordered to travel to rocks dubbed Shark and Flattop. However, during transmission of the marching orders, the communication link was broken and it was not clear if the Rover had received the orders. Subsequently, the rover was put in a rest mode for several days because the Deep Space network was not available for transmittal of data. The rover has since resumed its journey to Shark. The mission has reached the 1,000-hour mark and appears to be in surprisingly good health, other than a drift in one of the rover's gyros (Flatoday; JPL).
While the world was watching the amazing recovery efforts on the Mir station, another advance in the frontier took place at Vandenberg AFB. There the Lockheed Martin Launch Vehicle (LMLV-1) successfully launched the Lewis explorer. While the satellite is of interest as an example of NASA's new better, faster, cheaper approach, the LMLV may be of more lasting import.
Frontiers in American experience are all built in part upon infrastructure built by the military. Military roads carved in the wilderness become highways and railroads routes to the frontier. So too, former ICBMs have evolved into America's stable of rockets that transport satellites to the frontier. However, artificial levels of frontier activity can sometime result. Military goals and objectives are not frontier oriented--infrastructure support may be changed or removed at any time.
There comes a time when the evolution of frontier systems needs to move beyond the inherent instability of the infrastructure built by heavy military spending. While such a move loses the nearly-free frontier infrastructure development, it gains a more stable foundation based upon market economies. While military spending can speed the development of a wilderness, frontiers must stand or fall on their own merit. In the long run, free-market development has the potential to outpace tax-supported military development.
NASA and the US military have taken the first steps toward the stabilizing of the transport systems of the high frontier. The United Space Alliance (Boeing/LockMart) now runs Shuttle operations. Delta, Atlas and to some extent Titan have been privatized and their designs allowed to develop to meet market demands. Further, private companies are developing "non-military" design-based launch systems. The honor of first privately-developed commercial launch vehicle goes to Orbital Science. Their Pegasus aircraft-launched rocket is capable of launching small LEO satellites from nearly anywhere on earth.
Today, August 23, 1997, the next step in the evolution of frontier transport occurred. Lockheed Martin launched a rocket of their own design. While it no doubt has military design heritage in many of its systems and is actually launched from the previously-unused Vandenberg military Shuttle launch pad, it is the first traditionally-launched American commercial rocket that does not directly derive from ICBM heritage.
With commercially-developed rockets available for launching rockets, can private launching facilities be far away? Today Vandenberg and the Florida Space coast launch nearly all of the American commercial flights. But both rocket ranges are steeped in military and NASA regulation and control. Private contractors must play by government rules and apply for launch openings in ever-more-busy schedules. As a result, the developing Boeing SeaLauch venture, which will have its own mobile launch facilities afloat in the Pacific, appears to be the next great step in evolution. Private launches on an empty range.
These are developments worth watching.
As a result of the landing of the Shuttle, the space population has decreased to the base line of three. There are two Russians and one American on Mir. This is the 2805 day of continuous space occupation beginning with the reoccupation of Mir on September 8, 1989.