Guest post: SpaceX launch early Friday (5:49 a.m. Eastern time)

April 22, 2021 • 5:00 pm

Jim Batterson, one of my old friends from college, wrote me about Friday’s SpaceX launch, and his thoughts were so interesting that I asked if he would turn them into a short post. He kindly obliged.

The launch is scheduled for early tomorrow (5:49 a.m. Eastern time, 4:49 a.m. Chicago time), so I’m posting this on Thursday evening to alert you. If you’re a real space aficionado in the U.S., you’ll want to set an alarm.

I asked Jim for his creds to show, and this is what he said:

“Flight control engineer at NASA Langley Research Center from 1978 to retirement in 2008”.  I spent several of those years as head of the Dynamics & Control Branch.  This is like a university department chair. We did control theory research and design and flight test for a range of aircraft including general aviation aircraft, fighter prototypes, shuttle, next generation launch vehicles, the first micro-air vehicles, and large space structures.  My own research was in an area known as “system identification from flight data”.

And so to his post, which I’ve indented:

Just a heads up that there is a planned SpaceX launch of four astronauts headed to the International Space Station scheduled for 0549 EDT Friday morning (0449 Chicago time).  This is an instantaneous launch window, which means that if it doesn’t launch at this time, the entire launch will be postponed. NASA live TV coverage will start about four hours before the planned liftoff and is available at the official NASA site or at the YouTube site below:

This launch uses a refurbished crew capsule and a booster rocket from previous SpaceX flights.  While the capsule and four-person crew will continue on to the station for a Saturday morning docking, the booster rocket will execute a planned controlled descent back to Earth and land on a barge at sea for further reuse. My former NASA colleagues and I were always nervous about and attentive to each shuttle flight over the years.  I remain nervous about these flights, although the current capsule configuration at the top of the rocket provides an escape mode in case of booster failure—something the shuttle system didn’t offer.

Human spaceflight is inherently dangerous: putting enough explosive potential energy to escape Earth’s gravity into the small volume of a rocket. The shuttle system was particularly scary because the crewed vehicle was strapped alongside the fuel tanks with no escape in case of an explosion. The capsule was thus susceptible to impacts from material that might be shed from the external fuel tank or solid-rocket boosters.  This design flaw has been corrected with the SpaceX redesign back to a capsule that sits atop the rocket, ahead of the fuel and other components of the launch vehicle—like the earlier Mercury and Apollo capsules.  But the escape system still requires a lot of things to happen quickly and correctly.  Some of the engineers in my former organization were involved in developing the escape system control laws, and these systems have been tested in situ.

So why does NASA continue to carry out human spaceflight?  There are two prongs of space flight and exploration at NASA: robotic and human.  The vast majority of pure science is already being in robotic missions, such as the current Mars mission or the recent New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond.  These science missions are supported through ~$7B annually in NASA programs dedicated to planetary science, Earth science, helioscience, and astrophysics.  They involve numerous universities, and projects can generally span a decade or more in planning, development, and execution, with data analysis by scientists around the world continuing for another decade.

The second prong, human spaceflight and operations—a separate ~$10B annual budget item—focuses on learning about humans in space in low Earth orbit and on international cooperation.  We learn how humans adapt and operate in the weightlessness of space over extended time periods—periods that would be required to fly to another planet.  The international crews carry out science experiments, do station and system upkeep and development, and generally learn to live in the always challenging cold vacuum of space.

Human spaceflight is both a science and an engineering project as NASA learns what is needed to keep astronauts both physically and mentally healthy, and then designs, builds, and tests the required infrastructure.  Flying in space is heroic, and I have huge respect for the astronauts who train, strap themselves into the vehicles, and endure months on the space station.  But it does risk lives both on launch and re-entry.  I hope that all of our policy-makers recognize that.

A number of critical cultural policy and management issues were identified in the Rogers Commission investigation into the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger accident and written about specifically by Commission member and Physics Nobel Prize laureate Richard Feynman in a separate appendix to the Commission report.  Feynman’s Appendix F  deserves a read by anyone interested in an engineering or political career. While some changes and redesigns of launch vehicles were instituted, I did not see any real change in NASA’s safety culture as a result of either the Challenger or Columbia accidents and subsequent investigations.

Livestream on the Mars helicopter starts now. IT FLEW!

April 19, 2021 • 5:15 am

UPDATE: Everything appears to have been copacetic: the flight was successful and there are even photographs from the rover.  First is a photo from the Ingenuity showing its shadow on Mars, and the second is a photo from the Rover showing the Ingenuity in the air!

According to the NYT, the Mars helicopter Ingenuity, which weighs only about four pounds, has already attempted its first flight, but we don’t yet know the results as they must be transmitted to Earth. I’m posting this at 5:15 Eastern time, when that data and perhaps video on the flight are supposed to start arriving. The first go will be a short hop, only about 30 seconds long, and the video link is at the bottom. Given the thinness of Mars’s atmosphere (offset a bit by its lower gravity), this feat has been compared to flying a helicopter at an Earth altitude of 100,000 feet—something that’s never been done.

A gif of the Ingenuity (courtesy NASA/JPL CalTech):

From the paper:

At the Ingenuity site on Mars, which is within an ancient crater named Jezero, it will be the middle of the day, about 12:30 p.m. local Mars solar time. (The time zones on the red planet don’t have names, yet.)

For people on Earth, that translates to about 3:30 a.m. Eastern time on Monday. But no one on Earth will know for hours whether the flight has succeeded or failed, or if anything has happened at all. Neither Ingenuity nor Perseverance will be in contact with NASA at that time.

Instead, the two spacecraft will conduct the flight autonomously, executing commands that were sent to them on Sunday. Later, Perseverance will send data back to Earth via a spacecraft orbiting Mars.

NASA TV will begin broadcast from the control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory beginning at 6:15 a.m. Eastern time as the data starts arriving on Earth. You can watch it on NASA’s website.

I’ve put the NASA YouTube feed below:

Additional information will be provided at a news conference at 2 p.m. Eastern time on Monday.

Click below to watch, and fingers crossed. Look how young all the kids are in the helicopter control room!

The Wikipedia article on Ingenuity gives a lot of useful information, and the most poignant piece is this:

Ingenuity carries a piece of fabric from the wing of the 1903 Wright Flyer, the Wright Brothers‘ airplane, humanity’s first controlled powered flight on Earth.

Can you imagine how the Wright brothers would have reacted had they been told 118 years ago that part of their own plane would be flying on Mars?

Perseverance took its first drive on Mars

March 6, 2021 • 10:30 am

Yesterday Perseverance finally revved itself up and took a short drive: 33 minutes.  It apparently went well; as CNN reports:

The NASA Perseverance rover has taken its first drive on Mars, traveling about 21 feet and doing a little spin across Jezero Crater. And that first 33-minute test drive on Thursday went “incredibly well,” according to Anais Zarifian, Perseverance’s mobility test bed engineer.

Perseverance sent back images of its wheel tracks across the red Martian surface Friday.

This is the first of many checkouts and milestones for the rover after its successful landing on February 18. Once the mission truly begins exploring Mars, it will go on drives averaging about 656 feet or more.

“When it comes to wheeled vehicles on other planets, there are few first-time events that measure up in significance to that of the first drive,” Zarifian said. “This was our first chance to ‘kick the tires’ and take Perseverance out for a spin. The rover’s six-wheel drive responded superbly. We are now confident our drive system is good to go, capable of taking us wherever the science leads us over the next two years.”
During the first drive, the rover drove forward 13 feet, performed a 150-degree turn to the left and reversed 8 feet. The rover was able to turn its cameras to the site where it landed.
Here’s the “wheelie selfie”, showing the tracks that proved the thing moved, and below that is a video report on the drive featuring NASA engineers, with some nice footage of Perseverance’s trial on Earth.


We don’t yet have video from Perseverance in the surface, and I’m not sure why that is. But of course I’m greedy; it’s just amazing that we put a wheeled vehicle on Mars that is tootling about and will soon pick up rocks and drill into the surface. What an achievement! What boggles my mind the most is that a species of primate, wresting materials from the earth alone, forged all technology to get this thing to Mars, set it down, and drive it about.

h/t: Charles

Video and photos of Mars Rover at last!

February 22, 2021 • 2:24 pm

Reader Bryan sent this video from NASA that shows Mars mission experts discussing the landing of Perseverance.  At last we can see some video of the parachute deploying, the head shield falling off, and the skycrane lowering the rover to the surface. It’s amazing! They show video and photos from several cameras.

The discussion still going on, so scroll back to when you start seeing images of the rover module (about -1 hour and 10 minutes when I post this).  Don’t miss this.

Mars Perseverance Rover lands today!

February 18, 2021 • 8:30 am

Today the Mars Rover “Perseverance” will land on the Red Planet at 3:55 p.m. Eastern U.S. time (2:55 Chicago time, 8:55 pm London time). You’ll want to be online then, for the landing will be filmed live with several cameras and a microphone. NASA has a countdown page here, which links to all kinds of information about the Rover and the mission.

The live NASA videocast, however, begins over an hour earlier, at 2:15 p.m. EST, 1:15 Chicago time, and 7:15 p.m. London time. You can watch it live below. Be sure to set your alarm for at least 3:30 p.m. Eastern time so you can be there during the Seven Minutes of Terror. Watch at the site below:


Other places you can watch are these: NASA’s public TV channelwebsiteappYouTubeTwitterFacebookLinkedInTwitchDaily Motion or THETA.TV. There’s also a Spanish-language broadcast here.

Remember, if the landing is successful, we won’t see the live video until at least eleven minutes after touchdown, for that’s how long the signal takes to get from Mars to Earth.

Fingers crossed! If all goes well, we can puff out our chests and share a bit of pride in humanity—and science. (And don’t forget that science also gave us the Covid vaccines.)


Mars Rover “Perseverance” lands tomorrow

February 17, 2021 • 11:00 am

Tomorrow the Mars Rover “Perseverance” will land on the Red Planet at 3:55 p.m. Eastern U.S. time (2:55 Chicago time, 8:55 pm London time). You’ll want to be awake then, for the landing will be filmed live with several cameras! NASA has a countdown page here, which links to all kinds of information about the Rover and the mission. Tomorrow afternoon I’ll post some links where you can watch the landing, assuming that all goes well.

The landing sequence of this gizmo in Jezero Crater is known as “The Seven Minutes of Terror” because the slowing down of the spacecraft from 12,100 miles per hour to just 1.7 mpg right before landing takes seven minutes and a ton of complicated technology. All of that was recently programmed into the spacecraft and rover: since there’s an 11-minute delay between Earth and Mars communication, we won’t know whether the Rover has landed until it’s all over.  And there’s nothing anybody can do to help at Mission Control.

Here’s a NASA animation showing how damn complicated this landing will be! It involves separation of the module containing the rover, deployment of a parachute, jettisoning of a heat shield, jets helping navigate over the surface to find a good landing spot, and most amazing, a “sky crane” that gently lowers the rover to the planet’s surface and then flies away.

It’s stunning that a mammalian species can pull off something like this. Don’t miss the live feed tomorrow!

This is a SCIENCE mission, and the rover will be landing in a crater that harbors an ancient delta. As reports,

Perseverance, or “Percy” for short, will explore the Martian terrain and conduct a number of science investigations. Among its objectives, Percy will collect samples, deploy the first helicopter beyond Earth, and search for signs of ancient life on the fourth planet from the sun.

And from the USA Today link above courtesy of NASA, a timeline of the landing:

(Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

I guess there will be sound, too, as there is an array of cameras and a microphone:

h/t: Tom

SpaceX to try again with the Starship rocket at 5:30 Eastern time today

December 9, 2020 • 2:30 pm

Yesterday, as I noted in a post, SpaceX had scheduled a trial launch of its Starship rocket, designed to host long-distance space travel to the Moon, or to Mars. Unfortunately, the liftoff, originally scheduled for yesterday morning, was aborted at the last second.

Update December 8th, 5:45PM ET: SpaceX counted all the way down to launch on Tuesday afternoon, but at 1.3 seconds to liftoff, the Raptor engines initiated an abort and the Starship prototype didn’t take flight. The company will provide updates about its next launch opportunity on its Twitter account.

There’s no update on the Twitter account, but the first video below now says the liftoff is scheduled for 4:30 CST, which is 5:30 Eastern time. The launching pad is in south Texas, so 4:30 pm is local time. They don’t have much of a window:

If this issue can be diagnosed and addressed, SpaceX has a back-up opportunity on Wednesday, during the daylight hours in Texas, to try again. The window runs from 8am CT (14:00 UTC) to 5pm (23:00 UTC). Fortunately, weather appears to be exceptional on Wednesday.

I’ll post this note if the launch is rescheduled. If so, you can watch it at two places:

SpaceX site:

Or this site, which has commentary (it may move later):

SpaceX plans launch today of Starship rocket designed for long-distance space travel; watch live here

December 8, 2020 • 12:45 pm

I forgot about an email I got earlier from reader Jon about SpaceX’s planned launch today of its “Starship”, the rocket that Elon Musk has planned will take humans to Mars. The launch was scheduled for 10 a.m. Chicago time, and it’s past that, but now I see they company has delayed the launch, as they’re “working through additional test preparations.”

Some explanation from Vox’s “The Verge”:

Sometime today, SpaceX hopes to conduct a pivotal test flight of its next-generation Starship rocket, flying a prototype of the vehicle to its highest altitude yet. The company plans to launch the massive rocket to a height of nearly 8 miles, or 12.5 kilometers, up above SpaceX’s facility in Boca Chica, Texas, before landing the vehicle back down on the ground again.

The test is meant to prove out Starship’s capability of launching and landing upright, something the spacecraft will be expected to do both on Earth and on other worlds. SpaceX aims to use Starship to send cargo and people to deep-space destinations like the Moon and Mars. A test like this will help demonstrate Starship’s ability to perform a controlled flight and see if the rocket’s hardware — particularly the three main Raptor engines — functions as expected.

Launch and landing are just part of today’s test. On its website, SpaceX claims the Starship prototype will actually perform “a landing flip maneuver, which would be a first for a vehicle of this size.” There aren’t many details about the maneuver publicly available, but it’s a risky test that could easily go wrong, with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk only giving the flight a “1/3 chance” of success. SpaceX itself is also deemphasizing the possibility that the test will pull off a perfect launch and landing.

I don’t know if the launch will proceed today, but if it does you can watch it below. I’ll post this again if the launch preparations are resumed tomorrow.