CNN Investigates ‘Space Shuttle Columbia: The Final Flight’

CNN revisits 2003’s disastrous landing of the Space Shuttle Columbia tonight with two “immersive” specials co-produced by BBC and Mindhouse Productions “featuring exclusive interviews and revealing never-before-broadcast footage,” according to an announcement — with two more specials airing next week.

You can watch a trailer here.

Across four episodes, the story of the ticking-clock of Columbia’s final mission is told in dramatic detail, beginning months before the troubled launch, unfolding across the sixteen days in orbit, and concluding with the investigation into the tragic loss of the seven astronauts’ lives. Weaving together intimate footage shot by the astronauts themselves inside the orbiter, exclusive first-hand testimony from family members of the Shuttle’s crew, key players at NASA — some of whom have never spoken before — and journalists who covered the story on the ground, the series paints an intimate portrait of the women and men onboard and uncovers in forensic detail the trail of events and missed opportunities that ultimately led to disaster.

CNN says the first two episodes will livestream tonight at 9 p.m. EST (time-delayed on the west coast until 9 p.m.PST) — and then be available on-demand starting Monday — “for pay TV subscribers via CNN.com, CNN connected TV and mobile apps.” CNN’s web site offers a “preview” of its live TV offerings here.

They’re promising “the inside story of one America’s most iconic institutions, uncovering how financial pressures and a culture of complacency may have contributed to the events of February 1, 2003. The series also reflects on the legacy of the Space Shuttle era, serving as a timely exploration of the challenges and inherent dangers that remain relevant to space travel today.”

On its web site CNN has also published two companion articles — one by Rice history professor Douglas Brinkley arguing that NASA “was America’s crown jewel. After the Columbia disaster it was never quite the same.”

Because other shuttle missions had returned safely with “shredded” surface tiles — and because the stalwart Columbia had brought astronauts home from 27 previous flights — many NASA officials were lulled into complacency. They went so far as to assure the pilot and commander via email that “there is no concern … We have seen the same phenomenon on several other flights and there is absolutely no concern for entry.”

NASA officials also decided against enlisting spy satellite photography to examine the shuttle damage more thoroughly. If they had, it’s possible that the astronauts could have repaired the spaceplane or at least abandoned it for refuge on the International Space Station…

As the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) noted in its final report, “the NASA organizational culture had as much to do with this accident as the foam.” All of NASA’s launches were suspended for two years. While the shuttles eventually flew again, post-Columbia, the program was stunted and curtailed.
The article notes that since then SpaceX, Blue Origin, and the United Launch Alliance (Lockheed Martin and Boeing) “are thriving today in the space industry,” along with Virgin Galactic and Axiom Space. “NASA, far from feeling threatened, has encouraged many of the private companies with massive contracts. The agency already had a long history of dealing with sub-contractors, using its pocketbook to steer aerospace development; that tradition has adjusted seamlessly to the current space economy.”

In the other article CNN Space & Science writer Jackie Wattles notes that when America later retired its Space Shuttle program in 2011, “no U.S. astronaut would travel to space on an American-made rocket for nearly a decade.”

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NASA Makes RISC-V the Go-to Ecosystem for Future Space Missions

SiFive is the first company to produce a chip implementing the RISC-V ISA.

They’ve now been selected to provide the core CPU for NASA’s next generation High-Performance Spaceflight Computing processor (or HSPC).

HPSC is expected to be used in virtually every future space mission, from planetary exploration to lunar and Mars surface missions.

HPSC will utilize an 8-core, SiFive® Intelligenceâ X280 RISC-V vector core, as well as four additional SiFive RISC-V cores, to deliver 100x the computational capability of today’s space computers. This massive increase in computing performance will help usher in new possibilities for a variety of mission elements such as autonomous rovers, vision processing, space flight, guidance systems, communications, and other applications….

The SiFive X280 is a multi-core capable RISC-V processor with vector extensions and SiFive Intelligence Extensions and is optimized for AI/ML compute at the edge. The X280 is ideal for applications requiring high-throughput, single-thread performance while under significant power constraints. The X280 has demonstrated a 100x increase in compute capabilities compared to today’s space computers..

In scientific and space workloads, the X280 provides several orders of magnitude improvement compared to competitive CPU solutions.

A business development executive at SiFive says their X280 core “demonstrates orders of magnitude performance gains over competing processor technology,” adding that the company’s IP “allows NASA to take advantage of the support, flexibility, and long-term viability of the fast-growing global RISC-V ecosystem.

“We’ve always said that with SiFive the future has no limits, and we’re excited to see the impact of our innovations extend well beyond our planet.”
And their announcement stresses that open hardware is a win for everybody:

The open and collaborative nature of RISC-V will allow the broad academic and scientific software development community to contribute and develop scientific applications and algorithms, as well optimizing the many math functions, filters, transforms, neural net libraries, and other software libraries, as part of a robust and long-term software ecosystem.

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Problems Delay Launch of NASA’s SLS Rocket – Again

With 8.8 million pounds of thrust, NASA’s SLS would’ve been the most powerful rocket ever launched into space, notes the Orlando Sentinel.
But instead on Saturday morning, “NASA scrubbed its second attempt to launch the Artemis I mission into lunar orbit…” reports CNET. “During a press conference later in the day, Jim Free, an associate administrator at NASA Headquarters, said we shouldn’t expect to see a third attempt within this launch period, which culminates Tuesday.” (Though the mission manager the next launch attempt could be as late as mid-October.)

“This time, the culprit was a liquid hydrogen leak that showed up while the team was loading the rocket’s core stage….”

According to the space agency, the leak occurred “while loading the propellant into the core stage of the Space Launch System rocket” and that “multiple troubleshooting efforts to address the area of the leak, by reseating a seal in the quick disconnect where liquid hydrogen is fed into the rocket, did not fix the issue.”
This is the second time the Artemis I mission has been delayed. Liftoff attempt No. 1 was scheduled for Monday, but launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson had to call a scrub then as well, because of an unyielding problem with what’s known as an engine bleed test. (This process is meant to allow the engines to chill to the right temperature by releasing a small amount of the fuel).

“We were unable to get the engines within the thermal conditions required to commit to launch,” Artemis mission manager Mike Sarafin said during a press conference on Tuesday. “In combination with that, we also had a bent valve issue on the core stage, and it was at that point that the team decided to knock off the launch attempt for that day.”

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Are Space Scientists Ready For Starship – the Biggest Rocket Ever?

Slashdot reader sciencehabit shared this thought-provoking anecdote from Science magazine:

NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite mission was brutish and short. It began on 9 October 2009, when the hull of a spent Centaur rocket stage smashed into Cabeus crater, near the south pole of the Moon, with the force of about 2 tons of TNT. And it ended minutes later, when a trailing spacecraft flew through and analyzed the lofted plume of debris before it, too, crashed. About 6% of the plume was water, presumably from ice trapped in the shadowed depths of the crater, where the temperature never rises above -173ÂC. The Moon, it turned out, wasn’t as bone dry as the Apollo astronauts believed. “That was our first ground truth that there is water ice,” says Jennifer Heldmann, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center who worked on the mission.

Today, Heldmann wants to send another rocket to probe lunar ice — but not on a one-way trip. She has her eye on Starship, a behemoth under development by private rocket company SpaceX that would be the largest flying object the world has ever seen. With Starship, Heldmann could send 100 tons to the Moon, more than twice the lunar payload of the Saturn V, the workhorse of the Apollo missions. She dreams of delivering robotic excavators and drills and retrieving ice in freezers onboard Starship, which could return to Earth with tens of tons of cargo. By analyzing characteristics such as the ice’s isotopic composition and its depth, she could learn about its origin: how much of it came from a bombardment of comets and asteroids billions of years ago versus slow, steady implantation by the solar wind. She could also find out where the ice is abundant and pure enough to support human outposts. “It’s high-priority science, and it’s also critical for exploration,” Heldmann says.

When SpaceX CEO Elon Musk talks up Starship, it’s mostly about human exploration: Set up bases on Mars and make humans a multiplanetary species! Save civilization from extinction! But Heldmann and many others believe the heavy lifter could also radically change the way space scientists work. They could fly bigger and heavier instruments more often — and much more cheaply, if SpaceX’s projections of cargo launch costs as low as $10 per kilogram are to be believed. On Mars, they could deploy rovers not as one-offs, but in herds. Space telescopes could grow, and fleets of satellites in low-Earth orbit could become commonplace. Astronomy, planetary science, and Earth observation could all boldly go, better than they ever have before.

Of course, Starship isn’t real yet. All eyes will be on a first orbital launch test, expected sometime in the coming months.
Starship would’ve made it easier to deploy the massive James Webb Space Telescope, the article points out, while in the future Starship’s extra fuel capacity could make it easier to explore Mercury, earth’s outermost planets, and even interstellar space. In fact, Heldmann and colleagues have now suggested that NASA create a dedicated funding line for missions relying on Starship. Heldmann argues that “We on the science side need to be ready to take advantage of those capabilities when they come online.”

The article notes that at an event in February, Elon Musk “explained how a single Starship, launching three times per week, would loft more than 15,000 tons to orbit in a year — about as much as all the cargo that has been lifted in the entire history of spaceflight.”

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Low-cost Astra Rocket Suffers Upper Stage Failure. Two NASA Satellites Lost

“All appeared to be going smoothly,” reports CBS News, “when, about a minute before the second stage engine was expected to shut down, an onboard ‘rocketcam’ showed a flash in the engine’s exhaust plume.

“The camera view them showed what appeared to be a tumble before video from the rocket cut off….”

California-based Astra on Sunday launched two shoebox-size NASA satellites from Cape Canaveral in a modest mission to improve hurricane forecasts, but the second stage of the company’s low-cost booster malfunctioned before reaching orbit and the payloads were lost.

“The upper stage shut down early and we did not deliver the payloads to orbit,” Astra tweeted. “We have shared our regrets with @NASA and the payload team. More information will be provided after we complete a full data analysis.”

It was the seventh launch of Astra’s small “Venture-class” rocket and the company’s fifth failure. Sunday’s launch was the first of three planned for NASA to launch six small CubeSats, two at a time, into three orbital planes. Given the somewhat risky nature of relying on tiny shoebox-size CubeSats and a rocket with a very short track record, the $40 million project requires just four satellites and two successful launches to meet mission objectives. The NASA contract calls for the final two flights by the end of July. Whether Astra can meet that schedule given Sunday’s failure is not yet known.

“Although today’s launch with @Astra did not go as planned, the mission offered a great opportunity for new science and launch capabilities,” tweeted NASA science chief Thomas Zurbuchen….
After Sunday’s failure, he tweeted: “Even though we are disappointed right now, we know: There is value in taking risks in our overall NASA Science portfolio because innovation is required for us to lead.”

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NASA Wants Another Moon Lander For Artemis Astronauts, Not Just SpaceX’s Starship

NASA plans to encourage the development of another commercial vehicle that can land its Artemis astronauts on the moon. Space.com reports: In April 2021, NASA picked SpaceX to build the first crewed lunar lander for the agency’s Artemis program, which is working to put astronauts on the moon in the mid-2020s and establish a sustainable human presence on and around Earth’s nearest neighbor by the end of the decade. But SpaceX apparently won’t have the moon-landing market cornered: NASA announced today (March 23) that it plans to support the development of a second privately built crewed lunar lander.

“This strategy expedites progress toward a long-term, sustaining lander capability as early as the 2026 or 2027 timeframe,” Lisa Watson-Morgan, program manager for the Human Landing System Program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, said in a statement today. “We expect to have two companies safely carry astronauts in their landers to the surface of the moon under NASA’s guidance before we ask for services, which could result in multiple experienced providers in the market,” Watson-Morgan added. […] Congress is “committed to ensuring that we have more than one lander to choose [from] for future missions,” [NASA Administrator Bill Nelson] said during a news conference today, citing conversations he’s had with people on Capitol Hill over the past year. “We’re expecting to have both Congress support and that of the Biden administration,” Nelson said. “And we’re expecting to get this competition started in the fiscal year [20]23 budget.”

Exact funding amounts and other details should be coming next week when the White House releases its 2023 federal budget request, he added. “So what we’re doing today is a bit of a preview,” Nelson said. “I think you’ll find it’s an indication that there are good things to come for this agency and, if we’re right, good things to come for all of humanity.” NASA plans to release a draft request for proposals (RFP) for the second moon lander by the end of the month and a final RFP later this spring, agency officials said. If all goes according to plan, NASA will pick the builder of the new vehicle in early 2023. That craft will have the ability to dock with Gateway, the small moon-orbiting space station that NASA plans to build, and take people and scientific gear from there to the surface (and back). This newly announced competition will be open to all American companies except SpaceX. But Elon Musk’s company will have the opportunity to negotiate the terms of its existing contract to perform additional lunar development work, NASA officials said during today’s news conference.

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Computer History Museum Publishes Memories of the Programmer for NASA’s Moon Missions

This week Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum posted a PDF transcript (and video excerpts) from an interview with 81-year-old Margaret Hamilton, the programmer/systems designer who in the 1960s became director of the Software Engineering Division at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory which developed the on-board flight software for NASA’s Apollo program. Prior to that Hamilton had worked on software to detect an airplane’s radar signature, but thought, “You know, ‘I guess I should delay graduate school again because I’d like to work on this program that puts all these men on the Moon….'”

“There was always one thing that stood out in my mind, being in the onboard flight software, was that it was ‘man rated,’ meaning if it didn’t work a person’s life was at stake if not over. That was always uppermost in my mind and probably many others as well.”

Interestingly, Hamilton had originally received two job offers from the Apollo Space Program, and had told them to flip a coin to settle it. (“The other job had to do with support systems. It was software, but it wasn’t the onboard flight software.”) But what’s fascinating is the interview’s glimpses at some of the earliest days of the programming profession:

There was all these engineers, okay? Hardware engineers, aeronautical engineers and all this, a lot of them out of MIT… But the whole idea of software and programming…? Dick Batten, Dr. Batten, when they told him that they were going to be responsible for the software…he went home to his wife and said he was going to be in charge of software and he thought it was some soft clothing…

Hamilton also remembers in college taking a summer job as a student actuary at Travelers Insurance in the mid-1950s, and “all of a sudden one day word was going around Travelers that there were these new things out there called computers that were going to take away all of their jobs… Pretty soon they wouldn’t have jobs. And so everybody was talking about it. They were scared they wouldn’t have a way to make a living.

“But, of course, it ended up being more jobs were created with the computers than there were….”

Hamilton’s story about Apollo 8 is amazing…

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NASA Releases New Photos of Jupiter – and a Recording of Its Moon that Sounds Like R2-D2

“As it seeks answers about the cosmos and what they mean for Earth’s origins, NASA on Friday announced a slew of discoveries about Jupiter,” reports the Washington Post

“And scientists brought home an interstellar tune from the road.”

The Juno spacecraft is gathering data about the origin of the solar system’s biggest planet — in which more than 1,300 Earths could fit. Among its recent findings are photos from inside the planet’s ring, a map of its magnetic field, details of its atmosphere and a trippy soundtrack from a spacecraft’s travels around one of its moons.

But it’s not exactly a song, or even perceptible to the human ear.

The radio emissions Juno recorded are not what a person would hear if they went to Jupiter — space is a vacuum and does not carry soundwaves like air does on Earth. But the probe zooming through space captured the electric and magnetic emissions that scientists later converted into perceptible sound. Turns out, orbiting Ganymede, which is one of Jupiter’s moons and the largest satellite in the solar system, kind of sounds like R2-D2.

Launched in 2011, became the eighth spacecraft to ever reach Jupiter in 2016, “and the first to probe below the giant planet’s thick gas cover.

“It fought Jupiter’s extreme temperatures and hazardous radiation to survey its north and south poles, chugging along despite a lack of sunshine on its solar panels.”

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