When Is America's Next Manned Spaceflight?

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Just before 5 a.m. Eastern on July 21, 2011, the Space Shuttle Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center for the final time. No American manned spaceflight has taken place since:

Currently, it has been more than five years since the Space Shuttle program came to a conclusion.

"That's terrible! NASA's fallen down on the job! Blame Obama!" you say. But you miss the context. The United States of America has gone even longer without sending a person into space from its shores.

The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission, the final Apollo spacecraft flight, splashed down after a nine-day mission on July 24, 1975. Precisely 2,089 days later (5 years, 8 months and 19 days), Columbia lifted off from Cape Canaveral on the inaugural Space Shuttle flight, beginning the orbiter program's 30-year career.

For America's current manned spaceflight drought to last that long, we'd have to go without a manned flight through April 9, 2017.

VIDEO: Watch Alan Shepard Pilot Freedom 7 from Launch to Splashdown

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Check out this excellent video of Alan Shepard's sub-orbital hop aboard Freedom 7, as he became America's first man in space on this date in 1961. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-nCCcGUxGE

Many thanks to Matthew Travis for putting this together. As you can see, Travis took the on-board cameras, synced them to the mission audio, and added some animation to show the spacecraft's attitude during the 12-minute flight.

The full audio loop is outstanding to listen to. You can hear Shepard's back-and-forth with his CAPCOM (and good friend) Deke Slayton clearly throughout.

Also interesting is the view of Shepard's console, where you can see the step-by-step tests he had to carry out in the minimal time he had in flight, including testing the manual controls for the Mercury capsule, observation experiments using the periscope ("What a beautiful view!"), and monitoring the spacecraft's automatic controls.

Shepard's flight was met with great fanfare, although in retrospect, it wasn't much of a technical leap. His maximum altitude was 101.25 nautical miles, while Yuri Gagarin's Vostok 1 flight just a few weeks earlier achieved a maximum height of 177 nautical miles.

After Freedom 7, Shepard would not fly again until Apollo 14 in 1971. He and Slayton ran the Astronaut Office throughout the Gemini and Apollo programs after both were grounded (Slayton with an irregular heartbeat, Shepard with Minear's Disease).

Above all, Shepard was a pilot's pilot. It's worth spending the 90 minutes and listening to this interview with Shepard from C-SPAN about his career:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kF3SuruDCwE

As the title implies, this was Shepard's last interview. He died of Leukemia in 1998, not long after this video was shot.

Interestingly, Shepard does discuss how he nearly made one final orbital Mercury flight to close out the program (Freedom 7-II), but was vetoed by NASA head James Webb and President Kennedy.

It may be Cinco de Mayo, but around here, May 5th is Alan Shepard's day.

Today Marks 35 Years Since Columbia's First Flight

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At three seconds after 8 a.m. Eastern time on April 12th 1981, the brand-new Space Shuttle Columbia launched off Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center on STS-1, the first flight of America's newest space vehicle, with John Young and Bob Crippen aboard. Today marks 35 years since that historic flight. Crippen and Young executed a perfect test flight, and returned to Earth at Edwards Air Force base two days, six hours, 20 minutes and 53 seconds later.

The playlist below is a 16-video full recap of the flight, assembled by Simon Plumpton's phenomenal YouTube account lunarmodule5 (You should see all of the other stuff there). Yes, it's lengthy, but if you're a super space nerd, it's like good background music. It's very much worth the watch for the launch (embedded below) and landing alone:

https://youtu.be/cT4ADwS66X0?t=43m26s

The video is a compilation of official film and computer animation, painstakingly synchronized with audio recordings edited for times when the shuttle was out of contact (this was before TDRS satellites were around).

My first exposure to Columbia's first flight was much shorter, in the official documentary, "Space Shuttle: A Remarkable Flying Machine." You can see that here if 16 videos is too much for you:

https://youtu.be/rWmYgqwDyt4

Interesting Facts About Columbia's STS-1 Flight

  • Previous American manned spacecraft were flown unmanned before we put astronauts into them. Columbia's first-ever flight was manned.
  • Initially, Columbia's first flight was to be a launch-and-return simulation of an Abort-RTLS (Return To Landing Site), where the shuttle would ride its solid rocket boosters, then flip around and fly back to the Cape. But many engineers back then - as well as throughout the Shuttle's history - thought that an RTLS Abort would be a suicide mission. John Young himself said they shouldn't try it, saying, "RTLS requires continuous miracles interspersed with acts of God to be successful." He overruled the RTLS mission profile, saying, "Let’s not practice Russian roulette, because you may have a loaded gun there."
  • Those tiles that proved to be Columbia's demise were troublesome on its first flight. Several tiles flaked off during launch, particularly on the engine pods.
  • The SRBs proved troubling, too, producing more vibration than was anticipated, and an overpressure wave from them caused damage to Columbia's body flap - a movable control surface located below the main engines. According to the official STS-1 Anomaly Report, the flap was forced to an angle greater than its hydraulic lines were supposed to tolerate - although it somehow did. Had those lines been damaged, Columbia would have been virtually uncontrollable during descent.
  • The band Rush was inspired to write their song "Countdown" by the flight. Here it is:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XW-8yCKwhBE

As of this writing, John Young, who is the only man to fly on Gemini, Apollo (walking on the Moon) and the Shuttle, is 85 years old and living near the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston. He was the Chief of the Astronaut Office from 1974-87 (Deke Slayton's old job) and retired from NASA in 2004. Young flew one more shuttle mission (STS-9) and was supposed to fly on the mission to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope 1986, but the flight was delayed after the Challenger accident, and Young never flew into space again.

Bob Crippen, who is now 78, flew three more shuttle missions before moving his way up through NASA's executive ladder to be the director of Kennedy Space Center from 1992-1995. He then went into the private sector before retiring in 2001.

The sad part is we probably remember Columbia's ill-fated last flight more than her first, but on this anniversary, we should pay deference to the Greatest Test Flight - and those who made it happen.

VIDEO: Aboard the Space Shuttle During Launch

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If you've ever wondered what it was like to be inside a Space Shuttle at launch, here's your chance to see it, thanks to a hand-held video camera aboard STS-65 when Columbia launched into space at 12:43 p.m. ET on July 8, 1994: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JXEkYhYZ40c

This video is incredible. My palms get sweaty just watching it.

It was taken from one of the backseats on the flight deck during launch, so it's a really good representation of what it's actually like on board during a liftoff. The crew up front was Robert D. Cabana in the Commander's seat (a Marine on his third of four Shuttle flights) and James D. Halsell, Jr. (an Air Force guy on his first of five flights) in the Pilot's seat.

A few notable moments:

  • Things really start happening at 3:45 with ignition. You can hear Cabana saying something inaudible, followed by "Here we go!" I would be freaking out.
  • Launching a space shuttle is a violent act. Bear in mind that TV makes things look less shaky and violent then they actually are.
  • Aside from the comm loop, that's ambient noise during the launch. It sounds like that inside.
  • At 4:25, you can hear things speeding up and getting noisy as the shuttle goes supersonic leading up to Max-Q.
  • At 5:15, you hear the call for throttle-up, and as the atmosphere outside gets thinner, the atmosphere inside suddenly starts getting a lot less noisy and violent.
  • At 5:55, things get a lot smoother as the SRBs jettison with a flash and a "CLUNK."
  • 6:30 - "Columbia, performance nominal." "Awesome."
  • Not long after, the commander tells the crew they may open their visors if they want. I don't know about you, but I'd be keeping that thing shut and locked until we were all the way up.
  • At 7:15, they reach 50 miles altitude, meaning they're essentially in space. Two of the crew in front of the camera perform an awkward spacesuit high-five.
  • The rest of this is smooth and boring, ironically, until 12:20, when the shuttle throttles back to idle, and the astronauts are tossed lightly forward in their seats at main engine cut-off. "Welcome to space, guys!"
  • 13:45 - "I can't believe I'm here! This is unbelievable!"

Thirty-five years ago this week, John Young and Bob Crippen took Columbia to space for the maiden voyage of the Space Shuttle program. Since then, the Shuttle was as routine as space travel has ever gotten (if the word "routine" could ever be used to describe space flight), and that is certainly reflected here by the calm and professionalism with which the crew handled these moments. Like I said above, I'd be losing my marbles in the back if I were there, but for these guys, it's a job - a set of pre-planned events that they monitor and make sure happen on time.

For another fun view of a different flight, check out Discovery DashCam:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zhuGwQq7qZk

America's Next Manned Space Flight

For all those naysayers bemoaning the end of the Shuttle program, it should be noted that on April 12, 2016, the 35th anniversary of Columbia's first flight, it will have been 1,721 days since the last American manned space flight.

To put that into context, it was 2,089 days between the landing of Apollo-Soyuz on July 24, 1975 and Columbia's maiden liftoff on April 12, 1981.

For the moment, NASA's next manned space flight is scheduled for 2021, to an asteroid aboard the new Orion capsule. An unmanned circumlunar flight is projected for 2018 aboard the SLS launch vehicle.

But SpaceX is planning a manned launch of its Crew Dragon spacecraft for March of 2017. SpaceX has already received its order from NASA for six crewed ISS resupply flights.

Boeing's CST-100 Starliner is expected to make an unmanned flight to the space station in April of 2017, with a crewed flight scheduled for three months later.

Of course, we all know the tragic fate of Columbia some nine years after the video above, but for that moment, she gave us all a glimpse inside at what it was like to go for a ride in the World's Most Remarkable Flying Machine.

Tour: Edwards AFB and Air Force Flight Test Center Museum

F-100 Super Sabre at Edwards AFB
F-100 Super Sabre at Edwards AFB

This past May, my wife and I finally made the trip of a lifetime - for me, anyway. As part of our road trip vacation to California, we went on a tour of Edwards Air Force Base.

Edwards has always had a special place in my heart. As a fan of experimental aviation in the 1950s, Edwards is Mecca. Granted, it's not what it used to be in terms of how busy it is, but the history is tangible in the dry desert air to this day. It's totally worth the trip, although I hope things will improve in the future. More on that in a second.

Here's a look at what you'll do and see if you go.

Before you go

The biggest hassle (and we know why it is) is actually planning the trip. Because Edwards is a pretty sensitive national security area, they want to make triple-sure you are who you are. So have your Driver's License handy.

The tours themselves only happen two Fridays per month. There are only 30 spots for each tour, and they do fill up, so plan ahead. The base requires you sign up at least 30 days in advance. The latest schedule can be found here.

If you plan on going, first, go here, and read everything carefully. Very carefully. This is the U.S. Military we're talking about. Then, once you get together all of your information, you have to email the folks at the base itself with all of that information. You can do that here.

Once you get your approval confirmation email from the base, you're set to go. Oh, and the best part: because you are an American taxpayer, the tour is free!

How to get to town

From L.A., it's actually pretty easy. Hop on the 405, head north through the San Fernando Valley to I-5, and then take that up into the mountains. Traffic is dreadful in L.A., so be patient. You'll exit onto Highway 14 North, just before Santa Clarita, and then you have about 30 minutes of winding highway until the mountains part and the Mojave Desert spreads out before you. You'll see Palmdale and Plant 42 on your right.

Highway 14 straightens north and takes you through Palmdale and Lancaster on the way to Rosamond, which is on the way to Edwards.

Where to stay

We stayed in Lancaster at the Holiday Inn Express there. Hotels are pretty cheap, and this one wasn't bad at all. No one else was staying there, and the staff was extraordinarily nice. The only thing was it smelled of smoke in the hallways.

Plan on getting to the desert in the late afternoon or evening, and stay the night before your tour. Traffic in the L.A. area obviates the ability to get out there early in the morning in time for the tour.

By the way, when you are there, I recommend hitting Hacienda Don Cuco for some authentic Mexican food. The fajitas are excellent and the salsa is something fierce. Avoid the fish tacos though. This is the desert, after all.

This is a Google Map of where we stayed and where we went.

How to get to Edwards

Tours are scheduled to run from 9 a.m. to noon, but they do run over time on occasion, so plan to be away from your hotel until 2ish. As far as when to get there, they tell you to be there no later than 8:45 a.m., but I recommend getting up early and getting there around 8 a.m., so you have time to check out Century Circle. It's about 30 minutes from Lancaster to the West Gate.

The weather is interesting. When we got up at 6:30 a.m. the day of the tour, it was 38 degrees. In May. After we hopped in the car to head north to the base, it was in the 50s. When we got there, it was in the 60s. By the end of the tour it was a comfortably dry, but still hot, 90 degrees. Wear a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers, but bring your hoodie.

Hop back on Highway 14 and head due north. Exit at Rosamond Blvd. and hang a right. This long straight road will take you through downtown Rosamond (and I use downtown loosely) and on toward the base.

As you drive due east along Rosamond Blvd., be very careful. Observe the speed limit, because like I said, this is the U.S. Military we're talking about here. You'll eventually cut across the northern end of Rosamond Dry Lake, where Jack Northrop tested his first flying wings, and also where Scott Crossfield had to land the first X-15 a little heavy.

The road will turn northeast and curve around a hill, and then you're there. You'll see the West Gate to the base, and right before it, Century Circle, which I'll talk more about in a second. Park there and watch for snakes.

What you see

First, there is the legendary Century Circle, where you will see freshly restored examples of the USAF's Century Series fighters. These machines exemplified the peak of military aviation in the 1950s. All of them flew from Edwards, and they each represent the incredible ingenuity that was experimental aviation in the 50s.

On display in the circle are a YF-100A (the second one to fly), an F-101B, a rare two-seat TF-102A, an F-104A which used to belong to NASA, an F-105D, and an F-106B, all of which are in gorgeous shape. You can walk around and take as many pictures as you can stand. Also in the middle of the circle is the old Edwards control tower. Just on the other side of Century Circle from the road is the only remaining YC-15, another monument to experimental flight test at Edwards.

Check out the slideshow below for a look at Century Circle:

Jeff_Sharon's Edwards AFB album on Photobucket

There is a building next to Century Circle where you go to check in. Make sure you hit the can before the tour here too. Here, they check your ID, give you a neat little lanyard, and put you on the bus.

Here's the one part about the tour that sucks out loud: There are no camera or phones permitted on the base premises.Period. So once you get to Century Circle, take your pictures there, because that's it. You have to leave all of that stuff in your car.

That really does stink, because the first stop on the tour was the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum, which is less than a mile inside the gate. I would have given a limb to bring my camera in here, because it was awesome.

An important note on the museum:

Our tour guides told me that the museum is working on raising funds to build a brand new building right next to Century Circle, so that it's off the base grounds. This would make the AFFTC Museum a year-round attraction, and best of all, that means you can bring your cameras and phones and take all the photos and video you want.

The campaign is aiming to raise $1 million by July 2014 in order to build the basic facility. If they can get to $6 million, however, the museum would be

I personally think this is a worthy cause, and fulfilling it would vault the AFFTC Museum high up the list of must-visits for aerothusiasts like yours truly.

You can donate to the museum's Capital Campaign here.

Inside is a replica of the X-1 hanging from the ceiling, as well as one of the retired prototype YF-22s, and several other fantastic pieces of hardware. My personal highlight was the First Flights Wall, which is exactly as it sounds: a wall of the museum with an array of models, signifying which aircraft took their first flights at Edwards and when, from the CW-24 to the Space Shuttle Enterprise, and beyond. You can see more of that on the museum's website.

Because of the time crunch from the tour, we only had enough time to walk around the inside of the museum a bit, check out the lecture on the history of the base, pick up a souvenir, and then we had to go. I would have loved about another hour there. As a result, we didn't have the time to check out the outstanding collection of aircraft they had perched outside, including:

  • The only two-seat YA-10B ever built
  • An SR-71A
  • A B-52D (But not the famous Balls-8, which is on display at the North Gate to the base)
  • The prototype YF-111A

You can see the outdoor collection here via Google Maps:

View Larger Map

From there it was off to explore the base. The remainder of the tour takes you past a number of administrative buildings for the Air Force Test Center, as well as NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center. On this occasion, we were fortunate enough to get onto the flightline and see the mass expanse of Muroc Dry Lake. In its own way, it is as beautiful as it is desolate.

While we were there, a couple of F-22s were out on test flights, chased by F-16s. One landed and taxied right past our bus, and the pilot gave us a friendly salute. Nice touch, and thank you, Sir.

On the north end of the flightline is a hangar where the Museum keeps a few more of its artifacts, and this was the real highlight for me. Inside this hangar, the restoration staff keep some real rare stuff, including:

  • An F-117A Nighthawk. You could walk right up to it and underneath it and everything. I couldn't help but think that, had this been 15 years before, I could have been shot on sight for being so close to one.
  • A pristine A3D Skywarrior, painted navy blue, like the Douglas prototype that flew at Edwards. How these things landed on carriers, I don't know.
  • An F-15A and F-16B testbed aircraft
  • A full-size replica of an X-15
  • One of the only two X-4s in existence

The members of the museum staff - in particular, our bus tour guide Dennis Shoffner, the Civic Outreach Director from the base's Public Affairs Office, and George Welsh, the Director and Curator of the Museum - were incredibly friendly, eminently knowledgeable, and passionate about the base and what happens there. That's easy to understand, since they were there in person for some of the most remarkable aviation events that took place at the base. I'm not sure what I'd pay to hang for a day with these two guys, but chances are, it's more than I can afford. They were fantastic.

After a spin around the base to show where the good people at the base live, eat, shop and work, we made out way back to Century Circle for the end of the tour.

Thing to bring home

Go to the shop at the museum and pick up a print copy of Mike Machat's spectacular mural, "The Golden Age of Flight Test," on one of the walls of the museum. Mine is framed in my office.