Soyuz – What next?

Many of my readers will be aware the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft failed to get into orbit on Thursday 11 October. It was on a mission to take fresh crew to the International Space Station (ISS).

Mission patch for Soyuz MS-10

A major fault occurred at an altitude of about 50 km when the booster rocket failed, causing the spacecraft to start falling back to Earth. Fortunately, the space capsule containing the crew separated successfully from the faulty rocket and the astronauts landed unharmed.

The Russian Space agency is now investigating the cause of the failure. The next mission to rotate the ISS crew,  Soyuz MS-11,  was  scheduled to take place on 20 December, but this has now been put on hold. Hopefully the cause of the failure will be identified and rectified, enabling the launch to happen as originally planned. However, if Soyuz is grounded for a longer period then the existing crew will have to abandon the ISS (using a Soyuz spacecraft which is attached to the station) until Soyuz is allowed to fly again or American missions start. This would be the first time that the ISS has been unoccupied since Nov 2000, when the first crew arrived.

This failure underlies how dependent America and the other nations are on Soyuz, a spacecraft first flown more than 50 years ago. For the rest of this post I’ll talk about this spacecraft which has effectively become the space station ‘taxi’.

The First Mission

On 23 April 1967, six years after Yuri Gagarin had became the first man to go into space, a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft was launched carrying cosmonaut Vladimir Komorov. He completed 18 orbits and then returned to Earth.

Mission patch for the first Soyuz mission

Sadly, during reentry the parachute failed to open properly and the spacecraft was destroyed when it hit the Earth at high speed and burst into flames – killing Komorov and giving him the unfortunate distinction of being the first person to die in space flight.

Despite this initial setback, the Soyuz spacecraft was successfully flown back into space the following year, when cosmonaut Georgy Beregovoy, a decorated World War 2 hero, completed 81 orbits and landed safely.

A Soviet 10 kopek stamp showing  Georgy Beregovoy. The Soyuz rocket is in the background – image from Wikimedia commons

Since Beregovoy’s mission, Soyuz has been launched into space a further 137 times, and has proved to be a great success, outliving the vastly more expensive  technologically advanced Space Shuttle. It has established itself to be a reliable and safe way of getting into Earth orbit.  In fact, since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, it has been the only way of getting astronauts to and from the ISS.  A fact worth bearing in mind given the somewhat tense relationship between Russia and the West.

The spacecraft

The Soyuz spacecraft was designed in the Soviet Union in the early 1960s. The chief designer was a man called Sergei Korolev (1907-1966), who was the driving force behind many of the early successes in the Soviet space programme.

Korolev in 1956 – image from Wikimedia Commons

Korolev had a chequered career. In 1938 he fell foul of the authorities and was arrested by the Soviet secret police, tried and sentenced to death. The sentence was reduced to imprisonment and he spent number of months in a Soviet gulag – a hard labour camp – in a remote part of Siberia. Conditions were extremely harsh and many prisoners died from cold, disease and sheer exhaustion.  Towards the end of the Second World War he was rehabilitated by the Soviet government and rose up the ranks in the 1950s to head the space programme. He died in Jan 1966 at the age of 59, his final years plagued by ill health caused by his time in the gulag.  In the 1950s and 1960s  the Soviet space programme was kept under intense secrecy and, unlike his American counterparts,  Korolev was unknown outside a small elite. His achievements were only made public after his death.

 

The Soyuz spacecraft, shown above, consists of three modules:

  • The first part of the spacecraft is the service module (labelled A). This contains the main engines, fuel, oxygen, computers, communications equipment and the solar panels used to generate electricity
  • The reentry capsule (labelled B) is shaped like a hemisphere and is the only part of the spacecraft which returns to Earth. The cosmonauts enter the capsule just before reentry. It is very cramped and is only designed for the crew to stay in for a short period of time. It does not, for instance, have a toilet.
  • The spherical-shaped orbital module (labelled C) is where the crew live during a mission, although  because all Soyuz missions  are at the moment to and from the ISS, astronauts only spend a short time there.

At launch the spacecraft sits on top of a 45 metre (150 feet) tall Soyuz rocket. The solar panels are folded away, and are unfolded when the spacecraft is in orbit.

Image from Wikimedia commons

As mentioned above, conditions in the reentry capsule are very cramped. It carries a crew of three squeezed into only 2.5 cubic metres of usable space. This is the volume of a cube measuring 1.36 by 1.36 by 1.36 metres. These cramped conditions meant that, in the early Soyuz spaceflights, the cosmonauts couldn’t wear bulky spacesuits and the associated life support equipment. This unfortunately lead to the deaths of the cosmonauts in the Soyuz 11 mission in 1971 who suffocated when a faulty valve caused all the air to escape from their capsule. Had they been wearing spacesuits they would have survived. After this accident Soyuz was redesigned to carry only two cosmonauts, both wearing spacesuits, although this was later increased back to three. The redesigned spacecraft was known as the Soyuz Ferry because its mission was to transport cosmonauts to and from the Salyut space station.

Over the last 50 years Soyuz has gone through several further updates and the latest version, known as Soyuz MS, was first launched in July 2016. The upgrades are mainly to computers, electronics and navigational systems and the internal layout of the spacecraft. The fundamental design hasn’t changed since Kamorov’s first flight back in 1967.

A safe and reliable way of getting into space.

Since 1971 there have been no fatalities on a Soyuz mission and the spacecraft has proven itself to be a safe, relatively cheap and reliable way of getting people to and from the International Space Station (ISS).  The recent failure was the first for 43 years and it important to emphasise that the  astronauts escaped unharmed.

In 2011 the cost of a flying a Space Shuttle mission to the ISS worked out at about $500 million in today’s money (NASA 2011). In contrast, the cost of using the older Soviet-era Soyuz technology worked out more than eight times cheaper at the equivalent of $60 million per mission (Wade 2016).

The table below shows the number of missions flown by the Apollo, Soyuz, Space Shuttle and Shenzou spacecraft.

Only manned missions are included. So, although the Shenzou spacecraft has gone into orbit 11 times only 6 of these missions had humans aboard.

 

NASA and Soyuz

NASA pays Russia $70 million per seat for each astronaut who flies in Soyuz (Wall 2013). This figure, which is roughly the same as the per seat cost of the Space Shuttle ($500 million for a crew of seven), enables the Russian space agency to make a significant profit.

However, NASA won’t be entirely reliant on buying seats on Soyuz for much longer.  As readers of my blog will know, rather than designing and building new craft to fly crew to and from the ISS, NASA administers a US-government funded programme called Commercial Crew Development (CCDev). After a lengthy evaluation process NASA announced on 16 September 2014 that Boeing and SpaceX had received contracts to provide crewed launch services to the ISS.

When the final decision was made, NASA hoped that the winning companies would be able to launch manned missions to the ISS by 2017. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, there have been numerous delays in the development of both spacecraft and the launch dates have slipped.

According to the current launch schedule (https://www.nasa.gov/launchschedule/ ), the target dates for unmanned test flights are:

  • ‘March 2019′  for Boeing CT100
  • ‘January 2019’ for SpaceX Dragon v2

However, it must be be pointed out that they are only target dates and it is possible that they will slip further.

If there are no further delays and these test flights do take place as planned and are successful, then in June 2019 the SpaceX Dragon v2 spacecraft will be the first American spacecraft to carry astronauts into orbit since the retirement of the Space Shuttle. This will be followed by the Boeing CT100, shown below, in August 2019.

DragonV2

 The Dragon V2 spacecraft – image from NASA 

Replacement of Soyuz

In the longer term Soyuz is due to be replaced in 2023 by a new spacecraft called Federation.  The design of Federation is still at the early stages but it will be capable of both low Earth orbit missions such as ferrying astronauts to and from the ISS and also missions deeper into space, such as orbiting the Moon (Nowakowski 2016).

Artist’s concept of the Federation spacecraft. image from  Roscosmos


I hope you have enjoyed this post. To find out more about the Science Geek’s blog, click here or at the Science Geek Home link at the top of this page.


Notes

1 The total includes all Soyuz missions which were launched with humans on board, including the two missions where the spacecraft failed to get into orbit.

2 After the last spaceflight to the Moon, there were 4 further Apollo spaceflights:

  • 3 to the Skylab space station in 1973 and 1974.
  • 1 joint mission with the Soviet Union known as Apollo-Soyuz in 1975.

3 The total of 135 Space Shuttle missions includes the ill fated Challenger mission in 1986 when the spacecraft broke apart 73 seconds after take off.

References

NASA (2011) How much does it cost to launch a Space Shuttle?, Available at:http://www.nasa.gov/centers/kennedy/about/information/shuttle_faq.html#1 (Accessed: 15 October 2017).

Nowakowski, T (2016) Russia runs first tests of its next-generation “Federation” manned spacecraft, Available at: http://www.spaceflightinsider.com/organizations/roscosmos/russia-runs-first-tests-of-its-next-generation-federation-manned-spacecraft/ (Accessed: 15 October 2018).

Wade, M. (2016) Cost, Price, and the Whole Darn Thing, Available at:http://www.astronautix.com/c/costpriceanholedarnthing.html (Accessed: 15 October 2018).

Wall, M (2013) NASA to pay $70 Million a seat to fly astronauts on Russian spacecraft,Available at: http://www.space.com/20897-nasa-russia-astronaut-launches-2017.html(Accessed: 25 April 2016).

The International Space Station updated

Since the publication of the original post on 2 August 2018, NASA have delayed the planned launch dates for the American spacecraft to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. In my original post I referred to the Boeing and SpaceX spacecraft taking astronauts this year, which was an ambitious target, bearing in mind that it was already August and neither spacecraft had flown an unmanned mission! Perhaps unsurprisingly the planned launch dates have slipped into 2019 and I have updated my post to reflect this.

Original post below——

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the International Space Station (ISS).

Image from NASA.

The first module of the ISS, called Zarya, was launched by a Russian rocket back in November 1998. Zarya was not an inhabitable module and its function was to provide electrical power, storage and propulsion to the ISS during the initial stages of assembly. Interesting the word ‘Zarya’ is Russian for sunrise and Zarya, being the first step in building the ISS, was to signify a new dawn in international cooperation.

The first module of the ISS called Zarya – Image from NASA  Note: the solar panels shown are no longer used and have been retracted.

The ISS has a modular design and in the twenty years since Zarya numerous modules have been added, gradually growing it into the structure we see today.  A key milestone was achieved on 2 November 2000 when a Russian Soyuz spacecraft bought the first crew to the ISS. The ISS has been manned ever since that date, providing a permanent human presence in space. The current crew of the ISS is known as Expedition 56 and consists of: three Americans, two Russians and one German.

Mission patch for Expedition 56 – Image from NASA

Key role of the Space Shuttle

Image from NASA

The American Space Shuttle, which flew between 1981 and 2011, was key to building the ISS. The Shuttle had the capacity to take large modules in its cargo bay and crews of up to six astronauts on assembly missions. Many of these missions involved extended spacewalks. Indeed, without the Space Shuttle it would not have been possible to build the ISS. In fact, post 1998, construction of the ISS became the almost the entire focus of the shuttle programme. This is illustrated by the statistic that of the 43 space Shuttle Missions flown after the launch of Zarya, 38 (89%) of them went to the ISS to deliver a new module and components to the station, bring fresh supplies or to bring fresh crew to the ISS and return the old crew to Earth.

The ISS today

The ISS is shown in the image at the top of this post. Although some minor construction missions are planned later this year and in 2019, the components to be added are relatively small and construction is essentially complete. The ISS is a very flat structure. It is 73 metres long and a maximum of 109 meters wide, but its maximum depth is only a few metres. It has a mass of 420 tons. Its most noticeable feature are the eight separate sets of solar panels, which look like giant wings and in total generate up to 90 kilowatts of electric power (NASA 2018).

The orbit of the ISS 

The ISS orbit is almost perfectly circular, just over 400 km above the Earth’s surface. At this altitude, although it is classified as being in space, which begins at an altitude of 100 km, (see my previous post), here are sufficient traces of the Earth’s atmosphere to cause the ISS to lose energy as it moves against the air resistance caused by this very thin gas. This causes the ISS to very gradually spiral down to Earth as it loses a small amount of energy on each orbit. The distance a satellite drops in altitude is known as its orbital decay and for the ISS is 2 km per month, which works out at about 70 metres per day. If nothing were done the ISS would gradually return to Earth within a few years and as it hit the thicker atmosphere it would disintegrate. To prevent this happening the ISS has a set of thrusters, which are fired periodically to boost it into a higher orbit. Visiting spacecraft also fire their rocket motors to the same effect.

Because it is both large and travels in a low orbit, the ISS can be easily seen from Earth. It is visible to the naked eye as a slow-moving, bright white dot. Its brightness is due to sunlight reflecting off its solar panels. The best time to see it is either after sunset or before sunrise, when the station remains sunlit, but the sky is dark.  This is shown in the diagram below.

The ISS takes about 90 minutes to complete an orbit. As it moves around its orbit:

  • the ISS is visible at night between sunset, point A, and when it disappears behind the Earth’s shadow, point B;
  • between points B and C the ISS is in the Earth’s shadow it receives no direct sunlight and cannot be seen;
  • between point C, when it emerges from the Earth’s shadow, and point D, sunrise, the ISS is visible;
  • between points D and A, the ISS cannot be easily seen against the brightness of the daytime sky.

Because of its size, the ISS is the brightest artificial object in the sky and has a similar brightness when overhead to the planet Venus.

 

Research at the ISS

A good deal of research is carried out at the ISS. This is described in more detail at the following website  https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/overview.html.  Much of this research is based upon the fact that that the strength of gravity is very close to zero in the ISS. This is known as micro-gravity and the only place it is possible to create a micro-gravity environment, for longer than a few minutes, is in space. Some examples of this research are given below.

  • Fluids can be almost completely combined in micro-gravity, so physicists can investigate fluids that do not mix well on Earth.
  • In micro-gravity environment combustion occurs differently. Flames have a spherical shape. In the diagram below, the candle on the left is in normal gravity, whereas the candle on the right is in micro-gravity.

Image from NASA

  • Research has been carried out as to how plants develop in micro-gravity. Interestingly, results have shown that plants use light rather than gravity to determine which direction is ‘up’.

But perhaps the most interesting area of research are the effects on the human body of spending long periods on time in near weightlessness. This area is important, because in the next few decades when astronauts travel to Mars they will have to spend at least six months in zero gravity when travelling to the red planet and a further six months on the return journey. Some of the effects which have been found are.

  1. Without any weight to work against, muscles gradually will get smaller and lose their strength. This includes the heart muscle.
  2. Fluid shifts around the body causing fluid pressure in the brain to increase.
  3. One of the most serious problems is that, without gravity, a strong skeleton is not needed to support the body. Studies have shown that astronauts lose 1-2 % of their bone mass for each month of weightlessness; the calcium from their bones is excreted in their urine. So much calcium may be lost that it can cause kidney stones.

Research on the ISS has shown that to retain their muscle mass, and ensure their heart stays in good condition, astronauts need to spend many hours a day exercising.  Because there is no weight for their muscles to work against, astronauts often spend a large fraction of the day running on a treadmill, using elastic harnesses to provide resistance.

However, nothing has been discovered which can prevent the loss of bone density. The rate of bone loss continues at 1-2% per month and does not level off after long durations in space. After more than two years in low gravity, astronauts’ bones would be so weak they would easily fracture and would be unable to support their weight then they returned to Earth. This may be a limiting factor for how long humans can spend in zero gravity environments, especially since it takes a significant time for the bone density to return to normal.

A further limiting factor is that on long duration spaceflights astronauts will be exposed to high doses of radiation. This can cause genetic damage making the astronauts more prone to cancer in later life.

Taller Astronauts

Spending time in a microgravity environment causes the spine to elongate. On Earth, gravity keeps the vertebrae in place by constantly pushing them together. But without gravity, the vertebrae will naturally expand slightly, causing a person to become taller.

 

Typically, astronauts in space can grow up to three percent of their original height. For example, in 2016 when Scott Kelly came to Earth after spending nearly a year in space he was 2 inches (5 cm) taller. However, this gain in height is only temporary. When under the effects of gravity again astronauts return to their original height.

Scott Kelly – Image from NASA

Getting to and from the ISS

Since the end of the Shuttle programme the only way astronauts can get to and from the ISS is by the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, a point worth remembering now that relations between the US and Russia are rather strained.  Soyuz was first flown in 1967 and its design has changed little since then. Like the Apollo spacecraft which took astronauts to the Moon, it is a single use spacecraft.  Currently NASA pay $70 million for each astronaut who flies in the Soyuz spacecraft (Wall 2013), which enables the Russian space agency to make a significant profit.

In the next few years US spacecraft should return to space.  Rather than build a new craft to fly crew to and from the ISS, NASA administer a US-government funded programme called Commercial Crew Development (CCDev). After a lengthy evaluation process NASA announced in September 2014 that Boeing and SpaceX had received contracts to provide crewed launch services to the ISS.

When the final decision was made, NASA hoped that the winning companies would be able to launch manned missions to the ISS by 2017. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, there have been numerous delays in the development of both spacecraft and the launch dates have slipped.

According to the current launch schedule (https://www.nasa.gov/launchschedule/ ), the target dates for unmanned test flights are:

  • ‘late 2018 / early 2019’ for the Boeing spacecraft
  • ‘November 2018’ for SpaceX.

However, it must be be pointed out that they are only target dates and may slip further.

If there are no further delays and these test flights do take place as planned and are successful, then in April 2019 the SpaceX Dragon v2 spacecraft will be the first American spacecraft to carry astronauts into orbit since the retirement of the Space Shuttle. This will be followed by the Boeing CT100, shown below, in the middle of the year.

The Boeing CT-100 Starliner Space Capsule – image from NASA. In lmid 2019 this spacecraft may take astronauts to and from the ISS.

Next post

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. In my next post I’ll talk about the costs of the space station, international cooperation in space and how I see the future of the ISS.

 

 

NASA (2018) International Space Station facts and figures, Available at: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/facts-and-figures (Accessed: 30 July 2018).

 

Wall, M (2013) NASA to pay $70 Million a seat to fly astronauts on Russian spacecraft,Available at: http://www.space.com/20897-nasa-russia-astronaut-launches-2017.html(Accessed: 30 July 2018)

 

 

The International Space Station

Note 10 September 2018.  The information in the section ‘Getting to and from the ISS’ has been superseded by information in the updated version of this post.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the International Space Station (ISS).

Image from NASA.

The first module of the ISS, called Zarya, was launched by a Russian rocket back in November 1998. Zarya was not an inhabitable module and its function was to provide electrical power, storage and propulsion to the ISS during the initial stages of assembly. Interesting the word ‘Zarya’ is Russian for sunrise and Zarya, being the first step in building the ISS, was to signify a new dawn in international cooperation.

The first module of the ISS called Zarya – Image from NASA  Note: the solar panels shown are no longer used and have been retracted.

The ISS has a modular design and in the twenty years since Zarya numerous modules have been added, gradually growing it into the structure we see today.  A key milestone was achieved on 2 November 2000 when a Russian Soyuz spacecraft bought the first crew to the ISS. The ISS has been manned ever since that date, providing a permanent human presence in space. The current crew of the ISS is known as Expedition 56 and consists of three Americans, two Russians and one German.

Mission patch for Expedition 56 – Image from NASA

Key role of the Space Shuttle

Image from NASA

The American Space Shuttle, which flew between 1981 and 2011, was key to building the ISS. The Shuttle had the capacity to take large modules in its cargo bay and crews of up to six astronauts on assembly missions. Many of these missions involved extended spacewalks. Indeed, without the Space Shuttle it would not have be possible to build the ISS. In fact, post 1998, construction of the ISS became the focus of the shuttle programme. This is illustrated by the statistic that of the 43 space Shuttle Missions flown after the launch of Zarya, 38 (89%) of them went to the ISS to deliver a new module and components to the station, bring fresh supplies or to rotate crew.

The ISS today

The ISS is shown in the image at the top of this post. Although a few more construction missions are planned later this year and in 2019, the components to be added are relatively small and construction is essentially complete. The ISS is a very flat structure. It is 73 metres long and a maximum of 109 meters wide, but its maximum depth is only a few metres. It has a mass of 420 tons. Its most noticeable feature are the eight separate sets of solar panels, which look like giant wings and in total generate up to 90 kilowatts of electric power (NASA 2018).

The orbit of the ISS 

The ISS orbit is almost perfectly circular, just over 400 km above the Earth’s surface. At this altitude, although it is classified as space (which begins at an altitude of 100 km, see my previous post ), there are sufficient traces of the Earth’s atmosphere to cause the ISS to lose energy as it moves against the air resistance caused by this very thin gas. This causes the ISS to very gradually spiral down to Earth as it loses a small amount of energy on each orbit. The distance a satellite drops in altitude is known as its orbital decay and for the ISS is 2 km per month, which works out at about 70 metres per day. If nothing were done the ISS would gradually return to Earth within a few years and as it hit the thicker atmosphere it would disintegrate. To prevent this happening the ISS has a set of thrusters, which are fired periodically to boost it into a higher orbit. Visiting spacecraft also fire their rocket motors to the same effect.

Because it is both large and travels in a low orbit, the ISS can be easily seen from Earth. It is visible to the naked eye as a slow-moving, bright white dot. Its brightness is due to sunlight reflecting off its solar panels. The best time to see it is either after sunset or before sunrise, when the station remains sunlit, but the sky is dark.  This is shown in the diagram below.

The ISS takes about 90 minutes to complete an orbit. As it moves around its orbit:

  • the ISS is visible at night between sunset, point A, and when it disappears behind the Earth’s shadow, point B;
  • between points B and C the ISS is in the Earth’s shadow it receives no direct sunlight and cannot be seen;
  • between point C, when it emerges from the Earth’s shadow, and point D, sunrise, the ISS is visible;
  • between points D and A, the ISS cannot be easily seen against the brightness of the daytime sky.

Because of its size, the ISS is the brightest artificial object in the sky and has a similar brightness when overhead to the planet Venus.

 

Research at the ISS

A good deal of research is carried out at the ISS. This is described in more detail at the following website  https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/overview.html.  Much of this research is based upon the fact that that the strength of gravity is very close to zero in the ISS. This is known as microgravity and the only place it is possible to create a microgravity environment for longer than a few minutes is in space. Some examples of this research are given below.

  • Fluids can be almost completely combined in microgravity, so physicists can investigate fluids that do not mix well on Earth.
  • In microgravity environment combustion occurs differently. Flames have a spherical shape. In the diagram below, the candle on the left is in normal gravity, whereas the candle on the right is in microgravity.

Image from NASA

  • Research has been carried out as to how plants develop in microgravity. Interestingly, results have shown that plants use light rather than gravity to determine which direction is ‘up’.

But perhaps the most interesting area of research are the effects on the human body of spending long periods on time in weightlessness. This area is important, because in the next few decades when astronauts travel to Mars they will have to spend at least six months in zero gravity when travelling to the red planet and a further six months on the return journey.

  • Without any weight to work against, muscles gradually will get smaller and lose their strength. This includes the heart muscle.
  • Fluid shifts around the body causing fluid pressure in the brain to increase.
  • One of the most serious problems is that, without gravity, a strong skeleton is not needed to support the body. Studies have shown that astronauts lose 1-2 % of their bone mass for each month of weightlessness; the calcium from their bones is excreted in their urine. So much calcium may be lost that it can cause kidney stones

Research on the ISS has shown that to retain their muscle mass, and ensure their heart stays in good condition, astronauts need to spend many hours a day exercising.  Because there is no weight for their muscles to work against, astronauts often spend a large fraction of the day running on a treadmill, using elastic harnesses to provide resistance.

However, nothing has been discovered which can prevent the loss of bone density. The rate of bone loss continues at 1-2% per month and does not level off after long durations in space. After more than two years in low gravity, astronauts’ bones would be so weak they would easily fracture and would be unable to support their weight then they returned to Earth. This may be a limiting factor for how long humans can spend in zero gravity environments, especially since it takes a significant time for the bone density to return to normal.

A further limiting factor is that on long duration spaceflights astronaut would be exposed to high doses of radiation. This can cause genetic damage making the astronauts more prone to cancer in later life.

Taller Astronauts

Spending time in a microgravity environment causes the spine to elongate. On Earth, gravity keeps the vertebrae in place by constantly pushing them together. But without gravity, the vertebrae will naturally expand slightly, causing a person to become taller.

 

Typically, astronauts in space can grow up to three percent of their original height. For example, in 2016 when Scott Kelly came to Earth after spending nearly a year in space he was 2 inches (5 cm) taller. However, this gain in height is only temporary. When under the effects of gravity again astronauts return to their original height.

Scott Kelly – Image from NASA

Getting to and from the ISS

Since the end of the Shuttle programme the only way astronauts can get to and from the ISS is by the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, a point worth remembering now that relations between the US and Russia are rather strained.  Soyuz was first flown in 1967 and its design has changed little since then. Like the Apollo spacecraft which took astronauts to the Moon, it is a single use spacecraft. The astronauts return to Earth in a small capsule which has a heat shield to protect it during the most dangerous part of the mission, re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Currently NASA pay $70 million for each astronaut who flies in the Soyuz spacecraft (Wall 2013), which enables the Russian space agency to make a significant profit.

In the next few years US spacecraft should return to space.  Rather than build a new craft to fly crew to and from the ISS, NASA administer a US-government funded programme called Commercial Crew Development (CCDev). After a lengthy evaluation process NASA announced in September 2014 that Boeing and SpaceX had received contracts to provide crewed launch services to the ISS.

When the final decision was made, NASA hoped that the winning companies would be able to launch manned missions to the ISS by 2017. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, there have been numerous delays in the development of both spacecraft and the launch dates have slipped.

According to the current launch schedule (https://www.nasa.gov/launchschedule/ ), the target dates for unmanned test flight of both spacecraft are actually this month, August 2018, although precise date haven’t been specified. If there are no further delays and these test flights do take place this month and are successful, then in November 2018 the Boeing CT 100 spacecraft will be the first American spacecraft to carry astronauts into orbit since the retirement of the Space Shuttle. This will be followed by the SpaceX Dragon v2 the following month.

 

Next post

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. In my next post I’ll talk about the costs of the space station, international cooperation in space and how I see the future of the ISS.

 

 

NASA (2018) International Space Station facts and figures, Available at: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/facts-and-figures (Accessed: 30 July 2018).

 

Wall, M (2013) NASA to pay $70 Million a seat to fly astronauts on Russian spacecraft,Available at: http://www.space.com/20897-nasa-russia-astronaut-launches-2017.html(Accessed: 30 July 2018)

 

 

American manned spaceflight in 2018?

As readers of a previous post will know, since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in July 2011, America has been unable to put any astronauts into orbit around the Earth. Instead, it has been reliant on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). This situation may finally change in 2018; in the final two months of the year there are two missions tentatively planned to take astronauts to the ISS on American spacecraft. Interestingly, as a result of a change in space policy by the Obama administration eight years ago, both these missions will be in spacecraft designed and built by private companies, rather than NASA.

The Boeing CT-100 Starliner Space Capsule – image from NASA. In late 2018 this spacecraft may take astronauts to and from the ISS.

In a major speech in 2010, US President Obama announced a major shift in the function of NASA in American human space flight.

By buying the services of space transportation — rather than the vehicles themselves — we can continue to ensure rigorous safety standards are met. But we will also accelerate the pace of innovations as companies — from young startups to established leaders — compete to design and build and launch new means of carrying people and materials out of our atmosphere. ….

Some have said, for instance, that this plan gives up our leadership in space by failing to produce plans within NASA to reach low Earth orbit, …. But we will actually reach space faster and more often under this new plan, in ways that will help us improve our technological capacity and lower our costs, which are both essential for the long-term sustainability of space flight.’

(White House press release 2010)

Image from Wikimedia Commons

So, rather than build its own spacecraft to replace the Space Shuttle, NASA awarded grants to private companies to support research and development into human space flight. The program had a number of phases. In the first phase five companies were awarded grants to partially fund the research and development of the key technologies and capabilities that could ultimately be used in human space transportation systems. In the next phases, NASA awarded further grants to four companies to develop spacecraft that could send to astronauts to the ISS after the Space Shuttle’s retirement.

Image from NASA

After another selection process, in 2014 NASA made the final decision that the winners of the contracts for up to six crewed flights to transport astronauts to and from the ISS were as follows.

  • Boeing – They were given a contract worth up to $4.2 billion, to transport astronauts on their CT-100 Starliner spacecraft.
  • Space X –  This is a company set up by Elon Musk, the co-founder of Paypal. They were given a contract worth up to $2.6 billion to transport astronauts on their Dragon V2 – pictured below.

For more details see the reference below (NASA 2014).

 

DragonV2

 The Dragon V2 Spacecraft – Image from NASA 

When the final decision was made it was hoped that the winning companies would be able to launch manned missions to the ISS by 2017. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, there have been numerous delays in the development of both spacecraft and the launch dates have slipped.

According to the current launch schedule (https://www.nasa.gov/launchschedule/ ) , the target dates for unmanned test flight of both spacecraft are August 2018, although an exact date hasn’t been specified. If there are no further delays and these test flights do take place in August and are successful, then in November 2018 the Boeing CT 100 spacecraft will be the first American spacecraft to carry astronauts into orbit since the retirement of the Space Shuttle. This will be followed by Dragon v2 the following month.

Opportunities for space tourism

The contract terms are that both companies will charge NASA around $60 million for each seat on a flight to the ISS. This is slightly cheaper than the amount it pays to the Russian space agency for a seat aboard Soyuz. The real boost is that, rather than the money going to the Russian space agency, it will go to American companies, boosting American high technology industries and creating American jobs.

Once they have fulfilled their contractual commitments to NASA, both companies are free to sell to additional spare capacity to space tourists willing to spend around $60 million dollars for a flight into orbit. This would be a very different type of space tourism than that offered by Virgin Galactic where customers will pay $250,000 for a three hour flight of which only two minutes are above an altitude of 100 km, which is defined as the boundary of space.

.Virgin Galactic rocket motor

Artist impression of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo accelerating into Space – Image from Virgin Galactic

In February 2017 Elon Musk made the bold announcement that two individuals, who I must assume are extremely wealthy, had approached him and put down a ‘substantial deposit’ for a private spaceflight around the Moon in the Dragon v2 capsule.  At the time this was widely reported in the media e.g.  https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/feb/27/spacex-moon-private-mission-2018-elon-musk

Musk refused to say who the individuals were or how much they had paid, but I would expect that the total cost of the spaceflights will be over $100 million dollars each.  To achieve enough speed to escape from the Earth’s gravity and reach the Moon the mission would use SpaceX’s new booster, the Falcon Heavy rocket, which was first launched in February 2018.

The Falcon Heavy launcher – image from Wikimedia Commons. This launcher could be used to launch a Dragon V2 spacecraft around the Moon

The spaceflight would be likely to follow a path known as free-return trajectory. I’ll talk about free-return trajectories in a later post, but essentially the idea is that it uses the Moon’s gravity to slingshot the spacecraft back to Earth, thus minimising the amount of fuel needed.

A typical free-return trajectory – image from Wikimedia Commons.

The original announcement said the spaceflight would be in 2018. However, according  to reports earlier this month, like this one, Elon Musk has said that the mission will be delayed because SpaceX will be focussing its effort on developing a new launcher with twice the thrust of Falcon Heavy. This is currently called the ‘Big Falcon Rocket’, but  I expect it it will be given a different name as the project progresses.

Therefore, I think that although this spaceflight will take place, it is unlikely to happen before 2020. However when it does occur I am sure that many people will follow it with great excitement. It will be the first time that humans have ventured outside the low Earth orbit since the last Apollo moon-flight in 1972.

Footnote – the Orion spacecraft

Even though NASA is now commissioning private companies to transport astronauts into low Earth orbit, it has not abandoned developing its own manned spacecraft altogether. It is currently developing the Orion spacecraft and a new launcher called the Space Launch System. Around 2023-5 the spacecraft is expected to take its first crew into orbit around the Earth, and it will have the capability take a crew of up to four beyond low Earth Orbit, perhaps on a mission around the Moon or to a nearby asteroid.


I hope you have enjoyed this post. To find out more about the Science Geek’s blog, click here or at the Science Geek Home link at the top of this page.


References

NASA (2014) NASA chooses American companies to transport U.S. astronauts to International Space Station, Available at: https://www.nasa.gov/press/2014/september/nasa-chooses-american-companies-to-transport-us-astronauts-to-international (Accessed: 7 February 2018).

The White House (2010) Remarks by the president on space exploration in the 21st century, Available at: https://www.nasa.gov/news/media/trans/obama_ksc_trans.html(Accessed: 6 February 2018).

 

Soyuz 50 years on

On 23 April 1967, six years after Yuri Gagarin had became the first man to go into space, a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft was launched carrying cosmonaut Vladimir Komorov. It completed 18 orbits and then returned to Earth.

Mission patch for the first Soyuz mission

Sadly, during its reentry the parachute failed to open properly and the spacecraft was destroyed when it hit the Earth at high speed and burst into flames – killing Komorov and giving him the unfortunate distinction of being the first person to die in space flight.

Despite this initial setback, the Soyuz spacecraft was successfully flown back into space the following year, when cosmonaut Georgy Beregovoy, a decorated World War 2 hero, completed 81 orbits and landed safely.

A Soviet 10 kopek stamp showing  Georgy Beregovoy. The Soyuz rocket is in the background – image from Wikimedia commons

Since Beregovoy’s mission, Soyuz has been launched into space a further 131 times, and has proved to be a great success, outliving the much more expensive and more technologically advanced Space Shuttle. It has established itself to be a reliable and safe way of getting into Earth orbit.  In fact, since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, it has been the only way of getting astronauts to and from the International Space Station. This is a fact worth bearing in mind given the somewhat tense relationship between Russia and the West.

The spacecraft

The Soyuz spacecraft was designed in the Soviet Union in the early 1960s. The chief designer was a man called Sergei Korolev (1907-1966), who was the driving force behind many of the early successes in the Soviet space programme.

Korolev in 1956 – image from Wikimedia Commons

Korolev had a chequered career. In 1938 he fell foul of the authorities and was arrested by the Soviet secret police, tried and sentenced to death. The sentence was reduced to imprisonment and he spent number of months in a Soviet gulag – a hard labour camp – in a remote part of Siberia. Conditions were extremely harsh and many prisoners died from cold, disease and sheer exhaustion.  Towards the end of the Second World War he was rehabilitated by the Soviet government and later rose up the ranks in the 1950s to head the space programme. He died in Jan 1966 at the age of 59, his final years plagued by ill health caused by his time in the gulag. The 1950s and 1960s were during the Cold War and the Soviet space programme was kept under intense secrecy and, unlike his American counterparts,  Korolev was unknown outside a small elite. His achievements were only made public after his death.

 

The Soyuz spacecraft, shown above, consists of three modules:

  • The first part of the spacecraft is the service module (labelled A). This contains the main engines, fuel, oxygen, computers, communications equipment and the solar panels used to generate electricity
  • The reentry capsule (labelled B) is shaped like a hemisphere and is the only part of the spacecraft which returns to Earth. The cosmonauts enter the capsule just before reentry. It is very cramped and is only designed for the crew to stay in for a short period of time. It does not, for instance, have a toilet.
  • The spherical-shaped orbital module (labelled C) is where the crew live during a mission, although all Soyuz missions at the moment are to and from the International Space Station.

At launch the spacecraft sits on top of a 45 metre (150 feet) tall Soyuz rocket. The solar panels are folded away, and are unfolded when the spacecraft is in orbit.

Image from Wikimedia commons

As mentioned above, conditions in the reentry capsule are very cramped. It carries a crew of three squeezed into only 2.5 cubic metres of usable space. This is the volume of a cube measuring 1.36 by 1.36 by 1.36 metres. These cramped conditions meant that, in the early Soyuz spaceflights, the cosmonauts couldn’t wear bulky spacesuits and the associated life support equipment. This unfortunately lead to the deaths of the cosmonauts in the Soyuz 11 mission in 1971 who suffocated when a faulty valve caused all the air to escape from their capsule. Had they been wearing spacesuits they would have survived. After this accident Soyuz was redesigned to carry two cosmonauts, both wearing spacesuits, although this was later increased to three. The redesigned spacecraft was known as the Soyuz Ferry because its mission was to transport cosmonauts to and from the Salyut space station.

Over the last 50 years Soyuz has gone through several further updates and the latest version, known as Soyuz MS, was first launched in July 2016. The upgrades are mainly to computers, electronics and navigational systems and the internal layout of the spacecraft. The fundamental design hasn’t changed since Kamorov’s first flight back in 1967.

A cheap and reliable way of getting into space.

Since the accident in 1971 there have been no fatalities aboard a Soyuz and the spacecraft has proven itself to be a relatively cheap and reliable way of getting people to and from the International Space Station (ISS). In 2011 the cost of a flying a Space Shuttle mission to the ISS worked out at about $500 million in today’s money (NASA 2011). In contrast, the cost of using the older Soviet-era Soyuz technology worked out more than eight times cheaper at the equivalent of $60 million per mission (Wade 2016).

The table below shows the number of missions flown by the Apollo, Soyuz, Space Shuttle and Shenzou spacecraft. Only manned missions are included. So, although the Shenzou spacecraft has gone into orbit 11 times only 6 of these missions had humans aboard.

The table below lists the launch dates of the next four Soyuz missions:

Data from http://spaceflight101.com/iss/iss-calendar/

When Soyuz MS-07 is launched in the coming October, it will have flown more manned missions than the Space Shuttle.

The Future

NASA pays Russia $70 million per seat for each astronaut who flies in Soyuz (Wall 2013). This figure, which is roughly the same as the per seat cost of the Space Shuttle ($500 million for a crew of seven) enables the Russian space agency to make a significant profit.

However, NASA won’t be entirely reliant on buying seats on Soyuz for much longer. Rather than itself building a new craft to fly crew to and from the ISS, NASA administers a US-government funded programme called Commercial Crew Development (CCDev). After a lengthy evaluation process NASA announced on 16 September 2014 that Boeing and SpaceX had received contracts to provide crewed launch services to the ISS.

At the moment there is no confirmed date when these companies will send their spacecraft to the ISS. The SpaceX website states that the first crewed flight by their Dragon V2 spacecraft will be in the second quarter of 2018, although this date seems somewhat ambitious given that the spacecraft has not yet flown and that an unmanned test flight is only due to be carried out in November 2017.

DragonV2

 The Dragon V2 spacecraft – image from NASA 

In the longer term Soyuz is due to be replaced in 2023 by a new spacecraft called Federation.  The design of Federation is still at the early stages but it will be capable of both low Earth orbit missions such as ferrying astronauts to and from the ISS and also missions deeper into space, such as orbiting the Moon (Nowakowski 2016).

Artist’s concept of the Federation spacecraft. image from  Roscosmos

 

Notes

1 The total of 133 spaceflights includes all Soyuz missions which were launched with humans on board, whether or not the spacecraft went into orbit. The number of spaceflights by each version of the spacecraft are as follows:

  • First generation Soyuz  launched 10 times between Apr 1967 and Jun 1971.
  • Soyuz Ferry launched 30 times between Sep 1973 and May 1981. This number includes one launch where the spacecraft failed to get into orbit.
  • Soyuz T launched 14 times between Jun 1980 and Mar 1986.  This figure excludes an attempted launch where the rocket exploded just before it should have taken off and from which the cosmonauts safely escaped.
  • Soyuz TM launched 33 times between Feb 1987 and April 2002.
  • Soyuz TMA launched 22 times between Oct 2002 and Nov 2011.
  • Soyuz TMA-M launched 20 times between Oct 2010 and Mar 2016.
  • The latest incarnation of the spacecraft, Soyuz MS, was first launched in July 2016 and has been launched 4 times so far.

2 After the last spaceflight to the Moon, there were 4 further Apollo spaceflights:

  • 3 to the Skylab space station in 1973 and 1974.
  • 1 joint mission with the Soviet Union known as Apollo-Soyuz in 1975.

3 The total of 135 Space Shuttle missions includes the ill fated Challenger mission in 1986 when the spacecraft broke apart 73 seconds after take off.

References

NASA (2011) How much does it cost to launch a Space Shuttle?, Available at:http://www.nasa.gov/centers/kennedy/about/information/shuttle_faq.html#1 (Accessed: 9 Apr 2017).

Nowakowski, T (2016) Russia runs first tests of its next-generation “Federation” manned spacecraft, Available at: http://www.spaceflightinsider.com/organizations/roscosmos/russia-runs-first-tests-of-its-next-generation-federation-manned-spacecraft/ (Accessed: 26 April 2017).

Wade, M. (2016) Cost, Price, and the Whole Darn Thing, Available at:http://www.astronautix.com/c/costpriceanholedarnthing.html (Accessed: 10 Apr 2017).

Wall, M (2013) NASA to pay $70 Million a seat to fly astronauts on Russian spacecraft,Available at: http://www.space.com/20897-nasa-russia-astronaut-launches-2017.html(Accessed: 25 April 2016).

Space Tourism into Orbit and Beyond

Getting Into Orbit

Although Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is likely to be the first spacecraft to offer mass space tourism, it only offers space tourists a short hop into space for a few minutes. (See my previous post from 5 August “The Virgin Galactic Experience” for more information.) To remain in space, a spacecraft must travel at a speed fast enough to enable it to get into orbit Any slower and the Earth’s gravity will pull it back to Earth.  It must also reach an altitude high enough so that the spacecraft is not slowed down by friction due to traces of the upper atmosphere, causing it to spiral back down to Earth. Although the boundary of space is 100 km, the minimum altitude where a spacecraft can remain in orbit for 1 day before it is dragged back to Earth is 160 km. To stay in orbit at this altitude a spacecraft must reach a speed of 17.700 mph (28,500 km/h). It obviously takes a large powerful rocket to accelerate a spacecraft large enough to carry one or more astronauts, plus their supplies, to this speed and altitude.

Space Shuttle Lift Offjpg

The Space Shuttle lifting off. Image from NASA. To put 7 astronauts, plus up to 24 tonnes of equipment, into orbit its engines and the attached boosters produced a total of 6.8 million pounds of thrust at lift off. By comparison the rocket motor on SpaceShipTwo will produce only 60 thousand pounds of thrust.

Because of size of the rockets needed and the costs involved, the only spacecraft which have put humans in orbit have been launched by large government-funded programmes. Indeed, from the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, on 12 Apr 1961, until 30 June 2014 there have been only 293 manned space flights which have gone into Earth orbit or beyond. The numbers break down as follows

  • 126 launched by Russia/Soviet Union
  • 162 launched by the US
  • 5 launched by China.

8 of the Russian space flights have had space tourists aboard who paid between $20 million and $40 million for the trip.

Guy Laliberte

The French Canadian Guy Laliberte, founder of Cirque du Soleil, who paid $40 million for a 11 day trip into space in 2009. Image from NASA.

A New Approach

In a major speech in 2010 US president Obama announced a major shift in the function of NASA in American human space flight. To get to and from the International Space Station (ISS), the US would use  spacecraft and launchers designed, manufactured, and operated by private companies. Rather than build its own spacecraft to replace the shuttle, NASA would award grants to private companies to support research and development into human space flight. It would then provide further grants for companies to develop spacecraft capable of reaching low Earth orbit. NASA would select which company (or companies) to use to transport astronauts to and from the ISS and would buy seats on their spacecraft. Private companies would also be free to sell seats on their spacecraft to anyone else willing to pay the going rate.

Transport of astronauts to and from the space station by private companies will not start before 2017 at the earliest and, at the moment, NASA has not selected which company or companies to use. However the three finalists who were awarded funding of $1 billion between them to develop spacecraft cable of doing this job were:

  • Boeing
  • Sierra Nevada Corporation. This is a fast growing electronics and aerospace company owned by the husband and wife team of Erin and Fatih Ozmen who arrived in America from Turkey in the 1980s with little money and speaking limited English.
  • Space X.  This is a company set up by Elon Musk, the co-founder of Paypal. Pictured below

Elon Musk

Image from Wikimedia Commons -Uploaded by Corvette

Whichever of these companies wins the contract, transport of astronauts to and from the space station will only form part of their business. They will provide a orbital space tourism experience for customers willing to pay the price. For example, at a news conference in 2012, SpaceX indicated that their target launch price for crewed flights on their Dragon V2 was $140,000,000, or $20,000,000 per seat if the maximum crew of 7 is aboard, and if NASA orders at least four flights per year. In addition to the NASA contract, SpaceX could supply additional flights a year solely for space tourists willing to spend around $20 million to experience a week or so in orbit, perhaps with a brief stay of a few days in the ISS thrown in. This would be a very different experience from the short hop of a few minutes into space offered by Virgin Galactic.

DragonV2

 The Dragon V2 Spacecraft – Image from NASA 

Future of Orbital Space Tourism

In time, as more companies enter the market, thereby increasing the supply, and the technology become more established reducing the development costs the price of orbital space tourism should come down.  However there is still  the barrier, due to the basic laws of physics, that it takes an large amount energy to put a space capsule big enough to hold a number of humans, plus their essential supplies into orbit. This means that it can never become cheap in the way that air travel is today, but, perhaps, it  will be possible by 2045 to spend a week in space for equivalent of say $1-2 million in today’s money. Sadly this is well beyond the budget of Mr and Mrs Geek.

Next Post

I hope you have enjoyed this post. Mrs Geek and I are off on holiday to Scotland next week. When we return my next post will be about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, a subject which has fascinated me since childhood.