A new Russian space-station module malfunctioned after it docked on Thursday. The module, called Nauka, starting unexpectedly firing its thrusters – which moved the entire station out of position.
The long-awaited science module had already encountered several technical issues on its way to the ISS, but once it docked to the space station on Thursday morning, it seemed to be in the clear. Then about three hours after its arrival – at about 12:34 p.m. ET – Nauka suddenly began firing its thrusters.
Astronauts on the ISS told flight controllers they were seeing something strange out their windows. Space journalist Anatoly Zak was among the first to notice their observations.
“Numerous particles are also seen outside the station indicating either major propellant leak or gas vent,” Zak tweeted.
In response to the glitch, flight controllers began firing thrusters on two other parts of the Russian side of the ISS, including the service module, in what they called a “tug of war” to get the station back into its normal position.
By 1:30 p.m. ET, ISS flight controllers announced that Nauka’s thrusters had finally stopped firing and they had regained control of the station’s positioning. Over that hour, Nauka had rotated the station by 45 degrees.
“All other station systems are operating perfectly,” NASA said Thursday afternoon. “None of the other appendages were damaged in any way.”
A helium leak could be to blame for the malfunction
A sudden loss of control over the space station’s orientation is “not a common occurrence,” NASA said, adding that there are procedures in place to fix such an issue when it does arise. Occasionally, flight controllers deliberately change the ISS’s orientation to avoid oncoming space debris, or make it easier for a spacecraft to successfully dock at the station.
The ISS crew is not in danger and never was, according to flight controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Currently there are two cosmonauts, Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov, aboard the station, as well as and five astronauts: Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency, and Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, and Mark Vande Hei of NASA.
“It’s safe to say the remainder of the day is no longer going to happen as scheduled, of course,” a flight controller told the ISS astronauts Thursday afternoon. Controllers asked them to check the station’s starboard, or right, side to see if there was any damage to the station’s exterior or floating debris.
So far, the astronauts have reported nothing amiss. They didn’t even feel the station moving during the incident, according to ISS program manager Joel Montalbano.
“You asked the crew, ‘Hey, did the space station shake or anything like that?’ And the response was negative,” he said during a briefing on Thursday afternoon.
Montalbano added that he’s “not too worried” given that the station’s maximum spin speed was about half a degree per second.
It’s not yet clear what caused the engines to fire out of turn. But Zak wrote that Russia’s mission control discovered a helium gas leak in one or two of Nauka’s tanks, which may have comprised the thrusters’ operation.
Around 2:15 p.m. ET, Russian flight controllers confirmed with NASA that they had disabled the errant thrusters.
Zak also reported that Nauka has used up all the propellant available to its thrusters, so there’s no chance of another “tug of war.”
A dramatic docking
Nauka, which is also known as the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM), was originally scheduled to launch in 2007, but technical issues and unexpected repairs led to years of delay.
The module expands the Russian side of the ISS, adding more science facilities, crew quarters, and a new airlock for spacewalks. It also features a new docking port for Russian spacecraft.
But Nauka didn’t have a smooth journey into orbit. Shortly after launching on July 21, Nauka failed to fire its main engines and push itself to a higher altitude. Russian mission controllers had to instruct the 43-foot-long, 2.5-ton module to fire its backup thrusters to get back on course.
After Nauka successfully docked on Thursday, the two ISS cosmonauts started checking for leaks, preparing to open the module’s hatch, and integrating the module into the station’s power and computer systems.
But after the engines started firing, flight controllers advised the ISS crew to keep the hatch closed and to close the station’s 1.5-inch-thick windows.
NASA and Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, will spend the next few days investigating the incident. Roscosmos will take the lead on analyzing Nauka, while NASA will focus on assessing space-station structures for any signs of damage.
“We’ll have a quick look done by the end of the day tomorrow,” Montalbano said. “That’ll tell us if we have any poke-outs that we’re worried about that we want to go and look at.”
On Friday, Boeing’s Starliner spaceship will attempt to redeem itself after botching its last major test flight.
The company’s eventual goal is to fly astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA, the way SpaceX already does. Both companies developed their launch systems through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a competition that awarded funding to private companies in order to develop new astronaut-ready spacecraft.
But before carrying people, the Starliner has to complete an uncrewed test flight to and from the ISS as part of NASA’s certification process. Boeing first attempted this flight in December 2019, but it turned out that one of the spaceship’s clocks was set 11 hours ahead of schedule. That prompted the spaceship to fire its engines too vigorously, too early – a move meant to come at a later stage of the mission. That caused the spaceship to burn through 25% of its fuel, forcing Boeing to skip docking with the space station in order to save the Starliner from total failure.
Now, the company is confident that it has fixed the problems with its spaceship, so it’s time for the do-over.
“Now’s the right time. This team is ready to go, this vehicle is ready to go,” Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of NASA’s human-spaceflight directorate, said in a press briefing on Thursday.
Boeing must show NASA its spaceship can reach the space station
Starliner is set to blast off atop an Atlas V rocket at 2:53 p.m. ET on Friday – assuming thunderstorms don’t force a delay. The mission, called Orbital Flight Test 2, or OFT-2, will send the rocket and capsule roaring into the skies above NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
If all goes according to plan, the Atlas V booster should fall away after about four minutes. That would leave the rocket’s upper stage to give Starliner one final push into Earth’s orbit before it, too, separates from the capsule. Starliner should orbit Earth alone overnight, slowly lining itself up to meet the ISS the next day.
“That’s the part of this flight that, to me, is so critical: docking with station and then also, on the back end as well, going through that whole undock sequence,” Steve Stich, who manages NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said in a briefing on Tuesday.
If the spaceship successfully latches onto a port on the ISS, astronauts on the station will then open its hatch and unload its cargo – science equipment and supplies. After that, the Starliner is scheduled to stay docked to the ISS to test out its systems and its endurance in space, until it returns to Earth on August 5.
Boeing’s investigation into the failed flight revealed further problems
As Starliner prepares to fall back to Earth, it’s supposed to shed its service module – a cylinder containing the spaceship’s main engines. That part is supposed to fall away from the crew module, which holds the astronauts.
But this second software error could have caused the service module to bounce back and crash into the crew module. That could have sent the astronauts’ capsule tumbling or significantly damaged its protective heat shield, making it unsafe to plow through the atmosphere.
The discovery of this issue prompted a NASA investigation into Boeing’s coding and overall safety culture. NASA administrators at the time said the software issue was likely a symptom of larger problems at the company. But now, Stich said, “Boeing has an excellent safety culture.”
As a result of NASA’s investigations, Boeing fixed both issues and changed some of the spaceship’s communications software.
“There’s always a little bit of that trepidation in you,” Stich said. “This is spaceflight. The Atlas is a great vehicle. Starliner is a great vehicle. But we know how hard it is, and it’s a test flight as well. And I fully expect we’ll learn something on this test flight.”
Why NASA needs Boeing
Assuming Starliner can make it to the ISS and back without major issues, its next step will be to do it again with astronauts onboard – a crewed test flight. If everything goes smoothly, that flight could launch by the end of this year, Stich said.
NASA is relying on both Boeing and SpaceX to replace the government-developed Space Shuttle, which stopped flying in 2011.
After the Space Shuttles were retired, NASA relied solely on Russian Soyuz rockets to ferry its astronauts to and from the ISS. Then SpaceX’s Crew Dragon passed the agency’s tests, flying its first astronauts to the ISS last year. SpaceX has flown two full crews since then. NASA hopes to add Starliner to its fleet soon so that the agency is no longer reliant on just one launch system.
Ever since the first tribe walked out of the Great Rift Valley and crossed the Sinai into Asia, humans have been explorers. We’ve crossed continents, then oceans, and in the 20th century, left Earth itself. There’s glory in our species’ expansive nature, and as the TV show says, space is the final frontier. However, Jeff Bezos is not my astronaut.
I felt more disdain than wonder watching Richard Branson’s joyride and Jeff Bezos’s soulless flight to the Kármán Line.
Everybody gets a “For All Mankind” trophy
There was no ground broken here. In 1903, the Wright Brothers completed the first powered flight. In 1961, Yuri Gagarin was the first human in space. In 1969, Neil Armstrong was the first human on the moon. Those are milestones worthy of celebration. In 2004, Burt Ratan’s Scaled Composites carried the first people into space on a privately built spacecraft – a milestone of sorts.
What was accomplished on July 11 (Branson) and 20 (Bezos)? Well, one of Bezos’ passengers, Wally Funk (great name), became the oldest person ever in space. After the flight, she reminded us that when you’re 82 you have zero fucks to give. She was disappointed in both the view and the length of the flight, and she found the cabin insufficiently spacious for the “rolls and twists and so forth” she wanted to do.
Another of Bezos’ passengers became the youngest person ever in space. This sounds like something, except that he bought his way onto the flight – actually, his father, a private equity billionaire, paid for the recent high school graduate’s estimated $28 million ticket. My youngest has been acting up (if “acting up” is terrorizing all of us – he constantly assesses the household for weaknesses and then makes brazen attacks on his older brother and anything resembling domestic harmony). I don’t have any idea how to deal with this, so I bought him a $1,000 iPad. His mother told me I was sending the wrong message. I reminded her that the message could have been 28,000 times worse. So, there’s that.
Blue Origin’s reusable rocket is a real technological achievement, but that was news … back in 2015. None of the July “astronauts” were even the first space tourists. That empty-calories honor belongs to Dennis Tito, who paid $20 million for a ride on a Russian rocket in 2001. And Tito spent a week in space, living on the International Space Station – the equivalent of nearly a thousand 11-minute trips on Blue Origin.
Astronauts, my ass. Apollo 11 and Columbus travelled 240,000 and 3,000 miles to reach the moon and Caribbean, respectively. New Shepard 4 traveled 0.026% of the way to the moon. Put another way, on Tuesday we watched a man plant a flag three feet up from base camp at Mt. Everest and expect to be knighted. This weekend, I’ll be in Montauk. I plan to swim a half-mile from shore (I can do this) and declare I’ve discovered Spain.
It’s his money, and he has the right to spend it on what he wants. But if Mr. Bezos was genuine about doing something more than crashing a canary yellow T-top Corvette into a Bosley for Men franchise, he could raise the minimum wage at his firm to $20/hour.
In addition to vanity projects for billionaires, these pseudo-events were advertisements, promotions for the brands prominently displayed throughout the breathless television coverage.
But advertisements for what? Human exploration is about the future, and space exploration is a long bet on a very distant tomorrow. What kind of future will the billionaire space race promote? One clue: After his flight, Bezos said, “I want to thank every Amazon employee, and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all this.”
He’s right. We did pay for it. Eighty-two percent of American households are Prime members, and the company has 1,298,000 employees. We also paid for the Apollo program, of course, only there’s a difference. To put Neil Armstrong on the moon, we paid taxes, and elected representatives to decide how to spend them.
In the 52 years between Armstrong’s July accomplishment and the Branson/Bezos “accomplishments,” the United States has radically restructured its economy. Specifically, we’ve handed it over to billionaires. Now, rather than paying taxes, we pay for our Prime memberships. Instead of NASA, we fund Blue Origin. We’ve elected people who defund NASA so businessmen can lead us to new frontiers instead of test pilots and physics PhDs.
Historically, astronauts were the best and the brightest. The pioneers of the 1960s were war heroes and accomplished pilots who combined physical skill and courage with crisp engineering minds. Neil Armstrong, a legend among test pilots, flew more than 900 different types of planes before leaving the Earth in July 1969. When the Lunar Module’s computer conked out on final approach, he manually piloted the craft to the moon’s surface. Those that followed, in the Space Shuttle and aboard the International Space Station, were scientists and engineers of distinction.
“Astronaut” used to connote something noble, something that cemented the best of what it meant to be American: Men and women of exceptional capabilities and unremarkable origins. Armstrong was the second person in his family to attend college, and his father was a state government bureaucrat. John Glenn’s parents were a plumber and a teacher. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, was a PhD physicist; her father was a community college professor, and her mother volunteered as a prison counselor. Former NASA Chief Astronaut Peggy Whitson, a PhD biochemist who spent more time in space than any other American (665 days), grew up on a farm in Iowa. (Kudos to the FAA, which, just before Bezos took off, issued a new policy requiring that a space crew member actually contribute to the mission before receiving astronaut “wings.”)
In the Prime Space future, we won’t have astronauts, we’ll have egonauts.
The problems of the Prime Space future go deeper than who gets to ride Jeff’s cocket to the Kámán Line. An ever-expanding array of technological innovations, businesses, and services fall under the rubric of “space.”
One of the earliest and still most important benefits of space exploration was the Global Positioning System. It’s hard to overstate the importance of GPS, which is foundational to our mobile economy. GPS was born of a US Department of Defense project in 1973; it continues to be run by the DoD, which makes it freely available to all users.
Bezos and Elon Musk are launching thousands of satellites over the next several years to enable their Kuiper and Starlink systems. There’s a lot to celebrate about these projects, which promise broadband internet for remote and underserved regions. But do we want Bezos and Musk – or shareholders in their companies – to control that access? With the number of satellites projected to grow from 3,000 to 50,000, space hauling will be an enormous business.
Bezos dreams of moving pollutive manufacturing to space, which seems both insane and amazing. Musk wants to build a colony on Mars, which seems more like space execution than exploration. But as humanity expands to become a space-faring species, who should control who gets to go and what we do up there? To whom do the benefits of all this technological innovation flow?
I know two things about Blue Origin. One, Amazon’s customers and employees paid for it, just like Bezos said. Two, the commonwealth may register progress, but there will be less public spillover from the technology and an increase in private capture. Imagine the tax avoidance that will occur in space, where nobody can hear the IRS scream.
The counterweight to market externalities is democracy. And a democracy that cedes ownership of its future to a winner-take-all market will lose control of that future. Democracy acts through governments (and taxes), whether we like it or not.
The right stuff
While Bezos was high-fiving his employees after his jaunt into space, NASA scientists were working on projects for all mankind. The Perseverance rover on Mars has its own drone, which is sending back amazing pictures. In November, NASA, along with the European and Canadian space agencies, will launch the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble; under development since 1996, it promises to advance human knowledge about the formation of the universe and the origins of life.
It’s unlikely these projects will attract any venture capital money or support a SPAC. Private space projects might be dressed up as achievements for humanity, but their aim is to return capital to shareholders. And when that’s the criteria, the astronauts and their efforts become limited in scope.
Mach-3 train wreck or galactic ATM
Whatever you think of space travel as a human endeavor, space tourism is an awful business. Even assuming all goes well, it makes no sense. These are vanity projects, and the only people that will make money from them will be the early investors … who bail out before impact.
Most businesses are either demand constrained (the market for its product is limited) or supply constrained (it can’t make enough of its product). Virgin manages to be both. To meet its profit targets, it has to sell about 3,100 tickets per year at a whopping $400,000 each, a 60% increase from the current price. After an ad the entire world saw, the product has a waiting list of … 600 people. My Brand Strategy class at Section4 has 1,500 people, and there’s dramatically lower odds you’re going to blow up in your chair.
But even if there were an annual demand from 3,100 people willing to pay that fee, to supply the spaceflights, Virgin would have to make two flights per day, every day, without mishap. So far in all of 2021, it has flown … twice. The true addressable market for space tourism is zero. It’s the mother of all product-market mismatches. By comparison, Google Glass and Cheetos-Flavored Lip Balm (an actual thing) were on point. Virgin Galactic may achieve great things, but the stock (Nasdaq: SPCE) is a Mach 3 train wreck.
The worst-case, and most likely, scenario? Death. Rockets to space are controlled explosions of thousands of gallons of flammable material. Re-entry is a high-speed fall into the searing heat of friction. Virgin Galactic has already lost one pilot, Michael Alsbury, who died when his SpaceShipTwo craft broke apart in the atmosphere. Five hundred and ninety people have headed into space, and 19 have not returned, meaning space travel is more dangerous than base jumping. A space tourism fatality is a question of when, not if. Exploration and innovation are worth risks, even to human life. Floating weightless for 300 seconds is not.
Richard Branson understands these risks. Last May he sold $500 million of his Virgin Galactic stock, and this April he sold another $150 million, trimming his holding to less than 25% of the company. He was able to make both sales because he took the company public in 2019 via a SPAC controlled by former Facebook employee Chamath Palihapitiya. Who also shed his entire personal stake in the company back in March. Billionaires vote with their wallets, and the two largest shareholders believe their capital will achieve greater returns elsewhere.
One of 35 people selected from 8,000 applications, after receiving a PhD in Physics, Ms. Ride spent 843 hours in space aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, where she was charged with operating the robotics arm (“Canadarm”). I wonder if, when peering down at Earth 300 miles below, she registered satisfaction from her hard work, or the reward of pursuing greatness in the agency of others. Was it freeing to be in space, on a craft judged only by her skills and character? I don’t know. What I am certain of is that Mission Specialist Sally Kristen Ride is a United States Astronaut and went to space for all mankind.
When NASA astronaut Alan Shepard saw Earth while walking on the moon in 1971, he cried. Other astronauts who’ve viewed our planet from space have described feelings of awe, unity with the rest of humanity, and an appreciation for the spinning orb that supports our species.
Bezos, the world’s richest man and founder of spaceflight company Blue Origin, accompanied three other passengers to the edge of space on Tuesday morning. The crew experienced weightlessness for just three minutes while in zero gravity.
“Every astronaut, everybody who’s been up into space, they say that it changes them,” Bezos said during a press conference following the launch. “And they’re kind of amazed and awestruck by the Earth and its beauty, but also by its fragility. And I can vouch for that.”
Experts call overwhelming feelings when seeing Earth from space “the overview effect,” according to David Yaden, a psychiatry and behavioral sciences research fellow at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Bezos didn’t travel nearly as far as most astronauts, though: The billionaire rode a New Shepard rocket up to the Kármán line – an imaginary boundary 62 miles (100 kilometers) above sea level, where many experts say space begins.
But Yaden told Insider “there are no specific boundaries for how high one’s perspective must be in order to experience the overview effect.” (When space writer Frank White coined the term in 1978, he argued that even people in planes could experience it.)
Still, Yaden isn’t sure if a 10-minute flight is enough to profoundly change the billionaire’s perspective. Only time will tell if Bezos really experienced a cognitive shift after viewing Earth from above, he said.
“Most astronauts talk about the view and how it transformed their values,” Yaden said. “I think the test of whether Bezos’s flight was a glorified roller-coaster ride or whether it was more like true space flight will be determined from his actions going forward, especially regarding his commitment to scientific, environmental, and humanitarian causes.”
Was Bezos awed by the view or his place in the universe?
In a 2016 paper, Yaden and his colleagues concluded that the feeling of awe was a key aspect of the overview effect.
That feeling, according to Yaden, is triggered by the sweeping scenery of Earth from space, but also by the realization that everything humans care about is contained in a tiny, fragile sphere.
“I have little doubt that Bezos experienced awe from perceptual vastness – it must be quite a view up there!” Yaden said. “But did he experience conceptual vastness from realizing that we are all in this world together and that Earth’s situation is fragile?”
Astronauts who conduct missions on the International Space Station, for example, report experiencing both. That’s because they are in space for much longer periods of time, and are contributing to science by performing experiments in space, Yaden said.
“I think listening to Bezos’s self-report is one way of assessing his experience, but assessing his actions going forward will be another, probably more important, way of determining whether he experienced the overview effect in the way that so many astronauts over the years have described,” Yaden said.
Bezos said traveling to space ‘reinforces my commitment to climate change’
One of the tickets for Tuesday’s launch originally sold for $28 million. But Bezos said he wants to make the experience of viewing Earth from space accessible to more people.
Blue Origin plans to fly tourists into space regularly on New Shepard, but has yet to open ticket sales.
“This is the only good planet in this solar system,” Bezos said on Tuesday. “And we have to take care of it. And when you go into space and see how fragile it is, you’ll want to take care of it even more. And that’s what this is about.”
Traveling to space, he added, “reinforces my commitment to climate change, to the environment.”
Yaden said feelings of intense awe generally result in positive mental health outcomes for people: “The sense of self can temporarily fade into feelings of connectedness with other people and the world.”
But he doesn’t think it’s a sufficient justification for flights like Bezos’s.
“I am all for space science and engineering, but given the pollution and expense of these commercial flights, it is hard to justify them on the basis if the overview effect,” he said.
Morgan McFall-Johnsen contributed reporting to this story.
Bezos and his companions took off for the edge of space at 8:12 a.m. CT on Tuesday from Blue Origin’s launch site in Texas.
Along with Daemon, Bezos was joined by his brother, Mark, and 82-year-old aviator Wally Funk, who trained to go to space in the 1960s but was ultimately denied the opportunity because she was a woman. Funk is now the oldest person to reach space. Daemon is the youngest.
The crew rode a New Shepard rocket up to the Kármán line – an imaginary boundary 62 miles (100 kilometers) above sea level, where many experts say space begins.
The entire voyage lasted just over 10 minutes, but the crew was only weightless for three minutes. During that time, they unbuckled, floated around the cabin, and tossed around orange ping pong balls and candy. Then they briefly took in the bird’s-eye views of Earth.
“It felt way cooler than it looked,” Daemen said after watching the video footage.
“Everyone on the ground was way more emotional than we were,” he added. “We were just having fun.”
Tuesday marked New Shepard’s first passenger flight. (The rocket has successfully flown 15 times without people on board.) But Bezos isn’t the first billionaire to fly his company’s rocket to the edge of space.
Blue Origin has argued that Branson didn’t go to space, since he only flew to about 55 miles above sea level and did not pass the Kármán line. But both NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration have awarded astronaut wings to pilots who flew past 50 miles.
SpaceX’s first civilian crew is poised to enjoy what may be the best bathroom views in human history.
It’s not clear how the toilet facilities work on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship – the design is shrouded in proprietary secrecy. But we do know that the toilet is on the ceiling. That area of the spaceship will also feature a glass dome, called a cupola, that SpaceX is installing at the nose of the capsule.
So while passengers are using the toilet, they’ll be able to gaze out the windows, according to Jared Isaacman, a billionaire entrepreneur and jet pilot who purchased four seats on SpaceX’s spaceship for a civilian mission to space. The trip will be the first orbital spaceflight ever with no professional astronauts on board. It will also feature the first space toilet with a 360-degree view.
“It’s not a ton of privacy. But you do have this kind of privacy curtain that cuts across the top of the spacecraft, so you can kind of separate yourself from everyone else,” Isaacman, who will be commanding the mission, told Insider. “And that also happens to be where the glass cupola is. So, you know, when people do inevitably have to use the bathroom, they’re going to have one hell of a view.”
Inspiration4 aims to kick off a new era of space tourism – alongside Jeff Bezos’s plans to peek above the edge of space for three minutes on July 20 (though that’s a suborbital flight), and a mission next year that aims to send three paying customers to the ISS aboard a Crew Dragon capsule.
SpaceX has flown professional astronauts to the space station for NASA three times, but none of those spaceships had a cupola. That’s because the capsules’ noses needed to dock to the ISS so that the astronauts could climb into the orbiting laboratory. Since the Inspiration4 crew won’t be docking to anything, SpaceX is replacing the docking mechanism with a window that passengers can stand in.
“Probably most ‘in space’ you could possibly feel by being in a glass dome,” Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and chief engineer, said of the new cupola on Twitter.
The Inspiration4 crew is learning to use the spaceship’s toilet
Isaacman, a self-described “space geek,” started the payment-processing company Shift4 when he was 16 years old. He is still the company’s CEO. He also founded Draken International, which owns a large fleet of ex-military aircraft and trains Air Force and other pilots. Isaacman sold his majority stake in that company for “a nine-figure sum,” according to Forbes, which estimates his net worth at $2.9 billion.
Isaacman flies jets in his free time and has circumnavigated the globe at least twice. When he learned that he could buy a Crew Dragon flight, he jumped at the chance. Though neither SpaceX nor Isaacman has said how much he paid, NASA has estimated such a flight might cost $55 million per seat.
As part of the Inspiration4 mission, Isaacman is working with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to plan science experiments for the crew to do while in orbit. The four crew members also plan to draw each other’s blood, take skin samples, and perform cognitive tests to help NASA gather data about how spaceflight affects the human body.
SpaceX and NASA have both declined to reveal details about the location or design of Crew Dragon’s toilet, but the spaceship’s prior passengers have offered clues.
The toilet “works very similar to the one we were used to in the Space Shuttle, and it worked very well. We had no issues with it,” NASA astronaut Doug Hurley told reporters after launching to the ISS on the Crew Dragon’s first crewed flight last year.
The toilets on the Space Shuttle and on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft involved rudimentary hose and bag systems, so it’s likely the Crew Dragon’s resembles those. For civilians like Isaacman and his crewmates, this might be an adjustment. Even NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson previously told Business Insider that going to the bathroom might have been the worst part about life in space.
Learning to use the toilet is part of the intensive pre-flight training for Inspiration4, according to Isaacman.
“We’re just gonna have to work through it,” he said.
The telescope’s payload computer suddenly stopped working on June 13, sending NASA engineers scrambling to figure out the problem. That computer, built in the 1980s, is like Hubble’s brain – it controls and monitors all the science instruments on the spacecraft. So the telescope has gone into a hibernation-like “safe mode” while NASA troubleshoots.
The agency has made three attempts to get Hubble’s computer working again – in vain. If NASA can’t fix the issue, the telescope should be able to switch to hardware on its backup payload computer, but that hasn’t powered up since astronauts installed it in 2009. It would take NASA several days to bring the telescope back to its full science operations following such a switch.
Hubble, which launched into orbit around Earth in 1990, is the world’s most powerful space telescope. It has imaged the births and deaths of stars, discovered new moons around Pluto, and tracked two interstellar objects as they zipped through our solar system. Hubble’s observations have allowed astronomers to calculate the age and expansion of the universe, and to peer at galaxies formed shortly after the Big Bang.
But Hubble is getting old. None of its parts have been upgraded or replaced since the last astronaut mission to service the telescope in 2009.
In March, a software error also sent the telescope into safe mode. But in that case, NASA fixed the problem within a week. Now, with this mysterious new glitch, NASA has been struggling to get the Earth-orbiting observatory back online for 10 days.
But Paul Hertz, NASA’s director of astrophysics, told NPR that the timing can mostly be chalked up to “the inefficiency of trying to fix something which is orbiting 400 miles over your head instead of in your laboratory.”
“If this computer were in the lab, we’d be hooking up monitors and testing the inputs and outputs all over the place, and would be really quick to diagnose it,” he said.
A NASA spokesperson told Insider that “there are many redundancies available to the team that have not yet been tried, and it is extremely likely that one of these will work.”
“Hubble is one of NASA’s most important astrophysics missions. It’s been operating for over 31 years, and NASA is hopeful it will last for many more years,” the spokesperson said. “From a perspective of the value of Hubble to the scientific community, it is still the most powerful telescope available so age is not a decision-making factor.”
A computer error led NASA down the wrong path last week
NASA tried, and failed, to restart the malfunctioning payload computer on June 14, the day after Hubble went offline. Initial data pointed to a computer-memory module that was degrading as the potential cause of the problem. So the Hubble team tried switching to one of three backup modules aboard the telescope. But the command to start the new module didn’t work.
On Thursday, the Hubble team tried again to bring both the current module and the backup online. Both attempts failed.
Since then, further testing has revealed that the memory issues were a symptom of the real problem – which NASA still hasn’t identified.
Now the Hubble team thinks that the issue is related to the computer’s central processing module. NASA said in a blog update on Tuesday that the most likely culprit is either the module itself or some interface hardware that helps the module communicate with other parts of the telescope.
“The team is currently designing tests that will be run in the next few days to attempt to further isolate the problem and identify a potential solution,” the NASA blog said.
If that doesn’t work, the Hubble team is prepared to switch to the backup computer, which was also designed in the 1980s and has been sitting dormant in orbit for 12 years.
“They’re very primitive computers compared to what’s in your cell phone,” Hertz told NPR. “The problem is we can’t touch it or see it.”
China started launching parts of its new space station into orbit just two months ago, and it’s already sending people there.
The nation plans to launch three astronauts – taikonauts, as China calls them – into Earth’s orbit at 9:22 p.m. ET on Wednesday, according to state-owned broadcaster CGTN.
Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming, and Tang Hongbo will be the first people to fly to China’s new space station. Their mission, called Shenzhou-12, will take them to the Tianhe module – the station’s first piece, which launched into space in April.
Haisheng, Boming, and Hongbo are expected to live inside the 54-foot-long Tianhe module for about three months, according to CGTN. The module houses the future station’s living quarters.
“I am convinced that with the best wishes of my counterparts in China, and the general preparation, and the rounds of training on us, we are capable of accomplishing this task,” Haisheng said during a press conference on Wednesday, which was translated into English on CGTN.
The last time China flew humans to space was in 2016, when it launched three taikonauts to a temporary space-station prototype, called Tiangong-2. They stayed there for a month. In 2019, the test station fell back towards Earth and burned up in the atmosphere, as planned.
Watch 3 taikonauts launch to China’s new space station
State-controlled broadcaster CCTV is also airing the launch live with commentary in Mandarin.
9 more launches to build a new space station
Tianhe is the core module of the new Chinese Space Station (CSS). The completed orbiting laboratory is set to weigh 66 tons and accommodate three astronauts at a time. That’s significantly smaller than the International Space Station (ISS), which weighs about 450 tons and is roughly the length of a football field. However, the ISS is aging and may be out of commission by the 2030s.
Ultimately, China plans to send taikonauts to the CSS for six-month stints, much like missions to the ISS. China expects to accept other countries’ astronauts on the CSS as well. Dmitry Rogozin, director of Roscosmos, told reporters on Wednesday that Russia plans to send its own cosmonauts there.
For now, these first three taikonauts are set to test out the Tianhe module’s life-support capabilities – its oxygen generation, its ability to filter out the carbon dioxide they exhale, its protections against the radiation of space, and the way it circulates fluids. They will also test communications between the space station and mission controllers on the ground.
The taikonauts are even expected to conduct a few hours-long spacewalks to test China’s newest spacesuits.
If all of that goes well, China plans to launch eight more missions to complete the CSS by the end of 2022. That includes launching two more modules, three more cargo shipments, and three more astronaut crews. The nation has already launched one module and one cargo shipment. All in all, that totals to 11 planned launches.
However, after the Tianhe module launched, the body of the Long March 5b rocket that carried it fell into an uncontrolled orbit around Earth. Usually, rocket bodies are programmed to fall into the ocean, but the Long March 5b booster could have landed anywhere across a vast swath of the planet – including much of the inhabited world.
Fortunately, the rocket body still landed in the ocean. But the incident sparked international outcry and criticism from rocket experts. It’s unclear whether China will alter its rocket design for the next two module launches. The astronaut and cargo missions, however, will use different rockets that China has previously launched without incident.
It’s unknown what the piece of space junk responsible for the hole looked like, or where it came from.
This isn’t the first time the ISS – a floating laboratory that orbits more than 220 miles above our heads – has taken a hit. Five years ago, an object struck one of the windows on the ISS’s dome, gouging a 0.3-inch-wide chip in the glass. The culprit may have been a small metal fragment no bigger than the width of an eyelash.
In total, nearly 130 million pieces of debris crowd Earth’s orbit – including leftover rocket parts, pieces of dead satellites, even tiny meteorites. In total, this debris weighs more than 10,000 tons, and more gets added every year. The chunks zip around the planet at more than 17,500 mph, roughly 10 times the speed of a bullet.
NASA and other space agencies keep tabs on more than 23,000 known pieces of space debris that could threaten the space station – pretty much anything larger than a softball. If there’s more than a 1-in-100,000 chance of a collision, NASA will maneuver the ISS out of harm’s way, since a collision could endanger the lives of the astronauts on board.
Last year, the agency had to move the station away from space debris three times.
But plenty of space debris is too tiny to track, and even pebbles, dust particles, or flecks of paint that slough off of other satellites can damage the ISS.
A space-junk problem
Among the biggest pieces of space junk in n low-Earth orbit are 2,900 dead satellites that float uncontrolled. Nobody can maneuver them.
The worst-case scenario is a collision between one of these large objects and the ISS or a crewed spaceship. But even if two dead, uninhabited satellites hit each other, that’s also a problem because any crash will produce new clouds of smaller bits of debris.
As Earth’s orbit gets more congested, the likelihood of this type of dangerous collision increases.
In an extreme scenario, a chain of collisions in space could spiral out of control, with the debris from one crash causing more collisions, which would create more debris. This could and wind up blanketing Earth in a practically impassable field of debris – a possibility known as the Kessler syndrome. According to Donald J. Kessler, the NASA astrophysicist who suggested the idea in 1978, it could take hundreds or even thousands of years for such debris to clear enough to make spaceflight safe again.
Morgan McFall-Johnsen contributed reporting to this story.
NASA has a new leader, but he does not plan to shake things up.
Instead, Bill Nelson is keeping his eyes on the same prizes as his predecessor, Jim Bridenstine: sending astronauts to the moon and Mars.
Nelson, a three-term US Senator from Florida who flew into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1986, was sworn in as the new NASA Administrator on Monday.
His plan is mainly to keep the ball rolling. During confirmation hearings, Nelson told Congress that he wants to see NASA achieve its most ambitious goal – sending astronauts to the lunar surface and, eventually, to Mars. He also advocated a renewed focus on climate-change research, which has historically been a big part of NASA’s directive but was deprioritized under the Trump administration.
“The space program needs constancy of purpose,” Nelson said in a written testimony to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. For continuity, he added, he plans to work with Bridenstine and “seek his advice.”
That consistency may give NASA a break from the whiplash it often gets with new administrations. President George W. Bush first asked NASA to pursue a return to the moon in 2005. Five years later, President Barack Obama shifted the focus to Mars. The Trump administration shifted back to the moon, with a tight deadline: to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024. That’s four years earlier than NASA was previously planning.
“If you ask me what is my vision for the future of NASA, it is to continue for us to explore the heavens with humans and with machines,” Nelson told the Senate committee, of which he was previously a member, during a confirmation hearing on April 21. “There is a lot of excitement.”
Sending astronauts back to the moon and on to Mars
NASA still hopes to land astronauts on the moon by 2024 – a feat nobody has accomplished since 1972. Nelson is on board, even though the timeline may be too ambitious. NASA’s Office of the Inspector General recently determined a 2024 landing is “highly unlikely.”
“I think you may be pleased that we’re gonna see that timetable try to be adhered to, but recognize that, with some sobering reality, that space is hard,” Nelson told the Senate committee.
NASA’s plan is to launch an astronaut crew inside an Orion spaceship, using the mega-rocket the agency is currently developing, called the Space Launch System. Once in lunar orbit, Orion would rendezvous with a lander. Two of the astronauts would move into that vehicle then land on the moon’s surface.
NASA recently awarded the contract for that lander to SpaceX. Elon Musk’s rocket company intends to convert its planned Starship mega-spaceship into a lunar lander. But NASA was expected to pick two contractors instead of one, so the decision prompted SpaceX’s competitors – Dynetics and Blue Origin – to file complaints. While things are being sorted out, NASA asked SpaceX to pause work on the project.
NASA cited a lack of funding from Congress when it decided to award one single contract, and promised there would be a follow-on competition. Nelson stood by that statement, vowing that there will be competitions for contracts to send the first astronauts to Mars.
“Competition is always better than sole sourcing, because you can get the efficiencies and you get a lower price,” he told the Senate committee.
NASA aims to launch its first Mars-bound astronaut mission in the 2030s.
‘You can’t mitigate climate change unless you can measure it’
During his hearing, Nelson defended a White House request to budget $2.3 billion for NASA’s Earth-science programs. That would constitute a roughly 15% increase from the agency’s 2020 Earth-science budget.
“It’s a very important increase. You can’t mitigate climate change unless you can measure it, and that’s NASA’s expertise,” Nelson said. “Understanding our planet gives us the means to better protect it.”
Nelson vocally opposed the Trump administration’s decision to cancel NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System – a $10-million-per-year program that gathers data on how carbon moves around the planet. Congress subsequently reinstated the program.
“When I flew on the space shuttle, any time that was not scheduled with experiments or flight activities – which was not often – I would make my way to the spacecraft window to look at our home, our planet,” Nelson wrote in his testimony. “I was struck by how fragile it looked with its thin atmosphere. Combating climate change cannot succeed without robust observations, data, and research.”