It is all over but the “chuting.” International Space Station Keepers unleashed the SpaceX Dragon Capsule at 0949 GMT (5:49am EDT) and sent the history-making capsule on a fiery ride toward a spot in the Pacific about 500 miles west of Los Angeles.
Ahead for Dragon is a series of “burns” (rocket firings) leading up to the Big One – a nine minute and fifty second braking de-orbit burn beginning at 1451 GMT (10:51am EDT) which will slow the craft down just enough to stop its revolutionary free fall.
Dragon is slated to splashdown at 1544 GMT/11:44am EDT.
With the shuttle fleet pickled, chocked and either in – or on their way to museums, Dragon is the only vehicle designed to haul cargo back to Earth in tact. Freighters from Russian, Europe and Japan are more like trash incinerators – as they do not have heat shields and parachutes designed to insure a safe landing.
Dragon is carrying just shy of 1400 pounds of cargo. More than it hauled up.
On board, about 300 pounds of crew preference items (lots of mementoes for friends and family), 200 pounds worth of scientific experiments, and nearly 800 pounds of station gear including a pump for the station urine recycling system (yes, they drink their own pee up there…).
Dragon will re-enter the atmosphere like a streaking meteor – as its ablative heat shield burns away – protecting the spacecraft from the searing heat.
A small flotilla of SpaceX vessels are near the imaginary bullseye in the Pacific – ready to pluck Dragon out of the water and start steaming toward the Port of Los Angeles. Some of the cargo will stay inside Dragon as it is trucked back to the SpaceX facility near Waco, Texas. Some items that have a shorter shelf life will be retrieved and returned right away.
SpaceX and Dragon had an astounding run for a first-of-its-kind test flight. Take a look at the objectives NASA laid out for its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services flights 2 and 3. You can put a check on nearly every box – except for the last two items – a safe landing and a recovery of the cargo.
Assuming all goes well, SpaceX will begin for-real cargo missions to ISS later this year. The Falcon 9 rocket earmarked for the first of twelve of these cargo supply runs is already at the Cape. The Dragon capsule being built for the job sits in the factory in Hawthorne – a short walk from the company’s Mission Control room.
This week, the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced his resignation, and news reports suggest that battles within the commission over safety requirements may partially account for his departure. NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien has been looking into these bigger questions well before the latest news.
His report was produced in partnership with ProPublica.
MAN: We’re staying on AOP-1 for reactor scrams and AOP-2 for turbine trips.
And the immediate actions for AOP-1 reactor scram are complete.
MILES O’BRIEN: This is a test, only a test. If it were a real nuclear accident in the making, you would know about it by now.
MAN: Also, right now, we have sustained a loss of RPS, plus Bravo.
MILES O’BRIEN: We’re in the simulator at the River Bend nuclear power plant near St. Francisville, Louisiana, where these technicians are practicing how to respond to an accident.
Since the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979, this has been part of the routine at all U.S. nuclear power plants, one of many changes in the way the industry does business in the wake of that accident.
But now, in the wake of the Fukushima meltdowns, U.S. regulators and the industry are grappling with how best to respond, or not, to what happened in Japan.
Gregory Jaczko is the outgoing chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
GREGORY JACZKO, chairman, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency: Nuclear power plants generally work well when a lot of things aren’t changing. So there is, I think, an inertia against change and against improvement. And I think it’s something we have to be vigilant about and continue to push, as the regulator, to make sure that that change happens.
MILES O’BRIEN: An inertia against improvement, that doesn’t sound like a very safe approach.
GREGORY JACZKO: Well, I think you look at the industry and where it is today vs. where it was 10, 15, 20 years ago, there have been a lot of enhancements to safety. Performance is much better than it used to be.
MILES O’BRIEN: I joined Jaczko as he toured the River Bend plant. Managers here showed us the layers of safety measures that stand between controlled nuclear fission and disaster.
In industry parlance, it is called defense in depth. These portable generators at River Bend are the last line in that defense if a failure, a disaster, or terrorism knocks out the three larger backup generators designed to keep the cooling water flowing and the nuclear fuel from melting.
But industry watchdogs warn there are holes in the defense at U.S. nuclear power plants.
DAVE LOCHBAUM, Union of Concerned Scientists: The biggest concern I have had with the NRC over the years I have been monitoring them is lack of consistency.
MILES O’BRIEN: Dave Lochbaum is a nuclear engineer who spent 17 years working for the industry before publicly blowing the whistle on safety concerns and joining the Union of Concerned Scientists, which just released an eye-opening report on the NRC and nuclear plant safety in the U.S. in 2011.
It documents 15 near-misses, many occurring because reactor owners either tolerated known safety problems or took inadequate measures to correct them; problems with safety-related equipment that increased the risk of damage to the nuclear core; recognized, but unresolved problems that often cause significant safety-related events at nuclear power plants or increase their severity.
And it says NRC inspectors all too often focus just on a specific problem, not its underlying cause.
DAVE LOCHBAUM: I think the challenge the NRC has is, when something happens, it’s easy to convince people they need to spend money, prevent the next one. But when something hasn’t happened yet and it’s just a postulated event or a hypothetical disaster, it’s more difficult to get people to pony up millions of dollars to fix the hypothetical problem.
MILES O’BRIEN: The case in point may be the Indian Point nuclear plant that sits on the Hudson River, 35 miles from Times Square in Manhattan. The 40-year licenses to operate the reactors here are up for renewal.
Indian Point’s owner, Entergy, is seeking a 20-year license renewal. But where to set the safety bar, especially after Fukushima, is at the heart of a raging debate over whether Indian Point should get a new lease on life.
Eric Schneiderman is the attorney general of the state of New York.
ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN, New York attorney general: It is clear to us that, at this point in time, they have not met their burden of proof of showing that they deserve to be relicensed.
MILES O’BRIEN: After Three Mile Island , a federal court ruling forced utilities to expand their list of what-if scenarios and consider the cost of protecting against more unlikely events than required by the NRC. They are called severe accident mitigation alternative analyses, or SAMAs.
ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: All that requires the utility to do is to examine, do a cost-benefit analysis of safety measures that are not prohibitively expensive, but could provide substantial additional safety for the plant.
MILES O’BRIEN: Indian Point’s SAMA analysis revealed 20 cost- beneficial safety upgrades Entergy could perform. They include adding a diesel generator to charge batteries, a flood alarm, better flood protection, additional devices to monitor for leaks, and a valve to reduce the risk of hydrogen explosions.
In all, the upgrades carry a $77 million price tag. But, surprisingly, implementation of SAMA upgrades like these wasn’t a prerequisite for an NRC license renewal.
GREGORY JACZKO: We have a two-track approach to our review.
The first part is really the safety decision, and that’s about the license. The second part is about the federal government needing to do a review to look at environmental consequences. So, it’s as part of that — that second review that we look at these severe accident issues, and they really are about looking at environmental impacts.
MILES O’BRIEN: So, that means you don’t have to factor in a Fukushima scenario as you consider the possibility of relicensing a plant?
GREGORY JACZKO: We — again, we do it as part of the environmental review, but not specifically in the safety context.
ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: The NRC has taken a very narrow view of what’s required for relicensing. It defies common sense. There is no one out there who thinks that that’s the way a regulatory agency should behave.
MILES O’BRIEN: So Schneiderman took Entergy to court, and his unprecedented legal challenge paid off. In a landmark decision, the independent tribunal responsible for relicensing ruled that the company must now consider, and likely implement, the SAMA upgrades in order to get a new license.
ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: We’re not talking about wild, expensive stuff. These are only things that pass through this cost-benefit analysis. These are cheap remedies that yield a substantial safety, big bang for the buck, or little bang for the buck, I guess.
But it’s something that they should absolutely be required to do. And now, in the context of Indian Point, because it will be a condition of their relicensing, they will be required to going forward. That should be our policy in every nuclear power plant in the country.
MILES O’BRIEN: Should be a given?
ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: Yes, absolutely.
MILES O’BRIEN: Schneiderman hopes his victory will change the way the NRC does business, but as Gregory Jaczko points out, the agency is resistant to change.
In fact, the announcement of his resignation comes amid a battle with other commissioners over whether to embrace a menu of a dozen changes proposed by a task force that studied the Fukushima meltdowns.
Among the recommendations? A requirement that plants have vents designed to prevent buildup of explosive gas, that operators plan for outages at more than one reactor simultaneously, and, most important, the installation of extra generators like this one at River Bend that would allow a nuclear plant to endure a long blackout of at least eight hours without losing the ability to keep cooling water flowing over the hot nuclear fuel rods.
GREGORY JACZKO: That effort is going to take probably at least two years, and it will require focus and diligence on the part of the agency, as well as on the part of the industry, to make sure that we get that rule change done, and then we implement everything that it requires in a prompt and timely way.
MILES O’BRIEN: Two years, that’s lightspeed for you guys.
GREGORY JACZKO: I think two years would be an aggressive schedule, but it’s one that I think we can achieve.
MILES O’BRIEN: But other NRC commissioners and the nuclear industry are fighting the Fukushima task force safety upgrades, saying they need more time to implement them.
The meltdowns in Japan may have forced the industry to think about the unthinkable, but it is still unclear what actions may follow, and if the NRC will take the lead or be forced into taking action.
The Dragon capsule is homing in on the ISS and so far the systems shakedown has not created any show-stoppers: the solar arrays have deployed, the navigation pod bay doors have opened (as Elon tweeted: “So much nicer than HAL9000 :)”), the abort system has been tested and the craft has successfully gone into “free drift” mode.
All of these steps are essential before NASA will give a “go” for rendezvous and grapple by the ISS robot arm on Friday morning EDT. By the way, Dragon is not “docking” at the station despite a lot of inaccurate reporting to the contrary. The capsule will get close enough to be captured by the arm and then attached to the station.
Space is hard and unforgiving and there is still a lot of challenging work ahead for the SpaceX Dragon team, I would not pop the champagne corks just yet. But this is a moment to savor.
For the first time since Atlantis’ wheels stopped on runway 15 at the Kennedy Space Center on July 21, 2011, a US built spacecraft is back in Mach 25 motion – on its way to meet up with the International Space Station.
Atlantis landed 42 years and one day after Neil Armstrong first left his footprints on the moon, and for reasons that escape me, the J.D. Salinger of the Apollo astronaut corps has been very vocal in his opposition and skepticism about this new course in space.
But anyone who claims they are interested in the exploration of the Final Frontier must applaud this endeavor.
It has now been more than fifty years since human beings first flew to space and little more than 500 of them have been there. Talk about the ultimate elite club.
It is, uh, high time that ended and that will never happen if the government runs its space enterprise the way it has up until now: with cost-plus contracts that provide no incentive for the private sector to think about efficiencies.
NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program – or COTS – literally turns COST inside out – cutting fixed price deals with private companies to perform a specific task: fly safely to the ISS, be grappled and berthed in order to deliver cargo, and then return to earth in tact.
Supporters of this new approach to space contracting say it is tantamount to subsidizing nascent airlines in the barnstorming days by giving them contracts to fly the mail. The government didn’t tell Henry Ford how to build his Tri-Motor, but the mail those planes carried was an effective taxpayer tool to encourage a whole new industry – eventually making it possible for millions of people to board planes with as much fanfare as if they were buses – and then moan if they are five minutes late pushing back from the gate.
It would be nice if space travel could be that routine some day. And the Shuttle, a vehicle that I love and miss, was never going to get us there.
In a perfect world, we would have gotten a little farther down the commercial road while the shuttles were still flying. But remember who pulls the strings at NASA: Congress. So here we are in this dreary manned space vehicle gap.
But things started looking a little brighter in the wee hours of this morning when Falcon 9 left launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral.
There is, of course, a lot more to do in space in the next few days. The Dragon capsule must rendezvous with the ISS, fly in formation safely and then sidle up close enough to be grasped by the ISS robot arm. Tough stuff. But nothing in space is easy.
Dragon’s first close encounter with ISS will happen on Friday, May 25th – a fitting moment as it will be the 51st anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s audacious, historic speech to a joint session of Congress that set the US on its course to the moon.
“No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space,” said Kennedy, “and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
“It will not be one man going to the moon…it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.”
It is time now to pass the torch to a new generation of space explorers who will find the challenge is in making spaceflight not so expensive to accomplish. And if they succeed, maybe all of us will get to go ourselves.