Duty and Deployment

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I don’t often write about my experience or responsibilities as a member o the American Armed Forces.  I’ve chosen to focus my writing on my participation and aspirations pertaining space science and exploration.  But that isn’t the primary means of my employ and doesn’t reflect my “day-to-day” life.  As a bit of a disclaimer, I will write more about it, but for so many reasons, my opinions and observations are going to be guarded. I want to be able to share my experiences in the military but  there are systemic and personal limitations that will prevent me from being as frank as in my prose. In the mean time:

Duty

I am typing these words from a small room in a prefabricated building in a guarded compound on a military base in the Arabian desert.

In a place where almost no sound occurs naturally, I am bombarded with the din of machines, be they the struggling fans of the ever-present and overworked air conditioners or the rumble of B-52 bombers climbing away towards their targets.

Although I am a reservist, my obligation to the Air Force does require me to activate for National service when necessary.  I have periodically been called to duty to take part in the ongoing war against terror over the last decade.  I wasn’t able to deploy with my squadron that last time they were called to war (read more about that here).  When the call came again, I volunteered.

My last deployment to the Middle East was at a time when U.S. forces were withdrawing from Iraq and being repositioned to support operations in other theaters of the campaign. I served in a capacity then to plan many of those missions (and flew several myself). I was able to see much of Iraq that has since been occupied by the aspirant caliphate and fundamentalist terror group known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).  I remember specifically Mosul now the “capital” of ISIS ‘ would-be state and the objective of our Coalition’s campaign to unseat the invaders.

I flew some of the last sorties into Iraq before the Coalition force turned over facilities and air bases to the reconstructed Iraqi military.

Deployment

Today, I am back in that very same squadron serving in a different conflict in those very same countries.

Promoted and several years wiser, I now return as part of the leadership of this squadron.  For this tour, I will serve as the Assistant Director of Operations, supervising the daily flying missions of the 746th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron.  My role is no longer to fly as a crew member (to my lasting regret), but to prepare those crews and ensure the completion of their objectives.  Monitoring flight schedules, crew duty periods, ensuring coordination between various military units that will be my responsibility.  It is not a glamorous position there is no recognition and I own any errors that are made on my watch.  But after all, I’m an officer first and an aviator second.

As part of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), our task is to conduct airlift and airdrop in Iraq (or Syria) to support the Coalition forces fighting against ISIS.  Alongside sister units operating out of Kuwait, the 746th flies multiple sorties everyday to move troops and supplies where they are required.  Although based at Al Udied Air Base in the small country of Qatar, we are responsible for mission to any country in U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).

As tactical aircraft, our planes are especially equipped to handle missions in this war. The C-130H “Hercules” can carry up to 5 standard pallets of cargo or 60+ troops, or a combination of both, depending on our assigned mission.  The aircraft is also equipped with defensive systems and sensors that allow the crew to protect themselves from surface-to-air threats, like those utilized by extremists in Iraq.  Our planes are also designed to handle “short field” (as in shorter runways) than the other  transport aircraft in the war.  The C-130 is designed to be able to deliver its payload by parachute, a mission we refer to as “airdrop”.  If any of our objectives are too remote or occupied by enemy forces, our squadron is ready to fly there and release our cargo while airborne to see it delivered safely and accurately without having to land.

746th C-130H at an airbase in the Middle East, 2016

746th C-130H at an airbase in the Middle East, 2016

Our crews will also continue to support missions in Afghanistan, now under the auspices of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (OFS).  As many of the NATO partners diminish their presence, U.S. military units are bolstering the Afghan National Army (ANA) and security for critical sites.  With the presence of the Khorasan ISIS “franchise” gaining foothold in several Afghan provinces, it is critical that military aid continues to be flown there.  These are some of our more taxing sorties, as the distance the crews must fly is so great.  That distance also limits the cargo that can be carried aboard, as the fuel quantity (and therefore, weight) must be increased and compensated for. Our planes, though capable – flew at the edge of their capacity in order to complete each mission.  The performance can be diminished enough to limit the “ceiling” at which the planes can cruise.  Sometimes this means flying at only 17,000 feet, far lower than the peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains that form the landscape of war-torn Afghanistan.

Although most of our sorties in this conflict are mundane at worst, one role we play that continues to have a tangible positive outcome is Aeromedical Evacuation. “AE” missions consist of transporting medical patients from the forward bases to “hubs” from which they are flown on jet transports to surgical hospitals in Europe or the states.  Our squadron acts as a link in the chain from battlefield rescue to repatriotization and recovery.  In place of palletized cargo, the C-130 can be configured to carry litters , stacked 3 high, within the cargo compartment.  Patients are tended by nurses and critical care technicians who are specially trained to treat while flying. This has been an essential factor in the survival rates of troops wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Outside the 746th EAS- 2016

Outside the 746th EAS- 2016

My own contribution to the fight against ISIS will be insignificant.  There are so many others here right now who are accomplishing greater things to win this war.   I wish that I was in a better position to do more:  I’m not sure the current structure of this branch allows for reservists like myself to participate in more direct roles.  Despite my professional desires to be a part of the space industry and take part in the many space events that I  miss in the coming months, I could not turn away from this fight.  I only regret that I cannot accomplish more.

My relief comes from knowing I will learn from this experience and hopefully one day be able to apply it to a command of my own.  Each day I’m here I watch as young men and women step to their aircraft to engage in a particularly hazardous occupation.  The responsibility I bear is not lost on me.  When I was a new lieutenant, I was responsible for navigating my aircraft.  As a captain, I became responsible for planning and leading formations of aircraft.  Now as a major, I am responsible for a squadron of aircraft and crews while on my watch.

For the next few months, as the Coalition takes the fight to ISIS in the battle for Mosul, I will be here, behind the scenes.  My experience in this conflict is not going to be the exciting enough to warrant any lengthy journal. Given time, I may write more-  although I am the first to admit that there is little I can say that others haven’t said considerably better.  But I’m open to sharing more if readers are interested.

Flying the line over Iraq, 2016

Flying the line in OIR, 2016

 

 

Peter James Collins

RAF pilot Peter J. Collins

RAF pilot Peter J. Collins

I was distressed to learn today of the passing of a legend- prolific test pilot Peter James Collins, formerly of the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force, died this August, 2016.

Collins lived the epitome of a fast jet pilots life- fighter pilot, flight demonstration pilot, test pilot, and contract aviation consultant.  His service record was noteworthy in in its own right.  But it was his contributions to field of test flying that made him famous in the aviation community. He continued his pursuit advancing aviation through flying and writing until his unexpected death this month.

Peter Collins joined the UK’s armed forces in 1975. While serving in the Royal Air Force, Collins was assigned to a Harrier GR.3 squadron in Germany.  The Gr.3 operated in the ground attack and reconnaissance role.  The unit’s mission was to provide responsive tactical support to NATO forces against Warsaw Pact armies.

Collins and his Harrier, early 1980s

Collins and his Harrier, early 1980s

 

During his assignment in Germany, the  military Junta in Argentina directed the Argentine armed forces to invade and hold the Falkland Islands.  Collins’ tour in Deutschland was cut short and he was given orders to report to the Royal Navy for conversion to the Sea Harrier FRS.1, in time to sail aboard the carrier HMS Illustrious to the contested South Atlantic.

He flew Sea Harriers with the decorated 809NAS (Naval Air Squadron) during the UK’s operations to reclaim and hold the Falklands following Argentina’s capitulation.

Collins returned to the RAF- now as an instructor, teaching Tactics and Weapon techniques to advanced students at the RAF Tactical Weapons Unit.  This prestigious posting lead him to another- that of a pilot for the RAF’s Red Arrows flight demonstration team.  This in turn gave him the opportunity to propel his career even further- to the world of test flying.

Collins was accepted to the Empire Test Pilot School and graduated in 1989. At RAF Boscombe Down, the UK’s primary test and evaluation flight center, he had the opportunity to participate in numerous aircraft development programs.

Peter Collins chose to leave the RAF in 1993, opting for the flexibility of a civilian flight test career. He lent his experience to several major aerospace manufacturers over the last decades of his life. Some of the aircraft he contributed to were the Fokker F70 and F100, Mirage 2000, Panavia Tornado, Dassault Rafale, Dassault Falcon jet series, Pilatus PC-12 and PC-21, Aeromacchi M346, Saab Gripen, Eurofighter Typhoon, and Lockheed-Martin F-16  He eventually rose to the position of Chief Test Pilot for Raytheon UK. With that company, he was responsible for delivery of the Sentinel R.1 and Shadow UAS projects. Both of those aircraft now fly with the Royal Air Force as part of the counter-ISIS Coalition air campaign.

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Collins in a Red Arrows Hawk trainer

 

Over the course of his life, he flew over 10,000 hours in 119 different aircraft types.  In an era of diminishing budgets and risk averse contractors, that number is noteworthy.  It wasn’t just that he flew so many, it’s significant that he test flew  so many of those designs. It is unlikely that records such as his will ever be broken or matched.

Test pilot for Dassault Aviation

Test pilot for Dassault Aviation

I never had the opportunity to meet him in person.  However, he and I did converse online about our shared interests in military aviation history, flight test, and opportunities within the industry. Mr. Collins offered advice about my career in aerospace, and answered every question I posed about his own. I took to heart his mentoring, as brief as it was. He was pragmatic in his suggestions and simultaneously encouraging.  I regret that I didn’t have the foresight to be more proactive in my correspondence.  But I am thankful for the brief chance to speak with a legend.

Clear Skies, sir.

 

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(All photos were retrieved from the public domain via Mr. Collins’ personal Twitter account)

 

 

HERA X: Looking for Public Outreach support

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In my effort to share the story of human spaceflight (Including the various federal and commercial programs as well as my own endeavors), I would like to find ways to share my upcoming participation in NASA’s HERA analog study.

If you would like to follow the details of the simulated mission, the crew and I will be posting on Twitter to this account: @HERA_Crew_X

From April 19th through May 2nd, the other crew members and I will be training on the Johnson Space Center campus in Houston, Texas.  Each of us will be assigned a role on the crew.  Two of the selected participants will train as Mission Specialists, another will play the role of Flight Engineer, and one will be responsible as Mission Commander. During training, we will learn the tasks associated with our respective roles.

I will continue to post to this blog until the start of the mission study, and follow up afterward with more after the flight profile is completed.

If you have a webpage, write a blog, host a space/science/STEM social media account (or know someone who does) and would like to know more about the HERA X mission, feel free to contact me and I will do my best to answer your questions.  I would love to share this experience with a wider audience.

caseystedman@hotmail.com

 

 

HERA Crew 10 Mission Patch

HERA Crew 10 Patch (Design by Oscar Mathews)

HERA Crew 10 Patch (Design by Oscar Mathews)

As with every mission that preceded it, Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) mission 10 will have its own unique patch.  It will be worn by the 4 crew members, adorn equipment and apparel, and one day hang alongside the previous mission’s symbols on a wall at Johnson Space Center.

The patch design reflects the various aspects of the HERA campaign. This particular missions simulation is C3M2- or, “campaign three, mission two”.  Counting the total number of HERA crews that have used the analog habitat module, ours will be number ten.  Hence the big Roman numeral “X”.  The X has another significance this particular study will take place during the 50th anniversary of Gemini 10, which also used the large Roman numeral 10 in the mission patch design.

Each of the crew members names appear, as do 4 stars representing the number of crew.  Occupying the foreground is the asteroid Geographos, an actual asteroid found near Earth, one that actually crosses our planet’s orbit, and the simulated target for this mission. (Conveniently closer than the asteroids found orbiting the sun in the asteroid belt).  Earth is to the right, eclipsed behind the asteroid representing both the origin and final destination of the spaceflight. Mars is there too- always in the background, on the horizon of all NASA’s human spaceflight projects.

Finally, you can see our spacecraft or a representation of what a craft might look like if one were to attempt a human mission to a nearby asteroid.  The design we chose to use was NASA’s “Nautilus X“, a conceptual deep-space craft for beyond Earth orbit  (BEO) exploration.  Although such a vehicle is likely decades away from actually transporting astronauts anywhere, it follows the existing engineering principles necessary for such a journey.

I’m really looking forward to wearing this patch on my uniform!

I Return to (Simulated) Space

Photo Credit: Ron Garon

Photo Credit: Ron Franco

Continuing my goals of playing a role in human spaceflight, I recently applied to and was accepted as a participant in the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) campaign.

HERA is a “high-fidelity research venue for scientists to use in addressing risks and gaps associated with human performance during spaceflight.” (according to NASA’s website.) It is a project operated by NASA’s Human Research Program, or HRP, located at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Like my experience in the HI-SEAS analog (You can read my post about that HERE), I will be serving as a subject for NASA’s investigation into mitigating the risks of future space missions.  As a “stand-in” for an astronaut, I will be simulating the duties and tasks necessary to conduct a long-duration spaceflight.  Whereas in HI-SEAS the mission was one of Martian exploration, this time I will be simulating the launch and flight to a nearby asteroid.

After a several decades of learning to live and operate in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) using the Skylab, Space Shuttle, and International Space Station, NASA is beginning to plan for deep space exploration missions again.  There are a number of mission concepts and targets proposed, with all choices eventually leading up to human landings on the planet Mars.  But before a rocket carrying astronauts can reach the red planet a number of milestones need to met.

Graphic courtesy of NASA

Graphic courtesy of NASA

One of the precursor missions being developed is rendezvous and exploration of an asteroid.  Either by direct observation and sampling, or retrieval and sampling from a safer lunar orbit, it promises to be one of the most ambitious human spaceflight missions ever undertaken.  Such a mission would provide NASA an operational test of the techniques and technologies required for the much riskier Martian exploration flights, just as Gemini preceded the Apollo Lunar missions.  (For more about the proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission, check out NASA’s page)

The HERA study profile will be that of a human spaceflight mission from launch to recovery, featuring a rendezvous and virtual EVAs to collect samples from the target asteroid.  To do this, myself and three other crew members will train for and conduct a 30 day simulation.  This will provide the HRP researchers with an opportunity to record and evaluate our ability to complete all of the duties required of astronauts during that period.

Astronauts collecting samples from an asteroid Credit: NASA

Astronauts collecting samples from an asteroid
Credit: NASA

Similar to HI-SEAS, I will be the subject of a multitude of human factors experiments.  Participating institutions will incorporate ways to evaluate our physical and mental health, our cognitive skills, problem solving, time management, nutritional balance, and team building.  Feedback from surveys (and video cameras placed throughout the HERA hab structure) will be the primary methods of collecting the data from the crew/subjects.

The HERA project us centered around a versatile habitat module structure that has been used in several NASA programs.   Initially devised as an engineering test article, the 3 story structure was known as the “Deep Space Habitat” or DSH.  As a generic design not specific to any particular mission, it has been used as a static and mobile research platform.  In 2011, the whole unit was trucked to Arizona and assembled to take part in the Desert RATS (Desert Research and Technology Studies) analog.  Today the DSH serves as the core module of the HERA project and is located on the campus of Johnson Space Center.

HERA DSH Module (NASA)

HERA DSH Module (NASA)

As you can see in the diagram above, it is not a large living space. The interior is designed to reflect the cylindrical shape of space structures launched from Earth (as each component of ISS was).  It features a laboratory, storage, crew quarters, galley, and fitness equipment.  Attached to the main DSH are hygiene and airlock modules. Windows are replaced with video screens that will play vistas appropriate for each phase of the mission profile. (The depiction above doesn’t show the 2nd or 3rd stories, in what is known as the “Badger X-ploration Loft). Like a real spacecraft, there is no unnecessary space.  Astronauts are creative with small living spaces, and I suppose I will learning to cope soon too.

My return to (simulated) space is just a month away.  I will post more about my experience here, so check back for updates. During the study however, I will be not be able to access social media, so you’ll need to be patient. There will also be restrictions as to what I can share because of the nature of the study, but I will do my best to answer any questions that you have. Thank you for following along on my journey!

For more information about HERA and NASA’s other analog research projects, follow this link: http://www.nasa.gov/hrp/research/analogs/hera

 

Commercial Spaceflight Training: A New Series!

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I’d like to share with you my journey.  It’s the physical manifestation of my aspirations.  I’m going to document my progress as I complete milestones on the path of commercial spaceflight training.

(I will post my disclaimer now: I will in no way refer to myself as an astronaut, nor an astronaut candidate, nor make any assumptions or predictions concerning my competitiveness to ever be selected for a flight.)

What I will do is share my experience as I work through the various practical aspects of spaceflight training.  Each post in this series will focus on a specific skill or event required for human spaceflight.  From flight training to microgravity simulation, I will document my accomplishments and discuss how they pertain to preparing an astronaut for space.

My goal is to inform and entertain.  And maybe, if I do this well, I will be lucky enough to inspire someone too.  I will make no arguments suggesting commercial astronautics is superior or inferior to federal programs, nor extol one spacecraft manufacturer over another.  I will, however, be an advocate for the potential of commercial spaceflight.  This series will focus on the commercial space industry, not NASA. That is not to say I won’t reference NASA’s astronaut training – how could I not?  Expect though that my posts will discuss training specifically addressing commercial suborbital and orbital projects.

Please follow along and share this at your leisure.  I will post to this series on a semi-regular basis, or as often as I have the opportunity to complete another milestone.  I do this not because it is easy, but because it is hard – to keep a schedule!

Casey Stedman, Fairview Heights, Illinois – February 23rd, 2016

Top 10 Space Events to look forward to in 2016

 

The new year, like the last, has the potential to be an amazing one for space exploration and space technology development.  2015 saw tremendous strides, as well as setbacks.  2016 is poised for similar successes, should the various entities plans go unhampered.

Already, some important developments have been made that impact the future of spaceflight.  NASA selected contractors for the second round of Commercial Re-Supply (CRS) missions to the International Space Station (ISS) on January 14th.  With contracts to support flight operations aboard the orbital space platform until 2024, SpaceX,  Orbital ATK, and Sierra Nevada Space Systems have been selected to demonstrate the ability to resupply ISS using commercially developed space vehicles. (Click here for more)

On a negative note, the development of the pending Mars science mission InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) has been delayed indefinitely following discovery of issues to the primary instrument.  InSight was originally to be launched in March of 2016, and then postponed until 2018, doubt have been expressed that that spacecraft may not be ready before that launch window either. (For more information, go to the JPL mission site here)

My top ten list that follows is only a sample of the various events and possibilities that may happen in 2016.  I won’t be including annual events such as conferences or awards, nor will I speculate on the unveiling of designs that companies have not yet scheduled.  I chose not to include astronomical events as the lists for those are widely available and for any matter are natural events, un-impacted by human actions.

But I preface this again- this is *MY* Top ten list.  These are the events that excite me the most, not necessarily what everyone is interested in. But feel free to discuss!

10.  SpaceShipTwo Redux (Virgin Galactic)

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Undeterred venture spaceflight company Virgin Galactic will receive the second SpaceShipTwo vehicle from partner manufacturing firm The Spaceship Company, on or about February 19th.  The new craft incorporates the changes recommended by the NTSB findings following the October 31st 2014 accident of the first SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle. Professor Stephen Hawking, famed author and physicist, will be present for the unveiling and has been asked to confer a name upon the finished aerospace craft.

9.  Juno space probe reaches Jupiter  (NASA/JPL/SwRI)

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Launched August 5th, 2011, Juno is planned to reach Jovian polar orbit July 5th. The spacecraft is has been designed and configured with a sensor suite to investigate the chemical composition of Jupiter’s atmosphere, structure of the planet’s magnetic field, gravitational variations, and polar phenomena. This will be the first spacecraft specifically designed to investigate Jupiter since the Galileo probe entered the Jovian atmosphere at the completion of  it’s mission in 1995.

8.  The Nexo Launch (Copenhagen Suborbitals)

Copyright Copenhagen Suborbitals

Copyright Copenhagen Suborbitals

Crowd-funded start-up Copenhagen Suborbitals has made steady progress since the company was started in 2008.  The Nexo rocket was scheduled for initial flight tests in 2015, but tests of  the motor forced the CS team to delay a launch attempt. Nexo stands 5.6 meters high and will be the first liquid-fueled design the company has produced.  It an incremental phase of the company’s plans to launch a human occupant on a suborbital trajectory. (The program website is here)

7.  EXO Mars Part 1 (ESA/Roscosmos)

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Exo Mars is a joint scientific mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia, represented by the state-controlled Roscosmos space agency. Designed to investigate potential signs of life, the mission will consist of multiple spacecraft working in concert.  The first element to launch will be the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) which will carry an Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) called ‘Schiaparelli’.  The TGO is scheduled to launch from Baikonur in Kazakhstan on March 14th.

6.  Stratolaunch Unveiling (Vulcan Aerospace)

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This may be a stretch- there is not much to indicate, as the company has proposed, that a test flight of the massive “Roc” carrier aircraft will fly in 2016.  However, with vehicle construction underway in Mojave, California, we may see the craft unveiled later this year.  Not unlike the WhiteKnight series carrier aircraft flown by Virgin Galactic, the Stratolaunch airplane is planned to air-launch payloads of the mass similar to traditional rockets.  It will be the largest aircraft ever flown.

5. Tiangong-2 (Peoples Republic of China)

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The slow but steady progress of the Chinese space program is a little understood and controversial topic. China is poised to launch the second space laboratory sometime this year, according to announcements made by Beijing.  The first Tiangong was launched in 2011, and served as a demonstration of the technologies necessary to maintain a multi-module station not unlike the Soviet Salyut stations. Tiangong-2 will likely be capable of receiving automated cargo resupply craft that are currently being developed. The Chinese program is methodical, and continues to succeed in every endeavor they attempt. If slowly.

4. OSIRIS-REx joins the space probe fleet (NASA/UALPL)

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The Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer mission is set launch in September 2016.  It’s not so much the launch date that is interesting, but the return date (!) OSIRIS-REx is to rendezvous with asteroid 101955 Bennu in 2019, and return a sample to earth in 2023.  This isn’t the first spacecraft to rendezvous with an asteroid, nor is it the first to attempt the goal of returning a sample from one. This mission has the advantage of incorporating the lessons learned from the ESA and JAXA asteroid study spacecraft that came before it.   It could serve as a precursor to a future mission using similar architecture to collect and return samples from the moons of Mars.

3.  Falcon Heavy (SpaceX)

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Although there are commercial spaceflight companies that I follow more closely than SpaceX, the presence of another American Heavy Launch Vehicle (HLV) has the potential to significantly drive down the costs of “pound to orbit” prices.  Presently, entities looking to launch massive payloads are limited to government subsidized launch services. A commercial contender to the market could change the accessibility to space by driving down costs. SpaceX has announced that they intend to conduct a test launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket this spring.

2.  BEAM installation (Bigelow Aerospace)

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Although this particular event has the least immediate impact on space technology or exploration progress, I’m extremely interested in it as it represents a potential for great things to come.  Bigelow Aerospace is to launch a technology demonstrator known as BEAM to ISS this March. BEAM stands for Bigelow Expandable Activity Module- it’s a cylindrical workspace constructed of flexible material that inflates into shape under positive pressure.  Bigelow has tested similar structures on uninhabited, scale mock-ups of expandable space habitats in orbit.  This will be the first test in cooperation with NASA.  (BEAM site link)

1.  XCOR Lynx flight tests (XCOR Aerospace)

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Of all the possible events that may yet still take place in 2016, the flight test of XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx Mark I is the one I’m looking forward to the most.  XCOR is constructing the prototype of their internally designed suborbital spacecraft and has announced their intent to test fly it sometime this year. The date has not been firmly established, and has been pushed “to the right” as development  progressed slower than expected.  Pending the success of the test program, the company hopes to build an operational variant of the craft (mark II) and begin commercial flights carrying space tourists and scientific research payloads in the near future.

 

NASA Astronaut Application: Goals, Expectations, and Reality

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This last Monday, December 14th 2015, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA, began accepting applications for the Astronaut Corps. The link can be found HERE

Unlike the period in which NASA operated the space shuttle and the U.S. government regularly recruited new astronauts, the post shuttle period has seen a diminished requirement for new applicants and flyable candidates.  The most recent opportunity to apply to be an astronaut was announced in 2011, and in 2013, just 8 individuals were chosen from a pool of 6,372 applicants.

My interest in spaceflight began early- But I I’m not going to rehash a story so many others have stated before. Instead, I will say that I had many other interests too, some of which were more achievable in the near-term, which ultimately became the path I followed.

It is interesting to have become involved enough in space community to know more than a few highly competitive individuals who will be submitting application to NASA this round. One those who applied in 2011 and made it to the interview portion of the process was Brian Shiro, a geophysicist working for NOAA. (read his blog here) He has written several posts documenting his experience, as well as recent article in Forbes about the recent call for applications.

In his article, Shiro states a list of observations about he NASA astronaut selection process. Number two on the list is “set realistic expectations”.  We all have a plan for ourselves, a series of accomplishments we hope to achieve in our lifetimes. We set these expectations – and if we’re focused enough, we can achieve them.  I’ve always held myself to a high standard, competitively focused and dedicated to my goals. But along the way, life happens, and managing my expectations has been an often bitter aftertaste to the reality of events.

Unfortunately, I made a choice in my past to expedite my undergraduate education and received my BA before heading to flight school with the Air Force. That degree, a Bachelor of Arts in Geography, provided me with a background in cartography, culture, and geopolitical affairs that has aided me every day as an officer in the Armed Forces.  I made a decision then to ensure I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to fly as a military aviator. Unfortunately, the degree I earned is not one sought by NASA for applicants to the Astronaut Corps.

While I’m disappointed, I understand the limitations indicated in the application. I do wish there was a recourse- some allowance for comparable experience or skillset. But that is not the case.

Rather than see this as the end of a dream, I choose to see this as the affirming of my belief in the emerging commercial spaceflight opportunities.

For anyone who knows me well or follows this blog, you know that not only am I an advocate for the commercial spaceflight industry, but that I have been working diligently to prepare myself to work in that sector.  From my graduate studies to my flying experience and more recently practical training courses, I am attempting to build a foundation of applicable achievements that can be utilized in commercial spaceflight.

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While it is true that any market for commercial astronauts is still in the future, and that any such men and women won’t be part of NASA’s missions to Mars, the cornerstone of that industry is being made possible today.  From CubeSats to commercial space stations, new space enterprises other than those operated by federal institutions are being launched all the time.  NASA may soon become just one of many pathways to becoming an astronaut.

That is not to say the commercial path will be easier- the existing commercial spaceflight companies have had their pick of former NASA astronauts who’ve left the agency in recent years, following the retirement of the space shuttle. These men and women will set a high standard for the potential applicants that follow.  NASA’s astronaut corps is still a rather small collection of individuals, however, and it can’t sustain an emerging industry alone. Even pessimistic assumptions imply that these new space companies will need to employ more commercial payload specialists and pilots than are currently working for America’s space agency.

Despite the limitations of my education to date, I’ve sought opportunities to demonstrate my talents to commercial spaceflight industry wherever I can.  From analog simulations to training as a candidate for suborbital payload operation, I look for ways to add new skills and increase my knowledge in the subjects sought by NASA for the astronaut corps. I read informative books and papers on a wide spectrum of subjects related to aerospace and astronautics. When my schedule allows, I attend conferences and summits in order to meet with and network professionals in the industry. And I write about my experiences in order to help others learn about these opportunities as well.  Every decision I make is one to better myself, and better my chance at being selected to take part in future spaceflight projects.

I won’t be submitting an application to be astronaut with NASA this round. Maybe sometime in the future, my accumulated education and experience will meet the requirements laid out by the space agency. For now, I will continue to improve myself and work toward helping to a build a future where there is more than one pathway to the stars.

The author free-floating on a parabolic flight to test a commercial spacesuit design, 2015

The author free-floating on a parabolic flight to test a commercial spacesuit design, 2015