We Saw a Soyuz

After the serious content of my recent posts, it seems a bit out of step to write about this. But day to day life goes on, so I wanted to report an enjoyable experience from this morning.

ISS photoSince we had our first sighting of the International Space Station (ISS), Gloria and I have followed up every opportunity to see it when it passes over our town.
I registered with NASA’s Spot the Station so I would receive email advices of when it could be seen.

Recently I found that the Spot the Station page lists a lot of potential sightings that don’t lead to email notification. The emails only alert the recipient to the best opportunities to see the Station, those of longer duration, when it passes almost directly overhead.

For the past few weeks we’ve been noting the lesser sightings and have seen ISS more often than we expected. Sometimes those fainter, more distant views can be more rewarding as its not so easy to spot.

Last night I received an email forecasting one of the better sightings, however the ISS is now in part of its orbit cycle that brings it overhead very early in the morning, so we’ve not been following its progress in recent days, choosing sleep over sightings.

This morning we chose to lose sleep.
There was the possibility of something special.


Expedition 61 mission patch.

Around midnight our time, a crew of three launched from Baikonur, Kazakhstan heading for the ISS, where it would dock around five hours later. That would be more or less the time the ISS would pass over our place.
Would we be able to see anything of the much smaller Soyuz capsule as it approached the Station?

The Spot the Station site indicated that the Soyuz ought to be visible if conditions were right – with the very same location and time details as the ISS, so clearly it would be close to the Station.

At 5.14 am the ISS appeared quite brightly in the North Western sky, coming towards us. For the first time I’d decided to take our binoculars, but they weren’t easy to use to watch a small moving target.
Gloria had a lot of trouble and couldn’t even find the station through the lenses.

ms 15.png

Soyuz approach as seen from ISS

With the naked eye, all I could see was the brightness of the ISS, but as it passed almost directly overhead I tried the binoculars again. And travelling along just in front of it was a small but distinct light: the Soyuz capsule on its docking approach.

I was very happy when Gloria took the binoculars and despite her earlier failure, was also able to find the Station and its tiny companion.

exp 61.jpg

Crew of Soyuz, launched today.
Hazza Al Mansouri (UAE), Oleg Skripochka (Russia), Jessica Meir (USA)

There IS life beyond earth

Further to my post Life Beyond Earth found here:


In which I ask:

Can it be guaranteed that on all of that space-borne equipment not a single element of biological contamination has taken place? That every mission sent from various nations hasn’t transported a viable population of bacteria to the planets that were being explored?

No it can’t be guaranteed.

That last sentence is further confirmed by the following.

Tardigrades may have survived spacecraft crashing on moon
Scientists believe the Beresheet’s unusual cargo may be alive and well on the moon.


What else has the space program left on the moon dating back to Apollo days?

Beyond the crashed, the ditched and the broken down are pieces of equipment and personal effects that astronauts left behind. The least charming are 96 bags for poo, urine and vomit…


CRS-18, resupply mission launch.

This is the launch of SpaceX’s eighteenth Commercial Resupply Services mission (CRS-18) to the ISS.

I start the coverage just under two minutes prior to launch, bypassing a lot of the preamble.
SpaceX always have impressive coverage, with an abundance of cameras and good commentary describing what is happening.

The recovery of the spent rocket stages is always a spectacular part of the launch process, as they are brought back to land with precision, either at landing site on land, or at sea on a drone ship named “Of Course I Still Love You”.

This time there is only a single stage returning. Other launches I’ve seen have had up to three.

SpaceX is clearly an enthusiastic workplace, as can be heard from the response of its staff at each stage of the journey.

Charlie Duke, moonwalker.

Charlie Duke was the NASA Capcom during the Apollo 11 landing. The Capcom (capsule communicator) is the sole contact between NASA mission control and the mission crew in space.

Only seconds away from depleting their fuel, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin advised they had landed the Lunar Module on the moon’s surface, and Duke acknowledged the achievement:

“Roger, Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot!”

Almost three years later, Charlie Duke also landed on the moon as part of the Apollo 16 mission, becoming the 10th man to step onto the moon’s surface.


Charlie Duke’s biography.


50 Years Ago Today

Fifty year’s ago, one of those “where were you when” events took place.

That is, one of those defining events that sticks in the minds of those old enough to be aware of them when they happened.

I can immediately think of three other events of my life time that I can put into that category.
I can recall where and when I first heard of the following:

1) The assassination of Robert Kennedy (I was too young to be aware of JFK)
2) The Challenger space shuttle disaster
3) Sept 11 2001

Using those events as examples, it seems that tragedy often lingers in the memory more than things of a more positive nature.
However 20th July 1969 stands out as one of those rare, non-tragic days to remember. It was when men first landed and stepped onto the surface of the moon.

I lived in England. It was a weekend during the summer and my dad had been playing cricket. Every weekend the family would accompany him to watch him play, and afterwards to the post game drinks enjoyed by the competing teams.

That particular time was a home game, and afterwards everyone adjourned to the local Catholic Club.
Because of the historic event, the club provided a television broadcasting the progress of the final parts of Apollo 11’s journey to the moon.
Everyone sat around the screen until it was broadcast, via white text on a black background: “Eagle Has landed”. I recall no film of the landing, just those words.

And then everyone went back to their business; the adults drinking and chatting, and the children, playing, or otherwise amusing themselves.

I don’t recall seeing any more of the that moon-landing, or the moon walk until years later. The latter must have happened during the middle of the English night, so it would have been missed at the time by me as an eleven year old.

A year or two later, at a more reasonable broadcast time, my school class was taken to the school assembly hall to watch another moonwalk, as it happened, on TV.

Having grown up around the time of the race to the moon, and being a month or two older than NASA, I’ve always had an interest in the space program and for some time now I’ve collected mission patches. These two are significant today.

apollo 11

Designed by crew member Michael Collins, the mission insignia includes the bald eagle, the national bird of the United States, with an olive branch in its talons representing their peaceful mission.

Initially placed in the beak, the branch was moved to soften the aggressive impression of the bird’s talons.
The insignia also includes a lunar foreground with the Earth in the distance. Portraying the view from the mission’s destination.
Unlike other mission insignia, it excludes the crew names, to make it more representative of everyone who had worked on the mission, and not only the three crew.

50 years later to the day, another space mission is scheduled to begin. The 60th expedition to the International Space Station.

To commemorate the timing link between the two missions, The expedition 60 insignia was designed to reflect the achievement half a century ago. The position of the moon and the earth in the design have been switched to reflect  the relative locations of the missions (the ISS being in earth orbit with a distant moon).

exp 60.jpgA constellation of three stars with the Moon superimposed forms the letter “L,” the Latin symbol for 50. The Moon is depicted as a waxing crescent, as it was on July 20, 1969.
The yellow silhouette of the International Space Station is visible, flying across the night sky.

Stars form the shape of an eagle in the same pose as on the iconic patch of the Apollo 11 mission. The sunrise represents the fact that we are still in the early stages of humanity’s exploration of space.

The hexagonal shape of the patch represents the main viewing window in the space station’s cupola, with the six points of the hexagon also symbolizing the six crewmembers of Expedition 60. The names and nationalities are not present, as on the original Apollo 11 mission patch, to highlight that space missions – then, now, and in the future – are for Earth and all humankind.

(Exp 60 description adapted from text here)

While there was some distance between myself and the Apollo 11 landing, brought only a little closer via very limited TV coverage, I feel a slightly closer link to the ISS missions, as mentioned in previous posts, frequently being able to watch the station pass over head when conditions are right.

When we look back over the past 50 years, its easy to see some amazing technological advances, and yet, when it comes to the space program I have to ask whether it reflects that same rate of technological advance.

Of course, it could be pointed out that today’s astronauts have far greater computer power than those of the Apollo era could have dreamt of. It has been noted that Apollo era spacecraft had less computer power than today’s phones. I recall reading somewhere that my very first computer, in the early 90s (a commodore 64) had more memory.

Surely with those improvements more could have been achieved than being limited to close earth orbit? And yet, since the return of Apollo 17 at the end of 1972, that has been the limit of all manned missions. It’s nothing like the speculated rapid progression to Mars that was anticipated after the success of Apollo.

Why hasn’t the same kind of progress been made in space travel as we’ve seen in other areas of mankind’s technological achievements?

Surely it can’t be entirely due to a lack of political will, considering a series of  Presidential administrations have announced intentions to return to the moon.

It’s clearly not because technology is lacking. In most other fields, the successes of Apollo would have been continued and advanced.

My own suspicions don’t look to technology or politics for the answer. Ultimately the boundaries of our achievements aren’t set by human ability and ambition, but by the God who created both mankind and those places away from earth that we might wish to explore.


Moon landing:

20:17 UTC 20 July 1969

06:17 AEST 21 July 1969


Christian Astronaut Jeff Williams

The sound quality of the ISS portion of the first video below isn’t always the best – but consider that the signal has to travel via satellites positioned 22,300 miles above the earth.

The ISS itself is only 250 miles above us, so the video/audio signal has a long round trip between the earth, the satellites to the ISS and back again.

The sad state of some people’s belief systems is reflected in the comments following the video on the YouTube site, where flat earthers deny the reality of space travel, because the testimony of astronauts and the space program would show their flat earth beliefs are false. Even more disturbing is that many who believe that laughable lie are professing Christians who claim their belief is established upon scripture.
Their ridiculous commentary is also seen across most of NASA’s twitter accounts.

See William’s twitter account for examples of his photography.

Below are the NASA patches from Williams’ most recent mission, expeditions 47/48, in which fellow ISS crewmates included British astronaut Tim Peake and current ISS commander (as of July 2019) Aleksey Ovchinin.


Political Push: Back to the Moon

As someone who grew up during the height of the 1960s “space race”, I’m excited by the thought of a return to the moon. In particular the plan for the first woman to set foot on the lunar surface. The woman who will get the honour will be among NASA’s dozen or so currently active female astronauts, so to a degree I can say that she won’t be unknown to me.  .

My excitement about a proposed return to the moon is significantly tempered by some reservations. I’m not surprised that some of those concerns have also been expressed by someone with far more understanding and knowledge of the matter than myself.

Australian astronaut warns of future risk of deaths in space race

Andy Thomas, Australia’s most accomplished astronaut, who is in the country from the US to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, has expressed severe concerns about the new international space race.

Dr Thomas, the first Australian to walk in space and who lived on the Mir space station for five months, says politics is driving the US to have men back on the moon by 2024, which risks a repeat of past spectacular tragedies.

“The very big risk that I see NASA is facing is that it is under incredible pressure from the administration, the White House, to bring the human return to the moon way earlier than perhaps the engineering should demand,” he said.

“The 2024 date is driven by politics, not by the engineering and that’s a very dangerous thing to do because you can’t change engineering to suit politics. You can change politics to suit engineering.

“We run the risk of killing further astronauts if we have unrealistic schedule pressure”.

I think the following political rhetoric shows that Thomas’s concerns aren’t without foundation.

US Vice-President Mike Pence in March this year said if NASA couldn’t put astronauts on the moon by 2024, “we need to change the organisation, not the mission”.


Mike Pence’s message in that video is clear. A space program that for years has been International in nature, with co-operation between many countries associated with the International Space Station – that for a decade has relied entirely on Russian transport of astronauts between earth and the ISS, and participants from Europe, Canada, Japan, Russia as well as the USA, is soon to be cast aside for American glory.

Just as the United States was first to reach the moon in the 20th Century, so too will we be the first nation to return astronauts to the moon in the 21st Century.

It is the policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years.

Let me be clear. The first woman and next man on the moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets from American soil

Such nationalistic, backward thinking, cold war era jingoism can only be detrimental to a space program that for the past decade has NEEDED international co-operation. Since the end of the shuttle program, the US has been incapable of putting its own astronauts into space and had to rely on Russian help to do it.

The rush to the moon, presented with clear nationalistic ambition has the potential to end the American manned space program. Such an outcome is potentially only one tragedy away, particularly with super-hyped expectations being raised, mainly for political rather than scientific or technological reasons.

This fast-tracked moon landing program now becomes the priority, bypassing the previous plan for the Gateway,  a type of lunar space station (see illustration below), with international input and co-operation, from which possible future moon landings could be conducted in a more practical and sustainable way.

It seems instead that a risk-laden rush is now being conducted in the hope of achieving an historic moon landing within a possible (probable?) second term Trump presidency.




Bringing Columbia Home

A follow-on from my post about Rick Husband.

The aftermath of the Columbia tragedy.

Bringing Columbia Home by Michael D. Leinbach and Jonathan H. Ward

“My fellow Americans, this day has brought terrible news and sadness to our country. At nine a.m., Mission Control in Houston lost contact with our space shuttle Columbia. A short time later, debris was seen falling from the skies above Texas…

“The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors.”

[President George W. Bush 2.04pm, Feb 1, 2003]


Bringing Columbia Home tells the difficult story of a tragic milestone of the American space program, the loss of a second space shuttle and its crew.
The scale of the disaster and the challenges that followed are recounted with candour by the authors.

I have clear memories of the loss of the first shuttle, Challenger.

With an early start at work, I switched on the radio to listen to the news while I ate breakfast.

It was all about the Challenger.

What isn’t so clear in my memory is whether I then turned on the TV. I suspect I did, but can’t say for sure. Footage of the shuttle’s destruction was repeated so often afterwards, that I can’t remember when I first saw it.

Something I do remember thinking, was despite the Challenger’s fate, I’d willingly join a shuttle crew even if it was leaving the day after the Challenger’s disastrous launch. But maybe such attitudes are easy for an Australian with no real chance of putting that willingness to the test.

columbia disasterColumbia was different. I know I heard about it, but for some reason I can’t remember the details of when and how.

Maybe because it wasn’t so public and sudden. It wasn’t seen live by millions around the world.

The realisation of what happened was gradual, building up over time as disparate facts came together to confirm the worst.

A loss of contact. Empty skies over a Florida runway. A landing strip countdown clock now counting up.

Reports of countless sonic booms over Texas. Suspected plane crash, gas pipeline rupture, train derailment, earthquake – all proposed as explanations for what was experienced on the ground.

And the rain of debris falling across multiple states.

Michael Leinbach was launch director at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida and supervised the launch of Columbia on January 16, 2003. He was also present for the expected return, waiting for the first sight of the returning shuttle prior to landing. The return that didn’t happen.

He then became part of the massive recovery mission when reports of the shuttle’s destruction were confirmed by the discovery of its wreckage throughout a long, wide debris trail.

In Bringing Columbia Home, with co-author Jonathan Ward, he gives his account of the recovery operation: first priority retrieving the crew, then securing as much wreckage as possible to look for the cause of the shuttle loss.

The logistics of the exercise were unimaginable: coordinating thousands of personnel from numerous Government departments, supplemented by countless volunteers, and organising for them to be housed, fed and transported.

As a side issue of the story, one thing that stood out to me was the scale of American bureaucracy, with countless different law enforcement and emergency response organisations – but to their credit potential rivalries between groups were cast aside to get on with the difficult job.

The work of those searching came with a cost beyond the time they committed. The difficult conditions led to the crash of a helicopter and the death of two if its crew.

After weeks of collecting wreckage, came the task of sorting through what had been found, as far as possible reconstructing and examining the parts in a Kennedy Space Centre warehouse, trying to see what had caused the shuttle’s failure.

Most of the initial damage was on the leading edge of the left wing. That evidence confirmed suspicions that the integrity of the heat shielding had been compromised by an impact with insulating foam that had broken away from the main fuel tank not long after launch.

Subsequent testing showed the unexpected force of such a collision with a lightweight substance. Foam pieces fired at a spare shuttle wing surprisingly blasted a significant hole in its protective layer.

Despite the tragic nature of the story, the retrieval, reconstruction and examination of Columbia also had it’s poignant (and even humorous moments). Among the wreckage delivered to the KSC warehouse was a plush toy dinosaur, assumed to be a personal item taken on board by a crew member. However it was determined that no one had taken it on board, and the toy had nothing to do with the Columbia or its crew. Staff at the warehouse adopted the toy as a mascot and one of the astronauts on the team took it with her on a later space shuttle mission.

The Columbia accident, with the loss of its seven crew members and the two searchers, was a profound tragedy, but many people felt that divine intervention prevented things from being worse than they were.

Had Columbia disintegrated two or three minutes earlier, much of its debris would have fallen on Dallas and its suburbs, causing untold damage. A breakup a few seconds later would have sent some of the crew members’ remains into Toledo Bend Reservoir or the Gulf of Mexico, from which they would likely never have been recovered. (p 288)

The human face of the Columbia crew lost on re-entry.

Everyone agrees on two remarkable facts: The Columbia recovery was the largest ground search effort in American history: and it was also one with no internal strife, bickering or inter-agency squabbles. Everone involved had a single goal and worked collectively to achieve it – to bring Columbia and her crew home. (p 289)

See the authors’ blog at https://bringingcolumbiahome.wordpress.com/

STS107 Crew

STS-107 crewmembers included, from left, mission specialist David Brown, commander Rick D. Husband, mission specialist Laurel Blair Sutton Clark, mission specialist Kalpona Chawla, mission specialist Michael P. Anderson, pilot William C. McCool and payload specialist Ilan Ramon. (NASA Photo)