Night Owl Launch Watch
Boeing Starliner to Reach ISS During Uncrewed Test
On May 19, Boeing’s new human spacecraft, Starliner, is scheduled to launch. The plan is for this uncrewed rocket to reach the International Space Station (ISS) on its second orbital flight test, OFT-2. A Starliner capsule was launched in December 2019 but suffered software anomalies which affected the way the flight computers kept track of the Mission Elapsed Time, causing the spacecraft to miss its opportunity to reach the ISS. Boeing engineers resolved the issue, and attempted again to launch another Starliner in July 2021, when a series of unfortunate events including temporary issues with the new Russian Nauka module arriving at the ISS, bad weather at the launch site in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and several propellant valves on Starliner’s service module malfunctioning, caused the Boeing and United Launch Alliance teams to roll the spacecraft and its Atlas V rocket back from the pad and disassemble the vehicle.
In the meantime, NASA has awarded more Commercial Crew contracts to SpaceX and their operational Dragon spacecraft for transporting NASA crews to the Station while Starliner is still in the testing phase. The Atlas V rocket originally planned for OFT-2 was subsequently used to launch another spacecraft, the Lucy Trojan asteroid mission, in October.
With Starliner’s service module issues resolved, and a free time period and open docking port at the ISS available, the NASA, Boeing, and ULA teams are going to attempt once more to send the spacecraft to the Station where it will test all of its systems and procedures, simulating a crew transportation mission. It will remain at the station for about a week before undocking and returning to Earth to land under parachutes at the White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico. If OFT-2 is successful, Boeing hoopes to launch their Crewed Test Flight with 3 astronauts to the ISS later this year.
Total Lunar Eclipse - May 16
On the night of May 16, we will be able to witness a Total Lunar Eclipse. The Moon will pass completely within Earth’s shadow, creating the illusion that the Moon is disappearing. This eclipse will be visible across most of the Americas, and eastern parts of Europe and Africa. The total eclipse will last about 1 hour 15 minutes, while the partial eclipse, when only part of the Moon is shadowed, will last about 5 hours 15 minutes. It will reach its maximum around midnight to 1:00 AM Eastern Time.
The Tale of Two Super-Heavies, Starship and SLS Prepare for First Launches
The first launch of SLS and first flight of Orion to the Moon on an uncrewed test flight for NASA’s Artemis Program has been delayed from late 2021 due to an RS-25 engine controller issue. The whole launch vehicle was stacked and underwent final checks in the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) in Cape Canaveral, FL, before rolling out of the building atop the crawler transporter, rolled down the crawlerway to Launch Complex 39 B, and underwent a series of final tests called the wet dress rehearsal, which simulates all the necessary steps for a countdown to launch, and stops just prior to engine ignition. Once certified after the wet dress rehearsal, the rocket will be rolled back to the VAB for final checks, and then rolled again to the pad for launch, when it will send the first Orion spacecraft to the Moon for the Artemis I mission, after which it will return to Earth and splashdown off the coast of San Diego, CA.
Meanwhile, the SpaceX Starship-SuperHeavy program is doing final tests, static fires, and teams are practicing the stacking operations using the lift arms on the launch tower and landing catch assembly, which have been constructed at the Starbase launch site in Boca Chica, Texas. Slipping to a NET (No Earlier Than) May launch attempt, Booster 4 and Ship 20 are now going to be used for testing on the ground and then retired, with Ship 24 and Booster 7 becoming the next ones set to launch. (Boosters 5-6 and Ships 21-23 were only used for ground tests and are retired.) For this first orbital test flight, the booster will splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico, while Starship will attempt reaching orbit and then reentering the atmosphere over the western Pacific and performing a skydive maneuver to soft splashdown off the coast of Hawaii. Starship is also relevant to the Artemis Program, as Moonship, a Lunar landing variant, has been contracted by NASA for use as a Human Landing System (HLS), scheduled to perform a demonstration flight in 2023 and the human lander for Artemis 3 in late 2024.
These rockets will be the first in the super-heavy launch vehicle class since the US Saturn V used in the Apollo Program, and the Soviet N1 and Energia rockets, neither of which achieved full operational status. Both of these major missions are expected to launch in May from Florida and Texas, respectively.
Rocket Lab Launching NASA’s CAPSTONE Mission to Test Orbit for Future Lunar Gateway Station
On 3 May, a Rocket Lab Electron-Photon rocket will launch from the company’s spaceport on Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand, carrying the small CAPSTONE spacecraft for NASA to an elliptical polar orbit around the Moon, the same orbit that will be used by the future Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G) Station for the Artemis Program. This technology demonstration mission will test all the aspects of maintaining a spacecraft in this orbit, including orbital stability and maintaining constant communications with Earth, as a spacecraft in this orbit will not be blocked by the Moon as was the case during the Apollo missions, which will be critically important for the future station.
CAPSTONE, short for “Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment”, was built by the company Advanced Space, and was contracted to the New Zealand-founded, California-based company Rocket Lab in 2019, and originally planned to launch in 2021 from their new Launch Complex 2, built in 2019 to support Electron rocket launches from the US at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virgina, but was delayed due to certification issues by the FAA over the rocket’s automatic flight termination system. The launch was instead pushed to early 2022 and will launch from Rocket Lab’s original launch site, Launch Complex 1A, in New Zealand. The company still plans to get fully certified and launch from Wallops in the near future with Electron, and later this decade with their larger rocket called Neutron.
After the orbital dynamics of this mission have proven the use of a spacecraft in this particular Lunar orbit, the first modules of the LOP-G station are planned to launch around 2024-2025, and will first be visited by the crew of the Artemis 4 mission in 2025. LOP-G is planned to be operated similarly to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit, as an outpost and science research facility, with crews regularly being rotated between the station, Earth, and Moon, in order to maintain a permanent human presence in deep space.
Previous & Upcoming Launches
Launch schedule information provided by NextSpaceflight.com. All dates/times in ET & 24h format. All launches subject to change or delay. If no time yet specified, NET = No Earlier Than. Launch Vehicle size class shown by color, from cyan (suborbital) to red (super-heavy). Missions carrying humans shown in bold, with asterisks* representing # of passengers. New launch vehicles name’s shown in bold italics for their first launch or successful launch attempt. For any questions and comments, please direct them to writer Christian Bradley Hubbs firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website fairbanksmuseum.org/planetarium for updates & more information. Join the space discussion with the Night Owl Club, livestreamed on Zoom, Facebook, & YouTube, 1st Thursday each month.
March Launch List
April Launch Forecast
50th Anniversary of Apollo 16
This month marks the 50th anniversary of Apollo 16, the penultimate human landing mission of the Apollo Program. Carrying astronauts John Young, Charlie Duke, and Ken Mattingly, the mission launched on a Saturn V on 16 April 1972, landed on the Moon on 20 April, and returned on 27 April; the mission lasted over 11 days total, 3 days of which were on the Moon. Young and Duke performed the landing in the Lunar Module Orion, while Mattingly remained in the Command Module Casper.
The two astronauts landed in the Descartes Highlands region, where they set up many science experiments and explored over 26 kilometers of the area around the landing site using the second Lunar Rover vehicle (the first was on Apollo 15). This was the only Apollo landing site not in or near any of the Lunar Mare (dark spots) instead landing in the lighter shaded highlands, which are much older surfaces with more craters. This was Young’s fourth, Mattingly’s first, and Duke’s only spaceflight. After this mission, both Young and Mattingly would go on to fly several Space Shuttle missions.