My recent trip to LA

I love that the world can be both so small and so large. I don’t mean that you find yourself on vacation in Rome surrounded by millions of strangers and happen to bump into an old college friend (although those kinds of coincidences can feel quite odd). I’m referring instead to expecting to run into an old friend in a strange city because over time you seem to know someone everywhere. Family and friends move around for so many reasons – career, cost of living, or whim – and the older you get the more likely it is that you can fly to a particular city and have a friend to call on.

Now that I’ve been out of college for a number of years, I’ve realized that the same thing happens in any given field or interest area. Stay in an industry long enough and people you went to college with, worked with, interned with, or whatever, will tend to move around until you can find an acquaintance at all the important companies or institutions.

This made itself apparent this past weekend on a quick trip to the Los Angeles area to visit some friends and family. My wife and I weren’t in town at all for geeky reasons – we just wanted to see some old friends who deserved a visit – but space follows me these days. It’s not exactly amazing that we know some folks that work at Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. They are old engineering friends from high school and college, after all. But just because I know someone from SpaceX – who very, very graciously offered us a quick tour of the main factory – doesn’t mean I am somehow an insider. It just means I know someone. This is a hard concept for a lot of people in this world to realize and is why you end up with groupies and name-droppers and people like that. A person needs a good dose of humility to avoid the slippery slope that leads to vanity.

This was one of those "seeing a friend in Rome" coincidences

The last Space Shuttle External Tank also happened to be in town

I received my needed dose of humility when I was led down the hall from the visitor entrance at 1 Rocket Road, around the corner past mission control, out under a flown Dragon capsule, and saw the assembly lines of tanks, engines, and spacecraft in SpaceX’s flashiest factory. After a lifetime of being a space geek, 4 years in college, a couple of internships, and 7 years working at JSC, somehow I hadn’t realized that I’d actually never visited a facility where rockets are being built.

My mind had somehow glossed over this with the illusion that I had. After all, I have been to all the famous NASA rocket parks at JSC, KSC, and MSFC, not to mention each of National Air and Space Museum’s locations a number of times. I’ve seen rockets; I’ve seen a space shuttle launch; I’ve seen a Falcon 9 launch; I’ve been inside the VAB on a tour. But seeing those places is quite different from walking into a facility where photography is not allowed (another concept foreign to me from my years at JSC) and seeing an assembly line of Merlin 1 rocket engines getting ready for integration into the famous Falcon 9 “octaweb.” The images of massive tanks being welded, payload fairings being laid up, and Dragon capsules being integrated, are burned into my mind. I have no illusions that the factory is deliberately designed to leave me in awe. But it doesn’t matter. The point probably would have been made just as well at the ULA or Orbital ATK factories: it’s a big damn world.

Flight hardware! (Photo via Steve Jurvetson’s Flickr)

 

I felt absolutely ignorant walking around that factory. I have a degree in aerospace engineering and yet many of the details of what I saw on Saturday escape me. The world is big in both these gulfs of knowledge, but also the gulfs of time and experience. I last saw my high school classmate at least many years ago, if not a decade. His experience at SpaceX, watching it grow from a struggling startup in 2008 to a dominant industry force today, is vastly different from my experience in a steady job at NASA, surrounded by the always present glory of manned spaceflight but also at the whims of politics, and the morale roller coaster that provides. He has hands on knowledge of spacecraft design, while I am one of some hundreds of people in the world who know what it is like to operate a modern manned spacecraft. This is the largeness of the world that hit home for me last Saturday.

And yet, sitting and chatting over a meal with several Virgin Galactic employees gave me a feeling of smallness, like we are all in this together regardless of badge or funding source. It occurs to me now that networking is not important just for selfish reasons of career growth. It is also important to stay out of the trap of living in a bubble, of thinking that your little slice of the world is the most important. I can’t feel good about what I do without the context of how it fits into the bigger picture of what everyone is doing, not just in Houston and Los Angeles but around the world.

It is all too easy to let the size of the world become overwhelming. How can I have an influence among 5 million people in my city? A hundred million in my country? Seven billion in my world? How can I have an original idea? Surely I am not the only one to have thoughts like these from time to time. One way to make the world small again is to create and preserve relationships with other people doing the things you care about. They might show you some “flight hardware” and then you will be hard pressed not to feel motivated.

May 24, 2016 10:50 pm

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Some new videos from Blue Origin and SpaceX of their recent rocket successes were released this past week:

The astronaut Kelly brothers, Mark and Scott, had their childhood elementary school named after them this past week.

Two astronauts, Scott Parazynski and Brian Duffy, were inducted into the astronaut hall of fame.

The amazing Thierry Legault has done it again, this time taking a video of the ISS transiting the sun at the same time as the Mercury transit on May 9th.

An unusual parade happened in Los Angeles on May 21st when the last Space Shuttle External Tank was towed from the coast to the California Science Center.

In Orbit

The Indian Space Research Organization launched their new experimental space plane on May 23rd. The uncrewed vehicle actually didn’t make it to orbit, or even to space, reaching only a peak altitude of 65 km. Still, reaching Mach 5 on re-entry is no joke.

The only other notable rocket launch since my last post on May 9th was a Chinese low earth orbit (LEO) reconnaissance satellite launched on May 15.

Around the Solar System

Some recent experiments in a Martian atmosphere simulator have given us an update on the Recurring Slope Linae (RSL), which were announced last year as evidence of flowing liquid water on Mars. It may be that ice boiling directly to a gas may be causing the features.

NASA’s flying telescope, SOFIA, has detected atomic oxygen in the atmosphere of Mars. Atomic oxygen is highly reactive and thus can tell us a lot about what is going on at Mars, potentially even the chance for life.

Speaking of Mars, check out this new image from Hubble. Mars is at opposition this week – or the closest approach to Earth – making it a great target for Earth-based astronomers.

Out There

You probably didn’t miss this story: NASA announced the confirmation of more than 1,200 new exoplanets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. This brings the total planets discovered outside our solar system to over 3,300 worlds.

May 23, 2016 10:28 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Caltech has announced that Michael Watkins will replace Charles Elachi as director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.

New legislation in the US Senate, if passed, would put fallen astronaut Christa McAuliffe on a dollar coin for the 30th anniversary of the loss of Challenger.

Don’t miss today’s (Monday, May 9) transit of the sun by Mercury. If you don’t have the skill, equipment, or location to view it yourself, you can follow online with a live feed from various sources.

The joint European-Russian Mars rover project ExoMars has been delayed from the 2018 to 2020 launch window.

NASA’s Langley Research Center has named a new building for Katherine Johnson, the mathematician who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year.

In Orbit

Early on the morning of May 6, SpaceX launched a commercial communications satellite on a Geostationary Transfer Orbit. The launch was a beautiful and nominal night launch. After Main Engine Cut Off (MECO) the Falcon 9 first stage flew back to the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) for another successful landing at sea. Are you not entertained?

Speaking of SpaceX, don’t forget to tune into NASA TV on May 11 for coverage of their Dragon spacecraft departing the International Space Station.

And as usual, the ISS crew has been busy sharing their view on high with us. Here are some stunning recent posts from their Twitter accounts:

In Orbit

Cassini did some recent observations of Enceladus by watching a the moon transit in front of a star, revealing new clues about the ice world’s geology.

Out There

The TRAPPIST observatory in Chile has discovered a solar system of three small planets about 40 light years from Earth.

May 9, 2016 8:06 am

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

United Launch Alliance has narrowed down the anomaly in their last Atlas V flight – which resulted in an early shutdown of the main stage – to a particular valve.

Check out this 360-degree view of the SpaceX ASDS landing (best viewed on mobile for easy panning).

The next Falcon 9 launch and attempted ASDS landing on May 5th at about 1:22 AM. They are launching a Japanese commercial satellite.

The James Webb Space Telescope had the protective covers removed from its primary mirror last week. Here’s a link to the webcam at Goddard where the multi-billion dollar observatory is being assembled: http://www.jwst.nasa.gov/webcam.html

The next spaceflight analog crew to spend 30 days inside a mockup spacecraft at NASA’s Johnson Space Center will start their mission tomorrow. You can follow along on Twitter:

In Orbit

The first launch of Russia’s new Vostochny spaceport took place on April 28th. Here are some great pictures via Spaceflight Now. The rocket was carrying two “technology” satellites and one gamma-ray observatory.

In other launch news, India launched a big rocket carrying one navigation satellite, to complete their domestic navigation constellation. And thirdly, ESA was finally able to launch their Sentinel-1B Earth-observing satellite, which was delayed last weekend.

Up on ISS, the Soyuz TMA-19M crew has learned that they will get about an extra two weeks in orbit, as Expedition 47 has been extended to June 18th.

In sad news, JAXA has given up their attempts to recover the stricken Hitomi x-ray observatory which has been out of contact for some weeks. They now suspect that the spacecraft spun out of control due to an attitude control malfunction and lost its solar arrays.

Tim Peake got to do a unique experiment from the ISS last week when he controlled an ESA rover on the ground via remote control.

Around the Solar System

The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has discovered a small moon orbiting the distant Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) known as Makemake.

May 1, 2016 10:22 am

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The US Senate has started putting together their version of the 2017 budget, including appropriations for NASA.

The satellite internet startup OneWeb has announced they will build a factory in Florida.

China’s unmanned research capsule, SJ-10, successfully ended last week when it landed in Mongolia under parachute.

SpaceX has moved their latest recovered Falcon 9 booster back to their hangar in Florida. Follow the link for some pictures and video.

In Orbit

The European Space Agency has been trying to launch an Earth-observing satellite, Sentinel-1B, since Friday. They have been delayed twice by weather but they hope for a successful launch later today at just after 5 PM Eastern.

ISS astronaut Tim Peake virtually ran the London marathon this morning.

Around the Solar System

The New Horizons team has officially submitted their Kuiper Belt Extended Mission (KEM) to have the probe flyby the distant object MU69.

Beautiful pictures from Dawn’s low-altitude “mapping orbit” at Ceres give is a good idea of what’s really going on in those “bright spots” on the asteroid.

And here’s an amazing shadowless view of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

April 24, 2016 8:28 am

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Buzz Aldrin has published a new book titled “No Dream is Too High.”

United Launch Alliance and Bigelow Aerospace have announced a new partnership. Bigelow will launch their enormous BA-330 expandable module on a ULA Atlas rocket.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 recovered first stage returned to port last week after landing on a droneship the week before. Check out the pictures.

An online auction for a camera lens used on the moon during Apollo 15 is now open.

Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, who was in the news last year for pledging millions of dollars to SETI, has announced his plan for a robotic interestellar mission called Breakthrough Starshot.

The last external tank from the Space Shuttle program left Michoud in Louisiana last week on an ocean voyage to California, where it will become a part of the display with Space Shuttle Endeavour.

Orbital ATK and Intelsat have struck a deal that may lead to the first commercial use of “robotic satellite servicing”.

In Orbit

NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope unexpected entered emergency mode last week, but has since been successfully recovered. The cause of the event is still being investigated.

The new Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was installed on the Node 3 module of ISS on Saturday. Here is a time-lapse of it being moved from the SpaceX Dragon cargo craft via the robotic arm.

It’s been a while since I have shared links to some of my favorite tweets from ISS here. The three US astronauts onboard have been furiously posting beautiful pictures of Earth pretty much every day. Here are just a few recent ones from just the past couple of days.

And here is a quick video from Jeff Williams showing us around the cupola and their cameras.

Around the Solar System

This is pretty cool. An amateur astronomer captured a video of a fireball in Jupiter’s atmosphere, as a large asteroid or some other object slammed into the planet.

April 17, 2016 12:03 pm

Weekly Links

Obviously the huge news this week is the successful launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the return to flight of the Dragon capsule and a successful landing on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS). See the “In Orbit” section for more details!

Down to Earth

Blue Origin achieved an impressive feat last week, flying the same suborbital New Shepard rocket for the third time since November.

Following a rocket anomaly in the launch of a Cygnus resupply craft last month the ULA Atlas V rocket is grounded.

Accomplished NASA astronaut, and current NASA science chief, John Grunsfeld, will be retiring.

Roscosmos is selling the perennially financially troubled venture Sea Launch.

In Orbit

There have been 4 orbital launches since my last blog update on March 27. Here they are in chronological order: China launched a single Beidou navigation satellite on March 29, Russia launched a Progress resupply craft from Baikonaur on March 31, China launched a microgravity science payload on April 6, and of course SpaceX launched a Dragon resupply capsule on April 8.

The flawless Falcon 9 ascent and capsule deploy was overshadowed by SpaceX achieving the impressive feat of recovering the rocket’s first stage on the ASDS, out in the Atlantic Ocean. This video says it all.

This delivery of cargo aboard Dragon will wrap up a very busy time period aboard ISS. Starting with the Soyuz undocking at the beginning of March, which brought Scott Kelly home and started Expedition 47, there have been 6 different visiting vehicle events, with Dragon being the third cargo resupply in 2 weeks.

One of the payloads aboard Dragon that everyone is excited about is the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM. Here is a simple infographic about BEAM (via Parabolic Arc).

Around the Solar System

Meanwhile, on Mars, NASA’s rovers are quietly doing science. Check out this panorama from Curiosity. On the other side of the planet, Opportunity has been exploring Marathon Valley and braving slopes above 30 degrees tilt in the name of science.

April 9, 2016 12:05 am

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

NASA’s Dawn mission was awarded the prestigious Collier Trophy.

Former NASA astronaut Janet Kavandi is the new director of Glenn Research Center in Ohio.

WIRED sent a guy to spend a day at JSC learning what it’s like to be an astronaut. The short video is fun and probably fairly informative for non-space geeks.

In Orbit

Lots of launch activity in the past two weeks. Of the five total launches, I’ll get the two less interesting ones out of the way first: on March 13, a Russian Earth observation mission launched from Baikonaur and then on March 24, a Russian military mission launched from Plesetsk. Both were on Soyuz rockets.

The other three launches are much more interesting. First, on March 14 the much anticipated ExoMars mission launched on a Proton rocket from Baikonaur. The Mars exploration mission is currently safely in solar orbit on its way to an October rendezvous.

On March 18, another Soyuz rocket launched from Baikonaur, but this time carrying 3 people. Aleksey Ovchinin, Oleg Skripochka, and Jeff Williams had an uneventful launch, rendezvous, and docking with the ISS. Or at least, as uneventful as those sorts of things go!

Lastly, an Atlas V rocket launched from Florida on March 23 carrying a Cygnus cargo freighter. Cygnus, named the S.S. Rick Husband by Orbital ATK, arrived (also uneventfully) at ISS on Saturday morning.

Unfortunately, it sounds like Japan’s Astro-H X-ray observatory may have been lost only weeks after it launched in February.

Around the Solar System

Check out this picture of the tallest mountains on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Here’s some awesome new close-up imagery of the “bright spots” on Ceres.

Newly released analysis of New Horizons data indicates that Pluto may have had periods of high atmospheric pressure in the past, which allowed liquid nitrogen to flow in rivers on its surface.

March 27, 2016 11:21 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The joint Russian-European Mars mission, ExoMars, has been prepped for launch and is on the pad in Kazakhstan. Launch is Monday, March 14.

Speaking of Mars, NASA’s delayed InSight lander has been granted a mission extension for a new launch date in 2018.

Blue Origin invited several journalists to tour their headquarters near Seattle, Washington last week. Some new details about their future spaceflight plans were revealed.

In Orbit

Two successful orbital launches this past week: a communications satellite launched by ESA from Korou and a navigation satellite launched by ISRO from Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India.

Next week, on March 18, three ISS astronauts will launch aboard Soyuz TMA-20M from Kazakhstan to join Expedition 47. Here’s the NASA TV schedule for the launch. NASA astronaut Jeff Williams has been active on Twitter during flight preparations, posting short “video blogs” like this one:

Meanwhile, Scott Kelly has been video blogging his return to Earth:

Be sure to always follow all of NASA’s astronauts on Twitter – but especially those in space – because they are always sharing something exciting!

Around the Solar System

A solar eclipse thrilled people in Oceania last week. For those of us who don’t live on an island in the Pacific, we can still enjoy these views from NASA’s DSCOVR satellite.

NASA’s New Horizons probe has discovered “methane snow” on Pluto’s mountain peaks.

March 11, 2016 2:30 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Former Space Shuttle astronaut and commander Don Williams passed away on February 23rd at 74. Read about his impressive career at CollectSpace.

Orbital ATK’s S.S. Deke Slayton departed the ISS on February 20 after a successful two-month mission.

NASA received a record number of applicants to the astronaut class of 2017.

Ron Garan, former NASA astronaut, has been named the chief pilot at World View, which aims to launch tourists to the edge of space in a balloon.

Virgin Galactic unveiled their latest spaceship, the second version of their SpaceShipTwo. They hope to start their flight test campaign soon, but no new target date for commercial flights was announced.

China has announced that they plan to launch their next space station later this year.

In Orbit

Earlier this week, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly returned safely from his 340 day mission aboard ISS. Before he left, he had a little fun with a costume his brother sent up to him:

You can see all the pictures that Scott took while onboard the ISS here (and there a lot!).

SpaceX finally had another successful launch, after several scrubs over the past week or two. On Friday, March 4th, a Falcon 9 rocket carrying the SES-9 payload launched from Florida. It was their first launch since January and second of the year. The first stage attempted a landing on their Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) but had a hard landing.

March 4, 2016 10:30 pm