Archive for the ‘Benefits of Spaceflight’ Category

Friday Links

Down to Earth

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new book Space Chronicles is out. I already wrote a dedicated post about him this week. I would recommend listening to his interview on NPR’s Science Friday and watching this video of his testimony before Congress earlier this week (Thanks to @failedprotostar for helping me locate the video)!

The Canadian Space Agency is facing a potential 14% budget cut.

There was a Space Shuttle shuffle at KSC today. Atlantis and Discovery traded places as Discovery is prepped for an April flight to the Smithsonian in Dulles. There will be an official welcome ceremony for Discovery at Dulles on April 19 with a small VIP tweetup (if that’s the right way to describe it). I would love to be there but won’t be able to make it.

Astronaut Mike Massimino talks with Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle about his new position with the Rice University Space Institute. He spends a minute discussing his cameo on the Big Bang Theory, which was funny but too short.

NASA has decided that the first Orion capsule test flight in 2014 will be launched by a Delta IV Heavy rocket.


In Orbit

I have quite a few things to post regarding ISS Flight Engineer Don Pettit. He has been an awesome ambassador of the space program during Expedition 30 and has done some unorthodox PR that I hope is getting ISS some extra attention.

First, I have to link to Pettit’s series of educational science videos. When he was on ISS in during Expedition 6 he called his videos “Saturday Morning Science”. This time around they are “Science Off The Sphere” (although I have heard him still call them Saturday Morning Science on the space-to-ground loops). His latest involves thin film physics in zero-g.

Don was also the first ever Expedition crew member to be “flashed” successfully from the Earth. No, not that kind of flash! My blog is strictly safe for work! A club out of San Antonio arranged with Don Pettit over email to flash him with a laser and some spotlights on a pre-decided orbit this past Sunday. Here’s the picture Don took of the laser light.

I think they should have gone with green instead…

In unorthodox space news, NASA has partnered with iPhone game developer Rovio to promote Angry Birds Space which will use zero-g environments with “gravity fields” to simulate real physics. Here is Don Pettit in what must be the first video game commercial filmed in space.

Some other good stuff from Don’s blog (I guess I shouldn’t expect less). He writes about aerogel storage bags used by NASA to keep things warm in Antarctica or cold on ISS. He also writes about how the ISS ECLSS (ie, life support system) is an engineering experiment – today’s coffee is tomorrow’s coffee.

Okay, so with all my Don Pettit news out of the way, here are some other things going on with ISS.

The launch date of the European Space Agency’s ATV3 has slipped to later this month. The new launch date is March 23 with docking to ISS about a week later. Original launch date was March 9th.

The engineering test that is the “Robotic Refueling Mission” has been going well this week on ISS.

Around the Solar System

Nearly every space blog on the internet wrote about the high resolution picture of a Martian dust devil in action taken by the HiRISE camera on MRO from February 16th. It’s a stunning picture, but I like that Ryan from The Martian Chronicles reminds us this is far from a one-of-a-kind shot. Check out this set of images from the Spirit rover.

It seems this week’s solar storm may have knocked out Venus Express’ star trackers. Obviously not good for that mission.

Two Near-Earth Objects have garnered a lot of attention this week. 2011 AG5 and 2012 DA14 are both NEOs worth watching, but only 2011 AG5 is on the Minor Planet Center’s list of PHAs (potentially hazardous asteroids). As always, Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy has the best coverage of all potential doomsdays. Go read his post on 2012 DA14 and then his post on 2011 AG5. And here is a brilliant animation of 2012 DA14 on closest approach next February (also via BAblog).

I fully support Don Yeomans, Rusty Schweickart, and the B612 Foundation who feel that we need to seriously start funding case studies into how to deflect PHAs now, and at the federal or international level. I wish I could go to Austin for SXSW this week to see this panel discussion!

Because it’s cool

Check out the lights of Dubai taken by the ISS Expedition 30 crew. It’s pretty until you think about all the energy wasted on light pollution.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been returning newer, higher resolution images of the Apollo landing sites from the new low mapping orbit. Several sites were imaged but I’ve linked to the Apollo 15 image since I just finished reading Falling to Earth by Apollo 15 CMP Al Worden. These images are much higher quality than Worden even saw from his CM during the mission.

LEGO shuttle launched into space (okay, near-space)! – via Universe Today

Here is one of my favorite shots of the multiple planet conjunction this past week – from Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. The fun’s not over yet though. Jupiter and Venus will have their conjunction in the sky next week.

This new DARPA robot is pretty freaking awesome (or scary?) – via SciGuy

But it still has nothing on AMEE from Red Planet

Star Stuff

Neil deGrasse Tyson has been on an epic book tour recently promoting his feelings about the future of the United States in space which he has captured in his new book Space Chronicles. So far he has been on The Daily Show, Bill Maher, NPR’s Science Friday, and various other news programs. My favorite moment was when Tyson owned his interview on the Daily Show. For most of the time, Jon Stewart sat there very quietly and  generally in awe of Tyson’s inspirational arguments. Ending with a half-joking call for Tyson to run for president.

In his Science Friday interview, Tyson described first meeting Carl Sagan when he was 17 visiting the Cornell campus. He said that he wishes that on his best day he could be the kind of inspirational figure that Sagan was. In turn, Phil Plait said that on his best days he wishes he could say something like this quote from Tyson:

Of course, Tyson is not the first to marvel that everything about our world, including our bodies themselves, are essentially star stuff. He has himself borrowed that sentiment from Carl Sagan who said it in Episode 8 of Cosmos in 1980, while discussing evolution on Earth.

Sagan’s monologue is inspiring. I am so glad that we have someone like Tyson to pick up where he left off and carry the banner of space exploration and science forward in his absence. Tyson first borrowed this idea in mass media when he was a talking head on the History Channel’s The Universe.

Beautiful and true. But it all comes together when you auto-tune it to the opening chorus of a Symphony of Science. So I will leave you with We Are All Connected…

“We are a way that the cosmos can know itself.”

Rockets from Cassiopeia

“The surface of the earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. … Recently, we’ve managed to wade a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting .” – Dr. Carl Sagn

Since Dr. Sagan said those words in the first episode of Cosmos over 30 years ago, we have not waded much farther from home. The Voyager probes are now about 100 AU from the Sun but humans themselves have still gone no farther than a high orbit on the far side of the moon. Several generations of children have dreamed of becoming astronauts, grown up, and moved on. Barely 500 people have been to space to date. If you really want to discourage a space enthusiast, mention that 2 generations have lived past healthy spacefaring age with the promise of being the first humans to Mars unfulfilled. I speak from experience. I remember seeing posters like this at Future Flight space camp in Hawaii. I  can see you running off to email your congressman to increase NASA funding right now.

Fortunately, most space enthusiasts are optimistic futurists like me. Think of a child that grows up today enamored of the sea, wanting to captain a tall sailing ship and head off over the horizon to undiscovered lands. At some point his parents will explain to him that there are no lands left to explore. The fun part is over. He missed his century by about 300 years. What some may characterize as lack of progress I see as opportunity for the generations of the 21st century to be a part of the new age of exploration.

The analogy between spaceflight and the great sea voyages of the 16th and 17th centuries is a bit tenuous. Columbus and Magellan didn’t exactly spend a lot of time sending out robotic precursor missions to the West Indies. Our age will develop more slowly. We have about 20 active interplanetary missions, with more planned. Some of them are on the way to distant exciting places like Jupiter and Pluto. If you pay attention, a lot of amazing things are going on. The people who can dream big and think far into the future are the ones that will teach humanity to swim. We can’t afford to litter the cosmic ocean with sunken ships like the Europeans did. Our age will be calm, collected, professional.

The slow outward push of humanity into the rest of the solar system may be so slow that each incremental step will not be all too amazing to the people alive at the time. The rapid flurry of activity that kicked off the Space Age may have spoiled us, for now. Someday we will find ourselves standing on Mars and everyone back home will be wondering why we’re not on Europa yet, and so on. The day will come when the solar system itself will seem ho-hum. Young children will no longer be promised Mars but will be promised Alpha Centauri.

When we cross that immense distance to the nearest star we will be finally sailing on Dr. Sagan’s ocean. Looking back towards home will make the idea of the Pale Blue Dot provincial. The Earth will be lost in the glare of Sol. And yet we will have barely brushed the vastness of the universe. A settler of Alpha Centauri could take a 20th century astronomy textbook with him and be perfectly at home in the night sky. Orion will gleam as ever, although perhaps not as a Winter constellation. Sirius will still shine bright blue. And if our settler wanted to gaze back toward the homeworld, he only has to seek out a familiar bright W in the sky. There off to the left, making Cassiopeia‘s W a longer zigzag, will be the shining light of Sol.

We can say that our first voyages will take our rockets from Cassiopeia to Centauras but those names will eventually become meaningless. Our descendants will come up with new names for their constellations. I believe that wherever they end up, the shape of Cassiopeia from Alpha Centauri will be remembered as a marker of humanity seeking its destiny.

“Across the sea of space, the stars are other suns.” – Dr. Carl Sagan

From Wikipedia




Congratulations to the Chinese space program on a successful Shenzou 8 mission.

China’s unmanned Shenzou vehicle re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere over Mongolia today ending a successful 18 day mission to their Tiangong 1 space station. You may think that as an employee in the USA’s space program I should not be so supportive of their efforts, but I think that is a short-sighted view. Those of us who love space exploration for its own sake – and what it can and will do for humanity – should support all peaceful development of space programs by any nation. The more the merrier.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on international relations, but I don’t think its hard to see how competition – and eventual cooperation – in space eased tensions between the USA and USSR. Space could do the same for the USA and China, if we give it a chance. Fortunately, some folks in the government are being more reasonable and under the new budget coming out of Congress NASA will be allowed to talk to China as long as those talks are “certified”. We are a long way from an Apollo-Soyuz style mission but you have to start somewhere.

China intends to build their own large-scale space station by 2020, about the year the ISS will be approaching its end of life. Maybe by then relations between the West and East will be improved and we will be working on ISS 2 with the Chinese. There’s no way to know. But until then, I wish them luck on Shenzhou 9 and 10 next year, which will be China’s first manned missions since their EVA on Shenzou 7 in September of 2008. If we do someday “join forces” that will just mean more resources for the big missions we all want to see happen. Ad astra, China!

Update: Some photos of the landing over at Universe Today

Flags in a Vacuum

“There is hopeful symbolism in the fact that flags do not wave in a vacuum.” — Arthur C. Clarke

A lot has been said about the benefits of spaceflight. Just go to and spend some time reading the pages and pages of comments from engineers, astronauts, politicians, and science fiction writers. It’s hard to add something new to the noise. I think Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s comment* is a clever way to summarize one of the more important things to consider – that cooperation in scientific exploration, or even scientific competition, can help to ease nationalist tensions and bring diverse teams together for a common goal. Sir Clarke was around for the proposal, design, and initial construction of the International Space Station. It is unfortunate that he did not see what the ISS Program has become. The ranks of past ISS commanders include Americans, Russians, and a Belgian. The first Canadian commander will fly on Expedition 35 in 2013 and the first Japanese commander on Expedition 39 in 2014. Every day around the world engineers, managers, planners, and technicians from 16 nations work together for the pursuit of knowledge and exploration. In the 19th century it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire. Now in the Space Age the sun never sets on the ISS program, with control centers in Houston, Munich, Tokyo, Moscow, and Montreal.**

Spaceflight is naturally an endeavor to bring nations together in this way. The space age started out as a game of one-upsmanship but both the USA and USSR demonstrated that the will to maintain an Apollo-scale program cannot be sustained by a nation acting alone. Despite the large cost of space exploration, politicians and citizens alike are still intrigued by the romance, technological payoff, and inspiration it brings to civilization. Thus, we see nation’s putting aside what differences they may have and exploring together. People often argue about the merit of spending billions of dollars on our orbiting laboratory. But I say there is something noble about banding together, about rising above the various problems each of our nations face and soldiering forward, about honoring our commitments to each other in the grand project and not backing out even when times may be hard.

In the aftermath of the earthquake that shook Japan on March 11, 2011 the JAXA control center in Tsukuba outside Tokyo had to be closed down in part. A contingent of JAXA flight controllers traveled to Houston, Texas to continue their job of watching after the Kibo Laboratory. They operated out of our Mission Control Center at JSC just down the hall from the main ISS control room. Rather than be overcome by stress and jet lag, the JAXA controllers taught us to make paper cranes, which were scattered about the consoles in MCC for weeks. I had never felt so connected to world events as I did sitting there at the ADCO console with those paper cranes built by a dedicated ISS flight controller like me. He was thousands of miles from home; thousands of miles from his friends and family who may have been suffering the impacts of a devastating natural disaster. If you want to build empathy among the people of Earth, throw them together in this way.

Astronauts are famous for saying “you can’t see borders from space”. While Expedition 28 Flight Engineer Ron Garan partially proved this wrong, the sentiment remains powerful. When you circumnavigate the globe in 90 minutes the dividing lines between the rising red sun and the stars and stripes begin to lose meaning and we are all just people on the same rock. The flags are symbols of the previous age, when everyone was close enough to the ground to see the dividing lines clearly, when they focused on the local and the short term rather than the big picture. Now we are in the space age and the higher we go the more the lines fade and we start to realize that the flags we brought with us tend not to wave.

Some day soon men and women will again go high enough that the Earth will be seen as it was by the Apollo 8 crew in 1968, as a single perfect marble alone in space. Those images will be broadcast live, in color, and in high definition to wide-screen 3D televisions around the world. It will be at that moment that all 7 billion of us will remember what Apollo 8 first showed us more than 40 years ago – we are all in this together. Of course, Sir Clarke said it better than I ever can:

“It is not easy to see how the more extreme forms of nationalism can long survive when men have seen the Earth in its true perspective as a single small globe against the stars.”

*This quote is widely attributed to Clarke on the internet but the only scholarly reference I found is on Wikiquote to the book Values of the Wise: Humanity’s Highest Aspirations, which is a compilation of quotes by Jason Merchey. Merchey provides no additional citation but to me it sounds like something Clarke would have said.

**don’t believe me? Check out this map on Wikipedia