Archive for the ‘Books’ Category
When I bought myself my first e-reader last month, a small wi-fi enabled Amazon Kindle, I was looking forward to all the common advantages expounded by their advocates: portability, lower book prices, etc. I also was hoping to supplement the constant LCD screen time I find in my life these days with something more relaxing. I was a nerd growing up and used to read constantly (often at the expense of my social life or studies). These days I find myself spending hours staring at an iPhone or computer screen keeping up with my favorite blogs, and the stack of new books beside my bed growing larger. What I did not expect was that my Kindle would open up a whole new genre of fiction.
Amazon knows me very well – recommending each new space memoir as it is released (many of which are still in that unread pile beside my bed, including last year’s Sally Ride and Neil Armstrong biographies) – and as soon as I registered my new Kindle to my account, I started getting Kindle Store recommendations as well. On the first page was a short story that caught my eye immediately: Zero Phase – Apollo 13 on the moon.
I had heard of alternate history fiction before, like Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South series, which was always in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy aisle that I spent hours in at Borders as a teenager. But Brennan’s alternate history of “NASA’s finest hour” requires no time travel. In fact, I am not sure which category of the bookstore it should be placed. Zero Phase is a meticulously researched thought experiment based entirely in reality. The only difference between the real saga of Apollo 13 and Brennan’s story is a fateful difference in timing: what if the accident happened after reaching lunar orbit? Would they still have made it home alive?
Intriguing, right? Zero Phase, at only about 100 pages, is a fast and exciting entry into what for me was a hidden genre: alternative spaceflight history. My Kindle is now full of short story and novel titles with the same spirit: Recovering Apollo 8, Gemini 17, One False Step, STS-136, Launch On Need… most I have yet to read. Maybe most of them are poorly executed, which could explain the genre’s quiet existence? But the first two entries in the Altered Space series are an engrossing ride for any lover of space history. After finishing Zero Phase I also quickly devoured Brennan’s second story, Public Loneliness, which chronicles a solo circumlunar flight by Yuri Gagarin.
Both stories are written in the first person and don’t waste any time on exposition. Zero Phase opens with Jim Lovell and Fred Haise together in their Lunar Module (LM), already floating free of the Command Module (CM), moments from beginning their descent burn. Brennan has a knack for turning tedious technical details into a story. The prose is dense with a wealth of research into the sequence of events of a powered lunar descent and preparation for a surface EVA. But mixed in with the facts is an intriguing view into the character of an Apollo commander put into an unusual situation.
Brennan performed his research with Jim Lovell’s consent and help and it certainly would not be the thought-provoking read that it is without the fictional but believable voice of narration from Lovell. The story moves in a fast pace from descent, to EVA prep, through the accident, and then preparation for an emergency ascent from the lunar surface – each piece true to actual NASA procedure. But mixed in are periods of flashbacks or commentary from this fictional Lovell that do as good a job as Tom Hanks in the film Apollo 13 of creating a sympathetic character.
You may not get the answer you are looking for at the end of Zero Phase. The story ends as abruptly as it starts (no hints on whether it is a happy ending or not) and leaves you excited enough to read more that you will quickly go and download Public Loneliness, the slightly longer Gagarin story.
Public Loneliness is a different story from Zero Phase in many ways. For one thing, it is going to be a much less familiar setting for most readers, given that Zero Phase involves characters and events from one of the most beloved space movies of all time. The character of Gagarin himself is a bit jarring. Based on a legendary Soviet hero long dead, Brennan likely had a harder time researching for this story, including teasing the facts from fiction in the various biographies (and Gagarin’s autobiography). Brennan takes an interesting tact in his fictional tale and what seems as an honest narration from Gagarin is sprinkled with hints that he isn’t being completely honest, that you may be reading a propaganda piece with half-truths.
Gagarin’s story starts atop a Proton rocket ready to launch towards to moon, but spends as much time on flashbacks as the circumlunar flight itself. Having not read much on Gagarin previously myself, these parts were in some ways more interesting to me. The fictional mission that is the subject of the story is less interesting than in Zero Phase because it is somewhat more fanciful. The nature of his flight and the problems that arise are imagined by Brennan, while in Zero Phase, a known problem merely takes place later in the mission.
Public Loneliness is an exploration of what it must have been to be a hero in the USSR – so much in the public eye but with your true nature hidden from even those closest to you. Did he really buy into the propaganda or was he just doing his job? Despite these interesting digressions into unanswerable questions about personality, Brennan still manages to focus the story on a realistic adventure aboard a Soviet spacecraft that almost was. Like in Zero Phase, portions of the book focus on technical procedures – like doing a trajectory correction burn on the way home from the moon – that are true to Soviet design while also creating exciting tension for the reader.
Again, I highly recommend Zero Phase to all fans of spaceflight history, especially if the Apollo Program and Apollo 13 are exciting to you. Public Lonelines is not as quick a read, but is just as intriguing a “what if” story, not only because of the extensive research done in its writing, but because of the fictional voice of a long-dead hero jumping off the pages. If nothing else, Gerald Brennan’s first two entries in what will hopefully be a continuing series will get most space geeks addicted to this new genre of alternate history story. Happy reading!
Sorry for the delayed post this week. It has been a busy month, as I prepare for my trip to the 31st Space Symposium in just over a week. Plus, I recently got a new Amazon Kindle and have been diving into the world of spaceflight historical fiction (I know, I was surprised too!). I recently finished reading both Zero Phase and Public Loneliness by Gerald Brennan. Check them out!
The most exciting space news since my last post on March 20th of course was the launch of Soyuz TMA-16M last Friday. Here’s a video of the launch. More on what’s been going on ISS under “In Orbit”, below.
Down to Earth
Speaking of naming contests, the SETI Institute has launched the “Our Pluto” campaign for the public to help suggest names for features on Pluto, which will soon be discovered by the New Horizons spacecraft. From what I can tell, NASA and the IAU are onboard, so the names may actually become official.
Ellington Airport, just a few miles from the Johnson Space Center, has a new agreement with Sierra Nevada Corporation to land unmanned Dream Chaser spaceplanes here in Houston. If Sierra Nevada is awarded the CRS-2 contract, this could provide a nice logistical advantage for the ISS program.
The next SpaceX Falcon 9 launch, which is another cargo resupply flight to ISS, has been delayed to April 13 (a 3-day slip).
NASA has selected “Option B” for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The mission will involve an unmanned robotic mission retrieving a small boulder from the surface of a Near Earth Object (NEO) which will be visited later by astronauts in lunar orbit.
Lots of rocket launches in late March, in addition to the Soyuz launch that sent Scott Kelly, Mikhail Kornienko, and Gennady Padalka to ISS. The list of launches includes: an Atlas V with a new GPS satellite, A Japanese reconnaissance satellite on an H-II rocket, two European Galileo navigation satellites on a Soyuz rocket, and at least one other Indian, Russian, and Chinese rocket. The Chinese launch reportedly included a test flight of a new mini-space plane. The number of rocket launches this year now stands at 21 to orbit, with no failures.
As for that Soyuz flight to the ISS, it was a picture perfect launch, rendezvous, and docking, with Kelly and crewmates arriving at ISS only 6 hours after departing Kazakhstan. The number of humans off-world is now back up to 6, and the number of people tweeting from space is now at 4, with Kelly joining Cristoforetti, Virts, and Shkaplerov. Here’s a sample of their recent posts:
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) March 31, 2015
Emergency training today with the full 6 person Expedition 43 crew. pic.twitter.com/3zZFMnDqUH
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) March 30, 2015
— Sam Cristoforetti (@AstroSamantha) March 30, 2015
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) March 27, 2015
— Sam Cristoforetti (@AstroSamantha) March 31, 2015
Around the Solar System
The annual Lunar and Planetary Science conference took place in March, which usually means interesting news from spacecraft exploring the solar system. Some of the best stories from this year’s LPSC are:
- The possibility that the bright spots seen by Dawn on Ceres are in fact plumes of some kind.
- Awesome high resolution images of Mercury, as MESSENGER moves into the last month of its mission.
- New evidence for past hydrothermal activity on Mars, which may lead to key sites to search for life.
I was excited to learn that there are still astronomers diligently watching the Alpha Centauri system, with HST even, to try to confirm the potential worlds detected orbiting there several years ago. The latest data indicates that perhaps there are two worlds, not just one, orbiting Alpha Centauri B. Unfortunately, the data is not strong enough to say they are there for sure… yet.
Down to Earth
The Russian space agency and their cosmonauts successfully completed their Olympics PR stunt last week. On Saturday, November 9th, cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy took the 2014 Olympic Torch outside the space station and took some pictures.
After the symbolic handoff in space, the Expedition 37 crew from the Soyuz TMA-09M donned their Sokol spacesuits, climbed aboard their Soyuz, and returned to Earth early on Monday, November 11. Congratulations to Nyberg, Parmitano, and Yurchikhin on a great mission, and congratulations to the Russians on a successful orbital Olympic relay. Hopefully our space programs will get a bit of a PR boost as a result.
In heavier news, two space industry workers at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia died earlier this month in a propellant tank accident.
Two veterans of the Soviet space program died in the last month. First, Dmitri Zaikin, selected in the first class of Cosmonauts in 1960, died at 81. Zaikin never flew in space desite a long career in the program and being assigned as backup Voshkoh 2 commander. Second, Alexander Serebrov, from the second generation of cosmonauts, died at 69. Serebrov logged over a year in space on three separate missions, including flights to Salyut and MIR space stations.
The European Space Agency’s GOCE (Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer) satellite recently ran out of fuel and crashed back to Earth, after a reportedly successful 4 year mission. Here is a cool picture of its re-entry over a remote part of the Atlantic OCean near the Falkland Islands.
On November 12th, Russia launched a satellite aboard a Proton Breeze-M rocket – the same type of rocket that crashed spectacularly back in July. This marks 3 launches since the crash, which is good news for the ISS program, which is supposed to receive a large new module called MLM aboard a Proton rocket.
In other launch news, SpaceX is scheduled to launch another one of their upgraded Falcon 9 version 1.1 rockets on November 25th, this time from Florida.
Around the Solar System
Continuing the launch news, NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter is set to launch on Monday, November 18th.
Mars rover Curiosity spent a bit of time in Safe Mode recently, but is back in full working order.
Comet ISON recently had an outburst and is now as bright as 5.5 magnitude. This should be visible with naked eye for people in dark sites (like my hometown Waikoloa, Hawaii) or keen observers with binoculars or telescopes in less dark areas. Keep in mind that there is a full moon late this week, however. Here are some helpful charts from EarthSky on how to find the comet. The comet is up in the early morning, as it is heading towards perihelion (closest point to the sun) in November 28. Most people are hoping the comet will be even brighter when it emerges from around the sun in December.
Because it’s Cool
XKCD takes a new tact on an old saying about space and perseverance.
Retired ISS Commander Chris Hadfield is now charging full into his book tour to promote his memoir-slash-self-help book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. I have been thoroughly enjoying his short videos promoting himself and his book. I think he is fitting into his post-space career very well. Check it out.
Down to Earth
Chris Hadfield, recently returned ISS commander and now retired astronaut, has announced he will be releasing a book titled “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”. It’s not clear yet if the format will be that of a memoir or something else.
John Anthony Llewellyn, who was selected as an astronaut in 1967, died earlier in July. He was 80 years old. Mr. Llewellyn was one of the scientist-astronauts of the 6th NASA group, and resigned from NASA before flying to space.
Its time for the NASA budget battle. Congress has been working on the authorization acts for the 2014 federal budget. The proposal from the Senate has NASA being funded at $18.1 billion, or even higher than the executive branch requested ($17.7 billion). However, the House of Representatives has something different in mind, and is proposing a budget as low as $16.6 billion, which is less than the White House requested. It would take a miracle for this to get resolved before the fiscal year starts.
The Apollo rocket parts being recovered from the Atlantic by Jeff Bezos have been identified as originating from the rocket that sent Apollo 11 to the moon.
Lots of news from ISS and the world’s active space programs in the past few weeks.
First, NASA conducted two spacewalks from the US airlock on the ISS. The first, on July 9th, was successful. Luca Parmitano and Chris Cassidy did maintenance outside for a solid 6 hours. However, if you google “July 2013 spacewalk” you won’t get any results for the July 9th EVA, because just a week later the two astronauts went out the door again, and were not as successful. The Tuesday, July 16 spacewalk ended after only 92 minutes because of water collecting in Parmitano’s helmet. It seems his spacesuit, or EMU, had some kind of cooling system leak. NASA is still investigating to figure out what exactly is broken. There are 3 NASA spacesuits on ISS, so they have a backup if an emergency spacewalk is needed.
In Kazakhstan on July 2, a Russian Proton rocket crashed spectacularly just seconds after launch.
The rocket is the same kind that sometimes takes large ISS components into orbit – such as the MLM, or Nauka, module that is manifested to launch later this year. The rocket was carrying several Russian GPS satellites (known as Glonass). Obviously all the payload was lost.
Check out the shockwave hitting the cameraman in this amateur footage of the crash.
The official investigation commission in Russia has publicly announced their preliminary findings. It appears some sensors were improperly installed. Oops.
Meanwhile, the Kepler Space Telescope team is working towards attempting recovery of one of her failed reaction wheels – which are currently preventing the telescope from doing any more science.
Around the Solar System
The International Astronomical Union has given names to P4 and P5, the new moons of Pluto discovered by Hubble just over a year or so ago. The new moons will be named Kerberos and Styx, staying with the god of the underworld theme (the other 3 known moons are Charon, Nix, and Hydra).
The IAU named the Pluto moons just in time, because another astronomer looking through old Hubble data of Neptune, found a new Neptunian moon! It will need a name now also…
Curiosity has now roved more than 1 kilometer at Gale Crater on Mars. I wish she would rove faster!
Data from the Hubble Space Telescope (yes, more Hubble!) has identified the color of an alien world. By watching a distant planet “transit” in front of its parent star, the instrument called Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph was able to figure out that the Jupiter-sized planet is blue. Read Phil Plait’s explanation if you want the details. The color tells us more about the planet – like the fact that the atmosphere is probably full of methane.
Moondust by Andrew Smith is a space history book that seeks to tell a unique tale through first person interviews. The subtitle describes the quest for which he set out – “In Search of the Men who Fell to Earth”.
As Smith describes in his prologue, he did not originally intend to spend several years on a quest to interview all the surviving Apollo astronauts. His principal career was as a journalist, not an author, and on July 9, 1999 he was interviewing Charlie Duke (Apollo 16 LM pilot) and his wife for a magazine. That was the morning the world learned of the death of Pete Conrad. Somehow that coincidence of timing haunted Smith, leading him to ponder the meaning of Apollo and those unique men, the “moonwalkers.” Hunting down all 9 surviving moonwalkers is a daunting task, but somehow Smith accomplished it, with a few Command module pilots thrown in to boot.
There is nothing like a first person account of history. Moondust is a one of a kind book (unless you count the film “In the Shadow of the Moon” as a book) in that it provides so many first person accounts of the Apollo program, from the men that flew the missions, in one place. This is Moondust’s exceptional achievement, which overcomes some other flaws – not least of which is Smith’s lack of in depth knowledge about the Apollo program. Smith is certainly an outsider to the space program. He freely admits that he is not even a huge fan of space exploration. Thus, it is understandable that he is not a space scholar. This provides a fresh outside perspective but leads to some glaring factual and editorial errors. A good example is when Smith asserts that the Apollo program stopped for 18 months after the Apollo 1 fire so that NASA management could be “overhauled.” A more studious historian would know that the entire Command Module design was also “overhauled” during this period.*
Due to these frequent errors or twists of history, I would not recommend Moondust to readers who are not already studied in Apollo history. Moondust is not a book to read to learn about Apollo. Instead, Smith’s book is a look at the personalities of many of the astronauts themselves. When reading other personal stories, such as the memoirs of astronauts Gene Cernan, Al Worden, or Dave Scott, you are only treated to one perspective for an entire book. Within the pages of Moondust you can contrast the free spirit of Al Bean with the cocky second place finisher Buzz Aldrin with the hard and political Cernan with the quiet hero Neil Armstrong, and many more. Smith’s interpretations of the many astronauts motivations and psychologies may be flawed, but the words from the moonmen he interviewed are their own. In some cases, more interesting than the words the astronauts say, is Smith’s description of their demeanor, tone, and unique quirks. For instance, Aldrin’s strange ramblings can only really be appreciated by someone that has seen him speak off script (ie, not on Dancing the With the Stars or an Axe commercial).**
The second aspect of Moondust which I really liked is what seems to be at the heart of most negative reviews of the book on Amazon.com – context. Andrew Smith does more than just recount his many interesting interviews with Apollo heroes, he gives us personal and historical context for his thoughts about Apollo, and why it may or may not have been worth it. Most astronaut memoirs do at times try to provide context by discussing what was going on in the world outside – Vietnam, civil rights, civil unrest (Kent State, Chicago DNC riots). But most of the astronauts bring those events up to admit that they were sheltered in their NASA bubble, and were thinking only about their missions. Andrew Smith of course grew up and lived through the 60s and 70s, and at times digresses from his space themed narrative to tell us what that was like. This is described by some Amazon reviews as “self-absorbed” and “narcissistic” but overall I found it enlightening.
In summary, Moondust is a book worth picking up for any space geek who wants a new perspective, and who won’t be offended by an outsider telling you that maybe space exploration isn’t everything you make it up to be. Smith’s core thesis is dubious, but interesting; that the astronauts who went to the moon never really “came back” but instead spent the rest of their lives searching for that sense of purpose that they had during their mission, forever dreaming of the Moon. This may not be a fair psychoanalysis to use with so broad a brush, but it took me out of my comfort zone and really caused me to examine each of the moonwalkers as people. Moondust is best read after first reading the major Apollo memoirs (Cernan, Aldrin, Worden, Slayton, Scott, Kranz, Kraft, and Lovell) but will likely be enjoyed by almost any space fan. Add it to your reading list.
*My second favorite error is during Smith’s chapter about his Al Bean interview. He says that Bean described watching “the Earth wax and wane int he sky “like a blue-and-white eye opening and closing.” But clearly this is impossible, as the moon’s orbit means that Earth’s phases, as seen from the moon, are also on a 28 day cycle. Perhaps Bean was referring to shifting cloud patterns on the Earth. In any case, Smith’s lack of scientific understanding here is glaring.
**Apparently Aldrin has partnered with AXE in some strange promotion where they will send contest winners to space. Ya, I don’t get it either.
Down to Earth
Stratolaunch has been in the news again. This week they received their first 747 airplane they will use for parts to make their huge rocket carrier aircraft. Jeff Foust at NewSpaceJournal.com has some good quotes from the Stratolaunch guys from this week.
Here’s a “VR” interactive panorama of the Space Shuttle Discovery’s flight deck, ready to head to the Smithsonian in April.
Speaking of Discovery, it was a year ago this week that Discovery launched on her final mission, STS-133.
Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new book is published this week! It’s called Space Chronicles: Facing the Final Frontier. I will have to get it and let you know how it is!
This weekend is the SpaceUp Unconference in Houston.
This is part of what makes media like Twitter so appealing – two cool astronauts just hanging out in DC. Nice!
The Russian space agency has been looking for new cosmonaut candidates. Ria Novosti reports that in the first month of recruitment they have received less than 50 applicants. Contrast that with NASA’s 6000+ applicants – one has to wonder if the state of the US space program isn’t quite as bad as some people complain. Just think, we could be Russia.
John Glenn reflects on the 50th anniversary of his orbital flight, which was February 20, 1962.
Don Pettit, current space resident, explains the challenges of space-based photography of the Earth.
Don is also a pretty good story teller and this brief post about eating toast in space is fun.
Here’s a good photo from last week’s ISS EVA. Oleg Kononenko and Anton Shkaplerov are shown moving the large “crane” to a new location so it won’t be thrown away later with Docking Compartment 1, which is to be replaced by the MLM (via NASA Image of the Day).
ESA’s ATV-5 cargo ship now has a name! Georges Lemaitre, named after a physicist who originally postulated a theory we now call “The Big Bang”, will likely fly in 2014.
Around the Solar System
My choice for this week’s awesome view from Cassini in Saturn orbit is this shot of the tiny moon Mimas in front of the planet’s rings
Cassini just passed periapsis of its 24-day, 161st orbit of Saturn. Orbit 162 starts on March 1st at apoapsis. I have a good feeling Cassini will make it to 200 orbits of Saturn and beyond.
How far have human radio signals traveled since the birth of the tech age? You may not have ever wanted to know that before now, but Emily Lakdawala has a beautiful graphical answer over at The Planetary Society blog. Space really is huge.
Speaking of galaxies, check out the stunning beauty of NGC 1073.
The big exoplanet news this week is GJ1214b, the planet that is a veritable water world. Here’s Bad Astronomy’s take on it and then Well-Bred Insolence’s take on it. The new data are based on spectra taken of the planet’s atmosphere showing the atmosphere to be 20% water.
Because it’s cool
A “galactic storm” from Earth Science Picture of the Day.
I’m not sure how it happened, but I woke up one day and half of my bookshelf was taken up by books about Pluto. Not that I’m complaining. Pluto is everyone’s favorite little ice ball to argue about. The cover of Neil deGrasse Tyson’ book The Pluto Files has a quote from Jon Stewart “You gotta read this. It is the most exciting book about Pluto you will ever read in your life.” The jokes on you Stewart. There is more than just one book about Pluto out there and Tyson’s isn’t even the best.
Each of these books has a different focus and will probably appeal to different people. Tyson’s book is the perfect book to put on the shelf in the super market for the average American to read. The book takes you into the topic assuming you don’t know much about planetary science and guides you through the “is it a planet” controversy with pictures, poems, and quite a bit of science. My favorite part of the book is by far Tyson’s descriptions of the hate mail he received from school-aged children the country over. The Pluto Files is a fun read you can finish in an afternoon.
Next down in the pile is something I picked up in a store in Flagstaff, Arizona, just a stones throw from Mars Hill where Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh. Pluto and Beyond is much more a history book. It has quite a few less pictures than The Pluto Files… scary! Author Ann Minard gives you a great historical context to view the discovery, and demotion, of planets through without all the hyperbole. She uses the controversy surrounding Pluto in the mid-naughts in order to tell us the history of Lowell Observatory as well as some of the history of how cosmology and planetary science evolved in the early 20th century. This book is definitely not for the casual space fan. Pluto and Beyond is only about 160 pages but has a lot going on. I think this is a must read for anyone involved in astronomy or who considers themselves an astronomy buff, but I wouldn’t recommend it to people who don’t normally read books about space.
Lastly is How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming. If you’re going to read any book about Pluto, read this one. Everyone knows Pluto got short shrift from the IAU in 2006, but most people don’t really know what was going on in the scientific community that lead to the controversy. There’s no one better to tell the story than Mike Brown, who discovered more “dwarf planets” than he can name. Mike Brown is an astronomer in the tradition of Carl Sagan: smart, accomplished, but also charming and well spoken. Dr. Brown breaks the mold of scientist memoirs by exposing what can almost described as a “seedy underbelly” of his field – although that may be a bit harsh. I had no idea there was high-tech backstabbing and plagiarism going on in the world of astronomy. Astronomy isn’t exactly a field where you’re going to strike it rich or even win a Nobel Prize, so most astronomers do it for the love of science only. I suppose you can’t escape human nature.
HIKP is a page-turner because Dr. Brown makes you feel like a part of his research team. You want to find out if he finally discovers that “Planet X” he is looking for and what it will mean for science. The truth of what happened isn’t as exciting as discovering the 10th planet, but it is revealing about how science works. The truth is that this story is far from over. What Mike Brown did is something few scientists can do so single handedly. His research blew open the status quo and caused a whole field to reassess the entire taxonomy of their science. What is a planet? Should we even have a definition for a planet? How do we classify things if simply “planet” and “non-planet” aren’t good enough? These are questions we are still answering.
You can follow Mike Brown @plutokiller (hilarious, right?) and he regularly tweets from the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii or other observatoires while doing observing to find out what all of those TNO (Trans-Neptunian Objects) are really made of. I, for one, hope he writes a sequel. In the mean time, check out his blog at Mike Brown’s Planets.
You can get all three of these books on Amazon.com:
I suppose at this point, I might as well complete the collection and pick up the other books out there on Pluto. Better start a list.
If the Orbiter Access Arm at JSC’s Rocket Park can be said to hold the dreams of my childhood, the Kepler Spacecraft must be the dreams of my teenage years set aloft.
I was a real sci-fi addict in high school (okay, also Tolkien). I consumed Arthur C. Clarke books as well as the Ender series and the first few Ringworld novels (A World Out of Time is another great Larry Niven offering). My simple childhood dreams of piloting a Space Shuttle in Earth orbit evolved into grander imaginings of interstellar travel, multi-generation ships, and humanity’s destiny in the stars. All of these sci-fi driven dreams, in order to become reality, are built on one simple but elusive premise: habitable planets other than Earth. This is of course where Kepler comes in.
Kepler is what every sci-fi geek beginning with Clarke 70 years ago, or maybe even Wells before him, secretly wished for. Kepler is our gateway between the worlds of fiction and science.
I wanted to highlight Kepler because of the slew, or even deluge, of new planet candidates that continues to come from the Kepler team. About a month ago the blogosphere was in a frenzy over the announcement of Kepler-22b (which is notable enough to have it’s own Wikipedia page but not a better name), claimed to be the first small planet discovered in the habitable zone of another star. Then in late December the Kepler team announced confirmation of small planets around Kepler 20. Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f are just about the size of Earth (although they are not in the habitable zone). Just a few years ago I was dreaming of the day we might hear of this kind of discovery.
Now there are so many planets out there that NASA has a dedicated counter over at the PlanetQuest website. Consider that only 20 years ago in 1992 we discovered the first planets around another star. There are so many planets that i have an iPhone app to keep track of them all. It would probably be a full-time job if someone tried to give them all normal names.
Even more exciting than talking about all the worlds we have already discovered is looking ahead at what Kepler should find this year. Kepler works by looking at planets transiting in front of the light of their star. Confirmation of new planets takes 3 transits to build high confidence that it’s a real planet. If we want to find Earth-like planet around Sun-like stars, that means waiting 3 years. Kepler was launched in March of 2009. See where I’m going with this?
They say never to make predictions about scientific progress, but I’m fairly confident that 2012 will be an unbelievable year in exoplanet science. We are going to start confirming planets that in all likelihood have life thriving on the surface, and that could very well look a lot like the planets from our favorite sci-fi stories. If you’ve been sitting around wondering where’s all the cool stuff those scientists have been working on, well welcome to the future. They’ve been busy finding the thousands of planets that your great-great-great grandchildren may colonize.
I was going to use yesterday’s post about the Orbiter Access Arm and white room that are now at JSC’s rocket park as a segue to recommend Guenter Wendt‘s autobiography The Unbroken Chain. But after doing an Amazon search I discovered that his 2001 book is now mysteriously no longer being printed by Apogee Books. This is baflling to me because the softcover was released just recently in May 2009, about when I got my copy.
Unfortunately, it probably has something to do with the fact that we lost Guenter in May 2010. I can’t even find a preview or anything at books.google.com. So, long story short, if you are a space geek you should find a copy of this book, and if you already have one, hang on to it!
Most casual space fans are familiar with Guenter Wendt from Apollo 13 when Tom Hanks is getting suited up and says “Ah, Guenter Wendt. I wonder where Guenter went.” (the same line is used in episode 3 of From the Earth to the Moon). I honestly didn’t know much about this guy either, other than this quotable movie line, until I read his book. And wow. You really don’t have a complete picture of the people of the early space program without reading Guenter’s stories about the pranks that the astronauts and closeout crew used to play on each other almost every mission.
My absolute favorite anecdote is from Gordon Cooper’s Mercury flight. Apparently, after getting out of the van at the launch pad, Gordo pretended to be so scared that he refused to get on the tower elevator and the closeout crew wrestled him in and slammed the door. All of this was done in front of a crowd of media cameras. This is the space program that you never knew happened.
On a more serious note, I love this book because it really shows the tension of those moments strapping into your rocket up in the white room. It’s clear from the way the astronauts talk about Guenter that they are truly fearful during those patient long hours at the top of the launch tower, and that Guenter’s calm professionalism and boyish sense of humor always helped them keep their cool.
You can’t talk about the history of the US space program without mentioning Guenter Wendt. I know that now and hope that more space fans get a chance to read his book and find out for themselves. Maybe we can start a grassroots campaign to get Apogee to start printing again? In any case, with any old copy listed online for about $100, I don’t think I’ll ever be getting my hands on a signed copy for my collection (Update: actually, most used copies are about $40 and there is at least one signed copy for $150 – I initially read Amazon wrong).
I’ll leave you with a couple of nice videos of Guenter talking about the early space program.