Archive for the ‘Books’ Category
Almost 50 years after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, triumphantly ending America’s space race with the USSR, it is hard to find a fresh perspective on that slice of history. So much has been written about the early space program that it can be hard even to get through all of the old stuff. I have read memoirs from Collins, Cernan, Slayton, Shepard, Kranz, Kraft, Worden, and Scott, but have actually still never read The Right Stuff or A Man on the Moon (I know, I know). Despite the mountain of material out there, new books continue to be written. Not only are there new histories being written, like Dr. John Logsdon’s After Apollo?, but there are new astronaut memoirs: John Young’s Forever Young just came out a couple of years ago. But with all due respect to Captain Young, I have read a lot of test-pilot-astronaut memoirs.
The thing is, there are thousands of stories to tell from the Apollo program. It was a massive project that cost billions upon billions of dollars, which means that thousands upon thousands of people had their hands on the spaceships, on the control centers, on the Deep Space Network communications dishes. Everyone loves hearing from the astronauts, but what about all those other people who were a part of history? Fortunately for us space fans, some of those people have written those stories down to share with us. They are out there if you search for them!
One of those stories is Below Tranquility Base by Richard Stachurski. I wouldn’t expect you to recognize his name, because he is one of those thousands of small but important players in the epic story that is the Apollo program. Stachurski served as a flight controller starting in 1965. He started in the backroom and was promoted to the “Network” position for Apollo. Network was the call sign back then for the person in charge of the ground network comm link to the spacecraft, which is now called GC (Ground Control). Stachurski is a geek through and through. He is so excited to talk about his experiences in mission control during Apollo 11 that he spends very little time on his personal history and background. The book starts out “Did you ever have a job that you would pay to do? I did.” and the book thoroughly convinced me he meant it. Stachurski looks back on his time with NASA with almost unbelieving reverence to have been a part of something so amazing.
The details of Stachurski’s work as a Network flight controller are interesting in their own right, and Stachurski is happy to explain all of it. In fact, the book is so heavy on technical details that it may be off-putting to some more casual readers who aren’t already familiar with the details of an Apollo mission timeline. In fact, most of the book is a description of the Apollo 11 mission from the Network consoles perspective, detailing things that were broken and fixed, technical conversations on “the loops”, and Stachurski’s own emotions throughout the whole mission. So what exactly was “Network” responsible for?
While the movies and histories focus on the astronauts, their spacecraft, and the people in the Flight Control Room (FCR) with the Flight Director, there were hundreds of people working around the world trying to hold on to a communications link with the spacecraft so that the Flight Director could do his job. Anyone who has seen the movie The Dish knows a little about that. Today our link to the ISS is a bit simpler, since we have the Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS) in geostationary orbit. These still require ground antennae to get data back to mission control, but there are fewer stations, not to mention we have 50 years of experience coordinating that kind of worldwide network. In the 1960s, the entire concept was brand new, they had no geostationary comm satellites, and the missions were flying all the way to the moon, where the geo sats wouldn’t have helped anyway.
Stachurski paints a vivid picture of how this communications network worked (or didn’t). In some ways, there was more drama in the struggle to keep comm with the spacecraft than in what was actually going inside the Lunar Module during powered descent to the moon. Before I read Below Tranquility Base, I never would have guessed how close to the hairy edge of holding on to that link NASA was at several points during Apollo 11. As a flight controller myself, I can relate to Stachurski’s feeling of not being important or noticed until his system has a problem, and then all eyes are on him until the problem can be fixed. The speed with which they coordinated ground site swaps is impressive. Stachurski and his team from Apollo 11 truly were “steely-eyed missilemen” despite the humility in the face of history that he alludes to throughout his tale.
It is in fact this humility that makes Below Tranquility Base such an interesting read, and will probably help most readers get through the technical parts of the book. Stachurski’s academic background in fact is not technical at all. He studied history in college while in the ROTC program to help pay his tuition. After school, he went into active duty, which got him assigned to a bomber wing in Indiana. In those days, a bomber wing in the heartland meant that you looked after airplanes that stood at the ready 24/7 to take off with nuclear warheads to drop on our enemies. After Indiana, Stachurski spent some time babysitting nuclear missiles in the Dakotas. He was one of the guys with his finger on a launch key the Cuban Missile Crisis. The frank look we get from Stachurski into what these Cold War jobs were like is not something you would expect from a space program memoir, but is fascinating nonetheless.
This all leads to Stachurski’s assignment by the Air Force to support mission control in Houston for the Apollo program, where he feels like just a “liberal arts puke” (his words) out of his element. His journey from an overwhelmed nobody in the backroom to a front room flight controller for both the Apollo 11 launch shift and the lunar ascent shift is inspirational. In addition, his own opinion of himself that he was not that important of a player during Apollo 11 affords an unfiltered perspective on life in mission control. For instance, Stachurski gives us his frank opinion that he actually didn’t care for Gene Kranz much, feeling that his leadership style was a little bit overbearing and relied too much on micromanagement. He also tells us about the dirty magazines that they had hidden away on console for boring night shifts…
Below Tranquility Base and books like it are an important but rare part of the story of the early space age. Without them, we miss out on the small dramas that were happening all the time. Small triumphs, like having a solution when a whole network switch catches on fire in Spain during a crucial Apollo 11 mission phase, put in perspective how many people were required and how many things had to go right for the Apollo program to be successful. The book also helps to chronicle the early development of the culture of flight control in Houston that survives today. I even learned the definition of an acronym* I use regularly at work from Stachurski! This is a book that should make it onto the reading list of all avid space history fans and current flight controllers at NASA, but will probably be enjoyed by most casual fans of NASA or US history. You can get it for free on Kindle Unlimited here (it is $11.31 in paperback).
*Apparently a “pad” in a procedure is actually a PAD, standing for Pre-Advisory Data.
Some other good books that give the ground level perspective on the early space program include:
Full Circle by David L. Cisco, lunar module electrical technician.
Apollo EECOM by Sy Liebergot, Apollo flight controller.
The Unbroken Chain by Guenter Wendt, Apollo launch pad closeout team leader.
NASA’s Foundations of Mission Operations is meant to be a reminder to all working in the manned spaceflight program of the responsibility we hold to the taxpayer and to the astronauts we train and protect. Among other core values, the foundations state:
To always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences.
As part of that goal, certified flight controllers must complete annual proficiency training, which includes reading key chapters of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s report (the report is often simply referred to as “the CAIB”). We are not required to read the entire report annually – both because it is very long at over 200 pages and because many chapters are irrelevant now that the Shuttle program has retired. However, we read chapters that have a direct relation to how we continue to do our job as flight controllers, such as chapter 7: “The Accident’s Organizational Causes”. These parts of the report drive home the importance of good leadership, speaking up when you see a problem, and technical rigor, among other skills. For instance, page 191 has a very relevant discussion of the danger of trying to present a precise technical topic on a brief PowerPoint slide.
The most important part of the CAIB ultimately is the list of recommendations found in chapter 11, especially those that are organizational and apply still today. Nevertheless, it is human nature to ask “what if?” about the Columbia accident. A 2-page section of chapter 6, titled “Possibility of Rescue or Repair”, seeks to answer this question, however briefly. Chapter 6 (and the longer associated appendix) explain that, had NASA managers understood Columbia’s plight early in the flight, resources could have been conserved onboard to extend STS-107 to a mission length of several weeks and Atlantis – already being prepped for STS-114 in the Orbiter Processing Facility – could have been rushed for a possible bid at rescue. This section of the CAIB, almost a footnote, is the premise of the fictional novel Launch on Need by Daniel Guiteras.
Launch on Need takes the “what ifs?” about as far as they can go, exploring both the how the world would react to the drama of a stranded space shuttle as well as detailing NASA’s mobilization efforts for rescue. Surprisingly, the most central character to the novel is fictional CNN reporter John Stangley, rather than a NASA flight controller or astronaut. It is actually the novel’s biggest failing that Stangley is the only character who is truly explored with depth or appreciable character arc. At 350 pages, this means that a lot of time is spent with characters of little emotional interest to the reader. The fact that all of the characters are fictional – including STS-107 astronauts, rescue astronauts, and mission managers – definitely slowed down my ability to connect with them. However, to be fair to Guiteras, the book likely would not have faced problems getting published if he had assigned invented dialogue and motivations to real people, especially the crew of Columbia.
Fortunately, the reason I read Launch on Need was not really for complex characters. The book intrigued me probably for the same reasons Guiteras wrote it. NASA has not had to publically “save” a crew since the successful failure of Apollo 13, a generation ago. Both accidents during the space shuttle program were tragedies, not crises. By the time the public knew of the Challenger and Columbia accidents, the astronauts were already dead. What would a modern day Apollo 13 look like? How would the public react? Could NASA really pull it off? Of course, without a time machine, we will never really know the answers to these questions. But Launch on Need makes a compelling case for how things may have turned out differently. Despite the weak characters, and often weak dialogue, Guiteras’ loving attention to technical detail creates a drama that carries the reader all the way to the finish.
Guiteras sets up the structure of the novel in a clever way, with three parts titled The Discovery, The Challenge, and The Endeavour, using the names of three of NASA’s fleet of space shuttles. The Discovery starts at launch of STS-107 and ends with the wing inspection EVA, The Challenge covers the rescue flight’s prep for launch, and The Endeavour is the rescue mission itself. This means that, rather surprisingly, the rescue mission launches well over half way through the novel. If this story were ever to be made into a movie (unlikely) this would not fly. The big screen eye candy comes from action in space. The excitement of launch day and the drama of the rendezvous and tense rescue EVA would certainly be the focus, and launch would occur, at latest, halfway through the film. But this imagined big-screen version would steal the soul of Guiteras’ story. The real drama of the story occurs during part 2, as NASA prepares Atlantis for launch. Guiteras does a great job of building up the conflict of man versus schedule in this part of the book, which is hard to do, since the antagonist is not a person but is time itself.
One of my favorite chapters in the book comes in the middle of part 2, while Atlantis is still in the OPF, and NASA is working 3 shifts and struggling to shave precious hours of the launch prep timeline so that Atlantis can reach orbit before Columbia runs out of CO2 scrubbers. In the middle of this chaos, a careless worker drops a large bucket from an upper level of the OPF onto Atlantis’ wings, potentially putting the entire mission in danger, if the damage is bad enough. Not only did I fear for Atlantis herself but I really felt for Wally Jensen, the OPF manager you meet only for the brief 5 pages of this chapter. The accident’s impact on Jensen really painted an accurate picture of how the stress of something like a real rescue mission might take its toll on NASA’s employees.
In contrast to the parts of the novel about Atlantis being readied for launch are the chapters following the rescue crew, which I felt really missed the mark. For instance, during one chapter, we join two of the rescue mission astronauts who are selected to do the spacewalk to ferry all 7 astronauts from Columbia to Atlantis. They are training at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) the week before the flight. Actually, it is the day after they were assigned to the mission and they are already on their first NBL run. As they alone in the locker room getting ready for prebrief, one astronaut begins to confide in the other that he is worried and scared, that he has lost confidence in himself. While astronauts are just humans like you and me, and surely feel the pressure leading up to a big mission, the timing of the confession and the dialogue was rather contrived. Keep in mind that these two characters were introduced as NASA’s best spacewalkers. Unfortunately, this was a theme throughout and I felt that the astronauts were the weakest characters in the story. Similarly, a lot of the scenes that occur in mission control itself felt off to me, based on my experience in mission operations for the ISS. The most jarring scene for me was when a “tiger team” of 4 members is formed in the middle of the climactic rescue EVA to figure out how to open a stuck hatch, or else the last two crew of Columbia will die aboard. The entire logistics of this episode do not match how we do things at mission control: the IMMT chair, who was at the back of the control room at the management console, grabs 3 flight controllers who are currently on shift in the front room during an EVA and leave the room to come up with options. This would never happen. Instead, the army of back room flight controllers and engineering support rooms would be working together on the comm loops to come up with a plan.
Despite Guiteras lack of ability to provide believable astronaut or flight controller characters, the story has another strength in its exploration of the space program in the American psyche. One of the most interesting scenes to me (regardless of its realism) comes near the beginning of Part II, shortly after NASA has committed to rescue as the only option for Columbia. The NASA administrator is holding a meeting with the heads of his public affairs and communications divisions and outlines an innovative approach to media relations during preparations for the rescue mission: hide nothing, let the media in everywhere. The administrator realizes that this is an “Apollo 13 moment” and seizes on the opportunity to get everyone talking about NASA again.
As NASA starts to let reporters into the VAB and OPF, just inches from Atlantis as she is prepared for her rescue mission, the American public begins to become fixated on the mission. The 24-hour news channels essentially have a launch countdown ticker on the screen at all times and they do daily status updates. STS-300 is on the front page of the New York Times. This is my favorite part of Launch on Need. I think Guiteras has a great sense of how Americans really feel about space. Sometimes it seems NASA is ignored, often even forgotten, but that is not because people don’t love space. Spaceflight is in the background fabric of our culture, the way we expect to have a football game on TV on Sunday night or that we get 100 options of breakfast cereal at the grocery store. You don’t notice something so ingrained in our culture until they are gone. Everyone wants to talk about space when something goes wrong; we see this every time a cargo launch doesn’t make it to ISS – you see a headline in every news media outlet, even if they just use the AP brief. Often those launches aren’t covered when they are successful.
Guiteras seems to understand all of this about American culture, which makes his fictional tale about how STS-107 could have ended in triumph an optimistic but cautionary tale that I think leaders within NASA should read and learn from. Launch On Need is an interesting thought experiment about NASA public affairs. It points out that people love space (which I think is true of the majority), but that NASA needs to actively share its mission in an exciting and emotional way if we want people’s love of space to be active and conscious, and not just like their love of the breakfast cereal aisle.
We will never know if Atlantis really could have made it to orbit to save the Columbia crew before Flight Day 30. All we can say is that if NASA hadn’t made the errors in management, communication, and decision making which are outlined in the CAIB, there could have at least been a chance to try. Even if a rescue mission had been attempted and failed, the way we remember the Columbia disaster would be very different. The idea of following the Foundations of Mission Operations – of being ever vigilant – is not because we believe we can prevent all disasters from happening, but instead is to at least give ourselves the chance to turn something like Columbia from a tragedy that no one saw coming into a crisis that we can put forth our best effort to recover from. This is the point of the last line of the Foundations of Mission Operations:
To recognize that the greatest error is not to have tried and failed, but that in the trying we do not give it our best effort.
I would recommend Launch On Need to fans of space history and flight controllers alike. In fact, with some good editing and improved character development in another edition, I think it could be quite good. I hope that if and when NASA has another crisis in manned spaceflight, we will have improved our blind spots that led to disaster for Challenger and Columbia and will instead give ourselves the chance for redemption shown by Guiteras in Launch on Need.
You can read Launch on Need for free if you have Kindle Unlimited or order it for $11.60 in paperback. Here is the Amazon link.
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.