Archive for the ‘Futurist’ Category

ExxonMobil gets it

It’s no secret that America’s investment – and proportionally, our superiority – in STEM education is nowhere near where it was when the Cold War sent us to the Moon. The problem these days is convincing people that it is a big enough problem for our elected officials to want to increase that investment, even in hard fiscal times. That’s why this video made me somewhat more optimistic (via NASA Watch).

Now, you may not like big oil companies, perhaps even especially ExxonMobil. That’s an ethical debate for another forum. Whatever you think of them, ExxonMobil is still the second largest corporation in the world (Apple passed them in market capital back in January). A company that big has a lot of weight to throw around; it seems they are throwing that weight in great ways.

I poked around their “Let’s Solve This” website to see if Exxon was just talking the talk but not walking the walk. I was happy to see that they are putting their money where their YouTube is and, among other initiatives, they have a free summer science camp for kids at at least 3 universities (in partnership with The Harris Foundation). They also work with the Sally Ride Science Academy to help improve science curricula and run a science academy for elementary school teachers.

There are a lot of people out there (like Lawrence Krauss, who I may expound on some other day) who think that how we invest in spaceflight is some kind of economical equation, and we should do whatever makes the most money sense. But those people don’t get it, or are forgetting. Human spaceflight is inspiring beyond almost anything else we can do. It is what made America a science powerhouse in the 20th century and it can do it again. By using that historic success in their video, ExxonMobil shows that they get it.

ExxonMobil is basically the largest company in the world and they have no direct ties to spaceflight, or NASA, or most basic science research. They are reaping in billions of dollars in revenue a year just fine. They don’t need to promote science education for the stockholders to see a reward this year, or next year, or even 5-10 years from now. Nevertheless, they are forward thinking enough to realize the long-term implications of a society that does not invest in the education of its populace, and especially in developing STEM expertise. That’s why this makes me optimistic. I applaud Exxon for this initiative and I hope it catches on.

I agree, we can “solve this”.


Whenever Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart come back from vacation they joke that all the big news always happens when they are off the air. I feel a bit like that this week with the launch and docking of three Chinese astronauts to their Tiangong-1 space station.

It’s hard to say what impact the Chinese program will have on the world of spaceflight or American politics. The Chinese had not launched people since 2008 so they were somewhat forgotten. Some people hope that a successful Chinese program will spur “the West” into another “space race” that will increase funding. This kind of speculation has been around ever since the first Chinese flight in 2003. So far, no obvious changes have come from old-style “red fear”.

My personal hope is that space can continue to be an arena where politics are more positive than negative, and that the challenge of the rocket will continue to bring nations together. Apollo-Soyuz and Shuttle-Mir were examples of an anti space race that eventually led to the ISS. I think with a little work the same could be done with the Chinese. A shift in thinking on the Hill would be required first, and that’s all a bit over my head (in about a dozen ways).

My view, and thus the tone of this blog, has always been one that embraces spaceflight success independent of nation or politics. I don’t much mind if it’s a taikonaut, cosmonaut, or astronaut, just as I pick no sides between SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, Orbital, and others. I believe spaceflight is good for humanity, and Chinese space flyers in the news is good for spaceflight.

Good luck to the occupants of Tiangong-1. It is very cool that even in these difficult fiscal times our civilizations have two orbiting outposts. I think the pessimists may be in for a surprise in the years to come.

Ad Astra.

Something old, something new

Tomorrow morning the Space Shuttle Discovery (OV-103) will leave the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the back of her modified 747 carrier aircraft on her last flight (check out the airplane). Discovery will arrive in the DC area for what is likely to be a spectacular flyover at 10-11 AM (ish). Weather in Washington looks reasonable for the flight. There is a public event at the Smithsonian in Dulles to celebrate her arrival – I wish I could go!




I may not be able to be there in Dulles but on Sunday morning I had the privilege of having this view of Discovery being prepped for departure at the Orbiter Mate-Demate Device at the Space Shuttle Landing Facility at KSC.

View from MCC of Discovery mating to 747 on April 15, 2012

Even after 3 years at this job and well over a year working in the ISS Flight control Room I’m still a fan boy – I take photos like a tourist all the time. When I took this shot I didn’t intend for it to have special meaning – but when I looked at it at home some symbolism happened to jump out at me. I got the shot just at orbital sunrise for the ISS, which you can see on the screen on the right. With the sun setting on the Space Shuttle program, the sun is still shining on the ISS program, and the sun is hopefully rising on a new era of the Space Age. Just today the NASA Flight Readiness Review (FRR) gave approval for the SpaceX Dragon launch on April 30 to dock to the ISS.

Artist Concept of Dragon Arrival at ISS (from

Tomorrow at Dulles there may be a lot of people thinking about the past to celebrate Discovery’s accomplishments, and she deserves it. But I will be in the Mission Control Center tonight and tomorrow night doing my small part to help look to the future. Let’s not get so distracted by the glory and excitement of what the Space Shuttle program was that we get pessimistic about the future. Old things we love pass away but new things come along.

How I learned to stop worrying and love “the gap”

You hear a lot in the debates about US space policy about closing “the gap”. The gap is the lack of US manned launch capability between STS-135 wheel stop in July of last year and whatever comes next. This rhetoric is not restricted to politicians with an agenda. Actual space enthusiasts, professionals, and heroes can be found to be very upset about the fact that NASA may not be able to launch astronauts into space for a number of years. Watch the first 65 seconds of this video and you will see what I mean.

I have the utmost respect for Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 commanders Armstrong and Cernan – and I know the point they are trying to make. However, the rhetoric they are using makes it sound to the layman like we were flying people into space constantly from May 1961 until July 2011, and now the current politicians went and dorked it up. Way to go guys! If it was so easy for us to keep astronauts in space for the last 50 years, you must really be a bunch of idiots!

Well, hold on a second. Thanks to Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy, the following infographic might help us out (click to see full-size).

This wonderfully simple illustration is from MGMT Design and it basically tells the story for me. You don’t even need to look at the full version to get the point. 1961 is right there in the middle and it spirals out to present day. All those many many blue loops are Space Shuttle flights. The golden era from of the ’90s is the first thing that stood out to me. But that’s not what I want you to notice. Look at how patchy it is. There is no pretty progression of manned spaceflight capability, no steady march of progress from the early days to the 21st century.

What we remember

Instead, what you see is a microcosm of the American political system. The image of spaceflight in the 1960s as some shining bastion of heroism and patriotism is largely a myth. We only hear about the best stories of heroism and the greatest tragedies – later overcome – because that is the stuff worth remembering. JFK is on tape telling James Webb “I don’t care about space”; under LBJ, long before we landed on the moon, the NASA budget was getting slashed to pieces. These two men have the two most well known NASA centers named after them and yet I take great exception to a lot of their actual policies when it came to NASA.

The first 50 years of spaceflight were not perfect. We have had gaps. Big ones. The 7 years between Skylab 3 and STS-1 being the most glaring (okay, count ASTP if you must – makes it 5.5 years). In my opinion, the lost potential under previous administrations makes the current state of NASA and American spaceflight look practically rosy.

While writing this my girlfriend Leah – also a NASA flight controller – pointed out that people aren’t upset just because of a gap, but because it feels like there is no clear direction. I say, exactly! Some of our previous gaps were full of similar uncertainty. The approval of the Space Shuttle program in the ’70s was a botched policy – despite the eventual success of the program – that left us with a vehicle with no mission. Talk about uncertainty.

We’ve had previous gaps and made it through. It sucks to be without a US launched vehicle right now. But guess what? In none of our previous gaps did we have a permanent American presence in space! In all previous gaps there was only one solution: approve or get the Space Shuttle flying again. Today we have a handful of options looming on the horizon – programs developed by NASA or programs developed by industry. One or more of these is going to fly, at reasonably close to promised cost (reasonable for aerospace anyway), and America will be flying to space again probably before the end of this decade.

The funny thing is, I agree with the people who are upset that NASA hasn’t made more progress. Congress and the White House could have handled NASA better over the past 10 years, NASA could have advocated for itself more, and the general public could have cared more. But please don’t try to pretend that we are in some kind of downward spiral towards the death of NASA. That type of rhetoric plays right into the hands of people who want to skew the political discourse to their platform. Right now, as I type this, 6 people are in space – 2 Americans. Thousands of people are working every day to keep those people flying safely for another 10 years. At the same time, thousands of other Americans are working hard and passionately to develop half a dozen different space vehicles that will fly even more Americans again.

If you extend the spiral out past the current gap, eventually things will pick up, and I would bet money that this gap will fit in nicely with all the others. It’s always been a bumpy road, and today is no different, but we will get through it like we have after every previous gap. In the meantime, think about how cool it is that this website exists and go read some blogs from Don Pettit or Andre Kuipers. Spaceflight is happening every moment around you, there are online petitions to increase NASA funding, and you can attend conferences for anyone* (not just industry professionals) to collaborate with other enthusiasts on how to make space even better. If we have to have a gap, this is the right way to do it.

I leave you with Paris from space, taken from space, and tweeted today… from space. Gap this.

[blackbirdpie url=”!/astro_andre/status/184668370648576000″]

*I intend to address the popular “Space is BORING” talk from SpaceUp in a later post…

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

Alpha Centauri and the complexity of the ‘habitable zone’

There has been a lot of exciting news for exoplanet enthusiasts already this year. My Friday Links posts (here and here and here) have included some of my favorite new discoveries. But when i saw a post at Well-Bred Insolence about some research he had done about Alpha Centauri, I knew I had to highlight it as something special.

If you are new to my blog, you may have missed some of my earlier posts. I don’t expect you to go back through the archives of RFC and read everything, but if you are a romantic space fan like me you will probably enjoy my post that explains the name of my blog. SPOILER ALERT: the blog name has to do with the idea that humans may someday settle undiscovered worlds in the Alpha Centauri system and I picked the banner image because I imagine it as the view from the surface of a small moon near Alpha Centauri A – although perhaps the red shining of Proxima Centauri is a bit too bright. Or is it? Well, that’s kind of the point of Duncan’s research.

Duncan (a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Edinburgh) ran some climate models for a theoretical planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B, taking into account the changing affects of Alpha Centauri A’s sunlight over the 70 years that the two stars orbit each other. He found that the habitable surface area of such a planet could change by several percent (and probably more) on a 70 year cycle. The open question is how much would the gravity of Alpha Centauri A or even the tiny amount of sunlight from Proxima Centauri – more than 1/8th of a light year away – also affect the planet’s climate.

These are very relevant questions given the context of recent discoveries such as a planet in the habitable zone of the triple star system GJ 667. There was also a recent study presented at the AAS meeting about the effects of tidal heating on a planet’s habitability. With all of these factors in play, the typical diagram of a shaded donut showing a star’s habitable zone may soon become an outdated model. It’s so simplistic as to be misleading.

Image Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

This is an exciting time to be in the related fields of astronomy, planetary science, astrobiology, and climate research. Every time I read about these kinds of unanswered questions, I want to go get a PhD in astronomy and study stars and planets. It’s questions like this that make it obvious to me how asking questions about what’s “out there” can help us solve problems down here. Exoplanet research can help develop our climate models to better understand global warming and climate change here at home.

Even more than the practicality of it all, I love the fantasy. Duncan’s speculation about Alphan birds migrating every 35 or 70 years made me think of this artwork by Dan Durda. I would love to explore the jungles of some alien world like an interstellar Indiana Jones or David Attenborough.

Jungle Canyon by Dan Durda (via Bad Astronomy)

I just had a thought. Using humans flying the moon to inspire kids to study STEM is so last century. What we need to be doing is putting cutting edge and up to date information about the study of alien worlds into all of our science curriculum. This is the kind of thing that can excite and inspire just as much as human spaceflight. Who wouldn’t want to be the first biologist of Alphan ecosystems? Count me in.

Kepler is awesome

Kepler Launch - image credit: NASA

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.

NASA's PlanetQuest counter

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.

Stay tuned.

Plot of known exoplanets - via Scientific American

What would you do on your last night in space?

Last week on November 21, 2011 the crew of Expedition 29 undocked from ISS and came home, ending an uncertain time for the ISS program. With Expedition 30 now underway and the Soyuz TMA-03M crew taking final exams this week, things are back on track. That night I had just finished up some shifts in the Mission Control Center. Sitting there in the Flight Control Room during those last few days of Expedition 29, I was looking at the “crew sleep” clock at the front of the room and finding it hard to imagine any of the astronauts were actually sleeping through the night. This thought led me to post on twitter

I wrote that mainly as a hypothetical. I was imagining Commander Fossum sitting in the Cupola watching every sunrise and sunset. What do you think about when a life dream is fulfilled? What do you do with the glory of spaceflight coming to an end and all that is left is the dangerous business of “plunging over Niagra Falls in a burning barrel“. It’s hard to imagine.

Little did I know that someone at NASA public affairs was reading my twitter feed and retweeted my question to the NASA account’s 1.5 million followers. Within a few hours I had 87 retweets, a few dozen new followers, and hundreds of unique answers to my question. Here are some of my favorites.!/rocketeer1982/status/138512056671412225

There were many more from all kinds of people. Some were funny, some were vulgar, some were boring. What amazed me was that something I said – amplified by someone with influence – had caused people to think. Out of the billions of people on Earth and all of the important things happening on November 21 I’m sure only a few thousand people were really paying attention to the return of 3 humans to the homeworld. But that small event helped reinforce my belief that people understand the importance of spaceflight and want to see it continue.

For what it’s worth, the video below may be a more accurate answer to what at least one astronaut was doing on his last night in space this month.

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