Archive for the ‘History’ Category
Down to Earth
NASA administrator Charles Bolden and Buzz Aldrin laying a wreath at Arlington.
You thought it was all over last month didn’t you? Well think again. The deal that the 112th Congress agreed to early in January only delayed the “sequestration” of the federal budget. Sequestration is a returning threat if a more permanent deal can’t be reached by March. This will of course have far-reaching impacts in this country, including in space exploration. Here’s a summary from the Planetary Society about what sequestration would mean for NASA’s planetary science programs. The bottom line though is that NASA leadership has not publicly indicated how drastic budget cuts would be dolled out within the administration.
Ron McNair died in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. His brother remembers him in a story that was turned into this cartoon by StoryCorps.
Later this morning – at 10:30 AM eastern – famed actor William Shatner will have a public video conference with ISS astronaut Chris Hadfield. As I understand it, some of America’s major news networks plan to cover the brief event.
The large asteroid 2012 DA14 will fly within just 17,200 miles of the Earth next week, on the 15th. That distance is below the roughly 22,400 mile altitude of geosynchronous orbit. The asteroid is about 50 meters or so across so it will be too small to see with the naked eye. I have not read anything that indicates we should be worried about a gravitational “keyhole” for 2012 DA14. It does not seem to be at a high risk for impact in the near future.
In less serious asteroid news, there is one out there with the newly minted official name “Wikipedia”.
There was some speculation earlier this week that the Iranian space monkey launch was faked. The accusation was based on the before and after pictures of the monkey, which appeared to be of a different animal, to experts. Iran has said they simply used the wrong photos, but they did really send their monkey on a successful suborbital flight.
Bigelow Aerospace has posted pricing information for trips to their planned Earth orbit space station. Visitors would fly up on SpaceX’s Dragon capsule or Boeing’s CST-100. The flights are noticeably cheaper than what tourists have paid in the past to travel to ISS. This is all well and good, but I want to know why Bigelow is calling their station “Alpha Station” when some NASA astronauts still refer to ISS as “Space Station Alpha”. Could get confusing.
Around the Solar System
Mercury and Mars are having a very close conjunction in the sky (as seen from Earth). At dusk today, February 7th, you should look West if you have a clear view to the horizon, and you may be lucky enough to spot this unlikely pair. You probably need binoculars to easily see the planets.
Sometimes history just walks up and smacks you in the face – or at least walks up in the form of a 78 year old man who once walked on the moon, more than 40 years ago.
On Tuesday, astronaut and moonwalker Eugene Cernan stopped by FCR-1 (the main control room for ISS mission operations) to see how the program is going many decades after his last steps on the moon, and to share a brief call with the crew aboard ISS.
FCR-1 has been used for continuous ISS operations for many years now and is regularly staffed by flight controllers who can be fairly young (for instance, I have been working in FCR-1 since I was 23). Long before I was born, Eugene Cernan was backup crew on Apollo 7, whose flight control team sat in the very same room in October 1968 – 45 years ago.
Human spaceflight is one of those things that can seem to both stretch and compress history at the same time. To me, the Apollo program is mostly an event to study in history books and memoirs. A bygone era of my profession two generations removed, from which I can still take lessons, but whose glory has long passed. And yet, many of the men and women who made Apollo possible are still around, not least of which are the eight surviving moonwalkers.
The existence of the very space station I fly can be traced back to a presidential decision in 1972 to pursue “low earth orbit infrastructure” as the future of NASA’s manned spaceflight program. this plan included the development of the space shuttle and eventually the large scale construction of a space station. Funding for this long-term plan was approved mere months before Cernan’s astronaut career culminated with his Apollo 17 landing on the moon that December.
Suddenly those words spoken on December 14, 1972 don’t seem so long ago.
I’m on the surface; and, as I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I’d like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.
Down to Earth
This week is the time every year for somber reflection at NASA, as it sees the anniversaries of all three of NASA’s spaceflight fatalities: Apollo 1 on January 27, Challenger on January 28, and Columbia on February 1. This coming February marks 10 years since the space shuttle Columbia was lost on mission STS-107. It’s not fun to watch, but I do re-watch this video* from time to time to remind myself that things can and will go wrong in this dangerous business.
*It amazes me the number of cameras that were on hand in Mission Control for Space Shuttle re-entry. In routine ISS operations, I’ve never had to deal with a camera in my face the way these ascent/entry flight controllers did.
The makers of a small budget documentary about Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, lost on Columbia, will air on PBS this Thursday night. I saw an early cut of the film a few years ago and it is well worth watching – I suggest you tune in! Here is their trailer.
Well, he didn’t quite make it to orbit, but an Iranian monkey did fly to space, according to reports out of that country.
The United States government says the monkey’s flight is (officially) unconfirmed.
The Robotic Refueling Mission aboard the ISS wrapped up successfully. The several weeks of operations completed with a successfully simulated refueling, using ethanol, early Monday morning.
And if you need to relax, here’s what it’s like to orbit the Earth from a couple hundred miles up.
Or if you prefer, here is a nice event from last week in which two NASA astronauts on ISS answered student questions live on TV. I enjoyed it live from the Flight Control Room!
Around the Solar System
This month is the 9th anniversary of the Mars Exploration Rovers landing on Mars and the start of Opportunity’s tenth year exploring that planet. Curiosity has a long way to go to match the legacy of Oppy, who landed on January 25, 2004. I can’t wait for her ten year anniversary next year, which I believe she will easily surpass. As Stu, from The Road to Endeavour, points out, Opportunity has spent far more of her life on Mars than she ever did on Earth. She is truly a Martian.
On the other side of Mars from Opportunity, Curiosity has taken her first nighttime pictures! Curiosity can take pictures with white LEDs or ultraviolet light. this can reveal some specific properties of the local geography that are trickier to pinpoint when you have the complex wavelengths of light coming from the sun. In particular, UV light can help Curiosity find fluorescent minerals, which could indicate organics.
Also, Curiosity has discovered lots of evidence of a water-rich past in Gale Crater, including calcium deposits. Curiosity should be doing her first rock drilling very soon!
Because it’s Cool
Stunning exposure of the ISS and the night sky.
NASA TV has been playing this video… awesome.
Down to Earth
Monday night had a stunning Moon and Jupiter conjunction in the sky that I hope you saw if you had clear skies! I was able to view the Moon and Jupiter together on a clear night here in Texas through my binoculars. In case you missed it, here is a collection of images from the conjunction.
Another company that claims it will make billions mining asteroids in a few short years? Yes. Enter, Deep Space Industries.
The ten year anniversary of the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia is coming up. On January 31, a documentary about Israeli Columbia astronaut Ilan Ramon will air on PBS.
In the realm of space law (yes, I know, exciting!) a compromise has been reached regarding liability for space tourism flights out of New Mexico. The new law is intended to appease Virgin Galactic so that they don’t consider leaving the New Mexico spaceport as their home base.
Kazakhstan has not approved all of Russia’s launches from their Baikonaur spaceport for this year (if you need a history refresher – Kazakhstan used to be part of the USSR and that is where the Soviets built their launch facility. Russia continues to use the existing infrastructure in Kazakhstan even now, long after the fall of the USSR). This is unfortunate for the Russian program and a good reason not to have such an important facility in a foreign country. Fortunately for Russia, they are already building a new native facility in the far Eastern reaches of the nation. NASA should pay attention and make sure Texas and Florida don’t secede!
As I wrote about last week, the European planet hunting space telescope CoRoT may be a lost mission. Well, it seems luck is not with astronomers this month; NASA’s Kepler space telescope has had an issue with one of its momentum wheels (excess friction) and is spending a week or so in safe mode, suspending all science, in hopes the situation will improve. Kepler is already down one of 4 reaction wheels, which failed in July. It needs at least 3 to be able to control attitude precisely to do science.
To lighten the mood, here’s a quick NASA bit from The Onion (you have to watch a commercial for their fake Joe Biden book first).
Here is an official statement from NASA about the new Bigelow inflatable module that will be tested on ISS. It seems the module will be scheduled to launch on a SpaceX cargo mission in 2015.
More on future NASA plans: here’s an update on the four companies that are developing vehicles for NASA’s commercial crew program.
And here’s a quick update on Orbital Sciences’ launch schedule for ISS commercial cargo resupply missions.
The Robotic Refueling Mission has continued in earnest this week. I have had the pleasure of working the day shifts in ISS mission control this week, being tangentially involved in these operations by disabling thruster firings to protect the robotics hardware.
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.
Not much new over the past few days. Here are the few interesting tidbids I’ve compiled.
Down to Earth
Due to a recent BBC documentary about Neil Armstrong, there has been a story circulating in the media that Neil Armstrong did not come up with his famous “one small step” quote spontaneously as he had led us to believe. The true story is, of course, more subtle than the news would like to portray – and it does not involve Neil Armstrong lying for 40 years. Andrew Chaikin (author of the pre-eminent book “A Man On The Moon”) has a good sober analysis of the situation.
Phil Plait has compiled all 360-ish astronomy facts from 2012 that he tweeted over the year.
In a fun internet event that had people excited last week, ISS astronaut (and soon to be Commander) Chris Hadfield exchanged tweets with fictional starship commander William Shatner.
A NASA-funded study has shown (using mice) that the cosmic radiation experienced during interplanetary flight may be a significant risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.
A recent study at Caltech, based on Kepler data, suggests that there is at least 100 billion planets in our galaxy.
Because, why not?
Entering the realm of the truly geeky, here is a mashup of nearly every film in cinema that featured a space helmet… yes really (via Universe Today).
Musician-astronauts Cady Coleman and Chris Hadfield play a tribute to Sally Ride.
Down to Earth
The “NewSpace” venture Stratolaunch intends to have their first test flight out of Kennedy Space Center in Florida in the year 2017.
NASA manager Jesco von Puttkamer has died. I had never actually heard of Mr. Puttkamer until I saw the post of his passing on NASA Watch. You should at least read his Wikipedia page and watch the video below to understand his legacy. Mr. Puttkamer was part of Werner von Braun’s German rocket team that built the Saturn V. Based on that, it seems he worked for NASA for 50 years. Impressive.
Well, the fiscal cliff is still looming… here are some more words from The Planetary Society on how the budget cuts will affect NASA.
I’m sure most of my readers aren’t interested in the legislative side of space news or ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulation) reform. But for those of you that are, the Senate and the President of the US are expected to sign a bill that will remove satellite systems from the munitions list, so that they are no longer under ITAR. Theoretically this should make some aspects of the aerospace industry cheaper and allow more competition from American companies on the world satellite market.
A Christmas message from ISS Commander Kevin Ford.
And a video New Year’s message from all three US segment crew aboard ISS.
Speaking of Christmas messages, it’s too bad I didn’t find this story to post last week. Apparently during Apollo 17, Jack Schmitt wrote his own lunar version of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” (via Carnival of Space).
And, saving the best from orbit for last… ISS resident Chris Hadfield has recorded the first original song in space – “Jewel in the Night”. Give it a listen or two.
Around the Solar System
I wrote about the close conjunction in the sky of the Moon and Jupiter last week. I didn’t write about the fact that the Moon would actually pass in front of Jupiter because it was only visible from South America. Phil Plait linked to a cool video of the occultation.
Check out this great visualization of over half a million asteroids in our solar system. The visualization is mainly just to see their orbits but the database looks at the estimated worth of the asteroids in raw materials, as well as their accessibility. The database appears to be inspired by the question “is asteroid mining actually a viable industry?” (via the Houston Chronicle).
Because it’s Cool
I love this art project – a robot traces the trails from the game Lunar Lander on a canvas and shows all of the trails overlaid. It reminded me of the physical model of the Mercury capsule that used be on the world map in early NASA flight control rooms.
Happy Spacey New Year!
I have some ideas on how to write my take on wrapping up 2012 for space enthusiasts, but I will include that in another post. Have a safe new year’s eve everyone.
December 7th is remembered every year for the Japanese attach on Pearl Harbor and the United States being forced into World War II. While I think Pearl Harbor – and everything surrounding WWII – is something that should never leave the public consciousness, I will leave those remembrances to others this year, because I want to talk about another significant event from December 7th.
On December 7th, 1972, 40 years ago today, the last Moon rocket launched the Apollo 17 crew on their way to the Moon*. This anniversary is particularly interesting to me personally this year because I started my current job at NASA in 2009 and was here for the 40th anniversary celebrations of Apollo 11 and then later Apollo 13.
The 4 years I have worked my flight control job feels like a long time. I feel confident in my job and no longer feel like a newbie. A lot has happened in the ISS program and I am proud of many professional and personal milestones since the above picture was taken. But then again, the 3.5 years since July 2009 isn’t so long at all. I only recently received a “specialist” certification that gives me full responsibility in my flight controller job. If I imagine myself transported to a NASA flight controller job in the 1970s, I would barely have had enough time to build up expertise as an Apollo systems flight controller between the first and last lunar landings. July 1969 to December 1972. Wham bam thank you ma’am. No more humans on the moon.
I never met Neil Armstrong – although I had the privilege of seeing all of the Apollo 11 crew speak at the 40th anniversary celebration – but I did meet Eugene Cernan at a book signing once. Cernan was the Apollo 17 commander (and author of a very good space-age memoir, The Last Man On The Moon)**. Cernan even today at 78 years old he is an advocate for continued civil commitment to human spaceflight. He often testifies before congress and appears on TV (Fox News likes him). Despite his vocalness, I haven’t seen anything from Cernan about today’s anniversary. There have been no emails to JSC employees about an Apollo 17 anniversary celebration, no interviews with Cernan or other moonwalkers, and very little online discussion in general (CollectSpace and Universe Today articles are pretty minimal).
I think this is a sign of the times. We are in a “gap” as everyone likes to say. NASA is between domestic launch programs. Everyone is waiting to see who will have the next US launched human mission. In commercial space, a lot of optimism and a flurry of development activity during the aughts has left us still waiting for the first suborbital tourism flights (they’ve been 5 years away for 10 years). Optimism is sorely lacking, also due to a budgetary forecast for NASA that’s not stellar – to say nothing of “the fiscal cliff” everyone has been talking about. And yet, space bigwigs continue to find the energy to start new spacefight startups, the latest of which is Golden Spike: a commercial venture to fly multi-billion dollar missions to the moon and make a profit off of it. Their stated goal is to make their first manned flight of this campaign by 2020. So maybe they can be ready in time for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in July 2019? The optimist in me wants to hope that someone can – whether it is Golden Spike or not – and that maybe the excitement wont pass us by in 4 quick years and then again be lost to history. It would be a shame to make it back and be done again by 2022. Let’s go somewhere to stay.
*One more Saturn V (albeit with only two stages) was launched in 1973. We can reminisce about the long past glory of the Saturn V in May next year.
**Cernan is one of the 8 still living moonwalkers.
Down To Earth
Atlantis was raised into her final position at the new visitor center at KSC. She also looks rather silly in full shrink wrap. Reading the description of the new museum, I am really excited to check it out next year!
The NASA Shuttle Carrier Aircraft that was used for Endeavour’s final flight to California has been given to Houston as a display piece. This is the same airplane that was used for the Approach and Landing Tests of Enterprise in 1977.
SpaceX will no longer be a participant in the Stratolaunch project. Originally, SpaceX was going to be the provider/manufacturer of the project’s rockets, but the company cites design changes that have forced them to quit.
Some congresspeople are seeking to rename NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center after Neil Armstrong.
Speaking of Apollo 11, Minnesota has discovered the gift of moon rocks they received from NASA. They seem to have been stored in some warehouse for far too long. I’m glad to see these will be going on display.
Some enterprising Romanians launched a balloon in Australia during the November solar eclipse. They got some awesome views of the shadowed Earth.
The ISS program partners have agreed that NASA’s Scott Kelly and Russia’s Mikhail Kornienko will be the crew members to spend an entire year on ISS in 2016. Scott Kelly is of course the brother of astronaut Mark Kelly, who is married to Gabrielle Giffords. Kelly has already been on 3 spaceflights and was Commander of ISS during Expedition 26 two years ago. Kornienko has been to space once during Expedition 23/24.
On Friday, November 30th, the ISS was maneuvered by several degrees to give the European solar observatory on the ISS a better view of the sun. this is the first ISS maneuver for scientific objectives alone. Usually we only plan maneuvers for logistics.
Around the Solar System
Scientists with NASA’s MESSENGER have announced a high confidence discovery of water ice in polar craters on Mercury. Very cool.
If you heard about the “super moon” earlier this year, here is a nice graphic that shows the size difference between the biggest and smallest moon of 2012. The smallest happened just last week on November 28.
This animation of Saturn’s north pole is an abyss that stares back, as Nietzsche said.
Astronomers doing research with the MacDonald Observatory here in Texas have announced the discovery of a 17 billion solar mass black hole. The supermassive black hole may be the largest ever found and sits at the center of galaxy NGC 1277, 250 million light years away.
Down To Earth
The woman who drew the spacecraft names on to several of the Mercury capsules died last week.
NASA’s VAB at Kennedy Space Center is being renovated to support the next era of launch vehicles. Many scaffolds and platforms that were built for the Space Shuttle are being removed.
Up on ISS this past Saturday, Sunita Williams handed command over to fellow NASA astronaut Kevin Ford.
The Soyuz TMA-05M crew then undocked on Sunday evening and returned to a cold and snowy Earth (Jump to 05:40 to see crew exiting Soyuz).
The aerial photos of the rescue crew and capsule on the snowy ground are pretty cool.
The Kepler spacecraft is officially ending its primary mission of 3.5 years. Of course, it is still going strong and is being granted an extended mission. It feels like just yesterday we watched her launch and eagerly anticipated the discoveries to come. Now we have more than the 3 years needed to confirm the existence of planets in Earth-sized orbits around other stars… of which they have discovered several. You can see an interactive list of exoplanet stats at the Kepler website here.
Passing your “primary mission” is mostly just going through puberty for NASA spacecraft. After all, Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity passed her 3 month primary mission over 8 years ago. So, happy adulthood Kepler! Here’s to many more years.
Around the Solar System
The Mars Odyssey Orbiter is on its backup Inertial Measurement Unit. The mission has been at Mars for over 10 years, so failures are not surprising. This is of course another example of an exceptional NASA spacecraft long past “puberty”. Odyssey’s primary mission also ended in 2004. Keep it up Odyssey!
Speaking of Mars, the first data from Curiosity’s radiation detection equipment was publiclly released. Based on the data, the level of radiation on the Martian surface is actually reasonable – the real trick is managing radiation on humans on their trip through interplanetary space to get there.
Speaking of exoplanets, astronomers at the Subaru telescope in Hawaii have taken a new direct image of a planet orbiting a star only 170 light years away.
NASA announced a recent discovery – using orbital observatories Spitzer and Hubble – of the most distant/ancient galaxy ever found. Go to Phil Plait’s blog for the picture and a good discussion.