Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Weekly Links

It’s been a busy of December since my last post. A hectic week at work, following the thermal pump malfunction on December 11th, kept me very busy right up until my vacation to visit family around Christmas for a week. I am back in Houston now and working on catching up on what’s been happening outside of my little world for the past few weeks. This post will be followed shortly by a 2013 year in review post, so stay tuned!

Down to Earth

On December 10th, NASA JSC’s Morpheus vertical take-off and landing test vehicle conducted its first free flight since the previous model was destroyed in August 2012. Very cool to watch.

Edit: and they flew another flight just a few days later on December 17th, which I missed when I first wrote this post.

On December 11th, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo conducted a glide test in Mojave. More test are always good, but the frequency of glide tests without powered flights over the past few months was pretty much the nail in the coffin for Richard Branson’s prediction that he and his family would fly into space on the first suborbital flight on Christmas of this year. Clearly that didn’t happen. It seems likely however that Virgin will conduct another powered flight soon, possibly in the first week of January.

Doug Messier at Parabolic Arc is calling the first few days of 2014 “Launch Week”. Details on the various launches can be found over at his blog, but the quick summary is: SpaceX Falcon 9 commercial launch on Jan 3, Indian comm sat launch on Jan 5, Orbital Sciences ISS resupply flight on Jan 7, and a possible SpaceShipTwo flight.

Did you enjoy the movie Gravity? I liked it so much I saw it twice. Too bad the DVD wasn’t available for Christmas. Anyway, if you liked the movie, then take the time to watch this short behind-the-scenes clip that gives a glimpse at how some of the complex special effects were done.

The Las Vegas based company Bigelow Aerospace has put out a call for applicants to their “astronaut in-space simulations”. Basically the company wants to do their own independent look at how astronauts interact in closed quarters and also use the opportunity to improve their “crew systems” (in other words, the interior details of their inflatable space stations). Why not apply? Can’t hurt.

Be sure to go outside on January 3rd to look for the Quadrantid Meteors. They are supposed to be one of the best showers of the year, and this year the peak occurs on a new moon.

Astronaut Kevin Ford reminisced about spending Christmas in space during expedition 34 one year ago.

Folks are talking about Beyonce’s new song XO which opens with a sampling from the NASA broadcast of STS-51-L launch on January 28, 1986. The audio used is of the Public Affairs Officer reacting shortly after the shuttle Challenger was lost. The choice seems pretty tasteless and disrespectful, even if one can construe an ambiguous connection between the lyrics and the idea of a lost loved one. I personally can’t figure out if it is just a simple love song that has nothing to do with Challenger, or if it is intended to be something deeper. Listen for yourself.

In Orbit

The big news in orbit over the past couple of weeks was the malfunction onboard the International Space Station that led to two contingency EVAs that were prepared and executed right before Christmas. The issue also caused NASA to have to delay the launch and rendezvous of the second Orbital Sciences cargo flight to ISS, planned for a December 18th launch. The launch is now to occur in early January.

The summary of what happened is that on December 11th flight controllers started seeing anomalies in the ISS thermal cooling system. The problem was narrowed down to a faulty Flow Control Valve in one of the two pumps that flows ammonia to cool components on the outside of the station. Over the ensuing days, a few different teams were convened – one team was planning contingency EVAs to replace the pump, another was doing troubleshooting and thinking of ways to try to make the system work with the faulty valve, and another team was preparing a procedure to be executed in case the second pump failed (I was part of this team). After these teams worked night and day for over a week, it was determined that the pump should be replaced, and the first EVA was conducted on December 21st. The spacewalk was very successful; the pump removal went much better than a similar operation that replaced the same pump after a failure in 2010 during Expedition 24.

The second spacewalk was conducted on December 24th and left the station with a brand new pump and no more concerns about the thermal system for the time being. A potential third EVA was cancelled and the space station crew (and ground teams!) got a much needed break for Christmas.

The quick repair even allowed the Russian space agency to conduct their spacewalk that had already been scheduled for December 27th. One of the key objectives of the Russian EVA was to install some commercial cameras on the outside of the station. The purpose of the cameras is to make a live feed of Earth images, in fairly good resolution, available to the public. The cosmonauts got the cameras installed but they would not boot up, so they unfortately had to be brought back inside for troubleshooting.

Christmas 2013 is the 45th anniversary of an iconic photo taken by the crew of Apollo 8 while in orbit around the moon: Earthrise.

Earthrise

A team from NASA Goddard (with Andrew Chaikin for narration) put together a very cool (in an extremely nerdy way) recreation of how the image was captured that day (via Bad Astronomy).

Around the Solar System

On December 14th, the Chinese Chang’e 3 spacecraft came to a soft landing in the Bay of Rainbows on the Moon and quickly deployed the Yutu rover. Chang’e 3 is the first soft landing on the moon since the Soviet Luna 24 in 1976. Since that was over 37 years ago, almost 60% of the world’s population was not alive the last time there was an active rover on the moon. Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society has been doing an excellent job, as usual, gathering information and compiling the best photos and video clips of the Chang’e 3 mission. Here is an update from December 14th and  from December 23rd, but I recommend just following her blog directly for the best stuff!

Very cool news from the Hubble Space Telescope; recent data in ultraviolet wavelengths reveals strong evidence of liquid water geysers coming from Europa, a frozen moon of Jupiter. Previously, water geysers have been imaged in visible light coming from Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. The images are stunning. Water geysers imply an ample supply of subsurface water (either in a vast ocean or just pockets or lakes in the ice) as well as the possibility for a medium for life, and a way for our spacecraft to sample that water without needing to drill deep into the ice. More science needs to be done to confirm the Europa geysers but the current data seems very compelling. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the Juno spacecraft, currently on its way to Jupiter, will be able to confirm the geysers. This is because Juno’s missions objectives are related to the planet Jupiter itself, not its moons, and the visible light camera on Juno is more of an outreach tool than a primary instrument.

Lastly in planetary science news, the European orbiter Mars Express should have completed its very close flyby of the Mars moon Phobos by now. As Phil Plait writes, we don’t expect to get any close up pictures from the 27 mile flyby, but the data should help scientists nail down the exact mass of Phobos.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Many space enthusiasts and planetary scientists were unsettled by a NASA announcement on December 3rd about a restructuring of the planetary science budget. In particular, the money allocated for planetary science grants is being reorganized into new programs – and half of that money will not be used for new grants in 2014. In short, this means there is less money available to scientists writing new proposals.

In other disappointing news, some vandals in Houston spray-painted graffiti on the side of the Space Shuttle mock-up Independence. Independence lived for almost 20 years at KSC where it was known as Explorer. The mock-up is displayed outside near the Space Center Houston parking lot, with no significant security at night (in contrast to the nearby Rocket Park which is behind a locked fence at night).

On December 3rd, NASA scientist and former JPL director Ed Stone was on Stephen Colbert to talk about Voyager entering interstellar space. At the end of the episode, Stephen Colbert surprised Dr. Stone with the NASA distinguished service medal. You can watch the interview here and the award presentation here (both links to the Colbert Report’s website and the clips come with ads).

On December 6, 1957 (56 years ago today), the Vanguard TV3 was the first attempted launch of a satellite by the United States – which ended in a spectacular explosion on the launch pad.

41 years later, December 4, 1998, the Space Shuttle mission STS-88 attached the “Unity” Node to Russia’s “Zarya” – the first step in what would be over 10 years of ISS assembly.

Endeavour prepares Unity for docking (Source: NASA)

Thanks to a post from Parabolic Arc, I have bookmarked this interactive map from SpaceWorks Software that maps all planned, active, and former spaceports around the world.

Around the Solar System

According to Chinese media, the Chang’e 3 probe has reached lunar orbit. The lander is expected to make it to the surface on December 14th.

While we have seen imagery of Saturn’s mysterious North Pole hexagon before, the newly released images (and movie!) from Cassini is the highest resolution view yet, through multiple color filters. Pretty.

Out There

Astronomers using the Keck II telescope in Hawaii have taken images of 3 large (bigger than Jupiter) exoplanets. So few planets from other systems have been directly imaged that each new one is notable, even if the planets are unlikely to be habitable or otherwise remarkable. Phil Plait provides the images at the top of his post on the results.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

SpaceX has purchased more land on the coast near Brownsville and South Padre Island in Texas, making their intentions fairly clear.

The United States Congressional Budget Office issued a report with options for reducing the national deficit. One option outlined includes completely eliminating all NASA spending on manned spaceflight. Oh dear.

In Orbit

The big news in the past two weeks, in my opinion, was the launch of Chang’e 3, a Chinese lunar lander. Chang’e 1 and 2 were successful moon orbiters, and the third mission, launched December 2nd, is scheduled to land a large rover on the lunar surface – the first to do so in 37 years – on December 14th. So far, China is putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to their spaceflight program.

Today, December 3rd, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 version 1.1  with a commercial telecommunications satellite onboard. The SES-8 satellite was successfully sent on the planned geostationary transfer orbit – proving that SpaceX had sussed out and fixed the problem that marred an earlier test launch back in September. The failure of the upper stage to relight back on September 29 was traced back to frozen igniter fluid lines. As SpaceX points out in their press release, this mission is a big step towards fulfilling their long launch manifest, which includes many commercial launches, some requiring a geostationary orbit insertion. One more successful Falcon 9 v1.1 launch is needed for DOD certification. Also, the first ISS resupply flight aboard a Falcon 9 v1.1 is planned for early next year.

On November 19th, the robotic arm on the Kibo module of the ISS (the Japanese lab) was used to deploy several small “cubesats” into orbit. This is the second time the ISS has been used as a launching platform (last time was in December 2012 also using Kibo).

On November 20th, the International Space Station program celebrated the 15th anniversary of the first module launch – the Russian “Functional Cargo Block”, or more poetically “Zarya” (Sunrise)*. Here’s a short but amazing ISS timelapse to celebrate (via Universe Today).

*Nobody in Mission Operations at NASA JSC calls it Zarya.

Around the Solar System

The big story this past month (apart from recent Chinese success) has been comet ISON – the comet-of-the-century that wasn’t. ISON was a fun story to follow because the steep-diving comet (which grazed by the Sun at less than one solar diameter on Thanksgiving Day) was so dynamic that astronomers were having a hard time predicting how and when the comet might brighten, dim, or die. I had spent a week prior to perihelion (the name for closest approach to the sun) hoping I could get up in the morning and spot ISON before dawn, but the Houston weather would not cooperate. As evidenced by this amateur photographer, the comet was naked-eye in the right conditions. Anyway, ISON’s story ended shortly after perihelion, where the nucleus seemingly broke up in the extreme heat. The disintegrating rubble pile that emerged from the far side of the sun brightened very briefly, and is now dispersing and dimming, currently at 8th magnitude. As the writers at “Sky and Telescope” joke in their summary: “ISON now ISOFF”.

On December 1st, the Indian Mars orbiter Mangalyaan (now being referred to as “MOM” in all the english language media I follow) completed a successful rocket firing to leave high Earth orbit and go into solar orbit, on its way to Mars in September 2014. MOM is now cruising through interplanetary space behind NASA’s MAVEN orbiter, which successfully launched towards Mars on November 18th. Here’s a shot of MAVEN back in August when it was being readied for launch.

Maven spacecraft (Source: NASA)

The European Exomars project – which consists of two missions in 2016 and 2018 – has chosen the name “Schiaparelli” for the 2016 lander. Schiaparelli was the Italian astronomer in the late 19th century who mapped Mars (and incorrectly deduced that Mars was covered in canals).

The Mars rover Opportunity (still roving almost 10 years after landing!) has found a winter post. Opportunity will hang out for the next 6 months on a north-facing slope called “Murray Ridge”. Murray Ridge is named after Bruce Murray, an influential planetary scientist from JPL who died earlier this year.

Out There

Astronomers have used the Hubble Space Telescope to detect water in the atmosphere of 5 “hot Jupiters” orbiting nearby (in galactic terms) stars. Since the planets are Jupiter-like rather than Earth-like, there is nothing Earth-shattering (or Jupiter-shattering) about the finding. However, future studies should be able to analyze the atmospheres of smaller and smaller worlds, leading us closer to finding a true Earth twin.

There is a new naked-eye nova in the sky. Don’t go running outside expecting to see something as bright as Venus – it is only magnitude ~5 and is not visible from Northern latitudes.

Weekly Links

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.

In Orbit

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!

Out There

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.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Sally Ride is to be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Recently returned ISS Commander Chris Hadfield announced his retirement from the Canadian astronaut corps today.

Last month, the governor of Texas signed a new law that is necessary for SpaceX to build a new spaceport near South Padre Island and Brownsville. The bill allows the mandated closure of Boca Chica Beach – a public state park – on the days of rocket launches. This bill is a big step towards SpaceX making South Texas their second launch site.

Apparently Justin Bieber made a down payment on a spaceflight with Virgin Galactic last week.

Great to hear @ & @ are latest @ future astronauts. Congrats, see you up there!
@richardbranson
richardbranson

If you are a night owl (or the opposite) you should go outside at about 4:30 AM (Eastern) on Tuesday, June 11, and see if you can spot some Gamma Delphinid meteors. The possible meteor outburst may only last 30 minutes or so, but may be dramatic.

The asteroid mining company Planetary Resources launched a “crowdfunding” campaign last month to help them raise money for their asteroid hunting space telescope(s). They are getting close to their $1 million goal. I think it is worth donating (I contributed already) just for the possibility of getting the cool “space selfie” perk they are offering. They are planning to have a small video screen on the outside of the spacecraft that can display photographs that can then be themselves photographed against the backdrop of the Earth.

Warner Brothers intends to make a feature film based on the nonfiction book “Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo”. I’ll go see it!

In Orbit

On Wednesday, May 29, the second half of Expedition 36 docked to the ISS in the second “express” docking. Launch to docking time was about 6 hours. The new crew consists of Karen Nyberg (American), Luca Parmitano (Italian), and Fyodor Yurchikhin (Russian). Soyuz Commander Yurchikhin is on his third spaceflight. He was just in space exactly 3 years ago for Expedition 24.

Last week, the fourth European transfer vehicle (ATV4) launched from French Guiana on its way to ISS. ATV4 is named “Albert Einstein” and will stay docked to ISS for several months.

Early tomorrow morning, China intends to launch their fifth manned spaceflight. The mission will be Shenzhou 10, and will send three taikonauts to the Chinese Tiangong-1 space station. (via NASA Watch)

Out There

The Keck Telescope in Hawaii (where my dad works) was used for some new research into the Big Bang. The giant telescope looked at stars to get spectroscopic data of their Lithium isotope content in order to confirm a prediction made by The Big Bang Theory of the universe’s origin.

Because it’s cool

Perhaps the answer to Life the Universe and Everything is 3, not 42.

Weekly Links

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.

Veteran space shuttle astronaut Jerry Ross has released his new autobiography in hard cover.

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.

In Orbit

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.

Cernan Visits ISS Mission Control

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.

Weekly Links

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.

In Orbit

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.

Weekly Links

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!

In Orbit

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.

Book review: Moondust

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.