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Guest post – my wife the “astronaut”

I am super excited to be able to share that my wife is Mission Specialist 2 in the next mission in NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) habitat. HERA IX (as in, the 9th HERA mission) is a 30-day experiment with four women which started today. Below I have reproduced her blog posts from Facebook which she posted throughout the first eight days of their experience. Things got really busy last Friday and so her last post was from Thursday. The crew entered the habitat earlier this evening and from here on out they will have no outside contact besides “mission control” so we will have to wait until the end of the mission for further updates! I’m sure she will share her experiences once she is out: she is on Twitter @HERA_IX_MS2.

Also, here is an article from her crewmate @julielynnwong (also on Twitter). And here is a first floor tour and second floor tour of the habitat.

HERA Training – Day 1 – January 12, 2016

Day 1 of HERA training is complete! Some of the details of everything I saw and did today are already a blur, as tends to happen when you receive a ton of new information at once, but for me the most important and memorable milestone of today was meeting my fellow crew-mates. Unlike previous HERA missions that have typically consisted of two male and two female crew members, our mission is four women. I knew this prior to today, along with the other crew members names and only very superficial information about them that had emerged over an email chain in which we designed our crew patch (stay tuned for the grand reveal some time next week). I am thrilled to report that the other three women seem pretty awesome! The four of us took no time at all to fall into an easy, silly dynamic with each other. The four of us come from relatively different backgrounds, so it was interesting to watch each of us get giddy-enthusiastic about different aspects of our mission that reflected our individual backgrounds.

As for those things we were getting excited about: I definitely have a better understanding of what we’ll actually be doing with our 30 days in the habitat. The parts of the day-to-day mission that I’m most jazzed for are building a robotic rover (should be simpler than tearing apart Robonaut, right?) and performing the ECLSS In-Flight Maintenance. We will also be doing experiments with sea monkeys, plants, and a 3D printer. Beyond experiments, a lot of our time will be spent training for the “EVAs” we’ll be performing once we reach the asteroid. For these EVAs, two of the crew members will stay inside the habitat and pilot our MMSEV (Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle) to bring us from the habitat to the asteroid. Meanwhile, the other crew-mate and myself will be released from the robotic arm of the vehicle and use jet packs to get us to the specific parts of the asteroid that are considered the highest priorities for sample return. Of course, we’re not actually on an asteroid but rather in the airlock wearing virtual reality gear; after spending just 30 minutes in the VR gear today learning how the controller manipulated each degree of freedom, I definitely can see how real this whole mission can feel when all is said and done!

Meeting my crew mates and spending a lot of the day in the habitat today made this whole experience feel a lot more “real.” There were several moments when we could look at each other and say something along the lines of “this is so weird . . . but so awesome!” That sentiment pretty much sums up how I’m feeling about it all now. I can’t wait to see what comes next!

HERA Training – Day 2 – January 13, 2016

Another day of training is complete, and I’m even more excited for this upcoming HERA mission than I was yesterday! I’m definitely learning a lot of awesome new things, and the crewmates continue to get to know each other, figure out what we’re getting ourselves into, and laugh a LOT.

This morning started off with team-building activity that was a board game in which we’re all living in a space habitat and we have to work together taking turns to move our tokens to different rooms/pods where we can draw fight aliens and draw weapon/skill cards required to repair broken systems of our spacecraft. We spent a good chunk of the time figuring out the rules, and then ran out of time right when we started to get the hang of it, so we convinced the HERA people to let us bring the game into the habitat with us and promised that at the end of our mission, we’d be super awesome at it. Throughout all of this, a NASA psychologist who does crew psych conferences and did a lot of our psych screenings was sitting at the end of the table watching but not saying anything. I’m definitely intrigued as to what observations she had watching us interact as a group!

Following that, we met with a group of faculty/grad students from GA Tech who are conducting a suite of team dynamic experiments. The main one that we’ll do throughout our mission is designing/planning construction of water wells for a Martian colony. The four HERA crew mates will work with an eight-person mission control team in GA to form a 12-person task force to create the optimal design. The task force is broken down into four teams of three, and then each person is a different specialist within the team. My team is the Robotics and Rovers team, and my specialty is drilling, so I’ll be using their research GUI to figure out my preferences for creating a water well in a way that strictly optimizes drilling (soil type, accessibility for rovers, water reservoir depth, etc.), and then they’re going to watch how the entire team of 12 negotiates/compromises to create the optimal Martian water system.

After meeting with the GA Tech group (and taking a picture with them and our crew because they asked if we could join their group pictures since we’re the “celebrities”?!), we had a training session using the Robotic Work Station to control the SSRMS (a.k.a. Canadarm2).

Driving the SSRMS to attempt to grapple an HTV from the Robotics Work Station in our habitat
Following a quick lunch break, we returned to the habitat for some more EVA training. Being in the VR gear and feeling like I’m actually flying around an asteroid is definitely my favorite part of all this so far — pretty much as soon as I get out of the gear, I’m craving being back in it flying around more! Today they gave me and the other EVA crew more difficult tasks to try. One of us would look at a paper map of the area of the asteroid site with specific rocks/craters to sample, and that person would have to fly high enough above the asteroid to get a good perspective and then guide the other crew member to the area of interest. The crew on the surface would have to position themselves in the appropriate orientation for the specific type of sampling, call out the sampling they were performing using the specific voice protocol that the HERA team prefers, and then fly up to meet the first EVA crew and swap roles. Apparently the asteroid model we’re using is based on real images of a portion of a real asteroid that has been mapped, and for the EVAs during our mission we’re going to have actual planetary geologists there helping to set the sample priorities for each site and evaluating the images we collect.

The last activity of the day was learning all about microbial growth. Yep, we went from flying around on an asteroid to seeing disgusting fungi and bacteria that grow all around us. After a brief science lesson with words I haven’t heard since my biology class in 9th grade, we went back into the habitat to practice collecting surface and air microbial samples in petri dishes.

Just keep swabbin’, just keep swabbin’
After we nailed our swabbing technique, the instructor told us we’d store the samples for 5 days and then bring them back out to report on what type of growth we saw. This is around where I lost any semblance of pretending to keep my cool around disgusting looking things. This is also one of many times I got to see our individual backgrounds/interests emerge in interesting ways — myself and the other engineer on our crew were thoroughly grossed out, and the two science-y crewmates were completely loving it. Looking forward to training day 3!

microbials

HERA Training – Day 3 – January 14, 2016

First, I’m excited about the first photo below, and I haven’t actually even seen it in real life yet (photo credit to my fearless commander Michelle Courtney!) When I left training this afternoon, I saw someone in the building setting up a monitor outside our habitat, but didn’t really think anything about it until I got home and saw that Michelle had posted this picture. The monitor is showing our mission patch! I’ll post a better picture of the patch later on and share what the different elements of the design signify, but for now it’s just really exciting to see the patch we worked together to design in front of the habitat that will soon be our home.

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Showing off my real time heart beat data from my Astroskin shirt and headband

One cool thing we learned about/played with today is a CSA experiment called Astroskin. Astroskin is a pretty amazing piece of wearable technology that monitors heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature, blood oxygen levels, breathing rate, and activity. All of these measurements are sent to our iPads via bluetooth. The whole system consists of a stretchy tank top (think Spanx/running shirt kind of thing) and a headband which connects to a battery pack that fits in a pocket in the shirt. We’re all wearing these for a full 24 hours now to collect baseline data, so we got to spend the day looking like interesting hybrids of pirates/80s divas/really awesome people (ok, maybe nobody thought we looked like really awesome people, but oh well!) I think the Astroskin project is super interesting and has a ton of awesome potential uses. Check out their website here if you feel like learning more: http://www.asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/scienc…

Our wrists match Scott Kelly’s wrist!


After the Astroskin activity, we had a bit of free time before the next activity, so I took the girls over to building 9 to see a quick Robonaut demo and get a look at the rovers/mockups over there. We took the picture above when we passed a cardboard cutout of Scott Kelly and noticed he’s wearing the same watch that we’ve been wearing the past couple days (and will wear for our whole time in the habitat). This watch tracks sleep/activity as well as red-blue-green light levels. As someone who hasn’t always been the best sleeper, I’m definitely intrigued to see what impacts specific levels of different light colors actually have on sleep quality.

Pay no attention to the phlebotomist behind the curtain!

The last activity we did today was learn how the blood draws during our mission will work. 10 minutes before this picture was taken, the other EVA crew and myself had been in this airlock wearing the VR gear collecting asteroid samples, and now it’s being used to collect blood samples. In an effort to maintain the isolation of the experiment but also not require the crew members to perform blood draw, the HERA team has come up with a clever solution of dividting the airlock in half with a curtain and having a phlebotomist on the other side of the curtain. This way they can draw our blood but we will never actually see or talk to them.

HERA Training – Day 4 – January 15, 2016

Our HERA crew has officially survived the first week of training, and while I can’t speak for the other amazing women on my crew, I can definitely say I’m still having a whole lot of fun!

This morning started off with fam sessions for a whole bunch of cognition tests that will be used throughout the mission. These were all basically puzzles involving recognizing patterns, colors, numbers, shapes, and tones and then measuring our accuracy and speed of answering. Today was an intro to the different tests, and then we’ll collect baseline scores next week, and then I presume will use these after particular events in the mission to see how people react to and manage stressful situations.

Fierce Business Casual Wonder Woman and her Robot

During a break between tests, Flight Engineer Julielynn busted out an awesome set of STEM/girl power Legos. The picture above is what we made for my Lego alter-ego: I named her Fierce Business-Casual Wonder Woman. Check out some other Lego pictures she took:

Lego Ladies

After the cognition tests, we met with some NASA Food Technology people who brought us samples of food bars that are going to be an experiment on our mission. This group was tasked with the goal of reducing food mass by 10% for Orion compared to ISS, so we’ll be eating a low mass, calorie dense breakfast bar for some days of our mission. The PI who explained the food bars to us stressed several times that they’d like us to eat a whole bar for breakfast, but understood if we couldn’t finish the whole thing (and asked that we weigh the remaining portion of the bar for their records). As she was talking, I was thinking to myself that I’m a great eater, rarely meet a meal I can’t finish — definitely have never met a breakfast bar I couldn’t finish. She proceeded to bring out a couple samples of the different flavors, and showed us the size of one bar. It looked maybe slightly bigger than your average granola bar, I’m still not getting why so much stress was put on trying to finish a bar if we can. We then proceed to have 1 sample of each of the 4 flavors we’ll have during our mission (Banana Nut, Orange Cranberry, Jalapeno, and BBQ):

Well, it turns out the experts knew what they were talking about warning us about not being able to finish a full bar! After eating these 4 small samples, I was full enough to skip lunch and didn’t eat anything else for the rest of the afternoon — a feat I don’t accomplish after eating my regular whole lunch on most days!

Nom nom nom!

The afternoon began with another EVA practice session. These continue to be my absolute favorite thing each day! Our tasks are getting more complex as we all get more familiar with the system/controllers. My fellow EVA crew mate and I had a few minutes in this practice session where we were attached to the robotic arms of our exploration vehicle while the IVA crew maneuvered the vehicle to a second site. Basically, we were just sitting for a few minutes in our VR gear watching the asteroid go by under us. While we were in this waiting period, we were both talking about how these VR EVAs feel so real and how we’ve both had a hard time explaining to people just how cool it is. Unfortunately I can’t post any fun pictures of this since everything I see is in the VR goggles, but until I can figure out how to better explain this experience, y’all will just have to take my word for it that it’s SUPER cool!
LaShelle using the ultrasound machine to measure how much blood my ol’ ticker is pumping

The last activity of the day was an Ultrasound fam session. After a bit of a learning curve (all the first couple ultrasound images really looked like a big blob of nothingness to me. Some of my crew mates saw birds, some saw aliens — we were supposed to see a candy cane?), we all had successful runs of finding the right target area of a crew mate’s heart and operating the crazy computer to collect the appropriate data. So far this is the activity that has felt the least natural to me (with the other end of the spectrum being a voice-loop protocol lesson yesterday, along with a time-delay robotic operations experiment yesterday where they began by asking how many hours of lifetime robot operation I’d had), but we’ll get another practice session next week and I’m confident that I’ll get it. Our team really came together well for during this ultrasound activity to help each other figure it out, and we definitely shared plenty of giggles along the way. Along with a borderline-delirious crackup session afterwards as we wrapped up for the day. I definitely think it’s an encouraging sign if we can continue responding to potentially stressful situations and exhaustion with lots of laughs!

We have the weekend off from training with the exception of several surveys (oh so many surveys! I may have accidentally said that I was a male who was born today on a survey today…), then one more week of training next week, then it’s go time to begin our month in the habitat!

HERA Training – Day 5 – January 18, 2016

Exactly 1 week from now, my crewmates and I will have just ingressed our habitat and closed the hatch! Things started feeling real when Ben casually mentioned something we should remember to buy next Sunday at our weekly grocery shopping trip, and I suddenly realized that our Sunday grocery shopping trip next week wouldn’t affect me. I guess we’re really doing this!

Anyway, today’s training consisted of additional sessions of some things we learned last week as well as a couple new things. My morning started off with a session on the Robotic Work Station playing with the simulator to grapple an HTV (Japanese spaceship) with the SSRMS (Canadarm2). Last week we were introduced to the simulator software and hardware controllers as a group, and then this morning I got a one-on-one session to get to drive and grapple the HTV 12 different times! It was super fun, but also really challenging in ways I hadn’t anticipated just from watching other crew do it. I’ll definitely have an increased appreciation the next time I’m watching a real ISS crew do it from MCC.

After that, I had an EEG training session. For this experiment, I’ll stick a bunch of sticky electrode things at different places on my face (and torso, for ground/control measurements), and then a headband with laser emitters/receivers will shoot lasers into my brain as I sleep and track which portions of my brain are active based on the wavelength of signal that’s received. I probably butchered that explanation, but I think anything with lasers is cool, sleep studies are cool, and brain stuff is cool, so I’m totally down for being a lab rat in an experiment combining the three!

Sticking electrodes onto specific locations on my face and then wiring up the lasers!

After the EEG familiarization session, I quickly peeled off the electrodes and lasers from my head to run right into the airlock to put the VR gear on for another EVA practice session. “Flying” around the asteroid was fun, like always, but nothing terribly new to report here on that.

After EVA practice, we did a whole bunch of cognition studies and surveys. There’s definitely a wide range of material tested in all of these cognition studies — I’m super intrigued into what data the researchers are pulling from these and if they’re finding neat patterns/trends. Hopefully my matching patterns, shapes and sizes over and over will help them learn something really cool!

Only 4 more training days to go and then the real mission starts next Monday!

HERA Training – Day 6 – January 19, 2016

Just a quick update today, since I only had 2 hours of HERA stuff this morning and then I got to play in a sim for my actual OSO job.

This morning started out with another saliva sample and our first blood draw. The following picture is me getting my blood drawn through our crazy curtain setup while sucking on a cotton thing for my saliva sample — multitasking allows me to stop fasting quicker and get to breakfast/coffee!

Byebye blood and saliva!

 Next Julielynn and I spent our few free minutes taking some pictures in the hab, and the picture below is one of my favorites. Probably also the only day I’ll color-coordinate my shirt to the hab.

Who needs to take the lift to the second level when there’s a ladder to climb?!

Lastly, we did more cognition tests. This time the scores were actually recorded instead of just being fam sessions. In the picture below, I’m doing a test where I have to identify low/medium/high pitched sounds, then small/medium/large triangles, and then different combinations of sound/sight variations. Let me tell you, this sounds pretty simple and for one or two questions it is, but after (what felt like) a bajillion of them, the brain can definitely get a little funky!

Low pitch, big triangle . . . no wait! high pitch, small triangle!

After doing about an hour of cognition testing (in the hab, where most of our training has been . . . with the hatch wide open), LaShelle and I turned to leave and saw the hatch was closed for the first time. After a minor freak-out of realizing this would soon be our reality, we staged a re-creation of our freak-out, attempting to pound our way out.

Let us ouuuuuuut!!! Oh, the door’s unlocked?

The last bit of exciting news is that our embroidered crew patches showed up today. I learned that I suck at ironing, but thanks to google hangout advice from my crew mates and an awesome husband, I now have a shirt with our patch on it. We’re taking a crew picture tomorrow, so stay tuned for that!

HERA Training – Day 7 – January 20, 2016

We have shirts with our patch on them! That was definitely a big element contributing to the excitement of the day. I love the picture above — it’s the wall in the conference room where we’ve been doing a lot of our training, but I like to think it’s our HERA crew just chilling on the moon.

Anyway, today started with pregnancy tests and cool skeleton bone scan things (again, I’m sure I’m butchering the science, but all I know is I lay on a bed for a few minutes and then got to see a full scan of my bones/muscles/fat, so what can ya do).

After returning from the JSC clinic, we took our official crew photo with our snazzy new shirts!

HERA IX Crew!

The rest of the morning was spent meeting with a PI who set us up with yet another heart rate monitor, a slightly different EEG than we played with previously, and some lumosity brain teasers.

Check out my cool new brain-scannin’ hat!

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Watching my brain waves

After lunch, we were introduced to some of our (sim) emergency drill training that we’ll do throughout the mission — expected protocol and responses for vehicle emergencies such as fire, rapid depressurization, toxic contaminant release, etc., and then also how to distinguish between alarms for these simulated emergencies and alarms for actual fires/toxic atmosphere, which hopefully we never experience in our habitat!

The last super exciting bit of the day was a fam session with the glove box and tests we’ll perform on the asteroid samples we collect on our EVAs. We will follow procedures to clean and setup the glove box, ensure all hoses and electrical connectors are properly mated, depressurize the glove box to vacuum, and then perform a series of different tests and measurements on the samples.

And one last picture from today, not of something that was scheduled or particularly eventful, but was still an “oh wow” moment for me. I had to go into the Mission Control room to hunt down one of our trainers for something, and this was my first time in there. The picture below shows just how many cameras they’ll be able to watch me on during this thing!

Smile — you’re on camera!

I’ve known all along that people would be watching my every move, but something about seeing this made that fact set in just a little bit more.

As we get closer to our “launch” day, my excitement for this mission continues to grow. I feel so fortunate to be on this journey with my crew mates, and I definitely think we’ll find an awesome balance of having fun together but also successfully completely our mission objectives. I’ve found almost every single experiment we’ve seen to be hugely interesting, and I feel so honored to be part of a team that’s figuring out some pretty amazing things about human spaceflight and humans in general. So much coordination has gone into planning all of our training and mission objectives, and so many PIs are hoping we perform our tasks and experiments adequately for them to collect valid data.

My realization of just how much of an honor and privilege it is to be part of this mission has grown and grown throughout training, and I can only imagine how this sense of awe will continue to expand once we’re really off on our mission to our asteroid. I’m definitely looking forward to what’s to come in the next several weeks!

HERA Training – Day 8 – January 21, 2016
Only 1 more full day of training before our “launch”! I actually took 0 pictures of our training today, which I attribute to a combination of 2 factors:
First, today was all repeat sessions of things we’d previously learned — meaning we’re actually capturing baseline and not just going through the motions of fam sessions. Science has begun!
Second, hanging out in the habitat, watching my brain signals from an electrode “hat” I’m wearing, grabbling an HTV with the SSRMS, and hanging out with my crew mates are all things that are starting to feel “normal”, and I no longer feel the need to capture all of these super-crazy-never-going-to-happen-again moments. I think this means we’re ready to start our actual mission . . . or at least as ready as we’ll ever be!
So, I say I took 0 pictures during training today, and this is true. But, I did take a couple pictures of what I did after our training today, which was having a Functional MRI performed on my brain. One of the experiments is monitoring how the performance and size of our hippocampus changes throughout our mission. This research team has previously done these tests on researchers in antarctica and said they found some pretty interesting results, so I hope my hippocampus give them good results too.
Since in our society, we often put too much emphasis on women’s bodies, I say let’s check out this woman’s brains too! Take a look:

mmmmmm…. brains!

I love how crazy my eyeballs look in the left image (top of the screen, on either side of my nose sticking up towards the top of the picture) and how you can see the connections between them and my brain. Obviously, I’m not a doctor and have no idea what I’m looking at, but I like the eyeballs.
Tomorrow we’ll cover everything else we still need to know, and then it’s off to a “farewell” happy hour tomorrow evening, some last minute packing Sunday, and then it’s Go time Monday!!

2015 in review – Part I

You can read last year’s 2014 in review posts for context here: Part I and Part II.

And if you want to go way back here are my posts from the end of 2013: Part I and Part II.

Here is NASA’s 8-minute take on what they did in 2015, which may provide some helpful context to my commentary below.

Part I – NASA

Perhaps I am biased, but if you really want to know what happened in spaceflight in a given year, you have to first start with the government side of things. If you are like me, you are way more interested in exploration, so NASA is where its at. Other people with a keen interest in rockets, satellites, cubesats, and communications technology may disagree. But in the area of exploration, NASA is king.

Maybe some day years from now, SpaceX or a company like it will be so successful that they no longer rely on government contracts to stay afloat. When that day comes, it is very possible that NASA could be overshadowed in the minds of the public – no longer being synonymous with spaceflight. This actually kind of happened in 2014, which was not a standout year for NASA while excitement for SpaceX was building and the loss of an Orbital Antares rocket and the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo made the news. However, as we will see, the banner year that 2015 was and the loss of a SpaceX rocket in June reversed the trend. For now, NASA rules the headlines. Later when we look ahead to 2016 I will speculate on whether the pendulum will again swing back towards “New Space”.

As I alluded to above, 2014 was not a standout year for NASA (see my 2014 in review posts for a recap). The two big space stories were Rosetta/Philae comet rendezvous (which is an ESA mission) and the Orion launch late in the year. While space fans were certainly thrilled about Rosetta, overall NASA’s achievements were somewhat forgettable to the general public. Fortunately for those of us who want the public to be thinking about space all the time, 2015 was not at all like 2014. The only way you could stir more excitement would be with a major crisis or failure (not desirable!) or with astronauts launching on American rockets. Given that we are still a couple years from the end of the astronaut gap, 2015 was about as good as you could get for NASA.

Let’s just list out briefly the big things for NASA in 2015: New Horizons flyby of Pluto, Dawn reaches orbit of asteroid Ceres, Scott Kelly starts one year mission on ISS, MRO discovers flowing water on Mars, Europa mission greenlit, and NASA budget for 2016 gets a boost. Not to mention the movie The Martian was a huge success and was basically a love letter to NASA (and very good almost-free PR). The standout is obviously Pluto for space story of the year. The loss of a SpaceX rocket in June and the dramatic return to flight in December will probably be argued by some for story of the year, but Google Trends seems to show that it is no contest.

2015_Search_terms

This is a screenshot from a Google Trends query on five NASA related search terms and their worldwide frequency throughout 2015. I think there are a few interesting features to point out. First, SpaceX’s baseline interest is really low, some notable spikes surrounding their launches, but nothing compared to the interest NASA’s missions stir up. Also of note, the baseline interest in Mars is very high, probably due to Mars just being a common feature in all aspects of culture. Mars has periodic peaks for various reasons – NASA missions, astronomical conjunctions, and movies. Mars interest this year was about average with the exception of the water on Mars story in October (which is probably mixed in with people searching Mars due to the film The Martian). The peak early in the year appears to correspond to an astronomical conjunction in the skies, and not any NASA-related news. The last major feature is the huge spike in interest in Pluto in July during the New Horizons rendezvous. It sets the baseline interest for my search and no other topic even comes close. This for me is what seals the deal on Pluto as the story of the year.

So why is Pluto a big deal? The New Horizons mission closed the opening chapter on humanity’s exploration of the solar system as the last probe to complete initial reconnaissance of a major body. Before New Horizons approached Pluto this year, the dwarf planet was basically just a blob in some Hubble images. And boy, did we make discoveries! Pluto is an incredible diverse world with apparently active geology and a measurable atmosphere. Incredible.

Meanwhile over at the largest main belt asteroid, Ceres, Dawn was doing some initial reconnaissance also after reaching orbit in March. This was another fuzzy blog brought into focus. The news about the “bright spots” made the news big time. Although the speculation about “alien cities” was worth an eye roll at best, the fact that people are interested in such a pure scientific endeavor is the important part of the story to me.

This is that elusive spirit of exploration that the public loves about spaceflight. They eat this stuff up. Cassini, NASA’s probe at Saturn, continues to return simply amazing images of that planet and its moons and continues to make discoveries. However, we already know what Saturn looks like. Meanwhile, missions like Rosetta, New Horizons, and Dawn make headlines because we are seeing a new world for the first time. This is what makes planetary exploration NASA’s “crown jewel”. Going into 2016, there is less clear opportunity for standout planetary science. The number of active solar system probes is changing – MESSENGER crashed into Mercury last year (on purpose) and Cassini will be ending its mission in 2017. However, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return should launch this year and Juno should arrive at Jupiter. With the boost to the planetary sciences budget of NASA, which went up from $1.4 billion to $1.6 billion in the December omnibus bill, things are looking good.

Besides robotic planetary exploration, NASA had a busy year with its human exploration programs. For a spaceship just going in circles around the Earth, ISS had a pretty exciting year. Scott Kelly’s mission has been going well after he launched in March and some unexpected failures, both from ISS onboard systems and the loss of resupply rockets, kept NASA on their toes and in the news. Unfortunately, Sarah Brightman pulled out of her ISS tourist flight for the fall, so NASA missed that opportunity for front page news last year.

The loss of 3 out of 10 ISS resupply flights in the 12 month period from October 2014 to October 2015 was unprecedented. But NASA and its partners proved the quality of their partnership by recovering with no major setbacks, other than extending the Expedition 43 mission, which allowed Samantha Cristoforetti to break the record for longest spaceflight for a woman. As I pointed out in this post back in the summer, the multi-rocket redundancy of the ISS supply chain is what kept the ISS flying this year and should serve as a solid counterpoint to the simple-minded idea that the US or Russia could simply pull out of the program as a political move. I hope that after 2015, that discussion has been put to bed.

Conclusion

To really understand what 2015 meant for NASA, I think we need to swing our focus back to planetary exploration before we wrap up this retrospective. I talked a lot about Ceres and Pluto above, but there was a lot of other stuff going on, including the water on Mars story, the confirmation of a global subsurface ocean at Enceladus, and the announcement of a new Europa mission. I wrote a post back in March 2015 trying to predict what the space story will be for 2015. My three options were basically ISS, Pluto, or SpaceX. Both ISS and SpaceX didn’t pan out due to the unforeseen. By contrast, it should be no surprise that NASA’s planetary missions delivered the goods.

While Congress and the general public continue to be fixated on rockets, SpaceX, and when the next American astronaut will launch from Florida, robotic missions continue to fly under the radar and keep the general publics interest in space alive. 2015 showed more than ever the importance of these missions and why a healthy balance is needed between human and robotic exploration both for political and practical reasons. Robotic missions keep up our excitement during gap years and will reliably continue even if the next presidential administration cancels the SLS and Orion programs. The good news is that it appears this was recognized by Congress in the 2016 budget increase. For me, planetary science is the canary in the coal mine of the story of NASA and 2015 gives me reason to be optimistic about the years ahead.

Postscript: Thanks as always to my wife Leah for her excellent proofreading of this post!

2015 Link Dump

2015 has already gotten off to a blazing start and I haven’t even finished writing my 2014 year in review essays. SpaceX had the first launch of the year, with a successful Falcon 9 launch and then Dragon rendezvous at ISS. Some space politics have already been in the news this year with Sierra Nevada’s protest of the NASA commercial crew contract being struck down.

I expect 2015 to be just as busy as 2014, with a lot of exciting things to look forward to from robotic exploration, to human spaceflight, to commercial and “New Space”. I am writing an essay about what I think 2015 has the potential to be remembered for. In the mean time, here are some thoughts from other space bloggers about what 2015 has in store.

Here is Spaceflight Now’s worldwide launch schedule (continuously updated).

The Wikipedia 2015 in spaceflight article isn’t a bad reference either.

The Year Ahead In Space at Parabolic Arc by Doug Messier.

10 Space Science Stories to Watch in 2015 at Universe Today by David Dickinson.

2015: NASA’s Year of the Dwarf Planet at Universe Today by Tim Reyes.

The Year of the Dwarf Planet by Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society.

15 Amazing Spaceflight Missions to Watch in 2015 at Space.com by Miriam Kramer.

13 launces on manifest for ULA in 2015 at Spaceflight Now by Justin Ray.

Is SpaceX’s 2015 launch manifest realistic? at Spaceflight Insider by Joe Latrell.

10 Space Movies to Watch in 2015 at Space.com by Miriam Kramer.

EarthSky’s meteor shower guide for 2015 at EarthSky.org by Bruce McClure.

The Top 101 Astronomical Events to Watch in 2015 at Universe Today by David Dickinson.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The Chinese astronauts, or “taikonauts” if you prefer, of Shenzhou 10 landed on Wednesday, June 26, after 15 days in space.

NASA has chosen 8 new astronaut candidates, who will be known as the class of 2013. And yes, if you are wondering, people who get to be astronauts react the same way you would.

SpaceX continues to buy up land in Cameron County, Texas. Cameron County contains, Brownsville, South Padre Island, the border with Mexico, and the beach where SpaceX wants to build their next launch site.

ULA (United Launch Alliance) has been awarded a huge military satellite launch contract.

Today, the new exhibit of Space Shuttle Atlantis opened at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Make sure to go read the article at CollectSpace, and check out the picture of 40 astronauts (at least one from every one of Atlantis’ 33 space shuttle flights) posing with the orbiter. I can’t wait to go visit!

In Orbit

In the wake of the sad news that Kepler has probably come to an early end of mission (announced in late May), NASA has turned off the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX), an ultraviolet space telescope that orbited for 10 years. Additionally, the French planet-hunting spacecraft CoRoT, which has been broken since November, was decommissioned this past week.

This past Monday, two Russian cosmonauts completed a successful 6 hour spacewalk on the ISS. I was fortunate enough to sit in the Houston Flight Control Room for the EVA! Things went smoothly for both my system and the spacewalk itself, and now crew members Chris Cassidy and Luca Parmitano are getting ready for a pair of US segment based EVAs in mid-July.

Around the Solar System

The Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii has found the 10,000th near-Earth asteroid ever discovered.

The Mars rover Opportunity is hitting the highway again. She is heading South along the rim of Endeavour crater, getting ready for her biggest “climb” of her mission. The rover drivers are trying to get Opportunity to Solander Point before Martian winter sets in.

Out There

PayPal and the SETI Institute have apparently launched something called PayPal Galactic. They supposedly are trying to come up with how transactions will happen when more of humanity lives and works in space or other planets. I personally don’t see how it needs to be much different than the current way that we bank and pay for things online, and their video is pretty vague. But I guess good for them for thinking of it? We’ll have to see what happens.

Musk is no Stark, but has good ideas

It has been said that if there is a person out there in the real world that approximates Tony Stark – of the Marvel comic book universe – then it is Elon Musk. Unfortunately, his speaking ability is several orders of magnitude below the scripted dynamicism of Robert Downey Jr. in the Iron Man films. I guess I’m willing to give Elon a bit of a pass for being a real person.

I wanted to write a short post about the ambitions of SpaceX because their CEO was on somewhat of a press tour of England (or Britain? I’m not really sure) during which he discussed his ideas for Mars colonization and methane powered rockets. If you like video, Mr. Musk talks through some of his ideas below. Or you can read a very detailed summary over at Flight Global of his comments while at the Royal Aeronautical Society.

I like the relentless optimism of Mr. Stark Musk. However, I really wish he would stop laughing off malfunctions and admit when there is an issue that needs to be worked out – like the Merlin engine failure on SpaceX’s recent ISS cargo resupply flight. Calling it “an anomaly and not a failure” doesn’t change what happened. SpaceX needs to show a string of successes before they will really start to be taken seriously when it comes to talk of 50 ton-to-orbit rockets. The fact that they are talking about being involved in such varied projects as Planetary Resources and Stratolaunch is exciting, but they need to be careful not to spread themselves too thin.

This all started when I tried to watch the below lecture…

But got distracted wishing reality could more approximate fiction…

Maybe if he tried making an entrance via sky dive – maybe crossing Tony Stark with Felix Baumgartner – I would be more endeared to him personally.

Friday Links

Happy autumn! The weather is great here in Houston. I’m writing this with the living room sliding door open for the first time since April, I think. the nice weather is just in time for the excitement of Endeavour’s cross-country trip from KSC to LAX, which started on Wednesday and ends today. Some of my own pictures and video are below, mixed in with some stuff I grabbed from the popular blogs. Enjoy!

Endeavour

There was a lot of activity on Twitter this week with the hashtag #spottheshuttle. I bet if you follow it more today you will see great pictures of Endeavour over California sights!

Below is a time-lapse of the last Space Shuttle Orbiter mating to an SCA (Shuttle Carrier Aircraft). Also the last use of a mate-demate device at the Shuttle Landing Facility.

On Wednesday Endeavour flew over the gulf coast to land just a few miles away from my home. I was at work near the Ellington Field airport when she arrived. Later that evening I got to go see her up close!

Ben with Endeavour on September 19. Rocking the Think Geek.

Thursday morning I got up early to see Endeavour leave. Here is my video of her takeoff. It’s not very good – iPhone 4 video – but it is uniquely mine!

And here’s my favorite still that I got of Endeavour flying over JSC before turning Northeast to leave Houston for good.

Endeavour rides off into the sunrise

After she left Houston on Thursday Endeavour toured the rest of Texas with a stopover in El Paso before flying over Tucson and then landing at Edwards.

Down to Earth

There is a new legislative bill out there (in the US House) to change the management structure of NASA drastically. The idea is to make NASA less politicized so that money will not so often be wasted on cancelled programs. It’s an interesting premise that I think is worth talking about. However, Parabolic Arc points out that maybe the bill is a bit misleading about how much money has actually been “wasted” in the past.

Speaking of Congress, the House recently passed a bill confirming that astronauts own any artifacts they may still have from the Apollo era. Hopefully this means there will be no more stories int he news about American heroes suing the US government (or the other way around). It seems the law may still be ambiguous when it comes to actual moon rocks, however.

In Orbit

NASA and SpaceX have officially announced October 7th as the launch date of the next Dragon resupply mission. I will be working the “planning shift” the day before Dragon arrives at ISS.

Before Dragon arrives, ATV will be departing the ISS next week on the 25th.

Of course, the vehicles coming and going are just logistics. ISS is all about the people, the science, and the engineering (see my previous post). So I would remiss not to point out the triathlon that Sunita Williams ran on ISS September 16th or her account of what HTV departure was like.

Around the Solar System

Curiosity continues to send back beautiful pictures of the foothills of Aeolis Mons.

Curiosity is also taking a look at an unusual rock on Mars that looks like a pyramid. Very strange.

Lack of Links

Took a week off last week due to vacation and being very busy in the office. Regular posts will return this Friday.

In the meantime, Curiosity is returning amazing MastCam images…

And there will be a US segment EVA on ISS on Thursday (August 30).

Friday Links

Down to Earth

NASA JSC will allow tourists from Space Center Houston to tour the Shuttle Avionics Integration Lab (SAIL) – an “honorary” space shuttle.

Two space shuttles met during a KSC “rollover” for the last time.

The air force’s X-51 failed a flight test this week.

Early in the week the President of the United States made a phone call to the Mars Science Laboratory team at JPL. Politics aside, that’s pretty cool. (via Universe Today).

A sporty descent trajectory test by Masten Space Systems.

In Orbit

During an ISS reboost this week there was a failure (or perhaps “anomaly”) that caused the correction burn to end early. ESA’s ATV3 was controlling the reboost at the time. ISS and ATV teams are working together to correct the problem and plan for a repeat reboost next week. I was flying the ADCO console a few hours before the reboost on Wednesday morning but have otherwise not been involved.

More awesome ISS timelapse imagery…

Ron Garan highlights just one of the many reasons spaceflight is worth the investment.

Around the Solar System

While Curiosity is still warming up its wheels, Opportunity is roving strong on the other side of the planet.

Even though Curiosity is not yet on the move, there’s still a huge gallery of images already piling up on the JPL website. You can go dig through them, or just check out this list of the best images so far. Here’s the first full resolution mastcam panorama.

Here’s a video update of what’s been going on with Curiosity this week (mostly engineering tests to get ready for mobility) – via Universe Today.

Oh, and by the way… in one of the first images Curiosity sent back from Mars, JPL captured an image of the dust plume of the descent stage crashing 2 kilometers away. Whoa.

J.R.R. Tolkien finally has a solar system feature named after him – a crater on Mercury.

Mars may have plate tectonics?

Evidence of a crater on Mars that is less than 3 years old.

Out There

This is a very imaginative video of all the planets discovered by Kepler in orbit at once.

RfC Going on Vacation

I will be taking a little over a week off from the blog while I vacation. I will miss one week of “Friday Links” but should resume regular posts in less than 2 weeks. Have a great June!

Ad astra.

Friday Links

Venus transit this Tuesday!

This post from The Planetary Society is all you need to plan your viewing party.

Don Pettit will be having his own viewing party from ISS!

Gennady Padalka of Expedition 31 will have been on ISS for both transits of Venus this century!

Down to Earth

Yesterday, Friday, June 1, the space shuttle mock-up Explorer arrived by barge in Houston. I fought my way through traffic to hang out by the lake during the last half-hour of her coming in for “docking”. While the mock-up never flew in space, she is a good looking replica and will add some modern diversity to the artifacts at Space Center Houston. It’s not every day you see a space shuttle floating in the lake, real or otherwise.

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/Astro_Box/status/208535573391085568″]

The pictures of the Shuttlebration at CollectSpace, linked above, are better than the ones I took but I’ll post any pictures I get tomorrow. Tomorrow morning the replica will be rolled down NASA Parkway past JSC to the museum. I think I will get up early before my shift and go watch the fun, if I can. I have to take an alternate route to get to work at Mission Control on Sunday morning because they are closing the major intersection!

Apparently the astronaut band Max Q put on a good show at the Shuttlebration. Speaking of astronaut musicians, Cady Coleman finally returned her space flutes to The Chieftains and got to play a gig with them. Cool!

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/Astro_Cady/statuses/207651319568285696″]

Space Shuttle Enterprise arriving in NYC is old news, but I thought the candid-ness of this video made it interesting.

While we’re on old news, here’s a time lapse of Enterprise being removed from a carrier aircraft for the last time.

Enterprise will get moving in NYC on its way to the Intrepid this week on June 5th.

In Orbit

Of course, the big news was that the Dragon mission was completed successfully with a splashdown in the Pacific on Thursday. I’ve heard that there’s a pretty quick turnaround to get downmass cargo back to NASA so equipment might already be in hand!

This picture might be my favorite from the entire SpaceX mission. Andre has a good eye.

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/astro_andre/statuses/207812428627574786″]

Speaking of gorgeous orbital photography: the Himalayas.

It might be interesting to see what it looks like looking back at the astronauts while they take these photos. Well, here you go (via Bad Astronomy).

Andre writes about how it feels to be the veteran ISS resident teaching the new guys the ropes.

I really like this essay about “the orbital perspective” from a “guest bloggernaut” over at Fragile Oasis.

Out There

Here’s a cool science story about an exoplanet discovered by how it affects the orbits of other planets in the KOI 872 system.