May 13, 2013
Somebody had to do it.
Commander Chris Hadfield returns to Earth this evening, along with Expedition 34/35 crewmates Dr. (not Major) Tom Marshburn and Roman Romanenko. NASA TV coverage of their departure from the International Space Station begins at 3:30.
May 9, 2013
“We need to do something to get started.”
There was a subtext of desperation in Dennis Tito‘s plea at this week’s Humans to Mars conference in Washington, considering he’d just spent the last few minutes dashing all hope that the U.S. government will send people to Mars any time soon.
But Tito doesn’t seem desperate. In fact, it’s amazing how cool and collected he and his fellow space pioneers sounded as they described two wildly ambitious, privately funded Mars missions: a 500-day round-trip for two (Tito’s Inspiration Mars), and an even more daring one-way trip to the surface for four pioneers (Mars One).
The backers admit that yes, they have their work cut out for them. They talk like sober space engineers, with data, viewgraphs, and a list of technical advisors. It’ll be tough, they say, but doable. And we’re meant to find that inspiring.
Well, you may say I’m not a dreamer — and I’m not the only one.
Consider Tito’s plan. They’ll need to launch in 2018 to hit the launch window for their particular mission design (a swingby with no landing). Elon Musk of SpaceX, maybe the most audacious engineer of our time, took 10 years to design, build and launch unmanned cargo ships to low Earth orbit. Judging from his experience alone, I’d say there’s almost no chance Inspiration Mars will be ready in just five years.
Mars One aims to launch in 2022, but will need to start sending technology demo missions in 2016, just three years from now. Again, I have to think it’s very, very unlikely.
Still, there’s something poignant about this business of passing the hat for space settlement. In the first two weeks of accepting applications (the registration fee varies according to country; Afghans pay just $5, while Qataris pay $73) the organization got 78,000 applicants. Some of the applicants’ videos can be seen here.
Mars One isn’t the first company to believe they can finance a multibillion dollar space mission by selling media rights. Others thought they could do the same with trips to the International Space Station and robots on the moon. None of it has come to pass.
The current enthusiasm for crowdsourcing space, from Astronaut Abby to Uwingu, seems driven partly by the early success of commercial ventures like SpaceX, and partly by the explosive growth of social media. It has more to do with Twitter than Apollo, but in 2013, that’s where we’re at.
April 12, 2013
This week NASA announced plans to capture a small asteroid in 2019 and bring it back to the vicinity of the Moon for later study by astronauts. It’s a good idea, for several reasons.
It’s of real importance to society.
The asteroid threat is sometimes overhyped, and it’s no wonder politicians don’t consider it an emergency when the last Extinction Level Event (to borrow a term from Deep Impact) happened 64 million years ago. Still, the fireball over Chelyabinsk in February demonstrated that even a small space rock can do damage, and hinted at even scarier scenarios. The rock that NASA plans to retrieve would be just half the size of the 60-foot Chelyabinsk object, small enough to burn up harmlessly if it entered our atmosphere. But learning to deflect or move even a mini-asteroid should give us valuable experience.
Public support for asteroid research is a no-brainer, yet NASA has had trouble allocating even a few million dollars a year (in an $18 billion budget) for a comprehensive search using a modest, space-based telescope. This new mission would help get the hunt started, because it requires an inventory of even smaller objects than we’ve tracked in the past.
Meanwhile, NASA still struggles to find a compelling destination for future astronauts that will sell with the general public. Expeditions to Mars or setting up an outpost on the Moon are fascinating projects, but hardly essential, and many taxpayers still consider them frivolous. Understanding asteroids and learning how to alter their course, on the other hand, are critical to humanity’s ultimate survival.
It advances space technology.
A mission that sounds straightforward, and is expected to cost no more than NASA’s latest Mars rover, would nonetheless require several new technologies that could also be applied to other projects. Solar electric engines for the unmanned tug that retrieves the asteroid can be used on future planetary spacecraft. Robotic tools for snagging an “uncooperative” target like a tumbling asteroid might also be used to clean up space debris or refuel satellites in orbit. After the rock is retrieved, astronauts will have to learn to live and work in what’s called cislunar space, something they’ve never done. In short, there’s plenty of cool and useful technology in an asteroid retrieval mission.
It sends astronauts farther than they’ve ever gone.
Does human spaceflight have a future? In 2013, the answer is not obvious. The technologies of robotics and telepresence are advancing far faster than rockets and space capsules, which are still spinning off ideas developed in the 1950s. Those who doubt that humans will ever be content to explore deep space virtually, as opposed to going there in person, should consider Skype and Oculus Rift. Behaviors deeply embedded in human culture are changing before our eyes. Military forces are rapidly evolving from a centuries-old model of flesh-and-blood warriors facing off on battlefields to drones fighting drones. Why should space exploration be any different?
This may not, in fact, be the last hurrah for old-school (human) astronauts. But choosing a just-over-the-horizon destination like the lunar far side, while reviving some of the old Apollo mojo, will help us decide whether to continue sending people farther out into the solar system.
It encourages cooperation.
Groups including the B612 Foundation already are working to characterize the threat of larger incoming asteroids (“city killers” upwards of 100 feet in size), while others have announced plans to mine smaller rocks. NASA might be able to leverage these private ventures to keep its own costs down and encourage more players in the space business.
Within the agency itself, an asteroid retrieval mission would demand closer collaboration between the astronaut program and the science side of the house than at any time since Apollo. Meanwhile, partners in the International Space Station, who’ve shown only polite interest in the Moon or Mars, might be more willing to join in a smaller-scale mission with obvious benefit to all nations.
Maybe the biggest advantage of all.
Every so often, a U.S. President (Bushes 41 and 43 most recently) proposes a grandiose go-to-the-Moon or –Mars scheme, which quickly peters out when everyone realizes, once again, that it costs way too much. Space advocates with long memories might be forgiven if they no longer expect Charlie Brown to kick the football.
Today the economic situation is worse than at any time in the space age. With millions unemployed and uninsured, and with public and private debt skyrocketing, no politician is about to suggest an expensive mission to the moon or Mars. Sorry, that’s not strictly true. Those representing districts with NASA centers will. But don’t expect many others to join them.
That leaves NASA building a new rocket (the Space Launch System) and new vehicle (Orion), with no obvious place to go. Space agency managers rightly asked themselves what they could realistically do with the tools and money on hand, in a relatively short time. And the asteroid retrieval mission is what they came up with.
Some will say that grabbing a space rock – a tiny one at that – is not ambitious enough, not worthy of the nation that launched Apollo. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” so this argument goes. Maybe. But while Robert Browning’s advice may be good for an artist, it can lead to frustration and failure for engineers and accountants.
So here’s a more pertinent line from the same poem: “Less is more.”
Let’s do something we can actually accomplish. And let’s get on with it.
February 1, 2013
Thinking back on the space shuttle Columbia accident, 10 years ago today, reminded me of a conversation I had back in 2010 with Pam Melroy, a former astronaut who had already left NASA by then. We were doing interviews for our special shuttle collectors edition, but later, when it was published, we weren’t able to include this particular story for some logistical reason. I was always sorry we left it out.
In all the national shock and grief over Columbia, and all the policy and technical discussions that followed, I never thought the astronauts at NASA got enough credit for their role in the investigation. They had just lost friends — the astronaut corps is a small, close-knit group — but there they were on national TV that same morning, fielding questions on what happened, and why, and who or what was to blame. It was a tough time for all of them.
In 2003 Melroy was working at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center as head of the small contingent of “Cape Crusader” astronauts that helps shuttle crews prepare for launch (she later became one of only two women to command a shuttle mission). After the accident she was assigned to the team that had the massive job of reconstructing Columbia from all the bits of debris collected by field workers in Texas.
Here’s how she remembered that time:
I was there at the Cape when it happened. So when [NASA] decided to have the vehicle reconstruction in Florida, they recollected that after Challenger, there had been a crew module reconstruction, and it was overseen by astronauts. They wanted an astronaut there to take over the reconstruction of the cockpit. It was, “Okay, Pam, you’re the lead Cape Crusader, go figure out what KSC needs.” After that I ended up taking over the lead for the crew module reconstruction.
We had set aside a small room in the hangar [where Columbia was being reconstructed], a corner room where a wall was built with a single door in it. The crew module reconstruction happened behind there. The reason was that it was extremely emotional and difficult for everyone. There was just no reason to expose 300 or 400 people working on the main part of the vehicle to look at all the parts. It’s just harder to look at the switch panels and all the things that the crew touched. There were personal items of the crew’s mixed in with the debris. It was very stressful for everyone, so the idea was that no one should have to look at it every day except this small group of people who were designated to do that.
Over the months that the reconstruction was happening, astronauts wound up in Florida for some business or another. Most of the folks in the office felt very strongly about going to see the reconstruction of the orbiter, to try to understand and to see it. I can’t think of anyone who was there to visit the orbiter who did not want to see the crew module. Everyone came in to see it. The feelings and the emotions were fairly universal as for the grief, but it was different things that triggered it in different people. One person would walk past the switch panels, but lock in on a checklist page. You could see them stop and be completely arrested. Someone else would stand in front of a switch panel for 20 minutes. For all of us, it was very personal. Whatever memories you had about your own spaceflight was what connected you to the debris.
I took the families on a tour through the reconstruction, the ones who chose to go. Eventually all the families did end up visiting, so I had the opportunity to talk to all of them. They’re all different. Some were technically driven, some were emotionally driven.
My military aviation training had led me to believe that every single thing was important. As I worked among the debris, I began to see things that I thought might be stories, or might pose questions. Why did the seats look like they did? Why did we get checklist pages back almost intact? I thought, “We could learn a lot from this.”
Later, after the primary investigation conducted by the CAIB [Columbia Accident Investigation Board], NASA started a crew survival investigation to understand what happened to the crew and their equipment, and I was the deputy project manager. Astronauts don’t typically get involved in leading this kind of investigation due to our other duties, but a combination of the fact that I had been involved in the reconstruction, and was the astronaut office point of contact for the stored debris made it important for me to be so engaged. It was a very, very personal thing for me.
Five years after the accident, the team’s crew survival report was published. You can read it here.
January 11, 2013
As the U.S. government was gearing up to send the first man into space in the 1950s, questions abounded as to how people would survive in this foreign environment: What kind of vehicle would best protect them? How should environmental controls be configured? Will people even survive the radiation levels, unprotected by the Earth’s atmosphere?
One way to prepare for the journey was to send biological material — plants and animals — to near-space on a balloon, with various instruments, and measure the effects. In 1955, doctor and writer Webb Haymaker followed around a Navy crew as they launched balloons from Minnesota and raced to recover the live payloads. He published the account in what was likely one of the more exciting articles to appear in the journal Military Medicine.
“Operation Stratomouse,” as Haymaker dubbed it, began with the biggest foil of balloon launches: the weather. The many last-minute “no-gos” finally started to turn the anxious crew members against each other. “Once, after a favorable forecast had ushered in utterly impossible weather, and a crew member had remarked that ‘that crowd of parasitic bandits over in the weather station ought to be sent up in one of the balloons,’ [launching chief Ed] Lewis squelched him by commenting quietly that he would be dispatching them in the wrong direction!”
Mice, those perennial lab creatures, were among the payloads to be studied for any effect from cosmic rays. Project lead Otto Winzen noted that although they had “sent balloons up for many purposes, even some with rockets dangling from them which are fired into the upper stratosphere when the balloons reach 80,000 feet… the flights to come have a particular significance because of their living cargoes.”
And those living cargoes required special packing:
They were in a flat wire mesh cage, each in its own compartment, gnawing away on pieces of raw potato, which would quench their thirst on the long cruise. The cage was placed on the platform which covers the lower hemisphere of the gondola. Then the two hemispheres were sealed airtight by means of 134 bolts and nuts, and around the sphere went a thick shell of insulating plastic and over that a layer of shiny aluminum foil to reflect the sun’s rays. The oxygen tanks were strapped into place, and filled to capacity. The gondola purred from the vibration of its cooling fans like something alive.
While certainly risky for the near-space-traveling mice, it wasn’t always a safe venture for the human crew, either.
[Balloon] Evelyn A leaped skyward, giving off an agonizing, crashing, echoing sound. As she moved swiftly in the direction of the truck, a gust of wind caused her to hesitate; her long nylon rope then lashed out to one side in an undulating movement as though it were a whip being cracked. Agile little Herk Ballman, standing at the level of the beacon, just managed to jump out of its way. An old hand at balloon launching, he had always been successful at outwitting a rampaging balloon. His close call brought to mind a launching in Europe in which one crewman had had his scalp ripped from one end to the other by a rising gondola, and another his forearm mangled and his shoulder dislocated by a swerving nylon rope which had momentarily looped itself around his arm.
Once aloft, the 175 foot-diameter balloon was quite the sight:
“There’s something eloquent about a gigantic balloon when being launched, whether it slips away tranquilly into the unknown or goes charging forward like an enraged elephant,” Winzen went on to say. “Each has a personality of its own and every one is a solo performer. From where I stand on the launch platform, I can catch from one balloon the satiny swish of a wedding gown as a breeze twists it, and from another the full resilience of a four-master after it has lurched suddenly before a gust of wind.”
The team had a C-47 at their disposal to chase the balloon, which would travel hundreds of miles away, giving the gondola payload extended exposure to near-space. Meanwhile, calls of flying saucer sightings came pouring in to newspapers and even the FBI as the balloon floated over farms and nearby towns. But Haymaker was taken with the romance of the sight:
Brilliantly lighted by the setting sun, she looks like the evening star. A little later, having taken on a harvest moon hue, she is outshone by Venus. A pity that she is expendable! Tomorrow, after she has accomplished her noble mission, a segment of her wall will be ripped out by a line attached to the top of the falling parachute, and she will wallow and sink, like a harpooned whale, and ultimately be found in farmers’ refrigerators, reduced to vegetable bags.
The Navy boys were just as excited, but less moony-eyed, as one sergeant observed “that she is ’tighter’n a bullfighter’s pants,’ and should be belching off some gas soon.” Eventually, the gondolas were cut from the balloons and parachuted to the ground, where the crew frantically searched for it before time — that is, the oxygen — ran out. “They are looking for congregations of cows, who are curious about gondolas, and for a line-up of cars along a road, for farmers, too, take advantage of extraordinary diversions such as this.”
Sometimes it was good news, such as when the gondola from Evelyn A was recovered: “There they were, all 60 mice cocking their eyes at the warden and me as though asking for food.” Other times, it was total loss, such as when the gondola on Emma V didn’t sever properly, the payload clinging on far too long for the animals to survive. Emma V continued on its flight, making newspapers around the region as the crew tried anything to get it down:
Our Emma V was described as an unruly giant. The following morning the account was continued, the caption reading, ”Balloon Dips But Evades Plane Guns”… On the fifth morning there was this surprising announcement: ”Wandering Balloon is First Satellite.” The Emma V was sighted over Bathhurst, New Brunswick, and was headed over the Atlantic for ”a high-altitude European tour.”
Haymaker grandly concluded his story about the ballooners, championing their role in future spaceflight:
Up there, in the as yet hostile and forbidding fringes of space, where it is always night, the ubiquitous mouse has gained a foothold. Before man can do likewise, or, indeed, pierce the stratosphere and travel through the black unknown beyond, he will continue to need balloon-borne animals as forerunners-unless, per chance, man himself is willing to serve as “guinea pig” for his fellowman.
Next Page »