May 27, 2011
Since 1963, hundreds of artists (and musicians, poets—even one fashion designer) have interpreted NASA’s aeronautic and space projects. The artists were given carte blanche to create what they wanted, in any medium, on any subject. In celebration of NASA’s 50th anniversary in 2008, more than 70 diverse artworks from the program began touring the country as part of an exhibition titled NASA / ART: 50 Years of Exploration. On Saturday the exhibition will open at the National Air and Space Museum, where it will remain on display through October 9.
Interested in the backstory to Norman Rockwell’s painting, above? According to NASA’s history of the art program, Rockwell “desperately wanted a spacesuit so he could get all the details in his painting of Grissom and Young suiting up for the Gemini 3 mission. But NASA officials refused on the grounds that there was a lot of secret technology in the suits and they couldn’t release one. [Program manager James] Dean worked as the go-between, and it was not looking good.
“‘I had [Mercury astronaut] Deke Slayton mad at me on one side and Norman Rockwell aggravated at me on the other.’ Dean recalled.
“The compromise was that a technician accompanied the suit up to Rockwell’s studio and sat with it every day as Rockwell worked. The technician’s reward was to be included in the piece as one of the people helping the astronauts.”
At a recent preview of the exhibition, Tom Crouch, curator of art at the National Air and Space Museum, explained that the Museum maintains the majority of the collection (about 2,100 pieces), dating from 1963 to the early 1980s, while NASA holds the remainder (about 800 pieces). In the collection, “you’ll see paintings that are heavily symbolic, and paintings that are representational,” said Crouch. Among the symbolic pieces are E.V. Day’s 2006 work Wheel of Optimism, which features a whimsical Martian landscape placed inside the prototype wheel of one of the Mars rovers. A more representational piece is photographer Annie Leibovitz’s 1999 portrait of Eileen Collins, the first female shuttle pilot (Discovery, 1995), and first female shuttle commander (Columbia, 1999).
Visitors can also see artworks by James Wyeth, William Wegman, Andy Warhol, and Robert T. McCall, as well as clothing designed by Stephen Sprouse featuring 3-D images based on Mars Pathfinder imagery. Or they can listen to music composed by Terry Riley and the Kronos Quartet.
Also at the preview was actress Nichelle Nichols, best known as Lt. Uhura from the television show “Star Trek” (shown at left with Clayton Pond’s 1981 silkscreen Strange Encounter for the First Time). “I wish I had this in my home,” said Nichols. “The entire exhibit,” she continued, “displays the arrogance of man’s imagination. And arrogance can be a wonderful thing.”
May 26, 2011
A few random thoughts on Day 11 of Endeavour‘s last flight:
- Tomorrow STS-134 astronaut Mike Fincke will become the U.S. record holder for time spent in space, eclipsing chief astronaut Peggy Whitson’s 377-day mark. Not bad for a guy who once washed out of Air Force fighter pilot training. “My arms weren’t golden enough to be a really great pilot,” he jokes. Plus, he’s one of the rare astronauts with his own page on the Internet Movie Database. He even appeared (in animated form) on the kids’ show “Arthur.”
- “Water Bear” may be too cute a name for creatures that can withstand radiation, total vacuum, and temperatures near absolute zero, which is what a bunch of tardigrades (their formal name) did for 10 days on the Foton-M3 mission in 2007. Tardigrades are one of only three animals—the others are brine shrimp and a type of African midge larvae—known to have survived in open space. (Bacteria have, too, although the old Apollo 12 story that bacteria survived three years on the lunar surface turns out to be false.) The Planetary Society launched tardigrades, along with several other hardy organisms, on STS-134 as a trial run for a more ambitious experiment to be flown on the Russian Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars. Researchers want to know if organisms could have survived a trip from Mars to Earth locked inside a meteorite. So to simulate (roughly) that voyage, they’ll be sealed inside tubes and sent on a 34-month round trip to Mars. Then scientists will try to revive them when they return to Earth. The shuttle experiment is a trial run to check out the hardware and handling procedures.
- Another small payload that deserves more attention is the “Sprite” satellite on a chip sponsored by Cornell University. Last week astronauts Drew Feustel and Greg Chamitoff attached these chip satellites, along with other material samples, to the outside of the space station to see how exposure to space affects them. Cornell’s Mason Peck envisions chip-size satellites being used someday for interstellar missions. I’m happy to see any progress, however modest, in that direction.
August 11, 2010
Here’s Stephen Hawking, commenting on humanity’s future:
…Our genetic code still carries the selfish and aggressive instincts that were of survival advantage in the past. It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million. Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward-looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.
I’ve never much liked this argument. If it’s true (and I’m not sure it is) that we’re doomed to destroy ourselves because “our genetic code still carries the selfish and aggressive instincts,” wouldn’t we just carry our dysfunctional habits with us to the moon and Mars? What would we gain?
Here’s another plan: Let’s work on curbing our selfishness and aggression (a Grand Challenge for 21st Century sociology?) so that the six billion of us left on Earth have a better chance of preventing/surviving a catastrophe, whether natural or self-inflicted. If the world ends, it won’t be much consolation to me (or probably to them) that 100 people survived on a moon base.
May 14, 2010
While the U.S. space program is mired in political arguments over how to reach Earth orbit (something we’ve known how to do for 50 years), Japan’s space agency JAXA, with far less money, is about to take a small but noteworthy step into the future.
An HII-A launcher is scheduled to lift off from the Tanegashima Space Center early on the morning of May 21, Japan time (Note: Launch postponed from May 18), with two spacecraft on board: a Venus orbiter called Akatsuki, and a smaller craft called IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun). With all due respect to Venus researchers, it’s the second payload that really interests me.
Solar sailing has long been suggested as a cheap, efficient way to cross vast stretches of space without having to carry whopping amounts of rocket fuel. Turn your sail into the sunlight, wait a while, and you’ll start building up speed. No fuel required, just photon pressure.
Due to a series of launch mishaps, the technology has never advanced much beyond ground tests. Now IKAROS actually hopes to go somewhere. It will ride alongside Akatsuki to Venus, swing past the planet, then go into orbit around the sun.
Because this is a technology demo and not a science mission, the JAXA engineers will be halfway to happiness if the sail just deploys properly. The 65-foot-diagonal square sail is made of a material called polyimide, just 7.5 microns in diameter, not much thicker than spider silk. It will unfurl from a spinning spool (start watching the Japanese-language video below at about the 6:50 mark to see the deployment). Tip weights at the corners provide tension—the sail has no frame.
The other key technology IKAROS is meant to demonstrate is power generation. About 5 percent of the sail’s surface is covered with thin-film solar cells, which will produce electricity. JAXA intends to follow the IKAROS demo later this decade by sending a larger (165-foot diagonal) sail to Jupiter and the Trojan asteroids, which will require additional thrust from ion drive—powered by the solar cells fixed to the sail.
It sounds ambitious, but the Japanese have been working on solar sail technology for years, and according to IKAROS project head Osamu Mori, this time they think they have a winning design, particularly when it comes to the material.
The idea for a solar sail first appeared about 100 years ago. Since then, there has been a lot of research done on this in western countries as well as Japan, but so far no one has made a breakthrough. One of the reasons for this is that the technology didn’t exist to reliably produce a lightweight thin film for the sail, which is very important. This film has to be made from a material that’s not just lightweight but can withstand extreme radiation and heat in space. The material that meets these conditions is polyimide resin, which is used as a foam insulation for satellites. Once such a high-quality material became available, the development of a solar sail came much closer to reality. Today, Japan has the largest market share in the world for polyimide resin. We are currently leading the race to develop applications for this technology, and it would mean a great deal to us to be the first in the world to build a working solar sail.
If all goes well, IKAROS will unfurl its wispy membrane about a month after launch, then set sail for Venus.
Ya gotta be rooting for this one.
May 10, 2010
Flight directors at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California are troubleshooting a glitch with the distant Voyager 2 spacecraft, which is still sending back signals from the outer solar system 33 years after it was launched. According to a JPL release, ground controllers haven’t received intelligible science data since late April; they suspect the craft’s data formatting system.
Let’s hope they’re able to solve the problem. The twin Voyagers, which are speeding outward at better than nine miles a second, are our best chance to cross the “heliopause” where the solar wind yields to the charged particle “winds” of interstellar space. That could happen sometime in the next 10 years or so, which is about how long the nuclear batteries and thruster fuel are expected to last.
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