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.
January 17, 2013
So we’ve come full circle. Bigelow Aerospace, who based their Genesis inflatable space module on a NASA research project, is now selling back to the space agency its own technology. That’s probably a win-win outcome, though, since the contract — to test a prototype “expandable” module on the International Space Station starting in 2015 — may help keep Bigelow going, and should cost the government less in the long run.
Robert T. Bigelow, who made his money in the hotel business, got the idea for inflatable space habitats from NASA’s Transhab project of the 1990s. In fact, it was reading our April/May 1999 story on Transhab (here’s a downloadable PDF) and other similar articles in the popular press that inspired him. Practically everyone at the time thought Transhab was cool, and potentially very useful. But it didn’t fit into NASA’s plans for the space station, and was abandoned. Bigelow was eccentric enough, or maybe visionary enough — we’ll see how it plays out — to pick up the concept and see it through to launch his twin Genesis modules.
Only one thing bothers me about yesterday’s announcement. Bigelow is often held out by the New Space faithful as a key player in a would-be private economy based in Earth orbit. SpaceX and others would provide the rides, and Bigelow would provide the hotel/lab space. Once again, though, the only one stepping forward with money to make things happen is the U.S. government. Bigelow seems to still have plans for a private orbital module, but so far it’s just that — plans.
By the way, NASA apparently doesn’t like using the word “inflatable” anymore, since it conjures images of party balloons and Jiffy Pop.
Whatever. You fill it up with air.
December 3, 2012
If you grew up near Bethpage, New York in the early 1960s, you probably were obsessed with the Apollo Lunar Module built by the Long Island-based Grumman Corporation. And if you were an extremely prescient teenager, you might have started amassing your own world-class collection of space-related items, including photographs, manuscripts, and prints.
This Wednesday, Bonhams is auctioning off one such private collection. In a video on Bonhams’ Website, the collector (who wishes to remain anonymous) explains that he grew up “during the height of the windup to the Apollo era,” just a few miles from Grumman, and many of the fathers in his neighborhood worked on the Lunar Module. “I was working towards a goal fairly early on,” he recalls in the video. “In my early- to mid-teens, what I wanted to do was to have an exhibition focusing on unmanned space travel.”
Many of the items are one-of-a kind. The lunar photomosaic above (see the full image here), was made as a five-foot-wide presentation piece in 1966, and was painstakingly assembled by Kay Larson of the U.S. Geological Survey using images captured by Surveyor 1. “I’m lucky to have found this—it would have been thrown in the trash, eventually,” the collector notes.
There are objects relating to Mars, Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter, but Earth’s moon is the centerpiece of this show. Some of the items predate the space age. One particularly lovely object is a photograph made up of four large-format quadrants of the moon, taken in 1899, and probably created for the 1900 Paris Exposition. The photogravures, by Pierre Henri Puiseux and Maurice Loewy, were taken at the Paris Observatory. “It was only with NASA’s Lunar Orbiters in the 1960s,” reads the collection note, “that images substantially better than those of Loewy and Puiseux were obtained.” The plates are from Puiseux and Loewy’s Atlas photographique de la lune. The two men were able to photograph the moon only during perfect weather, the catalog notes, which meant just 50 or 60 nights each year—explaining why the Atlas took 14 years to complete. These may be the first oversize plates from the Atlas to come up for auction, and are expected to bring $12,000 to $18,000.
British pastel portraitist John Russell (the appointed painter to the King and the Prince of Wales) was so fascinated with the moon that he created a lunar globe in 1797, which he called a Selenographia. Russell spent many years drawing and observing the moon; his globe even accounts for lunar motion, or libration. No more than 11 Selenographias are believed to exist; six are in public collections. This example, lot number 23, is expected to fetch between $200,000 to $300,000.
November 28, 2012
NASA has published another one of their cool, interactive roadmaps, like the one from last February that we enjoyed. Be sure to click through to the interactive full-size version to learn where NASA is headed in technology fields ranging from space power to nanotechnology and, of course, new launch systems.
October 3, 2012
The Mercury astronauts, with their Corvette racing and drinking, were the apotheosis of Guy Culture, and their humor often stalled at about the seventh-grade level. Wally Schirra, especially, was a big fan of the practical joke, like the time he left a giant fake urine sample on astronaut nurse Dee O’Hara’s desk.
So 50 years ago today, during his Mercury Atlas 8 flight, it came as no surprise that fellow astronaut Deke Slayton, the “capsule communicator” in Mission Control, pulled a “gotcha” on Schirra.
The astronauts had a little game whereby if one asked “Are you a turtle?” the other had to answer “You bet your sweet ass I am!”, no matter how public the setting. Here’s a transcript of the air-to-ground conversation, a little over three minutes into the flight, with the whole world listening in. Schirra (P) is the pilot, and Slayton (CC) is the Capcom.
According to Schirra, “After splashdown, several of us were in the admiral’s quarters on the recovery ship, Kearsarge. Walt Williams, in his fast-chatter way of talking, demanded to know what my answer to Deke had been. I flipped on the flight recorder and there it was: ‘Wally are you a turtle?’ ‘You bet your sweet ass I am.’”
If it was all bathroom humor with the early astronauts, maybe they can be forgiven. The NASA doctors, who in those days were obsessed with learning every physiological reaction to spaceflight, allowed the astronauts very little privacy. An excerpt from a NASA medical report published after the MA-8 flight:
…No untoward sensations were reported by Astronaut Schirra, and the assigned inflight tasks were performed without difficulty. Specifically, he was not nauseated and did not vomit. Although the astronaut was never hungry during the flight, he ate the contents of two tubes containing food, one of peaches and the other of beef with vegetables, without difficulty. He experienced no urge to defecate during the mission, but he did report a moderate amount of inflight flatulence unaccompanied by eructation….
During the flight the pilot drank about 500 cc of water. He urinated three times before lift-off and three times during the flight, the last time just before retrofire. Bladder sensation and function were reported to be normal. Unfortunately, on landing, the urine collection device failed at its attachment to the body and all but 292 cc of the urine was lost.
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