November 13, 2013
Where is our Moon Base? What about those Earth-like planets we’re supposed to have found by now? Extraterrestrial life? A human mission to Mars? In short, what happened to the 20th century dreams that were fueled by the Apollo missions and Viking landings on Mars?
There is still plenty of excitement in the fields of space science and technology. That was evident at the recent Kepler Science Conference, held at NASA Ames to report on the discovery of new exoplanets, and is regularly found at astrobiology science meetings. But these days, there are at least as many setbacks as advances. The NASA-sponsored 2014 Astrobiology meeting has been postponed due to federal spending restrictions on conferences, and when it comes to launching new missions to address big scientific questions, progress is painfully slow. Why should we wait years for another mission to search for second Earths? Why send another orbiter to Mars (MAVEN is scheduled to launch next week) when we have the technological capability to search for life on the planet’s surface, or launch a probe to splash down on one of Titan’s hydrocarbon lakes?
Is it really all about budget? Or did we lose the type of risk-taking ability that propelled Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen to the South Pole and NASA to the Moon—the willingness to also accept failure, which is inherent when you attempt giant strides. Frustration with the slow pace of progress extends all across the public, including college students, scientists and fiction writers.
It’s also been noted by government agencies. In 2011 NASA finally reinstated the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program to fund far-horizon research, but since then only ten in-depth studies have been funded, with another five to seven to be selected in August 2014. The National Science Foundation initiated its INSPIRE program with the goal to promote “bold interdisciplinary projects.” But innovation frequently gets short-changed when review panels realize that a high-impact study often comes with a high risk of failure. All too often, the word “innovative” ends up being only lip service, because reviewers and funding agencies prefer to play it safe. The result is that many scientists are becoming high-tech technicians who only try to optimize past inventions rather than propose something truly revolutionary. And the ones still willing to take risks are chronically underfunded.
Another possibility is that we really are running out of ideas. “You’re the ones who’ve been slacking off!” said Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, addressing science fiction writers at the Future Tense Conference a couple of years ago. Good science fiction not only helps us set goals, but also shows ways to reach the envisioned technological future. According to writer Neal Stephenson, implementing new technologies on a heroic scale is no longer the childish preoccupation of a few nerds, but is the only way for the human species to escape from its current predicaments. One outcome of the Future Tense Conference was the proposal to produce an anthology of new science fiction, referred to as the Hieroglyph Project, to show new pathways to invention and discovery. Finally, two years later, one of the major academic science publishers took up this idea and came out with a new Science and Fiction book series.
Just envisioning the future won’t take us there, however. Maybe it’s just me, but I miss the cowboy mentality of the 1960s. We decided to go to the Moon and we did it – even if it seemed dangerous, reckless, even insane. Now we’re on a much more timid course, exploring from our safe, computer-generated virtual environments. Perhaps this is the true solution of the Fermi Paradox – the reason why we haven’t met other spacefaring civilizations. It’s time to turn things around.
Dirk Schulze-Makuch is a professor of astrobiology at Washington State University and has published seven books related to the field of astrobiology. He is also adjunct professor at the Beyond Center at Arizona State University.
October 15, 2013
It’s been a year since space shuttle Endeavour made its last, winding trip through the streets of Los Angeles before going on display at the California Science Center.
We thought we’d seen pretty much all the photos by now, but a team led by photographer Scott Andrews—the same guys who produced the breathtaking time-lapse of Discovery’s journey to the launch pad in 2010—have given us one last look at the shuttle’s final victory lap past throngs of appreciative fans.
June 7, 2013
The Mercury Seven astronauts had a rendezvous with destiny, and it turns out their wives did too.
“To be an astronaut wife,” writes Lily Koppel in her new book The Astronaut Wives Club, “meant tea with Jackie Kennedy, high society galas, and instant celebrity.” When their husbands were selected by NASA, these seven women went from being military wives on Navy and Air Force bases to intense, unrelenting scrutiny in the public eye.
Koppel, who interviewed many of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo wives, fills the book with interesting tidbits: While a student at the University of Hawaii, Trudy Cooper flew a Piper Cub, making her the only pilot in the group. Who would have guessed that demure Betty Grissom (pegged as an “unsophisticated Hoosier”) owned a pair of fur hot pants? The nine Gemini wives were given “$1,000 gift certificates to Neiman Marcus from an anonymous priest,” who had anticipated that the women would not always be able to afford the right clothes for their many galas. Koppel also describes friction between the Mercury and Gemini wives, at least initially. For the last Mercury mission, on May 15, 1963, the Gemini wives were invited to watch the launch party at Trudy Cooper’s house—but they watched Gordo Cooper’s blastoff on the living room television, while the Mercury wives huddled in the master bedroom.
Eventually, the women developed a kind of sisterhood—they were sharing the same experiences, after all. When an astronaut kid played house, for instance, you might overhear him say, “Good-bye now, I’m going to work. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.” The wives contended with “sightseers from the space tour buses who climbed over fences to steal a glimpse of a real spaceman,” and the morning ritual of removing sunbathing copperheads from the warm hoods of parked station wagons.
There were many perks, though, including post-spaceflight world tours. When Gemini 5 wives Jane Conrad and Trudy Cooper exited the airplane at Haile Selassie’s Jubilee Palace in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, “a noble and slightly bored lion greeted them at the top of the metal steps and had to be led down with great ceremony before they could disembark. Two chained leopardesses greeted them on the palace steps, which smelled of big-cat urine.”
Now, that’s a memory.
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.
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.
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