Thursday, September 29, 2011

Talk Of Nucear Rockets Continues

NASA has been toying with the idea of a nuclear powered rocket since the Apollo missions. Unfortunately, despite the fact a nuclear powered rocket would be better, faster, more powerful and less expensive than existing rocket technology, public opposition to anything with the word "nuclear" in it, has been too strong to overcome.

This is beyond unfortunate. It is nearly criminal. It is also the reason why human beings continue to languish in low Earth orbit endeavors instead of exploring the outer reaches of our solar system. With a nuclear powered rocket, or fleet of nuclear powered spaceships we could establish permanent human colonies on Mars, Venus,even the moons of Saturn and Jupiter, with ease; we could explore the Kuiper belt and mine asteroids for precious minerals. Also, had we spent the past few decades refining and improving nuclear powered rocket technology instead of wasting money on chemical rockets we would be thinking about exploring beyond the edge of our solar system, possibly planning missions to nearby star systems, rather than wondering how we will get an astronaut to the International Space Station.

What irks me the most about the opposition to nuclear powered rockets is not the ignorance factor. People have always been ignorant. But the fact we have found no leaders willing to risk their political capital on a program based on science, and which would have far-reaching benefits for the entire human species.

"Nuclear propulsion should be included when considering deep-space travel," said Princeton physicist Gene H. McCall, retired chief scientist for the Air Force Space Command and a senior scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. "The engines could also be used for years as a power source for establishing a base on the moon or Mars, or any long-term base where gathering power from the sun would be difficult.”

McCall said the arguments over nuclear space propulsion "are usually emotional rather than technical.”

While I was growing up on the family farm, my father tried for years to bring electricity to our rural area of Georgia, only to be met with protests motivated by fear of electrocution and fires. Irrational fear of the unknown has been with us since the dawn of humanity. But consider this: You can count the deaths in this country from nuclear energy on one hand. Meanwhile, 40,000 Americans die every year on our highways, yet practically no one hesitates to ride in an automobile.

Click here to read the entire article on nuclear propulsion by Jay Barbree.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Astronomy Confirms Literary Mystery

Mary Shelley said she wrote "Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus" by light of a bright and shining moon which gave her a feeling of being in "a waking dream."

Many have doubted her claim, instead postulating that she conceived the story from conversations she was having at the time, or from some other source.

Doubting Shelley's words was easy enough before the recent article by Donald Olson, an astronomy professor at Texas State University in San Marcos, which appeared recently in "Sky and Telescope" magazine. Now that they have proven a gibbous moon, bright and shiny, did indeed shine directly through her bedroom window at the time, doubting is a much more difficult thing.

This is hardly the first time astronomers have been able to prove an historical event by tracking the position of the stars in the sky. Unlike some other sciences, where the best that can be given is a 90% likelihood, astronomers can determine the exact position of the stars, moon and other celestial bodies, by retracing the position of the Earth from years long past.

Shelley first wrote of how she came to write Frankenstein in the preface of the book's 1831 edition, and critics immediately began questioning her story as simply a ruse to sell more books.

The story goes like this: Shelley was staying with her future husband, Percy Shelley, at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland in June of 1816. Also present were Lord Byron and friends Claire Clairmont and John Polidori. Byron challenged all of them to try their hand at writing a ghost story.


Shelley saw the "bright and shining moon" through her window that night and wrote the story while she was in what she called "a waking dream."

The closest account of Byron's challenge comes from Polidori's diary, in which he tells of the party gathering at the Villa Diodati for a philosophical discussion that ended "after the witching hour" of June 16, 1816. The next day he wrote that "the ghost-stores are begun by all but me."

But Olson said there was no record of the challenge itself from any sources other than Shelley's preface, and the assumption has always been made, though not proven, that the challenge and the writing took place early in the morning of June 16.

But he said that had never been confirmed until now.

"We verified when the moon would have shone on her window, which is when she first came up with the idea for the story we know as Frankenstein," Olson said.

Click here to read more about Olson's discovery at Reuters.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

NASA Needs Planet Hunters

Looking for something to do in your spare time besides playing Angry Birds? Consider becoming an official Planet Hunter and find planets outside our solar system.

The Planet Hunters program is a collaboration between astronomers at Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Yale and the University of Oxford. There are currently 40,000 people participating in the Planet Hunter program. They are volunteers, with no scientific experience (which is to say, none is required to participate.) Their job is to visually analyze computer graphs which depict light emitted from distant stars, in the hopes of finding the requisite dips and patterns which signify a planet transiting their star.

This week two planets found by the Planet Hunters were confirmed by NASA.

The best part about this program is the fact that anyone, even children, can participate. Computers search the data first, but they lack the precision needed to confirm some transits. That's where human eyes come in. Just by looking at the patterns we can do a better job of seeing what is happening.

The finding of hundreds of exo-planets (planets outside our solar system) has advanced astronomy more in the past decade than in the previous hundred years. With millions of candidates for possible planets, and tens of thousands of members of the Planet Hunters group helping, it is likely even more will be discovered in the coming months and years.

And everyone is welcome to participate in the search.

“A lot of times, we don’t know to anticipate in advance something unusual in the data. And so that’s clearly where the Planet Hunters, the public, [have] been coming in,” said Debra Fischer, professor of astronomy at Yale University and co-founder of Planet Hunters.

So far, there are about 40,000 users of Planet Hunters across the U.S. and about 90 other countries. It’s intuitive and simple enough that even a child could use it. Teachers are already using it in the classroom, Fischer said.

“It’s a perfect opportunity for even children to become involved, and to really learn what the scientific process is, what the scientific method is, and that thrill of discovery at an age where they still have the opportunity to make decisions about their future” said Natalie Batalha, co-investigator for NASA's Kepler mission, which has discovered more than 1,200 candidate planets so far.

All you have to do is sign up with Planet Hunters and start answering questions about graphs, which represent data about light from distant stars. The website guides you through what to look for – the dips and v-shapes corresponding to a dimming of light may mean a planet has transited, or passed in front of a star during a certain time period.

Click here to read more about the Planet Hunters.

Monday, September 26, 2011

NASA Ditches Dial-Up; Goes For High-Speed

Many people wondered why NASA was in such a hurry to ditch its Space Transportation System (popularly known as the space shuttle) when they had no follow-up space craft to take its place.

The answer may lie not in the vehicle but in the fact that NASA technology needs a complete overhaul. Not having the shuttle sapping resources NASA can focus on its space-tech infrastructure; adding satellites, improving space-based telecommunications, expanding its data base of information and focusing on new propulsion technologies.

In fact, NASA is now working diligently to improve the speed with which it can communicate with all space-based programs, from the Mars rovers to the International Space Station.

The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration is scheduled for 2016. If successful, future astronauts exploring the solar system would be able to supply real-time video and receive immediate feedback and instructions from NASA.

To the latter point, while it currently takes 90 minutes to transmit high-resolution images from Mars, LCRD will allow for actual streaming of high-definition video from distances beyond the moon, according to the space agency.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center came up the idea for the LCRD, which is now being developed by a cross-organizational team that also includes NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. NASA will fly the system into space on a commercial communications satellite developed by Space Systems/Loral.

Dave Israel, who is leading the team developing the network, compared current NASA space communications capability to dial-up Internet speeds. Just as the home Internet user "hit the wall" with that technology, he said in a statement that NASA "is approaching the limit of what its existing communications network can handle."

LCRD, on the other hand, will be more comparable to a land-based optical network such as FIOS from Verizon, Israel added.

Click here to read the entire article about NASA's LCRD.

Friday, September 23, 2011

NASA Astronauts Tell Congress: 'Bring Back The Shuttles'

Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the Moon. Gene Cernan was the last man to set foot on the Moon.Both men went before Congress this week and told members of the House of Representatives' Committee on Science, Space and Technology to "Get the shuttle out of the garage" rather leave NASA unable to put astronauts into orbit.

Both Armstrong and Cernan said they didn't believe it was feasible for private space companies to put an astronaut into orbit safely until at least the end of the decade. However, allowing a private company to use the existing Space Transportation System, more commonly known as the shuttle program, was not only feasible, it made perfect sense.

There are three remaining flight-worthy shuttles currently be made ready to sit in museums around the country. In the meantime NASA is unable to launch equipment, astronauts or supplies to the International Space Station. They are completely at the mercy of the Russian Soyuz rocket system which is currently sitting idle following a series of failures to put the rocket in orbit.

The idea of returning the shuttles to service does make sense, but then again, they never should have been moth-balled in the first place so it seems unlikely Congress is going to change its mind now. Perhaps words from men who have been where no other men have gone before (and seem unlikely to go again for decades) will add weight to the argument that NASA absolutely-positively needs a spacecraft.

The shuttle program ended this past July after 30 years of operation. The three remaining space-flown orbiters — Atlantis, Endeavour and Discovery — are now retired and being readied for display as museum showpieces.

But it might not be too late to press the shuttles back into action, said Armstrong, who was the first person ever to walk on the moon during NASA's historic Apollo 11 lunar landing mission in July 1969. [ Lunar Legacy: 45 Apollo Moon Mission Photos ]

"Proposals exist for continuing to fly the space shuttle under commercial contract," Armstrong wrote in testimony for today's hearing, which discussed NASA's human spaceflight operations. "Such proposals should be carefully evaluated prior to allowing them to be rendered 'not flightworthy' and their associated ground facilities to be destroyed."

At the moment, NASA is relying on Russian Soyuz vehicles to ferry its astronauts to and from the International Space Station. But the space agency wants private spaceflight companies to take over this taxi role by 2015 or so, and it's funding a handful of firms to develop their capabilities.

Cernan is dubious about this timeline, however.

"It will be near the end of the decade before these new entrants will be able to place a human safely and cost-effectively in Earth orbit," he said.

Click here to read the entire article.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Luckiest Woman Ever Lives In Tulsa

First, Space Blog Alpha told you about the Luckiest Kid In The World, now we're going to tell you about the Luckiest Woman In The World. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

According to Lottie Williams she was walking through a park in Tulsa late one night in 1997 when she was struck in the shoulder by a piece of a Delta II rocket. The ice weighted about the same as "an empty soda can" so she suffered no injury. But she is now famous for being the only person known to have actually been struck by a piece of falling space debris.

With NASA still trying to determine where their falling bus-sized satellite might land the experience of Lottie Williams should make some people feel a little better. Of course, a 160kg soda can would still pack a wallop.

“We were stunned, in awe,” Williams told She thought she’d just witnessed a shooting star. “It was beautiful.”

Less than thirty minutes later, that awe turned to fear.

“We were still walking through the park when I felt a tapping on my shoulder,” Williams explained. With no one near her at the time, she started to run, thinking a stranger had appeared out of the shadows. Then she heard something hit the ground behind her.

“The weight was comparable to an empty soda can,” Williams told “It looked like a piece of fabric except when you tap it, it sounded metallic." Williams was sure she’d found a piece of a shooting star.

Excited by her discovery, she took the fallen piece of sky to her local library where she was referred to the astronomy club (given her space-rock theory), as well as the National Weather Service -- who told her about a Delta II rocket that had re-entered the atmosphere the night before.

Beginning to realize what had happened, Williams took the piece to the University of Tulsa where Dr. Winton Cornell, an applied associate professor in the Department of Geosciences, studied it with an electron microscope and blasted it with X-rays.

Click here to read the entire article about Lottie Williams.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Chinese Space Station Begins Construction Next Week

As pieces of NASA satellites are falling and U.S. astronauts remain grounded for lack of a spacecraft, China is set next week to launch the first piece of its new space station, called "Heavenly Palace."

As of today, with Russian Soyuz paunches suspended, China is the only country currently capable of launching an astronaut into orbit. The fact their political leaders have consistently made space exploration a priority has much to do with the continued growth of their space program.

The success of the Chinese space program has many people wondering why they still have not been invited to participate in the International Space Station, which currently has 13 partners, including the U.S., Russia, Japan and several European nations. In the face of this lack of invitation China has continued to develop its own program which has led it to the creation of its space launch vehicle and now, its own space station.

The Tiangong 1, or "Heavenly Palace," will blast off from a site in the Gobi Desert around Sept. 27-30, adding a high-tech sheen to China's National Day celebrations on Oct. 1, the Xinhua news agency said.

The small, unmanned "space lab" and the Long March rocket that will heave it skyward have been readied on a pad at Jiuquan in northwest Gansu province, Xinhua said, citing an unnamed representative for the country's space program.

It will be the latest show of China's growing prowess in space, and comes while budget restraints and shifting priorities have held back U.S. manned space launches.

The big test comes weeks after its launch, when the eight-ton craft attempts to join up with an unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft that China plans to launch.

"The main task of the Tiangong 1 flight is to experiment in rendezvous and docking between spacecraft," said the Chinese representative, who added that this would "accumulate experience for developing a space station."

Click here to read more about the Chinese space station.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Watch For Falling Skies (Or Satellites)

In case you haven't heard, a satellite will be hitting Earth in the next week. It's okay though. The odds of a piece of the 6 1/2 ton satellite striking a human are 1 in 3,200.

It is too soon to tell where the satellite will land exactly. Many of the pieces will burn up before hitting the Earth's surface, but some of the 26 pieces of the satellite are expected to hit the Earth sometime around the last week of September.

Even though the odds of part of the dead satellite striking a person are slim, the idea is baffling, right?

NASA officials say there is a 1-in-3,200 chance that a piece of UARS satellite debris could strike and injure a person on the ground. The most likely scenario is that the satellite falls somewhere over an ocean.

"Earth is big, the satellite is small; the chance of it hitting a person is very, very small," said Victoria Samson, the Washington Office Director of the Secure World Foundation, an organization dedicated to the peaceful use of outer space. "While the idea of something coming at you from outer space is unnerving, there are a lot more realistic threats we should be concerned about. The actual impact to any person is fairly minimal."

At this point, NASA cannot confirm the exact trajectory ortime of the UARS satellite's plunge, which depend on solar weather, variations in Earth's gravitational field, and the orientation of the satellite. However, as UARS' re-entry draws near NASA should be able to offer more precise predictions.

The space agency first announced the spacecraft's impending dive last week. Since then, experts have been able to refine their tracking of the satellite, and confirmed its present orbit.

To read more about satellite UARS, click here.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Cold War Era Spy Satellites Revealed (For One Day Only)

For decades they were a closely guarded secret of the United States military, but on Saturday the the KH-7 GAMBIT, the KH-8 GAMBIT 3 and the KH-9 HEXAGON spy satellites were open for public viewing.

The satellites were made available by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport, Va. Despite the small window of opportunity to see the spy satellites crowds lined up to catch a glimpse of what was at the time cutting edge technology.

The satellites were used to capture high resolution images of Soviet-era missile silos, submarines and anything else deemed worthy of investigation by the U.S. military.

Interestingly enough some engineers speculate the technology used to develop these satellites may have later been used to advance designs of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Military space historian Dwayne A. Day was exuberant after his first look at the KH-9 HEXAGON.

"This was some bad-ass technology," Day told "The Russians didn't have anything like it."

Day, co-editor of "Eye in the Sky: The Story of the CoronaSpy Satellites," noted that "it took the Soviets on average five to 10 years to catch up during the Cold War, and in many cases they never really matched American capabilities."

Phil Presser, designer of the HEXAGON's panoramic 'optical bar' imaging cameras, agreed with Day's assessment.

"This is still the most complicated system we've ever put into orbit …Period."

The HEXAGON's twin optical bar panoramic mirror cameras rotated as the swept back and forth as the satellite flew over Earth, a process that intelligence officials referred to as "mowing the lawn."

Each 6-inch wide frame of HEXAGON film capturing a wide swath of terrain covering 370 nautical miles — the distance from Cincinnati to Washington — on each pass over the former Soviet Union and China. The satellites had a resolution of about 2 to 3 feet (0.6 to nearly 1 meter), according to the NRO. [10 Ways the Government Watches You]

According to documents released by the NRO, each HEXAGON satellite mission lasted about 124 days, with the satellite launching four film return capsules that could send its photos back to Earth. An aircraft would catch the return capsule in mid-air by snagging its parachute following the canister's re-entry.

Click here to read the entire article about the one-day event.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

ISS Struggles Continue As Some Blame White House

Just think, not very long ago the United States had the most powerful spacecraft ever devised by human beings. Today, we can't even put an astronaut into Near-Earth-Orbit without the help of the Russian Soyuz rocket system which was designed in the 1960's.

Of course, at least they have the ability to launch an astronaut into orbit. Sometimes.

Following four spectacular launch failures the Russian space program is on hold while engineers struggle to find exactly what went wrong. That leaves a crew of three astronauts aboard the International Space Station, stranded, and has many in the U.S. (finally) questioning the logic of abandoning the shuttle program without a viable U.S. space launch system in place.

"Many of the systemic weaknesses of the Soyuz system were not a big deal in the shuttle era. Yet now they indeed become of paramount concern to the survival of our $100 billion investment in America's space future," Harman warned.
Without shuttles, and without Soyuz, the space station may be in danger.
"The whole thing is a damn house of cards," Kraft told "Without the space shuttle, you leave yourself extremely vulnerable to losing the whole space station," he said. 
That has far greater implications than it sounds, he noted. For example, NASA has been been promoting the privatization of space flight as a replacement for the space shuttle. 
"Without the space station, there is no market for the commercial vehicles. Zero," Kraft said. 
Astronauts have been living aboard the station, without interruption, for almost 11 years. NASA has insisted last month's accident will have no adverse influence on the International Space Station crew, because their existing supplies of food, water and oxygen are sufficient.
"That's true," Kraft told "They have a very good complement of equipment. The question is, do they have the right equipment? And can they use if it they have to?" 
He noted that extra-vehicular activity, or EVA, was often required to repair the station or add a new part. If the station is damaged, however, how would crew perform that operation?
"If you've got a damaged space station and you couldn't do an EVA, the U.S. shuttle would have been the only other vehicle with an EVA capability."

Click here to read the entire interview with Art Harman, director of The Coalition to Save Manned Space Exploration.

Monday, September 12, 2011

New U.S. Space Capsule 'Orion' Now Being Built

I hesitate to call the new U.S. spacecraft, 'Orion,' a spaceship because, well, it's not actually a ship. It's actually a capsule, much like the capsules we used four decades ago.

Only this one is bigger with better technology.

Work began just last week on a new Orion capsule which will actually be launched into space. At the same time some Congressional officials have started blasting the Obama Administration for attempting to "kill off" the NASA manned space program by balking at the estimated $60+ billion price tag (total funds invested by 2025).

One thing is certain, without a spaceship of some sort the United States is in real danger of losing its superiority when it comes to space technology. In fact, you would be right in saying that because we have no way of getting supplies or crew to the International Space Station we have ALREADY lost our superiority.

Hopefully this is only a temporary problem; a hiccup in the long great race to space. The Orion space capsule is expected to make flight sometime in the next year or so. If all goes well American astronauts could once again (soon) be heading for the stars....

NASA already has spent about $5 billion on the Orion capsule, which could fly unmanned in 2017 for another $6 billion, plus $0.7 billion for full-cost accounting. The “21st Century Ground Systems” Congress ordered for the new vehicle would cost about $2 billion, plus a $0.4 billion full-cost escalator.

In the report it based on those figures, Booz Allen found NASA’s long-term SLS estimates through 2025 “optimistic” and based on unrealistic assumptions. But it found the agency’s near-term estimates adequate.

Disclosure of the numbers Booz Allen used in its outside analysis of the reference design Bolden selected triggered an uproar from Senate backers of the SLS.

“Rather than announce these results and move forward with development, the administration’s budget office has kept the independent cost report under wraps,” Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) complained in a Sept. 8 press release. “Instead, a wildly inflated set of NASA cost numbers was invented, based on an imaginary ‘acceleration’ of SLS development.”

The release referred to a Wall Street Journal article published the day before that cited what the senators termed was a “leaked” NASA document dated Aug. 19 with figures that went as high as $62.5 billion to build and operate SLS through 2015.

“No one has proposed to accelerate development,” Hutchison and Nelson wrote in the release, which was headlined as a “statement on the administration’s campaign to undermine America’s manned space program,” by the lawmakers.

Click here to read the entire article from

Want to read about the original "Project Orion"? Check this out:

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Skylabbin' with Pete, Joe, and Paul: Skylab II, 1973

By Guest Contributor Emily Carney

By 1973, the Apollo program had ground to a halt after the cancellation of Apollo 18, 19 and 20. Budget cuts had forced NASA into a holding period, which wouldn't truly be broken until the first space shuttle flight in 1981. However, NASA had a veritable city of spare parts left over from the Apollo days – some command modules, Saturn V rockets (how does one have a spare Saturn V rocket? It boggles the mind) and Saturn IB rockets – and they decided to put these leftovers to good use. By May 1973, America's first space station, the appropriately and elegantly named Skylab, was ready to fly.
The space station – a truly gigantic payload for its time – was launched May 14, 1973 from a Saturn V launch vehicle. Almost immediately Skylab ran into some massive problems which threatened to permanently disable the space station. During the launch, apparently high frequency vibrations of some sort caused the station's micrometeoroid shield/sun shade (sort of like the space version of those tinfoil-ish things you put on your car's windshield) and one main solar panel to detach from the craft. In addition, the other main solar panel was jammed shut like a broken accordion by all of the debris kicked up. In short, Skylab at its onset looked like the Ultimate Space Hot Mess and it was highly doubtful that the space station could be rescued from permanent damage.

Enter Pete Conrad, Joseph Kerwin, and Paul Weitz, the crew of Skylab II. After spending a few extra days on the ground cooking up repair scenarios, the men of Skylab II were strapped into their Apollo command module and blasted off from a Saturn IB launch vehicle to the Giant Crippled Bird in the Sky. The day was May 25, 1973.
The three astronauts immediately became the world's first Space Mechanics when they found that their Apollo spacecraft was unable to dock with Skylab. Without a working docking port, there was essentially no mission and Skylab would be reduced to becoming an exceptionally large piece of space trash. Kerwin and Weitz suited up at one point in an attempt to fix whatever was making docking impossible. They also tried to release the jammed solar panel, but their effort (which involved Kerwin having to hold Weitz by his legs while the latter astronaut hung out of the CM hatch, which sounds like a blast!) was not a success.
At long last, after several unsuccessful attempts, mission commander Pete Conrad (perhaps the most hilarious astronaut who ever existed) finally managed to get the docking latches to work. After this slightly hair-raising experience – the space equivalent of not being able to fit your car into a parking space - the three astronauts found even more craziness awaiting them aboard Skylab. The place was extremely hot due to the loss of the sun shield, and probably stank like hot garbage. After atmospheric testing proved that Skylab was safe to enter without pressure suits (there was some concern that the high temperatures would degrade the plastic onboard, creating toxic gas), the three men got to work.
The crew managed to deploy a replacement parasol from inside the space station, which made it possible for real work to start. Soon temperatures began to drop in the crew's compartments, and they were actually able to get to real science. But perhaps the greatest highlight of Skylab II involved a rather perilous-sounding spacewalk undertaken by Conrad and Kerwin.
In what sounds like a made-up story involving space magic, the men used a system of poles, garden shears and primitive pulleys in another attempt to fix the jammed solar panel, which was limiting Skylab's operational life. Their novel fix worked. Skylab was essentially rescued from becoming a one-shot deal, and two more crews were able to use the station for long-duration flights which yielded important scientific findings.
Skylab contained an impressive array of eight ten-foot-long telescopes, and put this equipment to amazing use during its first manned mission. The station's telescope console contained a solar flare alarm, which would go off whenever the station passed by the Earth's South Atlantic anomaly (where the Van Allen radiation belts would bend closer to the Earths' surface). Weitz eventually stumbled upon a real solar flare via the telescopes during the mission; the flare alarm went off, and Kerwin proclaimed rather poetically, “I'd like you to be the first to know that the pilot is the proud father of a genuine flare.” This may have been one of the most exciting, spellbinding discoveries gleaned from Skylab; by mission's end, the three astronauts had taken 33,000 photos of Earth and the Sun.
On June 22, Skylab II's crew splashed down at long last off the coast of California. Their mission had yielded some of the most illuminating photos of Earth and the Sun humans had ever seen; in addition, they had functioned as the first “fix-it” crew in space, and had made additional important discoveries concerning man's medical tolerances to long-duration spaceflight.
Some space enthusiasts regard Skylab as barely a radar blip which occurred during the novelty-filled 1970s, a time in which manned spaceflight underwent a kind of “dry,” inactive period. However, Skylab deserves more recognition for its unique achievements and for its status as the country's first fortress in space. Skylab would go on to house two more crews from 1973 to 1974, and continued to contribute to medical and planetary science. The first U.S. space station would reenter auspiciously over Australia in 1979; the direct predecessor to the International Space Station was rather sadly reduced to hunks of burned-up debris. A Skylab mockup still exists at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
An excellent article about Skylab and its manned missions was featured in the October 1974 issue of National Geographic magazine, which can be found in many local library archives.
Here is a great clip from the NASA film Skylab: The First 40 Days which shows the mission-saving spacewalk and other experimental footage.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Tales Of 9/11 From Space

During the tragic events of September 11, 2001 on lone NASA astronaut was aboard the International Space Station: Astronaut Frank Culbertson

Today NASA released the letters he wrote during and immediately following the attacks and the photographs he took from orbit. The images of huge twin plumes of smoke trailing from New York City bring vivid memories fooding back.

In his letters, Culberston writes mostly of his feelings of isolation. The feeling of being trapped so far away from Earth while his home country was under attack is crystal in his letters home:

CNN has reprinted portions of his letters:
"I was flabbergasted, then horrified. My first thought was that this wasn't a real conversation, that I was still listening to one of my Tom Clancy tapes," Culbertson wrote. "It just didn't seem possible on this scale in our country. I couldn't even imagine the particulars, even before the news of further destruction began coming in."

And he closed his letter on that first day:

"Other than the emotional impact of our country being attacked and thousands of our citizens and maybe some friends being killed, the most overwhelming feeling being where I am is one of isolation."

A day later, after having time to reflect on what was happening below, Culbertson continued his writing.

"It's horrible to see smoke pouring from wounds in your own country from such a fantastic vantage point. The dichotomy of being on a spacecraft dedicated to improving life on the earth and watching life being destroyed by such willful, terrible acts is jolting to the psyche, no matter who you are," he wrote.

Click here to read the entire CNN article.

More of his letters are posted by NASA, here.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Washington Fears Costs Of Manned Space Travel

A Wall Street Journal article seems to indicate the White House is balking at the proposed $25 billion price tag NASA has put on the development of a heavy lift rocket and subsequent manned spacecraft.

This hardly seems a surprise. If ever there was a time for opponents of manned space travel to pounce, it is right now. This moment in history is going to make or break the U.S. space program.

Space travel is expensive. It is also risky. This combination of risk and cost make it seem like something we should put off until we are better able to afford both. Unfortunately, the world doesn't work like that.

If human history has taught us anything it is that the more the challenging the times we live in, the more likely the need for us to embrace a paradigm shift.

Despite the billions of dollars we have invested in the manned space travel and the International Space Station we have reaped literally trillions of dollars in benefits. From the thousands of people employed in the space industry; scientific and medical developments, new products and manufacturing techniques have left us much better off than we would have been without it.

There simply is no excuse for the United States to consider cutting funds for space technology and development at the same moment they are embracing tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans and Big Business.

In his article, "White House Experiences Sticker Shock Over NASA's Plans", Wall Street Journal reporter Andy Pasztor breaks the issue down by the numbers:

Based on priorities already adopted by Congress—then adjusting for projected inflation and accelerated development efforts—the document indicates it could cost as much as $57 billion to deploy and use the proposed systems through 2025. Upgrading launch facilities and building additional spacecraft to allow astronauts to land on the moon or an asteroid, the document indicates, could boost the total to $62.5 billion

None of the scenarios envision manned flight on the new rocket before the end of 2017.

At the same time, outsiders have criticized the reliability of NASA's budget projections. An independent analysis prepared this summer by the consulting firm of Booz Allen Hamilton found some of NASA's projections overly optimistic and said they were based on "unjustified, sometimes substantial, assumed future cost savings." The report, which was sought by White House officials, concluded that NASA's numbers aren't reliable enough to support detailed, long-term project planning.

Others have criticized NASA's strategy, mandated by Congress, to base the heavy-lift rocket's design as much as possible on elements of the space shuttle fleet, which was retired in July. Reliance on such engines, related hardware and often cost-plus contracts stretching back to the shuttle's heyday are major reasons for the new booster's anticipated hefty price tag, according to Jeff Greason, a leader of the Commercial Space Flight Federation, a trade group that represents backers of commercial-space projects."When you do that, you get shuttle costs."

Click here to read the entire article.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Are We Infecting Mars With Microbes?

Ian O'Neill poses an interesting question: As we ramp up the robotic explorers we are sending to Mars do we run an increased risk of contaminating the planet with Earthen microbes?

You bet your sweet bupkiss we are. And I don't need a scientific study to convince me of that.

The fact is, the more comfortable we become about visiting a place, the easier it becomes to get to a place, the more likely it is we will eventually make a mistake and bring something with us we didn't intend to bring.

Granted, scientists take GREAT CARE to disinfect anything they are sending to Mars or any other celestial body, but the fact is, accidents do happen.

Fortunately, the Martian environment is very harsh (especially for microbes used to living on Earth) so anything which did travel there would face an especially hostile new home. This adds to the level of protection the planet has against any earthly incursions.

Still, O'Neill makes a good point in this article, "Could New Rover's Wheels Deliver Germs to Mars?":

Curiosity's landing on the Martian surface will contrast greatly with anything that's gone before. After entering the Martian atmosphere, parachute jettisoned and heat shield ditched, the large rover requires something more powerful to control its landing. Using the much-discussed "sky crane" -- a rocket-powered platform -- to lower Curiosity to the ground, the first part of the rover to make contact with the regolith will be its wheels. This is the first time a Mars rover will use its wheels as its landing gear.

And herein lies the problem, says Schuerger.

Soujourner, Spirit and Opportunity's wheels all had a period of time sitting under the sun, being baked by savage ultraviolet light, before coming into contact with the soil -- any surviving bacteria would have been fried. Curiosity's wheels, on the other hand, will make immediate contact with the soil. Should any hardy bacteria have survived the trip, nestled in the rover's tread, they could be buried quite nicely into the uppermost layer of Mars regolith.

In fact, according to the study, a contaminated wheel would be quite effective at harvesting bacteria in the Martian regolith. 31.7 percent of the samples delivered into the simulated Mars environment showed growth. Sadly (for the bacteria), their survival rates plummeted soon after -- the ultraviolet radiation and high carbon dioxide environment is a huge buzz-kill for microbe development.

So, there's a tiny chance that if Earth Brand™ microbes make it past the sterilizing process, if they survive the harshness of the interplanetary environment during transit to Mars, and if they are fortunate to be buried deep enough by the rover's wheels to be shaded slightly from the sun, then there might be a tiny glimmer of hope that our intrepid single-celled travelers live for more than a few minutes.

Click here to read the rest of O'Neill's article.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

UnManning The International Space Station? Maybe

It started as a vicious rumor but now it seems more like a "will happen" instead of a "may happen."
Following the destruction of a Progress cargo ship last month NASA appears to be seriously considering bringing home the astronauts currently serving aboard the International Space Station.
Astronauts on board ISS conducted a live video interview earlier today and answered questions about the process of shutting down the station in the event they are ordered back to Earth.

Click here to watch the video interview.