Vintage Space Favourites of 2012

The Earth as seen by the crew of Apollo 10, 1969. Credit: NASA

The Earth as seen by the crew of Apollo 10, 1969. Credit: NASA

The past twelve months have been very good ones. I’ve met and worked with some incredible people, ventured into the (often awkward) world of podcasts and webcasts, and have read and written more than I ever did in grad school. Of the hundreds of articles I’ve written, a few stand out as favourites. And so, in no particular order, here are my top picks of 2012. These aren’t the big news items or the articles that got the most traffic. These are the ones that were fun to research and write, and the ones that taught me something new. [Read more...]

NASA’s Plan for Mars Makes the Old New Again

Curiosity’s photographs its own shadow in Sol 12 of the MSL mission. If NASA’s new plan sticks, we should see the same shot from Curiosity 2.0 in 2020 or 2021. Credit: NASA/JPL

Yesterday, NASA announced a bold new plan of exploration for the coming decade on Mars. It’s exciting. I love plans that include a methodical exploration of other worlds that will help answer the bigger questions out there, like why Mars developed into such a different world than the other inner bodies. But looking a little closer at what few details the agency’s released, it looks less like a concrete plan with a goal and more of a bid to capitalize on Curiosity’s unexpected fame. Which isn’t a bad thing. It’s just sort of an odd thing. [Read more...]

Felix Baumgartner: Unwitting Role Model

Felix Baumgartner. Not the role model I’d hoped he’d be. Oh well. Credit: REX

Two weeks ago, Austrian daredevil and skydiver Felix Baumgartner jumped 120,000 feet from a balloon. It was neat, but that’s about it. It was a stunt funded by RedBull. My opinion on the jump as a whole can be found in full here.

Yesterday, I woke up to Baumgartner’s first interview since the jump. In the last two weeks, he’s become something of a celebrity. Across social media sites, he’s been lauded as the Neil Armstrong for a new generation (a view I strongly disagree with but will save for another rant). With a worldwide audience hanging on his words, I’d hoped Baumgartner would emerge as a spokesman for the value of the technology coming out of our space program and the need to study space to learn about the Earth. Instead, he accused NASA of wasting money exploring Mars. I finished reading the interview, got really irritated before 7 o’clock in the morning (far too early), then calmed down. My measured response to Baumgartner’s interview is over at AmericaSpace.

The Cost of Curiosity

Taken on Sol 32, this is the frist time Curiosity used its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on its arm to take this portrait of the top of its Remote Sensing Mast showing the Mastcam and Chemcam cameras. It’s as close to a headshot as Curiosity can take. Credit: NASA/JPL

The other day I was in a coffee shop, quietly writing and sharing a table with a woman also on a laptop. She caught me staring blankly out the window and asked what I was working on; apparently I looked troubled. I told her I was working on a new angle for my sixth or so Mars article that week. She seemed interested so I told her about Curiosity, the heritage technology that’s helped NASA make multiple successful Mars landings, and how the Sky Crane will open up a new future of exploration.

The idea that reusing technology saves money in spaceflight and that developing new technology now may cut costs on future missions caught her attention. She urged me to play up that angle because the amount of money NASA spends on these missions is stupid.  “Curiosity,” she said, “cost half the nation’s defense budget.” That’s when I noticed her cross necklace and asked what kind of writer she is; turns out she’s a Christian motivational writer. That’s when I wished I had the figures on hand to illustrate just how little we spend on space exploration. But I didn’t so I quietly got back to work. But I did decided that I ought to write a blog post putting Curiosity into perspective so that the next time someone tells me NASA wastes money I can tell them how wrong they are.  [Read more...]