Obama’s Second Term and the National Future in Space

President Barack Obama discusses his plans and ambitions for NASA during an address at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Jim Grossman

The relationship between space exploration and politics is a complicated one. The President is the only person who can pick a major goal like going to the Moon, but proposals that big have to go through congress for funding. To make sticking to big goals more complicated, each incoming president has the power to change major decisions made by his predecessor in space. With a president having two terms in office, it’s more likely his vision for space will be realized but it’s far from a sure bet. It’s possible that Obama’s second term will get us closer to seeing NASA’s mammoth SLS rocket flying the Orion spacecraft to the Moon, but history tells us that the constant rotation in the White House has a way of stopping big ideas before they get started.

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…]

Vintage Space Fun Fact: Gemini’s Poetry

The Mercury capsule on the left clearly influenced the design of the Gemini spacecraft on the right (as did a number of technical and managerial factors). Credit: McDonnell

In 1960, a year before Al Shepard made his ballistic flight on Freedom 7 and two years before John Glenn went into orbit on Friendship 7, NASA was already planning what to do after the Mercury program wrapped up. Mercury was limited by the capsule’s on board power source and fuel store to short orbital flights, so for its next program NASA was looking to lay a foundation in space exploration.

By 1962, a program with focused goals had emerged: NASA’s main goal would be to prove that astronauts could manoeuver their spacecraft in orbit to rendezvous and dock with another vehicle. On January 3 the new program was publicly christened Gemini, an interestingly fitting moniker. [Read more…]

Wernher Von Braun’s Smoke and Mirrors Escape from Germany

On their journey out of Germany, von Braun’s driver fell asleep at the wheel but he escaped with just a broken arm. Centre, with other high ranking rocket engineers right after they surrendered to American soldiers in 1945. Credit: NASA

That the rockets that launched America’s space program had Nazi roots was never a secret. They came to America under Operation Overcast and Project Paperclip before building rockets for the US military but didn’t become citizens until the 1950s. The US Army had them travel to Mexico then walk back onto US soil so they’d have immigration dates that weren’t confidential. But the really interesting part of the story, and the question a lot of people have when they hear about Wernher von Braun and his immigration to the US, is how a group of engineers and technicians managed to move through Germany to find American soldiers to negotiate their transfer to the states with more than a decade of research in tow. It’s a pretty phenomenal story involving quick thinking, clever deceptions, and a fair amount of luck. Read the whole story on Motherboard.

When Soviets Roved the Moon

The Lunokhod Rover, 7.5 feet long and just under 5 feet tall. Credit via NASA

Between Curiosity stretching its wheels and heads for its first big target site, Glenelg, and Opportunity finding new “blueberries,” concretions left by ancient mineral-laden water flowing through rocks, rovers are pretty hot right now. But Mars isn’t the first body to be explored remotely by a rover. In the early 1970s, the Soviet Union sent two rovers, Lunokhod 1 and 2, to the Moon as part of the Luna program. The team remote controlling the rovers from Earth gained confidence quickly, and covered an impressive amount of the lunar surface in a short time. Though rudimentary compared to our modern Mars rovers, the Lunokhod’s are the pair that started it all. Read their full story at DVICE.

Kennedy’s Public and Private Thoughts on Apollo

Kennedy during the famous speech at Rice University on September 12, 1962. The full video of the speech is at the end of this article. Image via John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum Online

On September 12, 1962, President Kennedy gave his famous speech at Rice University in Texas proclaiming that Americans take on lofty goals like landing a man on the Moon not because it is easy but because it is hard. It’s a speech that still resonates with spaceflight enthusiasts half a century later, often considered indicative of a time when NASA had clear goals and the necessary support to achieve them. But Kennedy’s own feelings about going to the Moon might have been different than the stirring words he said at Rice. In private conversations in the months and years that followed, he expressed worries over the cost of Apollo, raised questions regarding NASA’s commitment to a lunar program, and disappointment that the lunar landing wouldn’t happen within his presidential tenure.  [Read more…]

Voyagers Turn 35

Voyager 1 launched on a Titan III-E Centaur on September 5, 1977. Credit: NASA

Voyager 1 launched from Cape Canaveral on a multiplanet flyby mission on September 5, 1977. Like its twin spacecraft Voyager 2 that actually launched two weeks before on August 20, it was designed to investigate the atmospheres, magnetospheres, satellites, and ring systems of the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn. Though the original plan wasn’t to keep in touch with the spacecraft after they left Saturn, both have continued to work, sending back valuable data, and in Voyager 2’s case visiting Uranus and Neptune. Now, still working, Voyager 1 is 11 billion miles away and about to cross through the plasma bubble created by charged particles coming from the sun and into unchartered interstellar space. And the 35 year mission shows no sign of slowing down. Read the whole story on Motherboard.

Carnival of Space #265

The “New Nine.” From upper right, in clockwise order: Frank Borman, John Young, Tom Stafford, Pete Conrad, Jim McDivitt, Jim Lovell, Elliot See, Ed White, Neil Armstrong. Credit: NASA via Retro Space Images

It’s time for another Carnival of Space! The biggest news this past week is of course Neil Armstrong’s death. It’s a loss for the world and the space community in particular. In this week’s carnival we have a number of articles paying tribute to the man synonymous with Apollo, news from the planets, and a reminder about neat technologies on the horizon. For this week’s fun vintage image, it’s one of my new favourites of the “New Nine” surrounding a Gemini capsule, the program they were recruited to fly. Top left is Armstrong, already looking skyward.

[Read more…]

Neil Armstrong OpEd in the Guardian

A smiling Armstrong inside the X-15’s cockpit. Credit: NASA

I was asked to write an opinion piece on Neil Armstrong’s passing for the Guardian. I thought a lot about the role he’s played in spaceflight history, not just because of the missions he flew but because of what he stood for in the space race. “With Armstrong’s death, the chapter of spaceflight history that opened with Kennedy’s pledge in 1961 has closed… we’ve lost the man who is recognised the world over as embodying Apollo’s triumph.”

 I think it’s up to historians to preserve Armstrong’s legacy within the context of the space race so he might serve as an inspirational figure to future generations. After all, he will always be the first man to have walked on the Moon and symbolic of Apollo’s success no matter what comes next. Read my full article on the Guardian.

Neil Armstrong: Ace Engineer and Hotshot Test Pilot

Armstrong enjoys a cigar in March, 1969. Credit: Ralph Morse/Life

I walked in the house this afternoon to find a heap of emails, text messages, and voicemails about Neil Armstrong’s death. I was shocked. My next thought was that Armstrong will never be truly gone. When he stepped on the Moon on July 20, 1969, he inspired a generation to pursue careers in science. A generation later, children reading about Apollo (including myself) were similarly inspired. I don’t think the effect will wear off in generations to come. But Armstrong’s legacy is so much more than just Apollo 11. His contributions to and role in some of the earliest and most innovative early spaceflight programs are significant. Preserving that legacy will keep him alive and is vital to doing his memory justice.

I can’t possibly sum up all the projects Armstrong was involved in in one article, so here’s a brief look at his career leading up to the Apollo 11 Moon landing with links to full stories I’ve covered elsewhere.   [Read more…]