The 2,500 Year-Old Search for Another Earth Continues

 

A 2011 graphic of the stars Kepler has identified as hosting planets; the potential planets are the dark spots, transiting their stars. For scale, the Sun is shown below the top row of stars towards the right. The dot is Jupiter. Credit: Jason Rowe/NASA Ames/SETI

NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope launched in 2009 with the express purpose of identifying exoplanets. A few weeks ago, it suffered a critical malfunction: the second of four reaction wheels that make up the spacecraft’s stability system failed, leaving Kepler unable to focus on its extrasolar targets. The public reaction was varied, some mourning the loss of the mission while others blamed NASA for launching imperfect hardware and called the mission a waste. What few seemed to focus on was how much this mission has changed how we think about the Universe around us. Kepler has found thousands of potential exoplanets – hundreds of which have been confirmed – giving us a Universe in which we are increasingly unlikely to be alone. This is a significant change of perspective. Thirty years ago, the idea of exoplanets was still a theory without proof. But it was an enduring, if unpopular, idea that dates back nearly 2,500 years. My latest article for Al Jazeera English gives an extremely brief overview of our millennia-old search for exoplanets and another Earth. (There’s a typo in the third paragraph. The last sentence should read: It was a cosmos that mimicked the perfection and simplicity of the divine mind, the view that had been propagated by Plato and picked up by Aristotle a century later.)

Tereshkova, Savitskaya, and Ride: the Beginnings of Women in Space

Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Credit: NASA

Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Credit: NASA

On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly in space. First American woman, but third woman overall; she was preceded into orbit by Soviet cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. But both these women were launched for political gain, a means for the Soviet Union to establish dominance or secure a first in space. This wasn’t a uniquely Soviet trait. Ride was among the six women selected as part of NASA’s 1978 astronaut class, a group of 35 that also included three African Americans and one Asian American. It was a sudden diversity that was at least in part politically motivated.

Politics and spaceflight have long been inseparable, and politically-driven launches are nothing new. Political motivation neither tarnishes the accomplishments of the first two women who reached orbit nor does it say anything about their abilities, careers, or characters. Rather, it’s the situation surrounding the individual flights that speaks volumes. When it comes to the relationship between women and space, Ride more than any other woman marks the turning point. I’ve scratched the surface of this idea in my latest article for Motherboard.

Tereshkova and Gagarin: Similarities Between the First Man and Woman in Space

Valentina Tereshkova in 1970. Credit: Ria Novosti

Valentina Tereshkova in 1970. Credit: Ria Novosti

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of women in space: on June 16, 1963, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova launched into orbit as the pilot Vostok 6. Since her historic flight, Tereshkova has appropriately been a supporter of women’s right and women in science. But to regard her mission as a great early coup for women’s rights – which many are wont to do – is to take it out of context. As is usually the case, it’s important to look at the events surrounding a mission to gain a full perspective. My latest article at Al Jazeera English gives a more detailed look at Tereshkova’s selection, and my latest at Discovery News gives a brief overview of her flight. But before reading either article, it’s worth taking a minute to read a little about Yuri Gagarin’s background. The first man and first woman in space have a lot more in common than nationality and spacecraft. [Read more...]

The Real Story Behind Yuri Gagarin’s Death

Two guards stand by Gagarin’s grave, right, and Vladimir Seryogin’s who was in the same plane. Credit: RIA Novosti

After he returned from his Vostok 1 flight, the Soviet government kept Yuri Gagarin busy touring the world and kept him out of the flight rotation. He was a national treasure who couldn’t be injured or killed on a mission. So when the cosmonaut died in a plane crash on March 27, 1968, it seemed unthinkable. In the years since the accident, his death has remained shrouded in mystery with rumoured causes ranging from political sabotage to alcoholism. Finally, after nearly 50 years, the report on Gagarin’s death has been released. And former cosmonaut Alexei Leonov has been given a ‘go’ to talk about how his friend and former colleague died. The full article is over on Discovery News.

Alan Bean and the Sun-Fried Camera

Al Bean on the Moon. Credit: NASA

Al Bean on the Moon. Credit: NASA

Among its notable accomplishments, Apollo 12 is famous for having returned no video of Pete Conrad and Al Bean exploring the lunar surface. Though the lunar landing crew carried a colour TV camera to bring their mission to the world live, transmissions failed after the lens was exposed to an excess of sunlight. The camera mishap came up when I met Bean in November, and he offered by far the best retelling of the story I’ve every heard. [Read more...]

Sandwiches in Space

A suit technician packing Conrad a lunch for his trip to the Moon. November 14, 1969. Credit: NASA

A suit technician packing Conrad a lunch for his trip to the Moon. November 14, 1969. Credit: NASA

Most of NASA’s Apollo program files are publicly available, in many cases digitized and accessible online. But there’s one picture from the Apollo 12 files that I’ve never been able to find much information about: a picture of a suit technician packing what is unmistakably a sandwich into Pete Conrad’s left leg pocket the morning he, Dick Gordon, and Al Bean launched to the Moon. Last November, I asked Dick Gordon about this scarcely documented space sandwich.  [Read more...]

The Gemini Paraglider on SciAm’s Space Lab

The Gemini paraglider; I believe this is a half-scale model in testing at Edwards Air Force Base. Credit: NASA (archives)

The Gemini paraglider; I believe this is a half-scale model in testing at Edwards Air Force Base. Credit: NASA (archives)

Most regular readers of Vintage Space will know that I’m obsessed with the Gemini Paraglider, the landing system that should have made splashdowns obsolete starting in the early 1960s but (to make a long story short) just couldn’t keep pace with Apollo. I’ve written about landings and the paraglider extensively in old blog posts: I’ve dealt with landings generally; discussed splashdowns as an imperfect landing methodtalked about the paraglider’s inclusion in the Gemini program and the training vehicle astronauts flew to practice making paraglider landings; I’ve written about the paraglider’s cancellation from the Gemini programit’s fate after Gemini; and even plans to use the paraglider to land the first stage of the Saturn V rocket. (And yes, there’s more, and I am working on bringing all of these pieces into something much larger.)

I brought my love of the paraglider to Scientific American this month. The latest episode of “It Happened in Space” gives a very brief overview of the Gemini paraglider landing system.

Is Wernher von Braun Spaceflight’s Most Controversial Figure?

Von Braun stands infront of the Saturn 1 that launched the a boilerplate Apollo spacecraft. The mission, properly SA-6A-101, launched on May 28, 1964. Credit: NASA

Von Braun stands infront of the Saturn 1 that launched the a boilerplate Apollo spacecraft. The mission, properly SA-6A-101, launched on May 28, 1964. Credit: NASA

That he was responsible for both the deadly Nazi V-2 and NASA’s majestic Saturn V makes Wernher von Braun a controversial historical figure. Some hold that his participation in the Nazi war effort necessitates classifying him as a villain. But while his actions during the Second World War were monstrous, he wasn’t motivated by some inherent evil or personal belief in Nazi ideology. Von Braun was motivated by his childhood obsession with spaceflight, a somewhat uncritical patriotism, and a naive grasp of the ramifications of his actions in creating one of the War’s deadliest weapons. How can we treat someone who brought technological triumph to two nations, in one case as a purveyor of death and destruction and in the other a bringer of wonder and inspiration?

I’ve been wrestling with how to treat Wernher von Braun for a while, figuring out how to celebrate his accomplishments in space without apologizing for his actions during the Second World War. So while this is far from a complete look at his life, I’ve taken a stab at dealing with this controversial figure in my lastest opinion piece for Al Jazeera English.

Mars One: A Possible Disaster

"Cannibals on Mars" is clearly a network hit in the making.

“Cannibals on Mars” will clearly be a network sensation.

Three months ago I wrote this article about Mars One, the Netherlands-based non-profit organization that hopes to fund a one-way mission to build the first colony on Mars by broadcasting it as a reality show. The astronaut selection criteria had just been released, and when I put the article on Twitter and it sparked this conversation with two scientists who actually work on Mars. A discussions about the feasibility of Mars One’s proposed mission plan turned into a discussion about how quickly the whole thing would devolve into a “Survivor: Mars” type of show/mission with the crew resorting to cannibalism after running out of food. Mars One held another press conference last Monday, April 22. Between the handwritten name cards and the evasive answers about funding and hardware, my outlook on the mission unfortunately hasn’t changed. My latest thoughts on Mars One are up on Physics Focus

McDivitt’s Trials With Orbital Rendezvous

Me, smiling like a goon, with Jim McDivitt.

Me, smiling like a goon, with Jim McDivitt.

Orbital mechanics and the challenges of orbital rendezvous isn’t a simple thing to explain, particularly as a non-scientist breaking it down for other non-scientists. But it’s a central part of the Apollo mission profile, so it comes up a lot in my line of work. To illustrate the problem, I typically tell the story of Jim McDivitt trying to rendezvous with the Titan II’s upper stage during the first orbit of Gemini 4 – the story goes that when McDivitt’s pilot instincts kicked in the whole exercise went to hell. I asked McDivitt about that first failed rendezvous when I met him in Florida in November. He promptly and candidly told me that this story, which he’s heard many times, is bull hockey. I learned from the man himself what really happened on Gemini 4. I also learned that Jim McDivitt is, and I say this with the utmost respect, a total firecracker.  [Read more...]