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Happy Trails Voyager! September 9, 2012

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35 years in space and still chugging along.  You are the first, and hopefully not the last, emissary of humanity to the stars.

 

Neil Armstrong Dies At 82 August 25, 2012

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Goodbye Mr. Armstrong.  Thank you for leading us forward one small step at a time.

Curiosity Touches Down On The Red Planet August 5, 2012

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Touchdown confirmed!

And with that the years of planning have paid off.  Mars rover Curiosity is safely on the surface of the red planet.  The first images are coming through and as of right now everything looks great.  Soon Curiosity will begin it’s mission of searching for life but to many including myself the mission is already a success.

Raise a glass if you have one to all the hard working people at NASA.  They deserve it.

P.S. To all the naysayers, those who through their own short-sightedness and lack of imagination question the need for humanity to explore the solar system and push the boundaries of knowledge I have just one thing to say…
SHUT UP AND ENJOY THE FACT THAT WE JUST LANDED ON FUCKING MARS!!!!!!!!

Stephen Colbert Loves NASA February 12, 2012

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I love Stephen Colbert and now I love him even more.

NASA To Send Astronauts To Asteroid Within 15 Years July 23, 2011

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First of all, credit to Luke Parish for totally calling this in the comments of my last post.

With the space shuttle now history, NASA’s next great mission is so audacious, the agency’s best minds are wrestling with how to pull it off: Send astronauts to an asteroid in less than 15 years.

It has the dreamers of NASA both excited and anxious.

“This is a risky mission. It’s a challenging mission,” said NASA chief technology officer Bobby Braun. “It’s the kind of mission that engineers will eat up.”

This is a matter of sending “humans farther than ever before,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. It is all a stepping stone to the dream of flying astronauts to Mars in the mid 2030s.

“I think it is THE mission NASA should embrace,” said University of Tennessee aerospace professor John Muratore. “To be successful at this mission, you’ve got to embrace all of the technologies that you need for Mars.”

I’ll be honest I didn’t expect this, mainly because the impression I’ve been getting out of NASA is one of a ship lost and adrift at sea.  Their big problem for the past decade or so has been not so much a lack of skill or ingenuity but a lack of focus.  If they do put all their weight behind this mission, and according to the article this is a presidential order for what that’s worth, than this could be exactly what the space agency needs.

Firstly, landing on an asteroid is hard.  No, really hard.  In fact the word land isn’t even appropriate since the gravity is so low you’d just bounce off if you tried to.  This is the kind of challenge that sends aerospace engineers into bouts of hysteria and drives them to think of solutions they otherwise never would have imagined.  Secondly, even though it’s hard it’s not nearly as hard as the other big idea NASA has been kicking around; sending humans to Mars.  In fact in a lot of ways (timeframe, technology required, logistics) landing on an asteroid is somewhat of a practice run for getting to the red planet.  Thirdly, it’s a much better idea than establishing a base on the moon.

Personally I think the idea of a moon base is awesome but it’s not the job NASA should be doing right now.  The costs of not just setting up but of maintaining a base are way beyond NASA’s capabilities right now which makes a short term mission more appealing.  In addition there’s the simple fact that we’ve already been to the moon.  True we never set up a base their but going back will strike a lot of people as been there, done that.  An asteroid on the other hand has novelty, it has the element of exploring the unknown that can drive the public’s imagination.  Also, and perhaps most importantly, figuring out how to land on an asteroid has important implications for keeping our species alive.  Asteroids strike our planet all the time and as of right now even if we knew a big one was coming the is next to nothing we could do about it.  Landing on an asteroid would be the first step in learning how to alter it’s course.

I’ve been very down on NASA in recent months but this news cheers me up.  I’ll want to wait and see if this actually bears fruit but so far I’m excited.

The Shuttle Era Is Over July 21, 2011

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Mission complete Houston.”  What more needs to be said.

 

NASA Arrives at Really Old, Really Big Asteroid July 18, 2011

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Get used to it.  Because once the space shuttles retire stuff like this is all your going to be hearing out of NASA for awhile.

 NASA’s Dawn spacecraft was captured into orbit around the massive asteroid Vesta after a 1.7 billion-mile journey and is preparing to begin a study of a surface that may date to the earliest era of the solar system, the space agency said Monday…

Vesta, 330 miles in diameter, is the second-most massive object in the asteroid belt and is believed to be the source of many meteorites that fall to Earth.

Dawn will continue to approach Vesta over the next three weeks, search for possible moons and make more navigation images. It begins gathering science data in August. Vesta’s gravitational pull on Dawn will be measured to more accurately determine the asteroid’s mass.

But I’m not bitter (no really, I’m not).  Projects like this will deliver more data for less cost and almost zero chance of the loss of human life.  It will help the space agency continue its duties in an age where NASA frankly doesn’t getting the funding (either in amount or stability) that it deserves.

But it’s not very exciting is it?  Hearing that NASA entered into orbit around a hunk of rock in the asteroid field is not, apart from a very small group, going to excite people.  Touting the benefits and positives of this kind of mission, real though they may be, is largely a waste of time if you can’t capture the imagination of the public.  Yes I realize that the private space sector will start to take over the actual act of getting people into space.  I’m still not sure how I feel about that but whether you’re for it or not you must realize that we still need NASA.

NASA once ignited an entire nation.  It pushed several generations to explore science and engineering.  It made people dream big.  We need NASA to do that for us again and this isn’t going to cut it.  Like it or not, “we’ve arrived at orbit around the asteroid” is never going to top “One small step for man…”

Private Space Firm Developing Most Powerful Rocket Since Apollo April 5, 2011

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And so it begins.  Those who follow the subject no doubt are already aware that as of this year NASA will be retiring its shuttle fleet, that the American space agency has no replacement vehicle waiting in the wings to take over and as such will be requiring outside help if it is do continue exploring the cosmos (or low earth orbit as the case is).  Though the Russians will most likely take over in the short term the plan for awhile has been to contract out to private agencies for most of the grunt work, the idea being that this will allow NASA to get back to doing science.  Hence:  SpaceX.

The Falcon 9-Heavy is a beefed up version of the vehicle the firm will soon use to send a robotic cargo ship to the space station.

The new rocket should be capable of putting more than 53 tonnes (117,000lb) of payload in a low-Earth orbit – more than twice that of the space shuttle…

Mr Musk said the vehicle could put in orbit a few hundred km above the Earth a mass equivalent to “more than a fully loaded Boeing 737 with 136 passengers, luggage and fuel”.

“That’s humongous,” he told reporters during a media conference at the National Press Club in Washington DC.

“It’s more capability than any vehicle in history apart from the Saturn 5 [Moon rocket]. So, it opens up a range of possibilities for government and commercial customers that simply aren’t present with the current lifting capacity.”

If what they are saying pans out then this sounds like exactly what the government is saying its looking for; a stellar “pickup truck” to perform the dirty business of actually getting people up there.

Here’s the thing though.  NASA was created with a very specific goal in mind; namely to beat the Soviets into outer space and beyond.  For many decades it operated amazingly well with that goal and though it wasn’t always successful it pushed human knowledge and technology in ways previous generations could quite literally never have fathomed.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union though, and really since the end of the space race, NASA has been searching for a purpose.  Talks of establishing bases on the moon or on Mars have all fizzled out for the simple fact that politicians won’t finance a project with no real economic (we’ve found gold on the moon!) or political (beat those damn Ruskies!) benefits.

Now with the private space companies beginning to take over the space craft industry NASA has one less purpose to its existence.  Sure we can all go on and on about how the shuttle program never worked as intended and in many ways was a financial boondoggle but while it was active it was one of the few things that drove the agency.  Without that what exactly does NASA have? The Hubble?  Its arguably one of humanities greatest achievements but it doesn’t require a whole agency.  Missions to Mars?  I’ll believe that when I see it.  The Space Station?  Lets not even go there.  Without a grand vision driving the agency many will begin to question, rightly, what the purpose of NASA in this day and age really is and with the government constantly shooting down NASA’s attempts to create a grand vision (again, see missions to Mars) the loss of the shuttle fleet looks less like a new beginning and more like the beginning of the end.

Well, whether I like it or not private industry is coming to outer space.  Whether or not this will shake NASA out of the stupor they’ve been in for the past two decades or signal its end as a relevant player in the exploration of space remains to be seen.

 

NASA Scientist Claims To Have Found Alien Life March 5, 2011

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Having already got my hopes up once this year about the possibility of extraterrestrial life only to be brought down by an admittedly cool new life form I’m now very skeptical of any news of this sort coming from anyone involved with NASA.

Short version: a scientist working for NASA has claimed to have discovered fossil evidence of alien life within meteorites.  When I first heard this I immediately had flashbacks, as I’m sure most of you did, to an eerily similar incident over a decade ago regarding life found in martian rocks.  You may remember that the President Clinton actually addressed the nation on the discovery (which has since been largely debunked.)

I’m sure many people will make a big deal of the fact that some of the supposed fossils resemble primitive earth life such as cyanobacteria.  I can almost hear the cries of “how do you know it didn’t just come from earth?”  While not an outright stupid question I don’t think its a deal breaker either.  Cyanobacteria are a very primitive and ancient life form and it would stand to reason that primitive alien life would take a largely similar form (assuming of course similar biochemistry).  In addition some of the other fossils appear to be nothing like anything seen on earth.

In the end something about this just doesn’t smell right for it to be an actual discovery.  Why is this being published in an online journal rather than say Science?  Why isn’t NASA making a much bigger deal about this than it is?  Why did I first hear about this through a ticker story on the Yahoo website?  Maybe I’m just jaded due to the aforementioned let down but I really don’t expect this to turn out to be anything.  Still, one can hope.

Space Shuttle Discovery Flies One Last Time February 24, 2011

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This is it folks.  The beginning of the end.  Today, Thursday the 24th of February marked the final takeoff of space shuttle Discovery.  More than that though it signaled the start of the end of the shuttle era.  With only two ships left in the fleet (Endeavor and Atlantis) and only one flight left for each of them it won’t be long before all that remains of the US space program lies collecting dust in a museum.

Yes I am well aware that manned space flight will continue through private channels and on the whole I am supportive of that.  The shuttle program was intended to be the dump truck of space ferrying cargo back and forth between the ground and near earth orbit.  It failed in this regard both practically (delays and costs of the program are well know) and inspirationally (not many kids want to grow up to drive a dump truck.)   If the private sector can pick up the tab and the risk and allow NASA to get back to pushing the frontiers of human knowledge that you’ll hear nothing but support from me.

That being said I can’t face the end of the shuttle fleet without a pang of loss.  Like every young American boy, and lots of girls I wager, for at least some part of my childhood I wanted to be an astronaut.  I grew up immersed in science fiction, imagining a world in which Jedi’s and resurrected dinosaurs fought side by side, but I also grew up on NASA.  I still remember the day a man came to my school to tell us all about the new space plane they were working on, a craft that would be able to take you from California to Japan in a matter of hours.  The fact that the project (the X-30) never got off the metaphorical ground did nothing to diminish the sense of wonder it instilled in me.  To this day I still look up at the moon at night and can’t help but smile to myself at the fact that for one brief moment we stood on two worlds.

More than anything I guess the thing that NASA represented to me was the quest to expand our horizons for no other reason than because we wanted to.  There was no profit motive (at least none that I as a child could see), no political agenda (I grew up after the Cold War was essentially over) and no reason to go into space other than shear curiosity.  As you may have guessed I learned as I grew older that my original views had been somewhat naive but by then it was too late; the flag had been planted.  I never did become an astronaut but I can probably thank NASA at least in part for my current path in science and for the love of the universe they helped to instill in me.

The good news is that despite my nostalgia for the space shuttles NASA will move on to bigger and better things.  It has too large a role in the nations strategic goals to be left at the wayside and though it certainly has challenges ahead for it I have faith that the people who put a man on the moon can overcome them.  It may not be developing its own craft anymore but it will continue to what it does best: inspire us to look up into the sky and think “maybe, just maybe…”