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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.

 

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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.

Even In Space, Life Perseveres June 24, 2012

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Life, once thought to be a delicate and fragile thing that needed protection and nuturing, is turning out to be an incredibly hardy beast.  We’ve found life in the harshest and most extreme environments on the planet from deep sea hydrothermal vents where a startling variety of organisms endure temperatures up to 450 degrees C to the ice sheets of the Antartic where microorganisms live within cracks in the glaciers.  Now we are learning that even the vacuum of space can’t stop life.

n 2008 scientists sent the suitcase-sized Expose-E experiment package to the Space Station filled with organic compounds and living organisms to test their reaction to outer space.

When astronauts venture on a spacewalk, hours are spent preparing protective suits to survive the hostile conditions. No effort was made to protect the bacteria, seeds, lichen and algae attached to the outside of the Space Station, however.

“We are exploring the limits of life,” explains ESA’s René Demets.

Our atmosphere does a wonderful job of protecting life on Earth by absorbing harmful UV rays and keeping temperatures relatively stable.

In contrast, the space samples endured the full power of the Sun’s rays. The samples were insulated somewhat by the Space Station but still had to cope with temperatures changing from -12ºC to +40ºC over 200 times as they orbited Earth.

The samples returned to Earth in 2009 and the results have now been published in a special issue of the journal Astrobiology.

Lichen have proven to be tough cookies — back on Earth, some species continue to grow normally.

Believe it or not this isn’t the first example of life enduring conditions outside the atmosphere.  Tardigrades (aka waterbears) along with surviving in seemingly every extreme environment on Earth have been known to tolerate vacuum conditions for up to ten days.

While mostly a curiosity at this point this kind of research could lead to potentially interesting breakthroughs.  One off the top of my head is a better understanding of how to grow and maintain food in space.  Despite the protections put in place space craft are not impervious to radiation from the sun.  As such in addition to the myriad of other obstacles growing food in space is limited by the potential damage inflicted on organisms by solar rays.  Figuring out which food sources, and lichen is apparantally capable of being used as a food source, are resistant is a necessary step.  Growing your own food would have the advantage of reducing the cost of lifting the necessary food into orbit and provide a safety margin on long journeys when the astronauts are several million kilometers away from the nearest supermarket.

Company To Establish Colony On Mars June 4, 2012

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Been gone for awhile (vacation in Chicago) so forgive the lack of posts.  I have many backlogged but let’s start with a short one.

Making the rounds in the futurist/transhumanist community has been a promotional video from private space company named MarsOne.  As the name would imply the company is interested in establishing a human colony on Mars by 2023.  So far so ho hum but there are two elements of this plan that make it interesting.

The first is that the colony would be planned from the beginning as a permanent base, meaning that all colonists will be expected to stay for life. Anyone who signs up to be the first human on Mars will also be signing up to be the first dead human on Mars.  This is actually a pretty smart idea as it removes the problems and expenses of a return trip thus freeing up more resources for the base itself.  I can also imagine that selecting people who would know in advance that they would be in for the long haul might result in a psychologically stronger and more committed colony.

More interesting, and rather strange, is the proposed plan to fund the expedition.  According to the planners that funding would come by turning the whole thing into a giant space-themed reality show.  No, really.

Setting aside my initial gut reaction to hate anything which reminds me of reality television I can’t see how this would actually work.  People watch reality TV (so I’m told) largely for the human drama of watching terrible people acting in terrible ways.  It makes us feel better to know that no matter how bad we may behave at least we aren’t THAT bad.  Trying to slap that formula onto an incredibly complicated and let’s not forget risky mission strikes me as doomed to fail.  Either you end up with a boring reality show about focused colonists doing what they need to do to survive both the cold of space and the harshness of Mars or you end with the Kardashians in space and get to watch everything go to hell.

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.